Wednesday, January 15, 2014

13 for 2K13

1. The Act of Killing (dir. Joshua Oppenheimer, with Christine Cynn and Anonymous)

Far and away the film of the year. Explodes the documentary format: neither documentary nor "fiction". Extreme reality effect(s).* The Hollywoodification of the world synonymous with the Americanization of the world. "Gangster means 'free man'." That is, the freedom to kill (under filmic gaze, with impunity, because: entertainment). The act of killing is an act reproduced, made reproducible, ad infinitum by the moving pictures--to the point of noirish aestheticism, an affectation of killing that allows for the systematization and instrumentality of actual killing. Gestures, dancing, gangster caprice. Actual acts of killing (committed in the dream interspace of ideological phantasmagoria). // There was, and still is, a disconnect brought about by Hollywoodification, enabling Indonesian fascist executioners to feel zero (or submerged, violently repressed) empathy for the executed, the tortured, the blithely massacred. Oppenheimer's film is about the real world effects of film culture, essentially: film kills, it replicates, it makes live again, it murders effigies. (The surrealist aspects of the film are interesting insofar as they are part and parcel of a diseased relation between the world, the real, and the pandemonium generated by global capitalist blood ritual.) Cinema continues to be another instrument in the enforcement of a worldwide fascism--the desensitization of the senses. W. Benjamin's tenets haven't expired or evaporated with time; the globalized world still reels from it. Ultimately the film's point is: art matters, cinema matters: because it is viral, it creates conditions for impunity, for the justification of serialized acts, it can expose as much as destroy. 

*[Saw the film in London (in the summer). A Q/A with Oppenheimer, the director, followed the screening. Reality soaked into me, sitting in that seat. "First-world" guilt, or the acknowledgment that what happens in London, for instance, enriches or impoverishes what happens elsewhere, in Jakarta (for instance). Fell mute afterwards; ale session in a city alien-fresh to me, was of the utmost necessity, in a loquacious pub, yet unknown (I was, thankfully) to anyone. Aloneness. Lace & suds. Empty vicarious chatter. The "unspeakability" of an historical event brought to vivid life, returned to denature cinema's natural form.]

2. Only God Forgives (dir. Nicolas Winding Refn)

Speaking of aestheticism and globalization, here we have a prime container of its material discontents. Perhaps Refn's masterpiece; an aestheticist masterwork certainly, one which furthers the philosophy of surface to the point of hallucination. The tawdry and overt Freudianism can be excused once we perceive how layered the film actually is (my guess, judging from his typically glib interviews, is that Refn is blissfully unaware of the complexity of his own film). // Karma is a thing little understood in the West, it doesn't translate well because we lack a vocabulary for it. We perceive karma in a bizarrely medievalist sense, as a cycle, a wheel of intentionalized fortune; implicitly as a progression, a line forward that returns upon itself (this is called death). But, if we are to believe Walpola Rahula, then we've got it all wrong, made it far too elaborate with our insertions of Judeo-Christian telos: karma is only what you do, what you are doing now--it is not a concept of futurity but a process (in the Whitehead sense), an ongoing flow in which we are inserted and engaged. Karma is only the action, the spirit thereof, its expression/expressivity. Karma is the expression of what you are at that moment; there is no causality involved (and causal relations continue to be an overly Western construct). 

Only God Forgives, as I interpret it, is a film, firstly, about the Western presence in the East, in Thailand (for example). Sex tourism, prostitution, the drug trade: these are certainly not problems invented by the West, but they are co-existent situations worsened and exacerbated by the presence of "white men" who visit or live there expressly for those reasons. Contact zones that generate mysterious, subterranean tensions. The Western presence introduces the morbid element of causality into "the East" (Gosling's brother commits a brutal act that sets off a causal chain of crime/punishment). The officiating police chief, the Angel of Death, is required to perform his role of "God"--but this is something of a mystic joke on the implausibility of justice. The West believes it (i.e. the action hero/villain dialectic), the East does not (karaoke performativity, shadowplay of masks and swords). There is no such thing as justice, there is only "suffering" (in the Buddhistic sense, i.e. "experience", carnal existence as such). The film is an operatic play on the illusions produced by an imbalance of Western/Eastern neuroses. 

