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.