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July 2007 Archives

July 25, 2007

Night and Fog in Japan, 1960

nightfog_japan.gifNamed after Alain Resnais' essay film on the abandoned landscapes of postwar Auschwitz that bear silent witness to the tragedy of the Holocaust, Night and Fog in Japan, Nagisa Oshima's fictional deconstruction of the left movement in the aftermath of the ratification of the second U.S.-Japan Security Treaty (Anpo) in 1960 is also a caustic and pointed cultural interrogation into personal and collective accountability that, as implied by Resnais' film, have been (consciously) obscured by the fog of guilt and memory. The marriage of two Zengakuren members sets the symbolic stage for Oshima's critical inquiry into the collective failure of the Japanese Left: former activist turned field reporter, Nozawa (Kenzo Kawarazaki), a member of the student movement during the collapsed opposition to the first Anpo treaty in 1950 who now covers the continued political struggle of a new generation of young radicals for the local newspaper (a gesture that he believes demonstrates his continued solidarity with the movement), and the younger Reiko (Miyuki Kuwano), a student protestor who had been injured during recent demonstrations opposing the treaty's extension. As in Oshima's subsequent film, The Ceremony, the empty performance of the traditional wedding ceremony becomes a reflection of dysfunctional, antiquated social rituals, cultural displacement, and impotence.

Implicit in Oshima's indictment is the entrenchment of American imperialism into contemporary Japanese culture - an inculcation that had been fostered during postwar occupation and continued to shape the country's process of political self-determination on its road towards international re-emergence - and with its exerted influence, the formation of a key ideological alliance, not only against socialism, but also towards enabling the U.S. government's policy of containment (particularly in Asia) during the early stages of the Cold War. Structured in a series of flashbacks as a pair of wedding crashers (and fellow Zengakuren members hiding from the police) confront the guests, some now prominent members of the Communist party, on their culpability over the nebulous circumstances surrounding the fates of two fellow activists - Nozawa's comrade, Takao (Sakonji Hiroshi), and Reiko's friend, Kitami (Ajioka Toru) - the film is also an examination into the factionalism, internal power struggles, and petty self-interests that sabotaged the left movement. Revisiting the botched imprisonment of a presumed spy from the group's student headquarters a decade earlier (an unproven allegation perpetuated by the group's authoritarian leader, Nakayama (Yoshizawa Takao) despite the membership's increasing, though unarticulated, skepticism) that lead to Takao's scapegoating, Oshima not only illustrates the personal (and implicitly selfish) issues that undermined the movement's effectiveness in promoting a collective agenda (most notably, in Nozawa and Nakayama's ongoing rivalry for the affections of fellow student activist Misako (Akiko Koyama)), but also exposes its underlying repressive, totalitarian culture that mirrored the heavy-handed government of Stalinist-era communism in the Soviet Union - a tendency towards paranoid suspicions and intolerance for dissent that contributed to its self-inflicted public disfavor and political marginalization. Similarly, the subsequent disappearance of Kitami from a hospital during a violent government crackdown on demonstrators protesting the 1960 Anpo treaty extension (a watershed incident for the radical left that also fatefully brought Nozawa and Reiko together) reveals the younger generation's increasing disenchantment with the inflexible, out-of-touch Zengakuren leadership that had resulted in the group's disorganization and irrelevance at a critical stage when the credibility (and sustainability) of the left movement in the shaping of the Japanese political landscape was at stake. By framing the group's moral dissolution within the context of embittered, unrequited love and consuming self-distractions, Oshima creates an incisive metaphor for the failure of the left movement as an ill-fated love affair - a displacement of unrealized desire and resigned acceptance of convenient, if compromised, ideals.

Posted by acquarello on Jul 25, 2007 | | Comments (3) | Filed under 2007, Nagisa Oshima

July 11, 2007

Tales of Little People, 1994-1999

The unreconciled ghosts of colonialism and its legacy of economic stagnation, currency devaluation, and underdevelopment among emerging contemporary African nations lies at the core of Djibril Diop Mambéty's whimsical, yet incisive (and sadly, unfinished) series of envisioned fables, Tales of Little People, that sought to illustrate - through accessible, culturally familiar folkloric imagery and traditional, tale-teller narrative - the endemic socioeconomic malaise that continues to plague the continent as it collectively struggles to emerge from its exploited history and remain viable in an age of effacing globalism. But far from the resigned lamentations of systematic exclusion and seemingly arbitrary, externally inflicted injustice at the hands of myopic, international economic superpowers, Mambéty sought to expose the underlying dysfunctional culture as a means of confronting - and inevitably breaking - the self-destructive behavior that enables (and continues to fuel) these entrenched mechanisms of corruption, exploitation, and crippling dependency. In the two completed tales, Le Franc (1994) and The Little Girl Who Sold The Sun (1999), Mambéty introduces the trenchant idea that the power of the imagination to raise post-colonial African consciousness does not exist in fanciful, but ultimately empty, idle dreams or wistfully dwelling over a lost - and stolen - noble past (a theme that is also articulated in Jean-Marie Téno's films, as well as Ousmane Sembene's Borom Sarret), but in a certain wide-eyed innocence and naïve determination that recovery and advancement are still possible with dedicated effort. It is within this contrasting framework of marginalization and perseverance that the protagonists of Le Franc and The Little Girl Who Sold The Sun may be seen as both symptomatic representations and character foils towards this overarching theme of indigenous self-empowerment: Marigo, the perennially daydreaming, able-bodied, bumbling loafer and sidelined street musician of Le Franc and Sili, the determined, young, disabled newspaper seller of The Little Girl Who Sold The Sun.