The film is, secondly, a continuation, indeed the culmination and extreme version, of the desire mechanics at play in Drive--if the latter toyed with and delayed the pleasures of heroic violence (the good guy kills the bad guys and wins, "gets the girl" [or doesn't], "rides into the sunset" [or doesn't]), OGF completely obliterates these expectations. The joke played by Drive on the audience (a film that posed itself as a straightforward car-chase actioner but turned out to be a quite different, and heavily bricolaged, beast) is here fully deconstructed: Gosling is, superficially speaking, positioned as "the hero" (re: marketing decisions, film poster targeting, indie starpower) but he turns out to be not only a wretched bathetic character, he's not even, truly, the central character. Chang, the Angel of Vengeance, is. (Played by Vithaya Pansringarm). Chang is the demon of analogy conjured by the western presence; the agent of karmic desire, not indeed the manifestation of karma but the desire for it (hence, the conclusion, Gosling's hands, the hands that had initiated a cycle of violence, the hands which lust to be mutilated, cut off). 

I can only surmise that the extreme critical reaction against OGF lines up well with the extremity of the film's objectives: to lure the expectations of a mainstream desire for heroic violence, then thru a slow fetishistic ritualized violence, ruin those desires, indeed subvert them to the point of cruel optimism. The full-throated reversal of expectations, the sexualization of cyclical logic and binarial thinking, the covert postcolonial anti-logic of East-West relations (by a Danish director no less), the powerful soundtrack by Cliff Martinez; all this will ensure an afterlife for what seems to me a subtly complex and thoroughly misunderstood film.  

3. Upstream Color (dir. Shane Carruth)

There is a lot to say about this film that will be said elsewhere (forthcoming). But it is a film that, rare for me, I was compelled to watch numerous times--if only to lavish attention on the skillful transitions it makes in its bizarre, phenomenological narrative logic. Carruth's Primer, as impressive as it is, carries no poetic verve, demonstrates no feeling for its internal movements; it is as much in love with its time-travel ingenuity as it is with the budget constraints it skillfully overcomes (thru a good deal of voice-over and off-screen guesswork). Primer feels like text rather than film--it may have made for a better short story. Upstream Color, on the other hand, is a strange hybridic construction that could only have been made possible thru cinematic measure and breakage--it is filmic insofar as it does away with textuality and voice-over and relies on an expressivity of cinematic ellipses and musicality. It is about not filling in lacunae (Primer was the opposite--it presented itself as a mnemonic game of filling in plot holes)--because its ostensible object is the love story; which is to say, its plot structure is about remembering wrongly, making errors in remembrance, falling out of time with the conventions of temporalization. Love narratives allow for this measure/breakage. Love as chemical imbalance (in accordance with the oldest traditions on love, i.e. love as madness). Love as social dependency. Love as addiction. Love as the remembrance of music imagined rather than heard. Simultaneously organic and mechanistic, Upstream Color reinvents the film narrative, what could be called "narrative" itself, and updates it for a 21c technocratic sensibility; ironically by positing anti-technocratic solutions (i.e. parataxis, reverse economics, parasitic sociality, a techne of the posthuman, etc.).

4.  12 Years a Slave (dir. Steve McQueen)

McQueen's most conventional film, yet his most significant thus far. Despite the historical and necessary brutality of its subject (American slavery) McQueen's handling is deft, direct, even delicate. (The botched lynch scene lingers and haunts; the "Roll Jordan Roll" spiritual lifts, throws down, then elevates; the virtuoso tracking shot sequence of the cruel and malicious whipping of Patsy paralyzes and freezes the blood...) It occurred to me, albeit without having read the slave narrative, that McQueen's decision to structure Solomon Northrup's story as an Odyssean narrative (we begin in medias res, we glimpse Northrup embraced, illicitly, by a beautiful, nameless white woman, a Calypso of sorts--but he refuses, dwelling instead on his wife and children, and on the pained disequilibrium that places her in power, and he in thrall) furnishes a unique reading on various levels. If Northrup's former life as a free man (born free, rather than freed) is depicted as a kind of dreamlife made possible by the utopia of New England exemplarity, then his rude awakening (physical, ideological) to being "sold down the river" presents the South as the dark underfold, the malicious realism, of US American socio-political existence. 

