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June 2007 Archives

June 27, 2007

Pedro Costa at the Smithsonian (Freer Gallery) in D.C.

Just a quick note to remind everyone that the Portuguese Cinema program at the Smithsonian's Freer Gallery concludes this weekend with A Weekend with Pedro Costa, which includes the screening of O Sangue and Colossal Youth, both followed by discussions with Costa and Cinema Scope editor, Mark Peranson. Admission is free.

Posted by acquarello on Jun 27, 2007 | | Comments (2) | Filed under 2007, Quick Notes

June 25, 2007

The Ties That Bind, 1985

ties_bind.gifIn an interview with Scott MacDonald for A Critical Cinema 2, Su Friedrich comments that the inspiration for her first feature film arose from the idea of her mother's seeming uprootedness despite having settled in the United States since after the war. This sentiment of an elusive home suffuses her mother, Lore Bucher Friedrich's candid, heartfelt, and thoughtful account on her early life in 1930s Germany as well - a traumatic experience that, in its fateful intersection with the collective shame of a terrible national history, could only be relegated to the silence of personal memory - as a young woman orphaned in part by the cumulative toll of persecution on her defiantly anti-Nazi family, as a civilian driven out of her late parents' house by insensitive American soldiers during the occupation, as a postwar immigrant starting over a new life in the United States, and as a wife and mother whose husband left the family after fifteen years of marriage:

"Before I made The Ties That Bind I had such bad feelings of being German; and my father is half-German too. I don't think I really trusted the material I had. When I was working on the film, I told myself to stop worrying, to stop thinking I shouldn't be doing it, to stop disbelieving her, to trust her. I figured if the film was a failure in the long run I wouldn't show it. At some point I just stopped carrying on about it. It was strange to suddenly be thinking of my mother in this respectful way, to really be admiring her for what she did, for surviving. I had never thought of her."

Introducing her mother through an idiosyncratic montage of arms, elbows, hands, and feet, the fragmented images serve as an oblique reflection of Friedrich's own process of re-framing her mother's life within the context of personal testimony rather than a representative collective history. As the youngest daughter of a German Catholic family in the town of Ulm whose family patriarch, from the onset, had distrusted the lofty promises of Adolf Hitler and refused to join the wave of popular support despite social (and financial) pressure, Lore recounts her ostracism from school as being only one of the three girls who was not a member of the BDM (League of German Girls branch of the Hitler Youth movement), her family's unexpected disinheritance from their father's will at the hands of a suspicious executor that prevented her from pursuing her university studies, her forced draft into a Dornstadt air facility at the age of 19 at a time when her mother was dying from incurable cancer (an involuntary service that she suspects was instigated by a former piano teacher's denunciation of her), her increasing awareness of resistance groups, such as the White Rose Group formed by siblings Sophie and Hans Scholl who were also from Ulm, her traumatic memory of the bombing of Stuttgart that killed 3/4 of the local population and left her shell-shocked and wandering aimlessly through the streets, her fateful encounter with American soldier Paul Friedrich who was working on the de-nazification program, and finally, her emigration and less than fairytale marriage that would end in divorce .

Eschewing the interview format by replacing oral questions and observations with scratch film, the prominence of her mother's lone voice ironically reflects Friedrich's own process of personalization, introducing a physical self-imprint - the figurative ties that bind - that connects her mother's life experience with the formation of her own identity. This imprinting of collective consciousness is suggested in an early intertitle commenting on her mother's odd aversion to fireworks that is subsequently reinforced, not only in Lore's recollection of the bombing of Stuttgart, but also the continuous bombardment that would mark the last day of the war. Juxtaposed against images of the filmmaker's own acts of protest and resistance against the military and nuclear proliferation, and in particular, the implementation of Ronald Reagan's capstone Star Wars program, Friedrich subverts the notion of a silenced history, and instead presents a multifaceted collage of a remarkable, humble life lived within the eternal recursions of an all too human history, where a return to the simple pleasures of swimming in the sea and playing the piano serve, not only as implicit acts of defiance, but also as a re-assertion of suppressed identity.

