Saturday, December 5, 2009

"Fallen Angels" (1995)

What is the cool? Withering indifference, weapon-like, unsheathed with effortless precision. Indefatigable composure at the sight of a gun. The decision to allow others to make decisions for you. (The hitman who permits the black sunglassed woman to appoint his tasks as she pleases, loved from afar by her -- she who holds his fate in her groomed vengeful hand, and he who doesn't flinch once knowing this -- given completely over, as they are, to erotic fatalism.) We do learn that the cool is also a state of hermetic vulnerability, in spite of its usual appearance of cold glamour; because there's still the one thing which will shatter it completely: l'amour. For the man submerged in cool, and the lady dressed to the hilt in its ruffle and sash, love proves more vicious than death, more cruel. There's no hilarity to be found in the assassin who loses the vigor of his gun.

Sex is vicarious. Imagined through someone else's embrace, in love with another man's wife. Teetering at the touch of a passenger on the metro, in the crush of bodies at rush hour. Masturbation at twilight: imagining one's old conquests, another's faded half-worded confession. Wong Kar-Wai's strength: making a jukebox fantasy out of an array of neon-lit shots and the effusive carnality of a choice song. A woman's orgasm effortlessly simulated by focusing on her stockinged legs folded gingerly on a sofa bed. Add a soundtrack and you've got symphonic ecstasy. Wong uses the camera like a hidden appendage, a fugitive human arm that gets up-close to a human face and slides onto the rim of a lip or feels up the texture of leather feeling up a woman's partly concealed thigh. Visceral post-new wave cinematics. When the story's nowhere to be found, Wong uses his gut emotion, substituting a posture, a statuesque pose, a speeding light or the trail of smoke from the sly phallus of the cigarette, just a semblance of story which is nothing more than a gaze adrift or escaping the criminal behavior of the heart, in love with death because it is the aesthetic suspension of beauty. Just neon and orgasm. Sensation rather than sense. Velocity over meditation.

The other side of the television screen is a television screen. "Blondie" is the marker/marksman inhabiting and adumbrating contiguous alternate worlds. One of the worlds is the actual movie, Wong Kar-Wai's movie, about hipsters imagining what lives assassins and spies lead. Another of the worlds is the actual one, in which people die fairly easily, and hearts are broken more often than made.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Portraits of Friends - 5

For Michael K.
What had Cyrus done, that Cadmus could not
When Thebes arose? (You told me once)
That men are not to judge of others’ happiness,
Till death swathes them, and molds their mask;
Cyrus knew firsthand: by fire had Croesus
Livened, who Solon’s name he soothed, amidst
The auric and silver chargers, reflective.
Solon had smiled that day he was privy
To Croesus’ vast wealth, the Lydian throne:
When asked, gazing on eglantine gardens
And parchments spent with numberless territories,
Who it was, could name himself happiest and blest,
The sage replied,
                           “An Athenian I knew,
Who worked those fields of sweetbrier,
And stretched the parchments that boldly
Picture your reign. A peasant as good a man
As king.”
               Croesus unbearing this, and burning
Hubris, swore Solon’s name and dismissed him
From his throne;
                         But now Cyrus, known
To the Israelites as Koresh, and Zulqarnain,
The two-horned ram of God, who’d conjoin Media
And Persia, to the Mohammedan, conquered Lydia,
And set Croesus on his death-seat,
A pyre to end his days, sighing
Solon’s name. Cyrus, known as the Merciful,
Spared that gross king’s immolation,
And would permit the Israelites revisit Jerusalem,
To build their House in Judah.
Cyrus, when an infant, could not be more
Mistaken for a herdsman’s son –
(So Plutarch tells us) – ennobled by his inner aspect,
A child who like the sun could not perish
In the bosom of cold mountains,
But rises over Soleyman’s shoulder
Again to shine on the four-cornered earth.
Afore Alexander, and Greater in reach,
Cyrus wrapped hands on Phrygia in the West,
Planted serpent-toothed satraps southward in Thebes,
Loomed over Gandhara and fondled India,
While his head rested in the Caucasus,
And his right hand, when lifted, on Thrace alighted...

Why also is ancient Cyrus, Great?
His Icon bears him up, his shining face,
That like divine justice doth transcend
An Iago, an Imogen, and all binaries –
(Chiefest, which is, Man-and-Picture) –
Narrows the splintered eye, to focus
On singularities, on Cause, whose grin
Is countless, and hath no effect (nor a multitude),
But will affect multitudes regardless:
The Achaemenids – the Babylonians – the Persians:
And us, our posterity,
Obsessed with picture-writ legacies.

Let me tell you this (you told me): a slave
Selects the cause to correct the effect, or the effect
To create the cause. So that falsely, one effect
Should magnetise a single cause: but imagine this:
(A legend unrecorded by Plutarch)
…A slavish-subject, by his passions staved, steps up
To Cyrus – the Merciful (and the War-Rash),
The Meek Ruler, (and the Great Conqueror),
Who was first among kings to monody Theo
(spotless Ahura Mazda), and offer lineaments
Of gratified law to the foreigner and Persian alike –
This slavish man, for whom Cyrus had artisans
Stencil the image of his likeness, as an honored
Subject, who had brought stores of proverbs
From distant lands for Persia, and plied
The monarch with philosophies to come;
Such an unchaste, ungrateful merchant –
Who like Paris in the House of Atreus
Sparked a war with an affront –
Smited lordly Cyrus on the cheek,
And spit obscenities on his dominions;
Because he was wild with wine, and crimson
With vanity; a guest in Cyrus’ house,
Who had traded dry sack from western lands,
And sugared Cyrus with castrated fowls
For flesh; this craven man’s bowl, fulsome,
And filled when unfilled; drank to his death;
Tempted Croesus’ fate with his wanton palm,
And slighted the man to whom God
Had given the kingdoms of the globe…

What then did Cyrus do? …Laughter,
Like thunder curling in the cloud
Of his eye, whose inner gaze, wrapped
By the fourth wing of his face, diversified
His counsel, and unified his command.
He was of those who listened, as he spake:
          “If a king drinks, he does not go drunken;
He abuses no thing but the goblet: I, Cyrus, worship
Wine, which you have bartered and drowned your
Self with, because I wish to avoid worshipping
Self, like you, a man made a beast, to avoid the burden
Of manliness. A king is manly: even in wine,
He won’t forfeit his nature; though flesh & blood,
The king’s Image stays intact.”
          With that, the uncouth merchant grew ashamed,
And choked himself with his cups; and the portrait
Which Cyrus commissioned for him, lengthened,
Farther stretched, and distanced itself, as a star
Stretches from planets-in-miniature, from the likeness
Of one who had once rejoiced in wine and company;
The merchant’s vows, ‘broken beyond repair, by a flask
Of wine, and a girl with disorder in her hair,’
Etched in him, guilt, and caused in him, friendlessness:
Love’s infidel, who had not learnt
To worship wine, but drank it, whorishly;
Hung himself, unhappy humiliated creature,
In Cyrus’ sight.

          Cyrus saith again: an Icon bears up
Its own justice, metes it among righteous men,
And its conscience, like Zeno’s, in which
Music mingles with wisdom-love, and all things
Are one, of no dissimilarity or mimesis,
Past Man or Picture, of a cause married to effect –
Effects its cause, purposes its wholesome purpose.
Unfragmented as no Fisher King, like a Mauberley
Coining his own face (which the age demanded),
A medallion whose minted eyes turned topaz
From a measureless distance; in which
The arrow flies motionless in flight, of one piece
With the bow that swerved it, and the sky
That embraces it: an image for which all ends
Are ended, and by which lambs lie with lions,
And friends unafraid befriend sworn enemies,
Former enemies to erstwhile friends made…

And so was Cyrus called, ‘the Humble,’ thenceforth…

Friday, October 30, 2009

"A Serious Man" (2009)

Open-endedness of general plot and minute particulars. The Coens are supposed to be personal here, and they are; but no sign of the internal remorse or fondness which may have afflicted, or obsessed, either of them. Perhaps since they work as brothers, their dispersive focus prisms out the overtly sentimental (for the Coens are zealously unsentimental), or the obviously mechanical; and they are able to craft narratives of terrifically -- sometimes outright cruelly -- impersonal tonalities, which are appropriately satires. They are masters of satire, and can't seem to get enough of it, even when they turn 'serious'. That this film is about "a serious man" is satire enough; that the film relaxes and makes its allusions and points of anguish through a bemused mockery of an ancient culture (turned trivial in the face of modern-life absurdities) is the essential point of the film's winding structure and mixture of awkward generalities.

The film begins with a reenactment of a proverb, assumingly one of the old tales that modern day jews recount and fall back on when they are lacking insight or guidance. A rabbinic tale, which like the one that the rabbi tells the lead character in the middle of the film (about the goy's teeth, set to Hendrix's "Machine Gun"), essentially says nothing conclusive except that mysteries occur which defy all human comprehension -- this is why they are mysterious. One must either accept the truth at face value (the truth in this case nothing more than a spectacle arousing the multiple figures of human perception) or inquire into it, at one's peril, or worse, disillusionment. The math professor does not accept that a story can have no meaning; the rabbi's wisdom is that he does (because meaning is verily an affair that doesn't invite our authorship, only our participation).