Le Franc, 1994

franc.gifSet against the French government's economically catastrophic devaluation of the CFA franc exchange rate in 1994 (from 0.02 to 0.01 French francs), Le Franc chronicles an impoverished, ne'er-do-well musician, Marigo's (Dieye Ma Dieye) impossible path towards financial recovery and independence. Unable to go out into the city and earn a meager income as a street performer when his landlady (Aminata Fall) impounds his beloved congoma after failing to pay his back rent (and who then proceeds to taunt him by playing the instrument in front of his house), Marigo resorts to spending his idle time watching life go by from a city sidewalk until he spots a fallen bank note near the lottery ticket stand of a mystical, dwarf peddler named Kus (Demba Bâ). Following Kus' advice to play his envisioned lucky numbers on the national lottery (whose theme is pointedly titled Devaluation), Marigo fastens the ticket behind a poster of his Robin Hood-styled folk hero, Yaadikoone for good luck - an impulsive act that soon threatens to invalidate his ticket when he is unable to hand over the item for verification at the lottery office. Concluding with the double-entendred image of a lone, raving, ecstatic Marigo on an isolated rock formation hovering between uninhibited euphoria and seeming madness, the film is as a wry and sardonic fairytale that implicitly reveals the entrenched cycle of self-defeating poverty, where the popular gravitation towards quick fix, delusive panaceas of instant wealth and easy money reflects both the inertia of a resigned acceptance to second-class status, and an endemic culture of victimization and sense of helplessness, where the very notion of economic (and moral) recovery rests in illusive - and implicitly external - ideals of reparation, charity, and arbitrary dispensation of divine justice (a wishful thinking that is embodied by Marigo's idolization of thief/benefactor, Yaadikoone).

The Little Girl Who Sold The Sun, 1999

vendeuse.gifInasmuch as Le Franc serves as a parable for a pervasive moral climate of disempowerment, Mambéty's subsequent installment for Tales of Little People, The Little Girl Who Sold The Sun is its poignant and sublime antithesis. The film centers on a young, illiterate, crippled girl named Sili (Lissa Balera) from a shantytown on the outskirts of Dakar who decides one day to abandon her blind grandmother's vocation of begging in the street and take up the physically demanding job of selling newspapers - a task usually undertaken by boys who can aggressively peddle them at busy intersections throughout the city (an early image of a dead kitten lying on the side of a road alludes to the harshness of life for these impoverished street children). Given an initial allotment of thirteen copies of the less popular, government newspaper, Le Soleil (a symbolic quantity and representation that alludes to the continent's struggle to emerge from a position of disadvantaged history), Sili's first day on the job proves to be auspicious when a well-to-do businessman, encouraged by her initiative and self-reliance, offers to buy out all her remaining copies, leaving her free to share her unexpected good fortune with her grandmother and a few neighboring friends for the afternoon, and even pleading for the case of a wrongfully accused woman who has been imprisoned without charges at a local police station. In time, Sili forges a thriving business with her refreshingly low-key sales approach, cultivating a growing clientele of customers who go out of their way to buy her newspaper. But as the competition becomes increasingly desperate and cutthroat, Sili's popularity soon places her in the crosshairs of rival peddlers who see her presence as a turf invasion and resolve to thwart her profitable enterprise by any means necessary. In juxtaposing Sili's well-earned success against her rivals' increasingly underhanded - and implicitly thuggish - territoriality, Mambéty presents an incisive metaphor for the cultural institution of lawlessness and corruption, enabling a tragic legacy of factionalism, civil wars, and government coups that have contributed to a climate of chronic destabilization. However, as the government's announcement of its decision to dissociate its currency from the French franc in Le Soleil suggests, the travails of post-colonial Africa are not solely rooted in cultural dysfunction, but are also an insidious (and perhaps inevitable) consequence of imperialism. It is through this seemingly anecdotal convergence with the government's symbolic declaration of independence that Sili's quest for financial independence becomes an integral metaphor for the plight of contemporary African nations in their own struggle for economic survival. Concluding with the parting image of a mistreated, but unbowed Sili emerging into the light, her defiant gesture not only represents an ennobled act of perseverance, but also offers a way forward from the chaos, despair, and sense of helplessness of inflicted marginalization.

