Wednesday, November 23, 2011

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

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

Friday, November 18, 2011

"Amer" (2010)

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

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

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

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

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

Sunday, November 13, 2011

"The Castle" (1997)

A thought struck me while watching Haneke's version of Kafka's The Castle, a thought which passed through me with the strange clarity that K. received the import of Brugel's harangue, even on the verge of collapsing into sleep (K. I mean, but only barely myself, not out of boredom with the film, but out of a calm quiet satisfaction with the fidelity of the film's nearly word-for-word adaptation of K.'s text). The thought was this: a film that adapts K.'s novel in a major hollywoodish way, in a stylish, mega-budget production not dissimilar from De Palma's Mission: Impossible. The title would be: The Bureau. The adaptation would go as follows: a recently promoted covert ops agent (who works undercover as a "land surveyor" as a means of avoiding detection while still retaining the right of "surveying") arrives in a nondescript eastern european country for his new assignment. The agent, code-named K., has two months to infiltrate a mysterious counter-intelligence organization by the name of "the Bureau," suspected to have its head base of operations in a small provincial town (chosen by the Bureau specifically for its provincialism, for the zeal and superstitious fear of the residents, and for the unassuming, therefore unsuspicious, location). K. befriends and eventually seduces an agent rumored to have been recently ousted from a low rank position in the Bureau: her name is Frieda. As K. gets more intimate with Frieda, he wonders whether his cover will be blown, whether Frieda is not herself a mole. Other characters, some of them suspected to be agents sent in to spy on K., emerge from the woodwork (for instance, the sudden appearance of his incompetent "assistants.") K. is forced to perform guesswork in his pursuit of the firm's objective: he does not know who to trust, who to sleep with, who to pay off, who to snuff out. In the meantime, he performs land surveying, as a way of gathering intelligence. He takes long walks in the town; he studies the buildings, the architecture, the bizarrely designed tract homes that lie on the outskirts of the town; he attempts to single out the building or buildings where the Bureau could be located. Perhaps the Bureau is a combination of random buildings scattered all over town; perhaps it is hidden underground in a bunker; perhaps it is on a high level floor unreachable by elevator, for which expensive equipment would be necessary to access, technology that K. does not have at his disposal. He is temporarily placed on the Bureau's payroll, but he remains, secretly, on the payroll of the firm that employs him; soon enough, K. loses sense of which company he works for, the original firm, or the Bureau? Are they one and the same? Is he being tested for a secret, malicious purpose? When he finds a crack in the wall, a crack which, architecturally speaking, makes no sense in the surface structure of the building, he begins to hear the whirring of a camera, a camera he is unable to locate, but which has probably been watching him the entire time...

Saturday, October 8, 2011

"The Kid with a Bike" (2011)

I've read a reviewer's somewhat glib comment that the Dardennes brothers have not strayed from the form/formula which has made their distinctive brand of filmmaking internationally renowned -- The Kid with a Bike is to be considered, in this respect, a continuation of this formula, and one in which the Dardennes "milk...the imperiled child premise and tough-love salvation trope for all the ruthlessly effective drama it can deliver." One cannot dispute this claim, but I am willing to deride this view as unintentionally dismissive (as if the failure, rather than the success, of the Dardennes' "tough-love salvation trope" sufficed to pigeonhole the efforts of the brother directors as aesthetically redundant and unadventurous). Watching The Kid with a Bike, I am compelled to believe that filmmaking must always be executed this way, generously, yet in punctuation; passionate, yet controlled and refined; emotionally raw, yet life-affirming and graceful. The Dardennes are at this moment peerless in their medium; The Kid with a Bike, yet another heartfelt and humane masterpiece by the Belgian masters, finds them at their most pitch-perfect, indeed as good and as great as they have always been. One cannot leave the theater without taking away the impression that life at its most miniature and severe bears up the contours of a Dardennes film -- life, that is, as one lives it now, without the blemishes of exaggeration, yet always imagining the worst of worst events at every occurrence, only to learn that what life offers is only the continuation of an arrested, flawed, yet ultimately inescapable ideal. The ideal of true suffering, and the ideal of true redemption. Forgiveness is all (a message which seems to be the note on which the Dardennes wish to exit each of their glimpses into the lives of the unfortunate, the abandoned, the unloved and the desperately loving alike).

Storywise, plotwise, mise-en-scene-wise, The Kid with a Bike joins the ranks of the cinema of troubled childhood (a cinema which the francophone world has particularly excelled at). One catches references to Pialat's L'enfance nue; but also, most importantly, to Truffaut's 400 Blows, specifically in an engrossing, lengthy tracking shot of the titular boy riding at hellspeed through a feverish night on his beloved black-and-chrome bicycle. The film's structural resonance brings to mind the neorealism of Bicycle Thieves and Shoeshine; here, no longer neo- as such, but explicitly common; a realism which achieves its effects sans realisme. There are also touches of the Bressonian (the Dardennes have reached a level of editing which, I am willing to argue, finds near equivalency with the work of that immortal pastmaster) -- most notably in the elegant swells of  the beginning phrase of the adagio in Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 5, a phrase always tastefully inserted at moments of pristine clarity, in the form of elegant punctuation. Yet for all this mastery and elegance I speak of, the film is rightfully and painfully brutal, and the lead actor, Thomas Doret, undergoes a grueling apprenticeship in the cinema of physical turmoil. The film begins with the boy, named Cyril, in frightful motion and anxiety; he is always, in the picture, moving, sometimes against his own volition, as it were, in search of an anchor that can stop or wreck him -- to him it is all the same, he hazards his life in every situation, because he cannot be stopped, he cannot stop himself, from accelerating forward, endlessly forward. And the film ends, indeed, with an image of young Cyril speeding onward, yet again, though in this case, reborn, or perhaps, unshaken by his karma, rebooted into a life filled with unseemly interruptions. Cyril's redemption comes, as is spiritually useful, through a silence, through a firm and solid "No" -- yet without the least complaint at having been stopped so violently in his progress into (and out of) childhood. He endures these manifestations of violence (themselves embedded in a lower-class social sphere that typifies the real Belgium in the eyes of the Dardennes, a sphere in which characters are forcefully brought into communion with other desperate souls, and often, with the better angels of their nature) -- because there is something in Cyril's acceleration that declares itself aware of the mental fact that only he can stop himself, choose where to stay, choose where to run. His is an apprenticeship of accelerated manhood.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

"In the City of Sylvia" (2007)

Guerin's "city of women" is also an inherited city, one passed down from the nineteenth century -- it is not, in this respect, an invented city, and the film is not quite as original as it means to be. But "originality" is hardly the point: Guerin is exorcising -- or exercising -- the dominant aesthetic model that old world cities still tend to radiate, even a century after an era of prolonged, lingering high romanticism. Strasbourg, the actual and very real Strasbourg, stands in for this reconstructed City of Sylvia, an ancient medieval city, and one whose antiquity cannot be completely shed in the minor tragedies of european 21c fashion. A city of streets, if we look at Strasbourg with etymological lenses, streets which could replace any streets living and breathing in the old world now or long before, representative of a fixity of time and place, in which Baudelaire would have walked and written poems aux passantes and of which Benjamin would have collected for his arcades project. The realism of Strasbourg is swiftly converted into the surrealism of a generic highly literary european town, in which the beauty of strange women plays as the central protagonist, a supreme object of sight that is suddenly, imperceptibly, transformed into a subject of aesthetic, or rather, epistemological resistance.