Posted by acquarello on Jun 25, 2007 | | Filed under 2007, Su Friedrich

June 13, 2007

Elsewhere, 2001

elsewhere.gifIn 2000, the final year of the twentieth century, Nikolaus Geyrhalter and his crew set out with a digital video camera to film twelve, self-contained ethnographic episodes, each encapsulating a month-long document of the lives of people who perform their quotidian rituals in a figurative "elsewhere" - distant cultures and remote geographies seemingly left untouched - or perhaps, more appropriately, left behind - by a ubiquitous, untenable West, unaffected by the media-cultivated sensationalism (and crass commercialism) surrounding the advent of the new millennium. Opening to Ekeschi, Ayr at the heart of the Sahara desert in Niger in January, the image of the parched, sun bathed landscape on what is traditionally winter season in the West incisively underscores this sense of alterity and exoticism that the film subsequently subverts in its quiet observation, absence of mediating narration, stationary frame, long take sequences, and first person direct address. Chronicling life among the nomadic Tuareg as a woman and her child retrieve water from a deeply dug well (with the aid of a donkey that must travel a span of nearly 300 meters before the pail of water surfaces from the opposite end of the rope), men herd their camels through the barren landscape, and a tribesman comments on the lure of the cities for the younger generation and his concerns over the ability of the land to continue to support their ancestral way of life under a climate of overpopulation and land development. But perhaps the most insightful portrait of the Tuareg is revealed in the mundane gesture of a traditional, extended handshake that contradicts the notion of a casual greeting implied by its Western counterpart, emphasizing the act of the tactile, interactive human contact that reinforces a sense of communal intimacy and solidarity.

The repercussions of overpopulation and uncontrolled growth subsequently resurfaces in the portrait of the Moso tribe, a matriarchal, ethnic minority community of farmers and ranchers living in the Yunnan province in China, as an extended family tends to their farm. Addressing a recurring comment by the Han Chinese (the majority tribe) towards the Moso tribe's resistance to marrying as a means of leaving the ancestral home and establishing a new household (and familial independence), a woman argues that the family's (and by extension, the tribe's) longevity is enabled by their clan's collective work ethic, a mutual consideration that regards the land as an ancestral stewardship to be passed on to future generations, and not as personal property to be divided (and subsequently, further subdivided) among heirs and future generations as inheritance (a process that inevitably leads to the fragmentation of the land into unusable plots for farming). The idiosyncrasies of tribal notions of inheritance and (dis)possession also unexpectedly surfaces during a discussion of polygamy by Himba tribespeople in Kaokoland, Namibia as the co-wives of a village elder (and regional administrative judge) recount their own stories of courtship and inclusion into the family (even as they express disapproval over the idea of their husband marrying a third co-wife), and the elder explains the traditional disbursement of property upon his death that not includes his designated heir's customary accession, but also the assumption of marriage for his wives.

However, beyond the exposure of social inequities intrinsic in patriarchal societies, perhaps the most salient and integral observation that emerges throughout the film is the overarching idea of the complex interaction - and often forcibly imposed imprint - of external forces on these eternal, yet gradually transforming landscapes. Although at times, a simple reflection of the inevitable forces of nature (as in a reindeer herder's discovery of the headless carcass of an errant reindeer that had been killed by a wolf in Samiland, Finland near the Norwegian border), the film becomes an increasingly incisive exposition into the indirect repercussions of man-made legacy on indigenous identity. On one side of the equation, the institution of "witch villages" by the West has contributed to the eradication of cannibalism among the Korowai people of Irian Jaya, Indonesia where, only a few generations earlier, those denounced as sorcerers were killed and ceremonially eaten by their accusers. Similarly, in Arnhem Land, Australia, a Western doctor conducts routine visits to the remote Aboriginal Reserve in order to tend to the sick and monitor the health of the local population, especially the children (note the sustained paradoxical sense of geographic remoteness that is subverted in the subsequent images of children playing European football and video games near the end of the segment). In Umla, Ladakh, India, the imprint transcends from the physical to the spiritual, as a Ladhaki rancher and sheepherder reflects on her life of grace and blessing, alternating her time between grazing the animals at higher mountain elevations and immersed in Buddhist prayer, even as she expresses her trepidation over the plight of the tribe's younger generations in an environment of systematic depopulation, limited opportunity, and increasing isolation from other countries (and in particular, their spiritual brethren in Tibet as China tightens its border controls).

