Thursday, April 21, 2011

"Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives" (2010)

Of past lives the future remains the medium.
Television for instance.

One watches the Tube
& is transported to the future-perfect
of the void.
Which is to say, one
(will have)
watched oneself --
watching the tube --
being transported by the tube.

A monk in this life, a secularist
in the next.
Faced with the plurality
of worlds, we must admit these two
are one and the same Being.

(We film and photograph
what we expect to return to us.
Yes, including the prodigal son,
the rituals, the customs, the hot
shower when he recalls the body
to mind, and bathes it.)  

Thai pop songs are the vernacular
for the coextensivity of all media,
including transmigration.

A righteous way to "go out"
at the expense of "taste."
What is taste?
The christmas electric lights
that grace Uncle Boonmee's tomb.

The authenticity of thai life
requires no intersubjective understanding --
only participation.
The skin of this film presses against the screen,
at you. Fluids. "Screenness."

For example, when the catfish
performs cunnilingus
on the ape-mouthed princess.
The fluids, the pearls.
Thrusts and fins and scales
and the pressure of water
on the inside of closed-eye
thoughts. Ecstatic folk-love.

The "beautiful," a wise creature asks,
what does it amount to,
when you could be a monkey,
or a fish,
or a man,
and yet love?
We are all creatures, aren't we?

The createdness of things.
Screenness, perhaps:
We all look thru screens
not at them, sans regard
for the frame, the skin
of the screen
that breathes for us
like the lungs the heart
the senseless organ.


To be conscious, for once,
of "consciousness" (whatever
that means). But of screen-
ness, that is a step forward,
at least. Into the womb.
Where a galaxy nestles
in a silver untapped vein.

The flesh which is divided
by space in 10 directions,
undergoes Ovidian fixations.
Desire in the key of life --
on which hands form,
on which hands play melodies.

When a man dies, he should be
led by the ghost of an ex-lover
back into the cave.
If he is to find his birth again.
If he is to desire again.

Ultimately what is the pastness
of the past? A photobook
in which the nostalgia for things
glows in the dark, red-eyed.
An eros of situations,
a lush sleep.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

"Crimson Gold" (2003)

A common narrative trick: start from the end (a botched robbery, a murder, a suicide) and then ask the question, "How did we arrive here?" We arrive here by asking questions, questions which are answered by social schemes so large, so disjointed, so obviously impractical and unfair, that no answers are committed to the public record: one rides through the city streets like a taxi driver, or a pizza delivery man, aghast at the senseless disorder that lies concealed beneath the orderly surface of a buzzing metropolis. One only watches, from afar, or even, from within the 9th circle of political malfeasance, in the belly of the elite class as it overlooks the city of Tehran from a high rise apartment building. (The idea of a pizza delivery man being invited to eat dinner with a particularly oblivious, particularly wealthy young student-type is what makes Crimson Gold a movie-movie.) A common binary is erected: the disaffected wealthy (who are occasionally harassed for failing to abide by Islamic codes of decency), and the ill-affected not-wealthy (who are only harassed when they commit crimes, when they are not being categorically ignored and neglected by the society that raises them -- just as it would be in any other country in the world). For the principal characters in the film are not strictly poor or unemployed or homeless, they are rather discontented, in the way of social, perhaps even a faintly marxist, discontentment. But Crimson Gold is really the case study of a single man, an isolated citizen of discontentment -- Hussein -- who against his own profound sense of dignity -- a dignity as evidentially large as he appears in relation to everyone who stands next to him -- commits a crime against a system of neglect, for those who are honest and lowly, the worst form of criminal injustice.

