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December 9, 2006

Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania, 1972

reminiscences_lithuania.gifComposed of three aesthetically distinct, self-encapsulated, geographically-based chapters - assembled footage from Jonas Mekas' adoptive hometown of Brooklyn circa 1950 shortly after his arrival to America with his brother Adolfas, a series of short, herky-jerky vignettes recorded during the brothers' return to their place of birth in the rural, agrarian village of Semeniskiai, Lithuania in August, 1971 (25 years after their reluctant flight from home, having run afoul with pro-German authorities for publishing articles deemed sympathetic to the resistance), and finally, a visit to personal friend, Austrian filmmaker Peter Kubelka's hometown of Vienna - Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania traces a seemingly divergent, often contradictory, and inevitably irreconcilable personal odyssey that, nevertheless, instinctively converges towards the filmmaker's acute and inescapable awareness of his own spiritual displacement, sense of otherness, and perpetual exile. The film opens to a black and white montage shot from a Bolex camera of friends and family taking a recreational stroll through the woods in the Catskill Mountains as the accented Mekas speaks in slow, measured tone after an extended pause - a memory perhaps triggered by the sight of the woods again - of an occasion in the late 1950s during a hike through the mountains when he first became aware that, in the course of being completely occupied with the invigoration of the activity and camaraderie of friends, he had momentarily forgotten his longing for home. The realization of his unconscious, gradual cultural assimilation is a bittersweet one, an adaptive process of transformation that is tempered by a profound consciousness of loss and passage.

In Part One of the film, an observational survey of everyday life in the ethnically diverse, working class neighborhood of Williamsburg, Mekas juxtaposes dualistic images of lightheartedness and seeming leisure that also suggest an implicit sense of poverty: whether through the framing of neighborhood children playing against the cluttered array of assorted laundry hanging from clotheslines and people idly sitting on the sidewalks that reinforce the community's economic struggle and the pervasiveness of unemployment, or through recorded chronicles of his attendance in assorted social gatherings for immigrant "Displaced Persons" (comprised mostly of Eastern Europeans uprooted by the war) featuring traditional music and dance performances that reveal an underlying spiritual impoverishment, a longing to immerse in the reassuring familiarity of his native culture - a dichotomy that is reflected in Mekas' deliberative speech and incorporation of melancholic interludes monaurally recorded from scratchy, phonograph records that subvert the quick cut, animated imagery with a somber infusion of a distant, idealized, and dislocated nostalgia. As in the prefiguring, double entendred image of children playing with fallen autumn leaves in the Catskills that is presented against Mekas' account of his realization that he has supplanted his own memories of home with the new life he has established in America, the first chapter presents the idea of home as an elusive physical location - an evocative landscape of imperceptibly fading memories and transitory bliss.

Punctuated by a transition to color film, Part Two is composed of a "100 glimpses" of Lithuania, a series of short take, often destabilized and variably illuminated quotidian images (caused by his defective camera's inability to record at constant speed) of his small statured, but vital and indomitable mother (who was in her 80s at the time of the brothers' return), his visits with his multi-generational, extended family and childhood friends (including the well-intentioned uncle, a Reformed Protestant pastor, who had advised the young men to go west to Vienna in order to avoid capture), the family farm that has since been modernized and assimilated into a socialist farm collective that encompasses several villages. Kinetic, modulating, and irregular in form, the collage of unstable, fleeting images curiously impart, not only a sense of childlike exhilaration over recapturing the familiar sights of youth, but also an impressionistic fragility in their seeming volatility - the ephemerality of a mythical, "recovered" gaze that, in turn, reflects the intrinsic elusiveness of returning despite the act of homecoming, an impossibility that is reinforced by Mekas' own commentary of the transformed landscape and mode of life in the village after a 25 year absence (as reflected in the growth of planted trees and the obsolescence of manual farm tools that the brothers temporarily reclaim for visual demonstration).

The tongue in cheek reference to Kubelka as "Saint Peter" in the intertitles juxtaposed against images of the vivacious filmmaker feeding assorted animals in a public park (an allusion to St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals and nature) provides the oddly fitting context for Mekas' trip to Vienna in Part Three that ironically represents the culmination of his earlier truncated journey to the indefinable "west", a destination that had eluded the brothers after their capture and relocation to work camps by the Germans during the war. Playing the role of resident host to a remarkable assembly of avant-garde personalities such as filmmaker Ken Jacobs, artist Hermann Nitsch, and writer and film theorist Annette Michelson (as well as Mekas himself), Kubelka also embodies an idealized representation - a concreteness of cultural and existential identity. In this respect, the gathering of avant-garde artists also becomes a manifestation of home - a sense of place borne, not of physical space (Brooklyn) or familial roots (Semeniskiai), but of the (geographically independent) communality of intellectual and ideological kinship. But in the end, even the surrogate idea of a spiritual home proves elusive for the pensive filmmaker. Concluding with the chaotic sight of Kubelka's favorite, open air, farmer's market burning in the distance, the turbulent image symbolizes the fleeting nature of their creative symbiosis that, in turn, serves as a broader reflection of the trajectory of all human relationships that define the ephemeral location of home as the metaphysical intersection of union, separation, longing, and transformation.

Posted by acquarello on Dec 09, 2006 | | Filed under 2006, Jonas Mekas

November 29, 2006

Time, 2006

time.gifOn the surface, Time is perhaps Kim Ki-duk's most brash, confrontational, and bituminous film since The Isle, an admirably crafted - and unexpectedly refreshing - return to his more familiar gothic, cringingly blunt, provocateur form after immersing in such aesthetically impeccable, but slight romanticized allegories riddled with obtuse, pseudo Zen mysticism and disjointed orientalism. Ostensibly presented as a dark, cautionary tale of an insecure woman, Seh-hee's (Ji-Yeon Park) desperate attempt to stop the process of time and recreate the spark of a new romance with her committed, long-term lover, Ji-woo (Jung-woo Ha) (a filmmaker who appears to be in the process of editing scenes from 3-Iron) by undergoing drastic facial reconstructive surgery in order to reinvent herself and, in turn, their relationship, the film is also a brutal and scathing exposition into the psychology and morality of contemporary (and in particular, Korean) society's obsession with cosmetic surgery. Nevertheless, despite Kim's penetrating, articulate, and relevant social critique, I can't help but express a certain degree of skepticism towards the very elements that, paradoxically, I find most trenchant and provocative about the film: a resistance that is integrally rooted in the film's uncanny resonance - not only in a vague, overarching, existential thematic semblance with avant-garde novelist Kobo Abe's recurring preoccupations on identity, alienation, and emotional disconnection, but in particular, with Hiroshi Teshigahara's earlier cinematic adaptations of Abe's work - that seem too coincidental not to be, at best, a faithful homage, and at worst, a lazy derivation. Indeed, this apparent plane of aesthetic convergence between Teshigahara's cinema and Kim's aesthetic vision for the film culminates with a similar, progressive montage, stationary camera ending shot, as a face obscured, "transformed" heroine (Hyeon-a Seong) of Time leaves the cosmetic surgeon's office and has a seemingly fateful encounter before slipping away from view and fading into the anonymity of a bustling crowd on a metropolitan city street: an image that seems conceptually readapted from the mise-en-scène of the concluding sequence in Teshigahara's The Face of Another (in which Okuyama's fateful encounter is with the doctor himself), as well as in The Man Without a Map (in the detective's deliberate act of relinquishing traces of his former life by following in the footsteps - and therefore, indirectly assuming the figurative identity - of his missing subject), a reflection of the protagonist's psychological fugue that is manifested in the detective's evasion of the missing man's wife in Teshigahara's film, and in the shattered, unclaimed, pre-operative surgery souvenir portrait in Time. In essence, the film's conflation of past and present (as reflected through the bookending sequence of a recursive encounter) represents the metaphoric collapse, not only of time, but of humanity itself, where identity is reduced to the reinforcement of meaningless social rituals and interchangeable, cosmetic masks, and connection is similarly revealed through equally impulsive and transitory acts of delusive, surrogate intimacy. It is this bracing - and brazen - social criticism that inevitably defines Kim's flawed, but impassioned observation of contemporary society's inherent dysfunctionality in the wake of facile, economic privilege: a lost generation foundering in a youth-oriented culture of vanity, rootlessness, excess, and disposability.

Posted by acquarello on Nov 29, 2006 | | Comments (2) | Filed under 2006, Kim Ki-duk

November 27, 2006

Genèse d'un repas, 1978

genese_repas.gifIncisively anticipating such sobering and indelible agricultural documentaries as Hubert Sauper's Darwin's Nightmare, Nick and Mark Francis' Black Gold, and Nikolaus Geyrhalter's Our Daily Bread (as well as the dysfunctionality of big business economics as presented in Mark Achbar and Jennifer Abbot's The Corporation), and infused with Luc Moullet's irrepressibly droll, tongue-in-cheek humor that has been further crystallized within the filmmaker's socially critical, if not revolutionary, gaze, Genèse d'un repas (The Origins of a Meal) is a thoughtful, acerbic, contemporary, and profoundly relevant exposition on the indirect, wide-ranging repercussions of globalism on industrial food production, international commerce, and the local economy. Tracing the seemingly innocuous ingredients of a meal, the film soon becomes a broader roadmap illustrating the cycle of exploitation, xenophobia, and disenfranchisement engendered by a legacy of colonialism and entrenched social class: eggs originating from a partially automated, industrial poultry farm packing plant in Picardy (sold under the marketed brands of Coq'ami and Cokidat, perhaps, to create the illusion of competitive pricing) is contrasted against the primitive conditions at a Senegalese cannery where the tuna is still manually processed and hand packed into tins; a can of Pêcheurs de France tuna which bears the striking figure of a ruggedly handsome, pipe smoking, seemingly Breton fisherman despite the product's actual African origins in a Dakar seaport (a piece of information that has been surreptitiously indicated using obfuscated, tiny printing at the base of the label) underscores the implicit acknowledgment of racism that is mitigated by deceptive packaging; and a banana from an Ecuadorian plantation (interchangeably sold under the more familiar brands of Bajella, Chiquita, and Bonita) illustrates the inhumanity of working conditions, where children earning half wages as shipyard stevedores and poor migrant workers from the rural provinces increasingly constitute the industry's preferred labor pool in order to minimize operating expenses and reduce (or more appropriately, circumventing) worker-related expenses such as health care and pension funds.

Moullet's organic and sprawling, yet lucid and articulate essay film further broaches on such (still) contemporary issues as the disparity of wages between Senegalese workers and their Gallic counterparts (even those who work and reside in Africa), the culture of excess endemic in industrialized societies that have led to widespread obesity, the socio-political fragility intrinsic in a single-crop economy that enables the mechanism for catastrophic famine, the reality of a supplanted cultural imperialism in the wake of a delusive, post-colonial "liberation" (a shot of a supermarket aisle in France and Senegal become interchangeable as the French then export goods, such as re-branded canned tuna, back to the former colonies) that continues to foster economic dependency through infrastructural corporate alliances that perpetuate insoluble debt (a prevailing theme in Abderrahmane Sissako's Bamako), the industrial practice of under-weighing produce to reduce payment to suppliers under the justification of product desiccation in transit, the ecological (and moral) waste of enforcing "excessive quality control" that relegates edible, but undersized food products (including fish) to be discarded rather than given away to the underpaid workers for their own consumption (note a shot of discarded bananas along the shipyard that is evoked in the fragrance of discarded oranges along the harbor in Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet's Sicilia!), the endemic corruption caused by the forging of incestuous relationships between corporations and (often despotic) governments in order to ensure the continuity of their foreign operations despite political instability, and the impotence of organized unions in competitive and desperate labor markets. Tracing the often humorous, yet heartbreaking trajectory of the agricultural trade from the moment of harvest, to processing, to transportation (often through circuitous routes at intermediary, international ports in order to navigate through murky, protectionist tariff laws), and eventually, to local distribution centers (an equally muddled network of middlemen businesses that set an arbitrary overhead percentage for the domestic resale of goods), Genèse d'un repas serves as an ingeniously prescient social interrogation, not only of the thinly veiled exploitation of emerging nations as a result of the global economy, but also of the broader question of how the societies of developed nations define the very notion of civilization itself, where the insatiable, public-fueled consumption for cheaper (and more) goods, coupled by corporate profiteering, global competition, and exploitive outsourcing have engendered a dystopian economic reality of social polarization, cultural subjugation, and systematic poverty.

Posted by acquarello on Nov 27, 2006 | | Comments (2) | Filed under 2006, Luc Moullet

November 19, 2006

Spanish Cinema Now Program at WRT


I'm very excited to see the press release for this year's Spanish Cinema Now, which features a tantalizing and nicely balanced slate of debut films from several first-time filmmakers along with what is perhaps the first U.S. retrospective of Edgar Neville's work entitled City Streets and Secret Passages: The Films of Edgar Neville. The series runs from December 8-26, and seems ideally suited for a random stab at a pre-Christmas quick trip home for what promises to be a weekend of unexpected, accidental discoveries:

DarkBlueAlmostBlack (Daniel Sánchez Arévalo; 2006)
Crossing the Border (Carlos Iglesias; 2006; 105m)
Celia's Lives (Antonio Chavarrías; 2006)
Alatriste (Agustín Díaz Yanes; 2006)
Welcome Home (David Trueba; 2006)
The Tower of the Seven Hunchbacks (Edgar Neville; 1944)
Life Hanging By a Thread (Edgar Neville; 1945)
The Night of the Sunflowers (Jorge Sánchez-Cabezudo; 2006)
Lady Nitwit (Manuel Iborra; 2006)
Quixotic (Albert Serra; 2006)
The Education of Fairies (José Luis Cuerda; 2006)

- Avatar (Lluís Quílez; 2005)
- The Fence (Ricardo Iscar, Nacho Martín; 2005)
- Maximum Penalty (Juanjo Giménez Spain, 2005)
- Hiyab (Xavi Sala; 2005)
- K (Juan Simons; 2005)
- Summer or the Flaws of Andrés (Jorge Torregrossa; 2006)
- Ponys (David Planell; 2005)

Carnival Sunday (Edgar Neville; 1945)
Round Two (Daniel Cebrián; 2005)
The Crime on Bordadores Street (Edgar Neville; 1946)
7 Virgins (Alberto Rodriguez; 2004)
Salvador (Puig Antich) (Manuel Huerga; 2006)
Out of Here (Víctor García León; 2006)
Lola (Javier Rebollo; 2006)
The Magicians (Esteban Riambau & Elisabet Cabeza; 2005)
Verbena (Edgar Neville; 1941) preceded by Flamenco (Edgar Neville; 1952)
The Last Horse (Edgar Neville; 1950)

Posted by acquarello on Nov 19, 2006 | | Comments (9) | Filed under 2006, Quick Notes

November 16, 2006

Elle a passé tant d'heures sous les sunlights..., 1985


Faceted, fragmented, and oneiric, Philippe Garrel's Elle a passé tant d'heures sous les sunlights... (She Spent So Many Hours Under the Sun Lamps) is more exorcism than expurgation, elegy than lamentation - an abstract, yet lucid chronicle of love and loss, death and birth sublimated through textural, self-reflexive impressions, visceral gestures, and metaphoric tableaux. A profoundly personal film dedicated to the memory of friend and fellow filmmaker (and May 68 idealist) Jean Eustache, and haunted by the unreconciled specter of Garrel's failed relationship with Nico, the film opens to a crepuscular image of a couple - perhaps an actor and his lover (Jacques Bonnaffé and Anne Wiazemsky) as apparent surrogates for Garrel and Nico - in the midst of a breakup on a public street on a cold, winter evening, as their seemingly tenuous reconciliation is truncated by the subsequent shot of the couple returning home, and an all too familiar rupture as she once again lapses into the desensitized haze of heroin addiction in the distraction of his preoccupying rehearsals. A seemingly isolated shot of another woman, an actress named Marie (Mireille Perrier) waiting in the office of the Ministry of Art subsequently connects the troubled couple through the sound of the rapid, half-whisper, off-screen script reading, first by the actor preparing for the role in the apartment, then subsequently by the voice of the filmmaker, Philippe (Philippe Garrel) as he casts her in his latest project - the seemingly disparate narrative arcs reconciled through the intersection of the autobiographical nature of Philippe's proposed project inspired by his own tumultuous relationship with model, singer, actress, and muse Nico (a transparency between art and life that is further compounded by the eventual appearance of Garrel as the director of the "film within a film" film). Another break in logic is created in the long shot of the actor, in the role of the film director, discarding a film reel from a bridge overlooking the river before meeting Marie, initially unfolding as the shooting of a film scene through the transformation of Marie's visage at the moment of performance, but subsequently subverted by the repeated episode of the couple - perhaps no longer acting in character - driving away, a romantic liaison that is reinforced by a subsequent, silent image of the couple engaged in an (apparently) intimate conversation.

Gradually, the bounds between reality and fiction begin to disintegrate in the interpenetration of dreams and memories, passions and anxieties, becoming increasingly fractured and irresolvable. Like his alter-ego character on the bridge, Philippe has grown apprehensive over the seeming irresolution of the film, and enlists the aid of friends: Chantal Akerman who is, uncoincidentally in the process of shooting The Eighties, a metafilm on the nature of repetition and performance); Christa, also played by Wiazemsky, and who, in turn, also evokes a self-reflexive, permeable reality through reconstructed, iconic poses that not only allude to Nico's early career as a fashion model, but also mimic the Bressonian model figuration of her character, Marie in Robert Bresson's Au Hasard Balthazar); and actor Lou Castel, whose "new" character is introduced midway through the film shoot as Marie's new paramour (and indirectly, replacing Philippe - through his alter-ego - from her life). It is interesting to note that in introducing Castel into the film, Philippe not only enables a means of closure for his failed relationship with his former lover through their surrogate selves, but also illustrates the emotional process of transference, transition, and figurative rebirth. In essence, the transfiguration of death - subliminally illustrated, initially, through the liberating image of Marie riding carefree in an automobile to the music of Nico that serves as an evocative counterpoint to Jean Eustache's debilitation from a car accident, then subsequently, through the shot of a somber Garrel standing beside a collapsed noose that alludes to Eustache's suicide - inevitably paves the way for the film's second chapter (and metaphoric turning point), La Nativité. Inspired by the birth of his son, Louis (and who would later appear Emergency Kisses and Regular Lovers), the film dissolves into an instinctual collage of quotidian portraitures - of actors waiting, pacing, observing - of temps morts. Concluding with the elliptical, parting shot of Philippe standing by a window in visible discomfort as evening approaches, his suffering becomes as a double entendred, metaphoric representation: the physical withdrawal (whether through substance abuse or the separation of death) of profound loss, and the implacable - but necessary - ache of realized creation.

Posted by acquarello on Nov 16, 2006 | | Filed under 2006, Philippe Garrel

November 12, 2006

In Loving Memory, 2005

inlovingmemory.gifMy introduction to Robert Todd's cinema was through the experimental short, Our Former Glory, a film that juxtaposes clinical, often destabilized shots of urban architecture with footage from a makeshift missing persons posting center turned public memorial on a promenade overlooking a still smoldering World Trade Center site to create a powerful and provocative rumination on human commodification, transience, and symbolification in the aftermath of the September 11 terror attacks. It is within this context that Todd's socially relevant, yet deeply personal essay film, In Loving Memory, proves especially suited as a logical progression in his continuing exposition on human fragility and consumability. Composed of a series of re-enacted character anecdotes and recorded telephone interviews with death row inmates set against depersonalized, institutional architectures and contrasting, idyllic images of verdant fields and voluptuous, highly textural natural landscapes, often paradoxically near prison grounds (an exquisite visual aesthetic that favorably recalls the austere, yet sublime rustic terrestriality of Jon Jost's cinema), the film confronts the myth of the prison correctional system as a punitive, but reformative agent for inmate rehabilitation and social reintegration. Indeed, what emerges from the film's illuminating conversations (or more appropriately, monologues, since Todd allows the prisoners to tell their stories in their own voice, seemingly without intrusive interjection) is not only a thoughtful, poignant, and wistful account of quotidian life that form the transcendent (and transitory) memory of indefinable happiness - youthful wonder, the birth of a child, the intoxication (and ache) of a romantic love realized too late, the humbling (and spiritually uplifting) act of selflessness - but also a profound awareness of moral culpability and inevitable mortality. Eschewing on camera interviews, photographs, or even establishing biographical information about the prisoners, the film renders a provocative and incisive re-assessment of the true meaning of blind justice, where expedient, yet prejudicial social stigmas of underprivilege, systematic abuse, limited education, and tragic lapses in judgment undercut - if not consciously obfuscate - any attempt at illustrating the humanization of the prisoners in the aftermath of their captivity, where a renewed sense of purpose, self-respect, integrity, and determination - in essence, the uncomfortable reality of confronting a condemned prisoner's actual enlightenment and transformation - is revealed through self-introspective (and implicitly, atoning) acts of spirituality, ministry, education, charity, and victim advocacy. Assembled during the filmmaker's recuperation from illness, In Loving Memory serves, not only as a social interrogation on the morality of capital punishment, but also as a broader commentary on human frailty, rehabilitation, and disposability.

Posted by acquarello on Nov 12, 2006 | | Filed under 2006, Robert Todd

November 6, 2006

L'Ange, 1982


Connected by the recurring image of floating, disarticulated staircases, Patrick Bokanowski's equally transfixing, mysterious, and impenetrable magnum opus, L'Ange may be characterized as a synesthetic composition - a series of aesthetically distinctive, self-encapsulated chamber pieces, each revealing quotidian, if fantastic, acts of obsessive compulsion and moribund ritual. Converging towards the hybrid animation of his early short films, La Femme qui se poudre and Déjeuner du matin, Bokanowski's curious, often gothic figurations reveal an abstract logic of thematic suites that similarly reveal his penchant for juxtaposing optical experimentation with traditional fine arts, where rended objects (a doll used as a fencing target in L'Homme au sabre), accidental ruptures (a pitcher falls from the dinner table in L'Homme sans mains), and bursts of activity (a bather splashes animatedly in L'Homme au bain, and a group of identical librarians research, file, and reorganize a sprawling library in Les Bibliothécaires) reflect an overarching, universal law of entropy that, paradoxically, enables creation from the very act of friction, disorder, kinesis, and destruction.

Reflecting the seemingly hermetic nature of the individual vignettes through the characters' isolation (reinforced by the dimmed, directional lighting that suffuses the film), Bokanowski, nevertheless, integrally links each episode to the other through modulated visual semblances and recurring images of graduated steps and staircases that bind the assorted leitmotifs together towards an implied vertical movement. At the core of the film's arrangement is a Dante Alighieri-esque (upended) evolution from darkness to light, a conceptual progression that Bokanowski describes as a physical transition through interrelated spaces during his interview with Scott MacDonald for Critical Cinema 3: Interviews with Independent Filmmakers:

"About the overall structure of The Angel, I can say that it is very traditional. You have a staircase, you go from the cellar to the attic. Scenes start falling into place during the dark, shapeless, not very precise starting phase; and then the more the film progresses, the more precise things become, and at the end, it reveals extremely luminous areas.

In one of the earliest stages, when I was doing the scenario, I thought that when one comes to the far top of this gigantic house, to an attic room, a last character would appear, some kind of a giant with barely discernible wings, some kind of angelic figure. He would lift the arm of the phonograph, the music would stop, and one would see all the film's scenes in still frames. Very quickly, I disliked the character. He was impossible to film! So, I did not keep this sequence, but that character did give the film its title."

It is interesting to note that despite Bokanowski's strategy to reject the inclusion of a unifying, iconic, titular image, the idea of an underlying celestial entity continues to pervade the film's visual composition through the application of point source lighting, the aforementioned luminosity, that, through light's integral optical properties of diffusion and diffraction, results in the formation of recursive, concentric rays that project a sunburst or halo effect throughout the film - at times, exaggerated and grotesque (as in the expressionistic, elongated, web-like abstract forms of the opening sequence), warm and pastoral (as in the image of a Flemish painting-styled milkmaid serving "the man without hands"), and saturated and disorienting (as in the frenetic, decontextualized, rapidly edited montage of the seemingly subterranean activities (or perhaps imprisonment) of La Femme qui coud).

Particularly illustrative of Bokanowski's aesthetic is the malleability and relativity of dimensional space: blocky, rough hewn lines that resemble woodcut prints are unsuspectingly animated by the initiation of transversal motion (in the sequence of a turbaned operator of a sextant-like instrument facing a seated, veiled figure), extreme long shots blur the delineation between live action and animation sequences (in the interstitial sequence of the liberated librarians encountering a woman in a boxed enclosure), and painterly images transformed into virtual tableaux vivants (in the Vermeer-inspired, L'Homme sans mains). Subverting the flatness of images in order to continually challenge the viewer's spatial and cognitive perception, L'Ange not only illustrates the intrinsic hybridity of film as a static and dynamic medium, but also reinforces the ambiguity and inconcreteness implicit in the aesthetic presentation of the very images themselves, where chaos transforms into order, frailty into perfection, and quotidian into grace.

Posted by acquarello on Nov 06, 2006 | | Filed under 2006, Patrick Bokanowski

November 1, 2006

Madeinusa, 2006

madeinusa.gifOn the surface, Peruvian filmmaker Claudia Llosa's gorgeous, provocative, and idiosyncratically rendered dark fable Madeinusa seems to have little in common with Argentinean filmmaker Lucrecia Martel's The Holy Girl beyond an artful eye towards creating a similarly foreboding atmosphere with which to present a dysfunctional, contemporary coming of age tale. While Martel uses loosely interwoven ellipses and (seemingly) abstract events to create an opaque, almost somnambulistic illustration of the liminal perturbations in young Amalia's daily routine following a catalytic - and violative - encounter in an anonymous and alienating city, Llosa's film converges on the slightest contours of the human face as a mirror to quotidian existence in a rural, remote cultural landscape, where the rituals of death and survival are as inextricably intertwined with the cycle of nature as they are with the inextinguishable, collective superstitions that enable human perseverance in the face of desolation and poverty. But beyond the transgressive nature of Martel and Llosa's tales of sexual awakening, the films also reflect a culture of disarticulated piety, one that is uncoincidentally bound together by the shared national histories of colonialism and mass-scale religious conversion that have resulted in a paradoxical - and often untenable - unholy union of illumination and ignorance, where the institutional expediency of disseminating the "Word of God" has supplanted even the most fundamental human endeavor of any civilized society to promote true enlightenment through literacy and education in order to cultivate a deeper comprehension of the very Word itself beyond its facile, rote regurgitation.