What is realistic is the hesitation of the nameless poet-artist (let us imagine someone less attractive, less becoming, than this stand-in fashion model) because his hesitation has a basis in the personal experience of a great many men frustrated by catching beauty on the street or in the cafes and bars of the world: one doesn't simply follow and pursue women this way without expecting the perils of shame and castigation. Fortunately for our fashion model protagonist, his voyeurism only gets him a slap on the wrist, and hardly that: we can see that "Sylvie" is partly terrified, partly aroused, by the prospect of a handsome man pursuing her through the day-lit streets of Strasbourg. Only in a 19c literary world, one belonging to the White Nights of Dostoevsky or in the contes of Maupassant, would this story have continued in a believably literary manner, in which the characters would have submerged into an elaborate intimacy after the merest glance or word was exchanged. In a postliterary world, this is no longer the case: but Guerin is aware of this dearth in literary emotion, and he relies as much on cinematic myths as he does on literary ones. The "following" setpiece, in which the protag discovers his "Sylvie" while people-watching at a cafe and pursues her down circuitous streets and alleyways, makes obvious reference to similar setpieces in Vertigo, another fable in which a man consciously/unconsciously seeks out the form of a woman (as opposed to the actual woman herself) he remembered from years back, only to find that her form has gradually blurred into a doubling of vision, equally carnal and phantasmal, equally literary and cinematic (literary, if we consider the renewed attention Guerin gives to the sketches and outlines and poetic fragments that litter the protag's notebook, and cinematic, if we consider the light effects Guerin employs to disorient the spectator as he follows the path of Sylvie through progressively unreal avenues of pursuit). The woman may or may not correspond to the fragile, infinitely pliable memory that serves as his guide and itinerary, but the search for women past leaves a reconstructed city in its wake, a recalibration as cinematically adventurous as the dream-city setpiece on view in Inception. Guerin only has to remind us that "Sylvia" is the ghost of an idea, the flimsiest trace of an emotion lost, rather than a real person whose narrative is on the verge of being told, to get us to pursue his affections further.

Monday, August 22, 2011

"Killer of Sheep" (1977)

Neorealism is not particularly an Italian conception. We know this.

Boys who throw stones, play with dirt, make empty fortresses out of unused steel, then throw rocks at them. 

"I ain't got nothing but my good looks." Reification at its most basic level. He is broke but his brokeness
becomes his currency.

The slaughterhouse is also Watts in the 70s.

Not because of rampant criminality (though it is there but Burnett does not aggravate the obvious). 

Killing sheep. The packaging of the lamb meat never returns to the neighborhood that houses the factory.

You never, for instance, see the family eating their own product; they do not "feast on lamb."

Circulation is what is denied those who put things into circulation.

Boys who throw stones, play with dirt, make empty fortresses out of unused steel, then throw rocks at them.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

"Rise, rise, upward rise" (1989)


"Why does Bodhidharma have no beard?"

A koan given by the head abbott
to her pupil.
She restrains one thought:
"...but he has a beard!"

It is there, yes,
history (& pictures)
tell us:
wore a beard.

He was... a man,
a bearded man.
(There are no pictures of him without beard,
that I know of. His beard is quite obviously

Men, if we follow
the syllogism, wear
beards. (Or grow them?)
(Or have them?) What's
the correct way of calling it,
when a beard comes into being?
At what point does stubble change
into a beard?

[What does it mean, the Austrian would say,
to wear, or to grow, or to have a beard?]

(Wasn't he though? But a man? A man is a man is a man is a man
by virtue of his beard? Can't a woman or a dwarf have a beard?
Or a bear, or a lion, or a dragon, or a tax collector, or a chimp?
What are they, actually, the hairs of a beard? What means it
to have a beard or not to have/wear/grow a beard?
Is it the difference, if there is any, between
life and death?) Hairs keep growing
my mother told me once
even after you die.

Hair is also: the ripeness of age. Continuance
of the body, or the ripeness of the body to
generate other bodies, in friction with other
bodies. Hair.

Gautama Siddartha is the name of a man
who once lived, it does not matter when,
because he was the 1st to die.

Virile men, strong men, are said to have beards.
Women in the 1980s know this, & believe this.
Beards were in vogue, in the 1980s, and elsewhere
I'm sure.


But she is sent off into the world
to seek an answer.

Another pupil, wayward
and sensual, doesn't give a damn.

Because "an immature Buddha
is already grown inside her" she
is sent out to the world
to seek a question.

She, the wayward cloud,
hasn't reached the age for koans,
nor has she mastered the simplest injunction:

when he comes knocking at your gate
with heated hands, and despair in his eyes,
you answer him with all the noise
of your silence.*

(*Manhae: The Silence of my Love.)

Friday, June 17, 2011

"Film Socialisme" (2010)

At one point there is a young boy tracing the outlines of egyptian hieroglyphics on paper, and a novel of Naguib Mahfouz is placed nearby. (Objects relate to words like environments relate to actions.) The boy reads aloud what the hieroglyphics say. (I do not remember what he says, but it does not matter: he is in the act of translating something foreign into something native [francophone], something written into something spoken, or something image-based into something script-based.) "Egypt": one of Godard's six "humanities" -- "six sites of true or false myths" -- focal points of a constellation of underrepresented or historically oppressed areas in the world. In another scene there are two people engaged in french discourse, while a woman off-screen or in voice-over speaks in untranslated Russian: the camera seems to be placed on or near a table, and right in front of it are russian dolls. This is supposed to represent "Odessa" -- in Ukraine, but even Ukrainians speak Russian -- yet another astral point in the historical-political constellation Godard constructs throughout the film. The other locations are Barcelona, Naples, Palestine, and Hellas (which I suppose ties together both ancient and modern Greece). At another juncture, Hellas is spelt out as "Hell as"; words and phrases spoken in one of the many languages that weave in and out of the fabric of Film Socialisme are broken on purpose, even in the subtitles: when someone says a few sentences in french, they are translated in three word or two word phrases that eliminate the arbitration of grammar and syntax and give us only the noun-verb bones of the matter, "Navajo English" or something similar to anglo-saxon kenning (ex. "Goldmountain German" or "Love Hate Dialectical Thinking" or "poisonmoney gambling," etc.). Each scene too is fragmented by experimentations in audio and visual media: all of the film is in digital (of which Godard has fittingly become an unparalleled master in regard to its use and possibilities) but many pieces appear like fragments taken from different digital cameras (some retrograde, others in higher definition) creating a more textural, piecemeal, indeed jarring experience. Soundbites are mixed in with shattered clips of music, ghostly voice-overs, hiss and static, strong wind, off-screen noise.