Despite Panahi's terrific sense for composition (which is really this film's chief excellence, its narrative structure) there is something partly glib in juxtaposing Hussein's rat-infested, tattered shanty of a home with the rich young man's luxury apartment into which he is invited and over which he swoons in some kind of sensory overload, astonished to find that upper class Iranians are capable of living in such absurd grandeur. There is also something crafty, or perhaps culturally ingrown, in the cause-and-effect order Panahi gives to Hussein's momentary drinking binge and the consequent scene transition into the setting for the crime he commits, as if somehow acknowledging that, yes, intoxicating oneself on alcohol in an Islamic society may inevitably lead to crime. Or perhaps this sequencing only plays into a false logic that is meant to fool the censors? Perhaps the intoxication -- meaning, Hussein's symbolic intoxication at seeing so much luxury compounded in a single apartment, and his chemical intoxication by the wine he guzzles with a teenager's zest while he bathes (literally) in the apartment's grandiosity -- was merely a kind of bait for the ethics committee, a social verdict that would please anyone who would find partying, dancing, and drinking into the wee hours offensive? Yet no one, we learn, is guilty: and the scene in which Hussein is forced to wait out his pizza deliveries while the ethics police take innocent bystanders hostage in an effort to apprehend the guests of a dance party, reveals the most important aspect of Hussein's character: he is generous, and he is willing to give rather than take. The tragedy, of course, lies in the reversal of what makes Hussein honest: sickened by the inability to retain any sense of satisfaction in his own life, he decides ultimately to take, by force, symbolic revenge on the social order that subjects him to a constant and intolerable bystandership.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

"Lola Montes" (1955)

Ophuls' only color film, and his last. How appropriate. By no means is it Ophuls' masterpiece (as some may believe), yet it is perhaps the one film which summarizes Ophuls' oeuvre like no other. Not because it is his last but because it is his most achingly nostalgic (and maybe this resulted from the secret knowledge that it would be his last). A film about the past through the eyes of spectacle. In Technicolor of course. Thesis: Past is always Spectacle, and its heroine remains mute with the loves that she experienced, which speak for her. She is the object of desire, made obscure by over-exposure. Paradox. Even when she appears, quite early in the film, after a complex circus mise-en-scene (directed by Peter Ustinov's character, who stands in for Ophuls), she appears like only an incidental feature, an ornamentation, of a larger scheme: she is the small bud at the center of the flower, its petals covering and uncovering her in a heavy wind of history. She is the prism through which Europe marches on its way toward the 20th century, toward a modernity of images and cults: like a relic from the age of courtesans, her appeal is one fated to wither with the 19th century and all its pseudo-classical inheritances. She counts Franz Lizst and King Ludwig I of Bavaria as her lovers: they are central figures in retrospect, but to Lola Montes they too had to stand in line and wait their turn. She is the Casanova of the 19th -- she gave her body to posterity, and chose the cinema (by way of the circus and the magic lantern) as her burial place, that we may see her in the flesh of Martine Carol. Like Rita Hayworth had done for Welles' The Lady from Shanghai -- dye her famed scarlet hair blonde -- Martine Carol, a blonde who Hitchcock would have approved of, dyed her hair dark, nearly raven-black. Not simply because the historical Lola Montez was a dark brunette, but also because Ophuls knew that her eyes would shine like jewels this way. We are thankful that she hardly ever looks at us directly -- the blindness to come!  

Saturday, April 2, 2011

"Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai de Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles" (1975)

The long title of Chantal Akerman's masterpiece seems to mimic the mechanistic monotony, as well as the considerable length, of the film. Along with Jean Eustache's The Mother and the Whore (1973), Jeanne Dielman is one of those subversive works of art which has permanently changed the landscape of cinema. (Both films are notably lengthy: Jeanne Dielman runs at 201 minutes, and The Mother and the Whore clocks in at 217 minutes.) The inheritors of Akerman's style -- I think for instance of Michael Haneke's The Seventh Continent (1989) and, more recently, Jiayin Lu's Oxhide I and II (2005, 2009) and Giorgios Lanthimos' Dogtooth (2009) -- are many, but even if a tiny few have pursued the rigor which Akerman puts to use in Jeanne Dielman, nearly every director who has struggled to modernize their films (or render their films independent of classical narrative and standard cinema tropes) has been affected by the systematization of style that Akerman institutes in her epic work. Like The Mother and the Whore (which coincidentally may stand in as a surrogate title for Akerman's film), Jeanne Dielman ranks as one of the most depressing films I've ever seen. Delphine Seyrig, through whom the film lives and breathes, in whom it finds its aching moments of stasis and repose and exerts its motions of systemic action, controls the pacing with her every breath and gesture (or absence of gesture, absence of breath). The slightest grimace, the merest strain in her eyebrows, conveys an ocean of tangled misery and pathos. What makes this mute, unbearably passive woman compelling? We wonder, after a certain point, whether she is ever happy; and in some instances, we feel we glimpse some accidental notions of happiness in her being: when she drinks her coffee in the early morning or by herself in a cafe, when she bids her son goodbye, or when she sits down to sew and hum to the classical radio in the evening. But these moments are rare, or they are incidents of an arbitrary design in which we mistake the loosening of her terminally anxious face as an indication of a brief real pleasure.

