Monday, March 31, 2014

February/March In Review: The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Missing Picture, Non-Stop & Kinoshita Keisuke

At the end of January, I wrote of the relief that comes with the new year, with no longer having to submit oneself to the responsibilities of list-making and being able, finally, to find some balance between the old and the new. In the past two months, my viewing has tilted even further toward the old, thanks in particular to two new scholarly projects that came to dominate much of my film-viewing time. Before I get to the more substantial (and official) of the two in this piece's final paragraph, let me review those noteworthy new releases that I have not yet discussed on this platform, beginning with a major-work that I have done my best to avoid speaking about until now.

The film in question, as the post's opening two screen-grabs indicate, is none other than Wes Anderson's The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), the most dioramic of the mid-career Gen-X master's career, and one of his stronger perhaps (though not quite to the level of his 2012 career peak Moonrise Kingdom, or to 2007's unjustly undervalued The Darjeeling Limited). What The Grand Budapest Hotel shares with the latter work in particular is a discursive focalization through the medium of cinema itself, or more precisely in the case of The Grand Budapest Hotel, film history. We see this in the economy of aspect ratios that preserve the film's three time periods; in the irises and tracking shots that call attention to its fundamental materiality; and of course in the Ruritanian romances, Alpine mountain films, and its star-studded partial namesake that all contribute to the picture's narrative content. Anderson's latest is also a work again of the diorama, of the kunstmuseum and the miniature, captured in tilt-shift photography (as my viewing companion and this website's co-author has pointed out). The Grand Budapest Hotel finds its greatest pleasures thus, in its accumulations - be it those of the narrative or of its Grand Hotel-caliber casting - and its manifold details, in sum, its mise-en-scène. It would be tempting to describe the film in terms likewise of the confectionery that has played a large role in its marketing, and in many respects it does feel this way, were it not also for the film's comically gratuitous cartoon violence - The Grand Budapest Hotel is the closest of Anderson's films to 2009's Fantastic Mr. Fox - and its more and less oblique references to mid-century fascism. Anderson indeed contributes another key film to his generation-defining body-of-work.

Staging its own meticulously crafted dioramas with sculpted clay figurines, Rithy Panh's The Missing Picture (2013) produces a new form of political essay film that seeks to recreate the filmmaker's personal recollections of life under the murderous Khmer Rouge using the aforementioned inanimate objects - and those few newsreels and relevant propaganda films that survive the period. The genius of Panh's latest testimonial resides in this very novelty, in its figuration of the Marxist regime's intentional and systematic process of dehumanization in a form that essentially eliminates the human form from its reproductions. What results is the titular "missing picture," the heretofore largely undocumented nightmare reality that the Khmer Rouge endeavored to create for its bourgeois and capitalistic enemies, in the image of its profoundly flawed political theory (which disastrously combined Rousseau and Marx). In his dioramic spaces (mostly) and the occasional surviving film clip, Panh's picture equally offers a fond glimpse into Cambodia's lost, pre-Democratic Kampuchea past, into the modern Phnom Penh that would be ravaged by Pol Pot and his ideological faction. A work of powerful, even undeniable truth, The Missing Picture is one of twenty-fourteen's finest commercial premieres to date.

The biggest surprise of the past two months belonged to Jaume Collet-Serra for his of-the-moment actioner, Non-Stop (2014). The Catalan-born Collet-Serra seems to understand something that most others do not, namely that we spend much of our time communicating with others through our phones - rather than in the face-to-face conversations that has traditionally provided the medium with its mode of interpersonal exchange. Collet-Serra responds to the representational problematic involved in this new means of communicative discourse by projecting Liam Neeson's narratively central texts on screen, in a manner similar to the method utilized in Netflix hit House of Cards (another mainstay in my past two months of viewing). Consequently, Collet-Serra creates a plastic image that is at once transparent onto the fictional world that he expressively brings into being, and is, at the same time, readable as a flat surface containing a series of significant data points. Non-Stop does not simply engage, however, with our new forms for mediating the world, but instead also interrogates the outstanding, though rarely discussed question of public safety in the long post-9/11 era. Specifically, Collet-Serra's film, from a John W. Richardson and Christopher Roach story, brings to fictional light the superficial measures enacted by the United States government to insure air safety in the period following the terrorist attack. Non-Stop, in other words, is a film rich in ideas about the world we inhabit - and how we have come to engage it.

Finally, as I have noted above, I spent much of the past two months viewing older films, with those of Japanese master Kinoshita Keisuke (1912-1988) representing the large majority. Indeed, as part of a project that I recently drafted for a non-English-language film journal - given my, shall we say, baroque writing style, you all should feel great pity for my translator - I watched or re-watched fifteen of the filmmaker's features, with the majority coming from the wartime and Occupation-era phases of the writer-director's career. Most of my critical insights on the generally under-appreciated Kinoshita and his marvelous body-of-work belong to my future essay, of course, so let me instead list those works that I would number among my favorites of the director's (and/or his most formally notable, in the case of some of the later films in particular): the propagandistic The Living Magoroku (1943); personal favorite-among-the-favorites, The Girl I Loved (1946); Phoenix (1947); from a Kurosawa Akira script, The Portrait (1948); Here's to the Young Lady (1949); The Wedding Ring (1950); Carmen Comes Home (1951), Japan's masterful first color feature; A Japanese Tragedy (1953); Twenty-four Eyes (1954); and the (pictured) scroll-painting-inspired The River Fuefuki (1960). A near-exact contemporary of Kurosawa, the exceedingly 'Japanese' Kinoshita might just be a more generically adventurous Ozu to his compatriot's second-generation Mizoguchi. At the very least, Kinoshita belongs in any remembrance of Japan's post-World War II 'golden age.'