The murky, often tenuous and uneasy intersection between the imposition of Western ideology and the integral symbiotic relationship between environmental responsibility and cultural survival first surfaces in an episode on Inuit sea hunters in Thule, Greenland who, while acknowledging the cruelty of the now-discontinued practice of hunting baby seals, believe that protests by high profile celebrities (in particular, Brigitte Bardot) and environmentalist groups have gone too far in their attacks on the tribe's ancestral vocation of whale and seal hunting and now threatens, not only their livelihood, but the very survival of their cultural identity. Conversely, the specter of man-made (often corporate-based) ecological irresponsibility looms inescapably over the few remaining Khanty herdsmen in the village of Kantek Ko Jawun in Siberia, Russia, as fish and wildlife have dwindled to the point of near extinction as a result of repeated oil spills and industrial pollution associated with the pipelines, even as the oil company attempts to improve its public relations image towards the local population by offering free helicopter rides for running errands into faraway towns. A similar ecological crisis looms in the village of Thárros in Sardinia, Italy as regional over-fishing is leading generational fishermen into taking riskier trips with their boats into ever deeper waters in search of "beautiful" fish like pagello, gilthead, and grouper that are in high demand by the restaurant industry, leading an elder fisherman to remark that "only poor people eat ugly fish." In New Aiyansh, British Columbia in Canada, the exuberance over the Nisga'a tribe's ceremonial dedication of a totem pole in the town square contrasts against a tribesman's frustration and anger at the government's empty, symbolic gesture of atonement in returning a parcel of desecrated tribal land that had been appropriated, exploited, and entirely deforested by industrial loggers. This insidious image of implicit domination and cultural imperialism under the feigned guise of goodwill is subsequently illustrated in the Red Cross' biennial Christmas package drops to the Falalap, Woleai Atoll in Micronesia, the film's final destination, where the tribe sifts though a collection of well-worn clothing and assorted trash in the hopes of finding something of practical use. It is through this interlocking, artificially imposed social framework of privilege and marginalization, inclusion and otherness, "civilized society" and elsewhere that a Rei Metau teacher's expressed fears on the devastating, secondary effects of melting polar ice caps on the low lying islands of Micronesia serve, not only as a provocative reminder of the earth's ecological interconnectedness, but also as a poignant and incisive expression of a forgotten people's sense of place in an increasingly alienating and myopic global environment - the residual imprint, not of the dawning of a new era, but its casted twilight.

Posted by acquarello on Jun 13, 2007 | | Filed under 2007, Nikolaus Geyrhalter

June 8, 2007

Yesterday Girl (Anita G.), 1966

yesterday_girl.gifIn his early short essay film, Brutality in Stone, Alexander Kluge channels the contemplative spirit of Alain Resnais' Night and Fog and Statues Also Die (co-authored by Chris Marker) to convey the idea of architectural memories, the traces of memory that subconsciously remain within the de-contextualized images of derelict structures and abandoned ruins, in this case, the decimated Nazi Party Rally Grounds in (then) present day Nuremberg. For Kluge, this evidence of a haunted, inerasable palimpsest of tragic, forgotten history is an unspoken reality that continues to shape Germany's unreconciled, postwar collective consciousness - a nation eager to put its turbulent and ignominious past behind and re-emerge internationally as an enlightened and formidable economic world power (enabled by an economic miracle that would lead to the implementation of a liberal guest worker program during the 1960-70s). It is within the resurfacing of these abandoned, yet apparent traces of a scarred history - this persistence of suppressed memory - that Kluge also frames his first feature film, Yesterday Girl, an acerbic, deliriously fractured, incisive, and darkly comic satire on a young German woman (and archetypal embodiment of the postwar generation), Anita G.'s (Alexandra Kluge) search for happiness, liberation, and independence in the illusive wake of a transformative national recovery (a parallel history of postwar reformation not unlike Japan's recovery). Indeed, the film's tersely written preface, "What separates us from yesterday is not a rift but a change in position" reinforces this sense of subconscious, recursive inevitability, as the heroine, the titular Anita G, is introduced through incisive, cross cut images: initially reading a piece of paper in subtly varying intonation, then subsequently, from a high angle-shot title sequence as she repeatedly assesses her vantage point before changing seats at a hotel bar lounge. From the juxtaposition of these fractured opening images, Kluge establishes the idea of postwar collective memory as an empty shell game that has been essentially formed from the simple, but implicitly deliberated modulation, displacement, and reconstitution of latent, prevailing cultural mores.