*(On that note, I, as a spectator, had no hand in the making of "A Serious Man" -- it is a Coen Bros. film, a work put together by the Coens -- yet one must counter that probably even the Coens have no idea, no intention, of what the film is supposed to mean, other than it tells a story, which may be true, may be false, but nonetheless happens. The movie can be watched, but it cannot, even by the men who bring it to form, be authored in certain cases as this.)

No famed actors here, because the Coens wished for less noise in the production, less hubbub because they required more focus, less pleading on the part of big-name actors for "meaning" and "interpretation" during the shoot. The Coens worked with jewish actors, of course, to authenticate the jewishness of the proceedings; and a sense of normativity was allowed so as to baffle the audience and let it ponder the mysteriousness at hand. I do not think it hyperbole to declare that the film is 'kafkaesque' (an irritating and abused term); "A Serious Man" is wholeheartedly concerned with the meaning of meaninglessness -- such a concept does indeed have meaning -- and the narrative plays at strands so as to make the audience think, and grasp at small fixtures and furniture that would otherwise be neglected in films anxious to communicate larger scales.

Monday, October 26, 2009

"The Pornographers" (1966)

One man, a pornographer, says very innocently, "Humans are made this way." He means: through sex, and more importantly (though he does not intend this interpretation) through sex psychology. Freudian, but also Oedipal. A distinctly japanese ontology, a way of communing with others, in accordance with the unbreakable paradigm of male/female. The film takes off from a standpoint of disjunction (not of woman-and-man broken, but of what lies between them, their organs, their sex, their attitude toward this fundamental bridge) -- describes this disjunction and does not attempt to bridge the component parts: man as well as woman, and children too, are raised in a confusion of sex. It is not sex which they want (nor what the pornographer sells) but the satisfaction that one has either lived (copulated) or died (ejaculation+orgasm) with good reason. 

The pornographer's illumination toward the end of this bizarre film: "The 'Dutch Wife' -- epitome of the mechanical age!" Antonioni's admonition that "Eros is sick" gains new surmise here. Sex, too, is dead. A psychological abomination which no longer resembles the old priapic ceremonies and rituals has taken its stead; nor even the role it enjoyed as an instrument of the status quo shortly before, shortly after, the World Wars. Now, instead, we are graced with an exclusion of the human interest, indeed a subversion of the sexes; the systematic annulment of gender and traditional power models. Sex is now: with a machine, sans guilt, and of no responsibility to anyone but the solitary one, the career idolater. Quiet, lawful, fits all sizes, accepts all sizes; wordless, snug, lubricated, tactile: better than masturbation! Proto-Modern-Japan; but also, the corruption of sex in every avenue of human intimacy, as much in the West as it is in the East. Man and Woman live in screens, their ghosts are voiced through mechanical simulation.

What could fill the hole in the heart of over-sexed creatures?


Is Mr. Ogata tormented by memories of his father's geisha mistress? (Shot of young Ogata, identified by the mole on his upper lip, held down in a bathtub by the arms of the geisha, naked under him, and he naked too.) This is the woman whom his father slept with, under him, caressing his organ.

The sins of the father descend on the children; the sins of the mother relax the morals of the children. Families are made through sex: "Man and woman, needle and thread." But sex is capable of rending the fabric of the family -- if it is not respected, as it once was, an Eleusinian mystery.

Mr. Ogata is a moral man, by his own claim - I can believe him because (1) he marries a widow older than him, possessing no great charm, and takes up her children; (2) he does not appear especially vicious or boorish, and he is a man capable of reflection and even guilt and shame for what he does; (3) he is not an out-and-out 'criminal', in the way a yakuza or corporate executive so unfailingly is, but a nonviolent and attentive man. But is not his cryptic sense of morality more of an involuntary consequence of his impotence? If he were vigorous and promiscuous -- as other men proudly desire to be -- and if he required no "Hong Kong medicine" to harden his main, would he still be a pornographer, a philosophic peddler of smut? He claims his vocation is patriotic, and selfless, and nobler than a white-collar job, because it is to the point about man's abasement, it is sincere in its aims, however low its origination: since "man is a pathetic creature", it even maintains an aura of pity and mercy about it. But none of these arguments resolves the issues which create psychic torment in his adopted household, nor do they prevent him and his wife and his stepchildren from descending into madness, immorality, and fecklessness.

A central wisdom of Imamura's film is that we are not led to judge their iniquity and lasciviousness, since we are persuaded to understand the greater nature of the scheme: that one's own moral code does not in itself engender a moral-guided family life. Subu Ogata's best intentions -- which to the impartial viewer come across as strands of fanaticism -- end up counting very little in the raising of children and in the keeping of one's spouse. Children suffer as much from morbid irregularity as they do from negligence.

Friday, October 9, 2009

"Silent Light" (2007)

Miracles are by nature quite natural occurrences. Or as G.K. Chesterton phrased it, "The most incredible thing about miracles is that they happen." What makes miracles so exceptional is that they often occur in the most commonplace situations: while driving a car you witness a woman walk placidly across the freeway without being hit; or while breakfasting, you receive a telephone call from a man who claims to be your lost brother; or when walking through a half-deserted park and gazing at the shapes of clouds, you see streaked against the sky the descent of a falling meteor. That a pumpkin should propagate another pumpkin and not a coach or a bag, asserts Chesterton, is miracle enough; otherwise, you haven't really considered a pumpkin for what it is. That the day breaks open as indubitably and as serendipitously as any hen's soft egg will for our breakfast, goes a long way to reduce the contingency on which the sun invites our speculations; the morning is accepted as a matter of fact, rather than as a matter of miracle: our hope is unnecessarily neutralized. Yet if the break of day were the dawn of all time, and if light's silence were thickened with the murmur of awakening consciousness, then would not our eyes suggest to us that creation -- life breathing anew each and every morning -- were as profound a miracle as the first day of Genesis? Carlos Reygadas' latest film is not a film treating of religion, but it is a film that treats of miracles: everyday miracles like that of the birth of a new day, or the birth of difficult refractory human loves.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

"Of Time and the City" (2008)

Among Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities may stand the port city of Liverpool. If a city and its name are a record of a constant forgetting and the interminable labor to summon up the remembrance of buildings past, then Liverpool qualifies itself: "Liverpool, the glorious city, has a tormented history. Several times it decayed, then burgeoned again, always keeping the first Liverpool as an unparalleled model of every splendor, compared to which the city's present state can only cause more sighs at every fading of the stars."

Though I've substituted the nonfiction city of Liverpool for Calvino's fictional "Clarice" (one of the cities that Marco Polo describes to Kublai Khan in Calvino's novel), Terence Davies' new film, Of Time and the City, presents a Liverpool that is equally fictional and nonfictional. A city that had gone through decades of industrial wealth and misery, and is only now trembling on the precipice of rebirth and cultural esteem; a city constructed from the impersonal stock of images documenting its natural growth, decline, and renewal, and a city which has evolved privately in the memory of a single man.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

"Rope" (1948)

The fame of Hitchcock's Rope begins with the perception that it was the first of its kind to attempt a film in one single take; of course, with the technology of the time, such a feat was still impossible, but Hitch does his best to streamline the cuts that had to be made to each (maximum) 10-minute long take (reels of the time could not go farther). The film nevertheless posits that its action is continuous and uninterrupted by time lapses. The action takes place in one single location, an apartment in New York, where two bachelors -- presumably gay lovers of a kind -- commit the murder of a colleague and hide the body right in the midst of a party they assemble at their pad that same night. The atrocity is enhanced by the killers' brazenness to hide the body in a large chest that serves as a makeshift dining table for the victim's parents, friends, and girlfriend. Essentially the film works on the suspense derived from the delayed discovery of the body. James Stewart enters the picture playing a crotchety university professor, a mentor of the killers, who gradually apprises himself of the murder. The central idea is taken from Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment, dealing with the notion that some men, judged by the greatness and refinement of their intellect, are naturally superior to other men, and therefore at liberty to dispose of inferior people for the sake of making a point of their superiority. Stewart's character, Rupert Cadell, chief promulgator of the skewed ubermensch law of ethics, brings about the climax with his discovery of the murder: whether he applauds his proteges, or condemns them, is the question that urges the suspense forward.

Rope is only 80 minutes long, and feels even shorter. It is, like some of Hitchcock's stage-bought scenarios, taken directly from a play by Patrick Hamilton; its story is essentially recyclable ad infinitum, but the film's prestige lies in how Hitchcock makes the material feel like an actual play occurring in a fixed time and place. Paradoxically, Rope is an instance of a dramatic form transcended by cinema -- that is, made cinematic -- through the very means it transcends. Hitchcock disappears the camera because he uses it unlike how a movie director would use it, with numerous cuts and stylized changes of perspective; rather, Hitchcock guides the camera-eye along the natural line of events as they unfold and move through a unified space; the cuts, though noticeable, are made discreetly, in good faith with the novelty. The film is, strangely, cinematic because it is so uncinematic (imagine for instance the difference in technique that Orson Welles would have employed if he adapted the same play). Conversely, the film is memorable as a novelty well-played, and not so much as one of overriding necessity, the type of film that is expressly a trope to be studied in film school.