In Madeinusa, this grotesque reconstitution of the Word is founded on the culmination of Holy Week, where the solemn observation of Jesus Christ's death on the cross at 3:00 pm on (what has come to be known as) Good Friday carries through to the subsequent discovery of the resurrection after finding the tomb empty on the morning of Easter Sunday. For the isolated, fictional province of Manayaycuna, this sacred period between Christ's death and resurrection has come to be celebrated as el tiempo santo, a perverted "Holy Time" when God is dead and cannot see the transgressions of the world (and consequently, do not exist), and so people are free to act on their basest of impulses without guilt or consequence. However, for young Madeinusa (Magaly Solier), the upcoming festival is also a rite of passage where a ceremonial Virgin Mary is selected in a pageant competition from among the town's most beautiful, virginal young women to lead a procession and accompany the statue of a blindfolded Christ taken down from the cross to his place of burial, thus ushering the bacchanalia of "Holy Time". Abandoned by her mother for the lure of big city of Lima years earlier, Madeinusa has been living an increasingly intolerable life with her drunken, abusive father, the town's mayor Cayo (Juan Ubaldo Huamán) and callous sister Chale (Yiliana Chong), retaining only a vague attachment to her mother's legacy through a pair of ornate, brightly colored, beaded earrings that she has appropriated after her mother's departure, until the arrival of an affable stranger from Lima appropriately named Salvador (Carlos J. de la Torre), a geologist en route to an assignment at a mining outpost, provides her with a glimpse of a world outside the insular village.

Moreover, beyond Llosa's surreal and nightmarish vision of piety, ignorance, and collective hysteria, the genesis of the heroine's titular name itself - a name that, as Salvador argues, is a fabricated name, perhaps derived from encountered "Made in USA" product labels scattered throughout the country - also provides an implicit illustration of the broader human (and sociological) tendency towards cultural exoticism that exists in an environmental vacuum of ignorance, naiveté, and impoverishment. Like the absent mother's secretive (and seemingly, almost mythical) flight to Lima, the city represents an elusive promise land away from the stultifying oppressiveness of an insulated existence. It is this ephemeral destination that Salvador inevitably represents for Madeinusa - not a transitory, but fateful connection with a kindred spirit, but the instinctual location of an elusive, idealized elsewhere.

Posted by acquarello on Nov 01, 2006 | | Comments (15) | Filed under 2006

October 29, 2006

Toutes les nuits, 2001

touteslesnuits.gifWhat I find most resonant and precious about nineteenth century French novelist Gustave Flaubert's literature is the preciseness of his aesthetic in juxtaposing realism with romanticism, retaining a certain adherence to the classical form even as it is applied to the exposition of more progressive ideals of social commentary. It is through this framework that, in hindsight, Eugène Green seems ideally suited to interpret Flaubert's La Première éducation sentimentale (the first version of L'Éducation sentimentale), re-adapting the themes of first love, the intoxication of desire, and failed ideological revolution (that culminated in the Revolution of 1848) to the May 68 generation through a chronicle of the parallel lives of a pair of childhood friends, the pragmatic Henri (Alexis Loret) and idealistic Jules (Adrien Michaux) as they leave their bucolic, rural hometown to separately pursue their baccalaureate - and real world - educations. Combining the baroque formalism and frontality often associated with Manoel de Oliveira's cinema (which the filmmaker subsequently subverts by breaking the fourth wall address, often through voiceover reading of letters) with the muted expression and disembodied framing of Robert Bresson (most notably, in recurring establishing shots of the character's feet) more commonly associated with modernist cinema, Green's cinema is also an idiosyncratic fusion of classicism with the immediacy of social critique, creating a sublime aesthetic that is equally atemporal and contemporary, archaic and modern.

An early episode chronicling Henri and Jules' ill-fated rendezvous with a beautiful, but hermetic bohemian "savage" (Anna Bielecka) who lives on the outskirts of town provides an insight into (and inevitably defines) the young men's integral characters, as the friends decide to seek out the woman with the intent of losing their virginities before embarking on their higher academic studies. Disappointed by their thwarted coupling, Henri sees the failed union as an uncompleted, requisite milestone in his process of maturation. In contrast, Jules savors the seeming poetry of the unrequited encounter as a wistful reminder of life's possibility, rationalizing that "maybe it's better that way, everything remains to be done." Sent off to the prestigious boarding school of August Renaud (Claude Merlin), an educator with exacting, and decidedly conservative, ideas for molding the future leaders of France, Henri is immediately attracted to Renaud's enigmatic, yet soulful younger wife, Émilie (Christelle Prot), a relationship that will also inevitably connect her to Jules through exchanged letters that the best friends would write to each other, often in lieu of meeting face to face on their brief holidays, leading to a profound - yet intranscendably distant - intimacy between Émilie and Jules that will forever bind the two strangers together.

Along with illustrating Green's affinity with the aesthetics of Bresson, it also interesting to note that a similar sense of abstract metaphysicality pervades the film, a dislocated spirituality that is revealed through Jules' explicative insistence on the necessity for an overarching, universal order in the creation - and appreciation - of art and beauty during a class recitation of Paul Verlaine's poetry, and subsequently, in his extended sojourn at a Greek monastery after completing his undergraduate studies, where writes to Henri that he can hear his own voice "and perhaps something else" (a contemplative image that is subsequently connected to a sparsely decorated nativity scene in Émilie's room at Christmas time); Henri's impulsive, nocturnal epiphany to travel to Rome with Jules on their summer vacation after seeing a sunlit church; and Émilie's fateful encounter with an escaped convict (perhaps also alluding to Bresson's A Man Escaped) with stigmata-like wounds in search of a sign that would help him "find the end of evil". In the characters' solitary quests to reconcile the corporeal with the spiritual - to define and give form to the inarticulable - Toutes le nuits thematically convergences to a seemingly mundane tutorial instruction once offered by Émilie to a young Henri that "the most important things we do, we do alone", a sentiment that Jules repeats during a conversation with a child near the end of the film - a poignant and enduring realization of the isolation of unrequited love, the ache of longing, and the impossibility of happiness.

Posted by acquarello on Oct 29, 2006 | | Comments (2) | Filed under 2006, Eugène Green

September 16, 2006

À la recherche du lieu de ma naissance, 1990

birthplace.gifChanneling a similar wavelength as Chantal Akerman's recurring themes of identity, parental silence, and haunted memory, compatriot filmmaker Boris Lehman creates an equally melancholic and autobiographical self-confessional essay film in À la recherche du lieu de ma naissance, a resonant and intimate exposition on the indelible legacy of Nazism, the diaspora, the Second World War, and the Holocaust on the psyche of the postwar generation of displaced European Jews. Opening to the image of Lehman's seemingly innocuous, off-camera request to an accommodating clerk at a Swiss registrar's office for proof of his birth, the film is a broader examination of the intersection between personal and cultural history, as the task of obtaining a reissued birth certificate itself sows the seed of creative inspiration: a point of departure towards the figurative reconstruction of one's unremembered moment of origin. Returning to Lausanne over forty years after his birth, Lehman's self-reflexive autobiographical reconstructions - depicted through re-enactments, archival footage, family photographs and correspondences, interviews with interned (and subsequently resettled) exiles, and surrogate representations of rites of passage - subvert the notion of personal history and instead, converges towards an examination of a suppressed collective consciousness.

From this perspective of estranged history and unwitting, self-inflicted cultural amnesia, Lehman's diaristic exposition transforms into an integral question of identity: what does a birthplace signify when the physical location has been disconnected from the emotional idea of one's home, when the destination is only a momentary passage, a transitory refuge from an obscured, forgotten (or suppressed) memory that reflects the trauma of exile...the very impossibility of home? At the heart of Lehman's elusive quest is the assembly of inherited artifacts, second-hand testimonies of survivors, and even the observation of religious rites into a reconstruction of personal memory that reveal an underlying sentiment of disconnected heritage. Deeply rooted in a sentiment of a silenced history - a metaphoric erasure of the past that has been engendered by his late parents' own reticence over the trauma of their displacement during the war years (and eventual permanent exile), first, during the Nazi incursion into Poland, then subsequently, from their adopted home in Belgium during the occupation - Lehman's journey become a search for the invisible, a struggle to assimilate and contextualize the unregistered memories of a suppressed past into the unreconciled reality of a present day consciousness:

Painfully, I realize that my parents forgot me. They never talked to me, never told me about their lives because talking was not possible for them. In taking refuge in their silence, they walled me up in mine. I am a prisoner of my own memories. But the few that I have oblige me to invent rather than relate. All that's left of my parents, a few photos in an album that I can't or don't want to decipher. Do I recognize myself in these pictures?

Challenging even the most seemingly trivial fundamental foundations of his identity based on materials and interviews he has gathered surrounding his parents' life during the war years - a letter of safe passage to a Lisbon port in Portugal in order to board a ship bound for Bolivia that his parents had never undertaken, perhaps, because of his imminent birth (and that, as Lehman would surmise, turned out to be a moment of serendipity in avoiding the inevitable encounters with the waves of Nazi war criminals fleeing to South America); a tongue-in-cheek survey of the common variations and "misspellings" of the surname Lehman that suggest (whether consciously or unintentionally) an obfuscation of culture and ethnicity; an interned prisoner and exile who has kept a suitcase of war "memorabilia" (false documentation, censored letters, photographs, testaments given by refugees who had been delivered into the hands of the Germans by "neutral" Swiss government officials) that prompts the filmmaker to question if his birthday is indeed even his own actual date of birth and not a product of the false paper trail created to evade Nazi persecution across Europe - Lehman returns full circle to the idyllic - and poetically homonymic - Lac Léman (Lake Geneva) that his mother once crossed in the days before his birth. Concluding with the recounted mythical tale of a wandering hermit who once traversed the entirety of the city in reverse, only to end his inscrutable venture by turning back at the shore of the ubiquitous lake, the enigmatic image also reflects the interconnectedness and self-reflexivity of Lehman's journey: a search, not only to understand the circumstances behind his parents' uncertain lives as refugees that led to his wartime birth in a foreign land in 1944, but also for the very nature of the process of memory and its sublimation into the human consciousness by which it shapes and defines our own identity, where the void of its absence becomes as formative as its haunted - and inescapable - persistence.

Posted by acquarello on Sep 16, 2006 | | Filed under 2006, Boris Lehman

September 10, 2006

Seagulls Are Dying in the Harbor, 1955

seagulls.gifIn hindsight, the expressionistic collaborative feature Seagulls Are Dying in the Harbor by Flemish filmmakers Roland Verhavert, Ivo Michiels, and Rik Kuypers proves especially suited as a milestone film for Belgian national cinema, carrying the international distinction as the country's first feature film to be screened at the Cannes Film Festival. Set in postwar Antwerp, the film evokes the profound melancholy and bittersweet loss of innocence of René Clément's Forbidden Games in its depiction of the friendship between a pair of unlikely kindred spirits trying to make sense of their upended (and uprooted) lives in the forbidding, and increasingly alien urban landscape of postwar Belgium: a nameless, seemingly undocumented drifter (Julien Schoenaerts) and former German war camp prisoner desperately seeking passage out of the country, and a neglected, French-speaking orphaned girl named Gigi who has been adopted by an older, emotionally distant Flemish family (perhaps out of potential financial gain from an undisclosed inheritance) whose only glimpse of freedom comes from the stolen moments enabled by her adoptive older sister who exploits her afternoon playtime as a chaperoning ruse to rendezvous with her lover. Eschewing the inevitable sentimentality of the "little girl lost" premise of Forbidden Games, the film instead reflects the unsentimentality and cynicism of Europe's postwar lost generation, where the inhumanity of war and instinctuality for survival have metamorphosed into social indifference, cruelty, exploitation, hedonism, and self-absorption.

But beyond the film's noteworthiness as a trailblazer in the history of cinema (as well as its incisive, broader commentary on the human travails of war), the film is also a unique and intimate window into the country's indigenous experience, not only with the isolative reality of cultural pluralism in contemporary Belgium, but also with the collective toll of occupation, displacement, and exile caused by the war. Intrinsic in this process of reconciliation with history is the legacy of occupation on the national psyche - first by Germany, and subsequently (albeit obliquely), by the Allied liberators stationed to secure the borders and assist in the country's reconstruction - a trauma that has further estranged an already culturally bifurcated country from its own sense of national identity. Within this framework of dispossession and figurative erasure, the characterization of the enigmatic, anonymous, multilingual everyman becomes an ideal representation on the country's struggle with its own sense of sovereignty and identity in light of an increasingly fractured and fragile national unity and economic decimation. Moreover, in capturing the pervasive national sentiment of profound disorientation through expressionistic imagery (most notably, in the atmospheric, noir-like texture of the opening sequence that establishes the film's sense of imbalance), stark and desolate, yet oppressively claustrophobic industrial landscapes (that prefigure Antonioni's psychological landscapes), and acute angle dolly crane shots (especially in the repeated image of the city street through the increasingly distant perspective of a moving structural elevator) that figuratively reflect the unnamed drifter's estrangement from his native community in the aftermath of war and occupation, the filmmakers transform the interiority of one person's struggle into a broader metaphor for a country's soul searching, implicitly correlating the drifter's moral dilemma with the societal estrangement of cultural division. In juxtaposing a sense of disorientation with the crisis of imposed (and suppressed) identity, the film articulates a compelling and impassioned cautionary tale for the preservation for the country's indigenous, plural identity through tolerance, self-respect, and the restoration of humanity.

Posted by acquarello on Sep 10, 2006 | | Filed under 2006

September 3, 2006

Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie?, 2001

hidden_smile.gifNearly twenty years after Harun Farocki paid homage to the profound influence of Straub/Huillet's cinema by filming their exhaustive rehearsal process during preparations for the shooting of their film Class Relations for the documentary Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet at Work..., Pedro Costa captures their equally exacting process of editing their feature film, Sicilia! in Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie?. Indeed, as Farocki's film intrinsically captures the filmmakers' working methodology through the framework of his own recurring themes of automation and systemization of processes (even as they apply to the human process of creativity), so, too, does Costa's film illustrate the particularity of their methodology through his own characteristic preoccupation for capturing the allegorical in the quotidian. Curiously, inasmuch as both films capture the rigorous and deliberative nature of their creative process, it is only through the complementation of both films that the nature of the Straubs' collaborative process begins to truly emerge - a portrait, not of inequitable roles of visionary and confidante (as implicitly suggested in the Farocki film as Huillet's role during rehearsals is seemingly reduced to that of advisor and clap board simulator), nor implementer and consultant (as illustrated in the Costa film where Straub is shown to be the intrusive, occasionally tangential, gregarious observer - and comical counterfoil - to the more focused, serious-minded, and methodical Huillet who is editing the film), but rather, as equally creative contemporaries with instinctively defined, yet interactive roles throughout the filmmaking process: one, more conceptual and abstract, the other, more pragmatic and methodical. Ironically, this tumultuous, often colliding process of interactivity itself between theory and application, idea and implementation reflects the complex, yet delicate alchemy of the medium itself, a creative struggle that is articulated by the roguish Straub's impassioned commentary on the subordination of form over idea in Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie? that is integral to the realization of their aesthetic.

The form of the body gives birth to the soul. I've said that a hundred times. ...When someone says, 'Yes, the form, it's the form, the form, never mind the idea', that is a sell-out. It's not true. You have to see things clearly: First, there is the idea, then there is the matter, and then the form. And there is nothing you can do about that. Nobody can change that! ...And through this work, the struggle between the idea and the matter, and the struggle with the matter, gives rise to the form. And the rest is just filling material. ...The same goes for the sculptor. He has his idea and gets a block of marble and he works the matter. He has to take into account the nervures in the marble, the cracks, all the geological layers in it. He just can't do whatever he wants.

This intrinsic "struggle with the material" that defines the process of creation also serves as an allusion to the hidden smile of the film's title. In an illuminating sequence during the editing of a train conversation scene in Sicilia!, Huillet attempts to convey an actor's unarticulated, knowing smile - an illustration of his realization that a passenger seated across from him lied about the nature of his employment - by finding an appropriate intercutting image from their brief exchange. But how can this uncaptured, hidden smile be revealed when the facial expression itself does not manifest in the any of the shot footage? Poring over each frame in search of the indefinable glint in the actor's eye in search of that fleeting image that betrays his disbelief to no avail, their strategy is then to abruptly truncate the shot at the final syllable of the passenger's staccatoed delivery such that the consequence of the lie does not dwell on the prevaricator's image - and implicitly suggest his deliberation over the ramifications of his own statement - but rather, on the delayed response of the listener to suggest his evaluation (and dismissive deduction) of the passenger's seemingly incongruous statement. It is this process systematic refinement - a struggle with the intrinsic properties (and inherent limitations) of the given matter to create implication through elision that is also reflected in Straub's subsequent exposition on the aesthetic evolution of their cinema.

Most of us begin with a cliché - not always, but most of the time - and that's fine but you have to look at it from all sides and clarify it. So you start with the idea of a discovery, showing a mountain without the window, without anything. A torn curtain. Then you ask yourself, but why? It will inhibit the viewer's imagination instead of opening it up and you say to yourself: 'Yes, after having filmed Mount Thebes in Moses and Aaron, after having filmed Mount Etna, Mount Sainte-Victoire, why add another one?' And so you renounce slowly. Then one fine day, one fine day you realize that it's better to see as little as possible. You have a sort of reduction, only it's not a reduction - it's a concentration and it actually says more. But you don't do that immediately from one day to the next. You need time and patience.

As the filmmakers alternately engage in recounting personal anecdotes, gentle natured marital sparring, and professional ruminations over their collaborative cinema, what emerges in Costa's reverent and understated portrait is an affectionate, humorous, and indelible image of profound kinship and creative symbiosis - an idiosyncratic, modern-day love story that fuses passion with politics, creativity with conviction - told from the privileged intimacy of irascible, enduring romantics, intellectual peers, social activists, obsessed cinephiles, ageless idealists, and innovative, mutually-inspiring artists.

Posted by acquarello on Sep 03, 2006 | | Filed under 2006, Pedro Costa

August 30, 2006

Carmen Comes Home, 1951

carmencomeshome.gifPerhaps it is postwar filmmaker's Keisuke Kinoshita's reputation as a director of old-fashioned, "women's pictures" coupled with his penchant for depicting simple, uncorrupted innocence that have rendered his work (particularly with the advent of the Japanese New Wave) vulnerable to criticisms of outmoded sentimentality. However, while these generalizations are rooted in the intrinsic elements of unabashed compassion and idealism that pervade his films, such cursory observations fail to adequately capture the irreverence, incisive social commentary, and profound humanity that also shape his work. This seemingly disparate fusion of effervescent comedy and subversive satire is particularly evident in Carmen Comes Home, the first all-color Japanese feature film (although an alternate, black and white version was simultaneously filmed). Made under nebulous instructions to shoot as many outdoor sequences as possible because of the then-unknown properties of the new medium, the film follows the misadventures of a dim-witted, self-described artist - and in reality, a burlesque dancer - from Tokyo named Okin (Hideko Takamine) who goes by the stage name Lily Carmen, and her equally oblivious colleague Maja Akemi (Toshiko Kobayashi) as they descend upon Okin's unsuspecting rural hometown on the foothills of Mount Asama for a self-instigated, attention-seeking homecoming celebration after achieving some measure of success in the big city with their popular striptease act.

Taking a cue from his mentor Yasujiro Shimazu, a master of the shomin-geki (for whom he served as cinematographer), Kinoshita introduces a finely rendered ensemble cast of characters to create a rich portrait of everyday life in the insular community: a blinded veteran and former music teacher Taguchi (Shuji Sano) who bides time in the school yard waiting for an opportunity to practice his elegiac compositions on the school's harmonium; Taguchi's self-sacrificing wife Mitsuko (Kuniko Ikawa) who ekes out a living as a hired cart driver to support her family; Okin's tormented father Shoichi (Takeshi Sakamoto) who struggles with contradicting feelings of love, responsibility, pity, and humiliation at his daughter's outrageous conduct and demeaning livelihood; Okin's sister Yuki (Yûko Mochizuki) who strives to bring about a reconciliation between estranged father and prodigal daughter (perhaps, in part, because of the financial support Okin's dubious career provides); the aging, well-intentioned schoolmaster (Chishu Ryu) who tries to bring progressive ideas to the isolated village even as he betrays a penchant for the nostalgia of fading, old world culture (and perhaps feels overwhelmed by the rapid transformation of his country); a moneylender and businessman named Maruju (Bontarô Miyake) who is quick to exploit the town's gullibility and the curious spectacle surrounding Okin's sensationalized homecoming. But beyond the seeming recipe for trite melodrama or facile "fish out of water" comedy as the flamboyant and interminably cheerful pair of transplanted city women attempt to assimilate into the bucolic, traditional life of the country, Carmen Comes Home is also a wry allegorical for the cost of Japan's postwar recovery.

Filmed in 1952 at the end of American occupation, Kinoshita presents a thoughtful, humorous, and (still) relevant commentary on the legacy of cultural imperialism enabled by the Occupation. Within this framework, the tongue-in-cheek characterization of a naïve, scatterbrained heroine (whose near death childhood injuries from a cow kick may have led to her simplemindedness) serves as an acerbic metaphor for the nation's collective amnesia in the aftermath of the Pacific War, where opportunism, exploitation, and suppression of indigenous identity represent the inevitable compromise and cultural toll of the country's movement toward national recovery, modernization, and international re-emergence. Moreover, it is through this cultural context that Okin's assumed foreign stage name of Lily Carmen may be seen, not as a naïve young woman's flighty notions of artistic exoticism to complement a "modern dance" act, but rather, as a subconscious erasure of identity - and implicitly, nationality - the denial of one's native roots from the rural province (from the country) in order to prosper in the modern (and increasingly vulgarized) world. (Note the especially subversive, tongue-in-cheek image of the children competing to break a plain white colored, piñata-like vessel that is filmed such that the foregrounded object visually recedes relative to the brightly colored international flags that line the playground, giving the appearance that the children are throwing play rocks at the flags themselves.) It is this conflicting, unreconciled sentiment of resentment and gratitude, affection and alienation that inevitably suffuses the seemingly lighthearted, whimsical tone of the film with a palpable, bittersweet melancholy: the critical portrait of a wounded nation at a crossroads, struggling to preserve its indigenous cultural identity even as it re-evaluates its isolated, self-destructive history in the wake of humiliation, gaudy imitation, and marginalization.

Posted by acquarello on Aug 30, 2006 | | Filed under 2006

August 29, 2006

The Euphoria of Filmlinc Membership: NYFF06


The program for the 44th New York Film Festival looks quite strong and nicely well rounded this year. Along with festival staples like Pedro Almodóvar, Alain Resnais, and Hong Sang-soo, there are also several off-the-beaten-path films that seem to have the potential to upstage the veterans, such as Our Daily Bread and Poison Friends from Emmanuel Bourdieu (co-screenwriter on How I Got Into an Argument... (My Sex Life), and re-discovery of classic gems, such as Reds, Mafioso, and Insiang.

Suffice it to say, my favorite Film Society of Lincoln Center membership perq is the advanced ticket sales for the NYFF, and this year, Christmas has come a week earlier than usual ...and these are the films in my fuzzy red and white stocking.

  • Climates (Nuri Bilge Ceylan)
  • Falling (Barbara Albert)
  • The Go Master (Tian Zhuangzhuang)
  • The Host (Bong Joon-ho)
  • Inland Empire (David Lynch)
  • Insiang (Lino Brocka, 1976)
  • Mafioso (Alberto Lattuada, 1962)
  • Marie Antoinette (Sophia Coppola)
  • Our Daily Bread (Nikolaus Geyrhalter)
  • Pan's Labyrinth (Guillermo Del Toro)
  • Paprika (Satoshi Kon)
  • Poison Friends (Emmanuel Bourdieu)
  • Private Fears in Public Places (Coeurs) (Alain Resnais)
  • Syndromes and a Century (Apichatpong Weerasethakul)
  • These Girls (Tahani Rached)
  • Volver (Pedro Almodóvar)
  • Woman on the Beach (Hong Sang-soo)

Posted by acquarello on Aug 29, 2006 | | Comments (2) | Filed under 2006, Quick Notes

August 24, 2006

Pain Is..., 1997

pain_is.gif Before Les Films du renard released its first installment of an anticipated three boxset Stephen Dwoskin anthology earlier this year, there seemed little room to reconcile Dwoskin's cinema between the transgressive, borderline pornographic gaze of Dyn Amo and the intimately melancholic Dad (an elegy to his late father Henry Dwoskin) - the only two films I had managed to see of Dwoskin's work until then. But somewhere between the interminable claustrophobia of the de-eroticized, writhing exotic dancers of Dyn Amo and the dramatic transformation of Dwoskin's father from virile, larger-than-life everyday hero to slender, bespectacled elderly man, is this intersection of awareness of the human body in all its evocations, sensations imperfections, limitations, and evolutions - its physicality and mortality - and it this underlying convergence that is revealed throughout Dwoskin's cinema. Indeed, inasmuch as Dwoskin's debilitating childhood infirmity and subsequent disability from polio provides, to some extent, a window into this acute awareness of the physical - and more specifically, a sensibility that has led to an aesthetic of awkwardness, imperfection, and stasis that Swiss film theorist and author François Albera would refer to as a cinema of "hinderedness" - there is also a deliberate nature to the transfixing slowness of his intimate gaze: not only towards an awareness of time and the toll of its inevitable passage, but also its reflection of the intrinsic discomfort of the extended gaze - the oppressiveness of "being looked at" that comes with the conscious regard of the other. In this respect, Dwoskin's cinema may be seen, not solely in terms of the convergence between the physical and the ephemeral, but rather, in a more thematically overarching aesthetic of temporal intersections and, in particular, those that occur within the human act of seeing - when the gaze transforms from curiosity to voyeurism, from information to imagination, from peripherality to fixation.

