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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