Friday, October 2, 2009

"Cartesius" (1974)


Cartesius, by Roberto Rosselini, is another of the Criterion Eclipse restored and released films that the director made for italian television. It is another wonderfully imagined work (when I had expected a loss in quality from the notion that Descartes was not a very interesting personage as Pascal or Socrates was). The same attention to the minor rituals of life, to the sartorial fashion of the time and the social customs as they were back then, is lavished on Decartes' everyday existence. I derived some amusement from knowing that the great mind was an avid sleeper who worked till early morning, arising usually very late in the day, or when a servant came to harass him out of bed if a guest was at the door. He also married a chambermaid, a charming homely woman who responds in country maxims: "A good conscience makes for a good pillow." Lastly, some comfort in knowing that Descartes abandoned Paris, the scene of great intellectual excitement, in preference for a quieter foreign atmosphere in the Netherlands, where he spent a large part of his life writing the works by which he is known to posterity. Why comfort? Because I too desire the same latitude, the same sense of retirement, to accomplish what must needs be accomplished.
Where the score fit Blaise Pascal perfectly, with its doom and dread, here clashes with the aridity of Descartes' life and personality. Ugo Cardea, who plays Descartes, does a good job formulating a convincingly cerebral, aloof, and determined philosopher. The Descartes he presents suits us as the right one.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

"The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz" (1955)

Perfect films are something of a quirk; they can be perfect while arousing no grand sympathies or emotions. I know of a few perfect films I would never consider 'great' films, and I know quite a lot of great films that are resoundingly imperfect or imbalanced.

Ensayo de un crimen, as it is known in spanish, or in english, The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz, is a perfect film. It has no pretension of being a great film: but that is who Bunuel is. He is a master because he never prefigures the duration of a film's significance; he is a workhorse because his sole concern with making films is the chance to make them. A few florid jolts of laughter suffice to put an absurd scenario into play. The excitement in making a film for him is the same excitement a drinker feels for a fresh shot of fine bourbon or scotch: because it's the next one. But Bunuel sits apart from other directors equally prolific because his wit far exceeds their conceits: the glory of Bunuel is the impeccability of his taste. It is impossible for him to make a worthless film; his films promise at any moment a scene of insight so disarming or humor so corrosive that often their plots are set up to introduce a single poignant comment on society, the human condition, and their incongruities. The characters are sacrificed, sans ceremony, to the mirth of the audience.

But Ensayo de un crimen is perfect because its script is perfect: the film exists, like Hitchcock's films, for reason of its story. I do not know of a more perfect opening for a film than this one. The protagonist, Archibaldo de la Cruz, opens the offscreen narration for us, as we gaze at hands flipping the pages of a photo book of the Mexican Revolution. Archibaldo tells us of his early childhood in the midst of the Revolution, that he grew up privileged in a stately home, the only child of a wealthy family. The scene shows us the home, and inside the home, an electric train set inside young Archibaldo's room, as it speeds along. Archibaldo, here a boy of about 10, is tended to by a comely young governess, who disapproves of his spoiled nature. Archibaldo's mother comes in and promises to give the boy a porcelain music box to play with if he behaves well (there are subtle hints that the boy -- and the man who grows up later -- is effeminate). The governess is obliged by the boy's mother to entertain the boy with the tale of the music box. The governess explains that the box has magical powers and has the power to kill anyone the person who winds it up thinks of at the moment. Outside the window noises of gunshots are heard, and we learn that revolutionary rebels are invading the peaceful town and seeking to pillage it. The governess, startled by the noise, stops her tale and goes to look out the window. The boy, thrilled by the story and the prospect of its being true, goes over to the music box and winds it, and immediately casts his eye on the governess, intending that she should die. Suddenly a stray bullet hits her through the window, and she falls dead. The excited boy walks over and, much to his morbid delight, sees her neck bloodied, and her smooth black-stockinged legs exposed. The image, both perverse and erotic, stays fixed in the boy's mind, and he becomes convinced that the music box holds power that he alone possesses.

The scene then switches to the image of another lovely woman's face, this time a nun, and we quickly ascertain that Archibaldo -- now grown -- was not speaking to us (as narrator) but to the nun (in character), and we see him stretched on a hospital bed, describing the dark urge he's held since childhood to murder. The nun, astounded by the story, decides to cut her time with him short, and goes off to bring his medicine. While she's gone, Archibaldo takes out a case of pocket knives from the bedside drawer, selects one, then sneaks over to the door in surprise for the nun. When the nun comes in, he brandishes the knife and coolly professes that he will kill her, whereupon she rushes out, only to find an accidental death by falling down an open elevator shaft. The scene then switches over a third time to a police headquarters, where the chief of police and a resident doctor discuss the strange matter of the nun's death at the sanatorium. The doctor leaves after answering questions on the character and sanity of the patient (he reveals that Archibaldo was a patient at the sanatorium because he felt depressed by the recent death of his wife), and the chief of police requests that Archibaldo, waiting for an interrogation, walk in. Archibaldo, cool as ever, brazenly declares that not only is he the nun's murderer, but he's killed many more before her. The incredulous chief, who can't take the dandyish man seriously, asks Archibaldo to explain what he means. Thereupon the film goes back in time again, this time entering the main plotline, consisting of the the events that lead up to Archibaldo's marriage and his wife's death.

The scenarios that follow are just as ingenious as the thrice-enfolded setup. That Archibaldo is a failed would-be murderer from whom fate robs the fantasy of its perverse eros is the soul of the joke at play, the humor of which is never lost on the great prankster himself, Bunuel.

Friday, September 25, 2009

"You, the Living" (2007)

In that symbolic year of 2000, at the turn of the present century, Roy Andersson's Songs from the Second Floor was released. Andersson, virtually unknown to the rest of the world outside of Europe, had earlier enjoyed high praise for his first feature-length, A Swedish Love Story (1970); but his second film, Giliap (1975), flopped badly and lost a considerable amount of money for its producers. Andersson was forced to retreat to making television commercials to sustain himself, a stint that lasted nearly 25 years. During that period, Andersson directed hundreds and hundreds of commercials, an endeavor that resulted in his being named the greatest commercial director of his time; the commercial period served as a kind of apprenticeship for the director, since he learned to craft ingenious 30 second narratives by limiting visual data to the utterly necessary, a technique that he adapted for use in Songs from the Second Floor. The success of that film owes much to the years of practice Andersson undertook in budgeting and producing commercials for those companies that insisted upon visual (and cost-effective) efficiency.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

"Los Olvidados" (1950)

Los Olvidados: the landmark film that capitalized on Bunuel's absorption of the italian neorealist wave, particularly de Sica's films, and most notably Shoeshine. Direct comparisons can be made to Shoeshine, in plot and pace; but not so much in pathos: it is Bunuel's work that advances the central idea to its brink -- that poverty is not as horrid to children as that they are unloved and forgotten in its squalid alleyways and gloomy shanties -- and in doing so, breaks the story of any sentimental echo, creating a fundamental disorder in the accepted notions of damaged childhoods. This, then, is no Slumdog Millionaire; here there be wolves. Removed from ideas of the purely good and from the facile definitions of evil, the typical dichotomy of hope/hopelessness is shattered, and a stone bursts the head of a bloodied forgotten boy. A sanity of observation takes place, in which we participate not as voyeurs, nor as document-readers, but as witnesses to the spiritual life of homeless orphans. We are impelled toward action of some kind, yet the film resonates so strongly, so soberly in the perception of manic atrocities, that we are enjoined only to listen, watch, and desire incompatible realities. (Bunuel's old trick: to allow us to hallucinate, even within documentarian scapes, worlds that only reckless dreams conjure.) A dichotomy, like that of Gerard de Nerval's "dream/life" -- a division like that of the madness that bests the angels who witness the unchecked injustice that daily hounds the meek and the unfortunate and the violent and the corrupt alike: we see that the young boy did not steal the knife he is accused of stealing, an object which he helped give shape to with pride, and that no one believes him because he is low-born and his face is dirty, and that even his own mother disowns him; we see that his friend, El Jaibo -- a mere boy, but a thief, a killer of sheep and men -- lies with the boy's mother, and that his mother bore him as a bastard and coldly dismisses him from her sight. Here the command is to pay attention to the injustice at hand, to see the regularly unseeable, to remember the impossibly memorable. We are entrusted not to judge, but to internalize...
Los Olviados don't exist; they are dead souls, but we see them and their ruthlessness, their leprous laughter, their dead-tired talk, their raw meat nightmares, in the camera's invisible domain: they walk the streets unnoticed by the street vendors, the stray dogs, the business-minded busy-body suits who pretend they are on Madison Avenue and not in a swap meet where blind lechers sing of the storied days of Porfirio Diaz. Who among the thirsty and the starving are unblemished, innocent, entirely blameless? Who among the champions of law and righteousness are not merciless dictators -- psychic terrorists -- over those who have no choice but to break those laws that bind them to either starvation or shame?
(The film is brutal: because those we are led to believe we hate: subject us to pity; and those we believe we trust: turn out vicious: depraved: and craven.)
A film as lean and structurally perfect as anything I've laid eyes on; a film that demonstrates once and for all that Bunuel is not just a master of surrealism, but also a master of synchronicity; a master of extreme, torrid, unromanticized realism. Thus: Los Olvidados may be Bunuel's finest work because it is the most improbable, the most surprising in his case; we know from Las Hurdes that he was capable of unflinching realism, but never had we thought that in so felicitous a fictional structure as this -- in which parts and whole disappear in the liquid exposure of his universalized, particularized, thesis -- could he achieve such allegorical brutality;  a film made when he was still youthful with ideas -- that is, when he was still prone, at least, to serious reflection as to why the ills of the world should exist -- and therefore in a state of idealism comparable to those who would write pamphlets on the feeding of the five thousand; when he was as yet fresh off the heels of his european triumph and pedigree, established mainly by the two films that settled his reputation as a scholar of the subconscious territories -- Un chien andalou and L'age d'or -- when he had conquered the Old World; and when he had set out to the New World -- to New York, and then to Los Angeles, and finally to Mexico City -- when he set out to set more crooked -- rather, to congest the not crooked enough -- the latin american -- specifically the mexican -- mindscape, he circumscribed the heart of the metropolis where poverty and gold were found encrusted on the same leaden walls -- and in the glass reflections of department store windows -- that children licked for sustenance and moisture or out of soul-destructive boredom; and he demonstrated that a true surrealist -- a surrealist who took his bomb raids on reality for acts of charity -- must also be a poignant realist, a human mind in deep communion with the cruelties of accident and fate at work with each other, cross-grained and inescapable. If the world order is one devoid of humor, let it be injected with the blade's fulsome smile. If the mother is a whore, then let the son be a murderer. If the friend sleeps with the mother, let him assassinate his friend too. Is there not enough perverse mystery in these harsh collations? Bunuel's genius is that he allows the Real to speak on its own terms, stripped of its ideologues, stripped even of analogues to ethical formalities.
One final note: I suspect that the dream sequence, exceptional even in Bunuel's case, inspired Tarkovsky's rendition of the Dreams of the Mother in Mirror. We see the starving boy (Pedro) dream that his mother, who acts coldly with her bastard son in daily life, acts sweetly and motherly to him, brings him in her hands a raw chunk of steak that the boy eagerly takes in his mitts; but underneath his bed lies the dark freudian shape of the boy's friend -- the implacable Jaibo -- who lunges out upon seeing the meat drip blood on the floor and fights with Pedrito over it, while phantom chickens fly upwards, like spectres startled from the ground (in a slow-motion video reversal), feathering the air with white plumes; and the boys fight with and thrash the white fluff pillows, uncontainable rage, and the pillows burst and feather the air too, like chickens battered by a baseball bat; and the mother -- just as in dreams that switch insidiously, instantly, from pleasure to outright fear -- walks away from the scene of their struggle, oblivious of the monstrous worm that aches in both boys' hearts and entrails, the demon of hunger that nibbles away at their stunted manhood, and eats at the seeds of a moral life that they can only hint at in dreams, but which in life is denied them; for even in dreams do they fight over food, never to eat of it, neither the plate nor the knife, nor the soul that shrivels as it cannibalizes its own flesh...

