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December 2005 Archives

December 15, 2005

Nathalie Granger, 1972

nathalie_granger.gifIt would seem logical to characterize Marguerite Duras' organic, elliptical anti-melodrama Nathalie Granger as a precursor of sorts to the implosive isolation and domestic violence of Chantal Akerman's Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. Both films depict a silent ritualism to the performance of domestic chores through stationary shots and disembodied framing, and intimated acts of violence that surface within the perturbation of these rituals (in Duras' film, the stoking of a bonfire in the backyard and the tearing of contractual papers that are then thrown into the burning fireplace correlate to Jeanne Dielman's disorientation after accidentally burning potatoes on the stovetop). An early sequence of a radio news broadcast playing in the background that chronicles the manhunt for a pair of escaped convicts similarly establishes a sense of disquiet and foreboding in the quotidian ritual, as the two women, Isabelle Granger (Lucia Bosé) and an unnamed (and perhaps representationally identified) "other woman" (Jeanne Moreau) clear the breakfast table, wash dishes, and replace the dinnerware into the cupboards in silence. However, a subsequent telephone call to local authorities - an inquiry into the immigration status of their unexpectedly deported housekeeper - suggests that, unlike Jeanne Dielman who performs her tasks with a seemingly catatonic disarticulation from reality, their actions are borne of ennui, a self-created distraction to fill the empty hours of their domestic prison (note the repeated image of the window bars that overlook the street, a theme that is also aurally represented by the recurring sound of the radio broadcast on the escaped prisoners as well as the variations of a set of rudimentary notes played on a piano). Meanwhile, another domestic crisis plays out in the background as Isabelle petitions to get her young daughter Nathalie (Valerie Mascolo), already on the verge of expulsion for a pattern of misbehavior in school, admitted into another school in the resolute (if not over-magnified) belief that her daughter's entire life prospect would somehow be irrevocably "finished" if she cannot gain admission and continue with her piano lessons. A final dynamic is added in the comical appearance of an ineffective door-to-door washing machine salesman (Gérard Depardieu) who misconstrues the women's bored indifference as an open invitation to continue to insinuate himself into their company. In creating a tone of languid texturality, Nathalie Granger can also be seen a prefiguration to the cinema of Claire Denis, a visual convergence that is particularly evident in the tracking shot of Isabelle's reflection in a pond that is reversed (and figuratively wiped away) in the subsequent match cut to Nathalie's playmate, Laurence (Nathalie Bourgeois) trawling plankton as the rowboat slowly drifts away from the camera. This countervalent intertextuality of entropy and inertia, melody and dissonance, physical presence and mirror image (a metaphoric device that is also incorporated in Duras' subsequent film, India Song) inevitably define the idiosyncratic affectation of the women in the Granger household - the internalized psychological warfare and violent revolution between identity and erasure.

Posted by acquarello on Dec 15, 2005 | | Comments (6) | Filed under 2005, Marguerite Duras

December 11, 2005

Days of '36, 1972

"Going back to Metaxas, the two parties [right-wing and center] had enthroned him despite his being a real fascist, following in the tracks of earlier previous dictators. He did not make any effort to dissimulate his positions, and he had no scruples declaring that under his guidance, Greece would never face the risk of another autocracy. The King (joining forces with Metaxas and the British) wanted stability at any price, even if this meant opening the door to a dictator. ...What I was looking for was a certain climate. A reign of terror." -- Theo Angelopoulos (Unveiling the Patterns of Power: The Days of '36 interview with Ulrich Gregor)