A lot of this experimentation is appropriately Godardian, and a lot of the parts that make up Film Socialisme can be found in other films (from 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her and King Lear to the Histoire(s) du Cinema series and Notre Musique). "A symphony in three movements": an appropriate description because the experience of watching this film is very nearly the same as listening to a bootlegged underground noise mixtape interspersed with spoken word performances. An experimental music record. The 1st movement, which takes place on a cruise ship, is for me the best, most well-executed section, often physiologically stimulating: similar to the 1st movement of Notre Musique, but even denser, more complex. I cannot imagine any digital experimental film achieving the same kind of complexity and visionaryness as what Godard accomplishes here. The 2nd movement, again like in Notre Musique, is duller, less realized, fundamentally uninteresting (a part, coincidentally, that some critics like because it resembles more of a straight-forward narrative in which the digital camera stays still for once and lets people speak for themselves and shows, as Rosenbaum says, "empathy" for the characters -- but I think all this is beside the point). This 2nd movement is another form of proof for my (unpopular) belief that Godard had never truly mastered straight-ahead narrative, a deficiency that stretches as far back to Breathless (he gets bored too easily, and often he bores the audience with his boredom when he stands still and shoots things, unmediating them for once in real-time, and finding few means of mediation -- as if he were helpless outside of the cutting room floor). Yes, he is not interested in "narrative," but I mean to point out his frequent inability to find compositional resonance in any scene stripped of special effect or editorial supplementation (if you take, for example, any current director working now, Pedro Costa, Tsai Ming-Liang, Jia Zhangke, etc., all of whom work with pure blocks of unmitigated, uncut digital realism, you will see the difference between knowing how to squeeze out as much narrative and movement from jagged pieces of still-life and not knowing how to make badly-dressed people interesting). Godard has always lacked this patience for still life, and he usually made up his lack of insight into mundanity by filling his scenes with people reciting words, words, words (literary quotations, provocative statements, political harangues) or with editorial jump cuts, intercalations of other media, soundtrack interruptions. (It is astonishing to me that not many have ever noticed this directorial deficiency in Godard.)

In any case, after we have gone past the dullness and symbolic arbitration of the 2nd movement (something representative of Godard at his worst), we are returned by the 3rd movement to what makes JLG a living legend, a household name, a literary style unto himself: the representation of history and its discontents, of image and textuality, through mediological provocation. We again start entering the mind of Godard, start seeing how he sees (and indeed a very scatterbrained and compulsive way of seeing that forces you into an either/or way of thinking, into making a philosophical choice, into accepting a moral responsibility for what you see) and what he sees is "reality in reality." Reality in reality: I cannot think of a better definition of what digital video does, has done, for the cinematic arts. The digital asethetic brings shards of reality inside/into reality, it sees reality within reality, it sets up a screen that blocks us from reality (and this screen is the physical screen of the theater but also the screen of words, of languages, of incoherences, of media noise, that divides us from the real) but also it gives us a screen through which we filter reality, or we seep into it, or it divides the gold chips from the dross and the contaminated water and gives us what reality-inside-reality can give us: some kind of access, some kind of unmediated mediation. "Reality in reality," yes, but also: "Access denied." To which Godard can only respond: "No comment." Socialism is a utopia which could only have existed in the cinema, in which all images are made equal and given LibertéÉgalité and Fraternité. What is Godard's point? Freedom in cinema, the socialized image, in which all historical images are made equal and made available to everyone, could never translate into actual political freedom, into real democracy. The screen presents and protects, but it also condemns and excludes. The problem of what is politically and aesthetically representable can only be answered with wordlessness, with the anti-image. Hence, "no comment."

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

"Badlands" (1973)

"You're quite an individual, Kit."
"You think they'll take that into consideration?"

They will but they won't be able to -- the law doesn't allow them to make concessions. Because a movie is still limited to the laws of movieness and good guys get forgotten and bad guys stay remembered; and good-bad guys are the subjects of movies that are bound by laws of time and not by those of morality. That is, as movie (as opposed to being a "film") it is a piece of sculpted time usually cut down to 90 mins of fine storytelling (Badlands is 96 mins, but discounting the end credits, really, really close to the perfect 90). The perfection of Badlands has to do with how well-edited and how well-acted and how well-balanced everything in its composition really is -- and it has to do with its movie-length perfectionism, its 90 minute sphericality. The totality of it amounts to being a movie containment more so than a film escapement: one which is in league with those "instant classics" that feel as if they were made long before you ever saw them; because almost every line is memorable (because every line is spoken with the carefree deliberation of people on the run who want to make themselves remembered before they disappear into the night, into the solitude of the Montana Badlands where nothing grows) and because Martin Sheen, after all, was a nobody until he made this film, that is, until he started shooting people because he was in mad love and people and the Law (the law of movieness) started trying to catch him and make him explain why he is so likable when he was so bad. And because Sissy Spacek was a nobody too, who made TV movies before Terrence Malick picked her (maybe because she was 24 but she could pass for a 15-year-old and maybe because she was a redhead and her large light blue eyes made you think she could read your mind while living hers privately in ways that could not be foreshadowed or guessed at by any amount of divination, unless you could hear her speak in voice-over).