Monday, September 14, 2009

Portraits of Friends - 4

for Edgar
Betwixt us, the milk of dragons
& our soft speech that ossified in notebooks,
enamel-plumed by bird-torn bookmarks.
I remember in your Shelley
the ugly torpid feather you left on Mutability,
still there, unchanged from youth's white-egg,
page 562. In the makeshift
room you made of the bed in back
of your darkblue pickup cab, you cracked
eggs and dunked 'em down your throat.
Protein & Shelley, for weeks.
We convened at McDonald's &
made the best of a 1st encounter.
Chicken nugs & our woman-born
love of women. 'Twas always beautee
that brought us twain. A stench of meat
can't cheapen inborn inflorescence.

Surreptitious, you glimpsed me a precious few
bone-sculpted verses, the 1st but not
the last time 'round, tuskwhite convolutions.
A poacher with even your own goods.
If you'd been stark-fleshed then, beloved &
crowned by appeals, with magnetic poles
charging up your limbs, the eyes that looked out
like famished sunstones, were still weary, incantatory.
Nat Shermans in pocket, the plaid habit of a pensioner,
& the invisible ebony-carved cane of the filadelfian,
Weston Loomis, in your clenched patriot's hand.

A dragon hither, its bitter milk a draught
from the ruined World, brought us composure
when we drank but sometimes too, demonios.
So go the war & peaceability of mesoamericans,
that in our blood was the peace of war, and the study
of arms & Man: the songs that were yours were mine.
The breath that you spoke, I spoke too, the storied
conradian english of converts. Masculine and knuckled.
(The ephebe would not have queried the congenital
amorous kiln from which his rhythm returned a vase.)
Hailed by thieves the vagabond purloins mass geographies
from Proserpina's thigh; drinks from hebraic pearly chalices.
So often we drank from these mutual cups, unpossessing
of what we owned, or what we grateful offered.

If the dragon sundered us, divided our wares &
dispersed the careful-ranged hoard we shared,
regardless, the river Thames ran softly 'long, &
still flows on; atop the cliffs of Crete the bullroarers
pursue their feats, and snug in Quauhtitlan
hides the unknown quantity of the Quetzal ribbon.
These and other realms open to us at all times,
who would not choose to perish "in hot rain,
loved widely by women"? We'd have our hearts
& divagations cleave like ire & pulque, course
the circuits of the world's lengthened technics
like mud, flesh, & earthly attire. Times past
are not times gone. Who so loved the Brave
New Earth, & its union, "when earth and we
were without the toil of burning in the dark,"
the enlightened hour, its Monticello, and Mister
Adams, and the excellencies that renounced
the future shock of glib contemporaneity,
was no demagogue at heart but worse:
a Poet. A legislator who learned how to mint
Pounds from gold & not the phantom credit
contra naturam, therewith 'no man hath
a house of good stone,' nor the rubrick for feed.

But you trudged through the fundamental dross
of an implosive nation, trusting of its trust, &
retooling the cabinets of speech for substantial
redress. Those fields we farmed you revisit,
digging into the cavities and undergrowth
of graveyards that men are wiser for studying dogs'
tread, unafraid to snoop the remains of better blues,
black goat blood-fed souls who speak; & even further:
the seeds of the mācēhualli, the tecolote's eye,
which gazes on what the wind lists to usher...
'And then went down, you, to the ship...'


So lurked he who had effaced himself,
whose work loomed where his corpus
once lounged, heaved up from seasmoke:
the Nao in its wake leaves no trace,
New-World-bound, Atlantean-tongued.

Friday, September 4, 2009

"Inglourious Basterds" (2009)

Juvenilia as art has usually worked in the favor of cinephiles like Tarantino, who base their efforts on an aesthetics of pastiche, referentiality, and prepackaged iconography. Juvenilia -- I mean intellectualized juvenilia -- manages to make quick clever use of an increasing variety of terms, styles, and imagery to convey, sometimes insipidly, sometimes ingeniously, the relevancy of the pop world to high art. The popular culture derives its components from iconic representations -- 'archetypes' if you will -- of certain ineluctably superficial attitudes to, and spirits informing, the over-informed life, the life vested in polyphony: Marilyn Monroe will represent both classical beauty and pornography, she is the ageless Venus, clothed, unclothed; Chaplin embodies the soldier of humor, he is wit's walking shadow; Hitler, no longer a living breathing imperfect man real to us as he had been flesh-and-blood to the people -- now among us the dead -- who loved and hated him, has ballooned into a caricature of unmitigated evil; he may as well carry three 6s tattooed under his shaved armpit to complete the portrait. It is no use to think of these personages as anything but the single-term icons they evoke: like household gods and demons -- however complex their ontological histories may be -- they are present to us only when we invoke them by their vocation, their specific and singular attributes. We will gladly masturbate to Marilyn, and dream of blowing to bits Adolph's grim visage. The juvenile mind has the nearly religious capacity to invoke all the known gods at a whim -- or the One God in a prayer -- because the aged child's mind is more so credulous than skeptical (skepticism being the first -- though not the last -- sign of maturity, of discernment). The juvenile mind is more prone to excited worship than agnosticism, and it puts up posters of its rock stars, sports heroes, and pop idols on the walls of the room in which it plays, alone and satisfied, with the toys of thoughtful infancy. (I envision young cerebral Quentin making machine-gun sounds with his mouth, as he tumbles the figurine of Skeletor with his hand, a poster of Clint Eastwood in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly looking imperiously above him.)