Posted by acquarello on Jul 11, 2007 | | Comments (4) | Filed under 2007, Djibril Diop Mambéty

July 6, 2007

Strongman Ferdinand, 1976

strongman_ferdinand.gifSomething of a wry spiritual ancestor to Harun Farocki's 1990 found film montage, How to Live in the German Federal Republic on the pervasiveness of efficiency training and preparedness exercises in German society and their intrinsic reflection of a people's stunted growth, repressed conformity, and evasion of human experience in a climate of increasing economic competition and ever-refining (and consequently, more dehumanized) industrial production, Alexander Kluge's Strongman Ferdinand is a bracingly prescient, humorous, astute, and understated satire on the obsessive culture of rote rehearsals, role-playing, and fear-mongering as delusive reinforcement towards an (otherwise) insupportable effectiveness and self-justification under an ambiguous, and largely untenable, responsibility of upholding security. An early argument between the stocky, middle-aged detective (and quintessential Napoleonic figure) Ferdinand Rieche (Heinz Schubert) and a superior officer following the botched police pursuit of a burglary suspect reveals Rieche's underlying ideology in his obsessively inhabited role as security expert, insisting that the escaped suspect should have been apprehended prior to breaking into the house when the crime had not yet been committed - a pre-emptive that would have ensured, not only a successful arrest, but also the safety of the pursuing officers who, with their lax training and marginal shooting accuracy, were destined to miss their fleeing target. Falling out of favor with his superior officers for his constant insubordination, Rieche is relegated to a dead end desk job until an opportunity for a position as security expert opens up following the sacking of a security chief for an industrial corporation auspiciously called Deutsche Neuropa (an allusion to the emergence of a new Europe under Nazi-era Germany) in the aftermath of a worsening scandal involving his controversial deployment of snipers to subdue protestors, and his subsequent cavalier statements to the press on his instituted policies that has brought even more unwanted attention to the image-conscious multinational company. Having assumed the responsibility of chief security officer under a six month conditional employment, Rieche is eager to make a strong impression over his irreplaceable (and more importantly, immeasurable) value to his new employers - in particular, a skeptical executive, Wilutzki (Gert Günther Hoffmann) who was not consulted during the board's decision to recruit him - by seeking to dramatically (or at least palpably) transform the security operations of the industrial complex while restoring the legality of their enforcement and mitigating any potential scandal that could fall into the hands of the press (in one comical encounter, Rieche rejects an informant's complaint of sexual indiscretion between amorous co-workers by countering that his corroborating proof was verbal and not visual). Nevertheless, despite implementing a series of security and detection measures (including a lockdown of offline areas during non-working hours that traps a bemused cleaning lady in the utility room), reinforcing classroom theory (a return to the discipline of intelligence gathering that Rieche believes will prove useful during indeterminate interrogations), and conducting elaborate field maneuvers that begin to resemble battlefield combat and guerilla warfare, the industrial complex soon falls prey to a targeted, coordinated night-time bombing in an apparent - and ultimately unsolved - act of sabotage. Emboldened by his new corporate mandate to secure the plant and handle the media in such a way that the public does not begin to question the integrity of their products, Rieche embarks on an increasingly maniacal quest to ensure the security of the industrial complex by attempting to inhabit the mindset of the agitators whom he believes to be behind the attack (a predisposition towards blaming the left movement that is suggested in his earlier purchase of Marxist literature at a bookstore for research purposes), inevitably resorting to his own perpetrated acts of theft, intimidation, and sabotage under the expedient justification of enforcing security. At the heart of Kluge's penetrating and profoundly relevant exposition is Rieche's assumed - and largely inflated - role as the guardian (or more appropriately, exterminating angel) of Security, a self-anointed posture that conceals his incompetence, systematic abuse of power, and arrogant excesses under an inherently corrupt policy of strong-armed tactics, unchecked authority, and willful disregard of legal consequences. Framing Rieche's paradoxical, self-perpetuating act of terrorism as a sensationalist, cautionary statement on the perils of terrorism itself, Kluge presents a potent metaphor for the vicious circle of violence and exploitation, where the idealistic goal of a noble end no longer justifies the draconian means, but metastasizes into a grotesque inhumanity and corrupted, if amnesic consciousness.

