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Journal Notes: 2004 2003 2002 2001

Senses of Cinema End of the Year 'Favorite Film Things' Compilation: 2003

Since Otar Left (Julie Bertucelli)
Goodbye Dragon Inn (Tsai Ming-Liang)
Elephant (Gus Van Sant)
Life on the Tracks (Riles) (Ditsi Carolino)
Happy Here and Now (Michael Almereyda)
Pornography (Jan Jakub Kolski)
Pretend (Julie Talen)
Raising Victor Vargas (Peter Sollett)
Camel(s) (Park Ki-young)
Good Morning, Night (Marco Bellocchio).

Honorable mentions: Angels in America (Mike Nichols), The Triplets of Belleville (Sylvain Chomet), and Capturing the Friedmans (Andrew Jarecki).


2003 Film Related Reading:

Film: The Front Line - 1983 by Jonathan Rosenbaum.
Contemporary Film Directors: Abbas Kiarostami by Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa and Jonathan Rosenbaum.
BFI Modern Classics: A City of Sadness by Bérénice Reynaud.
The Last Modernist: The Films of Theo Angelopoulos edited by Andrew Horton.


2003 Retrospective, Film Festival, and Series Program Notes:

New York Film Festival
Yasujiro Ozu: A Centennial Celebration
New York Video Festival
Human Rights Watch International Film Festival
Films from Along the Silk Road: Central Asian Cinema
Middle of the World: Classic and Contemporary Swiss Cinema
The Elegies of Aleksandr Sokurov
Film Comment Selects



Journal/Notes

12-23-03: Film: The Front Line - 1983 by Jonathan Rosenbaum.

Film:  The Front Line - 1983An informal and prosaic, yet informed and balanced presentation of critical arguments and conversations on the state of experimental and avant-garde film during the early half of the 1980s, Film: The Front Line - 1983 provides an engaging and accessible introduction to several noteworthy, underrepresented personal filmmakers. Rosenbaum makes a conscious decision to omit key, pioneering figures in the American experimental film movement - Maya Deren, Stan Brakhage, and Kenneth Anger, whose works are better represented and more widely considered (and have achieved some broader level of respect) within the film community - in favor of several lesser exposed, contemporary filmmakers whose works are singular, often visionary and groundbreaking, but also more problematically, suffer from limited distribution and general domestic unavailability. While the work of a few filmmakers are already familiar - Chantal Akerman, Jacques Rivette, and Yvonne Rainer in particular (and to a lesser extent, Jonas Mekas, Jon Jost, Michael Snow, and Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet) - the other filmmakers featured in the book (including a secondary introductory chapter on additional artists like Marguerite Duras, Jean Eustache, Tom Brener, Hollis Frampton, Raoul Ruiz, and Werner Schroeter, of whose films Rosenbaum had, at the time of writing, incomplete knowledge) proved to be illuminating (and inspiring) reading.

(Note: the succeeding notes represent only a subset of filmmakers featured in the book but whose bodies of work are of personal interest).

Beth B and Scott B - Filming primarily in Super-8 (with the exception of the 16mm film, Vortex), the Bs' films have a characteristic noir, B-movie appearance that is pervaded by a sense of alienation (further reinforced by the incorporation of elements from the punk scene, such as singer Lydia Lunch, into their films). Most intriguing are Black Boxand Letters to Dad, both of which deal with the subject of mind control and psychological manipulation, the latter film based on letters written in tribute to - and at the instigation of - Reverend Jim Jones by members of his Guyana cult.

James Benning - Aesthetically formalist, Benning's framing of industrial landscape evokes a rigorous, austere beauty. Rosenbaum considers his most structured film, One Way Boogie Woogie (after the Piet Mondrian painting Broadway Boogie Woogie) to be his masterpiece.

Robert Breer - Creating avant-garde short films through the medium of independent animation, Breer's installations are idiosyncratic, visual abstractions (and therefore, admittedly problematic). Appropriately, his two-minute short film, Man and His Dog Out for Air, was screened with Alain Resnais' Last Year at Marienbad: both films using malleable images and narrative that converge towards an inner logic.

Jon Jost - Deeply rooted in Americana, Jost's films operate as psychological studies that seem both experientially ingrained but also culturally endemic and capture a sense of profound alienation. Rosenbaum considers Last Chants for a Slow Dance to be Jost's best film - and also his most disturbing - a portrait of a killer devoid of conscience or reason.

Jonas Mekas - Dividing Mekas' career into two phases, Rosenbaum focuses on the filmmaker's mature work, starting with Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania, a personal film diary on the expatriate (and American immigrant) filmmaker's return to his native homeland after a 25 year exile. Rosenbaum perfectly encapsulates the melancholy and nostalgia that pervades much of Mekas' later works in the following passage:

"Behind all the childlike poetic stances of Mekas in his films is a tragic sense of life's limitations that seems closer to maturity than defeatism or middle-class inertia - a constant sense, even throughout the unceasing flow of happiness that characterizes much of Paradise Not Yet Lost, that none of this can ever replace or rectify the paradise that he himself has lost when he had to leave his Lithuanian village, if only because Mekas himself understands that this paradise is a child's fantasy and that the subjective world of his diary films is a constructed imaginary world that exists in effect only through his filmmaking."

Yvonne Rainer - A dancer, choreographer, and performance artist turned filmmaker, Rainer's films bear the characteristic imprint of her early career (which is still evident in her latest work, a juxtaposition of avant-garde theory and dance entitled After Many a Summer Dies the Swan: Hybrid which was shown in the 2003 New York Video Festival). Influenced in part by Maya Deren's 'dance' films (or more appropriately, visual studies in the movement of bodies) Rainer's early features, Lives of Performers and Film About a Woman Who... are direct extensions of performance art applied to the expository medium of film.

Notes on The 2003 New York Film Festival.

10-15-03: Goodbye Dragon Inn (Tsai Ming Liang). Perhaps Tsai's lightest and most thematically distilled NYFF-Goodbye Dragon Innand minimalist film to date, Goodbye Dragon Inn pares the dialogue to two brief exchanges that reflect the film's pervasive sentiment of disconnection: the first, with a displaced Japanese tourist (Kiyonobu Mitamura) cursorily on the lookout for opportunities for an anonymous sexual encounter in the dilapidated, near empty movie palace that is playing King Hu's classic martial arts film, Dragon Gate Inn, and the second, featuring the original Hu actors Tien Miao and Jun Shi, now middle-aged, as they meet by chance after the film's conclusion. Intimations of ghosts inhabiting the theater are physically reflected in the isolated souls of a beautiful ticket booth operator and bathroom attendant (Chen Shiang-chyi) - seemingly trapped in a dead-end job by her physical disability - and a projectionist (Lee Kang-sheng), who perform the empty motions of their tasks in a solemn, silent ritual of their seeming existential limbo. Elegantly filmed in rich, vibrant colors against the darkness of the desolate theater and infused with Tsai's idiosyncratically understated, deadpan humor, Goodbye Dragon Inn is a poetic and elegiac exposition on longing, synchronicity, nostalgia, and the death of cinema.

10-13-03: Since Otar Left (Julie Bertucelli). A refreshingly optimistic, humorous, captivating, and deeply NYFF-Since Otar Lefthumanist portrait of perseverance and family, the film centers on three generations of women - the inimitable grandmother, Eka (Esther Gorintin) who wistfully reminisces over life under Stalin, her widowed daughter Marina (Nino Khomassouridze), and her multilingual, well-educated granddaughter Ada (Dinara Droukarova) - living under the economic austerity and minor inconveniences of unreliable utilities in the nascent republic of post-communist Georgia. Their seemingly only source of hope and comfort occur in the form of occasional letters and telephone calls from Marina's brother Otar, a doctor working menial, temporary jobs as an undocumented laborer in France who, nevertheless, manages to paint a rosy and idyllic picture of his life abroad. Attempting to shelter the amusingly dotty Eka from the harsh realities of her children's impoverishment, the family weaves an ever-increasingly intricate web of deception to spare the old woman from disappointment and heartbreak in this beautifully understated and affectionate film.

10-12-03: Free Radicals (Barbara Albert). Ostensibly titled after highly reactive (and consequently, short-lived) molecules that contain unpaired electrons in their outer shells, Free Radicals presents a series of fractured (and often sexually gratuitous) tales of coincidence and synchronicity. The film unfolds in an organic structure that reflects the conventional proverb on the consequential, unforeseen, long-reaching effects of the flapping of butterfly wings. Presented from a point-of-view that human beings are invariably creatures of habit - a theme that is reflected in Lukas's (Rupert M. Lehofer) fascination with the self-recreating patterns of fractal geometry - even after surviving a seemingly life-altering tragedy, the film is an occasionally engaging, but ultimately vacuous exposition on despair, missed encounters, and interconnectedness.

10-11-03: Elephant (Gus Van Sant). Structured in elegantly fluid and elliptically interconnected episodes from NYFF-Elephanta roving, multiple student point-of-view, Elephant is an incisive and poetic, yet relevant and deeply disturbing portrait of the unfolding of a fictional, modern-day high school massacre in suburban America. Van Sant presents a richly textured and complexly interwoven series of mundane student interactions and astute slice-of-life observations (except for a scene of sexual experimentation between the plotters that seems improbably out of character) that are intrinsically linked together through long and sinuous tracking shots of the school's cold and impersonal labyrinthine corridors and rooms. Inevitably, what emerges is a profound sense of alienation and the oppressive, inescapable, and moribund institutionalization of its adrift and desperate characters.

10-10-03: Good Morning, Night (Marco Bellocchio). Based on the real-life kidnapping of President Aldo Moro NYFF-Good Morning, Nightby members of a terrorist organization known as the Red Brigade in 1978, Good Morning, Night is a compelling, thoughtful, and understatedly powerful film that captures the turmoil and uncertainty caused by Moro's (Roberto Herlitzka) brazen kidnapping and the subsequent 53 days of frustratingly stalled and insincere attempts at dialogue and negotiation with Italian authorities, from government officials to the Vatican. By personalizing the inevitable tragedy from the point-of-view of Chiara (Maya Sansa), a deeply conflicted young woman whose surfacing humanity for the gentle-spoken, sensible, and conciliatory Moro - whom she sees as a father figure - and her resolute duty to the militant cause, Bellocchio creates a provocative, complex, and profoundly disturbing portrait of myopic ideology, self-righteousness, moral obligation, and the importance of communication and compromise.

10-09-03: The Flower of Evil (Claude Chabrol). François (Benoit Magimel) has returned to France after living in Chicago for the past three years to find that, despite his father Gérard's (Bernard Le Coq) intriguing intimations, little has changed in the petit bourgeois household of the Charpin-Vasseurs. His determined stepmother Anne (Nathalie Baye) has channeled her energy towards a mayoral candidacy, against the wishes of Gérard, whose own ambitions selfishly revolve around the growth of his small pharmaceutical business (and using the office for his constant parade of extramarital liaisons). His college-aged step-sister Michèle's (Melanie Doutey) radicalism seems to be fueled only by the promise of an excused absence from school. Even dotty Aunt Line's (Suzanne Flon) only pressing concern is to have food on the table on time. However, their complacent existence is perturbed when a scurrilous leaflet is disseminated throughout town, casting aspersions over Anne's integrity by accusing the Charpin-Vasseurs' of a buried, multi-generational legacy of incest, adultery, and Nazi cooperation. In contrast to the taut thrillers that have characterized Chabrol's cinema, The Flower of Evil forgoes much of the filmmaker's signature suspense to create a socially incisive - albeit underformed - and wicked, dark comedy on the inbredness, complicity, and perpetuation of familial sins: a theme that is visually illustrated in the repeated, bookend shots of the enigmatic Aunt Line in the living room.