Friday, August 28, 2009

"Au Revoir Les Enfants" (1987)

The film takes off from a personal experience of the director's. During the 2nd World War, Malle attended a catholic boarding school that secretly housed jewish refugees, and if he had not exactly made friends with the boys, he never forgot the image of one of them being led away by the Gestapo to the concentration camp (this is my assumption, anyway, of how Malle conceptualized the film -- it takes a single image to set the wheel in motion). A few of the themes that adhere to Louis Malle's personal reflections as an adolescent -- the inordinate love for the Mother, the sympathetic cruelty of the Older Brother(s), the rapture for books -- crop up in this film, though in diminished form from his other films, notably Murmur of the Heart. We have, in short, Louis Malle making a private film within the greater spectacle of the 2nd World War, and particularly, within the prepackaged pathos of the Holocaust. I believe this film is popular and much loved and much seen in french classes because it indirectly alludes to the greater harsher world outside of the boarding school and the boys' still nascent reality:  the film shows tenderness, firstly, and it is 'significant,' secondly. Malle is a master of intimacy, this we know, and so it comes across as a fortunate piece of work to use the same silences and boyish revelations that make him so adept at filmed introspection, to comment, and ultimately make a statement, on the gross violence, injustice and evils of the Holocaust. As such the film is unpretentious, and therefore makes its bold points in tense but incantatory whispers. The entire set-piece involving the boarding school boys playing a kind of tag war between the blue-ribboned boys and the red-ribboned, in which Malle's alter ego (so I presume), the young, poetic-minded Julien Quentin, finds himself lost in the woods with the jewish boy, Jean Bonnet, aka Jean Kippelstein. The blues and greens of the woods in which they find themselves too deep and without a path back to the school, deepen in color, shadow, and cold, and force the boys to rely on each other, as night descends upon them, creating an atmosphere of unspoiled, inward communion. The startling encounter with the Nazi foot soldiers makes a rough contrast to the closeness and boyish fear shared by the two accidental friends: thus we are given the photo shot of the boys huddled together under a blanket, their pale faces punctured by cold, that serves as the principal cover for Criterion's dvd release.

Despite the poignancy of its scenes, the film seems to me not particularly impressive. If it is the sort of film that it takes millions of dollars and a board of high-brand talent for Hollywood to reproduce but only end up failing to make, through inevitable heavy-handedness, it too is limited to being but a model of learned tonality that sacralizes the emotional life and gives a sense of what could be a much louder, brasher, more obviously politicized film... In sum, Au Revoir Les Enfants teaches Hollywood how to make those kinds of films that it repeatedly lusts after (big everlasting politicized themes, unmistakably personalized touch, small to micro budget), but when compared to his earlier french films, it barely represents that side of him which is originary and seminal.

It is no secret that Malle ended up becoming a Hollywood-sized director, since his talents were duly noted by producers and big studios as being especially variegated and eclectic, but Au Revoir Les Enfants is notable precisely because it was his return not only to France, but to his own inner childhood. After delving wholeheartedly into the inner meaning of America and Americanism (since moving to the States in the late 70s), in such documents as God's Country and And the Pursuit of Happiness, Malle probably felt a nostalgia for his own land, his catholic upbringing, and the recursive images of his childhood. As such, the film, when compared to the ponderousness of his american work -- i.e. Atlantic City, Alamo Bay --, somehow retains the stamp of his earlier french period -- the lightness of touch, the period-specific mannerism -- as if the years he spent making films in the States had never occurred at all. The film's greatest virtue is that it feels of its time, as far removed from the year 1987 (when it was released), as the children are removed from the horrors of Auschwitz, from the war front, and from the ugliness of hardened adult hatred. It could have been made in the 1960s.

Monday, August 17, 2009

"Thirst" (2009)

As of late, the vampire genre has become over-polluted by trendy subpar entries, in television and film, which lamely attempt to introduce new twists or allegorical perspectives on the subject. One that comes to mind is the Twilight series, another of those abruptly lucrative franchises for which no criterion involved with posterity can explain the success of, and the True Blood television series, which appears, superficially anyway, to be as glib and gross and congested as the gleefully amoral Dexter series (which treats of the public's fascination with serial killers). Vampires continue to be hyper-eroticised beings, as they have always been, but the new fictions already mentioned tend to devolve into legitimizing them as perfectly functional, sociable beings, while neglecting the spiritual torments that have legendarily displaced the vampire out of the daylight of a hum-drum social life. If they are not beings capable of enjoying pure and platonic love with human organisms, then they are, of course, evil fantastical creatures that speak in their own elvin language and conspire in gothic castles to bring about the fall of mankind, the sort of depiction that fits in with Tolkien's romances. The more 'hip' versions deck out the vampire as an attractive goth who, though he or she manages to enjoy as many diurnal comforts as the night can simulate - such as partying with unperceptive humans or falling in love at midnight - is more concerned with fitting into secret societies or dealing with werewolves, than with dealing with the metaphysical stress that the thought of eternal damnation eventually means in the neverending end; that there isn't any sense nor hint of what damnation might feel like is what's lacking in so potentially pathetic a character. The modern day vampire, in sum, is past the gloom and doom of the 19th century. On the one hand, an advanced eros remains the natural (and positive) inclination for those creatures who are doomed to live forever, or blessed (as some might take it) to persist in and enjoy the fruits of skulking in the same undying and unblemished flesh; and on the other hand, there may grow in the night-creature a perverse longing for the sun, for mortality, for weakness even; the latter is infinitely more interesting...
One film that has contributed enough to the vampire mythos that it has become a modern-day classic of the genre is the swedish film Let the Right One In. In the light (or dark) of that remarkable film, the feat of producing a thoroughgoing original in the genre has certainly narrowed. Here was a film that did not have to recreate the genre because it smartly illumined the oft-neglected parasitic/symbiotic nature of the vampire creature. The film used middle-aged children for its protagonists, and in so doing was able to enlarge upon the themes of the bittersweet (and sometimes violent) loss of innocence, the burgeoning of infatuation that arrives with puberty, and the disarming childishness inherent in the paradoxical aged-agelessness of vampires. (On this note, we can promiscuously surmise that Peter Pan may have been a vampire himself, seducing children to live immortally as they are, unchanging yet thriving on the mystic stuff of dreams and desires, that he may prolong his own pubescence in the company of those like himself.)

Other vampire films compared to Let the Right One In appear trite or fatigued of ideas; but Thirst is a notable film - directed by a notable director - that has respectfully carved out its own lair in the tradition of vampire films.

The actual title of this film in corean is bak-jwi, which translates to "bat", but Thirst is understandably a better replacement. Park Chan-Wook's latest film is an improvement over his last 2 films - Sympathy for Lady Vengeance and I'm a Cyborg, But That's Okay - not so much in stylisation - a technological glee contained in all his films - but in sharper thematic focus. Often a director's technical prowess will stifle his capacity for producing a concentrated work, a fault that has been coincidentally Park Chan-Wook's principal asset: his enthusiasm for the latest camera techniques, for glossy state-of-the-art cinematography, and for hyperactive edits and pacing may often induce advanced types of cognitive dissonance. If he is a preeminent master of creating atmospherics of frenzy and morbid hilarity, Park Chan-Wook does so without a care if it suits our moral distaste or elation, a strength that largely depends on the relevancy of the mayhem to the storyline.

Thirst introduces 2 offbeat twists to the genre: it advances the idea that vampirism is as much a potentially terminal disease as cancer, in that it requires constant treatment to offset, or else the 'vampire' dies; and it plays with the notion that the femme fatale is as vampiric and seductive as any vampire could be, so that a perfectly benign-looking young woman can reverse the table and end up preying on the moral and sexual inhibitions of a guilt-stricken vampire (especially on one who is - or was - a catholic priest). The 3rd twist would be that the central vampire in the film (as played by Corea's most versatile actor right now, Song Kang-Ho) happens to be that catholic priest, seduced by his own shattered inhibitions broken free by the 'disease' of vampirism. That this disease entails regret, reawakened eros, and the perennial concomitant dosage of catholic guilt, is part of the film's structural power. In any case, the idea of a catholic priest becoming a vampire would not be so intriguing if there hadn't already been a film about a priest who becomes a werewolf: to Park Chan-Wook's credit, the idea is greatly improved upon.

Thirst also boasts having quite the effective erotic sequence, in which we learn that vampires can perfectly fornicate just like humans do, and perhaps with greater relish. The young femme fatale, who initially comes across as a repressed young virgin, is played very well by Kim Ok-Vin; her transformation in the film, from innocent to predatory, carries weight and conviction. In fact, her out-and-out exultation toward the end of the film accommodates the resignation (and resolution) of the priest toward the end of the film, causing a reversal of roles and also of attitude. Their enjoyment of their illicit sexual affair (she is engaged to be married to a dolt by her controlling family, all of whom she resents deeply) is made all the more richer by the priest's secret that he is a vampire; in fact, that he is even a vampire only incidentally plays into their guilt. Since the film downplays the explicit vampirism, and emphasizes the psychological, implicit vampirism at play between the two doomed lovers (and also in their relationship to the slightly deranged, soju-swilling, card-playing family), the film captures a piece of originality in its clever genre-baiting.

The film is quite long, at least longer than what is expected from a genre-film, because its concerns are advanced and its aims are long-term, resonant. If it meanders, though it does so without losing our interest, it never fails to catch us off-guard. The ending of the film evinces once and for all Park Chan-Wook's terrific editorial capacity - on the level of the best hollywood directors - to direct a meticulous, high-brand denouement, full of pathos, sincerity, and stellar timing.

Friday, August 14, 2009

"Blaise Pascal" (1972)

Among Rossellini's strangest, most austere films. Why? He chose a subject of irreducibly french character, the inimitable proto-modernist, Blaise Pascal, and decided to study for it by watching those french films that moved him most. So he did: he watched Bresson, and for camera style, probably a little Dreyer. (Indeed it is unavoidable to watch Bresson without seeing Dreyer's influence as well.)