Posted by acquarello on Jul 06, 2007 | | Filed under 2007, Alexander Kluge

July 2, 2007

Rose Lowder: Short Films (1982-1995)

Les Tournesols, 1982

tournesols.gifIn some ways, Rose Lowder's Les Tournesols, a kinetic, color-saturated, Vincent Van Gogh-esque structural film could just as easily have fit Jean-Luc Godard's description of "blind, trembling pans" as interior representations of the artist's psychological state (as Godard once described Alain Resnais' Van Gogh). Composed of frame by frame stationary shots of a lush field of sunflowers in full bloom near Bédarrides, Vaucluse where the focus of each successive image varies according to prescribed subject patterns - the fluttering of petals, the (sideways) bending of the wind, the cross-pollination of bees, the casting shadows by passing clouds - the apparent movement in the film results from the individual frame changes in the depth of field. Rather than simply capturing the diurnal, two-dimensional, to and fro motion of sunflowers swaying in the breeze, the focal modulation results in a momentary (single frame) displacement perpendicular to the plane of the film frame, causing the resulting image to appear to pulse. Expounding on the ideas presented in her first film, Roulement, Rouerie, Aubage, Lowder's trompe l'oeil "still life" composition is similarly rooted in the mechanism of the mind-eye's registration of images, where the placement of the frames of an image within the continuity of a film strip itself alters its apparent behavior. Creating an increasingly animated portrait of the verdant sunflower field as the natural movement of the sunflowers seemingly triggers a corresponding, proportional change in the camera's alternating focal length, the resulting image becomes a dynamic reflection of the subject itself in its rustic beauty and irresistible vibrancy.

Quiproquo, 1992

quiproquo.gifSet against the sound of an aggressive drumbeat, Quiproquo opens to the successive images of an errant, bobbing, plastic bottle floating towards the foreground, a man seemingly walking on water towards the left of the frame, and a duck floating backwards to the right of the frame against the powerful current of a body of water. The opening montage serves as a distilled metaphor for the divergence of nature, humanity, and technology in contemporary society. Incorporating structural techniques from her earlier films - most notably, in the repeated, subtly modulated landscape shot of a nuclear power plant that is bisected by a train (that recalls the shifting aesthetic imagery of Roulement, Rouerie, Aubage) and a cherry blossom-laden tree that, in its shimmering whiteness, appears incandescent (a visual created by the asequential, odd-even frames that Lowder studies in Impromptu) - Quiproquo is an abstract and freeform, yet cohesive rumination on the fragile intersection of industrialization and environment, where the coexistence of development and natural preservation create an essentially bifurcated landscape (note Lowder's bisection of the horizon that anticipates James Benning's Thirteen Lakes). Using stationary images that are subsequently animated through alternating shot frames, the manic collage of disparate ecological images and ever-shifting soundscapes becomes an integral representation of our own irreconcilable relationship with the environment.

Bouquets 1-10, 1994-1995

bouquets.gifBouquets 1-10 is Lowder's first collection in an ongoing series of one minute episodes, each composed of footage shot around a general geographic location that has been alternately woven, frame by frame, into a single film reel and connected through the interstitial still life image of a flower that cues the beginning of each integrated film Bouquet. In Bouquet 1, a day of leisure at Mount Ventoux, Vaucluse juxtaposes the vibrant image of indigenous flowers with the equally colorful bins of candy. In Bouquet 2 a seemingly uninterrupted study of flowers near the village of Brantes is eventually disrupted by the passing of cyclists in the last few moments of the film. Perhaps the most memorable is Bouquet 3, set in the village of Roquevaire, Var on the banks of the Huveaune River featuring a nondescript, old-fashioned pedestrian bridge that, interwoven with images of colorful wildflowers, optically transforms into impressionistic, Claude Monet-like compositions. In Bouquet 4 wildflowers and weather worn local handicrafts represent the slowly disappearing, rustic panorama of Beauduc, Camargue, Bouches-du-Rhône. Bouquet 5 illustrates the inevitable intersection between environment and technology as commuters figuratively share the same space as a field of poppies near the Marseille-Paris railway line. Work and leisure intersect in Bouquet 6 at a fishing harbor in Vesse, Bouches-du-Rhône, as boats are summarily abandoned in favor of a recreational swim in the idyllic blue waters. The image of water carries though to the therapeutic springs of Fosse Dionne in the medieval town of Tonnerre in Bouquet 7, where the wildflowers emerge from the interstices and abandoned ruins. In Bouquet 8 the absence of flowers on the beach at Beauduc, Bouches-du-Rhône is replaced by brightly colored sailboards that dart in and out of the horizon. The uneasy intersection between humanity and environment resurfaces in Bouquet 9 on the open fields near Signes, Var as assorted, discarded junk litter a field of buttercups. In Bouquet 10, the swarm of pollinating insects near the conclusion of the episode serves as a tongue-in-cheek metaphor for the influx of vacationing tourists on Lake Serre-Ponçon, Hautes-Alpes near a pastoral town on the mountain ranges of St. Apollinaire.

Posted by acquarello on Jul 02, 2007 | | Filed under 2007, Rose Lowder