Terrence Malick was blessed and cursed when he made Badlands. He was blessed because his 1st film turned out to be an instant classic, it was almost too good for its own good, as handsome and wise and cool as Martin Sheen, as insightful and private and pure as Sissy Spacek. It is a film as much of the 50s as it was of the 70s, and it ran forward with the resolve of a short-distance runner who knows how to reach the end of a narrative by following along the track lines, contained within the sphericality of the narrative, the memorable lines, the handsome actors, the "mad love" or "love on the run" rationale that could speak for a generation or make sense of a confused but quite innocent time in which America meant the liberty to bear arms and buy shells at gasoline stations, drink soda pop instead of water, drive cadillacs across desert terrain, and elope with an underage girlfriend on the way toward heaven (or Montana or wherever wide open spaces were) and throw all the rest to the devil. But Malick was cursed because Badlands turned out to cut his career short, to stifle it, to make him want to never make Badlands again. From the perspective of Badlands, Malick's 2nd film, Days of Heaven, seems more of a failure or a pained lurch forward, a self-aware composition that was in search of a cinematic lexicon which could go beyond the contained sphericality of Badlands but which turned out to be more confused and hypothetical than assured and well-defined. Even though Days of Heaven still retained a 90 minute length, it was no longer spherical, no longer a movie; it was a film, an escapement, it was trying to do something different within 90 minutes. And indeed, some 20 years later, Malick made The Thin Red Line, which turned out to be 170 minutes (and probably could have gone longer), and he was definitely no longer interested in making movies, he wanted to make films, a new kind of art that people would associate with his name. It would not be until The New World when he would perfect the technique that began with Days of Heaven, and each film since then has been an escapement that mimicked Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek's escapement from the laws of movieness which, ironically, was an attempt on the part of Malick to escape the sphericality of an american classic like Badlands, a film so good and so american that it could make a director never want to repeat it again.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

"13 Assassins" (2010)

It would be entirely unwise of me to declare outright that 13 Assassins is Takashi Miike's best film. One reason is obvious: I have simply not seen all 70+ films of his. The second reason is not so obvious: I am not, nor will I ever be, a devoted fan of Miike. His work invites fanboyism and diehards (so much have I gathered) and his strange factory-style willingness to make more and more films has erased what sense of style I can perceive in him. He is, oddly, in the same league as the assembly line directors of the 40s and 50s who would churn out films by the dozen. I have so far seen only his most well-known films, Audition, Ichi the Killer, Visitor Q, Gozu. I am even a great fan of Imprint, a truly repulsive inclusion into the Masters of Horror series: a horror masterpiece and easily the best entry in a very flawed series. But nothing of Miike ever commits itself to me except a sense of unease at either the eccentric haphazardness of his style (which makes him at the same time, bizarrely, a master of genre) or at the insane productivity he manages to work with, seemingly tireless. But maybe I am secretly complimenting a very hard-to-define artist.

With all of these caveats out of the way, I can safely declare (at least) that 13 Assassins is the best film I've seen of Miike's. It takes no major stylistic risks if we were to compare it with his other well-known work, and I'm certain that a diehard would prove me wrong in considering such a conventional film as 13 Assassins as his best work (conventional, at least, in relation to how ruggedly unconventional Miike can prove to be). But 13 Assassins seems to me to show Miike at his most controlled, at his most efficient, at his most workhorse-like. He shows the acumen of a skilled and weary director who's done it all: this man can direct anything, provided you give him the time and liberty to pull it off. He has pulled off nothing less than an old school classic, one that dares to insert itself quite proudly in the worn-out samurai genre (something which has not been "reinvented" since the recent films of Yoji Yamada). Unlike Yamada's humanitarian turns, Miike sticks to what he knows: brutality, ultra-violence, human cruelty. Cartoonish cruelty, indeed, but cruelty nonetheless; the cruelty of a comic book villain. The logic is cold, simplistic, reducible to black-and-white binaries: the logic of a 12-year-old boy playing with his action figurines and constructing a highly ornate battle sequence in which the highest possible body count piles up. A bad man (in this case, a pampered young nobleman who happens to be son of the Shogun and is so ludicrously inhuman that he murders strangers on the slightest whim) is next in line to take over the Shogunate: he must be stopped at all costs, or he will break the country's longstanding peace-time with his desire to bring war for no other reason than to amuse his feckless boredom with life (or something like that). A good guy (played by Koji Yakusho, gamely evoking the weariness and sagacity of Takashi Shimura in Seven Samurai) rounds up 11 other skilled samurai warriors to rub out the heavily-protected bad guy; the 12 warriors are eventually joined by a 13th, a mysterious rustic they encounter in the forest (played by Yusuke Iseya, utterly failing -- and who can blame him? -- in his attempt to evoke Toshiro Mifune's character).

Reduced to its fundamental parts, that is the extent of the plot, and it is precisely the reason why this film works so well: it wastes no time to get to the action, of which the centerpiece is the 40+ minute final battle scene in which the 13 samurai take on an army of 130 soldiers. Part of the pleasure of the film is in discovering how the 13 manage to level their odds: where Seven Samurai quite famously developed engaging storylines by involving the village people in the operation of the makeshift battle fortress they construct with the samurai, Miike and his screenwriters, perhaps sensing their inability to recreate such a highly inimitable plot structure, choose to forgo too much exposition and dive right into the visual surprise of trick-shot battle tactics (but this is probably more due to the inherent design of Kaneo Ikegami's original screenplay). An adolescent boy's dream undoubtedly, but one whose execution puts to shame the current stock of action and superhero films that are being made with three times the budget in Hollywood now (that said, there is probably no better pure summer action film than this one out right now). What distinguishes this film from something like 300 is its commitment to an older style of filmmaking that relies less on computer effects and more on sheer numerousness of actors, intricate set design, and the kinetic force of unmolested human movement. The grotesque false action of 300 (slow motion scenes do not constitute "good" action in cinema: they are the weak and underdeveloped simulation of actual human movement) is replaced by the equally grotesque but brutally descriptive action of people moving, thrusting, slicing, running, jumping, crouching, hitting, sparring, and blocking in something that is not real-time but which tries its hardest to approximate. The editing and shot selection as well as the action choreography combine to produce an intense and constant display of kinetic art that can (apparently) only be achieved after making at least 70 films.

Though 13 Assassins is a remake of a 1963 film of the same name (which was itself yet another exercise in jidai-geki themes that were in circulation during the period), the ostensible model continues to be Seven SamuraiSeven Samurai, among the ten greatest films that have consistently affected me throughout my life, is in every respect an unsurpassable film -- simply recalling its passages, its flights of tenderness, its range of human emotion and heroism, is enough to bring me to tears. For me, Kurosawa's work stands as the Illiad of cinema. That said, it is incumbent on me to applaud Miike's ability to have made a classic film which never attempts to repeat the unrepeatable. His film stands separately, in homage to its obvious paternity, and its deference is shown, remarkably, in the outbursts of ultra-violence that so distinctly mark a Miike film. Miike, a born iconoclast, stays true to himself, and it is this attitude which paradoxically shows itself to be the deepest reverence for the rich heritage that precedes him. Whether the success of 13 Assassins is repeated in yet another Miike-helmed remake of an inimitable film, Kobayashi's Harakiri (both are derived from the novel by Yasuhiko Takiguchi) is but another story.