10-08-03: Young Adam (David Mackenzie). A barge laborer named Joe (Ewan McGregor) discovers the body of a partially nude woman floating face down in the river and, together with his employer Les (Peter Mullan), retrieve her corpse from the water. Soon, traces of Joe's seeming over-curiosity with the dead body begin to surface as he gently caresses the body in the process of discreetly straightening her petticoat. In a subsequent episode, Joe spies on Les and his wife Ella (Tilda Swinton) during an (attempted) act of intimacy. Is his strange fascination with the dead woman a simple reflection of human desire or does it betray a deeper secret? Mackenzie effectively sustains a foreboding atmosphere and disturbing (and occasionally snide) mood throughout the film, although the narrative (based on an Alexander Trocchi novel) never seems to unfold beyond a superficial level. Inevitably, what results is a flawed, vacuous, but well photographed film.

10-07-03: Pornography (Jan Jakub Kolski). Unfolding with the deceptively lyrical and darkly comic surrealism of Pornographya diluted Emir Kusturica, Pornography, a film based on a novel by Witold Gombrowicz, is the powerful and haunting tale of an acutely sensitive and enigmatic, middle-aged artist named Frederic (Krzysztof Majchrzak) who, as the film begins, has returned to a luxury hotel in German-occupied Poland after a long absence - carrying a suitcase that he describes as paradoxically containing 'nothing' and 'everything' - idly waiting, along with the other privileged and distinguished clientele, for the end of the war. Befriending a genial writer (and the narrator of the film) named Witold (Adam Ferency), the two travel to the country to visit the rural estate of Witold's friend Hippolyte (Krzysztof Globisz), and in the process, become increasingly implicated in the dangerous - and increasingly inhumane - resistance activities of the idyllic village. Kolski photographs the film in yellow-green hues and uses recurring ground level tracking shots and isolated, behavioral observations of animals and insects (reminiscent of Shohei Imamura's The Insect Woman) that heighten the somber unnaturality of the film's tone and reinforces the instinctuality and desperation of wartime existence.

10-06-03: Mansion By the Lake (Lester James Peries). An aristocratic widow and her daughter living abroad in Europe for the past five years are summoned home by family in order to resolve the late husband's outstanding debt that would result in the bank's seizure of the family estate. Broaching complex and indigenous themes that invariably invite comparisons to Far East Asian realist filmmakers - in particular, the obsolescence of feudal aristocracy (and its replacement by capitalist entrepreneurship) and the entrenchment of social caste explored respectively by Satyajit Ray in Jalsaghar and Shyam Benegal in Ankur - the film unfortunately suffers from underformed, almost caricatured characters (the eternally grief-stricken widow and mother, the protest mantra-spewing, obliquely radical student, the comically senile elderly aunt, and the unsentimental, social-climbing businessman) creating a superficial, unsubstantive, and ultimately unengaging film.

10-05-03: Dogville (Lars von Trier). Lars von Trier's films have always had a polarizing effect, and I'll acknowledge that, after having seen several of his major works (Zentropa, Element of Crime, Kingdom, Breaking the Waves, and Dancer in the Dark), I've always been in the detractors' camp. The consummate provocateur's latest film, Dogville, is no exception: an over-the-top, emotionally manipulative tragedy (with the requisite dose of nausea-inducing, rapid camera movement) where, once again, the virtuous, idealistic, and naïve heroine, a seemingly privileged stranger named Grace (Nicole Kidman), is put through a series of ever-dehumanizing emotional wringers until the physical body - if not the soul - is broken. Stylistically presented through minimalist theatrical staging reminiscent of Thornton Wilder's Our Town, the film subverts the iconic Americana play to consequently demystify the somewhat idealized view of American culture and expose the baseness of human behavior. However, von Trier's penchant for subjecting protagonists to ridiculously excessive and impossibly compounding misfortunes has a cumulative effect of desensitizing the viewer to the film's thematic reality by smothering the underlying truth in the film's unnecessarily overconcocted situational absurdity. What results is a film that is utterly cynical, nihilistic, unredemptive, and simply unpleasant.

Notes on Yasujiro Ozu: A Centennial Celebration at the Walter Reade.

10-15-03: The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice, 1950. Revisiting themes of marital complacency and mutual Ozu-The Flavor of Green Tea Over Ricerespect as his earlier domestic comedy What Did the Lady Forget?, The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice demonstrates unusually dynamic camerawork a later period, postwar Ozu film, featuring several low angle tracking shots - often placed as interstitial scenes in lieu of his more familiar 'pillow' shots - that move through the empty spaces of the Satake's upper middle-class household. In an early episode, Taeko (Michiko Kogure) fabricates an ill-conceived excuse of going away in order to care for a friend with appendicitis (despite having to switch the patient's identity midway through the flimsy explanation after her niece Setsuko (Keiko Tsushima) unexpectedly returns home and ruins the premise of the concocted story) in order to go on holiday with friends at a spa resort. As Taeko alternately belittles her husband Mokichi (Shin Saburi) and goads Setsuko into accepting a marriage interview, the two invariably seek refuge outside their home, eventually finding their way to a pachinko parlor operated by Mokichi's former military colleague Hirayama (Chishu Ryu). The film's title, derived from Mokichi's humble taste for the comfortable and familiar dish, invariably proves to be a reflection of the film itself: a subtle, pleasant, and simple experience that evokes a cherished personality of meaning.

The Munekata Sisters, 1950. The film follows the plight of the upper beautiful, middle-class Munekata sisters - the conservative and traditional married older sister, Setsuko (Kinuyo Tanaka) (dressed in a kimono) and the liberal minded and free-spirited younger sister Mariko (Hideko Takamine) (dressed in Western attire) - as they struggle to build a new life in postwar Tokyo away from their beloved, ailing father (Chishu Ryu) by running a small bar. While visiting the temples of Kyoto, Setsuko remembers happier times with a former suitor named Hiroshi (Ken Uehara), a nostalgic sentiment that the more forward-minded Mariko begins to encourage her to act on by expressing her contempt for Setsuko's unemployed, hard-drinking husband (Masayuki Mori). Cultivating a friendship with the charming Hiroshi, now a successful furniture maker in Kobe, Mariko attempts to reunite the unrequited lovers. Ozu juxtaposes the serene and contemplative images of Kyoto (the ancient capital of Japan) with the progressive and modernized (and industrialized) images of Tokyo and Kobe in order to illustrate the dichotomy and cultural conflict between tradition and modernity in postwar Japan.

Late Spring, 1949. Since every Ozu fan will be familiar with this film, I just wanted to note that two things that particularly struck me on watching this film: (1) from my vantage point (seated back row, center), it does seem as though my perspective is constantly symmetric whether characters are near or far, suggesting that Ozu's peculiar camera angle maintains correct proportionality irrespective of distance (as Tadao Sato noted); and (2) when Noriko (Setsuko Hara) repeatedly asks her father, Professor Somiya (Chishu Ryu) if he really does intend to remarry, Somiya gives a noticeable facial tick before nodding in the affirmative - a subtle nuance (and quintessentially Ozu), that indicates that the father is telling a fib.

10-11-03: Notes from Yasujiro Ozu: International Perspectives Conference - The Place of Ozu Within Japanese Film History (with panelists Richard Combs, Keiko McDonald, Tadao Sato, Mitsuhiro Yoshimoto).

Keiko McDonald - Professor McDonald cited her favorite Ozu film as Floating Weeds, and examined several stylistic aspects of the film that depicted the filmmaker's thematic distillation and visual economy, specifically: (1) the pausive function of the isolated, blue lantern shot after Komajuro's departure (a 'nothingness' that signifies a great weight), and (2) the recurring shot of Komajuro looking at Oyoshi's compact flower garden that reflects his desire to establish 'roots' with his family.

Tadao Sato - Professor Sato proposes that Ozu's singular and idiosyncratic cinema resulted from the culturally indigenous 'problem' of visual confinement caused by character immobility when seated on tatami mats for which, he explains, Kenji Mizoguchi's solution was to use fluid shots and opening shoji screens between rooms in order to create a sense of visual extension. Ozu's solution - to use low camera angle - retains the correct perspective (and creates a flattering framing) of a seated human figure, an unavoidably recurring image in the presentation of a Japanese home environment that becomes distorted and awkward when shot from a high camera position. Citing the final family gathering scene in Tokyo Story, Sato further reinforces Ozu's penchant for duplicated images (both characters and inanimate objects) and argues that his use of bar-styled seating does not reflect a deliberate attempt to show intrinsically Japanese settings (nor his fondness for sake bars) but rather, as an opportunity to create repeating patterns in the characters' seating position. Lastly, Sato notes that Ozu's depiction of avoided eye contact among his characters (except for dramatic moments) is a reflection of Japanese behavior.

Mitsuhiro Yoshimoto - Professor Yoshimoto deconstructs Ozu's postwar film, Late Spring - a film that has received some criticism for its elision of the austerity and depressed economic conditions of Japanese life under U.S. occupation in order to illustrate that Ozu repeatedly and effectively subverts and circumvents censorship in order to comment on contemporary life. One example cited is a conversation on the correct spelling of economist Friedrich List's name that is otherwise homonymous to composer Franz Liszt's surname that, as Yoshimoto proposes, alludes to the interrelation between culture and economy in postwar Japan. Yoshimoto further cites anomalous, visual cues that Ozu intersperses throughout the film in order to convey Allied presence in the country (through a poster for a gallery exhibition) as well as references to other members of the Axis nations (Germany and Italy) in order to illustrate that Ozu was, in fact, chronicling the condition of the times, albeit through inferential - but blatantly and explicitly - 'coded' images.

A Hen in the Wind10-10-03: A Hen in the Wind, 1948. A somber, bleak, and uncharacteristically violent Ozu postwar film, A Hen in the Wind follows the plight of a dressmaker named Tokiko (Kinuyo Tanaka) who lives meagerly as a boarder in a modest house in a working class district with her young son Hiroshi. Awaiting her husband's repatriation from Manchuria, Tokiko subsists through dressmaking and the occasional sale of household possessions. Despite their continued hardship, increasing poverty (due to rampant inflation and scarcity of goods), and uncertainty over her husband's return, Tokiko has resisted the temptation to work in a brothel in order to earn extra money. However, when Hiroshi unexpectedly falls ill, Tokiko is compelled to sacrifice her dignity in order to tender payment for accrued medical expenses. Paralleling Tokiko's desperate act with the reluctant livelihood of a young prostitute, Ozu forms an austere perspective of postwar Japanese life that is harrowing and life-affirming, tragic and hopeful, compassionate and indicting.

10-09-03: A Straightforward Boy, 1930. A purely fun, entertaining, and lighthearted short film, A Straightforward Boy follows the (mis) adventures of a kidnapper (Tatsuo Saito) who, on an idyllic, sunny day (that, as the film comments, is conducive for such nefarious activities), lures a cherubic, bespectacled boy (Tomio Aoki) with toys and treats back into the hideout. However, when the mischievous and precocious boy becomes too much of a handful, the kidnapper's attempts to get rid of him proves to be a greater challenge than the abduction itself.