In Pain Is..., Dwoskin's thoughtful rumination on the nature of pain, this intersection occurs in the conceptual mechanism of pain itself, in the way it surfaces amorphously, imprecisely, throughout the process and conduct of life, as well as in its insidious ability to create a subconscious shift in (sensorial) awareness - in essence, to reconfigure (if not transform) one's immediate reality because of its existence. It is this untenable quality of pervasiveness and indefinability that Dwoskin articulates in an introductory analogy that sets the tone for the film's organic (and inherently circular) exposition:

"In the search, it became apparent that pain plays a part in all levels of life: in religion, in sports, in work, in sex, in politics. Not just pain itself, but all the things that pain produces: like pleasure, amnesia, complaint ...When you rub your finger on the wood, you feel the wood. If you get a splinter, you feel your finger. That's how pain works. It moves from outside to inside."

Punctuated by the decontextualized, low-grade video footage of a nude, face obscured, convulsing woman - an image that is repeated towards the end of the film - Dwoskin illustrates the intrinsic ambiguities of these amorphous intersections, as the same footage alternately evokes images of psychiatrically-induced spasm, involuntary seizure, hysteria, and rapture - a complexity of interpretation that has been enabled by the uncomfortable extendedness of the already transgressive image. (Note that the surveillance video also becomes implicitly voyeuristic in its prolonged clinical observation and reinforces the conceptual theme of the function of the extended gaze that runs throughout Dwoskin's oeuvre).

This cognitive extraction of the multiple meaning intrinsic within images through the conscious manipulation of time is also reflected in the parallel imagery that structures the film (a dualism that is encapsulated by the bookending shots from the corridor of a hospital): the image of a trapeze artist suspended by a series of ropes that is repeated in the image of a woman indulging in a bondage fetish, a man with impaired speech communicating through an interpreter that is mirrored in a patient who expresses his pain by playing the drums (note the image of surrogate instrument that is also represented by the interstitial sequence of a guitar ballad performance), a tattoo parlor patron wincing at the process of obtaining her body art that is contrasted against a tattooed performer unable to feel the pain of her self-inflicted piercings, an anatomic model used to illustrate abdominal organs that is evoked during a conversation with a middle-aged woman describing her desperation to alleviate the pain of her menopause-related symptoms, an implicitly contradictory exposition on the nature of pain: first, from a physician who acknowledges the inexactness of diagnostic descriptions used to help isolate the cause of the physical ailment, and subsequently, from a psychiatrist who explains the theoretical source of all pain through the commonality of stimulus-response. In this respect, Dwoskin's films can be seen, not only as an idiosyncratic realization of adaptive encumbrances, but also as a cinema of implication in which the uncomfortable, extended gaze facilitates, not only the complexity of inferences and re-assembly of interconnected associations behind the awkward images, but more importantly, the process of interactivity that is intrinsic in the act of seeing - the implication of the spectator as voyeur, complicitor, archaeologist, and self-author.

Posted by acquarello on Aug 24, 2006 | | Filed under 2006, Stephen Dwoskin

August 17, 2006

Days of Eclipse, 1988

dayseclipse.gifIn its metaphoric allusion to celestial descent, subconscious mysticism (or perhaps, lunacy), and alien terrestriality, Aleksandr Sokurov's Days of Eclipse recalls the opening sequences of Julio Medem's Tierra and Andrei Tarkovsky's Andrei Rublev as the camera follows the accelerated trajectory of an unseen projectile (the sound of an indecipherable voice perhaps suggests a conscious entity) hurtling towards the surface of the earth, aimed at the arid plains of a Turkmenistan rural village in central Asia, on the underdeveloped frontiers of a vast Soviet empire. In hindsight, the evocation to Tarkovsky seems particularly suited. Adapted from a science fiction novel by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, the authors of Roadside Picnic on which Tarkovsky's film, Stalker was based, Days of Eclipse, as the title suggests, is also an exploration of creation and search for enlightenment in an age of pervasive darkness - at the figurative twilight of humanity. The prefiguring Icarian image of undefined journey and uprooted desolation (a theme that also pervades the establishing images of transplantation in Sharunas Bartas' Few of Us) would sublimate into unexpected, ephemeral forms throughout the film - surreal encounters, curious, somnambulistic rituals, otherworldly visions, crippling paranoia, and foreboding cosmic alignments - to create a perspective of the Soviet outpost, not as a landscape of untapped potential, but as an unassimilated culture foundering in the vacuum of an imposed, meaningless, ritualized order.

The reluctant witness to this soul-sapping, Dante-esque existential limbo is the young, idealistic physician Malyanov (Aleksei Ananishnov) who, at the instigation of the government in its push to modernize the rural Asiatic territories, relocated from Gorky in order to set up a clinic in the village. Ethnically and linguistically unassimilated into the local culture (and whose advice and medical practice are largely ignored by the impoverished villagers), his limited interaction with the outside world is relegated to the company of other kindred exiles: his suicidal neighbor, an underemployed engineer demoralized by the futility of his unrealized plans and who has been occupying his time by writing journals that no one else reads (a ritual that is paralleled in Malyanov's own perpetual typing of unsubmitted reports to pass the time); his estranged sister (Irina Sokolova) who questions his determination in continuing his practice in the village despite the profound isolation and disappointment of his empty, mind-numbing station; a cherubic, lost boy (who may have been abandoned or ran away from home out of hunger or abuse) who insinuates himself into Malyanov's care; his aimless and increasingly paranoid friend who continues to bear the residual psychological scars of generational trauma after his parents were driven from Russia during the Stalinist purges (note Sokurov's pointed reference to ethnic cleansing as part of the ideology behind the Great Purge, a silenced history that Kazakh filmmaker Ermek Shinarbaev also alludes to in his integration of the Korean-Kazakh experience in Revenge).

Little by little, as the village succumbs to the lethargy of the oppressive heat and the distractive mysticism of strange natural phenomena and arbitrary brushes with isolated resistance and nebulous authority, what emerges in Malyanov's encounters is the pervasive inertia and resignation of a society living under a crumbling totalitarian regime where the specter of fear and uncertainty has metastasized into empty rituals that have become disarticulated from their meaning (a decontextualization that is also illustrated through the uprooted exiles' alienation from their adoptive community). Within this context, Days of Eclipse aesthetically converges, not only with the elliptical mystery of Victor Erice's allegorical, Franco-era film, The Spirit of the Beehive, but also with the dark humor and environmental desolation of Béla Tarr's cinema (that coincided with the beginning of his fateful association with novelist László Krashnahorkai in Damnation), where human comedy is borne of a tedium and acute awareness of squandered time, and the strange, surreal, post-apocalyptic landscapes reflect the wasted potential of a myopic, destructive, self-eroding society. It is this metaphoric darkness of empty existence and directionless compass that is intrinsically captured in the extended closing shot of Malyanov's enigmatic gaze framed against the barren, eternal landscape - suspended in a netherworld between earth and sky like Dickensian tragic specters hovering over the earth, unable to break free from their moorings - a transitory passage into the void of a delusive (and inescapable) liberation.

Posted by acquarello on Aug 17, 2006 | | Comments (4) | Filed under 2006, Aleksandr Sokurov

August 15, 2006

Writing Break/American Hardcore

newyorkthrash.gifIn anticipation of both Paul Rachman's documentary American Hardcore and a weeklong break/sanity check from writing (as well as making good on an emailed jest to Girish regarding its TIFF screening), here are a few sentimental favorites to whet the appetite...or prod into running to the nearest exit. The quick disclaimers are that I've only managed to finish archiving about a tenth of the collection so far, so these selected tracks are in no way intended to encompass the history of hardcore, and that there are a few explicit lyrics on some of the tracks.

Adrenaline O.D. - My Father's Dreams
Bad Brains - Regulator
Beastie Boys - Ode to....
Fiends - Asian White
Minor Threat - Stumped
The Undead - Life of Our Own

[Note:Preview mp3s will only be available for a week.]

Posted by acquarello on Aug 15, 2006 | | Comments (2) | Filed under 2006, Quick Notes

August 8, 2006

Adynata, 1983

adynata1.gif adynata2.gif

Adynata is a figure of speech, a form of hyperbole that has been exaggerated to the point of impossibility. Similarly, Leslie Thornton's seminal film, Adynata is also a densely assembled rhetoric: an exposition into the social representations of a perpetuated, exoticized otherness - an alien culture, an irretrievable past, an impenetrable psyche - a conjured idealization collapsing under the weight of its own absurdity and irreconcilable contradiction. A wispy, idyllic shot of a futuristic, opalescent, gently contoured botanical garden greenhouse in New York City sets the otherworldly tone for Thornton's exposition into the culturally amorphous forms of representation as the images of exotic flora (in its sumptuous foliage and forbidding thorns) are juxtaposed against a nineteenth century photograph of an upper class Asian couple formally posed in traditional costume, and set to the nostalgic sounds of scratchy, early twentieth century phonograph records. From this implicit evocation of an intangibly fragile, elusive, intranscendable alterity (an alienness that is reinforced by the idiosyncratic, animated sequence depicting an extraterrestrial view of a spinning Earth), Thornton begins to systematically dismantle the very mechanisms of this subconscious process of rarefaction and exoticism through the practical - and consequently, de-romanticized - recontextualization of the images themselves.

A western woman (Thornton), whose voice appropriately remains unheard, is seen in the process of donning the elaborate period clothing in the style of the woman in the photograph, and in the process, reveals the reductive, vulgar, and grotesque nature of ethnic sameness, caricature, and desexualization that underlies this act of superficial imitation. The shallowness of the masquerade is further underscored by the reconstructed opacity of Thornton's figuration mimicking the photographed woman's enigmatic expression, as any traces of her thoughts and motivations are obscured - and consequently, suppressed - beneath the heavy make-up and baroque ornamentation of the costume. Rather than presenting the seductive image of exotic fascination, what emerges in these self-contradicting images is a figurative masquerade: an erasure of identity enabled by the idealization of the subject behind the images, in the submissiveness and artifice of its projected illusion. This deconstruction of idealized images is also illustrated through the recurring shot of a pair of women's shoes, shaped in the impossibly narrow style of the period, as the footwear is whimsically integrated into images that reveal implicit domesticity (in the act of embroidered sewing) and objectification (in the collage of oriental paraphernalia). Initially juxtaposed against sumptuous, tropical images of bird of paradise flowers at the botanical garden, the footwear is then placed in the context of photographs and illustrative sketches from a scientific journal depicting the process of oriental foot binding to illustrate the implicit violence and inhumanity intrinsic in this cultivated ideal of exotic artificiality.

Moreover, innate in Thornton's investigation is the insidious nature of images, deployed equally as tools of information as they are of misinformation, illustration and deception, illumination and ignorance. In presenting the contradictions intrinsic in the perception of images, Adynata diverges from the immediate theme of orientalism and alterity towards a broader examination on the nature of human imagination, where the very process itself becomes an engaged, interpretive act of complicity towards the perpetuation of the perception of otherness. It is this multiplicity of meaning that is inevitably captured in the superimposed image of a two-headed earthenware jug that is set against the formal portrait of the Asian couple that concludes the film - an illustration, not only of the ephemeral irreconcilability of images, but also of the unresolved layers of significance that exist beneath the implicated act of seeing.

Posted by acquarello on Aug 08, 2006 | | Filed under 2006, Leslie Thornton

August 2, 2006

Ganeden, 2003

"I thought I would at first offer you a simple lesson - sorry, you don't like being preached to - so let's say a little advice, which of course you are not obliged to follow, well, let's say a tip ...which calls upon us to first explore the steps that were cleared by our predecessors, since it was out of the question for me to remake the new geographical landscapes of the Romantics: Rousseau, Goethe, Chateaubriand or the Naturalist descriptions of places that were miserable or picturesque, of Eugène Sue or Victor Hugo, or Dada trips to regions without any particular interest, or also the random objective encounters of the Surrealists, and of course, the travels of the explorer Amerigo Vespucci ...I found accounts of travel that were extraordinary, imaginary, marvelous, utopian, exotic, fantastic explorations, etc."

Trying to encapsulate the texturally complex, amorphous, and indefinable essence of Maurice Lemaître's film Ganeden is a daunting task. On the surface, the film - evocatively named after the Hebrew word for the Garden of Eden - is a highly experimental, yet approachable anti-travelogue exposition on the imaginative adventure of mundane travel (or, in de-romanticized terms, the daily commute), an instinctively cohesive journey that strikes a sympathetic chord with Robert Breer's wordless, stream-of-consciousness animated work Fuji, and that appropriately opens with a similar illustrative image of a figurative point of departure - the train station - in this case, appearing in the form of a still (or more accurately, paused) image of a man frozen in mid step of boarding a train from a subway station platform. However, the film also represents the culmination of the iconic Lettrist novelist, poet, artist, and filmmaker's body of work: a creative philosophy that his groundbreaking film, Le film est déjà commencé? would prefigure in its tongue-in-cheek usurpation and cataclysmic (or at the very least, cacophonic) dismantling of the hallowed and rarefied experience of mid century cinema by upending such conventional notions of screen, projection, ambient sound, and artist performance. Intrinsic in this subversive aesthetic - and in particular, Lemaître's evocation of urban escapism - is its empirical evolution from the Lettrist concept of psychogeography, a consciousness of an environment's effects on an individual's psyche. It is within this philosophical imperative that the artistic struggle becomes a broader cultural revolution to transfigure the malleable landscape of the modern city into a more vital organism of inspiration and creation - to humanize it: the city re-imagined as an integrated artistic canvas of tangible, accessible art and uncharted wonderland of quixotic adventure (as Jacques Rivette would whimsically capture the Situationist concept of dérive - a Lettrist splinter faction - in such films as Le Pont du Nord or Celine and Julie Go Boating), moving away from the automated machinery of dehumanized production and towards a state of perpetual metamorphosis and source of creative reinvigoration.

In this respect, the Lettrist ideal of re-asserting the human element into the industrial landscape - and consequently, propelling the creative stimulus of the individual - by reinventing the familiar into novel forms - a detournement - converges with the artistic philosophy of seminal Austrian experimental filmmaker Peter Kubelka, not only in his practical reconstitution of found film, but also in the discretization of sound from images in order to reconstruct new layers of meaning and signification. However, while Kubelka's aesthetic is integrally rooted in the unique properties and physical materiality of celluloid - and in particular, its projected speed - Lemaître's aesthetic is rooted in a more atemporal mixed media of traditional and contemporary visual art forms: film and video, photography and sketch drawing, digital post-production effects and hand painting, live footage and animation. In essence, while the principle of reductive, self-imprint governs both filmmakers' body of work, Lemaître's aesthetic is revealed through the multilayered juxtaposition of compositions - a creative methodology that is not propelled by the compact delivery of information dynamically presented at 24 frames per second (as is the case with Kubelka's cinema, where images are often presented liminally at the threshold of registered visibility), but rather, by the conflation of discrete layers of information revealed through the density of images, in their resulting hypergraphy.

In Ganeden, this hypergraphy is manifested though the juxtaposition of iconic, if quotidian images - building and infrastructural architecture, train car views, cityscapes, harbors, identification markings, and informational signage - that define the urban landscape. But beyond the transfiguration of mundane images into works of art, Lemaître's inspired act of self-imprint - his humanization of the "dehumanized city" - is ingeniously manifested through his incorporation of an inconstant, mutable artistic style throughout the film that, when superimposed against the sequence of manipulated urban images, becomes a contextual survey of several key art movements: from Primitivism (the linear figures riding the train), to Pointillism (the speckled opening sequence), to Impressionism (the lateral shot of a modern bridge painted wispily in a color palette that evokes Claude Monet's Japanese Bridge at Giverny), to Post-Impressionism (the garishly fluorescent, Van Gogh styled re-coloration of the Eiffel Tower), to Dada (the overlaid chiseling on the iconic image of Mount Fuji), to Abstract (the compositions of saturated color blocks and instinctual geometries), and Pop Art (the alternating negative and positive photographic image of an Asian woman). Ironically, in contrast to the alienating, subversive chaos of Le film est déjà commencé?, what emerges in Lemaître's personal and cultural journey through the evolution of art history is an assimilative aesthetic that remains reverent towards its foundational roots even as it seeks, not to push the bounds of the disparate art forms, but rather, to collapse the imaginary frontiers that separate them - to return to a unitary ideal - a Garden of Eden.
This entry is part of the Avant-Garde blog-a-thon. Other participants include (updated throughout the day as entries are posted):

          » Mubarak Ali at Supposed Aura.
          » Brendon Bouzard at My Five Year Plan.
          » Chris Cagle at Category D.
          » Zach Campbell at Elusive Lucidity.
          » Matt Clayfield at Esoteric Rabbit Blog.
          » Culture Snob.
          » Brian Darr at Hell on Frisco Bay.
          » Jim Flannery at A Placid Island of Ignorance.
          » Filmbrain.
          » Flickhead.
          » Richard Gibson.
          » Ed Gonzalez at Slant.
          » Michael Guillen at The Evening Class.
          » David Hudson at Greencine Daily.
          » Tom Hall at The Back Row Manifesto.
          » Ian W. Hill at Collisionwork.
          » Andy Horbal at No More Marriages!.
          » Darren Hughes at Long Pauses.
          » Jennifer MacMillan at Invisible Cinema.
          » Peter Nellhaus at Coffee Coffee and More Coffee.
          » David Pratt-Robson at Videoarcadia.
          » Seadot at An Astronomer in Hollywood.
          » Girish Shambu.
          » Michael Sicinski at The Academic Hack.
          » Michael S. Smith at Culturespace.
          » Tom Sutpen at If Charlie Parker Was a Gunslinger.
          » Squish at The Film Vituperatum.
          » That Little Round-Headed Boy.
          » Thom at Film of the Year.
          » Chuck Tryon at The Chutry Experiment.
          » Harry Tuttle at Screenville.
          » Walter at The Quiet Bubble.

Posted by acquarello on Aug 02, 2006 | | Comments (20) | Filed under 2006, Maurice Lemaître

July 27, 2006

The Tuner, 2004

tuner.gifSomething of an irreverent collision between the offbeat, carnivalesque formalism of Lina Wertmüller or Ulrike Ottinger, and the somber, often sardonic view of despiritualized, post-communist societies from contemporary, ex-Soviet bloc filmmakers such as Darezhan Omirbaev (in particular, Killer), Béla Tarr, and Cristi Puiu, Kira Muratova's The Tuner is a wry, infectiously offbeat, penetrating, and relevant portrait of the inescapable greed and exploitation that have come to define the cultural landscape of modern day Eastern Europe in the inherently dysfunctional mechanisms of its nascent, capitalism-based, free market economies. A series of parallel, early encounters establishes the prescient tone for the film’s recurring themes of subverted expectation and complicit deception. The film opens to the image of an apprehensive, privileged, lovelorn woman named Lyuba (Nina Ruslanova) curiously wearing an incongruously out of fashion, beaded headdress as she initiates a conversation with a dashing, middle-aged man reading a newspaper at a public park with whom she has arranged a rendezvous after exchanging correspondences through a personal advertisement in a local newspaper (and whom, she subsequently realizes, she had mistakenly approached in her eagerness to find a potential suitor, having arrived a half hour earlier than the proposed meeting time) - an introductory meeting that invariably turns into a subtly goading, hard luck story that culminates with an indirect overture to solicit a loan in order to move forward with a lucrative, short window of opportunity deal despite personal, short-term cash flow problems. The image of Lyuba's fruitless rendezvous is immediately reinforced by a shot of petty thief and conman, Andrei (Georgi Deliyev) borrowing money from a local loan shark (a shot ingeniously - and symbolically - taken from below the sight line of the table), before heading off to the supermarket to buy groceries (as well as opening bottles of expensive liquor to sneak ample swigs while feigning outrage that the store has been selling opened merchandise). The two sequences, connected by the act of implicit, underhanded, financial solicitation, presage the interconnected fates of Lyuba and Andrei, a seeming predestiny that is concocted by Andrei after he overhears a wealthy widow, Anna Sergeyevna (Alla Demidova) ask for personal recommendations for a piano tuner at the supermarket. Under the spell (or at least, the thumb) of his beautiful, capricious, and extravagant lover, Lina (Renata Litvinova), Andrei sets out to ingratiate himself into the company of Anna Sergeyevna and her friend Lyuba by responding to the classified advertisement for a piano tuner in an attempt to win over their trust, and access to their dwindling fortunes.

It is interesting to note that Muratova operates within the framework of her idiosyncratically familiar absurdist stylizations and visual elements that are visible throughout her body of work in order to illustrate the film's own themes of opportunism, amorality, and obsolescence. The recurring red herring encounters - Lyuba's mistaken identity rendezvous, Andrei's groping by a man in the supermarket who may or (more likely) may not have been a store employee frisking him for shoplifted items, Lina's invitation of a scatterbrained, homeless person to her table after ordering everything on the menu, Lyuba's impulsive marriage to an opportunistic projectionist - serve to reinforce the atmosphere of pervasive deception that has defined the young couple's existence (an early shot of Andrei returning home by sneaking into the attic of a residential complex alludes to their existence as scam artists living in the margins of society). Similarly, Anna Sergeyevna and Lyuba's repeated encounters with twins at the Central Bank - another recurring visual element within Muratova's cinema - proves especially appropriate within the context of an interconnected (and ever escalating) pattern of double crosses that binds the characters together in their dysfunctional mutualism - Anna Sergeyevna and Lyuba in their archaic rituals and old-world insularity who are literally (through the malfunctioning piano) and metaphorically out of tune with the world around them (an image that is comically reinforced by Lyuba's disco-era ornamental headdress as well as the gated entrance to Anna Sergeyevna's house), and Andrei and Lina in their aimless and futureless hedonism and sense of self-entitlement (a rootlessness and disconnection that is also reflected in Andrei's penchant for using cell phones and in Lina's ambiguous declaration of commitment). It is the end, it is this representation of Andrei as a modern-day, morally ambiguous everyman that is captured in Anna Sergeyevna and Lyuba's vague, often contradictory descriptions of the perpetrator at the denouement of the young couple's elaborate scheme - the faceless anonymity and amorphous indefinability of impoverishment, desolation, and moral bankruptcy endemic within the corrupted ideals of self-motivated enterprise emerging from the ashes of a post-Soviet brave new world.

Posted by acquarello on Jul 27, 2006 | | Filed under 2006, Kira Muratova

July 21, 2006

Mix-Up, 1985

mixup.gifFive years before Abbas Kiarostami would blur the delineation between documentary and fiction in Close-Up by casting underemployed laborer and accused Mohsen Makhmalbaf impersonator, Sabzian to participate in a re-enactment of his fateful encounter with Mrs. Mahrokh Ahankhah and his subsequent deception of the Ahankhah family by ingratiating himself into their company, Françoise Romand would channel the spirit of dramatist Luigi Pirandello's recurring preoccupation with the interpenetration between art and reality in the thoughtful and poignant, yet fascinating, idiosyncratically offbeat, and whimsical first feature, Mix-Up to explore similar Pirandellian themes of identity, destiny, and absurdity. The maternity ward of a small, Nottingham hospital in 1936 serves as the literal and metaphoric stage for the story, as Blanche Rylatt, one of the two mothers involved in the "baby mix-up affair", recounts her admission into the delivery room to fill out the necessary documentation in preparation for the birth of her first child, only to be asked if she would voluntarily vacate the room (leaving all of her paperwork on the table in the hastily arranged move) in order to accommodate another patient, Margaret Wheeler, who was already in a more advanced stage of delivery. Ingeniously shot from the waiting room of a hospital nursery, the now elderly women take turns in front of the viewing window to recount their birth stories, punctuated by the appearance of their respective daughters beside them ...or so it seems, as a disembodied hand reaches over to tap the arm of Blanche's biological daughter, Valery in a pre-arranged cue to stand beside her foster mother, Margaret, while Margaret's biological daughter, Peggy, in turn, once again returns to the foreground, this time, standing beside her foster mother, Blanche.

Already discomfited by the hospital staff's frequent misdirection of flowers and correspondences between the two mothers, Margaret becomes immediately convinced that the daughter given to her was not the baby shown to her during the delivery, a misgiving dismissed by the hospital staff as a common uncertainty expressed by many mothers overwhelmed by the birth of a new child. Without conclusive proof, Margaret sought to insinuate herself into the Rylatt family's life by any means necessary in order to maintain contact with the family (and above all, Peggy), asking Blanche's husband, Fred to become Valery's godfather, paying occasional visits to the family (as well as surreptitiously sending family and friends to view baby Peggy in the hopes of gleaning conclusive information from a third-person opinion), and even sending several photographs of Valery over the years as a courtesy to the family. In contrast, Blanche, placated by their family doctor's reassurances that Peggy was the child whom he had helped deliver, and frequent comments from family and friends on Peggy's resemblance to other members of their extended family (as well as Fred's own conscious attempts to insulate her from Margaret's skeptical instigations), never truly doubted that Peggy was her biological child and showered her with the a kind of over-attentive, doting affection parents often have for their first-born child.