The South is the real, the North is the unreal; a fable concerning capital. Capital enslaves via purchasing power (Solomon exhibits his freedom, in a flashback sequence, by entering a store and buying materials for himself, his family--he is free because he can buy commodities, demonstrate purchasing power, however minimal), and this enslavement develops in Solomon a form of class blindness. (In an early capitalist system, class is also color, raciality, ethnicity, their embedded languages and dialects--Solomon's lack of class consciousness translates to a class blindness to his own ethnicity, community, background.) Solomon wakes up to the Real, but to him it is a realm that feels painfully unreal (the white cotton fields, and their overseers and slave workers, appear lurid to him, to us: plantations, and later, factories, are the grimy, corroded, human-fed foundation upon which the dreamlife of commodities bases itself).  That is, Solomon wakes up to a class consciousness; the film tracks the progression and development of this awakening. A skilled violinist, a man of learning and taste, Solomon's breakthrough occurs during the "Roll Jordan Roll" segment: at first mute and anguished, the folk dialect of spiritual anguish and liberation possesses him, and he sings in unison with his community; he comes into possession of his blackness, nurtures its truth-claim on him, realizes his class and the injustice of the system that manufactures it. Silence, exile, cunning become the operative terms--but also fortune, accident, luck. The film's disturbing conclusion doesn't arrive until the end: nothing is known of when and how Solomon died, even upon his return to the North. Along with Solomon, we learn that freedom is not merely purchasing power, the possession of commodities; but it is naming power, the possession of one's identity, and with one's identity, one's body, one's class, one's language, one's spiritual strength. 

5. A Field in England (dir. Ben Wheatley)

Wheatley doesn't "grow up" (perhaps he won't, and never will, and that's the secret to his productivity) but he does minimize his focus and palette and resultantly refines his already highly accomplished technique. Easily his best film thus far; a future midnight classic certainly. But so much more than that. Hilarious, yet pitch black; witty, yet vulgar; joyous, yet disturbing. The decision to film in black/white diminishes the potentially theatrical affectation of staging an historical scenario (during the English Civil War) as fear-and-loathing-in-17c-England. Fittingly a cinematic fable on class and dialect, on power relations, on authority, on England's pagan past (Wheatley seems to dig into these permanent roots with relish; vide: Kill List). An English El Topo (whence Wheatley self-consciously takes inspiration, pays respects to), perhaps not as grandiose and satisfying, nor as epically mystical and thought-provoking, but just as sensorial. The climactic psilocybin setpiece improves upon, and quite explodes, a similar version in Refn's Valhalla Rising (another film about paganism and psychedelics)--would make a good double-bill. A film of Kubrickian tightness and rebus-like fascination. 

6. Leviathan (dir. Lucien Castaing-Taylor & Verena Pavel)

The camera is also a self which desires a body. It lusts for boundaries – but it cannot reach these boundaries, nor transgress them, unless it too is bounded. A fishing ship in the North Atlantic, a possible "documentary" project; but this is no documentary, nor is the setting one concerned with the fabrication of deadly catches. Castaing-Taylor and Paravel transubstantiate the camera into a body – they fling it, beat it, trample it, roll it, smash it, lift it into heights normally inaccessible to the human sensorium. In doing so they return us to a Burkean sublime (of terror and excess) in which we glimpse, among fevered seagulls in flight, or in the wine-dark waves of biblical deeps, the possibility of a form blasted out of all form. [Description above first published here.]