There Was a Father, 1942. A widowed high school teacher named Horikawa (Chishu Ryu) experiences a There Was a Fathertraumatic episode during a school field trip and consequently, decides to abandon his profession and move to a small town where his son, Ryohei may obtain a good education. However, unable to earn enough money to pay for Ryohei's boarding school, Horikawa decides to return to Tokyo to find a better paying job. The separation between father and son would prove to be permanent and irreversible, as Ryohei completes his studies and becomes a schoolteacher in a rural province while his father continues to work in Tokyo. The film is a more sentimentally subdued - but nevertheless, affecting - quintessential Ozu home drama on parental obligation and the inevitable dissolution of family. At this juncture, Ozu's camera is more static and understated (similar to Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family), such as the repeated extended sequence of father and son fishing in synchrony at a lake: first, when Ryohei was a young boy, then later, as a grown man vacationing with his father at a resort.

10-08-03: Walk Cheerfully, 1930. An unusually fast moving, atypically stylized (rather than composed), and multi-plot Ozu film that bears a hint of noir, Walk Cheerfully is a humorous and affectionate film that is replete with homages to classic silent films, from a prominently placed, life-sized Clara Bow poster to a gangster moll sporting a Louise Brooks haircut. The film resembles a Chaplinesque romantic comedy drama as a petty thief and career criminal named Kenji (Minoru Takada) - also known through the moniker Ken the Knife - performs a surveillance of a jewelry store with his accomplice and targets an honest, kind-hearted office clerk whom he mistakenly believes is a wealthy woman after she is observed collecting a diamond ring from the jeweler.

Brothers and Sisters of the Toda FamilyThe Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family, 1941. On the occasion of the family patriarch's 69th birthday, the noble and privileged Toda family has assembled for a formal commemorative photograph and a dinner banquet that would prove to be their father's last. Forced to sell the family home in order to settle their father's unresolved, business-related debts, Mrs. Toda (Ayako Katsuragi) and the youngest daughter Setsuko (Mieko Takamino) - with a devoted domestic servant (Choko Iida) and mynah bird in tow - are sent to live with the oldest son, Shinichiro (Tatsuo Saito), before being politely passed off from one sibling to another. Expounding on (and prefiguring) similar themes of filial duty and respect to elders as Tokyo Story with the social commentary on the vanishing way of life of the feudal era, socially prominent merchant class (note the samurai clan armor that decorates the hallway of the Toda residence), The Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family is a poignant and graceful film that exemplifies Ozu's later, more insular, understated, and distilled) gendai-geki home dramas.

10-07-03: Days of Youth, 1929. As the film opens, a gregarious loafer named Watanabe (Ichiro Yuki) turns away Days of Youtha young man who has inquired about a sign on the window for a room for rent, explaining that he had just rented the room earlier that day. Moments later, an attractive young woman inquires about the same room and, attempting to get into her good graces, Watanabe remarks that he is in the process of vacating and that the room is available. With nowhere to go, he moves into the apartment of his meek, bookish friend Yamamoto (Tatsuo Saito) who, unbeknownst to him, is enamored with the same young woman. After completing their final examinations, the two friends decide to bide time waiting for their final grades by competing for the affection of the young woman at a ski resort, resulting in a series of misadventures for the novice skier Yamamoto. The earliest extant film by Ozu, Days of Youth is a whimsical, amusing, and entertaining fusion of physical and situational comedy. Most noteworthy in the film is the absence of Ozu's familiar 'pillow' shots that are functionally replaced by the use a bookend, long panning panorama shots of the city to convey placement and scenario.

I Graduated But...I Graduated But..., 1929. A ten minute reconstruction of an otherwise lost film, I Graduated But... follows a trajectory of enlightenment towards humble acceptance as Ozu's similarly titled, I Was Born But... as a recent college graduate named Tetsuo (Minoru Takada), unable to find employment at a position that he believes is commensurate with his education level (his only job offer is as an entry level office receptionist), is visited by his mother after misrepresenting his financial circumstances to her. While there is little material presented, the story does unfold linearly. However, Ozu's development of plot through quietly observed interactions and situations - the essence of his cinema - is unavoidably compromised.

I Flunked But..., 1930. A college student's (Tatsuo Saito) underhanded scheme to cheat on his final examinations backfires when the boarding house matron sends the shirt on which he has scribbled his notes out for laundry. Now faced with remaining as a student for another year and bearing the dubious distinction of being the only student in the household who did not graduate, he gradually adjusts to the reality of his deferred professional life, eventually turning his disappointment to optimism with the support and encouragement of his friends and a young waitress (Kinuyo Tanaka) who is devoted to him. Similar to the lighthearted comedy of Days of Youth, I Flunked But... is a hilarious and effervescent comedy on a young man's unforeseen (and unintentionally) delayed passage to maturity and responsibility.

10-06-03: The Only Son, 1936. The Only Son The Only Son is a quintessential Ozu home drama on the relationship between a widowed mother (Choko Iida) and her son, Ryosuke. Encouraged by her son's ambitious elementary school teacher (Chishu Ryu), the mother slaves at a silk manufacturing factory, sacrificing personal and financial comfort and security, in order to support Ryosuke's education so that he may grow up to be a "great man". Thirteen years later, she travels to Tokyo to visit Ryosuke and finds that that his once seemingly bright future has become quashed by limited opportunity and personal obligations. Alternately poignant, comical, and bittersweet, the film is a thoughtful exposition of Ozu's familiar themes of familiar estrangement and acceptance of life's inevitable disappointments.

Kagamijishi, 1935. Kagamijishi is a short performance film intended to introduce non-native viewers to Kabuki theater and also to showcase the skill of Kikugoro IV, a legendary, multi-generation Kabuki artist. Ozu's repeated fixed position shots (one on center stage, a second to the side of the stage, and a third from an upper balcony) are evident throughout the film. Although I'm unfamiliar with the vernacular of Kabuki theatre, the then middle-aged Kikugoro's ability to transform himself from delicate maiden to possessed, ferocious beast by donning a lion mask is remarkable.

What Did the Lady Forget?What Did the Lady Forget?, 1937. A funny, lighthearted, but nevertheless, astute social satire, What Did the Lady Forget? centers on a genial college professor who, forced by his stern and domineering wife to play golf, fabricates an alibi and arranges to spend the evening at a student's house. However, his plans are compromised when his assertive and progressive thinking niece decides to accompany him. Loosely reminiscent of Carl Theodor Dreyer's Master of the House (without the imposing governess), the film is a highly engaging comedy on the need for reciprocity and mutual respect in human relationships.

Notes on The 2003 New York Video Festival at the Walter Reade.

07-28-03: Program 5: Mirror Conspiracies: Anthony Goicolea, Shannon Plumb, and Chris Larson.

An omnibus of several video shorts by three New York gallery artists, Mirror Conspiracies inherently reflects the aesthetic personalities of each artist. Goicolea's surreally playful works is the most diverse in implementation of media technique: monochromatic and highly textural gothic mood pieces and experiments in split screen and doppelganger comic compositions. Theater-trained artist Shannon Plumb's charming and accessible comedic pantomime Super 8, silent film-inspired works have a distinctive, retro tone that allude to the deadpan comedies of Buster Keaton, 1950s public service announcements, and even Stan Brakhage scratch films (in an homage short entitled Tack) in which the artist is repeatedly goaded into sitting on a disappearing chair. Chris Larson's attractive, photogenic, and literally slick, but personally unengaging films recall David Lynch-like gothic visuals with Matthew Barney's predilection for subliminally erotic structures and compositions which, in Larson's case, has been combined with a seeming affinity for photographing the behavioral flow of viscous fluids (oils and paints) that further illustrate the artist's visual theme of biological man as primitive machine.

Program 12: Life is a Dream

Robots of Sodom and Every Evening Freedom (Tom Kalin) - Two video excerpts from a larger work in progress entitled Behold Goliath or The Boy With the Filthy Laugh based on the experimental fiction of Alfred Chester, Robots of Sodom (from In Praise of Vespasian) and Every Evening Freedom (from Behold Goliath) are composed primarily of stylized, text-based sequences narrated through overlaid voice synthesizers (using standard Macintosh-platform speech recognition, MacinTalk™ voice personalities like Agnes, Ralph, and Fred), creating a dissociative and alienated, yet hypnotic, engaging, and sensorally immersive experience.

Beacon (Christophe Girardet and Matthius Mueller) - Reminiscent of the elegies of Aleksandr Sokurov, particularly the spectral forms of Elegy of a Voyage and incorporating evocative, narrated text written by the accomplished video artist Mike Hoolboom, Beacon is a serene, haunting, and contemplative tone poem on spiritual displacement and longing.

Security Anthem (Kent Lambert) - Security Anthem is an idiosyncratic and humorous composition of enunciated random sentences from circa 1980 (which the video artist obtained from public domain speech pathology training tapes) set against a low resolution video of the 'singing senator' John Ashcroft uninhibitedly belting out a tune.

Phantom MuseumThe Phantom Museum (The Brothers Quay) - My favorite entry from the program, the brothers Quay create yet another beautiful, haunting, atmospheric, and exquisitely tactile composition of stop-motion animation and live action as an unseen visitor wanders an empty museum that houses a curious repository of medical school paraphernalia. Observing and manipulating the antique dolls, prosthetic limbs and mechanisms, and surgical devices, the video creates an indelibly poetic meditation on the biological processes of human existence.

Jungle (Random Touch) - Jungle is a passable but unextraordinary serendipity piece that juxtaposes footage of (undoubtedly inebriated) revelers at an amusement park against a pulsing tribal-inspired rhythm of an enveloping (if not overwhelming) musical soundtrack.

Picture-Book (Ed Bowes) - Picture-Book is a strangely enigmatic and visually gorgeous, but ultimately inscrutable experiment in Henry James-inspired narrative abstraction. Recalling the vacuous gloss of a late 1980s Calvin Klein Obsession commercial dialogue (although less polished) with Eric Rohmer naturalistic visuals, the frustrating opacity of the narrative does not lend itself towards a sustained, near feature-length work - interesting, but becomes tedious in its nonsensical repetivity after the half hour mark.

Program 13: Shall We Dance?

After Many a Summer Dies the Swan: Hybrid (Yvonne Rainer) - Juxtaposing a series of narrative text that describe the evolution of art and culture in fin-de-siècle Vienna (using historically analytical sources such as Carl Schorske's Fin-de Siècle Vienna: Politics and Culture, Robert Musil's The Man Without Qualities, Volume 1, and Allan Janik and Stephen Toulmin's Wittgenstein's Vienna), commentary by innovative, turn of the century Viennese artists (Oscar Kokoschka, Adolf Loos, Arnold Schoenberg, and Ludwig Wittgenstein), and fragmentary excerpts from the rehearsals and performance of the Rainer-choreographed dance program, After Many a Summer Dies the Swan, commissioned by the Baryshnikov Dance Foundation for the White Oak Dance Project, the video is a philosophically dense statement on the historical role and function of art in society, and an inspiring call to action for the restoration of the avant-garde movement to its original radical vision.