Composed of first-hand accounts of the daughters' childhood (and in particular, Valery's bittersweet expression of her youthful insecurities and incongruous sense of place within the Wheeler household), dramatized re-enactments, impressions and recollections by family and friends (cleverly shot as they all ride the same double-decker bus that underscores the themes of chance and convergences in seemingly random situations and interconnected degrees of separation), and interstitial tableaux that visually illustrate the complex dynamics of the families' relationships, the film straddles - if not, upends - the bounds of documentary and fiction in its idiosyncratic fusion of first-person testimonial narrative and Romand's creative infusion in her reconstruction (or rather, reconstitution) of the life-altering - and enriching - aftermath of Peggy and Valery's accidental switching. Romand's repeated incorporation of sharp geometries and mirrored images serve, not only to symbolize the irony of the perturbated, parallel lives of the Rylatt and Wheeler households (a consuming and seemingly irreconcilable predicament that would embolden Margaret to initiate such uncharacteristic acts as corresponding with leading scientific and legal experts of the day on finding conclusive proof of the children's parentage, and even seeking advice and emotional support from famed playwright and Nobel Prize-winning author, George Bernard Shaw), but also to illustrate the irreparably altered trajectories of their destinies. Inevitably, it is through these enlightened observations, comic asides, and eccentric tangents that Mix-Up incisively illustrates with liberating humor and pathos the refractions of fate and arbitrary chance that reinforce the poetry and absurdity of everyday life.

Posted by acquarello on Jul 21, 2006 | | Comments (12) | Filed under 2006

July 16, 2006

I ♥ $ / I Love Dollar, 1986

ilovedollar.gifFilmed in 1984-85 in an era of Reaganomics, a spiraling U.S. national debt, an unresolved energy crisis, a politically stabilizing Brazilian recession, and an unprecedented Asian high tech economic boom led by Hong Kong, Johan van der Keuken's I Love Dollar is an ingeniously conceived, cohesively organic, and provocative exposition into the circulation and financial mechanisms of money in modern civilization and its wide ranging social and geopolitical repercussions. Incisively opening to the sound of a jaunty, Tin Pan Alley-styled, synthesized piano melody (that recalls a more somber version of Abba's Money, Money, Money) juxtaposed against the curiously distorted image of a funhouse mirror-like reflection from the entrance of a commercial building, this introductory image of highly polished and transfixing, but visually deceptive urban financial institutions is immediately upended by the incongruous - and seemingly unrelated - shot of a bustling park (perhaps somewhere in South America) as a group of bystanders congregate around a dice-rolling betting table. A subsequent shot of a stock exchange trading room in Amsterdam provides the intrinsic correlation between the disparate images of recreation and work, poverty and privilege, as a commodities broker attempts to explain to a client on the telephone the increased risk and relative volatility of speculative investment associated with the commodities trading of precious metals.

Inasmuch as van der Keuken seeks to collapse the implicit class-based connotative shell game by redefining the underlying idea of stock investment as an act of gambling (a democratization that is subsequently represented by the high society sport of derby horse racing in then-British colony Hong Kong in which both thoroughbred owners and off-track betting agents represent the same potential for financial gain based on a calculated, yet essentially chance-based system), so too is the concept of investment recontextualized, not solely in terms of financial seeding and funneling of capital, but also in terms of personal commitment and dedication to communal projects. Switching locations to the (then) slums of Alphabet City on the Lower East Side of Manhattan (in a jarring contrast in economic conditions that is punctuated by a playfully sinister, otherworldly music that accompanies the shot of a pair of working class young men - the film's interview subjects and first hand witnesses to the urban blight - as they drive past the desolation and ruins of a seemingly alien urban landscape): first, a first-generation Puerto Rican immigrant and business student speaking from the kitchen of his hard-working mother's quaint neighborhood cafeteria as he explains his entrepreneurial goal to expand the reach of his mother's ethnic cooking into the more affluent clientele of Fifth Avenue by studying the mechanism of high finance while continuing to support the community by maintaining their original store as a reminder of their economic and social roots; then subsequently, a pair of working class homesteaders renovating a derelict, burned down building on Avenue C who express their frustrated attempts to petition City Hall to be issued a title grant to their homesteaded property and the constant fear of dispossession that inevitably accompanies the process of gentrification. Culminating with a radio-prompted, impromptu fundraising gathering in front of the cafeteria to raise money for paralyzed children in Puerto Rico, these marginalized communities subvert the notion of abstract consequences created by the short term goals of a manipulated, virtual money flow - a sentiment articulated by a Dutch commodities broker who acknowledges the international repercussions of the industry, but nevertheless, feels disconnected from its collateral effects (a figurative turning of a blind eye that is subsequently reinforced in the interstitial shot of a blind street vendor hawking pencils in the street) - by humanizing the face of personal investment and stakeholder in the building and nurturing of communities.

A subsequent pillow shot of the now iconic image of the World Trade Center (that punctuates a personable and motivated young woman's rendition of I'm Always Chasing Rainbows as a sardonic commentary on her demoralizing, catch-22 limbo to better herself: unable to get a job to further her education without work experience, and unable to get work experience without a job) also serves as an incisive symbol for the correlation between artificially created perturbations within the international stock markets of industrialized countries as a means of manipulating domestic growth and the imbalanced economies of developing nations. At the core of the hypothesis is an American analyst's examination of the concept of supply side economics that has become the framework for fiscally conservative governments - and in particular, Ronald Reagan's administration - that favors a less intrusive government in the stimulation of the economy, even as it seeks to implement tax cuts for businesses as a means of generating an eventual "trickle down" benefit to the local economy. Contrasted against the modern-day reality of a mammoth and unprecedented national debt caused by systematic deficit spending (that reached the trillion dollar milestone for the first time during the Reagan administration), the concept not only underlies the common practice of buying stocks on margin, but also encapsulates the inextricable disparity of underdeveloped countries in the arena of world trade (a miasmic, figurative deal with the devil that van der Keuken wryly alludes through the repeating images of revolving glass doors bearing the inopportune address of '666'), as export revenues are diverted towards interest payments to international debt holders and not re-invested into the national economy to foster sustained growth. Moreover, the idea of debt as a socially accepted, virtual generator of money is also presented as an ingrained aspect of American culture, enabled by a massive credit industry that generates income from the interminable payment of interest (while the amount of debt remains unchanged), and behaviorally reinforced by a dysfunctional government seeking to evade the responsibility for - and the catastrophic repercussions of - an inevitable national economic reckoning.

After establishing the interrelation between industrialized economies - and in particular, Western economies - and the stagnation of third world countries, van der Keuken then sets his sights towards Switzerland in order to examine the traditional (and at times, reprehensible) centrality of Swiss financial institutions in the conduct of international economic affairs. Correlating the Protestant Reformation (by way of John Calvin's theological work in Geneva) and the origins of capitalism through the converging ideal of a Puritan work ethic, the country's iconic reputation as the epicenter of international finance provides an archetypal framework for the very concept of virtually created wealth, illustrating the country's economic role as an archaic, but ingrained middleman gateway - in a complex financial network that resembles what van der Keuken describes as a "spider web" - for channeling (or perhaps, laundering) money to be reinvested into other parts of the world. It is interesting note that by invoking Calvin, van der Keuken also opens the door to the specter of colonialism though the settlement of Calvinist Boers in South Africa and, in the process, indirectly evokes its legacy of systematic exploitation of natural and human resources that has also contributed to the continued economic disparity of post-colonial, emerging nations in the world market. Concluding with a shot of a desolate outdoor farmer's market at sunset juxtaposed against the sound of an audio broadcast news of the European currency markets' collective decision to actively adjust the inflated value of the U.S. dollar against their respective currencies, with inaudible - and appropriately indeterminate - consequences for third world nations, the quotidian image of empty vendor stands in the process of disassembly serves as a metaphoric call to arms to dismantle the intrusive, artificially imposed financial structures created under the archaic illusion of a standardized, world trade free market economy that continues to foster a system of inequitable and disproportionate economic barriers, perpetuate marginalization, and engender inhumanity.

Posted by acquarello on Jul 16, 2006 | | Comments (3) | Filed under 2006, Johan van der Keuken

July 11, 2006

The President, 1919

president.gifIt perhaps comes as no surprise, given Carl Theodor Dreyer's lifelong, idealized melancholy over his own unresolved parentage, that the scenario selected for his first film, The President would involve three generations of children conceived out of wedlock, and thematically crystallize on the legacy of their unreconciled paternity in the resolution of their own disparate lives. For Dreyer, this expurgation of such deep-seated trauma was not only manifested in the naïve idea of restoring the virtue and honor of a "fallen" woman (an archetypal surrogate for his own idealized, unwed, biological mother) through transcendence, but also in confronting the innate cruelty of the very institutions that socially (and inequitably) stigmatized such human transgressions through codified notions of morality and class division. It is within this framework that the film's preface of the aging aristocrat, Franz Victor von Sendlinger (Elith Pio) offering a promissory relationship advice to his son Karl Victor (Halvard Hoff) on the folly of marrying outside (or more specifically, beneath) one's social class while walking along the grounds of their forbiddingly isolated, dilapidated estate seems especially conducive to the figurative idea of empty, superficial, crumbling institutions and Dreyer's own symbolic attempts to dismantle them.

Thirty years later, the dutiful son, now himself a highly respected and beloved regional magistrate continuing in the noble vocation of his forefathers, returns home from his travels. Immediately confronted with a dilemma between paternal acknowledgement (as his father had earlier done by reluctantly marrying his commoner mother shortly before his birth) or moral disavowal of his illegitimate daughter, a governess named Victorine Lippert who has been accused of killing her own illegitimate, newborn child, Karl Victor recuses himself from intervening in her pending case, citing the incorruptibility of the von Sendlingen family motto: "The majesty of justice is the holiest on earth", despite entreaties from her defense attorney, Karl Victor's closest friend, Berger (Richard Christensen) who, unaware of his friend's personal connection with his client, pays a personal visit to ask him for professional advice on her pending sentencing hearing. Pleading leniency from the court for a life of hardship caused by her illegitimacy, Berger recounts the despondent Victorine's unjust treatment at the hands of her callous employer: seduced by her employer's son, betrayed by her lover's coldly worded missive to his mother exposing their affair (and refusal to assume responsibility for the consequences of his actions), and cast away from home on the night of the child's birth, Victorine had been found unconscious the next morning at an open field near the body of her dead child. Abandoned by her feckless lover and continuing to mourn the loss of her child, the orphaned Victorine has refused any attempt at imploring the court for leniency in the hopes of hastening her own death from the gallows.

Even at this early juncture, Dreyer incorporates elements that would become immediately identifiable with his cinema, from the spare mise-en-scène that distills spaces to essential, signifying elements (note the surreal glow of a torchlight evening procession to celebrate Karl Victor's promotion that evokes both the grandeur of the spectacle and a sense of foreboding), to the expressionistic distortion of projected figures to reflect the eerie disquiet (a prefiguring image of seemingly disembodied shadows that would culminate with Vampyr), to the casting of actors (and non-actors) based on face types (most notably, in the tracking shot of peripheral activity and dour seated judges in the courtroom that prefigures the opening shot of The Passion of Joan of Arc). In illustrating the dichotomy between law and justice, Dreyer introduces a fundamental aspect of his cinema in exploring the intrinsic inhumanity of all rigid institutions, from myopic religious fundamentalism that can no longer accept the idea of the existence of a modern day miracle (Ordet) or remain open to the possibility of grace (The Passion of Joan of Arc), to ossified, patriarchal societies that inherently marginalize the role of women (Master of the House, The Parson's Widow), to entrenched social rituals and class stratification that have led to repression and spiritual immobility (Day of Wrath, Gertrud). With The President, Dreyer perhaps comes closest to an autobiographical reckoning with the tragic fate of his own biological mother, a paradigm for resolute faith and salvation in the face of profound inhumanity and marginalization - an embodiment of both profound transgression and improbable redemption.

Posted by acquarello on Jul 11, 2006 | | Filed under 2006

June 29, 2006

Fuji, 1974


A 2002 addition to the National Film Registry and one of Robert Breer's longest duration, rotoscope animation films, Fuji transforms a seemingly mundane state of transience - a tourist's eye view from a window seat of a train passing through an area overlooking Mount Fuji - into an imaginative, transfixing, and lyrical free-association of everyday objects and structural geometries into metamorphic, kinetic art. A bookending live action footage of a smiling, bespectacled (presumably) Western tourist set against the familiar cadence of an accelerating train revving up as it leaves the station sets the mesmerizing tone for the film's abstract panoramic survey of an Ozu-esque Japanese landscape of electrical power lines, passing trains, railroad tracks, and the gentle slope of obliquely peaked, uniform rooflines as Breer distills the essential geometry of Mount Fuji into a collage of acute angles and converging (and bifurcating) lines that, through the interlacing of images, seemingly propels the static into motion and morphs the iconic Japanese landmark (and familiar art subject) into equally identifiable representations of contemporary Japanese culture: a series of alternating V-shapes form the fluttering of wings, a triangle framed against two poles transform into an architectural pagoda, a rotation of coincident lines through the vertex mimic the steady, precise sweep of windmills and clock hands, and even a right angle L-shape (perhaps a prefiguration of LMNO) traces the outline of factory buildings that intermittently dot the industrial landscape (where the smokestacks, in turn, evoke the image of a burning cigarette) or demarcates the floor of an art exhibition gallery room. This abstraction of figures into essential outlines is also illustrated in the rotoscoped images of human figures, where the actions of an observer is visually repeated in the interlaced images of the train conductor - turning the head, leaning over, pulling away, and advancing toward the foreground - with the observer, in turn, alternately transfigured as a man in a suit, in uniform, in traditional kimono, and even subsequently, as a woman: the fluidity of movement created by the continuity of the amorphous figure's corresponding gestures and mannerisms. As in Breer's earlier Form Phases series (in particular, the ingeniously crafted Form Phases IV), Breer organically transforms linear geometries into dimensional shapes, while alternately collapsing forms into singularity to create a kind of moving art that integrates both practical aesthetics of traditional canvas painting and kinetic sculpture. In continually redefining the notion of space and substance, motion and stasis, object and art, Fuji wryly diverges from the hackneyed, exoticized sightseeing travelogue and instead converges towards a transformative and infinitely more fascinating journey of the imagination.

Posted by acquarello on Jun 29, 2006 | | Comments (6) | Filed under 2006, Robert Breer

June 27, 2006

Private, 2004

private.gifThe premise of a creating a film based on true events - particularly one for a deeply polarizing issue - can sometimes be a conveniently coded minefield for agitprop filmmaking, so it is particularly refreshing to see that Saverio Costanzo's Private manages to strike a bracing, yet thoughtful and delicate balance between sympathy and outrage for the complicated and seemingly inextricably morass that is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Set in an upper middle-class Palestinian household situated between an Israeli settlement and a Palestinian village, the film opens with the immediacy of vérité-styled camerawork as the family of Mohammed (Mohammed Bakri), a gentle and unassuming English professor, is thrown into upheaval after a group of Israeli soldiers commandeer their home as a covert base of operations for monitoring insurgency at the nearby village. Arguing that life as dispossessed refugees is akin to surrendering to the will of transgressors, Mohammed rejects his family's entreaties to abandon their house to the soldiers and instead chooses to defy their order by remaining at home as an act of civil disobedience. Unable to force out the family, the unit commander (Lior Miller) decides to confine the family's activities to the first floor, locking them up in the living room each evening (presumably to control their movement within the household, but also, perhaps partly out of safety, as the darkness often brings its own share of enemy crossfire), while appropriating the second floor of their home as a outpost lookout and sleeping quarters for his troop. However, as the family attempts to retain some semblance of dignity and a continuation of a normal life of work, school, neighborly visits, family dinners, and housekeeping chores under their shadow of their private occupation, their children begin to retreat into their own means of figurative escape from their existential limbo of captivity, an alienating retreat into the inner workings of young, fevered imaginations and impassioned human hearts that can interchangeably sow the seed of vengeance or reconciliation, desperation or tolerance, myopia or illumination.

While the immediate attribution to the Israeli occupation is inevitable, perhaps what is most remarkable about the film is its ability to transcend this localized regionalization of conflict and converge towards a relevant, broader allegory for the psychology of dispossession and disempowerment that exists behind every form of imposed occupation - from colonialism to postwar reconstruction - that has haunted modern day consciousness with the global reality of destabilizing, inescapable terrorism. In addition to the hand-held, vérité camerawork that visually reflects the family's sense of imbalance, turmoil, and uncertainty at their private occupation (and the shifting of battle grounds that will invariably steer the deadly warfront ever closer into sanctity of their own home), the recurring sequences illustrating the son's fascination with booby traps and televised coverage of militant insurgency, and the eldest daughter Samiah's (Arin Omary) idiosyncratic observation of the soldiers from a crack deliberately left open between wardrobe doors in the hallway of the second floor perhaps best exemplify the nature of occupation, as their acts of defiance no longer reflect their emotional solidarity with their father's idealistic radicalization, but have instead metastasized into other - and potentially more self-destructive - forms of personal resistance. Within this context, the young woman's recurring surveillance of the soldiers' leisure activities through angular, sub-framed, "keyhole" glimpses of information can be seen, not only as visual representations of the rigid confinement of occupation, but also as a metaphoric representation of its moral legacy: the upended perspective of dispossessed natives looking out into the self-appropriated privilege of outsiders, where the observer's gaze from the darkness of (imposed) underprivilege is both implicitly defiant and curious, entitled and transgressive, familiar and out of reach.

Posted by acquarello on Jun 27, 2006 | | Filed under 2006

June 24, 2006

Summer Project: Vinyl Archiving

demystification.gifMy summer project this year is to digitally convert roughly 600 LPs/12" EPs and another 300 or so 45s/7" EPs (and another ten 10" EPs) into mp3s, so I'm pleased to say that after a two month backorder, a delivery theft, followed by another two month wait for a backordered replacement, the Ion ittusb turntable is finally hooked up on my imac and ready to burn. After not having listened to these records for some 15-20 years or so, I was particularly anxious to hear these singles again (having grown up in the New York hardcore scene in the mid eighties, I knew these records would tend to be on the hard edge, Loud Fast Rules! side). Anyway, there aren't any predictable NYHC tracks on this batch of conversions, more like complementary music that I was listening to at the time, and I have to admit, the trip down memory lane was liberating.

Promenade Immortelle (Poison Girls) - Vi Subversa's vocals is something akin to Marianne Faithful crossed with Johnny Rotten, it's indescribably soulful. This, along with Reality Attack are my favorite Poison Girls songs, but this one is epic in its composition ...it breaks the heart.

You (Au Pairs) - I had forgotten how extraordinary the Au Pairs were in their arrangements, quite rare for a post-punk band. I love several of their songs, but You was the first of their songs to get my attention. As it turns out, a CD anthology of their work has been released earlier this month.

Demystification (Zounds) - There was no other Crass label band quite like Zounds, and this single especially shows their melodic sensibilities. Apparently, The Curse of Zounds CD includes this track (the original vinyl album didn't) which, along with with Fear, makes the CD an essential buy for me.

Posted by acquarello on Jun 24, 2006 | | Comments (8) | Filed under 2006, Quick Notes

June 23, 2006

All the Fine Promises, 2003

fine_promises.gifChanneling the understated and incisive relational observations of Eric Rohmer, refracted through the magical realist convergences of Raul Ruiz's voluptuous living memories, and bifurcated through Hong Sang-soo's situational parallelisms, All the Fine Promises is a gorgeously rendered, lyrical encapsulation of Jean-Paul Civeyrac's aesthetic modulations between physicality and sensuality, dreams and reality, memory and desire. Ostensibly a muted, and seemingly mundane tale of a sensitive, hopeless romantic cellist named Marianne (Jeanne Balibar) who, already melancholic over her mother's (Eva Truffaut) recent death and the somber task of having to disposition her parents' home and personal effects, is further emotionally strained by the uncertainty over the course of her relationship with her callous and flighty occasional lover Etienne (Renaud Bécard), the film is also a thoughtful exposition on the nature - and myth - of romantic love and the process of grief, healing, and reconciliation. Consumed with the idea that her late father (Pierre Léon) had a former mistress, Béatrice (Bulle Ogier) whom he would refer to in his private correspondences as his one true love, and in particular, her father's unfinished gesture to bequeath a box of personal memorabilia to the unknown woman upon his death from terminal illness (a final wish that her mother, not surprisingly, never carried out during her lifetime) Marianne decides to leave Paris and embark on an impulsive - and inevitably, transformative - trip to the country to fulfill her father's dying request.

The lyricality of the film's opening sequence, as Marianne passes an admiring note to Etienne from across the stage floor during an orchestra performance, even as he continues to make flirtatious, eye contact with an attractive (and attentive) flautist (Raphaële Godin), provides an ingenious foreshadowing to the intrinsic musicality of the film's narrative structure, with the passing of the love note serving as a figurative overture to the nascent development of their relationship. Variations in the recurring motif of unreturned messages left on cell phone voicemails - first, by Marianne, then subsequently, Etienne - further reflect the stanza-chorus structure of the film. This interconnection of musicality and narrative structure - an integral element within Anne Wiazemsky's novel Hymnes à l'amour from which the film is based, proves to be particularly relevant within the context of the ironic leitmotif of Edith Piaf's Hymn to Love, a soulful ballad of unabashed romantic melancholy that not only directly represents the memory of her father (Hymn to Love had been his favorite song), but also serves as an oneiric device for Marianne's haunted dreams that interweave the past and present as refigurations of her own unreconciled existential limbo of unrequited love and perpetual longing. Appropriated by both Marianne's mother and father as their own private "hymns of love" for their respective, numerous affairs (as well as their own affection for each other) to evoke the sentiment of their newfound (and perhaps, even rekindled) love - a clandestine, knowingly shared public articulation of their (fleeting) connections of romanticized love affairs - the idea of a commemorative love song is reduced to the banality of insincere affection, self-absorption, emotional inertia, and meaningless infidelity. Moreover, the juxtaposition of casually embarked relationships and doomed love (in particular, the accidental death of the mother's lover, François' (Renaud Legrand) after a cocktail party at the couple's home, and the father's threat of suicide after Béatrice leaves him) underscores the paradox of Marianne's (and in turn, her parents') delusive romanticism (note that the premise of François' car accidentally crashing into the sea serves as a seemingly interconnected false memory on the loss of an idealized love in Civeyrac's subsequent film À travers la forêt). Culminating in a metaphoric shedding of the skin as Marianne exchanges outerwear with a fellow passenger to avoid detection as she disembarks from the train, her complete metamorphosis can be seen in her emergence into the proverbial light, where the idea of profound love is no longer measured by the idealized weight of suffering or tragic (if hollow) gestures, but in the collective embrace of memories and shared loss.

Posted by acquarello on Jun 23, 2006 | | Comments (4) | Filed under 2006, Jean-Paul Civeyrac

June 19, 2006

Journeys from Berlin, 1980

journeys_berlin.gifWhen Yvonne Rainer began developing her exposition on such seemingly disconnected themes as terrorism, alienation, division, and psychoanalysis in the early 1970s as a result of her first-hand experience as an expatriate - and in particular, an American - artist in (West) Berlin, the idea of domestic terrorism and the specter of 9/11 had not yet permeated the collective consciousness of American society. However, it is precisely within this contemporary culture of a pre-emptive war on terror, suicide civilian attacks, and increasing isolationism that her characteristically idiosyncratic and deeply personal film, Journeys from Berlin can be seen as a curiously prescient, incisive, unabashedly cerebral, and relevant film on the nature and psychology of violence, isolation, trauma, and repression. Opening to the sound of an urban couple's (Vitto Acconci and Amy Taubin) off-screen conversation about the woman's ongoing research on the infamous Baader-Meinhof gang juxtaposed against a scrolling text describing the political climate of 1960s Cold War era (West) Germany as the Federal Criminal Investigation Bureau sought to contain the influence of the opposition deemed a threat to government stability on the general public through active surveillance and aggressive prosecution of radicals and dissidents, even as the East German government (under the aegis of the Soviet Union) sought to politically insulate themselves as well from an equivalent threat with the construction of the Berlin Wall, the film, too, can be seen as a multi-layered reflection of seeming irresolvable, contradictory synchronicity - of dichotomous collisions between image and sound, words and sentiment, time and memory, ideology and action.

One layer of free associative collision occurs in the off-screen urban couple's heady deconstruction of the rise and fall (and legacy) of the domestic terrorist group, the Baader-Meinhof gang (Red Army Faction) amid the assorted sounds of performed household chores. In this offbeat, establishing sequence, the mental image of upended institutions and contraventions of power and social structures are subverted by the aurality of mundane domestic ritual in which the superimposition serves as an illustration of their implicit existential contradiction: the narcissism of empty intellectualism. This sense of disconnected, impotent intellectualism is further reinforced by repeated tracking shots of an eclectic (and occasionally modulated) arrangement of mantelpiece curios and estranged, refracted views from an apartment window looking down into the street - both intrinsically reflecting transient images of decontextualization (the presentation of sentimentally meaningless objects to the audience that may or may not allude to ideas brought up during non-diegetic conversations) and isolation (the metaphoric disconnection of the couple's implied self-defeating intellectualism from the reality of the grassroots site for social change: the streets). In each seemingly casual, alienated visual survey of everyday objects and performance of quotidian rituals, the viewer's instinctive sense of imbalance and anomaly reflects a broader notion of a world perturbated out of balance by artificially created social division, political suppression, self-righteousness, and moral inertia.