And we have not yet mentioned her prostitution. Jeanne Dielman is a prostitute who receives her clients at home in the afternoon, while her son is away at school. She lives for her son, that is, she takes up prostitution in order to make ends meet, to support her son's life away from home, at school or with his friend(s). To the extent that she lives to support her son -- in place of her deceased husband -- she lives to serve men in general, since the irony is that she serves her male clients as a whore so that she may be "free" to serve her son as a mother (and even, also, as a stand-in wife). The feminist parable is obvious, perhaps too obvious, but the somber majesty of the film defies any reductionist undertaking: Akerman does not rely on any easy scandalizations, and in fact she laboriously dilutes any political or gender-specific overtones by dilating the quotidian real-time aspect of the scenario, in effect overwhelming any facility at theoretical trumpeting. Jeanne Dielman's excellence results from its ability to transcend an archly theoretical model on its surface through the imposition of a real-time aesthetic. We are lulled into attentiveness to Jeanne Dielman's existence -- not merely to her existence as a woman victimized by the micro-historical situation to which she is born to but to her perseverance as a human creature subjected to the automatism of her day-to-day life; that she happens to be a mother, or a prostitute, or a stay-at-home "wife", are circumstances as exponentially, as trivially, important as what her taste in coffee happens to be, what her recipes for dinner amount to, and what order the chore-routine must take so that she is satisfied in their sequencing.

The film, so much more than being merely a feminist masterpiece, is also a cinematic masterpiece -- because it is a work that systematizes cinematic events through a direct interpenetration of the materiality of time. That Jeanne Dielman is a woman caught up in the gendered space of a socially-transcribed imprisonment -- as "woman", as "mother", as "prostitute" -- is only a conveniently dramatic insertion into a larger time-skein that aims to make plain the existential fabric of a woman's desire for liberty (happiness) via method; method in and for itself. Jeanne Dielman's methodology can perhaps be called the method of kinetic collation, but also and more generally, method of focus, kinetic method. The breakdown which begins in details (the devil which is in the details) -- a client takes too long in his pleasure, the potatoes are steamed too long and burn, the post office happens to be closed, a cup of coffee tastes unusually bad, etc. -- ends in catharsis: she learns, tragically, that method is only ever methodical when it has achieved a mastery over time outside as well as inside the parameters of method, an impossibility of which Jeanne Dielman, unconscious before of her existential subjection to temporality -- which we are pained, yet privileged, to witness in the unfolding of broken patterns -- becomes gradually conscious of, becomes instantly victimized by. The client who lounges, who takes too long, must be eradicated -- not only, or necessarily, because he is a man who in his state of vacuous manhood harasses her sense of orderliness and substantiality, but because he has simply refused to live in sync with her schedule. The outside world seeps in through sex (as it does in Dogtooth) and the inside order of things slowly corrodes; things, in this way, fall apart...