VB51 (Vanessa Beecroft) - An experiment in tableaux vivants, Vanessa Beecroft assembles 25 women of different ages formally dressed in predominantly white evening wear (with the notable exceptions of R.W. Fassbinder heroines Irm Hermann who is wearing a pink gown and Hanna Schygulla who is wearing black attire) as spectators line the walls of the grand hall of a baroque German castle. With an underlying tenet of the performance art - silence - repeatedly and unexpectedly violated by the irrepressible Ms. Schygulla as she spontaneously recites and sings passages from Winterreise in order to fill the void of the extended silence, the video performance serves, not only as an idiosyncratic and curious approach to the proverbial objectification of women through the sublime spectacle of their literal, formal exhibition as beautiful 'works' of 'living art', but also as a window to the inimitable personality of the iconic actress.

07-27-03: Program 10: Pretend

PretendJulie Talen's feature-length video, Pretend, is an astonishingly complex experimental visual narrative structure that nevertheless, sustains a cohesive, inner storytelling logic. Composed of a series of dynamically arranged, multi-channel screens, each presenting alternate points of view, imagined scenarios, experiments in color and textual composition, and fragmentation of chronology, the video uses a seemingly simple tale - two sisters who fabricate a plan to feign the younger sister's kidnapping in order to emotionally manipulate their parents into staying together - to create a compelling, exquisite, and artistically mature work on perspective, reality, guilt, and memory.

Program 9: Intimations of Mortality

A Silent Day (Takashi Ito) - A Silent Day is an appropriately wordless, yet poetic and instinctually cohesive fictionalized autobiographical journal of a young filmmaker who roams through the desolate streets of a suburban city, occasionally acting out her inner demons through a metaphorically soulless, ambiguously inexpressive marionette.

Suicide (Shelly Silver) - A similarly themed video journal of a fictional filmmaker contemplating suicide (albeit superficially), the aimless heroine travels abroad (a theme reminiscent of Chantal Akerman's expositions of the artist in exile) in order disconnect herself from the emotional attachment of her unresolved past. Alternately humorous, contemplative, and disquieting, Suicide is a mildly engaging and respectable effort, although I find the video maker's affinity towards terminally 'cute' shots of Japan - Pikachu ornaments, Sanrio-inspired window dressing, broadly smiling pop star billboards, and adorable school girls wearing bright yellow hats - a bit complicitous in perpetuating this typically Western curiosity for a particular, idiosyncratic aspect of Japanese culture.

Program 8: Me and My Camera

La Tombola (Ximena Cuevas) - Cleverly conceived as the titular, cheaply produced, campy Mexican variety show as the video artist is among an odd assortment of guests that also include a flamboyant celebrity who owns a gaudy, ostentatious estate, an uninhibited exhibitionist who is eager to expose herself at the slightest prompting, and an uptight, conservative moralist, the artist serves as a reluctant witness to the attention-grubbing spectacle. In the end, Cuevas implicates the audience for the perpetuation of the media's tabloid mentality by turning her unassuming DV camera towards the voyeuristic public.

The Guzzler of Grizzly Manor (George Kuchar) - A whimsical, lighthearted, but ultimately unremarkable video journal as the veteran video artist muses and often embellishes stories on his mundane travels through several states in support of the presentation of his work at film festivals.

Frozen War (John Smith) - Frozen War is another tedious, pointless, unneccesarily ponderous, and self-aggrandizing video journal as the artist speculates on the potential cause of a frozen, broadcasted image announcing the commencement of war in Afghanistan.

Voice Off (Donigan Cumming) - Voice Off marks the first time in this year's NYVF that I actually walked out (although I do want to note that I was not alone in this sentiment as several audience members preceded and followed me in leaving), after viewing approximately two-thirds of the video. Ostensibly a personal chronicle of the artist's brother - an eccentric, unpredictable, aging man of diminished mental capacity who had recently lost his voice and now communicates through handwritten notes and a voice synthesizer - the video evolves into a self-indulgent and egoistic rumination of the artist's own smug, disdainful, self-absorbed, and insensitive observations of the cause and evolution of his brother's disability. Featuring at least two exploitive, formally posed shots of his brother in full nudity, I found this particular work visually and thematically nauseating and morally reprehensible.

Paper RoutePaper Route (Robert Frank) - Recalling the nomadic films of Abbas Kiarostami in the organic progression of a deceptively mundane, yet insightful and life-affirming conversation between a driver and passenger, video artist Robert Frank accompanies his personable and disciplined local paper delivery man on his morning paper route on a brisk winter day through the artist's bucolic hometown in Nova Scotia. Simple, compassionate, and engaging, the video is a reverent and indelible portrait of a humble existence and vanishing way of life that not only serves as the isolated residents' literal source of information about the world around them, but also their human connection to the metaphoric 'collective soul' of the rural community.

07-26-03: Program 6: The World at Night

Orange Factory (Seoungho Cho) - A fusion of the morphing, ghostly entities of Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Pulse with the desolate otherworldliness of Aleksandr Sokurov's nomadic elegies, Orange Factory is an exquisite and skillfully constructed composition of sensual (and sensoral) textures.

NYC (Doug Aitken/Associates in Science) - Although an artful music video (for an otherwise flaccid song by New York-based band Interpol that sounds vaguely like a rougher Bring on the Dancing Horses by Echo and the Bunnymen) that skillfully integrates digital and video post-production effects, its inclusion in the program is debatable.

Ri-'pET (Christine Knoll, Torsten Frank, and Christian Golz) - Proceeding in Koyaanisqatsi-like (Godfrey Reggio) frenetic pacing of endless motion through city and provincial roads, punctuated by the intermittent static transmission from a CB radio, Ri-'pET is a well articulated and thoughtful portrait of the inherently nomadic and disconnected life of a truck driver. Unfortunately, the written epilogue of the film has the cumulative effect of unnecessarily over-explaining what, up to that moment, had been a subtle and expressive, yet innately cohesive work on isolation.

Nocturne (Emily Richardson) - Composed of a series of twilight images of empty streets, Nocturne is a mesmerizing and tonally expressive video work that similarly recalls the seminal tone poem Koyaanisqatsi with the rigorous symmetry and urban desolation of Chantal Akerman's News from Home.

Night Out (Francis Gomila) - A grainy, often jittery surveillance-style video that captures an argument between a couple as the man eventually walks away into the empty street (to the exploited expressivity of Caetano Veloso's Cucurrucucu Paloma), Night Out is an uninspired, insipid, amateurish, and salaciously (and unamusingly) voyeuristic entry.

Nuclear Train (Daniel Saul) - Recalling Andrei Tarkovsky's Stalker in the video's post-apocalyptic tone and particularly in the alluded telekinesis of the (genetically) disabled daughter, Nuclear Train is an engaging, appropriately paced, and technically accomplished mood piece that effectively incorporates a diverse assortment of post-production video effects.

Napoli Centrale (Bouchra Khalili) - A well crafted and picturesque, but banal and tediously unoriginal premise of a restless and lonely soul driving through empty French streets at night articulating his passing thoughts and fleeting memories into the vast emptiness.

37th and Lex (Leighton Pierce) - A short and polished tone poem by the video artist who narrates his thoughts of melancholy and longing through a series of handwritten notes, interspersed against shots of the empty New York City intersection.

September 10 2001, Uno nunca muere la vispera (Monika Bravo) - Textural and poetic, the video is undoubtedly a personally expurgative (or perhaps, meditative) composition on 9/11 as images of New York City are presented in perpetual overcast and rain. However, as a spectator to a seemingly private video missive (the work is addressed to a particular person), I could not help but feel that the decision to present the piece in a public exhibition seems exploitive* (see Addendum) of the tragedy.

Addendum: I would like to thank Monika Bravo for contacting me and providing contextual information regarding her video, September 10 2001, Uno nunca muere la vispera. To be honest, I don't remember that 9/10/01 was a rainy day, and so I interpreted the video to be more of a reflective, elegiac mood piece than an actual recorded document. The fact that the images in the video were recorded on that day, and that Ms. Bravo herself is a WTC survivor (and that the person to whom the video was dedicated, Michael Richards, was a friend, colleague, and fellow artist who perished on 9/11) makes me further appreciate the personal nature of her testament. The video was presented at the NYVF without any background or history provided by the programmers or the accompanying literature, detaching the viewer from the video's raison d'être, which I think proved to be a disservice to the piece. In any case, this web page provides more information and material on her personal project (which I do feel should have been included in the program literature): The Michael Richards Fund.

Program 1: Personal Anthology
Learning Stalls (Torsten Zenas Burns and Darrin Martin) - A compedium of special effects-type technical experiments involving rudimentary, morphing, Flash-type animation superimposed onto human forms and exercises on multiple exposure, the amateurish video unfortunately overplays the novelty of wire meshing, image compositing, and dynamic, spirograph-like digital renderings to the point of abstraction and tedium.

The Chocolate Factory (Steve Reinke) - An equally uninspired presentation in an overall weak and unbalanced program, the video consists of a deliberative, monotone narrator (presumably a serial killer) speaking with a cold impassivity akin to Lorenzo Music's voice characterization of Carlton the Doorman (in the television sitcom Rhoda) and the titular character of the cartoon series Garfield, as he describes a series of personal encounters to the corresponding image of a camera languorously (and incomprehensibly) panning up and down a series of mediocre portrait sketches. The only worthwhile moment is a silent panning of a portrait sketch with a postscript that the subject is a deaf mute.

Wasted (Scott Russell) - Another crude and amateurish entry, the video is a lowbrow humored, nonsensical compilation of unconnected (and illogical) vignettes, such as the video 'artist' putting a plastic bag over his head and creating depressions that project out, then retract upon breathing, and another segment in which he repeatedly mumbles "I am a monster" with a mouth deliberately overstuffed with nectarious food. I personally find this type of pointless, gratuitous, self-congratulatory, and narcissistic creation rather grating and insulting - the antithesis of creating personal art.

Lost in Space (Tricia Middleton and Joel Taylor) - Composed of indelible natural imagery and impersonal cityscapes set against an engaging soundtrack (that includes The Carpenters' Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft and New Order's Bizarre Love Triangle), the video artists create an interesting - if pointedly abstruse - video essay on despair and alienation.

Single Beds Vol. 1 Desolation (Ximena Cuevas) - Loosely reminiscent of Chantal Akerman's early films, particularly the restless isolation of Je, tu, il, elle and the ritualistic housework of Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, and further infused with the disquieting drone of overlapping, indistinguishable sampled narrations in a similar vein as the ambient repetition of the perplexing audio composition, Waiting for Bardot (from the idiosyncratic Crass Records compilation entitled Bullsh*t Detector), the video is a commendable, albeit familiar, portrait of loneliness and estrangement.

07-05-03: Notes on Contemporary Film Directors: Abbas Kiarostami by Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa and Jonathan Rosenbaum.

Abbas KiarostamiThe unorthodox presentation of individual criticism by two admirers of Kiarostami's cinema from different continents in the book Contemporary Film Directors: Abbas Kiarostami is a fascinating approach: the first, a more universal, Western 'outsider' perspective from the venerable American film critic Rosenbaum, then subsequently, a more culturally rooted, 'insider' perspective from contemporary Iranian filmmaker Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa. Saeed-Vafa and Rosenbaum then review each other's critical essays and continue their appraisal of Kiarostami's oeuvre through a transcripted dialogue between the two authors. What emerges from the interaction is an insightful analysis of Kiarostami's cinema as a distinctively native view of modern-day Iran, but also as a universal, cross-cultural representation of contemporary society.