Another intersection occurs during an unseen young woman's recitation of passages from her diary (excerpted from Rainer's own journals in her youth) - in particular, her uncomfortability over the implicitly imposed power structure of a store clerk's subservience while shopping for a pair of shoes - against aerial views of Stonehenge and tracking shots of a Berlin street - the latter, a reinforcing image that is prefigured in the psychoanalyzed, suicidal patient's (Annette Michelson) fractured memory. Intrinsic in the free association of these seeming disparate psychological and geographic landscapes is the evocation of a monolithic structure (as symbolized by Stonehenge) that the Berlin Wall also embodies: an iconic representation of a division that is both physical and ideological, real and figurative. Placed not only within the broader context of implicit class and social structures, but more directly, within the context of the government's suppression of political dissidents and the Baader-Meinhof terrorist acts, the insurmountable monolith becomes an indirect representation of incollapsible, opposing, inhumane institutions that become innate (and recursive) reflections of each other: the strong-armed injustices of monopolistic governments against the coercive, violent acts of radical militants. In turn, these mirroring images of entrenched inequality, systematic persecution, and arbitrary violence serve to reinforce the film's recurring theme of suicide through its representation of the broader psychology of social self-destruction, where institutional acts of aggression and suppression become spiraling, self-feeding cycles of escalating violence and dehumanization. It is this corrupted ideology of perpetuated intolerance, social disparity, tyrannical injustice, and Hammurabian vengeance that inevitably defines the true nature of terrorism within the veneer of an enlightened, civilized society - a culturally ingrained, systematic social suicide borne of a myopic collision between intractable, monolithic walls of privilege and exclusion, idealism and realism, altruism and egoism.

Posted by acquarello on Jun 19, 2006 | | Filed under 2006, Yvonne Rainer

June 8, 2006

Boy, 1969

boy.gifThe idiosyncratic color shift of the title sequence in Nagisa Oshima's trenchant and acerbic coming-of-age tale, Boy provides an incisive metaphor for the imbalanced natural order that lies beneath the veneer of the modernized, national recovery of post-occupation Japanese society, as a seemingly de-saturated, black and white Japanese flag prominently placed in the center of the widescreen rigidly confines the visual elements of the screen to within an inner subframe twice bounded by the demarcation of the black sun circle within the center of the white flag. The expectation of the seeming monochromatic aesthetic represented by an anemic national flag is then subverted by the superimposition of bold red calligraphy that culminates with a portrait of the film's titular, innocent-faced Boy (Abe Tetsuo), a defacement that also foretells the intrinsic cruelty and violence that the Boy suffers at the hands of his aimless, self-absorbed family. This notion of subverted expectation continues with the establishing shot of the Boy briefly, inexplicably crying while precariously - and symbolically - standing at the edge of a heavily trafficked street - the pedestrian sidewalk having been demolished as part of a nearby construction site - in an apparent, perhaps frustrated, wait for an opportunity to cross the busy intersection. A subsequent episode then illustrates the insidious context of the elaborate confidence game behind this curious posture as the Boy's stepmother (Koyama Akiko) walks alongside a stream of cars before picking a suitable (or more appropriately, gullible) mark and rushing headlong into the side of the automobile with an audible slap on the vehicle's body before falling away, seemingly unconscious, into the nearby curb, the Boy dutifully falling to the ground in feigned trauma over the severe "accident", followed immediately on cue by the even more guilt-inducing pre-scripted plot of the father (Fumio Watanabe) rushing from across the street to attend to his (common law) wife's injuries while simultaneously holding a flag waving baby (Tsuyoshi Kinoshita) in his arms. The often-played scenario would then bring them to a nearby clinic where the prospect of sustaining job-threatening, long recovery injuries invariably lead to the father's increasingly aggressive tone and threats of police involvement in a ruse to extort money from the unsuspecting driver in exchange for a waiver of liability for the incident. Performing their scam from town to town along the Sea of Japan, the Boy begins to take increasing responsibility for "working" the faked accidents, assuming the role of victim to his stepmother's outraged, panic-stricken parent, until a fateful encounter with a young girl in the northernmost city of Hokkaido - the edge of Japan - drives the Boy to profound confusion and despair over his own culpability and guilt.

In returning to the confidence games of his earlier films, most notably A Town of Love and Hope and Cruel Story of Youth, Oshima expounds on his recurring themes of rootless materialism, alienation, and victimization that were endemic within the culture of Japanese postwar society. Shooting the characters predominantly in medium and long shots from the peripheral margins of the camera frame, Oshima reflects, not only the family's marginalization within contemporary society, but also the moral decentralization and intrinsic rupture of the very notion of Japanese tradition - and in particular, the support system of the extended family - as the Boy is not only uprooted from a proper education and his hometown because of the family's evasive itinerancy, but also his biological mother (who may or may not be terminally ill) and his grandmother (whose emotional attachment has been psychologically manipulated by his father through insensitive comments about the Boy's abandonment and unwantedness). This recurring interrelation - and transposition - between emotional and economic extortion is further reflected in the stepmother's recurring attempts to ingratiate herself into the Boy's trust: first, through the boy's impetuous demand for a baseball cap perched atop a life-sized robot as an inducement for finding the courage to play his new role of the victim for the scam, then subsequently, for a calendar watch in exchange for his silence over her intentionally skipped appointment with an abortionist. In both occasions, the extorted object becomes not only a surrogate for human affection, but also the transactional currency of all familial intimacy, where communication is reduced to the silent, coded signals of identifying the next confidence mark, and deciding on the proper amount of money to be extorted that will meet the family's short-term financial needs (note the father and son's complicit discussion in the men's room of a restaurant planning the details of the Boy's role in their next scam). Placed within the context of the crying Boy pacing the edge of the excavated sidewalk that opens the film - where the ground has literally been removed from under his feet - the introductory image of the confused, alienated, defeated young hero serves as an allusive, reinforcing national sentiment of profound rootlessness and bewilderment over the upended, disposable values of an alien, intraversable modern world of commodified humanity.

Posted by acquarello on Jun 08, 2006 | | Comments (5) | Filed under 2006, Nagisa Oshima

June 6, 2006

Benoît Jacquot Retrospective

duras.gifThe FSLC press release for the Benoît Jacquot retrospective, For the Love of Movies: The Cinema of Benoît Jacquot looks quite good. I'm especially looking forward to a few of the short films, such as Louis René des Fôrets, Jacques Lacan's Psychoanalysis - Part One, the two Marguerite Duras documentaries, Ecrire and The Death of the Young English Aviator, and Nombres et neurons (a conversation between mathematician Alain Connes and the neurobiologist Jean-Pierre Changeux). The retrospective runs from June 23 to July 11, 2006 at the Walter Reade Theater.

[The image still is from The Death of the Young English Aviator.]

Seventh Heaven, 1997
A Single Girl, 1995
A Tout de suite, 2004
The Disenchanted, 1990
The False Servant, 1999
Marianne, 1997
School of Flesh, 1998
Alfred Deller: Portrait of a Voice, 1976, screened with Merce Cunningham and Co., 1982
Elvire-Jouvet 40, 1986, screened with Louis René des Fôrets, 1988
Jacques Lacan's Psychoanalysis - Part One, 1974, screened with Nombres et neurones, 1990
Ecrire, 1993, screened with The Death of the Young English Aviator, 1993
Princesse Marie, 2003
Tosca, 2001
Sade, 2000
Adolphe, 2002
The Musician Killer, 1974
Keep It Quiet, 1999
Closet Children, 1977

Posted by acquarello on Jun 06, 2006 | | Filed under 2006, Quick Notes

June 5, 2006

Crime Novel, 2005

crimenovel.gifIt is nearly impossible to characterize Michele Placido's sprawling, ambitious, and elliptical gangster film, Crime Novel without raising the specter of Francesco Rosi's seminal cinema on the murky atmosphere of corruption, nebulous alliances, terrorism, and widespread violence that defined the sociopolitical landscape of 1970s Italy. However, while Rosi's disorienting ellipticism served to illustrate the power and moral vacuum caused by the protracted period of national instability, filmmaker Placido, screenwriters Sandro Petraglia and Stefano Rulli (the screenwriting team behind Marco Tullio Giordana's The Best of Youth), and novelist Giancarlo De Cataldo instead seem resolved - with the advantage of hindsight - to tidy up the protracted history of bombings, assassinations, and mafia executions into an overarching moral tale through the character introductions of an unimpeachable good cop, Commissioner Scialoja (Stefano Accorsi) who doggedly pursues a band of hoodlums believed to be the architects of a high-profile kidnapping, extortion, and subsequent murder of a prominent aristocrat, Baron Rossellini, through years of a profoundly transforming society, and a shadowy, omniscient State operative waiting in every conceivable wing to intervene in the messy affairs of turf wars, political intimidation, and criminal prosecution in order to set history on its correct course. In its depiction of the characters as witnesses to the unfolding of turbulent history, the film recalls Hou Hsiao Hsien's A City of Sadness. However, while Hou creates a sense of peripherality to the misguided characters as a means of illustrating their social helplessness to the contemporary traumas paralyzing their country, the distance in Crime Novel instead seems to be elicited as much from the character's oblivious self-absorption as it does from screenplay's generic, contextual tangency (the kidnapping of Aldo Moro by the Red Brigade, the bombing of the train station at Bologna, the attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II) - a sense of narrative decentralization that is also reflected in the film's chapter demarcated, strategic changes of perspective within the triumvirate of childhood friends who would inevitably oversee the activities of their rag tag syndicate (a device undoubtedly influenced by Luchino Visconti's tale of fraternal downfall, Rocco and His Brothers): the cold and calculating Libanese (Pierfrancesco Favino) who envisions the ransom money as their entry into the larger payoff of Roman organized crime, the brooding Freddo (Kim Rossi Stuart) who finds in the sensitive, virginal tutor, Roberta (Jasmine Trinca) the possibility of a future without gang violence, and Dandi (Claudio Santamaria), an unpolished opportunist who sees their financial windfall as a means of reinventing himself and his lover Patrizia (Anna Mouglalis) to gain entry into social circles and upper class respectability. Unfortunately, this odd concoction of seeking to maintain a meticulous integrity to the story's historical framework while conveniently engaging in revisionist dovetailing results in a film that, while indeed highly polished, elegantly rendered by a strong ensemble cast, and impeccably reconstructed period filmmaking, is also one that is encumbered with a sense of anecdotal historicity, familiar caricatures, overdesign, and pathological neatness.

Posted by acquarello on Jun 05, 2006 | | Filed under 2006

June 3, 2006

Brass Unbound, 1993

brass.gifJohan van der Keuken's sublime and exhilarating riff on the city symphony and musical documentary, Brass Unbound is a thoughtful, infectiously engaging, and complexly resonant exposition on the transformative evolution of the ceremonial brass band throughout post-colonial societies from tools of enslavement and imperialism, to instruments of cultural celebration and personal expression. The film ingeniously opens to a long shot of a Nepalese man briskly traversing the hills of a rural village with a sewing machine curiously slung across his back on his way to a cottage factory where a handful of other tailors have already taken their respective corners on the dirt floor and are busily toiling at their monotonous craft, the monotonic cadence of the rattle and hum of sewing machines increasingly masked by the rhythmic sound of a tinny folk music emanating overhead. A seamless vertical tracking shot places the camera in seeming levitation towards the second floor where an ensemble of brass and woodwind musicians rehearses. A second cutaway to the city visually connects the second floor folk musicians with a second brass band as a musician practices in a cramped, underlit room above an opened family home, where an overhanging billboard advertises the services of the Hansilo modern light music brass band. This metaphoric, introductory image of ascension - if not transcendence - through music would subsequently be articulated by an unnamed Nepalese musician (and unofficial band manager) as he traces the evolutionary history of the ceremonial brass band in his native country, where the first Rana, Jung Bahadur, having journeyed to Europe to forge an alliance with the British Empire in order to secure his family's dynastic, regional autonomy after the conquest of India during the nineteenth century, sought to elevate his national stature by returning home in 1850 with several modern brass and woodwind instruments in order to integrate the sound of their impressive, bright harmonies into the pomp and circumstance of his official ceremonies. Born to a lower caste often relegated to an ancestral vocation as tailors, the musician perceives the Rana's introduction of the novel instruments to Nepal, not as a means of currying favor from neighboring foreign colonists, but rather, as a transformative blessing that indirectly elevated the very social position of his entire caste, as the responsibility for musicianship of the new, western instruments - and therefore, the entrance and visibility into the Rana's court and privileged society - fell within the scope of traditionally accepted professions associated with his caste.

The notion of the brass band as accompanists through all the existential and spiritual ceremonies - providing the musical refrain to the familiar rites of passage of an eternal natural cycle - carries through to the interconnected image of social rituals, as a brass band hired to provide entertainment for a wedding ceremony and subsequently, devotional accompaniment for a Hindu pilgrimage in Nepal is paralleled to the sound of an elegiac prelude to a chorus during a Surinamese funeral service, a retired musician recalling the unfamiliar customs of the Dutch-introduced formal soirées of his youth in Minahassa, Indonesia, and in Ghana, to a ceremonial seafaring initiation at a coastal village. At each juncture, the idea of a metaphoric, transcendental journey is traced back to the historical context of the physical voyage rooted in colonialism, a theme that is reinforced in the narrator's statement as the camera surveys the landscape of post-colonial Suriname: "In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, ten million people were carried over the ocean in wooden ships. They were taken as slaves from the west coast of Africa to work in the plantations of colonies in the New World. The churches brought them God's Word, and, somewhat later, God's instruments."

A more explicit manifestation of the European wind instruments as a means of colonialist subjugation is directly correlated to the continued popularity of the "spirits" musicians in modern-day Suriname, even as roughly half of the indigenous population have converted to Christianity. Originating from the performance of the Winti ceremony in order to drive away the evil spirits from possessed bodies, the ritual became a common practice on colonial plantations as a means of exerting control over the hearts and minds (and souls) of rebellious, willful, troublesome slaves. It is through this recurring theme of brass band music as an integrated living soundtrack for the human condition that the idiosyncratic image of a bobbing, bellowing tuba drifting sinuously through the diverse architecture that line the city streets of Suriname - in all the splendor of colonial privilege and dilapidation of exploited, abject poverty - can be seen as a metaphor for the wind instruments' integration (and finally, assimilation) into the native traditions of colonized peoples, transformed from insidious artifacts of cultural imperialism to integral - and empowering - instruments of a cross-pollinated, yet distinctly indigenous living culture.

Posted by acquarello on Jun 03, 2006 | | Comments (3) | Filed under 2006, Johan van der Keuken

May 31, 2006

Tintin and I, 2003

tintin.gifIn 1971, a young journalist, Numa Sadoul conducted a series of interviews over the course of four days with Hergé, the introverted, but genial and widely beloved creator of The Adventures of Tintin serial comic strip and pioneer of the ligne claire style of animation for a proposed biography in what would turn out to be an unusually candid, introspective, and insightful conversation with the legendary Belgian animator. However, by the end of these recorded conversations, what would emerge was not only the image of a curious, perennial boy scout brought into animated life through his ageless alter ego, but rather, a complex portrait of a man who, already well into his sixties at the time of the interview, was only beginning to feel comfortable in his own skin - an insecure artist who adopted the pseudonym Hergé from his initials (R.G.) and continued to use it throughout his career in order to reserve the distinction of signing his real name, Georges Remi, for when he would become a "real" artist - a haunted soul still struggling to reconcile his deep Catholic convictions with his misguided, youthful ideology long after coming to the painful realization that Abbé Norbert Wallez, his spiritual and vocational mentor during his formative years between the two world wars, had led him down a repressive, insular, and soul-crushing path of religious conservatism and right-wing politics. Having lived though a self-described mediocre childhood, Remi's fateful association with the charismatic Wallez would resonate throughout every aspect of the young advertisement illustrator's life, from his promotion to create his own serial comic strips for the Catholic right publication Le Vingtième Siècle (and subsequently, its children's supplement Le Petit Vingtième) for which Wallez served as editor, to the personal suggestion that he marry Wallez's own secretary, Germaine Kieckens. Rather than leading a life of adventure as a veritable newspaperman that his alter ego, the intrepid young reporter Tintin would embark on, Remi instead found himself further isolated from a rapidly transforming broader world of pre-World War II Europe, working long hours at his studio where his first completed serials safely and neatly toed the line of church doctrine - or at least, Wallez's version of it - as it extolled the virtues of colonialism and the evils of communism (Wallez was a supporter of fascism).

Fortunately, Remi's cultural naïveté and cursory treatment of social stereotypes would soon come to an end with The Blue Lotus, a serial that ushered a more refreshingly mature phase of creativity, technical fluency, and cultural sensitivity in the Tintin series. A remarkably accurate, painstakingly researched, and culturally attuned adventure, Remi's art was elevated by his collaboration with a Chinese sculptor and university student named Chang Chong-jen whom he had befriended at the instigation of advisor and University of Louvain professor, Abbé Gosset. Although short lived, the collaboration would profoundly mark the rest of Remi's life, as he continued for the next few decades to re-contact Chang in vain, until an astute journalist, sensing tremendous public interest for such a human interest story, tracked down the repatriated Chang in China and arranged for a reunion (and thus, conveniently positioned himself for an exclusive on the story). As filmmaker Anders Østergaard subsequently suggests, Remi's obsession towards finding Chang was perhaps driven more by his own (understandable) need for the continuity of an enduring, idealized friendship than in the actual substance of their association - a means of connecting with his past even as he felt increasingly estranged from the people who represented the rigid institutions and ideologies of his youth.

With the occupation of Belgium by the Germans during World War II came the inevitable closure of Le Vingtième Siècle, and Remi then accepted an offer to continue the Tintin series under a similar arrangement for the rival newspaper Le Soir (dubbed Le Petit Soir), a publication that would subsequently fall under the direct control of the Nazis for propaganda purposes, and ultimately result in Remi's postwar imprisonment and blacklisting for collaborating with the Germans. In an attempt to circumvent their political scrutiny, Remi would shift the focus of his stories from history-based destinations to fantasy adventures, a more pragmatic, if not pessimistic view of the occupation that can also be seen in Remi's shift in character identification from the idealistic Tintin to the world weary and mercurial (and often drunken) Captain Haddock. As the film subsequently illustrates, it is this change in perspective that proves particularly insightful with respect to two subsequent Tintin serials as they chronicled personal turmoil within Remi's increasingly aimless and emotionally uncertain life.

An initial glimpse of this sense of crisis is manifested in the eerily prescient, apocalyptic scenario of The Shooting Star, as the threat of a meteorite hurtling on a direct trajectory towards Earth (and subsequently, the ominous discovery of the mysterious matter with strange, radioactive-like properties that mutate organic life) reflects Remi's struggle with the demoralizing pressures of occupation, creative censorship, and a protracted - and perhaps annihilating - world war that was being fought with increasingly sophisticated weapons made possible by rapid advancement in nuclear fission technology during the early 1940s. Another manifestation can be seen in what is perhaps his magnum opus, Tintin in Tibet, an adventure destination that had been inspired by Remi's tormented, recurring nightmares of enveloping whiteness. Created during a time of profound spiritual crisis caused by his long-term separation from his estranged wife and his increasing attraction to an Hergé Studios illustrator, Fanny Vlaminck, Remi's identification with the character Captain Haddock proves especially metaphoric within the context of Haddock's thoughts of self-sacrifice in order to save his friend, as he hangs precariously from the end of Tintin's tether at the edge of a cliff: a self-resigned albatross determined to cut himself free and plunge inexorably into the white abyss so that the other can survive.

With his personal demons exorcised upon the finalization of his divorce from Kieckens (which also represented his symbolic, final break with Wallez's early influence), Remi would settle into a comfortable married life with Vlaminck and the full creative autonomy of the Hergé Studios. However, the orchestrated media circus of the Chang reunion also publicly revealed a gaunt Remi visibly weakened by complications stemming from a long-term blood disorder, an ailment that he sought to treat with meditation. It was, therefore, perhaps inevitable that with his failing health and the absence of motivational conflict in his life that Remi would increasingly indulge in peripheral self-distractions (that may have included, as Sadoul muses, his entertainment of a young journalist's request for an exhaustive series of interviews), resulting in fewer and fewer published Tintin adventures over the years. By the time of Remi's death in 1983, his friends would describe a certain clarity in his demeanor that they would attribute to his frequent meditation during the final years of his life, a sense of peace that had been denied him by the fateful tide of history and naïve alliances that silenced his moral compass. But within the consciousness of his own insecurity and intrinsic sense of Catholic guilt, his newfound inner peace can also be seen as a sign of acceptance and self-forgiveness that he had, throughout much of his adult life, denied himself.

Posted by acquarello on May 31, 2006 | | Comments (9) | Filed under 2006

May 29, 2006

In Search of Famine, 1980

famine.gifNearly a decade after the release of his three-part magnum opus Calcutta 71, Mrinal Sen would rekindle the specter of famine, exploitation, and poverty within the collective consciousness of contemporary society to create an equally haunting and introspective exposition into the nature of human suffering in In Search of Famine. Structured as a film within a film on a Calcutta-based film crew as they converge on the rural village of Hatui in order to shoot a film set during the Bengali Famine of 1943 (a wartime, man-made famine caused by the diversion of food supplies by the British colonial government to support the military campaign in Asia), In Search of Famine is also a trenchant examination into the universality - and perpetualization - of class division, ignorance, cultural arrogance, and economic polarization.

A seemingly informal tour of the crew's guest accommodations and the surrounding estate grounds of the impressive, but deteriorating, near empty zamindari that will also serve as a setting for one of the film's more lavish sequences incisively captures the economic reality of the entire village, as the crew's travel manager explains his difficulty in obtaining several sets of keys from their respective owners in order to gain access into all of the rooms of the estate after the individual heirs inevitably shuttered their inherited spaces over the years and moved away in search of a better life elsewhere. With the zamindari now singularly tended by the sole remaining heir still living on the premises, an elderly woman (Gita Sen) unable to leave because of the constant attention demanded by the care of her paralyzed, ailing husband, the estate has fallen into a state of disrepair and neglect (note the theme of paralysis and entrapment that Sen similarly captures in his subsequent film, Khandahar. Watching the crew's activities from the balcony with equal measures of curiosity, estrangement, longing, and despair, the landlady's only interaction comes from the daily visits of a poor young woman from the village named Durga (Sreela Majumdar) who works a series of odd jobs for several households (and subsequently, the film crew) in order to make ends meet after the amputation of her husband's arm in a work-related accident. In still another fateful encounter, a weaver and former theatrical actor named Haren (Rajen Tarafder) attempts to curry favor (or more likely, employment) by insinuating himself into the elaborate production, acting as an ineffective, self-appointed liaison between the alternately bemused and skeptical villagers and the presumptuous film crew. Through their figurative subservience to the film crew, Sen creates an implicit correlation with the desperate prostitution of women during the 1943 famine (as suggested in the film project by the heroine's association with construction workers from Calcutta).

Perhaps the most implicit reflection of the theme of pervasive, metaphoric famine is through a series of pictorial guessing games that the film crew engages in order to pass the time. Through randomly selected research photographs that the director (Dhritiman Chatterjee) has brought on location to study the "face of famine" - a sketch depicting the second century Gandgar statue entitled The Starving Buddha, a 1959 mini famine that ravaged Bengal, a 1971 humanitarian crisis brought about by the Bangladesh War - Sen refutes the notion that famine is an isolated historical incident brought about by the specific intersection of war, colonialism, social division, and food shortage, but rather, results from the conscious, socially motivated, symptomatic aftermath of man-made human suffering.

it is interesting to note that the symbolic sound of roaring machinery that is used to indicate the presence of (unseen) airplanes flying over the village during the film project (a motif that also evokes Satyajit Ray's film on the 1943 famine Distant Thunder) is also repeated in the din of portable generators brought by the crew to power film equipment in the electricity-less estate, and further reinforces the idea of the cosmopolitan film crew as intrusive noise-makers within the rural (and essentially backward) village. Within this context, the interrupted conversation between the leading actress (Smita Patil) and the landlady as she shares her memories of life during the famine that is abruptly truncated by the sound of activated generators can be seen as a broader metaphor for the film crew's delusive pursuit of capturing realism through aesthetic manipulation and artificial construction. In essence, the villagers' disparate, but interrelated circumstances of abject poverty, misguided pride, and emotional compromise reflect the intrinsic dichotomy between the myopia of the film crew's elusive quest to capture the authenticity of the 1943 human tragedy in their "search for famine" from the perspective of a privileged outsider's gaze, and the economic, spiritual, and emotional impoverishment - the inescapable famine - that continues to define the everyday reality of the marginalized living in the periphery of their well-intentioned, but insulated gaze.