7. Bastards (dir. Claire Denis)

Denis making her first digital film, consequently an exquisite-looking one. (First scene of rain in sharp focus, and a desperate man in an interior, his face blurred, at an open window in a high-rise apartment: the estranging beauty of despair perfectly captured.) As has been said before, a very disturbing film that packs a wallop at the end. Yet another superb soundtrack by Stuart Staples, and some of the best scene-by-scene direction by Denis since, well, her last one (White Material). A film that makes you feel terrible, yet somehow, for me at least, was rapturous to watch. Not, strictly speaking, an adaptation of Faulkner's Sanctuary (it is as loose, for instance, as Denis' highly interpretative adaptation of Jean-Luc Nancy's theoretical essay-narrative L'intrus)--but it is correctly listed as "inspired by". Indeed, the film is rather perversely "inspired by" a particular object in Faulkner's salacious novel. Chiara Mastroianni and Vincent Landon, meanwhile, exemplify what physical beauty middle-aged divorcees would be quite lucky to embody, that is, if they aged well, if they were beautiful, taciturn, enigmatic. Long brooding sessions of smoking, spontaneous sex on the stairs, searing silent looks, the sternness of unobsessive carnality. Lola Creton, on the other hand, is the victim of her own youth. She too is beautiful, but she suffers in the streets for it. When the mind is wreckage, the body soon follows. The film carries no "message", and that is precisely what fascinates me about it--its darkness without encircling light. 

8. Paradise Trilogy [Love/Faith/Hope] (dir. Ulrich Seidl)

Paradise: Love, the first, the longest, and by far the more accomplished, of this trilogy, on its own would have made this list, would have made 2012. (I however waited to see the other two Paradises, suspecting a symmetry, connective tissue, thematic shadowing.) Paradise: Faith, quite good, shorter, but less resonant. Paradise: Hope, decent, shortest of the three, also the least resonant--indeed, nearly forgettable. Nonetheless, it seems to me that all three have to be watched together, not so much because each depends on the other, but because taken together Seidel's theme-driven formalism manages to stare out very substantially. Faith, Hope, and Charity in a 21c secular world, as one suspects, devolve into character motivations, mainly of desire, mainly sexual--the three virtues provide Seidl with narrative impetus, with a framing device. An overweight middle-aged Austrian woman vacations in Kenya, by herself, to cruise young virile African men (Love); her sister, of roughly the same age, is a rabid Catholic who, for sensationalized reasons prosecuted by Seidl, happens to be married to a paraplegic Arab-Muslim man, yet expresses a fear of sexual intimacy with anything outside of Christ and Christendom (Faith); the vacationing woman's teenage daughter is sent to a health camp for overweight children, where she falls into a crush with the middle-aged male physician on site (Hope). The women predominate here; men are seen off-screen, are narratologically exploited (in the case of the African men), are drawn up as studies in loneliness or absence, are merely just devices for struggle (the devout Catholic's husband, who quite literally struggles to get anywhere in the house). More Austrian mise-en-scene (Haneke the obvious progenitor of a sober/sobering style): stationary camera, meticulous framing, bodies in photographic rest or motion. Little action, no nondiegetic soundtrack. Love is really sex; faith is really ideology; hope is really naivete.

Paradise: Love stands out because it takes the most risks. It creates situations of intense discomfort, and reveals the startling broadness of sex tourism: women also do it. If we partly sympathize with Teresa, it is because Seidl, in the first shots of the film, reveals the kind of job and family pressures she deals with back in Austria; which is to say, the monotony and background of Europe, of Austrian malaise, feeds into the foreground of bourgeois vacationing habits and exploitative tendencies. We start seeing Teresa, a woman initially in search of love, regress into colonialist habits, into colonial patterns. European men/women, along with the West in general, continue to exploit Africa for its "resources" (the vulgar is invoked here)--under the guise of charity. A film unafraid to siphon dark laughter from postcolonial landscape.

9. Gravity (dir. Alfonso Cuaron)

A film very close to perfect; undeniably a milestone in our recent cinema history. Those who claim otherwise (who critique the "flatness" of the film, of the characters) have quite forgotten the technologic reach and ambition of the first turn-of-the-century films--we must regard Gravity from this historical perspective. Films that depict but also rebuild the sensorium. (Film after all is a technology, a technology of the image; and Gravity serves as both a technology for and about film--Cuaron furthers the narrative capture potential of cinematic art, while somehow managing to comment on the obstacles that characterize its innovations--creating new tech for filmic transmission is very much like a space satellite mission, the threat of its breakdown, and the endurance required to survive its flying and atomistically chaotic debris.) Cuaron proves once more that he is a master of the uncut tracking shot setpiece--the action cinematography is at the highest level of directing. Bullock's performance is very committed and restrained, plays against type--she puts in a solid, understated performance, and even when she has to give in to the corny sections of the scenario, she doesn't overdo anything. Perhaps also because Cuaron and his team exhausted her so much during the filming process--she revealed during interviews, for instance, that she was actually that tired and isolated during most of the shoot, having to deal with the conjuring of emotions in an isolated space without any other actors or sets to play off. The virtual (processes of CGI immersion) simulates, gives impetus, to the real (emotional life, isolation, depression).