Rosenbaum provides an impassioned and compelling defense for the thematic purpose and essentiality of the often maligned, jarring, and controversial video epilogue that concludes A Taste of Cherry. Rosenbaum proposes:

"Though it invites us into the laboratory from which the film sprang and places us on an equal footing with the filmmaker, it does this in the spirit of collective euphoria, suddenly liberating us from the oppressive solitude of Badii alone in his grave. By harking back to the soldiers who remind us of the happiest part of Badii's life and a tree in full bloom that reminds us of the Turkish taxidermist's own epiphany - though soldiers also signify the wars that made refugees of both the Kurdish soldier and the Afghan seminarian and a tree is almost where the Turk almost hanged himself - Kiarostami is representing life in all its complexity. He reconfigures elements from the preceding eighty-odd minutes in video to clarify what in their ingredients is real and what's concocted."

During the discussion of Close-up, Rosenbaum underscores the social implications of the Makhmalbaf impersonator Sabzian's Turkish nationality - an ethnic minority in Iran - as a culturally significant situational subtlety that is often overlooked in the analysis of the film. Rosenbaum compares the film to the John Guare play, Six Degrees of Separation that, like Close-up, is based on the real-life deception by a socially marginalized man named Paul, gaining admission into New York society by claiming to be the son of actor Sidney Poitier. Citing similarities in the characters' mutual status as social minorities who feign association with the film industry, the author illustrates the universality of public perception towards the achievement of celebrity as a means of attaining power, privilege, and respect. Saeed-Vafa further expounds on the appropriateness of having self-taught filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf as the subject of the impersonation, commenting that his popular appeal in Iran is as much for his films as it is for the idea of social mobility that he represents: a poor and undereducated man who has achieved success through filmmaking. Saeed-Vafa explains:

"When I was a teenager, everyone was a poet, but now everyone is a filmmaker, especially after the Revolution. Seeing that [Close-Up] for the first time, so many [Iranian] filmmakers were not educated in film - and many were not educated, period. But becoming a filmmaker or artist originally conferred a status that was only reserved for the privilege or the educated and then, all of a sudden, it became something noneducated people could achieve, if they worked hard to get there."

Notes on Human Rights Watch International Film Festival at the Walter Reade.

06-21-03: My Terrorist, 2002 (Yulie Cohen Gerstel, Israel). Provocative, insightful, passionate, and courageous, My Terrorist chronicles Ms. Cohen Gerstel's controversial campaign to win the parole release of a convicted PLO (Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine) terrorist Fahad Mihyi who, in 1978, had boarded and opened fire on a London bus occupied by Ms. Cohen Gerstel and the rest of the El Al (Israeli airline) flight crew, resulting in the death of several of her colleagues and her own severe wounding. A proud Israeli national and military veteran, the filmmaker nevertheless began to examine the complex and difficult situation of the Arab-Israeli conflict from a different perspective after working as a photojournalist in the occupied territory of the Gaza Strip. Witnessing the profound economic disparity and inhumane living conditions that contribute to the cycle of hate, exclusion, and violence, Ms. Cohen Gerstel sought to help bridge the deep-rooted ideological gulf between the Israeli and the Palestinians with a symbolic, humanitarian gesture of interacting with the isolated Fahad, then subsequently, writing a testimonial letter of support for his release. Inevitably, despite the (deliberately) inconclusive fate of Fahad, what emerges is a personal documentary of reconciliation and closure that is both honest, fearless, and profoundly inspiring. (The film's official site may be found here.)

Vivisect, 2003 (Marija Gajicki, Serbia). The incisive short film, Vivisect, captures the polarized public reaction in the Serbian city of Novi Sad to a gallery exhibition of Ron Haviv's war photography, a photojournalist who has chronicled a decade of divisive and destructive wars that resulted in the breakup of Yugoslavia. Having intentionally left the photographs uncaptioned and instead, providing a blank sheet of paper on the side, Haviv and the museum organizers soon find the papers defaced with impassioned, often vitriolic comments that reflect the country's unreconciled sentiment of guilt, intolerance, and chauvinism, but also a regret for the collective tragedy of war.

cuckooThe Cuckoo, 2002 (Alexander Rogozhkin, Russia). The Cuckoo is an understated, yet enchanting comedy of errors on the human capacity for empathy and community amidst the chaos and senselessness of war. Set in September 1944 shortly before Finland's withdrawal from World War II, the film lyrically recounts a fateful encounter between an injured, disillusioned Russian soldier named Ivan and a talkative, escaped Finnish sniper, Veiko (who was dressed by his unit in a German SS military uniform in order to discourage dereliction of duty), at the remote farm of a lonely and attractive young Lapp widow. Unable to communicate with each other, the three isolated protagonists nevertheless establish a surrogate and affectionate bond as they cooperate to survive in the harsh frontier. Capturing an idiosyncratic, incisive, and often amusing tone, Rogozhkin creates a whimsical, humorous, and acutely observed portrait of man's ability to transcend divisive cultural barriers to find commonality of human experience.

Life on the Tracks (Riles), 2002 (Ditsi Carolino, Philippines). Life on the Tracks is a charming, graceful, compassionate, and staggeringly intimate portrait of the everyday struggles of a poor, but devoted (and playfully bickering) married couple named Eddie and Pen Renomeron as they eke out a meager existence for their two daughters and three adopted children (whose parents were killed by a train) in a squatter village in the district of Balik-balik, Sampaloc in Manila. According to filmmaker Ditsi Carolino, there are two social classes that exist in the village: the opportunistic, often politically connected, permanent squatters who built the crude shantytowns alongside the railroad tracks for rental, and the migrant tenants, often from rural provinces, who move to the city in search of a better life. Capturing the poignancy and affection of the destitute villagers as they pass idle time through karaoke, alcohol, card games, and the synchronized dodging of passing trains, and the Renomeron family's attempt to provide a sense of normalcy for their children despite profound physical (the film provides an unsettling glimpse of the inadequacy of health care for the poor through Pen's continued health problems that also resulted in a crude mastectomy) and economic hardship (the children, in turn, dream of a better life abroad, such as a daughter's aspiration to become a singer in Japan), the film is a humbling and indelible portrait of human dignity, resilience, and community.

Poison (Sanpeet), 2002 (Giuseppe Petitto, Enrico Pizianti, and Gianluca Pulcini, Italy/Thailand). In an attempt to Poisoncurb delinquency and drug use among young people in the impoverished area known as the 'Golden Triangle' in northeast Thailand, the government endorsed a policy to promote sports, leading to the institution of youth kickboxing competitions in the region. Sanpeet, a small built, seven year-old boy, is the eldest of three children in the Petnonnoi family. The kickboxing competitions have become a source of supplementary income for the family, as Sanpeet's unemployed father uses his son's deceptive physical stature in order to skew the betting odds in illegal gambling activities that inevitably accompany the tournaments. Provocative and innately disturbing, Poison is a compelling examination of the vicious cycle of poverty, vice, and abuse.

06-20-03: Jiyan (Life), 2002
(Jano Rosebiani, Iraqi Kurdistan). A Kurdish-American man named Diyari travels to the village of Halabja, one of the targeted sites of the 1988 chemical and biological bombing of the Iraqi Kurdistan region by the Iraqi military (acting under Saddam Hussein's Anfal genocide campaign against the Kurds), on a personal humanitarian effort to build a facility in order to accommodate the area's high rate of orphaned children. His first encounter with the proud and determined villagers is through a shy, yet affable little girl orphaned by the bombing named Jiyan whose face has been permanently scarred by chemical burns. As Diyari immerses himself in the daily life and continued struggle for survival of the Kurdish villagers - witnessing the area's decimated and poisoned landscape (where the occasional windstorm inevitably results in a secondary bombardment of the deadly airborne materials) and increased rates of infertility, genetic anomalies, and mortality - Jiyan becomes his guide and inspiration to the indefatigable soul of an oppressed people. Reminiscent of Kaneto Shindo's Children of Hiroshima in the interweaving of real-life testimonies of actual survivors from the inhumane bombing campaign with the fictional narrative of an estranged native witness, Jiyan is a somber and haunting, yet affectionate, charming, and celebratory portrait of human courage, community, dignity, and resilience. (The film's official site may be found here.)

Notes on Films from Along the Silk Road: Central Asian Cinema at the Walter Reade.

05-10-03: The Apple, 2003 (Abay Kulbaev, Kazakhstan). The Apple is a charming and playfully ironic short film on a man (played by filmmaker Darezhan Omirbaev) casually picking berries on a hill who becomes drawn to the amusing sight of a young boy attempting to reach an apple that is tantalizingly just out of his reach.

Killer, 1998 (Darezhan Omirbaev, Kazakhstan). Killer is a visually distilled, acutely observed, and socially relevant film on moral erosion, marginalization, urban disconnection, and despair. Inviting vague comparisons to Robert Bresson's L'Argent in the spare and naturalistic depiction of spiritual corruption in an increasingly inhumane, callous, and materialistic society, the film centers on a young married man and doting new father named Marat, the personal driver of a genial and highly respected mathematics professor and university director in the large, impersonal city of Almaty. As the film opens, the professor arrives at the studio of a radio station for a recorded interview on the uncertain state of scientific research and the academic community after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The episode proves to be an applicable reflection of Marat's tenuous financial circumstances as well when, having borrowed the car to drive his family home from the hospital, he attempts to catch a glimpse of his infant son while in transit and causes a traffic accident. Unable to pay for the repair of the two automobiles (in an obliquely violent encounter with the owner of the vehicle in Marat's home that is Pirandellically depicted in Omirbaev's subsequent film, The Road, a reflexive film on a filmmaker seeking creative inspiration to complete his film, Killer), Marat reluctantly borrows money from a loanshark, and consequently embarks on a dubious, inescapable alliance with the ruthless mobster. Tonally muted and understated, yet evocative and poetic, Killer is perhaps Omirbaev's most accomplished work to date, a film that combines the intimacy and emotional honesty of Kairat and Kardiogram with the innately metaphoric personality of environment and natural landscape that pervade the sublime imagery of The Road.

The Mystery of Ferns, 1992 (Rachid Malikov, Uzbekistan). Fortunately, filmmaker Rachid Malikov was available for a post-screening Q&A of his film, The Mystery of Ferns, a narratively opaque, yet instinctually (and emotionally) resonant film on profound alienation, spiritual desolation, and obsolescence. The film follows the plight of a lonely widower, an elderly intellectual alternately ignored and patronized by his self-consumed daughter and immature granddaughter, who one day, loses his memory and begins to wander aimlessly through the impersonal, and often decaying landscape of modern-day Uzbekistan. Slightly reminiscent of the baroque elements in Raoul Ruiz's stylistic characterizations (although Malikov's formalized compositions are quite spare by comparison), the film's challenging narrative approach lies in its oddly surreal (yet naturalistic) and psychologically impenetrable point-of-view that reflects the old man's fragmented and pervasively detached perspective. What results is an inaccessible, yet innately compelling film.