Friday, June 10, 2011

"Twentynine Palms" (2003)

Bruno Dumont's "american film," one in which a certain strain of vulgar, savage Americanism is represented (not altogether incorrectly) by the wasteland through which two accidental lovers decide to trek across on a whim. It is the part of America I know quite well, the region known to a few as David Lynch's Inland Empire (a very real place) and to the rest of the world as San Bernardino County -- the region I grew up in. In Dumont's eyes, America is perfectly encapsulated in the grotesqueries of the California desert lifestyle, in which civilization seems to be represented by a chain of cheap motels and Dairy Queens, apoplectic pickup truck drivers who scream "This is my street!" when someone jaywalks in front of them, or the lurid glare of a solitary car lurching through early morning darkness in search of street walkers. America is the glibly titled "Desert Ranch Market," it is Route 66, yellow Hummers, massive windmill generators, mute off-duty U.S. Marines licking ice cream cones in weird contemplation. America is "emptiness." It is quotation marks. Dumont, aware of all this hyperbole and sarcasm, uses a variety of tongue-in-cheek citations to lull us into passivity. The sex helps of course and the couple (the male lead played by a slightly disagreeable actor by the name of David Wissak and the female lead played by Sharunas Bartas' muse Yekaterina Golubeva) come across as sufficiently odd-matched as to make their sex creditably necessary and desperate. "J'ai envie de toi" is a very real emotion for people who have very little in common. Sex on the brain, but also: animalism. Eventually, the death-drive. In a Hummer of course, driving toward nowhere, toward oblivion. 29 Palms -- whose name resembles nothing of its character, indeed whose name seems to evoke all the absurdity of Beckett-like emptiness -- is the site of oblivion.

For all of this unfortunately spot-on symbolism (unfortunate because people in the Inland Empire actually enjoy driving Hummers and raging, lifted Ford pickup trucks) and in spite of Dumont's quite excellent stagecraft (his pacing is quite superb to be honest), I have to agree with some of his critics and dissenters: Dumont's intentions are very much disingenuous -- we learn only at the end that the careful setup of intimacy shared by the two lovers was used as a ruse for a classic carpet-pulled-from-under-your-feet parlor trick. But without giving anything away, it is really so much worse than that, so much more vile: the film seems to exist only for its ending, flattening out the potential for any emotions other than fear and desire. In a word, 29 Palms is structurally (and literally) abusive: and Dumont congratulates himself on it (there is a quote somewhere in which he declares that film can be reduced to these two emotions: fear and desire, death and sex.) Reduced to these two polarities -- death and sex, fear and desire -- 29 Palms is effective, undeniably haunting, and it leaves a brand on the brain. It sets out to perform a ruthless act, and it pulls it off with stark determination.

Yet for all this type of abuse, there also results a quite vivid lack in clarity. 29 Palms makes its point, but fails to surpass the stringent circumference of its shock-value. A nihilist, after all, is nothing but a nihilist. An inexplicable act occurs... and then what? Is this philosophy at work? Is this mysticism? (One character says quite bluntly: "But there is nothing to understand.") Certainly not a metaphysics of time; rather, a very conservative materialism masquerading as "being and nothingness." The point is: the dog eats the dog. Meat wants meat. The aesthetic problem lies not with the inexplicable demon-ex-machina ending, but with the total collapse of sensitivity that was built up so carefully in the earlier passages. Yes, we get it: one man's pleasure is another man's rape (notice the similarity with which sexual joy [which to Dumont is nearly always a disguised sadism] etches its grimace of pain across the lover's and the tormentor's face equally). Humans are beasts after all. The sex and violence binary all over again. Eros versus Thanatos, but in Dumont's world, Eros = Thanatos. Hence the odd animalistic orgasms of the two lovers, the spontaneous spurts of violence shared between them, the recriminations, the strangling and slapping. Eventually, the boredom, only to be countered by another miraculous surge of lust, the words that rise to their mouths like a prayer: "J'ai envie de toi."

I read somewhere that 29 Palms should be considered Dumont's horror film, but I find the genre specificity of  the horror film insufficient to account for how much emphasis he places on the development of the lovers' relationship, something which is, I think, the only (almost) authentic feature of the film. They are believable to me, and their emptiness, reflected by the diurnal motions of the lust that drives them forward, endlessly forward, is very real: there are indeed people like this, attractive sexually-motivated people like this, in "real life." I see a perverse Antonioni at work here, a bit of Pasolini as well, unfortunately lacking any of those directors' gifts for actual catharsis. Ironically, Dumont's films are nearly always parodies or simulacra of catharsis: catharsis for dummies, catharsis with a baseball bat. If one were to accept the claim that 29 Palms is Dumont's horror film, then it would be akin to declaring that practically any of Dumont's films are variations of the horror-in-disguise. Dumont's nihilism is fundamentally horror-driven, a philosophical horror at what he conceives to be the impossibility of actual human goodness (or he implies this, since not much else can be gleaned from a lot of heavy-handed gestures). Perhaps all horror films derive from this principle, but the horror film enjoys a certain friction with genre constraints that make it either revelatory or asinine: with 29 Palms the constraints are nowhere to be found, the desert is everywhere, the limitations are only what can be drawn from weeds and rocks and gasoline stations. The boundlessness of 29 Palms prevents it from being a proper horror film -- and Dumont, moreover, is not very interested in such restraints. I would aver that Dumont's style could possibly improve if he ever developed a taste for genre, for the straight-ahead horror film -- but he is a style unto himself, he is Dumont, and that trademark carries enough cultural capital on its own to keep him in the shock-and-awe business for a long time coming.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

"The New World" (2005)

Let us say that the permanent american idiom is the lyrical, the ecstatic. The object of devotion of this lyrical medium is geography, nature-love, the Whitmanesque; Walden, Emerson, the transcendental, etc. Malick's The New World takes its object of devotion to be Pocahontas (who goes so long unnamed throughout the film; because she requires no name -- she is earth, wind, fire, water, and so forth -- she speaks of rivers). Love of America, so the camera tells us in sweeping gestures of montage and panorama, is the love of Pocahontas. A pure, a divine love. She was but a girl; and Captain John Smith was "a god to me." First love; love at first sight -- more enduring than "the riches of the Indies" (one could philosophize here and use rhetorical gestures and extend the similes). For instance, when they first meet:

There is the buildup of a devotional instrumentation that consistently returns to the gaze, her gaze. We are nearly always looking at her looking at others, at her lovers, at "Mother Nature"; we are watching her in the act and emotionality of love. Her lifespan feeds and absorbs the lifespan of the film. If she is in love, she compels others to love her. (And the camera certainly loves her.) We are compelled to watch her gaze and study her smile, her eyes, her hands: 