This sense of an ingrained, un-rehabilitated, and perhaps even defiant national psyche is also reinforced in Anita's appearance in court before a judge over a theft charge stemming from a colleague's appropriated cardigan sweater. Reviewing Anna's background as a German Jew from Leipzig, now in (the former) East Germany whose family business was confiscated by the Third Reich, then reinstated after the war, the judge is eager to exonerate the possibility that the "certain incidents of 1943-44" had contributed to Anita G.'s current charge - an association that she, herself, never implied - attempting instead to trivialize her relocation to West Germany as a simple search for opportunity that, like any other outsider (despite being born in a unified Germany before the war), is an attempt to exploit the country's bourgeoning economy. Challenging her sense of guilt for the offense by her curious behavior in not hiding the cardigan - an inaction that Anita admits stemmed from confusion over "prior events" that the judge, once again, is quick to erroneously suggest that she is attempting to evoke the tragedy of the Holocaust in order to gain sympathy from the court - the inquisition itself reveals the underlying hypocrisy of German society after the war, where people who served in positions of power during the Third Reich (obtained through party loyalty) were often restored to their bureaucratic appointments. This contradictory behavior that is, at once, an all-too-ready admission of (factually verified) historical culpability and a trivialization of the consequences of its legacy reflects a culturally pervasive attitude, a tenuous co-existence between half-hearted acknowledgement and adamant denial that is encapsulated by the judge's curt dismissal in continuing the line of inquiry that raises the specter of the human tragedy (one that he, himself, has introduced out of apparent habit): a pre-emptive declaration of its particular - and implicitly broader - irrelevance towards the resurgence of an inclusive, tolerant, and transformed "New Germany". Ironically, it is a metamorphosis that, nevertheless, perpetuates a climate of exclusion (East versus West), moral imprisonment (the evangelical probationary officer attempts to convert her to Christianity), and dispossession (the landlady's decision to evict her from the boarding house by impounding her suitcase). Inevitably, perhaps the key to Kluge's fragmented, yet lucid and penetrating social interrogation is revealed in a university professor's sterile and philosophically dense lecture on the relativity of the Greek concept of aischron and the opposing corollary ideas that the greater shame resides either for the one who commits the transgression, or the one who suffers from it - a delusive posture of righteousness that re-invents collective history through the perspective of defiant transgressors as the greater victims of their own willful, moral complicity.

Posted by acquarello on Jun 08, 2007 | | Comments (2) | Filed under 2007, Alexander Kluge

June 4, 2007

A Man Vanishes, 1967

man_vanishes.gifConverging towards Kobo Abe's experimental fiction in its fragmented examination of the strange phenomenon of johatsu - the unexplained (and presumably self-initiated) disappearances of otherwise seemingly responsible and professional salarymen in metropolitan Tokyo - as a broader social symptom of the anonymization and erasure of identity inherent in urbanization and rigid cultural conformity (most notably, in the novels Man Without a Map and The Face of Another that were later adapted to film by Hiroshi Teshigahara), and infused with Shohei Imamura's familiar penchant for human imperfection, awkwardness, and irrationality that infuses his films with a certain idiosyncratic messiness, A Man Vanishes is an ingeniously constructed and subversively intellectual, yet captivating and elegant rumination on the malleability, inexactness, and ephemeral nature of reality. Opening to the seemingly conventional aesthetic of a documentary film in its clinical images of institutional spaces and dry, impassive presentation of compiled data - in this case, a visit to police headquarters as an official provides the physical description and vital statistics of a missing plastics salesman named Tadashi Oshima who disappeared two years earlier during a routinely scheduled, payment collection business trip - the film explodes the creative myth of cinéma vérité as a direct, unadulterated means of capturing Truth in its essential (and integral) ambiguity and representational hybridity.