05-09-03: The Last Stop (Terminus), 1987 (Serik Aprimov, Kazakhstan). In an early episode in The Last Stop, a young man, newly discharged from the Soviet army visits his relatives and inquires about what has happened in the bucolic town during his absence, to which his extended family responds "Nothing happens here. We live." Considered to be the first perestroika film, The Last Stop consists of a series of reunions with family and friends as he spends an aimless day attempting to readjust to his former life and assessing his future in his rural hometown where poverty, unemployment, drunkenness, and interminable boredom are endemic to the villagers' way of life. Aprimov's use of languid pacing, spare, natural landscapes, and dialogistic (and occasionally amusing) encounters invites comparison to the films of Abbas Kiarostami, but his sense of cultural intimacy for village life and affectionate concern for the limited opportunities of its inhabitants are distinctively native.

fly-upThe Fly-Up, 2002 (Marat Sarulu, Kyrgyzstan). Preceding Marat Sarulu's feature film, My Brother Silk Road, is the filmmaker's short film, The Fly-Up, a quiet observation of a factory furnace worker's idyllic afternoon of rest as he attempts to escape the oppressiveness of his existence by taking a nap on the rooftop, watching a beautiful young neighbor as she paints her house, then traveling to the top of a mountain overlooking the town in order to fly his homemade paraglider. The Fly-Up is a simple and subtle, yet understatedly metaphoric film on imagination and transcendence.

The Watchman (The Guard), 1989 (Beyzhan Aidkuluev, Kyrgyzstan). Consisting of concentrated, visually striking, and evocative natural imagery, The Watchman is an indelible portrait of a robust, elderly, one-legged man as he traverses the austere, yet beautiful landscape of his quaint Kirghiz village. Slightly reminiscent of Aleksandr Sokurov's impressionistic and elegiac tone poems (particularly Oriental Elegy, but with less opacity and more instinctual cohesion), the film is a haunting and sublime meditation on natural communion, transience, and cultural extinction.

My Brother Silk Road, 2001 (Marat Sarulu, Kyrgyzstan/Kazakhstan). Incorporating two intersecting situational narratives, My Brother Silk Road is an exquisite, intelligently constructed, and richly textured snapshot of a transitional human experience. The film begins with a group of small children as they follow an older boy on a playful exploration through the vast forest of their remote agrarian mountain village. The older boy leads the children to the steppes where he reveals the romantic history of the train tracks as having been built on what had formerly been the silk road trade route. The story then shifts perspective to the occupants of a transnational train: a middle-aged train employee who once followed a lover aboard the train and has figuratively been unable to leave ever since; her daughter, a young woman who has decided to abandon school and join a group of aimless, Western pop culture-addicted bohemians; a struggling, pensive, and idealistic artist who offers quick sketch, pencil portraits to passengers for money. With equal measures of affectionate whimsy and social realism, the film is an acutely observed composition of people in emotional transition as they search for community, reconciliation, and transcendence.

The screening of My Brother Silk Road was followed by an extended Q&A session with filmmaker Marat Sarulu, where he explained that his preferred literal film title is The Golden Pheasant, a reference to a sophist tale of the titular birds that were once driven from paradise and would spend their lifetime attempting to return to it. Within this allegorical context, the characters in the film fall into three distinct phases: the innocence of the young children represent the birds residing in paradise; the train employees are the disillusioned birds searching for a way back (most notably in the train employee's encounter with a former classmate - now a shepherd - who was once in love with her); the artist and the older boy are the birds in existential transition, having been literally and figuratively dislocated from paradise.

Revenge, 1987 (Ermek Shinarbaev, Kazakhstan). A collaboration between famed Korean Kazakhstanian revengenovelist, Anatoly Kim and filmmaker Ermek Shinarbaev (who was also on-hand to present the film and participate in a subsequent Q&A session), Revenge is a sumptuous and intricately structured epic tale on the contaminative, destructive, and overreaching consequences of revenge. Structured in thematically spiraling, narratively overlapping novellas, the film's prologue follows the seemingly mythical story of a young prince who, overpowered by a peasant's son, is mandated by the king to train in armed combat so that when he comes of age, he will become the most powerful warrior in the kingdom. Years later, the prince's ability is tested in a series of challenges that, although emerging victorious, is tainted with the realization that an opponent had spared the prince and allowed him to win. Unable to obtain another competition against the more skillful rival, and unwilling to accept the compassionate advice of the court poet - the prince's trusted friend and advisor - the prince orders the opponent to be beaten to death, an act that causes the poet to resign his post and leave the palace. The proceeding novella moves forward to the turn of the 20th century, as a school teacher, angered by the students' lack of attention, directs his violent rage at a little girl and kills her. Years later, the girl's half-brother, a sensitive and thoughtful young boy is entrusted with the responsibility of exacting revenge on the schoolmaster, and in the process, abandons his own artistic pursuit and desire to lead a normal life. Although the film's complex and allegorical composition and atmospherically dense imagery create an indelible viewing experience, the lack of cohesion in several narrative threads (the underformed roles of the teacher's wife and protector, the hero's enlightened teacher and spiritual guide, the elderly woman) encumber the film with a sense of situational ambiguity and frustrating incompletion.

Notes on Middle of the World: Classic and Contemporary Swiss Cinema at the Walter Reade.

04-12-03: Romeo and Juliette in the Village (1941). Hans Trommer and Valerien Schmidely's social realist peasant drama, Romeo and Juliette in the Village, is a well-photographed, but ultimately contrived and non-cohesive tale of the failed romantic destiny of young lovers Vreneli and Sali who are separated by their families' financially devastating legal dispute over an interstitial tract of land between their respective farms. The presentation of the naturalistic landscape as a seeming character - further embodied in the omnipresent and enigmatic, though woefully underformed role of the dark fiddler who briefly attempts to lay claim to the contested land and subsequently officiates their mock wedding marriage ceremony that concludes with a sinister group dance through the country (along a similar vein as Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal) - is perhaps the film's strongest feature. However, too many convenient plot devices are introduced then summarily discarded in order to create narrative progression and tone throughout the film, resulting in a fragmented, imbalanced, and unfocused work.

Jonah Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000 (1975). Alain Tanner's Jonah Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000 is a thoughtful, compassionate, funny, and provocative ensemble drama on the contemporary fate of several May 68 activists as their post-radical lives converge on an idyllic suburban organic farm: a proofreader named Max (Jean-Luc Bideau) who attempts to subvert the actions of an opportunistic real estate developer; a popular high school teacher named Marco (Jacques Denis) who implements unorthodox methods for teaching history; a French cashier named Marie (Miou-Miou) who uses her job to surreptitiously help the elderly; an unemployed typesetter named Mathieu (Rufus) who accepts a menial job as a horse manure collector at the farm in exchange for a modest wage and room and board at the large farm house to accommodate his ever-growing family. A thematic hybrid between Claude Sautet's understated examination of middle-aged bourgeoisie fused with the acuity of Alain Resnais' innately analytical socio-political cinema, the film perfectly encapsulates the dilemma of an aging idealistic generation as they continue to struggle to exist in their imperfect, contemporary reality.

Les Petites Couleurs (2002). The ambassador of Switzerland, Christian Blickenstorfer and filmmaker Patricia Grinberg/LafontPlattner were on hand to provide introductory remarks (along with a subsequent wine and cheese reception at the gallery) to the opening night feature, Les Petites Couleurs, a simple, effervescent, and charming comedy that centers on a beautiful hairdresser named Christelle (Anouk Grinberg) as she rebuilds her life, independence, and self-esteem after seeking refuge from her abusive husband at a rural truck stop motel owned by an endearing, good natured widow named Mona (Bernadette Lafont). Similar to the playful whimsy of Beeban Kidron's To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar (sans drag queens), the film's eccentricity is characteristically evident in interspersed scenes from a banal and unintentionally amusing television serial (a literal soap opera where every dialogue is sung) called The Ranch of Love that Christelle and Mona religiously watch (a preposterous plot involving an amnesic cowboy who unwittingly abandons his pregnant lover and marries a native American woman) to break the monotony of their bucolic existence. Christelle's attempts to incorporate life lessons from the insipid television program into her own life - from emulating the abandoned heroine's alluring hairstyle to finding true love - reflects the underlying idiosyncratic tone and sweet nature of the film.

Mutter (2002). Miklòs Gimes presents a fascinating, sincere, provocative, but oddly sterile portrait of his Gimesparents' political activism and personal relationship during the turbulent and uncertain landscape of postwar Hungary in Mutter. The film opens with the 1989 national broadcast of Hungary's official burial ceremony at the Budapest Heroes Square that included the filmmaker's father, journalist and resistance fighter Miklòs Gimes who was executed in 1958 under charges of treason for his role in the failed 1956 Hungarian uprising that opposed the country's increasing alliance with the Soviet Union and entry into the Soviet bloc. Filming the life of Gimes' widow Alice, affectionately called Lucy, as she alternately resides between her adopted home in Zurich (after fleeing Hungary with family relatives in 1956 following the Russian invasion) and Budapest, the film interweaves biographical information, personal interviews, and archived material to create a complex portrait of the passionate, independent-minded, and pragmatic woman still struggling to reconcile with her new public role as an "official widow", having experienced her husband's death at a time when the dissolution of their marriage due to his infidelity seemed inevitable. What is revealed is a poignant and compelling portrait of an estranged and deeply divided soul unable to find closure in the haunted memories of her imperfect, but patriotic and dedicated husband's nationally idealized legacy.

03-30-03: Notes on BFI Modern Classics: A City of Sadness by Bérénice Reynaud.

City of Sadness (BFI)In the BFI Modern Classics publication, A City of Sadness, Bérénice Reynaud provides a comprehensive, articulate, and insightful critical analysis of Hou Hsiao-hsien's seminal and artistically groundbreaking film on the once-taboo subject of the 'hidden' history of Taiwan, providing a compelling examination of the film through the intrinsic social context of a culturally broader Chinese experience. A City of Sadness was released in the latter half of 1989, in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square government crackdown (June 4, 1989) in Beijing, and was based on a nationally traumatic historic event (the February 28, 1947 incident that ushered the era of the Kuomintang-imposed White Terror campaign of the 1950s depicted in Hou's subsequent film, Good Men, Good Women) that was only was only made possible to be openly discussed two years earlier with the lifting of Taiwan's 40-year martial law in 1987. The author explains:

The 'sadness' of the title alluded to the troubled years between the end of the Japanese occupation of Taiwan in 1945 and the official takeover by the Nationalist Party (Kuomintang) of Chiang Kai-shek in 1949. Yet this 'sadness' has even more distant causes - the division of China and Taiwan's progressive alienation from the mainland since the nineteenth century. And, as fate would have it, A City of Sadness reached the world at a moment when, once again, the Chinese psyche was hurting."

Reynaud further cites Chiao Hsiung-ping's (Peggy Chiao) article, The Camera-swept Back Alleys of History: An Interview with Hou Hsiao-hsien, to expound on the film's theme of loss and sadness:

"As he was working on the editing in the spring and summer of 1989, Hou 'immediately sensed the connection between Tiananmen and the massacres alluded to in the film, wondering "Why do such tragedies keep befalling the Chinese people?" and hoping that this film would evoke the same pain and anger in its audience'."