Friday, April 1, 2011

"Through the Olive Trees" (1994) / "Certified Copy" (2010)

Watching two Kiarostami films back to back, the first an early film, the second his latest, made 16 years later, it is striking to see how little Kiarostami has changed over time. For some directors, this may be perceived to be a defect in the evolution of style, but in Kiarostami's case the fact that he hasn't changed much proves the durability of his thinking. Through the Olive Trees, of all Kiarostami's works, relates the most to his most recent film, Certified Copy, the latter which is also the Iranian director's first film made outside Iran. Through the Olive Trees is about love which begins as simulation and ends as reality; Certified Copy is essentially the same film -- though in some ways with noticeably less complication and sophistication. Both films, one feels, began as isolated images, auratic images that impelled the director to unveil the processes that brought them to being. In Through the Olive Trees -- whose title succinctly summarizes the gist of the film -- Kiarostami was perhaps struck one day, as he stood on a cliff or hilltop overlooking a wide green valley, by the distant image of a young girl walking through a grove of olive trees. The girl, of course, is wearing a hijab, and her figure is only barely perceptible as she disappears from sight under the tree boughs. The image is overpowering, poetic because it is inexplicable. How does one conjure up this image again, what story could bring it back to life? Watching the end of Through the Olive Trees, one feels that Kiarostami wrote the story specifically to recapture the emotion of this singular image, the sight of a young girl walking under the green cover of olive trees: what would a young man feel at seeing her, so out of reach that she becomes almost phantasmal? Such a film would dwell on the beauty of women, on the mystery of youth and maturity in women, in blithe girls and pensive mothers, and, especially, on the special kind of beauty which the hijab confers on feminine nature. Through the Olive Trees is one of those rare Iranian films -- at least, of those produced after the Islamic Revolution -- that manages to demonstrate the "Eternal Feminine" without needing to rely on any overt eroticization of female beauty. (The character of the strong and determined Miss Shiva is a case in point in which the metaphysical stability of a strong woman shines through her voice and uprightness.)

Certified Copy is a film that would be impossible to make in Iran; Kiarostami, in making it, has effectively signed himself into exile (especially after having to witness the unjust imprisonment of his close friend and collaborator, Jafar Panahi, who makes a youthful appearance in Through the Olive Trees) -- and we sense that, like Andrei Tarkovsky and other master directors who were forced to live in exile from their native country, Kiarostami will expect to work abroad for an indeterminate length of time. (Already his next film, titled The End, looks to be produced and filmed in Japan and France.) Certified Copy, by any measure of decency, is a tame film, but I recall the distinct shock -- or so I was led to imagine what might be "shocking" for Iranians to behold -- of seeing Juliette Binoche wear a low neckline blouse with her brassiere visibly in view (and which she eventually takes off, in a church!). There was something quaintly european, even slovenly, about Binoche's appearance, compared to the strict attire of the Iranian women who populate Through the Olive Trees. But it was still Binoche, and her charming smile sufficed to bring us back to the matter-of-factness of the liberal West, where women are indeed allowed to wear what they like and flirt and think as they like. Certified Copy, in this regard, feels like the kind of film that Kiarostami always wanted to make, not only about what the West, what Europe, means to him, but also what an empowered and liberalized woman would look and talk and act like if she were removed from the context of Iranian culture. It is important, I think, to remember that Kiarostami was raised in a culture that categorically forbade women to not only dress as Binoche dresses, but to act and think and speak as she does: and Binoche delivers in all respects another portrait of the Eternal Feminine. But Kiarostami is no immature idealist, and Binoche is as much defined by the circumstances of her francophone culture as she is by the circumstances of her relationship to the art professor James Miller (played by William Shimmel) and her relationship to the geographical environment (Tuscany) in which she lives and works. Kiarostami's ability to write her so purely in her own voice demonstrates the maturity of his vision. The final image of the art professor looking at himself in the mirror, as he contemplates the reality of his situation (is this really happening? why am I here?), while church bells play in a Tuscan background colored by the warm light of sunset, punctuates the essential Kiarostami technique of building up a film from the retrospective angle of its ending: one feels that the ending had been written first, before the scenario shaped itself into a discourse on the nature of the "copy", authentic and inauthentic. 

One reviewer has astutely observed that Kiarostami's thesis that european culture is itself a simulation, a copy, of the Antique, as opposed to being anything "original" or unique, testifies to the director's outsider privilege of being an Iranian: as a man raised in a persian culture in many ways more ancient than the relics of Europe, Kiarostami's insight into european society enjoys a perspective equal to that of a dispassionate man viewing a  beautiful girl walk through a grove of olive trees that spreads out in the valley below.