Ostensibly framed as an investigative film that seeks to put a human face to a curious phenomenon and solve the mystery of an everyman's disappearance, the film unfolds as a procedural, documenting the field research and interviews conducted by recurring Imamura actor turned investigative reporter, Shigeru Tsuyuguchi as he follows a trail of potential, often contradictory, and invariably dead-end information related to Oshima's case, accompanied by Oshima's enigmatic fiancée, Yoshie Hayakawa who, in turn, continues to be haunted by her lover's disappearance and shadows Shigeru in his search for truth (initially, in an attempt to bring about her own personal closure, then subsequently, in her own increasing attraction towards the genial actor). In an early episode, Oshima's supervisor suggests a possible motive for the disappearance by disclosing a suppressed company scandal involving Oshima's embezzlement of payment checks that is subsequently tempered by his financial restitution, as well as an accountant's realization that the still missing checks that had been collected on the day of his disappearance have remained undeposited. In another potential lead, the pair uncovers a salacious rumor over Oshima's failed love affair with a waitress named Kimiko that may have resulted in a pregnancy, a rumor that is subsequently refuted by Kimiko herself. Still another clue surfaces when a witness suggests that Oshima had discovered that Yoshie's sister, Sayo was leading a disreputable life as a former (and not too successful) geisha and kept mistress of a married man, creating an embarrassing situation that, as the son of a samurai family, had complicated his marriage plans - a theory that is seemingly reinforced by a shaman's divination of the sister's involvement in his disappearance (an assertion that, not surprisingly, contradicts her earlier reading that Oshima's troubles stem from an unresolved situation from within his own ancestral family).

Imamura presciently anticipates the blurring of bounds between truth and fiction of Abbas Kiarostami's cinema (most notably, in Close-up and Through the Olive Trees) and the recursive irresolvability of Nagisa Oshima's The Man Who Left His Will on Film through the film's amorphous, ever-shifting logical (and increasingly visible) construction - at times, part docufiction in the director's (played by Imamura himself) casting of professional actor, Shigeru as the interviewer for the documentary, and at other times, part metafilm in the participation of the missing man's real-life fiancée, Yoshie as both a character witness providing insight into Oshima's personal life in the days before his disappearance, and as an actress facilitating the staging and reenacting of events surrounding the film crew's search for answers in the aftermath of his disappearance. Moreover, in illustrating the role of the filmmaker in selecting the distilled, encapsulable images - what is filmed, edited, and reinforced - that innately represent the author's personal ideas of what is Truth, Imamura reinforces the theme of all filmed reality as intrinsically subjective and, therefore, consequently staged: transformed into spectacle by the subject's change in behavior resulting from an awareness of being filmed (a correlation that also surfaces in Harun Farocki's essay film on the Lumière brothers' Workers Leaving the Factory). It is this interpenetration between reality and the subjectivity of perception, individual will and performance of role, that defines the bold and irreverent spirit of Imamura's inventive and thoughtful exposition on the essential paradox of cinema: a medium that integrally conveys both the representation of real life and its projected imitation.

Posted by acquarello on Jun 04, 2007 | | Comments (2) | Filed under 2007, Shohei Imamura

June 3, 2007

Movable Type (Re)Installation Complete

Just a quick note to mention that the blog issues over the past week have finally been resolved (more on the back end side) after a clean re-installation/upgrade of Movable Type and re-initialization of the databases, so updates will be forthcoming...as soon as I can catch up on some sleep. :)

Posted by acquarello on Jun 03, 2007 | | Filed under 2007, Quick Notes