It is this pervasive sentiment in the film that is reflected in the author's comment:

"Overall, A City defines a vertiginous elliptical arc, which goes from one feeling of loss - the loss of Taiwan by the Japanese - to another - the loss of the mainland by the Kuomintang. "

Reynaud further illustrates the reflection of the film's essential theme of loss by analyzing the compositional similarities between Hou's work and that of Japanese filmmaker, Yasujiro Ozu, whose uniquely identifiable aesthetic was unknown to Hou until the late 1980s (Hou's first Ozu film experience was with I Was Born But..., which immediately captivated him, and became his personal favorite), after Hou had already directed seven feature films.

Reynaud also incorporates Japanese film historian Shiguehiko Hasumi's comparative evaluation that the "practical lesson bequeathed [by] Ozu's cinema [to Hou is] the research of a lost present... One has the feeling that [Hou and Ozu] were two directors having...found comparable cinematic solutions, one because he was trapped in the present, and the other because he is trapped in the past" as a foundation to further propose the idea of the influence of classical Chinese landscape painting in Hou's visual style. Specifically, Reynaud cites traditional Chinese artistic imagery that are characterized by the lack of a master gaze and compositions that internally reflect a 2/3 spatial Void that can also be seen in Hou's penchant for framing decentralized action, dead space, and distanced and alienated shots. By correlating Hou's cinema to the convergence of both Japanese and Chinese aesthetics, the author provides an astute observation on the unique cultural history of Taiwan that, in turn, is innately manifested in Hou's inherently Chinese, but also distinctively native, Taiwanese cinema.

Notes from The Elegies of Aleksandr Sokurov program at the National Gallery of Art.

03-16-03: Dolce (2000). Dolce opens to a clinical biographical overview of writer and poet Toshio Shimao Dolce(1917-1986) as the narrator (Aleksandr Sokurov) thumbs through a family photo album, describing Shimao's privileged life as the heir of an affluent merchant family, before enlisting in the Japanese military as a kamikaze pilot during the Pacific War. Stationed on a remote southern island while awaiting orders to be deployed for his suicide mission, Shimao falls in love with a local young woman from a prominent samurai family named Miho and, in a fortuitous twist of fate, is ordered to abandon his campaign as Japan moves closer towards conceding defeat. Toshio and Miho adjust to postwar life by settling in Kobe and starting a family-run business of publishing Shimao's literary work. It is a seemingly content life until one day when Miho reads Toshio's diary and learns that he has a mistress: a devastating revelation that leads to the institutionalization of Miho and also Toshio, and perhaps may have subsequently contributed to the grave illness of their daughter, Maya that resulted in a permanent disability. Attempting to recapture the purity of their relationship and rehabilitate their wounded spirit, Toshio relocates the family to Miho's home in the insular island of Amami Oshima, where the Shimao family has remained since. From this fascinating introductory framework, Sokurov creates a haunting, sensual, and contemplative portrait of the intimate and profoundly connected isolated lives of the late writer's surviving family on the remote island. Sokurov's effective incorporation of allusive sounds - the abrasion of hands against a rough textured wall (as Miho longingly reflects on the passing of her parents decades earlier), the creaking of wood floors (as Maya traverses the staircase), the matting of sisal rug fibers under the weight of footsteps, the crashing of waves against the projecting rocks of the shoreline, the whispered chant of daily prayer, the gentle drops of water on a koi fish pond - create an understatedly powerful metaphor for the resilient, aging widow's symbiotic, instinctual, and acutely evolved metaphysical communication with her austere environment.

Oriental Elegy (1996). Visually impressionistic, atmospherically dense, and narratively opaque, Oriental Elegy is the surreal journey of a displaced spirit (Aleksandr Sokurov) as he wanders in the interminable darkness through the temporal landscape of a quaint and isolated feudal-era fishing village. Guided by a series of faintly illuminated rooms, the wandering spirit comes upon ancient souls who take on physical forms as they recount their personal stories of daily existence, loss, and tragedy in the peasant community. Intrigued by his initial visit to a curiously distracted elderly woman, the spirit returns to her home in order to ask a fundamental question - "What is happiness?" - an existential query that is innocently answered with innate humility and accepted unknowingness. Through abstractly textured imagery and indelibly hypnotic dreamscapes, Sokurov composes a metaphoric, sensual, and evocative tone poem on a soul's search for enlightenment and the essential survival of human consciousness.

A Humble Life (1997). A Humble Life is a languidly paced and serenely patient chronicle of the austere and simple, yet noble life of an elderly woman (later identified in the end credits as Umeno Mathuyoshi from the village of Aska in the Nara prefecture) living a solitary, Zen-like existence in the mountains. Aleksandr Sokurov's static camera reverently lingers (at times, perhaps too indulgently) over Umeno's quiet, reserved, and gentle presence as she goes through her daily ritual: neatly arranging her hair (more out of practical necessity than vanity), starting a fire on the stove, hand sewing a funeral kimono for income (and being briefly interrupted in a subtly humorous episode by a group of persistent itinerant monks seeking charity), intermittently warming her hands over a nearby vessel containing her seaming iron, preparing her meal, dining in complete silence (except for a passing, unarticulated thought that results in momentary enigmatic laughter), and incanting a brief after-meal prayer. The film concludes with a series of haiku poems recited by Umeno that reveal a longing for her late husband, an accepted separation from her married daughter, a graceful optimism for a predicted turn in the weather, and the inevitable changing of seasons in the eternal cycle of life.

03-14-03: Elegy of a Voyage (2001). An obscured, unnamed narrator journeys across morphing, ethereal landscapes of frenetic and impersonal European cities before seeking refuge from the inclement weather at a desolate, neglected museum in an unidentified European town. Wandering through the austere and soulless rooms, the narrator's silhouette melancholically hovers over paintings like a brooding, unreconciled ghost, organically reflecting in a resigned stream of consciousness on masterpieces from Pieter the Elder Brueghel's emotionally charged Tower of Babel to Pieter Saenredam's idyllic Saint Mary's Square (accompanied by the achingly elegiac sound of Gustav Mahler's Kindertotenlieder). Aleksandr Sokurov incorporates somber hues, underlighting, and visual distortion to create a pervasive atmosphere of transience that is reflected in the sensorial images of seeming perpetual motion: bustling cities, street traffic, ocean voyages, and windmills are contrasted against the stasis and anonymity of the lifeless museum. In the end, as the narrator rapturously declares, "Above all is life. Eternal life." before the Saenredam painting even as his own recollections of the recorded image behind the moment of creation seems personally irreconcilable, Elegy of a Voyage becomes an evocative, sensual, and understatedly ironic meditation on the ephemeral nature of art, spirituality, existence, and memory.

03-10-03: Sonata for Hitler (1989). Sonata for Hitler is a curious and indelible montage of dissociative images that intercut historical footage of wartime Germany and the Soviet Union: a somber Adolf Hitler habitually wringing his hands; blind or unfocused, distracted factory workers mechanically assembling military arsenal; fervored crowds erupting into spontaneous salute as an expression of national solidarity. Composed of a series of surreal images that depict the parallel dictatorships of Hitler and Joseph Stalin during World War II, Aleksandr Sokurov creates an abstract and fragmented, but ultimately provocative and internally cohesive statement on isolationism, militarism, fanaticism, and tyranny.

Petersburg Elegy (1989). Ostensibly a documentary on the art, passion, and privileged life of famed Russian Petersburg Elegyactor and singer Fyodor Chaliapin who emigrated to Europe after the dissolution of the Russian monarchy, and whose surviving family embarked on a long-awaited homecoming after a 60 year absence to their home in glasnost-era, market economy Russia, Petersburg Elegy is a fascinating, albeit tediously belabored chronicle of the transience of history. Interchanging color and monochromatic film and using organic, long take static shots reminiscent of Chantal Akerman's 1970s documentaries (particularly Hotel Monterey and News from Home), but pushed to near intolerable viewing extremes with maddeningly hyperextended, lingering dead space sequences of the now-elderly Chaliapin children sitting motionless in the spiritless, empty rooms of their St. Petersburg home, Aleksandr Sokurov provides an early glimpse of what would prove to be a recurring element in his nonfiction oeuvre: the ethereal imagery of corporeal souls inhabiting real space and time (most recently explored in Russian Ark). By contrasting the stasis and inertia of the once-vibrant Chaliapin children in visible physical decline to the chaotic bustle of urban life in modern-day Russia, Sokurov creates an intriguing portrait of obsolete, temporal relics left in the wake of a profoundly changing and turbulent Russian history.

Dmitri Shostakovich: Viola Sonata (1986). Co-directed by Aleksandr Sokurov and Semen Aranovich, Dmitri Shostakovich: Viola Sonata is an emotionally lucid, understated, textural, and reverent biography of the highly influential, Soviet-era composer and pianist, Dmitri Dmitrievich Shostakovich. Using allusive, recurring imagery of a photograph of a young, physically fragile Shostakovich resting on his mother's lap and a delirious shot of an amusement park turntable-like merry-go-round spinning ever increasingly faster as people struggle to hold on, the film traces the life of a proud national and complex artist through personal documents, recorded appearances, and public performances of his work juxtaposed against historical footage of everyday existence in the Soviet Union. Embodying a life experience that evolved from early critical acclaim to political and public disfavor under Stalinist Russia to re-evaluated celebration of his body of work in contemporary Soviet Union (culminating in his acceptance of the second Order of Lenin ever awarded after Shostakovich graciously removed his name from consideration a year earlier in order to enable the first Order of Lenin to be posthumously awarded to Igor Stravinsky), Sokurov and Aranovich capture the venerated composer's passion and uncompromising creative integrity as he sought to cultivate art appreciation for the masses and consequently, elevated the cultural heritage and legacy of the Russian people.

03-01-03: Evening Sacrifice (1987). Evening Sacrifice is tonally composed of two indelibly entrancing and Evening Sacrifice hypnotically fluid images: a color sequence that captures the methodical precision of a military regiment deploying fireworks over the Neva River to the melancholic serenade of a nostalgic, old-fashioned ballad, that transitions to a sepia-toned footage of a crowd indiscriminately dispersing into the street amidst a frenetic assortment of effervescent pop tunes, most identifiably, The Beatles' Can't Buy Me Love. As the sound of canon fire dissipates in the cacophony of ambient street noise, the solemn oratorio of Boris Khristov's haunting, full-bodied bass voice rises above the din. Juxtaposing the sound of a traditional, Russian Orthodox Byzantine chant to the image of a chaotic human spectacle, Aleksandr Sokurov creates an understatedly poignant and meditative filmic prayer for a disordered, aimless, and despiritualized modern world.

Moscow Elegy (1988). More allusive and evocative than biographical in content, Moscow Elegy is Aleksandr Sokurov's tribute documentary to Russian filmmaker, friend, and mentor, Andrei Tarkovsky that concentrates on the iconic filmmaker's final years in Western Europe. Incorporating thematically representative scenes from Tarkovsky's last two, deeply spiritual, non-Russian films, Nostalghia and The Sacrifice, as well as behind the scenes footage that show a contemplative, but inexhaustibly driven creative visionary (reviewing the script for Nostalghia with screenwriter Tonino Guerra in Italy and discussing the mechanics of an exterior shot with cinematographer Sven Nyquist on the set of The Sacrifice in Sweden), juxtaposed against traumatic political events in the Soviet Union (specifically, the deaths of Leonid Brezhnev and Yuri Andropov), Sokurov illustrates Tarkovsky's continued struggle between individual expression and a bureaucratically-induced artistic suppression in the Soviet Union that led to his reluctant exile. Through pervasive sepia tones, lingering images of empty spaces from Tarkovsky's past, and a haunting and ethereal bookend shot of Tarkovsky's late mother, Maya Ivanovna Vishnyakova, Sokurov poignantly reflects on the melancholic longing and palpable void of Tarkovsky's absence - first personally, as Sokurov awaits the return of his colleague and cinematic kindred spirit to their beloved motherland, then globally, as the international community responds to the tragic news of Tarkovsky's untimely death.