Cuaron, aware of the heritage into which he inserts his work, confronts the Kubrickian shadow directly. Gravity reverses the chronology of 2001: if 2001 began with the descent of man and ends with the "star child", Gravity progresses backward, begins with the "star child" (or with astronauts afloat in space, particularly with a woman who lost her own child) and ends with the early arrival of upright humanoids on earth (when Bullock, after some difficulty, emerges out of the sea--while a frog noticeably, effortlessly, swims upward, perhaps in allusion to the first legged and limbed amphibians that came onshore and evolved--she struggles to stand upright, not just in obvious allusion to the effects of gravity, but also as if she were the "first human" to set foot on the earth out of the mothering arms of the sea). There is also the earlier moment when Bullock loses Clooney and then slips into the space vessel to tap into an oxygen supply, and she strips off her outer astronaut gear and then sort of floats in a fetal position; an obvious allusion to the "star child" (she climbs back into the "womb" of the space vessel and becomes a child again).

The story could serve as an allegory for what people go through during depression. Bullock's character is clearly intensely depressed--having lost her daughter--and Clooney acts as her "therapist" in the sense that he uses the "talking cure" to get her to confront her depression directly. (Clooney's character is always telling stories and influencing or instigating others to tell stories too--and he also makes the point that even if Houston can't respond, you can't be sure they can't hear you, so it is better to "keep talking" just in case someone out there does hear you--"Houston" in this case resembles "God" in the sense that prayer is often unanswered but could help one get help in some unforeseen way.) Which is to say: being in depression is a lot like, or something like, being in space: you encounter the strongest varieties of fear, loathing, and suicidal indifference because you end up believing that you are alone and thus your existence means nothing to those out there "on earth", their feet planted on the ground; therapy is thus a way to help people get out of this belief, and so Bullock's character comes "back to earth" once she overcomes this fear in her.

10. Blue Is the Warmest Color (dir. Abdellatif Kechiche)

Kechiche's film has received its fair share of criticism, not without reason, but the heart of the matter is that this is an exquisite film, a film of overpowering sensuality and force of surface. (I do not refer here to the controversy surrounding the overly politicized aesthetic of the sex scenes; Kechiche's apparently male-hetero outlook has made it convenient to lambast the scenes as inauthentic, insensitive, or inadequate to the verities of actual homosexual sex, specifically lesbian sex--as if there were a protocol, or a manner of "doing it" correctly. The scenes, in and of themselves, parlay the intoxication of finding the body [not just a body but the body] that fits one's own body, the intensity of first love [love in this respect perceived as inseparable from the chemical, and resultantly, emotional, dependence on another body, whatsoever the sex/gender].) The controversy surrounding Kechiche's apparent indifferent to the emotional life of the actresses (Lea Seydoux in particular has criticized the director's utter disregard for their levels of comfort) can be remarked upon in the very aesthetics of the drawn-out film: Kechiche directs scenes of Adele eating spaghetti with as much gusto, and obsession, as the sex scenes. For Kechiche everything is a surface that has to tracked down and deciphered, incessantly--his habit of having the actors play and replay scenes in an infinity of takes bespeaks this obsessive quality in him. (Kechiche is clearly of the Hitchcock/Kubrick school of using actors as cattle, as props; Bresson was the same, but he worked in less takes.) 

