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?)

Thursday, May 5, 2011

"Poetry" (2010)

By one account, poetry equates to justice: "poetic justice" after all. And as a corean director, Lee Chang-dong conceives it that way. Why "as a corean director"? Let's look at the evidence. It is probable that the director happened to watch Bong Joon-ho's Mother, and he was intrigued by the affect. A tragedy involving the suicide of a 16-year-old girl, its persimmon core masked by layers of doubt and uncertainty. (Interestingly, Lee Chang-dong must have also watched any of the numerous kidnap & vengeance films made in recent years by his compatriots -- most notably by Park Chan-wook -- and made in turn his own take on the genre, Secret Sunshine -- only this time eliding or skewing the vengeance-served-cold part and giving us instead an inversion: the portrait of a greek heroine maddened by grief too weighty, too monstrous to overcome any facile bloodlust.)

How does one understand the inner cosmos of a 16-year-old girl, one moreover who suffers the fate of the condemned and terminally neglected? Mother gave us only a glimpse; Lee Chang-dong betters that film and gives us an elegy -- one focused as much on the disappearance of the mother/grandmother as it is focused on the reappearance of the victimized girl. But this only occurs at the end, bringing the film to a full circle, back at the point from where it began: the image of a dead body -- the girl's body, dressed in her school uniform -- floating down the river, face-down, and as it comes slowly toward the camera and is momentarily stopped by the river bank, the film's title, elegantly typed in hangeul -- /Poetry -- fades in as the image of Ophelia fades out. Why does Lee Chang-dong make this decision, raising the sight of a floating corpse to the value of poetry? (One answer, for example, can be found in the cinematic majesty of Rimbaud's Le dormeur du val, in which we discover the deadness of a young soldier asleep in the valley only after we have perceived the angelic nature of his repose.) Another answer formulates the central message of the film: poetry is the opportunity to make things right. To rectify wrongs. To re-balance the moral disturbances wrought by human injustice on the natural order, the true order of death and life in their natural cadence. The girl's body -- faceless at first, and only gradually revealed to us through pictures, and finally brought to vivid life through a reminiscence of her lived experience in her final hours, as Mija's voice, as she recites her elegy, begins to melt into and finally become the lost, unheard voice of the unfortunate suicide in her own body -- is resurrected through poetry; she is brought back to life in the empathy that poetry channels into the world, an empathy that sounds depths and uncovers lost traces.

While implicitly we are given a critique of the homosocial order that attempts to get rid of scandals -- if only to maintain, as it were, the status quo of "letting boys be boys" and getting on with it -- explicitly Lee Chang-dong brings our attention to the constant pressure and bereavement that men subject Mija to (not just her grandson, but also the fathers of her grandson's friends, who all seem to fulfill a vicious circle of Old Boy sexual politics, where fathers protect the boys who will grow up to be their fathers, an endless socializing process). Mija's decision to turn her own grandson in to the police (so very unlike the resolution of Bong Joon-ho's more cynical Mother!) allows her to compose her elegy to the girl suicide -- so that her sacrifice of her grandson comes to coincide with the liberating act of composing a poem: two acts of justice that restore natural order (i.e. the apparition of beauty) to a landscape torn by an Ophelia-in-flowers and a litany of unanswered grievances left in her wake. The balance which is attained by the stream of reflective images that engulf us (indeed reduces us to tears) at the end is something which can be glibly described as "Confucian" -- because its timely measurement, its sense of adequation, its incredible ability to reach equilibrium through tangential but harmonious reasoning, reminds me of several Confucian tenets... "Justice above all..."

Finally, poetry -- as philosophy more so than art -- comes to represent the power which  memory and recollection have upon our griefs and losses: the lost memory of the girl who had drowned herself comes back to haunt us in the final minutes -- because her voice has by then emerged as poem. If we are to examine the onset of Mija's alzheimer's condition -- an important focus of the film's plot -- the value of poetry as collective memory, as empathy achieved through recollection, strikes us as the proper chord in a song as much about forgetting the past as it is about remembering the neglected and unremembered victims of time.