But romance almost always ends, even if nature -- cradle of romance -- does not. Pastorals terminate in marriages, but the newlyweds nearly always take off their rustic dress and return to England, to courts and well-trimmed gardens, to the "artificial and civilized." With Hart Crane we'll recall that the time of harvest would be the time of death, sparagmos, her youth taken away with the bleeding of the pomegranate, the turning of the seasons: 
She ran the neighing canyons all the spring;
She sprouted arms; she rose with maize -- to die.
We know that she will marry another man (who turns out, per the film, to be Christian Bale/John Rolfe, "a good man"). We know also that she'll visit England at the request of the king and queen. She goes there to effect the marriage of Old World with New World; she goes there, risen with the maize, to die. She is buried there, and we can assume that with the final shot, she has merged with Nature (the "mother" she constantly refers to, with whom she shares her inmost thoughts, in voice-over). She becomes the "Tree of Life." She has, moreover, given birth to a child who has old and new blood in him; she leaves behind a family, a union of disparate parts, a heritage for a new race of poets to build upon. 
There was a bed of leaves, and broken play
There was a veil upon you, Pocahontas, bride -- 
But the New World does not disappear with the fading of romance; it begins again in the formation of different, mature loves. Love of the family may very well be a righteous substitute for the love of the earth, the secret of the grain, children, genealogy. If her core was hidden in the gaze that dwelt on the gaze of others, she flashes back a smile that reflects your gaze on her, and
Then you see her truly -- your blood remembering its first invasion of her secrecy, its first encounters with her kind, her chieftain lover... his shade that haunts the lakes and hills.

Monday, June 6, 2011

"Days of Heaven" (1978)

"She was a friend of mine." Final statement of which the importance lends itself to no purpose or resolution. A film which is, bizarrely, always in mid-sentence or at the end of something said, half-whispered, half-heard. A lot of dialog muffled by atmosphere or simply unheard. Days of Heaven begins with an easy enough dichotomy: big city (poverty, pollution, smog, industry, etc.) versus big sky (the Texas Panhandle region, harvesting, blue skies, gigantic clouds, roaming buffalo, etc.) Chicago versus Amarillo. One cluttered form of impersonality (of turn-of-the-century factories, of suffocation, of murder muffled by industrial noise) contra a naturalistic open-ended kind of impersonality (of wild fires, untrammeled beasts, locusts, nameless races of people, migration). And some of it connected through voice-over, in this case, the voice-over recollections -- almost always nugatory in relation to the plot structure -- of a young adolescent girl, Linda, whose Chicago-speak merely adds another flimsy layer of ethnography to Malick's historiographical project. 

The editing of the film seems haphazard, too rapid for ingestion. Something is always left unsaid or half-heard. Constantly in medias res. With the exception of the locust and wild fire setpiece and the action-directed finale, very few scenes are ever satisfyingly developed. Malick's meditative reflections on history and geography are often reduced to picturesque clips and soundbites that are hurriedly piled one on top of another with the same speed that the seasonal workers collect and toss the wheat bundles from the tractor. He is in some kind of a hurry, perhaps from an excess of harvested images. Nestor Almendros' cinematography largely makes up for the alacrity with which the film zooms along; if our empathy for the characters is nullified by the velocity and fragmentariness of the editing, Almendros' lens-work (which before Days of Heaven had been mainly employed by french metteurs-en-scene, Truffaut, Rohmer, etc.) produces what stray moments of thought the film has to offer. The film is meant to be looked at, and its surface is intended to stand in for actual soil, actual grain. It is not Dovzhenko -- it lacks a socialist fervor, in some cases a spiritual fervor -- but it is about as close as a decent-sized american production from the 70s can get.

Malick has never been one for "ideas" per se -- for instance, as someone like Kubrick had always been -- but his films work in tandem with constructed and sometimes self-conscious americanisms that have recurred in a variety of north american filmographies. I will say this again, later: Malick's oeuvre is almost exclusively concerned with geography, american geography, and his image-ideas serve as historiographies of an american-oriented epistemology. An american epistemology is necessarily a geographical one: the endless search for the "New World," whatever it was, if it was anything at all. Days of Heaven is not about anything in particular (if it were really concerned for its "story" then it would have taken greater care to develop its largely undeveloped scenes, but Malick insists on zipping along, seemingly interested in immersing us in a staccato rhythm of natural history scenes and american dreamscape). On the one hand, the title alludes to the paradisiacal days spent by the three Chicago-bred characters in big sky country, a surrogate heaven and an escape from big city clutter, only to eventually suffer a second-hand Paradise Lost of sorts; on the other hand, Days of Heaven works as historical travelogue, and Malick seems to be more concerned with historicity and historical character, with geographical study, than he does with the semi-western scenario that drives the characters along (literally, semi-western, since we are in northeastern Texas, close to the heart-land of the country, and the camera takes a few John Ford glances on a bevy of nostalgic landscapes). It is with this reason that we overhear Linda say to herself (again, in Chicago-accented voice-over): "I sometimes wonder what it'd be like to be a mud doctor [a geologist]." A confession, perhaps, of one of Malick's fondest daydreams. 

Monday, May 30, 2011

"Pulse" (2001)

An inverse zombie film in which the decomposing body no longer haunts but simply disappears or is replaced by the occlusion of the face (which disguises itself or makes itself known through a gradual intensity). Fear of the face comes to symbolize the rampant omission of the reproductive urge. I cannot help but read the film as a critique of a social epidemic in which technological connectivity paradoxically induces a viral depression: the need for connection translates to the fear of desire. The absence of bonafide friendship is equally an absence of romance. Romance of the body (desired) and also the romance of sunlight, of friendship, of life-making and life-giving urges, versus Zombies, Death, Loneliness. The rampant cultism of computer life (the bachelor/ette set who live alone and communicate with the world through computers and computer screens) brings to existence a hauntology of the screen. A kind of carnal impotence. Ghosts of Hiroshima. Ghosts of the video game arcade. Ghosts of the computer screen. "Ghost in the machine." It is to say: when one loses sight of the body -- the joys of the body, even the pains of the body, the body-in-immanence which increates and breathes and revels in the world -- the notion of life, the will to live, is suddenly refuted or obliterated by the sight of death. (And the sight of death, the ghost's terrible obscured face, is the source of fear in this film, brilliantly analyzed and so much more than its mere genre-specific concerns.) A theology which works in black-and-white and which seems to reduce the life impulse to either a willful ignorance (such as in the character of Kawashima) or to an endurance that persists in traveling, in keeping movement, in refusing to stay indoors (where shadows, and screens, and ghosts inhabit in a phenomenological reduction of the world that induces depression, loneliness, suicide, etc.). It is a major philosophical component of the Japanese ghost film that Eros should stay resolutely shut out, aborted, completely excised out of the body; this is because the absence of desire creates a different kind of ghost, the ghost of regret, of envy, of loneliness.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