Mariya (1988). Aleksandr Sokurov creates a visually poetic, elegant, and unforgettable synthesis of art and life in Mariya. The lush and textural initial sequence, shot using color film, presents the austere life of the titular Mariya - a robust, genial, and hard-working middle-aged collective farmer with an engaging smile - during an arduous flax harvest season in the summer of 1975: operating heavy machinery, sharing a meal at a communal table with fellow workers, visiting her young son's grave, enjoying a lazy afternoon by the lake with her family on her day off, and proudly (and uninhibitedly) describing her responsibilities and work ethic before the camera. The film then jarringly cuts to a somber, monochromatic, blue-filtered concluding sequence recorded nine years later, as Sokurov returns to the peasant community in order to screen the 1975 documentary footage for several of the film's participants, with the notable exception of Mariya who, in the interim, had passed away at the age of 45. Capturing a tenuous reconciliation between Mariya's husband (who had since remarried) and now adult daughter after the screening of the film, and assembling a serene composition of haunting and innately expressive natural imagery - a vast, unharvested field, photographs of Mariya's spare, but beautiful funeral ceremony, and affectionate shots of Mariya's young grandchildren - Sokurov creates a powerful, profoundly moving, and graceful recorded document on the transience of time and the transcendence of the human soul.

02-23-03: Notes on The Last Modernist: The Films of Theo Angelopoulos edited by Andrew Horton.

The Last ModernistConsisting of a series of critical essays and Andrew Horton's interview on the distinctive imagery, cultural influences, and the filmmaker's own personal, spiritual, and intellectual preoccupations, The Last Modernist: The Films of Theo Angelopoulos presents a diverse, insightful, and comprehensive examination into the dynamic framework that innately characterizes and forms the indefinable substance of Theo Angelopoulos' contemplative and evocatively mythical national cinema.

In David Bordwell's essay, Modernism, Minimalism, Melancholy: Angelopoulos and Visual Style, Bordwell proposes that Angelopoulos' stylistic permutation and innovative personalization of dominant, modernist filmic conventions intrinsically associates him with the de-dramatized, modernist cinema of Robert Bresson, Carl Theodor Dreyer, Jacques Tati, Kenji Mizoguchi, and in particular, Michelangelo Antonioni. In addition to the bleak, metaphoric landscapes that pervade Antonioni's 1960s films, Bordwell draws attention to the influence of Antonioni's alienated placement of actors using a 3/4 back-view orientation, citing examples from Antonioni's transitional film, Il Grido, on Angelopoulos' muted, anti-dramatic framing of pivotal sequences that evoke a sense of profound isolation and helplessness.

Dan Georgakas traces the evolution of The Travelling Players as the filmmaker's deliberate attempt to address the socioeconomic and cultural ramifications of the protracted and divisive political uncertainty of mid twentieth century Greece in the essay, Angelopoulos, Greek History and The Travelling Players, and in the process, provides a scathing portrait of continued foreign intervention that contributed to the unrecoverable devastation of the nation. Describing Angelopoulos' view as a "fundamental revision of 'official' Greek history in which the Left in general, and the Communist Party of Greece (KKE) in particular, were depicted as moral threats to Greek democracy." Georgakas further explains:

"The civil war had not been the result of a Communist bid for total power, but a conflict generated by the vicious persecution of partisan fighters by a conservative government under first British, then American tutelage. Throughout the 1950s, Greece had remained an authoritarian state and had failed to recover from the war, unlike the rest of Europe. Contributing to Greek underdevelopment was the continued servility of its governments to foreign powers... This cinematic tetralogy [Days of '36, The Hunters, Alexander the Great, The Travelling Players] constituted a massive 12 1/2 hour rethinking of contemporary Greek history, and at its core was the tale told in The Travelling Players."

In A Tour of the Graveyard of Greek Ideals: Voyage to Cythera by Vasilis Rafalidis, the author contextually examines the evocative lure of the mythical Cythera to the soul of the Greek people as an innate longing for a homeland that does not, and perhaps, has never truly existed. Describing Cythera as Antoine Watteau's romanticized artistic ideal in a famous ship painting entitled Embarquement pour Cythère that led to nineteenth century French poet, Charles Baudelaire's sirenic obsession to undertake the voyage, Cythera has become synonymous with the idea of a utopia - a mythical geographic location based on a factual entity (Tsirigho Island) that, Rafalidis describes, "belongs to everywhere, except to itself. Just like Greece. Cythera is a non-place (In Greek, 'non-place' is 'u-topos', a 'utopia')." Inevitably, it is the elusiveness of the destination that emphasizes the process of the indefinite - and indefinable - metaphoric journey.

Gerald O'Grady's appreciative and insightful essay, Tessellations and Honeycombs: The Beekeeper, provides a patternistic observation of the recurring imagery and episodes in The Beekeeper that figuratively illustrate the nature of life's process which, in turn, serve as an allegory for Angelopoulos' somber and elegiac statement on the dying of the Greek soul.

In Andrew Horton's 1995 interview entitled What Do Our Souls Seek? An Interview With Theo Angelopoulos, Angelopoulos reflects on the filming of Ulysses' Gaze, including the decision to cast Harvey Keitel in the main role of the Greek American filmmaker searching for the earliest recorded Balkan film; the humorous elements infused by veteran comic actor, Thannasis Vengos; the use of a Bosnian "fourth race", Jewish character as the benevolent archivist, Ivo Levy (Erland Josephson) in order to defuse issues of ethnic divisiveness among Muslims, Serbs, and Croats in the region; and the multiple roles of Romanian actress Maïa Morgenstern (as the representational figures of A.'s true love/Penelope, lover/Calypso, Bosnian widow/Circe, and Levy's daughter Naomi/Nausikaa). The dialogue subsequently evolves into a series of peripheral anecdotes, including a memorable conversation with Andrei Tarkovsky on the nature of this profound longing for one's homeland:

"Once, in Rome, I was staying in the same apartment building as Andrei Tarkovskij. He was shooting Nostalghia [1983] at the time. And we talked about 'nostalgia', the concept and feeling, and he tried to tell me it was a Russian word, but of course I explained that it was a Greek word, 'nostos' meaning homecoming. So we argued over whether it was Russian or Greek! Finally, he said, 'Excuse me, I did not know it was a Greek word, but you see, nostalgia is so deeply a part of the Russian soul and spirit, that I feel it was we who developed it!' And so it is for Greeks. It's a strange fact that of all of the foreigners who leave their countries and go to America, it's the Greeks who have the most nostalgia for the place they were born, and who do, in fact, return home...But what is 'home'? It is the place where you feel at one with yourself and the cosmos. It is not necessarily a real spot that is here or there. And this goes as a concept for 'Greece' as well, for I do not believe that Greece is only a geographical location. That is not what is important or interesting to me. For me, Greece is much larger. It extends much further than the actual borders, for it is the Greece for which we search, like home."

Notes from Film Comment Selects 2003 Series at the Walter Reade.

02-02-03:
The Road (2001). If the visual expression of artistic process in Federico Fellini's surreal and reflexive film, 8 1/2 were to be distilled into the spare, elemental cinema of Abbas Kiarostami, the result would likely be similar to Darezhan Omirbaev's evocatively muted, endearing, innately affectionate, and poetic film, The Road. A pensive director named Amir Kobessov (played by fellow Kazhakstanian filmmaker, Jamshed Usmanov) is currently in the process of editing his next film (based on Omirbaev's Killer) when he receives a telegram informing him of his mother's illness and is encouraged by his wife to return to his rural hometown and pay a visit. Alternately reflecting on dilemmas of artistic integrity, cultural and traditional reverence, self-doubt, inspiration, marital friction, fidelity, physical attraction, and familial estrangement, The Road is a visually sublime and understatedly metaphoric insight into the creative - and innately human - struggle of the contemplative soul.

Love Torn in Dream (2000). Raoul Ruiz's Love Torn in Dream is an inscrutably hypnotic, painterly, structurally Zylbersteinorganic, and logically impenetrable film that lyrically and visually conflates a series of historical periods, role-swapping character actors, and states of consciousness into a fanciful - albeit distended and maddeningly opaque - tale of love, fate, and destiny. Similar to Time Regained in the lush imagery and temporal fluidity of the film, Love Torn in Dream episodically interweaves several fable-like stories that include of a band of pirates marooned on a coast, a seminarian who plays an innocuous prank on a demure and beautiful nun at the confessional, a young man searching for his father, a restless wife who pines for her absent husband, and a fatigued web developer who discovers an internet site that predicts his actions 24 hours in advance. However, despite its sumptuous texturality and intricate composition, the film suffers from a tediously repetitive and defiantly nonsensical and idiosyncratic absurdist tone.

02-01-03: Happy Here and Now (2002). A young woman named Amelia (Liane Balaban), has arrived to New HarlowOrleans to search for her sister, Muriel (Shalom Harlow) after she abruptly and inexplicably lost contact with her, and the key to the beautiful young woman's disappearance seems to lie in the formatted hard drive of her laptop computer. It is through this mysterious framework that Michael Almereyda explores the growing phenomenon of technological alienation in Happy Here and Now. The opening shot of Almereyda's organically fluid, understated, and intriguing film is composed of a pixellated, split framed monitor image of a private webchat as a highly articulate, self-confident, and dashing firefighter, Eddie Mars (Karl Geary) discusses the illusion of human contact in the virtual social environment of the internet with a solemn - and achingly receptive - Muriel. As the young man seductively muses on late night online chats on the surrogacy of online avatars, illusion of perfect love, and elusive ideal of platonic relationships, the film serves as an insightful meditation on the nature of reality, disconnection, and intimacy.

demonlover (2002). The insidious consequences of technology are similarly explored in Olivier Assayas' ambitious, savage, and thematically replete, but ultimately unfocused and tangentially occluded feature demonlover. The initial premise of the film centers on the ruthless machinations of competing corporations as they respond to the delicate final negotiations over a partnership with a successful Japanese animé studio that is currently developing hyperrealistic 3D adult manga animation for the internet: code named "demonlover". But in order to finalize the highly lucrative and symbiotic venture, the individual parties are compelled to address several commercially inconvenient and questionable internet ventures, including a possible association with a notorious, real-time snuff-broadcasting underground website ominously known as the Hell Fire Club. Unfortunately, despite Assayas's admirable exploration of a difficult and complex subject on the blurred delineation between reality and fantasy, consumerism and exploitation, the film suffers from a meandering, preposterous, and schizophrenic plot that inevitably dilutes the film's relevant, underlying themes of corporate greed, technological amorality, and voyeurism.

© Acquarello 2003. All rights reserved.

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