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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