"À nos amours" (1983)

À nos amours starts out innocuously enough, with a resplendent, sixteen-year-old Sandrine Bonnaire memorizing and reciting the lines of a play about love. (I forget its title, and the lines.) She is in a play and she causes everyone to look upon her -- when she acts, when she is not acting, but we are never sure when she is in one state or in another, she is too willfully transparent -- with admiration and desire. On a yacht, shortly after running through another trial performance of the play, Suzanne (that is her name) captures the eyes of everyone: she is a girl who has grown used to everyone loving her, wanting her. Her brother declares, "Look at her. My sister. She is beautiful." Full of a blithe spirit that infuses each scene with warmth and dimples, she makes everyone love her, and never against their will. Her youth is her salvation, but also her damnation. When Pialat (who plays the father, excellent) holds a late night intimate chat with his daughter, he brings our attention to her dimples -- aware of our love for her youth and energy, she smiles for us, and the father asks where the other dimple has gone: she is getting older, or her happiness is on the verge of being broken. She has lost a dimple like a child loses a tooth. He tells her that he is tired, he's "had enough." (There comes a time when a man or a woman has had enough, when parents have given too much of themselves.) His daughter's blooming careless youth only reminds him of his oldness, his fatigue, his anachronism, of the despair that such sacrifices bring. The next day he is gone. What a time to grow into womanhood: the sudden abandonment of the family by the father. Her brother takes over, a task too much for him; the mother, formerly patient and serene (who had been so secure in her love of her domineering husband, in the habitual comforts of domestic life), becomes mad, embittered. When formerly the mother had looked upon her daughter's late night truancies with a mixture of indulgence and censure, now she sees them as affronts on her own destitution: the daughter continues to enjoy the love of men, but the mother cannot bear her enforced frigidity.

Pialat cannot avoid Freudianisms. The brother, perhaps effete, is in love with his sister; unhealthily, it is insinuated. The mother's madness (and her feelings of resentment at her daughter, who is loved and wanted in place of her) magnetizes her son, whose own sense of betrayal and jealousy at the thought of his sister's sex life makes him cling to his mother. The brother, in spite of his nearly erotic love for her, beats his sister (to placate his mother): or maybe, because of this forbidden eroticization, he attempts to punish her -- as it were, punishing his own attachment to her. In any case, he is in over his head: he does not not know how to be "the man of the house." The gap the father leaves behind creates an intolerable black hole: it must be filled with a substitute, a marriage of some kind, a new union of parts. What was formerly a young girl's whims and experimentation with sex, becomes an alternative, a necessary lifestyle: she is despised at home, so she seeks consolation in the arms of lovers. She increases her nights out, increases the range and amount of her lovers. Each one is a forgetfulness, a joyous but impermanent passing of time. She is, however, inwardly disturbed by the prospect of loving another boy without the initiatory intoxication of lust: lust is easy, understandable, but Love is something else: disturbing, oppressive, irrational, beyond mere lust. The boy is beautiful, his eyes are a poet's, a brooding type: exactly the kind of boy a thoughtful girl would love, even against her erotic liking. When the father returns, unannounced, at a dinner party celebrating the new union of parts, the recent marriage which has partly mended the rift he left behind, he tears the fabric again: maybe his new life has failed him (he has failed himself) and he returns only to find that they have seemingly got on without him (yet, the mere presence of him weighs on us, on them: he has been missed, terribly, but he does not know it). This is the climax of the film -- what follows after stayed with me for some time.    

The force of this film sneaks up on you. I mentioned that it started out innocuously, to point out that it ends devastatingly. Perhaps this is what makes Pialat a master: his ability to develop characterization through a gradual increase of tension. We are always witnessing a graphic reality in which nothing particularly graphic occurs: emotions boil over, and often burst, but "life goes on." The stark madness of the mother subsides eventually,  and even after the most damning vituperations hurled at each other, the daughter, the son, and the mother return to a semblance of their calmer selves and latch on to the slightest remnant of composure: they go on because they have to go on. Something as terrible as a death in the family: the rupture of a household in which people leave fragments that never heal but wound again and again.

Pialat introduced the world to Bonnaire (who has strikingly become more beautiful with age) and it is Bonnaire who is the focus of the film: a worldly young girl in love with love-making, in love with love. When this sunny world is shattered for her, she has to recreate it, she has to find its linkage in the world that leads outside her broken home. This is Pialat's 6th film, but it is my first: a masterpiece.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

"Meek's Cutoff" (2010)

Kelly Reichardt should continue to make films with a seven-figure budget. Why? Her pacing (she edits her own films), her sense of composition, her shot selection, her sense of place. She is a mature filmmaker who has consistently disavowed the bullshit quirkiness of the american "indie" scene -- and her ability to construct atmosphere recalls those other two great americans: Terrence Malick and P.T. Anderson, both of whom she has clearly studied. Yet she has succeeded in following their example without losing her own voice in imitatio. Meek's Cutoff can be viewed alongside Days of Heaven and There Will Be Blood. In this respect, the achievement of Meek's Cutoff could be reduced to a single dictum: westerns can still be made if one pays closer attention to sound and to place, as opposed to story and to character. (But maybe the films of John Ford already mean this to people -- but I confess that I have never been a devoted fan of westerns.) I do not mean that the latter two elements should be totally sacrificed, only that their traditional roles in the western genre can be effectively reduced, while augmenting the existential nature of a scenario that discovers itself precisely when it is most lost in the dilemmas of the present-tense. Meek's Cutoff is a film about the present, which makes no effort at romanticizing or mythologizing the pastness of the past, and for this reason it avoids the retro feel of post-modern westerns (even a recent western as good as The Proposition seems to hold a bit too firmly to its nostalgic, past-loving guns), and instead gives us the sense of living out a brief and wondrous life in an otherworldly, cruel, and thoroughly up-to-date universe.