The obsession with blue isn't a mere thematic reiteration; it is seen everywhere because Adele, intoxicated with it and in love, sees it everywhere. She bathes in it. She intentionally seeks it out. The camera's, and Kechiche's, fascination with her face, our inhabiting her zones of mundanity, of everyday bodily experience, attempt to penetrate the pores of her skin--because it seems that the film's aesthetic philosophy, in its tracking of a youth discovering her body, interprets the skin, the film that covers her skin, as a kind of mental life, a life mentalized by the discovery of the body on its path to an "adulthood" of actions and consequences. We do not see how Adele changes in the later chapters (the allusion to Marivaux's La vie de Marianne conveys the possibility of a long-form development of a young woman becoming an adult, a "countess" for instance) but we may conjecture that Adele internalizes her life, that her sexual life complexifies; or she revisits her first love with changed eyes, in the manner of the experienced. For that, we have Maroh's graphic text handy. 

11. No (dir. Pablo Larrain)

Larrain continues to astonish with his technical gifts by making a film that looks and feels like its period, to the very detail; it is a film that someone like Zizek would relish watching and analyzing (that is, if Zizek grew into the habit of watching films from outside Hollywood). No is a film whose politics, and whose critique of capitalist aesthetics, are so subtilized and rich, that it should be studied by all political scientists. The americanization of global politics, on the Chilean stage. The cynicism of political mimesis somehow transforms into a vision of (surrealist) hope at once conflicted and imaginary. A realist take on the politicization of aesthetic life that takes the hazards of image culture into account. Larrain's terrifically subtle humor makes anglophone political comedy by comparison look overdone. 

12. The Past (dir. Asghar Farhadi)

The Past skims the border of melodrama, but never really devolves into it; this is already a sign of Farhadi's tremendous maturity and skill, that he gets as close to the melodramatic as possible but somehow hovers over it, comments on it, touches it and backs away. I think I'm just surprised that Farhadi could make another film as good as A Separation, one which relies on that latter film's same formula of layering class/age/cultural types in a closed circuit, yet The Past also manages to remain distinct, is just as astonishing in its sheer dramatic detail. Farhadi demonstrates a real Chekhovian concern and feeling for all his characters, reserves judgement on them; he introduces the strangely uncommon and radical idea that "no character is an extra"--each of the characters, from children up to adults, female and male, are intensely believable and finely-scripted. And the final uncut tracking sequence is a piece of consummate skill and punctuation.

13. Stray Dogs (dir. Tsai Ming-Liang)

Not quite Tsai Ming-Liang's best film, but apparently his last; for that reason alone it is included here. One shot toward the end is obnoxiously long, even by Tsai's standards, but the whole film is cryptic and ravishing and relevant enough (to the sociopolitics of not just Taiwan but also to that of the encroaching impoverishment and homelessness of the rest of the decadent-capitalist world) that it deserves to be seen and re-seen. One of its more memorable scenes (of Kang Sheng-Lee, in close-up, holding a housing banner in a transparent plastic rain coat, the wind and rain beating on him coldly, as he recites what seems to be classical verse from the imperial age of China) recalls to mind the significance, the possible saving grace, of the poetic in 21c life, of classical lyric in modern society: the sonorous, patriotic verse of empire will often foretell the tragedy of its eventual demise, even as it lifts up the antic pathos of the present. The final glacial movement of Kang (finally) coming into a long-delayed, desirous contact with Shiang-Chyi Chen (her back now to him) plays out as a tribute of their long developing relationship of distance over the course of Tsai's filmography; a tribute that is also a farewell to film, for them, and for Tsai. 

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

"Je t'aime, je t'aime" (1968)

So I realized that: Synecdoche, New York is a Resnais film interpreted by Charlie Kaufman. (Compare the editing styles and quirks of both films, for instance.) Claude Rich -- who plays Claude Ridder -- looks like Michel Gondry -- who directed Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind -- which is scripted by Kaufman -- and which is also, secretly, a Resnais film. (Watch Je t'aime, je t'aime, followed by Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, followed by Synecdoche, New York.)

What is the fundamental problem here? A white mouse can travel back in time for one minute at exactly 4pm -- and return in exactly one minute. The mouse, so the film conjectures, does not have the memory capacity to destabilize the consistency of a preprogrammed momentary time rift -- a mouse lives in the past as effortlessly and uncomplicatedly as it does in the present, so it returns "on time." But a man, and a man who has recently attempted suicide? Complications arise. One minute is prolonged into more than an hour. He merges with his memories and he loses traction -- past and present are hardly distinguishable. He finds himself disappearing from and reappearing into scenes from his life as if they were scenes from a movie -- film editing is the secret to time travel. Eventually his suicide is rendered complete; because desire for the past, for a brown-legged woman named Catrine, becomes his (fortunate?) undoing. The Proustian afterlife makes time travel an unstable element.