The soundtrack, doom-ridden. The opening credits bespeak the commencement of a horror film. We are about to engage with a mind that unhappily discovered the substantial spectre of the Void. (Among his many achievements of genius, Pascal seriously took on the problematic existence of the Void, and came to the conclusion - through logical acumen and through mathematical intuition - that the Void must exist; that it is as substantial as the known, treatable & hypothetical substances of the physical world...) So the music, mood, and spirit of the film emanate from this grim, unavoidable discovery...
The film is unrepentantly strange. In the first scene we encounter 3 musketeer-chapped men who sit at a well and pour out wine for drink. They all agree, "This is good wine!" I am unsure if this is meant to convey to us that these men are purposefully french, or that they are, despite their unassuming, kindly nature, rather too sensual for the likes of the family who arrive funereally in a carriage the next moment. We are introduced to the family of the austere Etienne Pascal: they do not drink or laze about: they are Godfearing, chaste folk who read scripture and entertain themselves with geometrical conundrums for sport. The father uses his son's mathematical genius for village book-keeping. They are provincial, but learned. In a way, the background of a quiet provincial lifestyle goes a long way to explain Pascal's atmospheric, hermetic genius: his was a devout mind that thrived in the solitude of the countryside, in the seclusion of his room, away from the glamour of Paris, a country-priest fashioned much like Georges Bernanos' tormented hero...
Rossellini indulges in the budget allowed him for the set production: we are treated to long takes of scholarly flirtation with minutiae. (For instance, the scene in which the Counsellor is awoken by his servants, then meticulously washed and dressed, reminds us of Dreyer's [and Bresson's] still-frame meditations on manual exercise & routine performances; but the scene also serves to educate on how such domestic affairs were performed, if they were performed at all. A bigger-budgeted film with studio-dictated requirements would have quickly eschewed such deliberately dilatory scenes, since they ostensibly do nothing to further the dramatic impulse.) Other moments come to mind: when Pascal's sister, after he had fallen faint from his chronic ill health, heats her brother's bed very quickly with a device that looks like a heated iron-head rod, to warm his bed before they lift his collapsed body unto it, gives me some warmth too in watching it; the care put into these details delights me precisely because such moments are so tangential and trifling, so concerned with the daily toil and small features of everydayness back then. Television production has rarely done better than give Rossellini the money and time to film such wonderfully informative, charmingly nugatory touches...
Humor occurs when we are favored by a fantasy dialogue carried between the lofty and worldly Descartes, and the provincial, youthful, but thoroughly poetic Pascal. Descartes' face when he looks up at us - at the camera - while listening to Pascal's dialectics of the heart's superior reasoning to the vain efforts of pure reason, creates great mirth. If this conversation ever did take place, no doubt Descartes would look like this man, and would look up that way at his colleagues, wryly, amused...
Finally, the last scenes remind me of Bresson's Diary of a Country Priest. The young would-be curate suffers almost voluptuously the torments of solitude, the solitude so full of yearning for God that the Almighty becomes more painfully distant. Terrific pan and closeup on Pascal painfully seated by the fireplace, reading one of his final pensees:

Fire. The God of Abraham. The God of Issac. The God of Jacob. Not of the philosophers and intellectuals... the God of Jesus Christ.

Pascal is shown to us as he should always be understood: a poet of devotion and fruitful intuition, for whom science and math were but diversions from the ultimatum of the spirit.

We are induced to believe, probably correctly, that his death was due to the grossly crude and unrefined medical practices of the time, such as when a doctor who comes to visit him prescribes a paste made of mashed dog and worm to coat his calves [!?]; and further: what folly and laughter to hear the medics declare the dying Blaise on his deathbed as "perfectly in good health," though even a fool would see that visibly the moribund Pascal was in his final death throes. The final scene in which Pascal receives the Final Ablution and dies, goes back to Dreyer's religious effect, and reminds us of Bresson's terminal, but achingly aesthetic severity (per his late films). Rossellini's Pascal may not stand for a quintessential Rossellini film, but its skilled mimesis of those pastmasters is enough to warrant our attention, and would perhaps even bring a smile on Bresson's cerebral face.

Monday, August 10, 2009

"The Age of the Medici" (1973)

Part I: Cosimo's Exile.
If only television could be like this. Imagine Wes Anderson making a colorcoded series on the life of Frank Lloyd Wright, in which the architect's constructions coincide with the milestones of his career, in vivid technicolor sets and superfluous detail. The italians had the service of Roberto Rossellini, dramatizing the 'Age of the Medici' for public television, and for the pride of florentines & tuscans everywhere. A little more than PBS' Masterpiece Theatre, a little less than Roma, città aperta, the series reconstructed the typical constraints of television by utilizing the TV's small frame to maximize the props, sets, and scenic detail which illustrate (and sufficiently condense) the spirit and material lifestyle of the time. We are treated to what we can only accept to be highly researched, accurate depictions of the streets, people, and costumes of the period. (The numerousness of the types of hats worn by the characters, for one, demonstrates the extent of the research that went into the series; the hats and costumes, the alembics, hourglasses, thick tomes, scrolls and skulls that litter the tables in every scene are sumptuous and multiple...)
Glimpses of political comment: a shepherd, suspiciously eloquent, harangues a traveling cavalcade of bankers who are on their way to Firenze. He alludes to the decline of cultural values at the hands of banks and bankers, who devalue the art of local living, local custom, the local trades and goods that enrich and define the city-state. Trade is affected when unnecessary supermarkets are created, and surpluses that hoard and deprive the guilds of their focused mastery in certain crafts do much to strangulate the particular grandeur of the City; the specific artistry of guilds is compromised when one craftsman, apprentice, or master passes on to another city-state and divulges the age-old secrets of coat-making, carpet weaving, sword-smithing. A city starts to lose its name, its prestige, its singular fame...

This shepherd, who sports a self-carved cane, and uses his legs to carry him from region to region, over mountain pass and through valleys, may as well be Ezra Pound on his walking tour of Italy, denouncing usury and lamenting the arrival of modern warfare and displaced distant-reaching economics.
Part II: The Power of Cosimo.

When Cosimo de Medici was exiled through the influence of the rival Albizzi family, he took away the banking relationships he had carefully put together in Florence. Resultingly, in his absence Florence suffered a slight economic decline that caused some amount of social tension, intimations of civil war, and a clamor for Medici's return by his steadfast allies.

Rosselini demonstrates the grandeur of Cosimo's return through the modesty with which he walks, unaccompanied by guards or friends, back into Florence, he its favorite everlasting son. Cosimo is the rare, perhaps impossible example of the 'Good Banker' (or so we are led to understand). The Medici bank performs international transactions, but it stays avowedly florentine: its profits and scale of power are decidedly invested in the resurgence and cementing of Florence's prestige as a city-state of culture, trade, and wealth. Cosimo, a man of humble, provident standards, wields his power behind the scenes: Florence is Oz to the foreigners who travel there, startled to find it at the head of scientific and philosophical innovation; and Cosimo is the Wizard behind the curtain, sparing a few words from time to time in private conversation with his elite cabinet of philosophers, economists, and cardinals, words that eventually sink ships, devastate foes, exile barbarians at the gates of far-off towns.

Amusingly, Rossellini outlines a typical soiree Cosimo hosts for Florence's elite, and we are charmed that instead of gossiping about celebrity outtakes, possible award nominations, and sex scandals, the partygoers quaff local organic chianti and gather around Leon Battista Alberti as he ruminates on the invention of the camera obscura with dutch diplomats and english counselors; a party no modern-day place on earth can pretend to match...

Part III: Leon Battista Alberti

For the final piece of his lavish Age of the Medici television series, Rossellini and his crew focus on the specific contributions and philosophy of Leon Battista Alberti, papal curate and trusted adviser in Cosimo's inner circle.

We are led through... a continuity of the philosophical methods of antiquity that informed the discoveries of the modern. Leon Battista is taken by Rossellini to be the exponent of the Renaissance ideal: neither an everyman nor a factotum, Leon Battista very definably masters all those arts that are united under the aegis of the age's dominant philosophical standard: that all phenomena in the world are interconnected and indivisible; that each body or substance or force which occurs in our sphere depends on the commonality of other cohabiting bodies and substances and forces. Thus, no artist is complete unless he practice and evince competence in all the chief arts: painting, literature, sculpture, architecture, rhetoric. Above all, that art is a science; and as such, that no painter may call himself a painter, or an architect an architect, unless he comprehend and utilize the tenets of geometry, of engineering, and of perspective.

Rossellini's parable of perspective: as Leon Battista repeatedly emphasizes the supremacy of perspective in the arts, Rossellini himself speaks with his pans and zooms on the illustrious entourage who aided Cosimo...

We may understand that Rossellini's historical parable, albeit involved in the accuracy of depiction and in historical veracity, seeks to persuade us that film (even when in the narrow box of television) relies on perspective and continues the philosophical methods of antiquity lovingly recreated in these educational films. When Leon Battista Alberti sermonizes on the precedence of perspective in the arts and sciences, the camera shifts, starts to zoom on his physiognomy, then pans over to the tablature beside him that like a rudimentary powerpoint presentation limns the features of la prospettiva in action, and then sways over the room and the frescoes, graphs, sculptures, and beakers that litter the tables, the walls, the groundspace, and we understand that Alberti speaks of, presages, film too...