Yet strangely, this post-genre ruse can prove dangerous, as can be seen in the ending of the film, which leaves much (too much!) to be desired -- which is to say that though Reichardt is not yet a master filmmaker, she is certainly on her passage there (curiously all of her films, this one most especially, work as passages in time that structure a rigorous ordering of being lost in the unknown, on the way toward a kind of hermetic enlightenment that is never fully reached) -- and if the ending falls a little flat for being too premature, the intentionality which is posed at the end evinces, at least, the potential for an even better, a far greater film, one in which the ending comes a half-hour later than it does, after something of a shocking denouement that was developed with piercing deliberation, and leaves the audience gawking in disbelief -- but alas, we must wait for Reichardt's next film to glimpse this possibility.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

"Once Upon a Time in America" (1984)

We know the film is made in 1984 because the violence, even for Leone, is uncommonly strong. I was mildly shocked at the numerous reasons given by the MPAA for the R rating: brutal violence (of course), full frontal nudity, scenes of rape, strong language. Yet watching the film there is something highly disorienting about the saccharine, almost Disney-like treatment Leone makes of the film's myth-making: the music by Ennio Morricone, ultra-italianate and achingly sentimentalized, drapes itself over a consciously mythologized New York City (standing in for the whole of "America" as seen through the eyes of an Italian director) and one, moreover, devoted to the Jewish hallmarks of its historical erection. Take a family film by Spielberg and add in Italian elements of grotesque sex and violence, and you have a bizarre dish approximating to what Once Upon a Time in America tastes like. Despite the self-conscious refrain-making that (for me anyway) diminishes the resonance the film purports to build up with tireless humor (there are scenes, for example, in which characters repeat catchphrases that echo previous encounters in which a supposedly 'memorable' encounter originally took place -- such as when young Deborah [played by an angelic fourteen-year-old Jennifer Connelly] tells young "Noodles" to go run off, "your mother's calling you," and she says the same thing more than a decade later (in movie-time), right after an older Noodles [played now by De Niro] meets her again, upon being released from a long-term prison sentence, as if they had not missed a beat in the chinese box continuum of an imaginary New York city that seems to continuously refer to itself as its most admiring viewer), indeed despite all this belabored posturing and box-within-box remembrances, Leone manages to craft something of a final testament to the cinematic style which made him famous, using a multitude of clever camera touches and deft orchestrations that could only have been accomplished by a master who has grown old enough to let himself go, even at the cost of audacity. (It is clear, on this point, that the film was financed and produced under the influence of the 70s masterworks of Coppola and Scorsese -- and perhaps may have been instigated by those directors and their backers, all of whom were raised on the films of Leone -- and several actors, scenes, and dialogic encounters were swiped, borrowed, or lent to Leone as gifts, as a kind of collective tribute, to the Italian master's legacy and precursory rank.)

Witness, for instance, during the operatic opening sequence, how Leone layers a non-diegetic audio clip of an incessant telephone ring through a succession of scenes that always threaten to terminate in the answering of the phone, even at times when no telephone appears on screen, but is constantly delayed until De Niro 'wakes up' from a opium dream, just in time to evade detection from men sent to kill him -- a moment which happens when the telephone, all this time patiently shrieking with determination, is finally and fatefully answered. And indeed the film works as an incessant opium dream (as the ending seems to invite speculation on) and we can become content with the plausibility of a man (De Niro) who for the span of four hours indulges in recreating the past-present-future of an enclosed movie world within the privacy of a chinese shadow puppet theater, in which the shades of his dead friends and former lovers return from the past to haunt his waking life.

The film is a self-conscious recreation, a ceaseless anticipation, of scenes which are meant to be played back later like cues for sudden reveries or remembrances. The graphic rape scene that sits like a black hole in the middle of the film is, even more shockingly, preceded by a tender-is-the-night romanticism in which Noodles and Deborah fawn on each other over an extravagant Gatsby-era dinner (and we see here that De Niro could have been the better Gatsby, the uneducated man-of-color who compensated through charisma and sheer money-splendour). Noodles tells Deborah that he remembered two things during the long years he spent in prison: the echo of his boyhood friend Dominic whispering "I slipped" just before he died from a bullet wound, and the recollection of when Deborah read the Song of Songs to him when they were young and in love. Both are pivotal scenes that themselves seemed to anticipate, seemed to press upon us, the memorability of their own execution, as if they were already established in the permanent nostalgia not only of the real world but of the world in which the characters live, as if they were living out the lives of people who had lived before them in a mythical time, in a mythical New York. Noodles asks Deborah, "Do you remember?" expecting her to remember, to acquiesce, to give him her love; she loves him, but she chooses "Hollywood" instead, ironically, because she is already in Hollywood, making a big-budget Sergio Leone film, in which Noodles pleads with her to remember her lines, the very lines (the Song of Songs, the time she told him to run off, "your mother's calling you," etc.) that made him fall in love with her like a boy at the movies falling in love with her talking image (remember, for example, how he first sees her through the peephole, like a boy watching a film at the Cinema Paradiso through the projector hole). When he sees that she refuses his phantasy -- his celluloid opium dream -- he proceeds to rape her. The rape scene is shocking because it is so unexpected; and a lot could be said about Leone's critique of the homosocial ethos and misogyny of the four gangmembers (notably the homosocial relationship between De Niro and James Woods) which seems to make the rape happen by implication, thru atmospheric pressure -- but in any case the scene is disturbing, as Leone intended, because it is put into effect by what is obviously a staged car in which the windows are nothing more than screens of moving pictures of outside traffic, in simulation of an actual car (in which Noodles and Deborah are seated, in the back), and the driver (who oddly only becomes "conscientious" after the rape is over) at first seems to be part of the machine (a head, of which we see only the back, and a pair of hands on the steering wheel) that enables this moment of brutality to occur; and Morricone's score haunts the echo chamber, here and elsewhere, in tones of confusion, exorcism, and sappyness/corniness, which only makes the sex and violence of the film loom so bizarrely on the horizon of a recent history of 70s films devoted precisely to those values.

Friday, May 13, 2011

"Iron Island" (2005)

The alacrity with which life as usual proceeds, from the mundane to the marine and extra-terrestrial, hits us only after the-boy-who-loves-a-girl lights the candle that lightens the darkness with which the film begins. The film ends with another boy ("Little Fish") who runs toward the sun, the evening, on its way out. We never see the village where Captain Nesmat takes the villagers at the end of the film -- because what's important is not that the villagers live on a ship (an "iron island") or whether they live on land, in a town, in a city, wherever; what's really important is that they are together, and that they stay together, wherever they go. The film, as it were, trains us to get used to the rhythms in which the village functions and keeps together: the laws and customs and the repercussions of breaking these laws and customs, as we find out during the climax, when the-boy-who-loves-a-girl attempts to leave the village (a sin of sorts that threatens to rend the fabric of their special conjunct), attempts, in fact, to place an individual (the girl he loves) above the village. We learn, in a way, that the village is what makes the island, not the ship, not the iron that went into the ship, not the fact that they are living in peculiar circumstances. They are a tribe and a tribe stays together: the velocity with which they live is the fullest expression of their contentment, and the unbridled energy of Captain Nesmat, who lifts and anchors the film and the people and the setting, is representative of the village as a whole. Iron Island is as much documentary as it is fiction in its study of these socio-economic velocities that are only peripherally disturbed by the private emotions of young people in love. (An allegory about filmmaking as it is about Iran in a certain place and time?)