"[Georges] hired actors to replace people who died. He kept bad things away from his wife." Maybe, just maybe, Giorgios Lanthimos watched this film, remembered this line (or this line bled into him in the way Claude Ridder bleeds into the spacetime of the potato couch) and made Alps. Another filmmaker probably, if fleetingly, influenced by the Resnais method.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

"Detour" (1945)

"Raindrops streaked the windshield like tears."

Fatalism of the past.
He is chosen,
in a night of nights,
as a candle is,
the dark
and the wind

Friday, January 20, 2012

"Hadewijch" (2009)

Bruno Dumont finally makes a film which does not involve gratuitous moments---this is remarkable in itself. Yet, in spite of his earnest ending (an ending which anywhere else would have been quite memorable) the buildup, and the fairly ridiculous climax, contrive to downplay the resonance Dumont is clearly after. He is going after the Bressonian, the state of grace which in cinema terms may be called the Bressonian---more specifically, I think, Dumont is attempting to reconfigure, to reinterpret, the inimitable ending of Mouchette---but nothing of the scenario that comes before the ending (an ending that attempts to outline what grace means, for the criminal, for the martyr) sufficiently sets up, or makes way or prepares us for, the religious intensity he is after. One feels Dumont should be congratulated for various things: his sympathy for the Arabic-speaking underclass of Paris, his respect for the masculine ideal such as it is embodied in Muslim culture, and, most importantly, his (newfound?) abstinence from exploiting or punishing the sensibility of his young lead, the cherubic actress, Julie Sokolowski. (In his casting choices, Dumont has consistently demonstrated a great eye for untrained faces.) I was imagining different varieties of abuse in line for the hopeful "martyr"---but Dumont quite surprisingly keeps his film bereft of overly scandalous passages.

I am willing to wager that this aesthetic decision (to avoid or limit the gratuitous) has a lot to do with his recent fascination for the religious imagination, both the Christian and the Islamic varieties, but it also has to do, very likely, with his insertion of two Arab-French male characters (who we learn only from the credits are of Palestinian descent); the two young men, who play brothers, demonstrate an earnest gentlemanly behavior toward the female protagonist, and I think Dumont shows his respect for the culture (of which we can presume he knows only very little, or as much as the common Parisian or Belgian would be suspected of knowing), and also he shows his unwillingness to play into easy ethical binaries (though the climax of the film questionably brings the binary of fundamentalism/liberalism back into play). I myself confess to having imagined a Dumont-style tragedy to strike at the end, involving the French white bricklayer who appears at the beginning of the film (only to mysteriously be escorted by the gendarmie to prison for reasons that are never shown or explained), who is afterwards released 3 months later, and who I feared would attempt some kind of violence involving either Celine (the would-be "martyr") or Yassine and/or Nassir (the two French-Palestinian brothers). Dumont proved me wrong, and I think this shows a kind of mature turn in not only his film philosophy but also in his general outlook on life; a change of scene which took him longer to come to than it had for a very similar director, Carlos Reygadas (a Mexican director who also specializes in the genre of "scandalous epiphany"). In spite of this advancement, the small and quiet beauty of Hadewijch's resolution is unduly sullied by a rather unfortunate, poorly executed climax (involving a Parisian train station and a girl's will to "unite" the extremism of two religious creeds). Hors Satan, if I understand correctly from its synopsis, appears to signal a return to the Dumont of L'Humanite (which would make for an unfortunate regression).