Posted by acquarello on May 29, 2006 | | Comments (7) | Filed under 2006, Mrinal Sen

May 25, 2006

Illustrious Corpses, 1976

illustrious.gifPerhaps Francesco Rosi's most pointed and incisive social examination of the widespread instability, scandal, injustice, and corruption of (then) contemporary postwar politics, Illustrious Corpses opens to the image of a somber, elderly judge named Varga (Charles Vanel) as he walks pensively through the catacombs of a church, observing in painstaking detail the recesses and contours of the rows and rows of mummified corpses that curiously line the eerie, dimly lit passageways before emerging from the church entrance into the sunlight to continue his leisurely, routine morning walk. This silent communion between the judge and the ominous, seemingly endless succession of scattered, mummified corpses appropriately prefigures the evolution of the film's dark tale of conspiracy and murder as well when, only moments later, Varga is felled by a single rifle shot to the head as he reaches up to pluck a flower from an overgrown courtyard tree. No sooner has Inspector Rogas (Lino Ventura) installed himself within the cadre of pall bearers for Varga's funeral in order to conduct a low-key surveillance of potential suspects when he learns that a second assassination of a federal judge bearing a similar signature of calculated precision has taken place in another city, an implicit, high profile connection that immediately brings the country teetering ever closer to the brink of instability as word of a serial political assassin working to disrupt the justice system - and ultimately, the very fabric of society's sense of law and order - begin to grip the nation with inconclusive, often conflicting news of the victims and the progress of the investigation. Operating under a theory that the murders may not be politically motivated, but instead, connected by a personal vendetta carried out by someone who had been jointly prosecuted - perhaps unjustly - by the judges in the same court, Rogas begins to follow a tortuous, often unpredictable trail culled from a list of wrongfully convicted former defendants and exonerated prisoners that would inevitably bring him into the nebulous company of a genial, but politically savvy Security Minister (Fernando Rey) whose insinuation into the company of left-wing political leaders betrays his own unscrupulous ambitions to retain power and weather any potential shifts in the political tide, a potential third target named Judge Rasto (Alain Cuny) who had transcribed some of the proceedings of the trials and now shutters himself in his home in constant fear of the faceless assassin, an enigmatic socialite named Madame Cres (Maria Carta) who may have planted incriminating evidence in order to frame her own husband for her attempted murder, Rogas' trusted friend and scientist (Paolo Bonacelli) who begins to question the simple motive of vengeance for the murders as the logical realization of a sophisticated, ever widening (and deepening) level of conspiracy becomes increasingly inescapable, an ideologically rigid magistrate (Max von Sydow) who summarily rejects the intrusion of humanity or compassion into the dispensation of the law, even as he arbitrarily breaches it with illegal wiretaps and surveillance of those whom he deems to be a threat to social order. Incorporating familiar elements that have come to define Rosi's cinema - elliptical narrative, estranged perspective, and illuminating dream sequences - Illustrious Corpses encapsulates the volatile, often incestuous relationships between the government, organized crime, political opposition, religious authorities, radicals, terrorists, and the media that have irreparably shaped the murky, turbulent landscape of 1970s Italian politics, a climate of protracted instability that would culminate with the kidnapping and murder of Italian Prime Minister Aldo Moro by the Red Brigade in 1978 (the subject of Marco Bellocchio's penetrating docu-fiction, Good Morning Night). In its unflinching depiction of the abuse of power, heavy-handed governance, egregious alliances, and Machiavellian sense of justice and privilege, the film serves as a trenchant, contemporary, and relevant exposition into the ingrained political culture of corruption, arrogance, tenuous ideology, and delusive righteousness.

Posted by acquarello on May 25, 2006 | | Filed under 2006, Francesco Rosi

May 18, 2006

Casa de Lava, 1995

casadelava.gifThe real-life eruption of the Pico volcano in the island of Fogo and the outbreak of cholera in the Cape Verde Islands provide a dense and ingeniously metaphoric contemporary backdrop to Pedro Costa's exposition on isolation, entrapment, moral inertia, and longing in Casa de Lava. Once an uninhabited Portuguese colony situated off the coast of northwest Africa, Cape Verde's geographic location was ideally suited to serve as a logistics center for merchant ships traveling westward to America for the slave trade. In Costa's cinema, this complex history of the islands as a place of involuntary settlement and captivity, as well a waystation for people embarking on journeys into distant lands never to return again, has continued to seep into the present day consciousness of the local population, and is reflected in an introductory montage of the ruggedly impassive residents - composed primarily of women - framed against the austere landscape in the early sequences of the film. The image of repressed violence surfacing through the juxtaposition of the ominous, fluorescent glow of slowly churning lava and the opaque gaze of the villagers is immediately repeated in two connecting episodes to otherwise seemingly unrelated scenes in the Portuguese city of Lisbon: first, in the shot of a somber Cape Verdean migrant worker Leão looking down from the framed opening of an unfinished building that cuts to the shot of the construction office where news of his "accident" sets the worksite into a chaotic scramble for help; the second, in the shot of hospital nurse Mariana (Inês de Medeiros) curiously dowsing her face with a bracing quantity of isopropyl alcohol at the end of her exhausting shift at a coma ward where the gravely injured Leão has been admitted after slipping out of consciousness. A few months later, an anonymously written payment has been dispatched to the hospital in order to cover the cost of sending the still comatose Leão back to Cape Verde after he is inexplicably discharged, and Mariana agrees to accompany her patient as well as facilitate the transfer of medical supplies to the island hospital where an outbreak of cholera has reached epidemic proportions. But the circumstances of Leão's homecoming prove to be even more complicated. Deposited at a desolate open field by a military transport plane en route to deliver military equipment to a distant war (with an equally nebulous arrangement for a scheduled return date), no one has arrived to welcome Leão home (except for an aging violinist who approaches the abandoned couple with the demeanor of a curious onlooker, but will not verify his actual relationship with the patient), and Mariana is compelled to bring Leão to the hospital for shelter, along with the medical staff's far more anticipated delivery of medical supplies.

In hindsight, the absence of men in the establishing sequence of Cape Verdean villagers foretells the underlying reality of the elliptical, opening images, a sentiment articulated by the island doctor that soberingly echoes the haunted memory of the country's slave trading past - that everyone leaves Cape Verde, but no one ever comes back. Indeed, inasmuch as impoverishment has upended the social fabric of the community as able-bodied men leave - and never return - in search of economic opportunity, it has also rended the very idea of family and sense of responsibility. Children are born out of wedlock and neglected by disconnected, self-absorbed, fractured families, emotionally abandoned like the domestic animals that roam the streets (the violinist boasts of 30 children, but cannot even remember the name of his first child), and flagrant transgressions are carried out against each other with virtual impunity from prosecution (a police officer is never seen, even after the theft of medicine in the hospital dispensary and Mariana's attempted assault at the beach).

Within this environment of perpetual estrangement and isolation, Mariana's arrival at Cape Verde can also be seen as an existential waystation between life and death, a recurring theme that is reflected in Edith's (Edith Scob) perpetual mourning of her dead lover, the outbreak of a cholera epidemic in the village, and Leão's reluctant (if not resentful) awakening from his coma - a state of waiting for inevitable passage that seemingly continues to fulfill a centuries-old predestiny that had been sealed with the settlement of the village on the abandoned ruins of a slave port and former leper colony. Visually, Costa reflects this sense of metaphysical transience through recurring murky, crepuscular, and eerily otherworldly images of volcanic activity, clandestine encounters, and waves violently crashing against the shore (most notably, during Mariana's thwarted rape and in Edith's subsequent tearful discovery of the brutally killed dog that had protected her).

Moreover, through the role of the French émigré and local benefactress Edith - a still grieving woman who once followed her politically exiled lover to Cape Verde and decided to remain on the islands with her aimless son (Pedro Hestnes) long after her lover's death - Costa also confronts the issues of lawlessness and socio-economic stagnation that continue to plague many contemporary post-colonial African countries towards the end of the twentieth century. Doling out her lover's pension to ungracious supplicants who swarm around her each month as she retrieves her checks from town in order to plead their case for a handout (not surprisingly, often for a one-way ticket out of the islands), their lopsided relationship is one of disempowerment and parasitic dependency (a sentiment that is also reflected through the villagers' collective reference to Mariana as their savior when she first arrives to the island with a supply of vaccines to help stem the epidemic). Within this context of a culturally perpetuated neediness, Casa de Lava becomes a trenchant reflection of the broader geopolitical issue of continued post-colonial economic dependence endemic within many third world nations - a situation that is exacerbated by an intrinsic dependency on foreign aid and external charity, coupled with a systematic exodus of the very population who can provide the appropriate skills, innovation, and resources necessary to frame the structure for a self-sustaining economy and provide the social stability to - if not transform - their increasingly fragmented, isolated, and dispossessed communities.

Posted by acquarello on May 18, 2006 | | Comments (1) | Filed under 2006, Pedro Costa

May 13, 2006

The Mask, 1989

mask.gifSet against the bicentennial commemoration of the French Revolution and the drafting of the Declaration of the Rights of Man, Johan van der Keuken's The Mask is a relevant, provocative, and bracing exposition on the contemporary social representation of the ideals of the 1789 revolution - liberty, equality, and fraternity - at a particularly transformative time in globalism and international politics when Eastern Europe was gradually emerging from the crumbling economy of a disintegrating Soviet bloc, and thus liberating itself from a state of "equality without freedom", and the nascent steps towards the formation of a European economic union were being vigorously debated through the media by political leaders (most notably, right-wing ultranationalist Jean-Marie Le Pen's racially inflammatory comments) seeking to sway public sentiment towards their cause on such confrontational issues as immigration and national identity, financial independence and common market leverage. The film opens to an image of understated, but trenchant irony as a pair of street musicians from Madagascar attempts to engage the captive (and largely disinterested) commuters into their guitar and saxophone performance by equating the sentiment expressed in their native folk song with the hopeful ideals of the revolution. The estranged image of these marginalized, panhandling immigrants searching for a receptive audience as they vainly chase their illusory dreams of a better life in the transitory platforms of an adoptive promised land is brought closer to the consciousness of the common man - in this case, the native Frenchman - through an equally incisive isolated shot of van der Keuken's seemingly atypical subject, a genial and unassuming 23 year old part-time waiter named Philippe, traveling in the opposite direction of a crowd on a set of escalators at a train station.

Comely, free from substance abuse, articulate, and presentably dressed in a dark, neutral colored suit, Philippe defies the stereotype of a vagrant. Uprooted from a fairly stable home life by the untimely death of his long ailing mother, as well as an unfortunate series of self-admitted youthful indiscretions (which included such rash, but seemingly innocuous decisions as resigning from a job without immediate prospects for a new one on hand), Philippe now walks aimlessly throughout the city to pass the long, empty hours on an all-too familiar routine (an evicted immigrant couple at a social services office similarly articulate this round the clock ambulatory ritual as a means of passing time) that includes stowing away in the waiting areas of train stations while dodging patrol officers making their rounds on the nights when he is unable to secure a bed space at the overfilled Salvation Army. His ambition, he muses, is to have a wardrobe of finely tailored suits with which he could present himself during job interviews and professional meetings that would serve as a mask of trustworthiness and dependability and conceal his instability.

As celebrations for the bicentennial reach a crescendo, Philippe, too, gets caught up in the politics of the moment, spending time with a pair of homeless, alcoholic military veterans who bristle at François Mitterand's public gesture of extolling the virtues of a national open immigration policy (arguing instead that such liberal immigration embraced by Mitterand robs the native French citizens from opportunities and social services), even as they equate Le Pen's heavy-handedness with the brutality of World War II death squads. However, van der Keuken preempts their alcohol-fueled specious argument (a generalization subsequently echoed by Philippe) with earlier scenes of struggling musicians and evicted immigrant families to create a pervasive atmosphere, not of the insidious nature of racism, but of the intrinsic psychology of disenfranchisement and marginalization, where fears of personal failure and human frailty are perverted into scapegoat absolutions of xenophobia and sense of unmerited, entitled privilege that inevitably lead to inertia and complacency. It is within these underlying paradoxes of homelessness and freedom, social status and equality, racism and fraternity that van der Keuken presents, not only an incisive portrait of the untenability of revolutionary ideals, but also a pensive, everyman cautionary tale on the alienating, self-defeating cycle of poverty, dependence, and social entrapment.

Posted by acquarello on May 13, 2006 | | Filed under 2006, Johan van der Keuken

May 9, 2006

Ticket of No Return, 1979

ticket.gifInvoking Rainer Werner Fassbinder's irreverent, artful kitsch, Federico Fellini's carnivalesque grotesquerie, and Werner Schroeter's impenetrable, autobiographical self-evidence, Ticket of No Return encapsulates the highly stylized, funny, frustrating, offbeat, decadent, intoxicating, and fevered delirium that is Ulrike Ottinger's cinema. A chronicle of an archetypally beautiful, impeccably dressed woman "of antique grace and raphaelic harmony" eponymously called 'She' (Tabea Blumenschein) who, as the film begins, decides to withdraw from her privileged life in La Rotunda and books a one-way ticket to Berlin-Tegel in order to follow her one true desire - to embark on a sightseeing drinking binge through the city - the film subverts the iconic images of Hollywood glamour queens and skid row drunkards with a parodic and egalitarian view of substance abuse through the perspective of an unapologetic, jet-setting, merry-making alcoholic and, in the process, confronts the hypocrisy of cultural attitudes towards the social consumption of alcohol. Occasionally crossing paths with a trio of uptight and judgmental, yet passive and unobtrusive public service matrons appropriately named Social Question (played by Schroeter's muse, Magdalena Montezuma), Accurate Statistics (Orpha Termin), and Common Sense (Monika von Cube) who provide a peripheral, Greek chorus-like commentary on the demographic research, anecdotal information, and physical and societal repercussions of alcohol abuse, the heroine defies all their impotent attempts at instilling the virtues of moderation and rehabilitation, and instead befriends a bag lady (Lutze) and subsequently molds her into her own image as a fashionable drunk, complete with haute couture clothing and a penchant for getting plastered on cognac and fine vintage wine. Wandering through the off-the-beaten-path streets of Berlin at dusk on a series of increasingly bizarre, surreal, and dissociative alcohol-infused, somnambulistic encounters - that include a gregarious chanteuse (played by German punk icon Nina Hagen), actor Eddie Constantine, and a performance artist (Wolf Vostell) wearing a bread-laden suit who slowly devours his own clothing - she begins to tempt fate with acts of recklessness (most notably, in a Felliniesque high-wire balancing act and a harrowing ride on the hood of a stunt car rushing headlong towards a fire-engulfed wall). But beyond these tongue-in-cheek acts of self-destruction is also the image of transparent division and distorted perception, illustrated through recurring visuals of liquid splashed onto glass walls and mirrors (note the heroine's face to face encounter with a window washer in the airport that is repeated in her encounter with the bag lady in a taxi as she attempts to clean the windows to solicit a handout, then subsequently, in their chance meeting at a café). It is this notion of shattered images and breakdown of illusion that is reflected in the corollary bookending shots (and distinctive shoe taps) of the heroine's disembodied high heeled legs walking away from the foreground of the frame - first, through the high gloss, marble floors of the travel agency foyer, and subsequently, the parting image of a glass-tiled floor crushing under the weight of her deliberate passage - the profound isolation and ironic lucidity of a free spirit in a society of cosmetic masks and conformist rituals.

Posted by acquarello on May 09, 2006 | | Comments (2) | Filed under 2006, Ulrike Ottinger

2006 NY Human Rights Watch Schedule

Human Rights Watch International Film Festival has posted their New York schedule. There seems to be far fewer Latin American-themed films this year compared to their strong showing last year, but the film description for Rosita alone seems to indicate the quality of films from this region remains impeccable. The winner of the Nestor Almendros Prize this year is James Longley's Iraq in Fragments, so the quick temptation is to attend the festival on the opening weekend. That said, Shari Robertson and Michael Camerini's work in progress documentary, My American Dream: How Democracy Works sounds right up my alley, so I may opt for that weekend instead.

Posted by acquarello on May 09, 2006 | | Filed under 2006, Quick Notes

April 26, 2006

The Eye Above the Well, 1988

eye_well.gifOn the surface, photographer turned filmmaker Johan van der Keuken's selection of an ancient Indian folktale narration that opens and concludes The Eye Above the Well is a curious one. Recounting the tale of a man suspended precariously from a tree branch above a snake-infested dried-up well who, in moments before an inescapable, horrific death, nevertheless reaches to taste a drop of honey on the tip of a blade of grass near the well, the tale seems ideally suited to a facile interpretation of third world allegory for capturing moments of grace and humble beauty in the face of poverty, hardship, and inevitable death. However, perhaps what is intrinsically significant about the inclusion of the folktale is not found in the content of the parable, but rather, in its context - in the seeming incongruity of its existential orality within a visual and representational ethnographic cultural survey. Indeed, inasmuch as van der Keuken captures the travails and quotidian rituals of life within the rural and urban communities of Kerala near the end of the twentieth century without the overt intrusion of narrated (first world) perspective, he also chronicles the process of passage, continuity, commutation, and transference - creating a snapshot, not only of a captured moment, but also the reinforcing fragments of a future memory in an interrelated stream of collective consciousness.

Acutely aware that each superseding film frame is a figurative erasure of the previous one, van der Keuken's gaze transcends that of passive observation or ubiquitous surveillance and instead, becomes a chronicle of the ephemeral - a theme that is reinforced in the establishing shots of the village through the veil of diaphanous smoke that suffuses the landscape. It is, therefore, perhaps not surprising that van der Keuken's sublime, extended traveling shot through the rural village as a moneylender embarks on his daily collection route visually prefigures the pervasive sense of displacement and migration of Chantal Akerman's D'Est and rootlessness of Peter Mettler's Gambling, Gods and LSD, where the organic happenstance nature of the passing images serve as a metaphor for existential transience. In contrast to fluidity of camera movement implemented in the rural sequences, the city is depicted through a quick cut montage that reflects the chaos of urban life (in a sequence that also prefigures the baroque visual strategy of Mark Lapore's collage film, Kolkata). In his photography of the disparate landscapes, van der Keuken's gaze lies, not in the details of the captured image, but in the intrinsic, subconscious destruction of that image within the sequentiality (and manipulation) of the film itself - the transformation from the physical (object) to the cognitive (memory).

In an early sequence, the image of a martial arts instructor overseeing his students' flexibility exercises and kata-like drills illustrates the social process of imparting knowledge between elder and protégé, a passing of legacy that is reinforced in a subsequent shot of the middle-aged instructor and his student formally posed in the foreground of a wall bearing the portrait of the instructor as a young man and his own teacher. A series of subsequent encounters - a village schoolteacher, a spiritual cantor, and a Kathakali instructor - evoke the presaging image of the complex choreography of martial arts exercises to illustrate the repetition innate in the process of enlightened ritual. In another sequence, a moneylender traveling from village to village to collect weekly installment payments on outstanding loans represents the most immediately identifiable form of transference - financial transaction - as money changes hands through a succession of craftsmen, teachers, and shop owners, and is used to finance a loan for another local merchant. It is interesting to note that this commodification of social interaction is subsequently connected to the shot of a bicycle messenger transporting film cans to the local movie house when the moneylender visits the projectionist to collect payment on his debt. It is through this seeming chance encounter that van der Keuken illustrates the sublimative process of enlightenment and transference - the intersection between the physical (ritual) and the ephemeral (idea) through the intrinsic duality of film as both a material object and fictional, intangible, projected image.

Posted by acquarello on Apr 26, 2006 | | Comments (6) | Filed under 2006, Johan van der Keuken

April 18, 2006

The Koumiko Mystery, 1965

koumiko.gifChanneling the zeitgeist of the French new wave, The Koumiko Mystery assimilates Jean-Luc Godard's enraptured clinical deconstructions of the feminine mystique (as well as a penchant for structuring these ruminations within the framework of noir) with Jacques Demy's achingly nostalgic evocations of elusive, romanticized longing into a whimsical, organic, and fractured, yet quintessential Chris Marker exposition on culture, identity, contemporaneity, and strangerness. Consisting of a series of conversations with - and observations of - an attractive, French-speaking, twenty-something Tokyo resident named Koumiko Muraoka, the film is set against the backdrop of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, a critical milestone for postwar Japan to demonstrate to the international community that the nation had not only recovered, but also culturally evolved from its feudal, militarist history into a modernized, free economy, democratic society. In its characterization of a complex, historical city as an organic, self-propelled, and autonomous personality (and specifically, as an enigmatic woman), the film can be seen, not only as an homage to Walter Ruttmann's Berlin: Symphony of a Great City but also as a prefiguration of Godard's Two or Three Things I Know About Her in which the ambiguously attributed "her" of the title becomes an interchangeable allusive reference to the city of Paris, the actress Marina Vlady, or her fictional character Juliette at different vertices within the film. As in Godard's subsequent film, a great city is shown at the cusp of transformation, regardable as both a quaint, hometown with indigenous character, and as a bustling, constantly evolving city on the threshold of becoming an impersonal - and intrinsically characterless - modern metropolis.

For Marker, a visual survey of European-featured mannequins at a department store and advertisements for cosmetic products that purport to create the appearance of enlarged eyes and narrowed noses illustrate this subconscious dissolution of identity in the face of globalism, even as Koumiko considers her own features to be too classically Japanese - a face more suited to the Heian period, she muses - and lightheartedly argues that she wishes that she had a more in vogue, "funny face" instead. This seemingly anecdotal exchange precisely articulates Marker's sense of alterity in this cultural encounter, as he interprets these aesthetics of contemporary fashion as a subconscious desire to neutralize Asiatic features - to erase the otherness that attracts him to the culture (and to the heroine) - even as she seeks her own sense of otherness in a culture of (perceived) monoethic sameness. The theme of conformity and erasure of identity is also presaged in the images of an Everyman comic strip that prefaces the film in which the interpenetration between occidental and oriental cultures is depicted as resulting in a superficial mimicry of the other in an attempt to model Japanese postwar society in the manner of "civilized" nations, and eludes true comprehension of either culture. In this respect, Marker's intrinsic sense of strangerness is the folly of melancholia for a lost, exoticized past that never was confronted with the curiosity for the mundane reality of an assimilated traditional and modern culture that is the identity of a "new" Japan, and it is this intrinsic bifurcation that inevitably captures the enigma - the ephemeral mystery - of Koumiko.

Posted by acquarello on Apr 18, 2006 | | Filed under 2006, Chris Marker

April 15, 2006

Patrick Bokanowski: Short Films (1972-1994)

My first exposure to French filmmaker Patrick Bokanowski's experimental cinema was with his transfixing, yet vague and impenetrable magnum opus L'Ange, a Dante Alighieri-esque depiction of intranscendence and moribund ritual that would ingrain the (somewhat reductive) idea that his films were abstract visual studies in structuralism, modulation, and repetition. In hindsight, underneath this cursory first impression of Bokanowski's aesthetic is an intrinsic aspect of his filmmaking that is undeniably artful and innovative - particularly within the context of his short films - and that, like Oskar Fischinger's deconstructed, aural waveforms, approach a synesthetic convergence between image and sound. In his optical experiments with light, reflection, and refraction that transform everyday images into fluid and deformable art objects that redefine the medium of film as a traditional canvas, Bokanowski shares a visual affinity with Aleksandr Sokurov's murky and expressionistic in-line optical distortions in films such as Mother and Son and Oriental Elegy that, like the works of aesthetic forefathers such as Pieter Brueghel the Elder and Caspar David Friedrich, evoke the primal, spiritual landscapes that haunt our consciousness and give form to our waking dreams.

La Femme qui se poudre, 1972

woman_powdered.gifSomething of a hybrid between Jean Cocteau and Jan Svankmajer in its gothic expressionism and artful grotesquerie crossed with the metric precision of Kurt Kren's more clinical materialaktion films that experiment with the plasticity of surfaces (most notably, in the deformed figures that recall the disfiguration and self-mutilation of Kren's short film, 10/65 Selbstverstümmelung), Bokanowski's earliest film, La Femme qui se poudre (The Woman Who Powders Herself) is, as the title implies, an evocation of concealment and unmasking, where the mundane act of a Victorian-era woman's ritualistic application of cosmetic powder seemingly opens the window - or perhaps, Pandora's Box - into underlying human anxieties of physical beauty, youth, desirability, and objectification. Reflecting the superficiality of societal notions of beauty through the alienness of landscape and the ephemeral riddle of true identity through epic, soul-searching journeys and faceless phantoms that emerge from thin air before vanishing from view, the terrifying images break apart and eventually disintegrate into irresolvable fragments of haunted memory within the course of the increasingly abstract film, as the waking dream descends ever further into the realm of nightmare and the deepest recesses of the subconscious, unraveling the veil of human vanity to reveal amorphous shadows cast by empty souls.

Déjeuner du matin, 1974

dejeuner.gifIncorporating painterly, Friedrich-like rural landscapes (that prefigure the profoundly isolated, psychological landscape of Sokurov's Mother and Son) set against expressionistic images of elongated shadows, skeletal structures, and highly acute camera angles that distort perspective fields of view, Déjeuner du matin subverts conventional notions of family and domestic ritual to create a haunted portrait of isolation and Sisyphean ritual. Bokanowski sets the tedium of mundane, near-autonomic morning routines on a provincial farmhouse (a looped sequence depicting an inventor drafting his latest design at the break of dawn reinforces this sense of somnambulism) - eating breakfast, shaving, carrying bales of hay - against a sense of claustrophobic inescapability where momentary eruptions of unprovoked domestic violence are attenuated within the oscillations of a lifeline, and even the act of flight through the hills in order to watch the sun rise is made ominous by the churning of the clouds, the fragile balance of near-collapsing structures, and the silence of inorganic, forbidding mountains. Concluding with petrified images of despair and inanimate, seemingly truncated attempt at connection (or perhaps, reconciliation), the tonally jarring incorporation of a melodic, carnivalesque arcade music serves as a wry reinforcement of the theme of eternal cycles of ritual.

La Plage, 1992

plage.gifComposed of four chapters depicting optical modulations of scenes from a day at the beach, La Plage illustrates Bokanowski's continued fascination (and experimentation) with the chromic, refractive, and reflective properties of glass to create films that redefine the materiality of celluloid and explore the plasticity of surfaces to transform everyday objects into works of art. The high contrast, blue tinting of the first chapter prefigures the opening sequence of Dolce in its evocation of nocturnal tempest (and perhaps even a glimpse of the forking of waters in Sharunas Bartas' Few of Us). The second chapter forgoes the darker chromic filters while retaining the film's high contrast to create a sense of floating otherworldliness to the images, an atmosphere that is further emphasized through a shift in camera framing from people anchored on the foreground (generally near the bottom) of the frame in the previous chapter, to people framed in the middle of the shot, seemingly suspended in the enveloping water between the terrestrial and the celestial. The third chapter introduces variable density optics (where the multiple indices of refraction reside at various sectors within the same lens) into the camera's line of sight that refract light into visually unexpected transmittive or reflective angles such that organic shapes become angular and compartmentalized into cubist-like organic geometries, and monolithic forms take on an appearance of fluidity and motion. Creating nodal point images that present a differential mapping of "concentrations of matter", Bokanowski cleverly redefines notions of visibility into relativistic realms of motion and inertia. Lastly, the fourth chapter returns to the chromic filters of earliest chapters. Concluding with a frozen image of a woman and child gazing out to sea that is framed against the warm, red and amber hues of a seeming sunset, the parting shot becomes a reinforcing image of return to innocence and the beauty of simplicity.