Thursday, August 6, 2009

"L'enfant" (2005)

The film, as many films do, emerged from a single image: the sight of a young woman pushing a baby stroller. If she had pushed it along as all young 1st time mothers do, gingerly, carefully, then perhaps L'enfant would never have been made: but she did not push the stroller gingerly, she pushed it almost with force, rather violently, as if no baby lay sleeping inside, as if it were empty, and yet, there indeed was a child no more than a year old in the carriage, in spite of all his mother's efforts, soundly asleep. The brothers Dardenne stopped her and politely asked to peer in at the ensconced baby, because they were 'fond of children'. And the young mother wordlessly allowed them to look at the uncannily placid infant, and when the brothers had gotten their fill, and resumed their work on the set of Le fils, the taciturn young mother jerked the stroller onward, as if it were a tremendous but unavoidable annoyance, and the child remained asleep and oblivious to all the power it vexed on her. The Dardenne brothers did not forget this image, and when they could not rid it from their minds, they decided to make a film on it. That film is L'enfant.
Since the commencement of the 21st century, a new cinema has emerged which fuses the increasingly motivational vogue of nonfiction with the perennial methods of fiction. The death of fiction that resulted from last century's postmodern wave (and I speak here of the death of fiction in all those arts irreparably affected by multimedia integration) has killed off certain markets, or at best, committed such trenchant plastic surgery that the old idols are no longer recognizable. Television passed on from the literary & cinematic slow-burn elegance of The Twilight Zone to the fact-gorged, hi-speed technical pornography of shows like E.R. or C.S.I. (the initials on their own testify to the passing of faith from unauthenticated myth-making to ultra-authenticated scientific fiction in which acronyms replace latin roots, and encyclopedias replace bibles). The book market is an ostensible case in which a glut for biography and nonfiction and book-length newsworthy items has overtaken the augustan urges for paper wisdom; when fiction at all, our current bestsellers are of the fantastical Harry Potter-Star Wars-Batman kind (which unsurprisingly are purchased more rabidly by the sugar-cereal-eating adults who make and spend money on comic book collectibles, than by the children they raise), or of the 'controversial politik' kind - (i.e., fiction that dresses up central issues like 'the plight of Iranian women'; or the introduction of Balzac or Nabokov or whoever else is on the western humanities roster to an eastern 'repressed' country; or it could take form as a heartwarming tale of boys who flew kites in a war-torn country, only to grow up and become disillusioned and grow apart in their differing ideological stance, and then find peace by flying kites in the sky again, instead of bombs, etc. etc.) - politically charged fiction, in short, that allows for its readers to feel simultaneously informed, involved, and emotionally elated. These are the smart consumers who shop at Whole Foods, who aspire to capitalist sanity in their secular global-community collectivist faith, by being good and honest capitalists who buy organic and read books 100% backed by research and fact-checking organizations.

The arts would degenerate into a uselessness that took shape as one extreme or the other, either Harry Potter and the Eaglehead of Aztlan or the factchecked fable of a north korean girl who learned of the world outside her door when she picked up an old tattered copy of Dryden's verse translated to korean by her dead poet father (who of course perished defending the ideals of the north in the civil war, long after he gave up poetry). A crystal ball on one hand, and the newspaper in the other.
Yet film has been able to survive the amortizing effects of the postmodern wave, and transform by virtue of its reliance on a uniquely composite technology. (It may even be asseverated that film had predated postmodernism long before the latter reached its literary apex: postmodern thought was invested in making the velocity of popular culture a philosophy - if one could reduce its stylistics to a phrase - and so it was natural that the speediest of artforms would antedate, as a time machine only could, the expression that brought it to focus: so too did life exist before it could be given testimony by the camera.) Film was a means of bringing to focus the verity of life in its directness: it is to this day an artform of the present tense.

Without having to delve into the early decades of film, when the bulk of it was still attributable to the elder master arts, it would be enough to declare that film up to now has been balanced on a synthesis of the proven methods of fiction in literature with the ineluctable advancements of the camera. In any case film has been greatly dependent upon decidedly literary standards foreign to its own capacities. Film in spurts would ever be pure film: only a few artisans - those whom we eagerly baptised masters of the form - were courageous enough to sink into and allow the thoroughly non-literary aspects of cinema to overwhelm the baser need for practical narrative. When a film was purely itself, we would recognize in its imminent frame the ontology of a singular image. Pure film, after all, was iconic: a single image was enough to substantiate a cinematic experience. So certain artists would tire of constructing vapid narratives to dress up the one image that germinated the entire vehicle: cinematic artists began to think cinematically, and they realised that the advantage of filming photographically - sans care for how the image fit into a greater story - was that it brought them in direct communion with the actual stuff of film: life, life, life.
The Dardennes brothers did not foresee how greatly the story data would morph from the 1st time they laid eyes on the baby-stroller mother, to the time they began photography on L'enfant. The disgruntled mother eventually became Sonia, and Sonia became sympathetic: she loved and wanted her baby, eagerly, lovingly. The brothers initially desired for Sonia to search for a man, a father for her child... and then that story changed, and it was Sonia searching for the father, for Bruno, to whom the story brought its focus. Yet the image remained: the mother pushing along the baby stroller became Bruno, the father, pushing an empty carriage in which a baby once slept. In cinema the story can just as easily be meaningless, the 'facts' can change, the characters change sexes, and a baby reappear after it had disappeared seemingly for good. What is of the utmost importance is that the image remain the same, that it remain pure and 'beyond all parting'.

L'enfant is a small film, a minor film, but it works like a miracle. Its smallness of purpose - to produce an impression of a life lived according to its meagerest constraints - goes beyond socio-political savvy, past the self-importance of politically-judicious commentaries that revel in occident/orient, working-class/bourgeois, dark/light dichotomies. It will feel an insult to simply call it 'a day-in-the-life', and yet, that is essentially what it is and what it does: it does not just capture a slice of life, it builds up a rhythm that absorbs the inimitable nonexistence of our waking hours. It uses rhythmic art to enforce an urgency of life on a sedentary gazing body, as Bresson's films so flawlessly accomplish. (In this respect it is as clear that the Dardennes brothers take as their inspiration the Bressonian method, as it is clear that Aronofsky took from the Dardennes the praxis & stylistics on display in The Wrestler.) L'enfant is a flagship for the Dardennes, and the Dardennes are a flagship for the new cinema: a cinema that no longer concerns itself with the old narrative artifices, that no longer mimics documentarian facets or simulates true-to-life intensities; their cinema is a humane cinema that purely and directly and unequivocally portrays life as a means of expression, not as its result. Neither meditation nor remembrance, neither drama nor 'story', L'enfant is a film directed in the present tense.
One more observation: the other belgian director of the new school, Bruno Dumont, achieved similar expressiveness in La vie de Jesus, after which he had fallen off the scale of acclaim in the eyes of not a few critics. One must point out 2 striking features that separate the Dardennes' work from Dumont's: the Dardennes have demonstrated greater technique in their handheld work, instilling in the viewer a variety of sensations akin to the present tense, to direct contact. It is difficult to stress how exceptionally gifted the Dardennes are in their handheld work: their handling of the camera impersonates the faculty of human attention without crudely jolting or nauseating it (as so many other inferior handheld 'artists' end up wrecking on the audience); Dumont, however, prefers single still-frame shots, and rather creates sensation through imagistic or narrative provocation. This is the 2nd attribute that not only separates the Dardennes from Dumont, but also causes some to have distaste for the latter director: Dumont is willingly provocative, and continues to lunge toward demystifying sexuality through banality. Dumont deals exclusively with the metaphysics of banality and as such risks its hazards himself. The Dardennes, conversely, do not treat of banality for its own sake, but utilize its innumerable moments of 'breathing time' to construct rhythm and emotional resonance. L'enfant is filled with countless moments of breathing time, as for instance when we find Bruno (played so vividly by the professionally non-professional Jeremie Renier) waiting in the police department to be admitted into the inspector's office: he for a few precious seconds stares off into the distance of the room, in brief contemplation of what he is about to do: confess to a crime from which he could as easily escape. The speed of the film is so brutally quick, as life too often is, that the many authentically present-tense moments of breathing space feel like eons in the consciousness of a boyish young man who still plays with sticks in the water, who behaves and acts like a child himself (the film is titled L'enfant because it plainly asks us, who is the child? And we know the answer when we ask in turn, who then do we see before us, who is being led by the camera from frame to frame, toward his catharsis?) By the time Bruno realises that he is a father for good or bad, time catches up and swallows him, as it swallows us, in an outburst of tears, of genuine, inescapable emotion.

Monday, July 27, 2009

"Waltz with Bashir" (2008)

War erases memory. How? One chooses to forget (against one's own will, but in accordance with desire's tyranny over the emotions).
26 rabid dogs will become 26 wailing palestinian women. Symbolic moral of the story.
A film that owes much to Resnais' Nuit et brouillard: the camera captures selectively, so too doth the memory: but the progression from animation to live action, and from live action to documentary, is an arduous, bitter, and tormenting road. (Analogous to the concept of Purgatory - in which images are cleansed of their illusion, and made carnal; or conversely, in which flesh is stripped from the spirit, on the path toward purity of form.)