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

"One Upon a Time in the West" (1968)

Sweep, but also slowness. Landscape, but also proximity, clock-turn, and velocity. The slowness of knowing where your place is (nowhere); the speed that comes with knowing your death comes in threes (at a train station). The myth of the West, after it's passed through the requisite motions of law-making, constitution-forming; you are watching the West directly from the perspective of the Mythical, the time-elapsed, the time-enshrined. Not a western but the Western of westerns; an archetype whose volubility represents its irrepressible duration. A crossroads where men die because they choose to die the only way they know how: by evolutionary selection. To declare, wordlessly: I am faster than you. (Quickness is the state of grace which they call "keeping alive," or the force impressed in the figure of one who remains standing in the midst of gunsmoke; but quickness is also cleverness, sleight-of-hand, country wit.) All of Tarantino is in the final section, when we learn why Bronson seeks revenge, why he is selfish with his gunfire; why he protects Fonda from dying at the hands of his own men. Revenge, such as we understand it, in the mythos of the West, fuels an economy from the remnants of bad speculation; an economy of death that begets townships, train stations, mining prospects, the gold trade, and so forth. The harmonica and harmonica-playing is what you call a man's vigor when he's got no words to express his outgrown, overbearing virility.

Friday, November 18, 2011

"Amer" (2010)

Proximity, rapidity. To the body, of the face. Parted lips, secretive tongue, undisclosed sections of the skin. Limbs, fingers. Tense vein-impressed hands. Night, a rusty creaky villa on the coast. Moonlight; then shadow. (A man's black figure.) Then moonlight again. (A building up of rhythm which is also a building up of the Sensorium.) Glinting on the edge of a switchblade suddenly released from its dark enfolding. "A woman in danger." A beautiful woman (of course). Bath water, warm water. Naked, smooth legs. Running faucet. Candles, candlelight. Bare feet, leaf-littered linoleum floor. An unswept floor, chill to the touch. Footsteps.

The wind which plays on the heavy shutters; which plays on the loose flowing skirt; which flows up into her and opens her, carefully, analytically. In the car, in sunlight. Heat inside, passenger sidewindows that do not open. She asks to open them. He does not hear her. A driver wearing black leather gloves. Black leather jacket. Dark denim jeans. Dust-straddled crocodile boots. Toothpick in his mouth, his concealed teeth biting down. Hard. Hands pressed strongly on the steering wheel. "Open, please!" Sudden panic. His eyes in the rearview mirror, watching her. "Please..." Suffocation, as if hands were around her neck, warm rough hands. She shouts, unconsciously, fearfully, waking up from a dream. But she is still in the backseat of a car, her thighs burning. He opens the automatic window. A wind rushes again into her, her skirt rippling. His eyes in the rearview. Watching.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

"71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance" (1994)

The atmospheric pressure of an environment presses from all sides the subtextual space of a single chronology. The chronology of chance, as Haneke calls it, but with sarcasm. Yes, chance events of a violent nature occur, alongside events of a decidedly nonviolent nature. But the mystery of a violent event ("A young student shoots and kills a group of people at a bank. No motive has been given.") resolves itself, or at least, produces a chronology, if we pay attention to the nonviolence of events. For instance, the news. The television. The television which is the primary actor in Haneke's tableaux. Even when it is absent, when it is turned off, it is playing in the background; it is speaking. But television isn't merely the medium, or the event, in question; it is an environment produced in and through its proliferation in all (necessarily postmodern) states. It is simultaneously the radio, the newspaper, the shopping mall, the advertisements you find on the streets while walking or driving your car. It is a way of life, and one which pervades western civilization: a society of the spectacle if you will, in which "spectacle" gradually becomes the absence of the bearable. Haneke selectively chooses to highlight events which occur in nonwestern states, nonwestern countries, that are in fact affected by the political and social malaise of the West. However differentiated and culturally insulated we feel we are from the rest of the world (the world which we access, sometimes unbearably, always helplessly, through media) we are actually deeply embedded in the problems of the Rest of the World, the Marginal, the Peripheral, the Subaltern (which, because we see so much of it on the news, we never outrightly see; suffering is so much in our face that it becomes invisible, an absence that suddenly encroaches on the ordinary.) The problem, Haneke theorizes, is the isolation, which we call, euphemistically, chance. But it is not chance, nor is it fate or fatalism; it is, rather, Environment. The environment of violence which we call the news, which we (along with Haneke) call indifference. And nothing is more violent, nothing is crueler, than indifference.