Au bord du lac, 1994

borddulac.gifBokanowski returns to the complex - and mind-bending - optical array of pinholes, mirrors, prisms, and refractive substrates of his earlier film, La Plage to create the whimsical and playful Au bord du lac. The film is composed of mundane, everyday scenes of recreation and leisure on an idyllic, sunny day at a park that overlooks a lake - rowing a boat, playing a game of volleyball, rollerskating, bicycling, reading a newspaper, sunbathing, riding on horseback, or strolling on the promenade - shot through optical distortions to create fractured and knotted images that resemble embellished, gothic fairytale illustrations or appear to resolve into morphing, geometric patterns of fluid motion. Evoking the vibrant colors and sun-soaked palette of an invigorated Vincent van Gogh in Arles, Bokanowski transforms the quotidian into an infinitely mesmerizing dynamic kaleidoscope of shape-shifting textures and self-reconstituting objects of organic, abstract art.

Posted by acquarello on Apr 15, 2006 | | Comments (2) | Filed under 2006, Patrick Bokanowski

April 9, 2006

Raoul Servais: Short Films (1963-2001)

One of my favorite recent DVD purchases is Belgian animation filmmaker Raoul Servais' L'Intégrale des courts métrages anthology from France. In addition to the ten short films in the collection (some of which can be viewed at Atom Films), there are also extracts from all of his remaining films (including his one feature film, Taxandria), a near feature length documentary, an interview with Servais, as well as a commentary track on Night Butterflies where he discusses his aesthetic homage to Belgian artist Paul Delvaux through his portraiture of enigmatic women wearing allusive (or elusive) masks. Stylistically evolving from avant-garde art movement inspired animation, to monochromatic, rough hewn pen and ink styled animations reminiscent of op-ed political cartoons, to his more recent films that transect the bounds of live-action and animation, Servais' films are magical, pensive, and provocative alchemies of passion, conscience, and inspired - and inspiring - creativity.

The False Note, 1963

falsenote.gifWryly subtitled as an "old twentieth century legend" fable set "in the days when some people still knew what it was to go hungry", The False Note is the dialogue-less tale of a down on his luck organ grinder whose out of tune portable barrel organ produces a cacophonous, errant false note at the end of an evocative, downbeat serenade that invariably sets the once attentive audience into a hostile and uncharitable mood. Wandering through the streets of a cosmopolitan city rife with images of consumerism, the doleful hero encounters first hand the melancholy of obsolescence, as the rudimentary music emanating from his hand-cranked barrel organ is rebuffed in favor of the novel technologies of an amplified jukebox and the mesmerizing, peripatetic lights of a pinball machine, until he finds a momentary kindred spirit in a carousel horse enshrouded with cobwebs at an abandoned carnival. Raoul Servais' impressive animation is something of a Pablo Picasso drawing study crossed with the silent expressiveness of Marcel Marceau, replete with a richness of imagery that not only juxtaposes the theme of the false note against iconic images of currency, but also the innate inhumanity of a rootless, disposable society.

Chromophobia, 1966

chromophobia.gif Servais achieved international acclaim with his ground-breaking, anti-militarist fable on repression, perseverance, and the indomitability of the human spirit, Chromophobia, a compact, yet articulate parable of an aggressive, chromophobic army that marches into an idyllic kingdom and systematically terrorizes the population by erasing all traces of color within its periphery, until a little girl unexpectedly cultivates a lone, resilient red flower in her garden. Evoking the instinctual compositions of a more geometric Joan Miró, the film is particularly remarkable in Servais' illustration of resonant, iconic symbolism: a balloon that is converted into a ball and chain mirrors the town's spiritual captivity, the transformation of trees into gallows represents the corrupted interrelation between life and unnatural death in times of war, flowers emerging from the barrel of a rifle reflects a restoration of peace and gesture of renewed humanity.

Sirène, 1968

sirene.gifIn hindsight, Sirène can be seen as Servais' transitional composition from his early, more conventional animated art films to the rawer, more visceral works that would define his early 1970s oeuvre. A somber, surrealist tale that fuses prehistoric and modern, reality and myth, the film revisits the double entendre of The False Note in its prefigurative sound of an emergency siren that accompanies the title sequence. Opening to a curious encounter between two competing cranes as they attempt to take possession of an unloaded crate with disastrous results, this image of primitive territoriality would subsequently be repeated (with even more horrifying consequences) in a King Solomon-styled arbitration between a medical and a zoological institution after a mermaid is found on the docks of a phantom shipyard. In contrast to the cheerful caricatures of his earlier films, the dour, ghostly images of Sirène recall the gothic figurations of Edward Gorey in its cautionary fable on the myopia of humanity in the "civilized" quest for equitable justice.

Goldframe, 1969

goldframe.gifGoldframe is the first film to emerge in what would be Servais' more elemental period, a film that derives implicit irony in its deconstructed, monochromatic, pen and ink illustration of a bombastic, larger than life Hollywood studio executive who demands, at all cost, to be the first to have the technology for a 270mm film. Turning up in a projection room that is outfitted with an undersized (and self-aggrandizing) director's chair to watch, not the rushes of the latest film, but his own shadow cast by his hand-selected spotlight, the film culminates with Goldframe's empty, narcissistic mano a mano posturing challenge against his own shadow, and in the process, creates an acerbic commentary on egoism and the obsessive pursuit of one upsmanship.

To Speak or Not to Speak, 1970

tospeak.gifThe Vietnam War undoubtedly fuels Servais' anti-militarist, anti-authoritarian sentiment in To Speak or Not to Speak, as a roving reporter asking the loaded question, "What's your opinion about the actual political situation?" serves as a springboard for a critical examination on social conformity, consumerism, and bohemianism... the questions answered with inarticulate disfluencies that quickly overrun the speaker's thought bubble, become entangled with such empty confusion that a spider web forms within it, or resort to tried and true mantras. Perhaps the most incisive - and prescient - episode in the film is the re-appearance of the reporter as an embedded war correspondent who plays it safe with fluff opinion pieces that skirt around the consequences of war before being confronted by its grim reality. Rather than obliquely addressing the social inertia and petty self-interest that enabled the protraction of war, Servais directly engages issues of censorship, political doublespeak, and the corruption of information in the dissemination of news as propaganda.

Operation X-70, 1971

operation.gifThe specter of the Vietnam War - and particularly, the U.S. government's controversial use of chemical weapons - also casts a somber pall over Servais' next film, Operation X-70. The film opens with a slideshow projection of a clandestine scientific experiment (that stylistically evokes Chris Marker's La Jetée) presenting the laboratory results of a new, non-lethal chemical weapon that places the Asiatic subjects in a lethargic, euphoric state in order to "help them to rediscover their deep, religious nature". Immediately winning the endorsement of the country's gas-mask hooded religious leader (dressed in a not-too-subtle Klansman-like ensemble) who extols the virtues of X-70 as a clean weapon that doesn't kill and is, therefore, "in accordance with our Christian civilization", the chemical weapon is soon dispatched for bombardment of its Pacific targets, until an aircraft's malfunctioning navigational system sends its payload on an unexpected international course. Winner of the Jury Prize for Short Film at the 1972 Cannes Film Festival, Operation X-70 is a sobering, trenchant, and immediately relevant examination of cultural arrogance, religious fanaticism, and racism. Exposing the intrinsic inhumanity and hypocrisy of deploying "humane weapons" (such as targeted, non-civilian, collateral damage air strikes) in the waging of war, Servais boldly - and defiantly - engages the social conscience in confronting moral issues of escalating aggression, humane treatment, privilege, and righteousness.

Pegasus, 1973

pegasus.gifReturning to the more traditionally rooted animated art films of early works such as A False Note and Chromophobia, Servais channels the rough stroke expressionism of Vincent van Gogh to create one of his most artfully rendered films, Pegasus, the tale of an aging blacksmith who whiles away his empty days trying to swat an errant fly with a forging hammer, until the appearance of industrial farm machinery in the village leads him to create a false god in the shape of an iron horse in a desperate attempt to stop the encroachment of technology. A cautionary fable on idolatry and psychological self-imprisonment, the film also represents a counterpoint to the inhumanity of technology gone amok in Operation X-70, where resistance to change, willful ignorance, and failure to adapt to new ideas become a figurative regression into the Dark Ages of self-created imprisonment, blind worship, and obsolete rituals.

Harpya, 1979

harpya.gifAlthough Servais has explored emotional and psychological horror within a framework of exploring social conditions and the effects of war in his previous work, his first foray into the genre is with the phantasmagoric, surreal fusion of live action and animation film, Harpya, a film that was awarded the Palm d'or for Short Film at the 1972 Cannes Film Festival. Subverting the damsel in distress tale, the film follows the fate of a well-intentioned passerby who comes to the aid of a woman apparently being strangled by a man in the cover of darkness - and who, in turn, turns out to be, not a woman, but a half woman, half bird of prey mythological harpy. Devouring everything inside his home, the harpy soon imprisons him to a life of resigned servility (in a gruesome act that foretells the mutilated captivity of Boxing Helena) until the lulling sound of a phonograph offers him a chance at escape. A radical departure from the humanist mythological fable of Sirène, Harpya's psychologically dark and grotesque imagery instead shares greater thematic affinity with the autonomous shadows of Goldframe and induced chemical mutations of Operation X-70 to create a disturbing cautionary tale on the perils of intervention and the implicit violation of natural order.

Nocturnal Butterflies, 1998

butterfly.gifNocturnal Butterflies is Servais' serene and melancholic homage to Belgian surrealist Paul Delvaux (1897-1994), whose architectural paintings serve as the basis for the mise-en-scène for the film, and whose opaquely gazed women represent the enigmatic, silent witnesses who guard the secrets of the eccentric artist's curious world of precisely rendered, hermetic construction. Opening to the image of a lone butterfly accidentally - or perhaps deliberately - setting into mechanized motion the arcade rhythm of a magical ballroom waltz, Nocturnal Butterflies inhabits the fleeting, fragile, and mysterious waking dream world of these transfixed women as they perform their graceful, rhapsodic rituals until a butterfly collector deboarding the train (a reference to Trains Du Soir) catches sight of the ballroom's unassuming architect and stumbles into their clandestine soirée. Continuing in his studies of integrating live action and animation, Servais further experiments with traditional mixed media (oils, pastels, inks, and watercolors) to create a remarkably tactile, sublimely haunting, and elegant choreography of texture, precision, plasticity, and movement.

Atraksion, 2001

atraksion.gifOn a parched and desolate landscape, a group of shackled prisoners walk in eternal limbo around a borderless prison yard until one day when an inmate spots a ray of light emanating from beyond the view of a steep and treacherous mountain and decides to climb towards its source in the naïve hope that liberation awaits at the end of the trail. Returning to the distilled, monochromatic palette of Goldframe and Operation X-70, Atraksion represents Servais' introduction to digital post-processing. Adapting the allegorical flight of Icarus into a modern day metaphor for self-imprisonment (a theme that also pervades the vaguely mythological Pegasus), Servais implicitly (and incisively) embraces the virtues of new technology through the prisoners' realization of a transformative paradigm shift, to create a metaphoric, yet personal tale of re-invention, creativity, experimentation, and artistic fearlessness.

Posted by acquarello on Apr 09, 2006 | | Filed under 2006, Raoul Servais

April 3, 2006

There Was an Unseen Cloud Moving, 1988

unseencloud.gifWhen avant-garde filmmaker Leslie Thornton created There Was an Unseen Cloud Moving, Islamic culture was not yet defined by antiseptic, then turbulent images of unresolved Gulf Wars (or conveniently stigmatized as the face of terrorism) but rather, by the evocation of alien landscapes, life-altering adventures, mysticism, isolative awakening, and passionate rendezvous of films such as Lawrence of Arabia, Casablanca, and Pepe le Moko. It is these ephemeral notions of an exoticized otherness, fugue, and meditative search for enlightenment that undoubtedly also propelled the spirit of the film's appropriately amorphous heroine and nineteenth century adventurer, Isabelle Wilhemina Eberhardt (who, in the film is portrayed by several actresses). Dubbed "Le Bonne Nomade" and "L'Amazone du Sable", Eberhardt was the well-educated, illegitimate daughter of a Russian aristocratic mother, Nathalie Moerder and her children's tutor, an anarchist, bohemian, and ex-Orthodox priest and Moslem convert named Alexandre Trophimovsky. Seeking in part to escape a turbulent home life, Eberhardt traveled to Algeria at the age of 20 on a quixotic quest for spiritual enlightenment where, after the untimely death of her mother, she continued to live in North Africa (due in part by her denial of inheritance as a result of her illegitimacy) as a Moslem man in order to move freely within Arabic tribes in Tunisia and Algeria, and in the process, author a series of articles and journals that collectively would be described as "one of the strangest human documents a woman has given to the world."

Thornton creates a playful, tactile, and insightful experimental biography of the iconoclastic heroine through an impressionistic collage of found film, archival photographs, mixed media (film and video) reenactments, and textured annotations that serve as an appropriately abstract yet incisive and instinctually cohesive representation of Eberhardt's equally strange and unorthodox, yet remarkable life. In one episode, the seeming alienness of the desert landscape is juxtaposed against archival footage of the lunar landing in order to subvert not only the notions of alterity, space, and time, but also to introduce the themes of terrestriality and immanence, as Eberhardt figuratively sheds her gender, culture, and identity by assuming the guise of a Moslem man named Si Mahmoud Essadi and, in essence, becomes extraterrestrial in her liberation from the body to become a figurative wandering spirit completely assimilated into the fibers of Arabic society, able to penetrate the secret brotherhoods of Islamic culture (such as the Sufi brotherhood of Qadriya) that a European woman could not. Moreover, through the fragmented superposition of grainy, defocused, concealed, high contrasted, or otherwise obscured images throughout the film, Thornton reflects not only Eberhardt's existential state of acorporeality and elusive search for spiritual enlightenment, but also her cultural immersion within the haze of intoxicating, escapist rituals - and false transcendence - of alcohol consumption, drug use, and liberated sexuality. This recurring image of immersion would also subsequently underscore the poetic irony of Eberhardt's untimely death in 1904 from a literal immersion - the fatal, flash flooding of the village of Aïn Sefra where Eberhardt had reunited with her husband, an Algerian officer named Slimane Ehnni, after a long separation. Ending with this tragic evocation of the harshness and atemporality of landscape, Eberhardt's chronicle of cultural immersion in Islamic society becomes an equally inscrutable human document that, like the unseen cloud cast by a significant, yet little understood parallel civilization - remains visible, but unregistered, in the periphery of the occidental gaze.

Posted by acquarello on Apr 03, 2006 | | Filed under 2006, Leslie Thornton

March 28, 2006

The Man Who Had His Hair Cut Short, 1965

crane_rase.gif André Delvaux often spoken passionately and poignantly of the unique bicultural experience that had infused early Belgian cinema (an industry that also fostered other pioneering bicultural filmmakers such as social realist - and undoubted spiritual ancestor to the cinema of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne - Paul Meyer) that had become increasingly regionalized towards the end of the twentieth century, and to this day continues to wear away the remaining traces of a truly indigenous cinema. One side of the country's complex native identity is the infusion of the centuries old, rich history of Flanders art and literature that, curiously, had not been able to translate into an equally distinctive movement within the evolution of Flemish cinema and remains a largely marginalized film industry, even within its own borders. Another side of this culturally erosive regionalization is the increasing international prominence of regional French language films from Wallonia and Brussels that have benefited in part from cooperative financing and support from other Francophone countries (most notably, in terms of wider distribution) in the absence of national funding - as represented by such renowned filmmakers as Chantal Akerman, the Dardenne brothers, and Jaco van Dormael - that, to a certain extent, have become a kind of de facto representative, collective face of Belgian national cinema to international audiences. But before domestic films would evolve into this divisive notion of dominant and marginalized regional cinemas, Delvaux worked integrally and organically from within both Flemish and Francophone cultures under the creative inspiration of a cross-pollinated, overarching national cinema that would accurately reflect the true essence of a bicultural Belgian identity.

This theme of biculturalism and complex identity would continue to resurface throughout Delvaux's career, beginning with his elegant and quietly devastating first film, The Man Who Had His Hair Cut Short, based on Flemish author Johan Daisne's vaguely Lolita-esque, stream of consciousness, magical realist novel on a fastidious, middle-aged schoolteacher who harbors a secret obsession for one of his students: a beautiful, aspiring actress named Fran (Beata Tyszkiewicz). Although told from the sole perspective of the hypersensitive, obsessed teacher, Gottfried "Govert" Miereveld's (Senne Rouffaer) alienated - and increasingly alien - point of view, Delvaux illustrates this intrinsic complexity of identity through the film's radical narrative and tonal shifts as Miereveld's emotional and psychological torment over his inability to reveal his true feelings on the day of Fran's graduation is structurally reflected through a series of elliptical, seemingly decontextualized fractures in narrative that occur throughout (and grows increasingly more frequent towards the end of) the film. Using an extended tracking shot of Miereveld walking home to a different, more modest house, Delvaux reinforces the depth (if not shock) of the unremarkable hero's existential transformation after he undertakes a mid-career change following Fran's departure from his life. Now working as a law clerk after a brief, but unsuccessful career as a trial lawyer, Miereveld accompanies the medical examiner, Professor Mato (Hector Camerlynck) and his assistant Dr. Verbrugge (Paul S'Jongers) as a reluctant state witness for an autopsy and possible positive identification of a body that has washed up in a remote village, a traumatic experience that profoundly shakes Miereveld's consciousness and leads to a fateful encounter with the elusive object of his obsession.

In this respect, Miereveld's self-reinvention throughout the film not only illustrates the trauma of repression, as an overwhelming sense of rejection and failure propel him to a state of fugue, but more importantly, also reflects Delvaux's recurring preoccupation with the theme of complex identity as his existence devolves into a series of (real or imagined) role-playing rituals that, nevertheless, reveal his intrinsic character. Despite the imbalancing fragmentation of the narrative, Delvaux's subtle assimilation of recursive patterns that weave throughout the seemingly disconnected episodes in Miereveld's life reflect an intrinsic cohesiveness within the singularity of Miereveld's perspective and provide insight into the (a)logical structure of his seemingly fractured and aimless life: the image of a scalp vibromassage that caps off a haircut at the barbershop at the beginning of the film is referenced during a procedural conversation into the specialized mechanism that drives a hand-operated cranial saw; the eerie placement of a mask on a covered table in the school storage room is visually replicated in the (alluded) position of the exhumed cadaver; the ceremonial presentation of a figurine in the shape of a gestured hand to a departing teacher is evoked in the disarticulation of the cadaver during the autopsy (and in the enumeration of physical characteristics that would aid in the identification of a missing bank manager) as well as serve as a tangible link to Fran and their shared past; a hotel staircase that subsequently serves as a background for a newsreel interview. This theme of abstractly threaded logic, psychological manifestation, and fractured cohesiveness inevitably shapes the indelible, otherworldly images of Delvaux's minimalist and remarkably groundbreaking film - an idiosyncratic syntax that anticipates the allusive, disjunctive cinema of Apichatpong Weerasethakul (who similarly uses abrupt narrative shifts and extended traveling sequences as transitional devices in such films as Blissfully Yours and Tropical Malady) and reflexive, bifurcated cinema of Hong Sang-soo - even as it presents a metaphoric - and hauntingly prescient - cautionary tale on isolation and the rupture of identity.

Posted by acquarello on Mar 28, 2006 | | Comments (2) | Filed under 2006, André Delvaux

March 12, 2006

1001 Films, 1989

1001films.gifOne of the aspects of David Gatten's work-in-progress, avant garde series, The Secret History of the Dividing Line that greatly impressed me was the idea of film splicing as an intrinsic act of violence, and that innate in this process of "traumatic creation" is the sculpting of a kind of liminal, alien landscape that is only visible within the single frame. So it was particularly satisfying to see that seminal Belgian filmmaker André Delvaux had a similar preoccupation with respect to the fragility and materiality of the medium, and an appreciation for the unexpected art that is created in the process of manipulating found film in what would turn out to be his final opus, 1001 Films, Delvaux's reverent and affectionate ode to film preservation. Returning to his familiar, elegant framework of exploration, imagination, and dissociated reality, Delvaux presents the painstaking process of film archiving and restoration through the filter of adventure and mystery, as a night-time visit to a seemingly depopulated repository (presumably the Royal Film Archive of Belgium) turns into an atemporal wonderland of novel discoveries, hidden treasure, re-awakened curiosity, and critical re-assessment. Delvaux juxtaposes a series of evocative images of observation, reconstruction, and projection using film fragments - from the hand-painted, altered image frames of Georges Méliès' Kingdom of the Fairies to the iconic image of Louise Brooks - with the erratic texturality and uneven contrast of the disintegrating film stock to create a thoughtful and resonant nocturne to film as an articulate, but ephemeral social testament of magic, wonderment, dreams, and seduction.

Posted by acquarello on Mar 12, 2006 | | Comments (2) | Filed under 2006, André Delvaux

March 9, 2006

DC Naruse Retrospective: 3/10-4/29/06


This is just a quick mental note that the DC Mikio Naruse retrospective starts on Friday, 3/10 with Every Night's Dreams at the Freer/Sackler to coincide with the annual National Cherry Blossom Festival. The other venues are the National Gallery of Art and the AFI Silver. I'll try to catch as many of these as I can in between short hops to NY for the Rendez-vous with French Cinema and the New Directors/New Films series.

Posted by acquarello on Mar 09, 2006 | | Filed under 2006, Quick Notes

March 7, 2006

Empty Quarter: A Woman in Africa, 1985

empty_quarter.gifThe untranslated, partial English title of French photojournalist and documentary filmmaker Raymond Depardon's first feature film, Empty Quarter: Une femme en Afrique provides an early clue into the nature of its indirect structure. Serving as a silent, but perceptive, omniscient, and inalterable translator for the unseen filmmaker's retrospection, the camera functions as a voyeur as well as a subjective filter through which he searches the residual aftermath of a failed relationship in the resigned desire to make sense of it. Proceeding in voiceover commentary, the film chronicles the journey of a displaced, globe-trotting filmmaker who offers a spare bed in his hotel room to an aimless, jilted young woman (Françoise Prenant) - a shared accommodation and co-dependency (if not emotional intimacy) that would inevitably lead her to become his constant companion, erstwhile muse, and eventual lover as they travel on an extended road trip from Djibouty to Alexandria. Hiding behind a perpetually recording camera, the unseen filmmaker becomes an existential paradox of presence and absence, directness and evasiveness, estrangement and intimacy, as the young woman begins to fill the empty silence with mundane, passing thoughts, attempting - often in frustration - to communicate with him through the opaque veil of a refracting camera lens (note the recurring images of her silhouette through translucent muslin curtains and mosquito netting). Rather than using the camera as an instrument of direct truth, the object serves as a safe obstruction for the silent filmmaker. But can the camera conceal the implication of his gaze? Perhaps the key lies in his filming of the young woman at a zoological exhibition where her image is captured, not directly, but through her reflections on a series of glass enclosures. Indeed, Depardon's theme of perspective and reflection can be seen in both the temporal and psychological framework for the film, as the cumulative footage of the trip not only serves as a visual chronicle for the failed love affair, but also as a translating mirror for the enigmatic filmmaker's unarticulated desire - where lingering shots of the contours of the young woman's body, her sleeping form, the nape of her neck, and her disembodied legs wading in the water reveal an intrinsic sensuality, melancholic wanderlust, and ache of longing within the intranscendable, empty spaces of the human heart.

Posted by acquarello on Mar 07, 2006 | | Comments (3) | Filed under 2006, Raymond Depardon

March 5, 2006

Captive of the Desert, 1990

captive_desert.gifA caravan lackadaisically assembles at the foreground near the site of a desert fortress at dawn, and is spurred into action by the appearance of three figures bisecting the frame as they emerge from the fortress to join the expedition. An extended, medium shot of the cavalcade as they traverse the stationary frame on an undefined journey through the seemingly endless desert reveals the curious sight of a lone, non-native young woman (Sandrine Bonnaire) at the rear of the procession of nomadic tribespeople and camels, as a pair of men dressed in paramilitary gear flank her to prevent escape. A subsequent, sublimely photographed image at dusk taken from an extreme long, axial shot of a crepuscular sun disappearing into the horizon captures the caravan longitudinally traversing the horizon. These establishing images of dislocation, separation, and inevitable transformation provide an understated, yet incisive framework into Raymond Depardon's poetic, elegantly rendered, and thoughtful portrait of alterity and isolation in Captive of Desert. Drawing inspiration from his extensive coverage of the 1974 hostage kidnapping and protracted captivity of French archaeologist Françoise Claustre by Toubou rebels in Chad during the Frolinat Rebellion, Depardon eschews the underlying international politicization, geographic specificity, and social repercussions of the incident to create a broader social exposition on the eternal nature of cultural isolation and assimilation - a sense of timeless division that is established in the introductory sequences of silent migration and decontextualized spaces (note the absence of a specific geographic destination in their tribal migration, only to a series of self-constructed encampments). At the core of the film is the unnamed European woman's paradoxical imprisonment in a land of vast, open - and largely unsecured - spaces, where scarcity of life-sustaining resources and distance from western civilization imposes its own natural and psychological imprisonment. Through recurring aesthetic compositions of intersection, bifurcation, and symmetry, Depardon creates a metaphoric landscape where communion between civilizations is not hindered by ethnography or language, but by the very consciousness of an intranscendable distance of otherness.