So we pass forth from israeli postmodern nihilism to inner jewish anguish. The palestinians are the jews of the holocaust; so we learn. And the bitter pill of total recall posits that the israelis mimicked the old satanic beast of the 3rd Reich; so does history repeat itself, against the will of the many.
The film raises questions on whether animation diminishes the impact of reality, and especially whether it is able to mitigate the harsh realism of war: we are exposed to animation of lower speed, a speed so slow as to grate on our minds made oversophisticated by the Disney and Pixar films, yet compensated by the glaring stark colorisation and the thick-bold stenciled renditions of the characters. An animation film filmed in the yellow and gray of rubble & decay, and in the blacks and whites of war-ruminations. Does war emanate well and truly, on this plane of fiction? No, it does not: but then, does film have at all the capability to render the authentic history with its brutality and its dry irrational serenity intact? Perhaps it can, very often it does not: it will in any case manifest, as the 'fog of war' perennially will, a dream-state that either denies our involvement or barely, sluggishly implicates it. We struggle to be 'involved' in the realism of war: we are either the voiceless dead, or the former soldier who in his isolation is unable to communicate the power with which fear overtook & shot through him like cold thunder in his swift blood, making him a stranger to his own remembrance, a stranger to his own experience, which now so distant, comes across as a fable lived by an Other: a killer, a victim, a coward. One does not readily admit to being any of these: so one constructs fables, which one is at liberty to animate, to paint over, to give humor to.

But precisely when we have grown tired of what could have possibly been (did the massacre take place? did we do enough to prevent it? were we there when the boy was blown to bits by the rocket that the comrade shot? perhaps we were there, and just as now, we then had no voice, no will, no way of stopping what became a memory, a falsified photo, a video, an animation of atrocious acts that took place somewhere in time, irreversible) ...precisely then, when we are most distant from the mysterious iniquity that upsets our sleep each and every night, does the cavalcade of cries uproot us from our ignorance, assailing us with the thunderous lament of ghosts who continue to dwell frightfully in the camera lucida of memory.

The director wishes to wake us up from our placid sleep of cartoons: that is his mission, and it is, as point of reference in cinematic art, a paradoxically timely and tardy one: timely because he is a citizen of his country who speaks (in)directly to his generation - tardy because the film attempts to work as an evil curse does, to steal our sleep by forcing us to witness what occurs when the cartoon-sleep like ghoulish paint - like a mask on the demon's visage - peels away from the scorched surface of news-video-realism.

It is however to the director's detriment that in spite of his perceptibly honorable purpose, the film does not build up with efficacy the rhythm that more capable directors have mustered in war-films that were, ironically, purely fictional. He begins with fiction and ends with nonfiction, starkly, too starkly. The dramatic rhythm which he creates in the first half of the film is destroyed by the introduction of pseudo-documentary interviews with personages (still animated) connected to the massacre at the heart of the film: these accounts end up lulling the viewer rather than captivating the intelligence: we are enjoined to treat these accounts as authentic, and to feel a sense of guilt over the proceedings. But the transition is overly intellectualized, and the obviousness of the animation/news-footage, or fiction/nonfiction dichotomy belabored past sympathy. What ensues is confusion, uncertainty, and guilt: emotions that are as easily aroused as those feelings which pornography effortlessly raises. A pornography of news-realism, similarly deceptive as the techniques of animation.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Portraits of Friends - 3

To Oscar

whiskydrowned, like shipwreckt men
who paddle away from the lighthouse
toward winedark waves,

we sought vortices in the grooves of records,
the sublime silences enraptured in the white noise
of unopened books.

We were the solitary ones who read aloud to no one:
at the back of the classroom we bespoke orations
marbled by meticulous men, & carried priestly books
like proud lovers gorged on the whiteboned immortal
dead, our thoughts configured by apparitions of order
in our unlikely context,

we, the self-taught californians,
who invented our own prestige.

You in your hi-desert heat heard
the plangent call for impavid voyages:
a sound of waves, a prodigal
horn impassioned by a slur of windcry.

(In you the stroke & counterstroke
of Coltrane, of Kierkegaard,
sublimest reduction.)

I then had awoken from suburb sleep
to a monstrous dream of riptides,
possessed of the image of one
who read H. Crane as if it were felonious:
we circumvented the curriculum
& constructed our own bridge
across that miasma of shopping malls
& raised trucks;

those obscene 6-lane roads,
and where no roads were paved the dirt & desert rocks,
kept us inward, hermits at a threshold
fashioned from borrowed erudition,
we trekked from towns to metropolises,
from cities to cathedrals & from letters to the words
that were bricks in the cathedral that was a book
that were pages, white pages like cloudy waves on which
our brown bookish galleon steadied itself & rocked & surged:

& onward through speeches
of women & gin, a philosophy of love
that in ample fugues led us
to the nightly-pier, exhausted
from talk and eager for dialogue
with the whorish untouched moon:

We gazed up at her with tremulous
washedout eyes,

'the seal's wide
spindrift gaze toward paradise.'

Thence came the waves, the waves
that came from lord knows where
those waves of stupendous godly
inebriation the forgetful waves
of remembrance, the virgin waves
of chastity, the spume waves of sex:

& in that car racing at 5am
when the outer sphere still swam
in the starspotted sea I remember
not what I remember clearly but
I remember the waves coming toward us
and you bellowed out that passenger window
in strange righteous sulfurous agony,

'Here comes the ocean!
and the waves,

where have they been?'

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

"Tetro" (2009)

Something's been made of Coppola's 2nd youth, a recent period in his filmography that began (appropriately) with Youth Without Youth in 2007. That film materialised exactly 10 years after The Rainmaker, which in 1997 had been a modest but energetic adieu to a director whose last notable achievement was the fantastically old-school, sumptuous production of Dracula. One of the more consistent traits in all Coppola's oeuvre is his careful selection & control of set and production design. Shining examples are Dracula and, of course, The Godfather films: these films exhibit atmosphere, and even where black holes congregate in the plot and the dialogue fails, overwhelmed by editorial pandemonium (as famously occurs in Apocalypse Now), or when the melodramatic swarms the screen in overtures, the ambience of the production set & the location, its characters & flora, the overall gleam of the screen muffles those parts of Coppola which are inescapably and anachronistically italianate: his love for the operatic, which pervades even his smaller-scale films.

Youth Without Youth, a film that begins promising, as it presents a terrific opening title screen (the 1st in the revamped American Zoetrope production line) that boasts something along the lines of a metaphysical 3rd Man, gradually degenerates as it develops its ludicrous plotline. Mircea Eliade after all was no professional novelist. Nevertheless, YWY's one admirable trait is its sense of atmosphere, allowing us at least to breathe a little of the Old World lovingly romanticized by the director.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

"Les bonnes femmes" (1960)

A 3rd film by a man, about women (in the plural):
Touches of Fellini: nightclub scene, men masked as pigs or jesters, accompanied by scanty-clad young ladies and older obnoxious harlots, gathered around a long table cluttered with champagne bottles and glasses full and empty and tipped over, confetti, party streamers, dim lights, while a lascivious blonde (a la Anita Ekberg) dances and strips to raunchy afterhours jazz.

Hints of italianism everywhere: a saleswoman attempts to teach one of the clerk girls how to enunciate an expression in italian. The stalker - who prefigures the film's disarmingly elliptical plot - looks viciously italian, dressed in a motor-jacket and driving a motorcycle (reminder of Rocco & His Brothers, released the same year).

What does the film propose? That men are predators, pigs, & pansies. That the good women simply seek romance, 'true love'. What surrounds them is an ambiance of desire, strangely debauched or disenchanted in unforeseen ways. Paris by night. The film, from the title credits to the end, is brought to life by a peripheral love for the hermetic charms of Paris. These good women are infused by Paris, driven by Paris, enraptured by it: they seek love in Paris because they are in love with it. Yet in the particularities of men, they find none of Paris' allure: only the vulgar insidious backs of men's necks, the lurid sight of hairy arms.

Point of comparison (to Mizoguchi's Sisters of the Gion): the men escort the young ladies in a shiny cadillac, on their way presumably to riotous drunken fun. One of the girls, Jacqueline (the romantic one), asks the men, "Where are we going?" To which the joe on the passenger side leans over and with sinister insinuation answers, "Don't worry about it." Exactly the same scene occurs in Mizoguchi's Sisters of the Gion: except the insinuation does lead toward miscreancy, and the girl ends up beaten and thrown off a cliff. (If it had been made now, she would no doubt have been raped.)

The soundtrack music channels doom, intrigue, mystery. Chabrol even when young demonstrated an ability to create unearthly tension, disconcerting for us because the tension emanates from nothing in particular: a stray glance, an awkward silence, a sudden zeal for laughing. Chabrol even when young was attracted to murder: before Lynch, after Mizoguchi, he was a director exclusively interested in the subject of 'a woman in danger'. Yet nothing in this film prepares us - as his later films formally do - for the sharp turn it takes down a dark dark passage: the denouement leaves us thoroughly floored and nervewracked.

The brilliance of this film shows in the bizarre but preternatural fusion it makes of the dominant cinema-trends of the time: it is proto-Chabrol, post-Hitchcock, quasi-Italian, semi-Nouvelle Vague. Somehow deceptively gleeful & struck by a morbid Nights of Cabiria-like romanticism, Chabrol anticipates his own brand of perverse irony.
(Of the fraction of Chabrol films I've thus far seen, this is undoubtedly the one which has impressed on me the exorbitant powers he lays claim to, and which he promised as a young filmmaker. As an older director, I cannot say that he has matched the exuberance and terrific abnormality of this one.)