days36.gifOstensibly centered on the real-life incident in 1936 of a parliamentary official held hostage at gunpoint by a prisoner in isolated confinement during a seemingly routine jailhouse visit, Days of '36 is a probing, incisive, and critical examination of the synchronicity of several events during the early days of the Metaxas rule that, when collectively examined, would provide an ominous foreshadowing of the atmosphere of injustice, secrecy, abuse, thuggery, and intimidation that would define the zeitgeist of prewar Greece and, inferentially, expose the underlying cultural infrastructure that enabled the country's tumultuous political evolution that would eventually lead to the then-ruling military junta of the colonels. Angelopoulos follows in a similar elliptical chronology and distanced observation infused with unobtrusive, cinema vérité-styled camerawork (most notably in the film’s recurring use of overhead cameras in interior spaces) introduced in his first feature Reconstruction to create a re-enacted, but atmospherically (and psychologically) faithful chronicle of the times: the assassination of a union leader during a public appearance, the nebulous relationship between the captive official and the prisoner (note a guard’s uncorroborated observation of the two laughing that suggests an arrangement between the two, perhaps in the prisoner's erstwhile capacity as party informant), the attempted escape by several convicts during a riot in the prison grounds, the government's deployment of trained assassins posing undercover as mob hitmen to end the standoff. Through the systematic silencing of the opposition and political agitators, the covert suppression of scandal, and heavy-handed government enforcement of social order, Angelopoulos exposes the underlying vulnerability and resulting paranoia endemic in the Metaxas government - a political ascension forged through the tenuous alliance of the right-wing, monarchists, and centrists as a means of neutralizing the influence of the left-wing and communist party - that would set an inevitable precedent for the entrenched factionalism and instability that would pave the way to civil war and the ensuing turbulent history of postwar autocratic governments.

Posted by acquarello on Dec 11, 2005 | | Comments (2) | Filed under 2005

December 4, 2005

Letter from Siberia, 1957

letter_siberia.gifOne of the highlights of the 2004 New York Video Festival was Jacqueline Goss' disarmingly whimsical and tongue-in-cheek, yet witty and incisive ethnographic video essay, How to Fix the World - an animated reenactment based on the cognitive studies of psychologist Alexander R. Luria that preceded the Soviet government's mandate to promote Western education and literacy (and consequently, communist party allegiance) throughout the rural villages of Uzbekistan. Having recently revisited one of Chris Marker's earliest films, Letter from Siberia, it is not difficult to imagine the spirit of iconic film essayist imbuing every frame of Goss' charming film. On one hand, both essays assume the point of view of a distanced - and somewhat bemused - cultural outsider who objectively chronicles quotidian observations of an indigenous culture at the crossroads of profound and irreversible transformation - a historical record of a way of a life that will soon cease to exist - a reality that is (or will soon be) no longer real. On the other hand, the narrator also serves as a reflexive witness and facile commentator on the cultural repercussions of imposed assimilation, modernization, and Westernization on an Asiatic people during the Soviet government's cross-country campaign towards collectivization and political centralization. However, while Goss' film is rooted in the underlying interrelation between social psychology and cognition (in particular, logical deduction and problem-solving methods) that often lead to cultural misunderstanding, Marker's perspective proves to be more amorphous and open-ended.

This stream-of-consciousness approach is perhaps best exemplified by a sequence in the film in which the camera pans from an industrial dredging site to a line of trees as the narrator changes narrative course to the Siberian taiga by commenting that a hiker cannot attempt to traverse the forest in a straight line without invariably getting lost. In a sense, the film, too, necessarily diverges even as it retains continuity from its visible line of sight as adjacent, juxtaposing images reveal the intrinsic bifurcations that open up to other points of departure - to other uncharted frontiers of exploration. Rather than focusing the complexity of observations towards a point of convergence within an overarching logical argument, the validation of the argument itself becomes secondary to the documentation of ethnographic observation. In this respect, Marker's film proves to be groundbreaking because it diverges from the conventional cinematic approach of using montage to direct arguments towards the validation of postulate theory. Instead, Marker uses montage to underscore the contradictions and, therefore, negate the existence of a simple and encapsulable overarching theory that can neatly define the essence of a societal culture and history.

Moreover, the juxtaposition between the unnamed narrator (a prefiguration of the fictional globetrotter, Sandor Krasna in Sans Soleil) and the vanishing culture of the Siberian nomads becomes a intriguing study of the phenomenon of collective consciousness as a continuum (a theme that would also pervade Aleksandr Sokurov's cinema): an organic transference of memory, ideas, and collective cultural history without a physical medium of exchange (a fictional photojournalist, an extinct way of life, a projected film). It is in this examination of the ephemeral nature of information exchange that ultimately elevates Letter from Siberia from exoticized (albeit idiosyncratic) travelogue to seminal exposition on the study of human consciousness, an audience transcendence from passive, curious spectator to integral lifeline within the interconnected fabric of all human history.

Posted by acquarello on Dec 04, 2005 | | Filed under 2005, Chris Marker