Posted by acquarello on Mar 05, 2006 | | Filed under 2006, Raymond Depardon

February 13, 2006

Reassemblage, 1982

reassemblage.gif Neither an ennobled (or exoticized) slice-of-life cultural documentary nor an expository thesis framed within the logic structure of an essay film, Reassemblage is, instead, what Trinh T. Minh-ha describes in her book Cinema Interval as an "interrogation" - an idiosyncratic (if not compositionally radical) approach to the ethnographic study of contemporary Senegal that seeks to erase the filmmaker's intrinsic interpretation of the recorded rituals through unsynchronized repetition of audio and visual imagery, using variations in shot placement (a methodology articulated in the comment "different views from different angles - the ABC of photography") and in the incorporation (or exclusion) of the non-diegetic soundtrack that, in its intrinsically abstract rhythms, nevertheless, convey the empirical essence of the quotidian. The film's introductory sequence - a black screen accompanied by the sound of tribal drums, followed by images of the Senagalese people without sound, fragmented into singular shots of limbs and torsos - illustrates this strategy of modulating, decontextualizing, and re-purposing seemingly familiar ethnographic imagery towards new ways of seeing.

At the core of Trinh's interrogation is the demystification of otherness or, more broadly, the application of binary logic in society's (and in partcular, western society's) examination of non-native cultures. The first words spoken by the narrator (Trinh) in the film, "scarcely twenty years were enough to make two billion people define themselves as underdeveloped", encapsulates this idea of externally imposed, arbitrary classification of populations into first and third world stratifications (as defined by standards of global economies set by industrialized nations), sameness and otherness, progress and underdevelopment ...and consequently, inclusion and exclusion. Prefaced with the recurring comment, "First create need, then help", the narrator recounts an encounter with a peace corps volunteer who attempts to teach the village women how to grow vegetables in their garden for profit. Implicit in their interaction is the specter of colonialism - the disingenuous claim of divine mandate to educate the "savages" as a rationalization for economic exploitation. It is this (delusive) image of the assimilated, enlightened westerner that is also repeated in the subsequent anecdote of an ethnographer who returns to a tribal village for two weeks in the belief that the extended duration of his visit renders him closer to understanding the culture, even as consumer artifacts from his own culture - in particular, a Sony Walkman - continue to intrude on his self-proclaimed goal of cultural immersion and indigenous assimilation. In both anecdotes, the ubiquitous electronic gadget serves as an iconic representation of the impossibility of true understanding and assimilation of one's non-native culture, an intranscendable limitation that Trinh defines as the hybridity of culture.

But beyond Trinh's examination of prevailing social attitudes that render true ethnographic documentation an impossibility, Reassemblage also seeks to subvert the perpetuated myths and common perceptions about African people. Stereotypical images of famine and disease are subverted through shots of healthy children at play and women milling grains that are cross-cut against shots of emaciated animal carcasses splayed on a deserted landscape to underscore the disconnection. Popularized ethnographic images of naked tribal women are confronted within the perpetual debate of what constitutes art and pornography, education and titillation. Even the traditionally common sense image of African people as having black skin is subverted through the image of albinism, further challenging the audience to redefine its superficial notions about race and ethnicity. Ironically, by creating a perpetual state of dislocation and fracture, Trinh creates a more honest and unmanipulated portrait of collective identity - a probing reassembly and decontextualization of familiar and iconic ethnographic images towards a deeper awareness of the underlying, indefinable essential alchemy that binds disparate people into the sociology of indigenous culture.

Posted by acquarello on Feb 13, 2006 | | Comments (2) | Filed under 2006, Trinh T. Minh-ha

February 6, 2006

Le Joli mai, 1963

jolimai.gifBefore Chris Marker would deconstruct the 1930s, postwar photo-reportage of Denise Bellon in Remembrance of Things to Come to unearth what would prove to be subliminal portents within the zeitgeist of seeming halcyon days that would prove to be a harbinger of an inevitable second great war to end all wars, he would first cast his critical gaze towards Paris in the spring of 1962 after the signing of the Evian accord that effectively ended the Algerian War, a hopeful season that similarly held the elusive promise of peacetime following years of political agitation and terrorist insurgency. The resulting film is Le Joli mai, a two-part exposition inspired by Jean Rouch's groundbreaking Chronicle of a Summer assembled from candid interviews of ordinary people on the meaning of happiness, an often amorphous and inarticulable notion that evokes more basic and fundamentally egalitarian ideals of self-betterment, prosperity, tolerance, economic opportunity, and freedom. The image of a near imperceptible man scaling, then descending the symmetrical apex of a modern building provides a curious introduction to the film’s first chapter, Prayer from the Top of the Eiffel Tower, as a narrator similarly suggests adopting a different vantage point of observation for this seemingly auspicious time - to see Paris at dawn with the estranged familiarity of someone returning after a long journey, "without memories, without habit."

For a high school educated apparel salesman, happiness is earning enough disposable income to afford a second television set or similar commodified luxuries in order to make his wife and children happy, even as the ephemeral notion of free time itself contradicts the very mechanism of productivity and leisure that serves as the socioeconomic basis for obtaining these articles of luxury. For a pair of boys spending idle time in the financial district, happiness is growing up to become a person of importance, a captain of industry whose wealth and power can single-handedly influence the dynamics of the stock exchange. For an impoverished mother living in a one-room tenement in an Aubervilles slum with her husband and eight children (including one adopted niece), happiness arrives in the form of a long awaited mid-day telegram from the housing authorities notifying the family that its application for a three-bedroom apartment has finally been granted. Segueing into a conversation with contemporary artists, intellectuals, and inventors - a recurring theme of eccentricity and innovation that is underscored by images from a space exploration exhibit - Marker presents an image of the local population that cannot be reduced to a commonality of interchangeable archetypes but rather, reveals an underlying iconoclasm that often borders on narcissism - a preoccupation towards self-absorption and, consequently, away from the collective needs of society - that is reflected in the comment, "if we dissect this many-faced crowd, we find that it is the sum of solitudes".

While the first chapter reinforced the idea of separateness and social myopia innate in the individual pursuit of personal happiness (as epitomized by a young couple professing eternal love, the sad irony of their woeful ignorance over current events rendered even more absurd by the young man's status as a soldier awaiting impending deployment overseas), the second chapter, The Return of Fantomas places the hopes of the individual within the context - and limitations - of one's social station. An African immigrant becomes a first-hand witness to the malleability of history when he disputes the "official" colonialist version of the conquest of Dahomey. An ex-priest recounts his difficult decision to renounce his faith in order to take up the Marxist cause, unable to find compromise within the two competing ideologies of moral service. An Algerian young man recalls with dispiriting resignation and sense of exclusion his traumatic experiences with racism in the workplace and police brutality at home when he becomes the victim of petty retaliation in both his native and adoptive countries. Like the evocation of the elusive master-criminal Fantomas in the chapter title, the lingering, unresolved issues of racism, marginalization, social inequity, labor struggles, and colonial exploitation cast a pervasive, sinister shadow on the prospect of a lasting peace that, on the surface, seemed possible after the resolution of the Algerian conflict. Inevitably, it is through this dual image of Paris as a city of hope and despair, promise and chaos, liberation and imprisonment that the film serves, not only as an encapsulated document of the spirit of the times, but also a prescient prefiguration of the social turmoil - and ideological revolution - to come.

Posted by acquarello on Feb 06, 2006 | | Filed under 2006, Chris Marker

January 31, 2006

The Fourth Dimension, 2001

fourth_dimension.gifThe opening image of author, poet, theorist, composer, ethnographer, and filmmaker Trinh T. Minh-ha's first digital video feature, The Fourth Dimension is a view from a moving vehicle on a fog-laden stretch of highway at dusk. A secondary rectangular frame then blocks the visible image of the fleeting landscape, and the aperture begins to drift, slowly shifting as if to momentarily focus attention on an overlooked detail within the transient frame. This deceptively whimsical and eccentrically playful introductory sequence serves not only to illustrate the amorphous interdependence between observation and demarcation, but also provides an incisive framework into Trinh's experimental approach to filming an ethnographic essay of contemporary Japan and, in particular, modern-day Japanese rituals. Creating motion within the observation of a "fixed" image, the dynamic frame within a frame becomes a metaphor for the film's titular fourth dimension: a conscious awareness, yet transitory encapsulation of the invisible within the visible - the ephemeral representation of space, time, and memory through the observation of perceptional shifts in the liminal - through the coded aesthetics of capturing perpetual dislocation.

For Trinh, the essence of modern day, quotidian Japanese rituals does not reside within the synchrony of the unfamiliar spectacle, but in a state of transcendence derived in the act of conformity and repetition, the mode of commuting between two states through the performance of decontextualized, everyday ritual. In its most literal form, Trinh equates the experience of a ride in a bullet train as a phenomenological representation of the idea of motion within stasis, a state of duality in which inclusion itself, no matter how passive or unconscious, reflects the privilege of commuting from one physical state to another...a geographic rite of passage. Figuratively, this transcendence through repetitive ritual is reflected in the images of young people dancing euphorically in a public square, in the solemn chants of monks walking on a open field, in the deliberative gestures of a Noh performance that places traditional cultural arts within the visual framework of contemporary aesthetics, and in the perpetuated performances of ancient, local festivals within modernized cities.

Perhaps the most relevant, essential image of Japan is illustrated in the inherent incongruity in these everyday occurring cultural juxtapositions, a dichotomy epitomized through the images of ubiquitous Japanese tourists - the fellow traveler - who equally regard these decontextualized, seemingly alien rituals with a similar sense of curiosity and alterity, an observation that demystifies the cultural outsider's notion of Japan as a paradigm for monoethnic uniformity. Rather, what Trinh captures is the image of contemporary Japanese society as peripheral outsiders within their own culture, for which the elusive ideal resides in the conscious act of achieving collective sameness - the paradoxical erasure of identity through the assumption of interchangeable social roles - the donning of masks. This internationalization of identity inevitably defines the essence of the fourth dimension, the idealized state of being intraordinary (as Trinh comments near the conclusion of the film) - the ability to conform outwardly through the enlightened sublimation of identity and human emotion - to achieve transcendence within the liminal through the quotidian rituals of conformity and self-erasure.

Posted by acquarello on Jan 31, 2006 | | Comments (3) | Filed under 2006, Trinh T. Minh-ha

January 27, 2006

Al'leessi...An African Actress, 2005

alleessi.gifIn 1998, retired actress Zalika Souley, the grand dame and first professional actress of Nigerien cinema, was honored with the country's Knight of the National Legion of Honor medal for her pioneering work in the film industry, a bittersweet ceremony that, for the now financially struggling middle-aged woman, would prove to be equally validating, celebratory, and intrinsically hypocritical. For inasmuch as the honor seemingly reflected the nation's acknowledgement of a lifetime of service and dedication to the advancement of Niger's cultural arts - a vocational passion that, as Souley would subsequently explain, also entailed accepting roles without remuneration to hone her craft (but also included exploitation by directors who reneged on contractual salary due to creative differences or after cutting her scenes during the final editing of the film) as well as (involuntarily) serving in an unofficial role as the (then) government's cultural ambassador to other countries during film festival appearances - it also presents the plight of these now aging artists and performers who, at the end of their film careers, have drifted into increasing poverty as a result of limited opportunity for retaining work in some other capacity within the industry (a national industry that once ushered the birth of native African cinema with Le Retour d'un Aventurier, but is now, itself, on the verge of collapse at the end of the century due to inadequate funding and reluctance by corporate sponsors to take an investment risk in the productions), bureaucratic pettiness, and even social stigmatization (particularly from conservative Muslims who view the industry's incorporation of more permissive, Western themes as an overt rejection of native tradition), even as their status as national celebrities remain undiminished. In Al'leessi...An African Actress, filmmaker Rahmatou Keita not only presents a loving tribute to the genesis and creative heyday of Nigerien indigenous cinema of the 1960s, but also examines the plight of aging post-colonial African film pioneers like Souley whose status as cultural icons of national cinema sharply diverges from the sobering reality of their modest (if not impoverished) contemporary lives. At the heart of Keita's understated, yet penetrating examination is a series of interviews with the affable and sharp-witted Souley as she conducts the mundane rituals of her everyday life in the capital city of Niamey where she lives with her children in a rented apartment without modern utilities - an ennobled artist who is palpably aware of the significance of her enduring legacy to the national arts, even as she resigns her cherished memories to a distant, irretrievable golden age, and to the reality of a once comfortable lifestyle that has gradually eroded away in her twilight years. In tracing the post-film careers of these creative innovators, Keita not only exposes the inhumane treatment of the elderly as they are systematically cast away after outliving their career "usefulness", but also the underscores the broader, underlying social crisis of the devaluation of the role of the arts towards the advancement of civilization and cultural progress in the wake of a disproportionately impersonal, dehumanized, and unsentimental material economy.

Posted by acquarello on Jan 27, 2006 | | Filed under 2006

January 22, 2006

Bell Diamond, 1986

bell_diamond.gif Few filmmakers capture the complex landscape of rural America in all its strong-willed self-determination, insularity, and dispiriting sameness as pointedly and eloquently as Jon Jost. It is this conjured frontier image of all-or-nothing prospects and fickle fate that engenders wealth just as easily as it nurtures poverty that Jost alludes to in the implicit irony of the film's title Bell Diamond, the name of an abandoned mill that would render many of the townspeople unemployed and eking out an existence as part-time day laborers facing an uncertain future within the limited opportunities of a depressed local economy. Far from a financial security seemingly within reach as reward for dedication to duty and honest, hard work and rugged individualism, what instead remains of Bell Diamond is a vast graveyard of idled machinery, gutted infrastructure, and broken dreams. Once a thriving industrial plant in a bucolic, working class community, the abandoned mill symbolizes the unrealized potential and failed hopes of a generation of drafted soldiers returning from combat in Vietnam to rebuild some semblance of a normal life - a lost generation embodied by the silent, introverted everyman, Jeff Dolan (Marshall Gaddis), an unemployed mill worker who spends his idle hours absorbed in the abstraction of a perpetually switched on television. But beyond the demoralizing inertia of chronic unemployment, Jeff's troubled domestic life also betrays the elusiveness of a fairytale homecoming after experiencing the devastation of war, as his wife Cathy (Sarah Wyss), already frustrated by their inability to conceive a child (a residual side effect of his military exposure to Agent Orange) confronts his predictable habituality, inertia, and emotional isolation and announces that she has decided to leave him. Aimless and alone, Jeff returns to Bell Diamond in a haze of despair to face the limbo of anonymous, empty industrial towers that have defined his self-enclosed identity. Jost's combination of elegant, signature landscape shots with the dedramatized improvisation of non-professional actors eschews the introduction of overt emotional manipulation to create a poignant and understated work. Evoking the raw emotionality of a John Cassavetes internalized encounter where domestic ritual serves as a surrogate for unarticulated affection, the silent encounters in the film are similarly muted yet charged with the passion of symbiotic intimacy (most notably, in the sequence of a resigned Jeff helping Cathy carry her belongings into a truck after a truncated argument). It is this undercurrent of undying love and devoted intimacy that inevitably reinforces the hope, compassion, and humanity that lies within the seemingly bleak and irredeemable tale of economic (and spiritual) recession, a redefined, contemporary fairytale forged from tempered dreams, acceptance of fate, and humble desire.

Posted by acquarello on Jan 22, 2006 | | Comments (2) | Filed under 2006, Jon Jost

January 13, 2006

Le Bonheur, 1965

bonheur.gifEven with the landscape bathed in warm hues and verdant fields on a summer day, accompanied by the lushness of a textured Mozart adagio, clad with airy wispiness of draped muslin, and emphatically punctuated by a picture-perfect sunflower in full bloom that suggests an aesthetic symbiosis with the vibrant, saccharine images of husband and fellow filmmaker Jacques Demy's contemporary film The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, the association of Le Bonheur as both a prefiguration and corollary to the somber and oppressive bleakness of Vagabond - a film Agnès Varda would make twenty years later - nevertheless, seems inescapable. Ostensibly a chronicle of the repercussions of a husband's admitted infidelity on his family (an affair that, as François (Jean-Claude Drouot) rationalizes, was borne not of an emotional void, but of an abundance of happiness and desire to extend that sense of personal joy beyond the sphere of their marital relationship), the film is also an incisive satire on egoism, patriarchal immunity, and bourgeois complacency that implicitly tolerates acts of infidelity and emotional irresponsibility. A carpenter by trade, François' vocation provides a glimpse into the vanity of his desire to inhabit a world of his own construction, much like the titular drifter, Mona (Sandrine Bonnaire) chooses her transience - and ultimately her fate - in Vagabond. Intrinsic in this act of self-determinism is the fragility of balance between personal autonomy and social communion, an interdependence that collapses in the polarity of the characters' own selfishness. On one side of the spectrum is François' rationalization that love is infinitely additive and therefore, does not take away from his relationship with his wife, Therese (Claire Drouot); on the other side is Mona's complete emotional detachment beyond the immediacy of physical necessity. Yet both characters are driven by the compulsion - and myth - of the attainability of complete freedom. It is this elusive search that propels the denouement of both films, a myopic sense of entitlement and inability to acknowledge the real world limitations of freedom and pursuit of happiness.

Posted by acquarello on Jan 13, 2006 | | Filed under 2006

January 12, 2006

Pillow List - 2006

Admittedly, I've never been a big proponent of list-making - a process that seems, at best, an impossible reduction of film experience into finite, arbitrary parameters, and at worst, a misused tool for lazy advocacy (or criticism) of a film's merit. Still, I'll admit to being drawn to the idea of a Sei Shônagon-styled pillow book as a means of capturing passing thoughts that would otherwise be lost. So rather than attempting to compile a list of canonical films to chronicle one cinephile's journey, I'm instead listing a hundred films in response to a YMDb reader comment that, like a pillow book entry, describes a temporal point of convergence - the films that are meaningful to me at this juncture - each a memory, a mnemonic, a biography, a resonance ...to be taken with a grain of salt.

In alphabetical order, limited to one film per filmmaker:

001. After Life (Hirokazu Kore-eda, 1998)
002. All About Eve (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1950)
003. Ankur (Shyam Benegal, 1974)
004. Au hasard Balthazar (Robert Bresson, 1966)
005. The Awful Truth (Leo McCarey, 1937)
006. Berlin Alexanderplatz (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1980)
007. The Blue Angel (Josef von Sternberg, 1930)
008. Bonjour Tristesse (Otto Preminger, 1958)
009. Bringing Up Baby (Howard Hawks, 1938)
010. The Burmese Harp (Kon Ichikawa, 1956)

011. La Ceremonie (Claude Chabrol, 1995)
012. Charade (Stanley Donen, 1963)
013. Charulata (Satyajit Ray, 1964)
014. City Lights (Charles Chaplin, 1931)
015. City of Sadness (Hou Hsiao-hsien, 1989)
016. Contempt (Jean-Luc Godard, 1963)
017. Close-up (Abbas Kiarostami, 1990)
018. The Cloud-Capped Star (Ritwik Ghatak, 1960)
019. Code Inconnu (Michael Haneke, 2000)
020. Un Coeur en hiver (Claude Sautet, 1992)

021. Cries and Whispers (Ingmar Bergman, 1972)
022. The Day the Sun Turned Cold (Yim Ho, 1994)
023. Days of Being Wild (Wong Kar-wai, 1991)
024. Death by Hanging (Nagisa Oshima, 1968)
025. Decalogue (Krzysztof Kieslowski, 1989)
026. Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder, 1944)
027. The Dying Swan (Yevgeni Bauer, 1916)
028. L'Eclisse (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1962)
029. Eldorado (Marcel L'Herbier, 1921)
030. Europa 51 (Roberto Rossellini, 1952)

031. The Face of Another (Hiroshi Teshigahara, 1966)
032. The Fire Within (Louis Malle, 1963)
033. Floating Clouds (Mikio Naruse, 1955)
034. The Girl with the Hatbox (Boris Barnet, 1927)
035. The Green Room (François Truffaut, 1978)
036. Goodbye Again (Anatole Litvak, 1961)
037. Hannah and Her Sisters (Woody Allen, 1986)
038. How I Got into an Argument (My Sex Life...) (Arnaud Desplechin, 1996)
039. Humanity and Paper Balloons (Sadao Yamanaka, 1937)
040. The Hunt (Erik Lochen, 1959)

041. The Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting (Raoul Ruiz, 1978)
042. I Can't Sleep (Claire Denis, 1994)
043. Images of the World and the Inscription of War (Harun Farocki, 1989)
044. India Song (Marguerite Duras, 1975)
045. Irma Vep (Olivier Assayas, 1996)
046. The Insect Woman (Shohei Imamura, 1963)
047. It Happened One Night (Frank Capra, 1934)
048. Je t'aime, je t'aime (Alain Resnais, 1968)
049. Johnny Guitar (Nicholas Ray, 1954)
050. Kaïrat (Darezhan Omirbaev, 1992)

051. Khandhar (Mrinal Sen, 1988)
052. Life of Oharu (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1952)
053. Lolita (Stanley Kubrick, 1962)
054. Love Streams (John Cassavetes, 1984)
055. Lovers of the Arctic Circle (Julio Medem, 1998)
056. Made in Hong Kong (Fruit Chan, 1997)
057. The Match Factory Girl (Aki Kaurismäki, 1989)
058. Midnight Lace (David Miller, 1960)
059. Monsieur Hire (Patrice Leconte, 1989)
060. Mother Joan of the Angels (Jerzy Kawalerowicz, 1961)

061. Naked Island (Kaneto Shindo, 1962)
062. News from Home (Chantal Akerman, 1977)
063. Nights of Cabiria (Federico Fellini, 1957)
064. Ordet (Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1955)
065. Ornamental Hairpin (Hiroshi Shimizu, 1941)
066. The Palm Beach Story (Preston Sturges, 1942)
067. Paris, Texas (Wim Wenders, 1984)
068. A Patch of Blue (Guy Green, 1965)
069. Platform (Jia Zhang-ke, 2000)
070. Playtime (Jacques Tati, 1967)

071. Le Pont du Nord (Jacques Rivette, 1982)
072. La Promesse (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, 1996)
073. The Railroad Man (Pietro Germi, 1956)
074. Ran (Akira Kurosawa, 1985)
075. [Safe] (Todd Haynes, 1995)
076. Sans soleil (Chris Marker, 1983)
077. Sátántangó (Béla Tarr, 1994)
078. The Second Circle (Aleksandr Sokurov, 1990)
079. Seconds (John Frankenheimer, 1966)
080. Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (Sergei Paradjanov, 1964)

081. Sherlock Jr. (Buster Keaton, 1924)
082. Stalker (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1979)
083. Sunflower (Vittorio De Sica, 1972)
084. Sunrise (F.W. Murnau, 1927)
085. El Sur (Victor Erice, 1983)
086. The Sweet Smell of Success (Alexander Mackendrick, 1957)
087. To Live (Zhang Yimou, 1994)
088. That Obscure Object of Desire (Luis Buñuel, 1977)
089. Trouble in Paradise (Ernst Lubitsch, 1932)
090. Twenty-Four Eyes (Keisuke Kinoshita, 1954)

091. Tokyo Story (Yasujiro Ozu, 1953)
092. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Jacques Demy, 1964)
093. Vagabond (Agnes Varda, 1985)
094. Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958)
095. Voyage to Cythera (Theo Angelopoulos, 1984)
096. Wait Until Dark (Terence Young, 1967)
097. The Wedding March (Erich von Stroheim, 1921)
098. What Time is it There? (Tsai Ming-liang, 2001)
099. Written on the Wind (Douglas Sirk, 1956)
100. Yellow Earth (Chen Kaige, 1984)

Posted by acquarello on Jan 12, 2006 | | Comments (18) | Filed under 2006

January 5, 2006

La Vie de morts, 1991

vie_morts.gifEven from his first feature film La Vie des morts, Arnaud Desplechin was already establishing a quintessentially dynamic framework for his recurring themes on surrogacy, human idiosyncrasies, and the ephemeral nature of desire. In an interview with Cahiers du Cinéma writer Jean Douchet, Desplechin illustrates this envisioned (un)structure of relational roundelays in the composition of the film's opening sequence as Christian MacGillis (Thibault de Montalembert) observes his younger brother Yvan (Roch Leibovici) perched atop the trunk of a deciduous tree in the front yard and decides to join him in the tree pruning chore. The metaphoric image of haphazardly bifurcating limbs on the large, leafless tree being systematically cut down serves not only as a visual paradigm for the organic structure that would pervade Desplechin's subsequent films, but more immediately, as an analogy for the complex and seemingly inauspicious extended family history and pattern of pell-mell liaisons (that, for this particular weekend included a cousin, Bob's (Emmanuel Salinger) indecorous invitation of his girlfriend, Laurence (Emmanuelle Devos) to the somber occasion) that have converged on the MacGillis household for a death watch of their adoptive brother, an orphaned cousin named Patrick, after he is hospitalized for irreversible severe head injuries stemming from a suicide attempt. An early private conversation between Christian and his sister Pascale (Marianne Denicourt) reveals their concealed knowledge from other family members of Patrick's earlier suicide attempt, and begin to deliberate if they should now divulge this information to their parents who have been overcome by a sense of impotence and failure over the incident. Unfolding with an unexpected whimsicality, anarchic spirit, and gentle humor innate in everyday life as the MacGillis children alternately disparage and flirt with the hopelessly out of place Laurence, smoke pot, conjecture on the real motivation behind Patrick's suicide beyond the sanitized "official" family explanation, play practical jokes, and even attempt to cope with the personal crisis of a possible unexpected pregnancy, La Vie des morts reflects the existential need for reassurance through self-distraction and the conduct of everyday rituals within the collective crisis of imminent death. This theme of coexistent balance between the ritual of living and the process of dying is perhaps best illustrated in Pascale's early morning task at the conclusion of the film in a scenario that also prefigures Therese's self-induced mock birth and Léo's momentary hallucination in Playing 'In the Company of Men' - where blood becomes an interconnected symbol of life and death, genetic bond and surrogate transfiguration, innocence and moral stain - where biological processes trace the broader existential cycle of perpetual renewal.

Posted by acquarello on Jan 05, 2006 | | Comments (3) | Filed under 2006, Arnaud Desplechin