The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Missing Picture and Non-Stop are all currently in commercial release in North America, while the ten Kinoshita films listed above are available to be streamed on Hulu Plus.

Monday, March 10, 2014

New Film: Stranger by the Lake / L'Inconnu du lac (2013)

Distributed by Les Films du Losange, the French production company most associated with the films of its co-founder Éric Rohmer, Alain Guiraudie's Stranger by the Lake (L'Inconnu du lac, 2013) draws on the late master's suspended holiday-season settings, iterative narrative structures and two-shot conversational set-ups for its own, very different story of death and desire within the context of gay cruising culture. In this framework, that is by bringing a more expressly 'other-ed' portrait of male homosexuality to the screen than is common in this Modern Family media moment - Guiraudie populates his exceedingly explicit film with the conspicuously promiscuous much more than the monogamous, with the voyeur and the sexless bisexual - not to mention one that calls upon earlier 'cruising' stereotypes, Stranger by the Lake would seem on some level to court conversation-stopping accusations of homophobia. Thankfully, for once at least, we've been saved from this canard, for reasons one might imagine that have to do mostly with its abundantly apparent originality - that is for its organic joining of the deliberate and lyrical 'Losange' film, graphic gay copulation and indeed Chabrolian suspense, all in the service of a sharp, socially potent allegory.

Stranger by the Lake, to expand with spoilers on this last point, is at its core an allegory for unsafe sex in the AIDS era. (As a partial aside, the Tom Selleck-ness of Christophe Paou's Michel and Pierre de Ladonchamps' anachronistic choice of automobile both speak to plague's earlier peak years.) From the first, focal protagonist Franck (Ladonchamps) seems little concerned with using protection, an attitude that is not shared by one of his older hook-ups. Following another of his casual forested encounters, Franck spies his objet du désir Michel clandestinely drowning his lover in the eponymous lake. Concealing this knowledge and little concerned, evidently, for his own safety, Franck commences a passionate affair with the newly unattached murderer, a romance that increasingly separates the lead from his platonic conversational partner Henri (Patrick D'Assumçao). The observant and very sympathetic Henri, however, will confront Michel with an insinuation of his crime, an accusation that compels the mustachioed killer to follow the middle-aged divorced male into the erotically coded woods. Indeed, as the murderer Michel gives Henri what he wants - a throat-slashing in lieu of intercourse in the perfect, Bataillean grafting of AIDS-age sex and death - Guiraudie's camera intentionally misleads the viewer as it peers at the pair, in a manner that calls to mind many of the film's sexual encounters, through the slightly obscuring tall grass. Franck too will finally face Michel, at least in a fashion, as he willingly accepts death to satisfy his sexual desire - in what therefore proves the ultimate emblem of unprotected promiscuous (gay) sex in the AIDS era.

Throughout Stranger by the Lake, Guiraudie's visual storytelling proves never less than expert - cf. the maddening handheld work of the much lesser Blue Is the Warmest Color (2013) - with his observational, surveillance-style long-takes offering an ideal and thematically commensurate vehicle for the picture's voyeuristic psycho-sexual drama. The film's setting - Stranger by the Lake does not once deviate from the lake, its rocky shore and the surrounding woods - is no less ripe in its connotations, particularly when one considers the frequently nude, foreshortened male subjects that transform this space into a spoiled Eden of sorts (to again hint at the disease's early history, while also drawing upon or at least echoing such work as Thomas Eakins' "The Swimming Hole"). At the same time, Guiraudie's film is an exemplary piece equally of lyrical landscape cinema, a work that digresses to disclose the beauty of the lake's choppy blue-black surface or the sudden breeze that caresses the location's towering hardwoods. The acts depicted give way to the fact of the setting (to paraphrase Bazin) in this striking new masterwork of the queer cinema and 'Losange' catalog both.

Let me thank Lisa K. Broad for her considerable interpretative input. Since Lisa has not yet seen Blue Is the Warmest Color, any suggestion of the film's manifestly inferior quality is mine alone.

Friday, March 07, 2014

"How bored, how doleful is the flesh!": Jeremi Szaniawski on Nymph()maniac (2014)

The impetuous and darkly facetious Lars von Trier is back with a two-in-one hat-trick, Nymph()maniac (2014). It tells the story of Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), a self-professed nymphomaniac who embarks upon a life-revisiting confession to Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard), a middle-aged man who takes her in after finding her lying, beaten up and unconscious, in a damp alleyway. As he listens to the recollections of Joe’s many tumultuous and colorful sexual adventures—they never bring solace to this bored and compulsive soul—suspicion grows that Seligman's care and attention are far too kind to be driven solely by noble and selfless intentions…

As the spelling of the film(s)’ title indicates, the first volume focuses on the ‘Nymph’ stage; while the second, more violent part, has to do with the ‘Maniac’ side of its titular character, emphasizing a brutal dialectical rapport between youth and adulthood, boredom and pain, beauty and ugliness, which turn out, in an indirect but sobering way, to be utterly universal. With this apparently vapid ‘pornographic’ diptych, the Danish director may have found the most profound expression of his cinema, namely one that is at once profoundly didactic/demonstrative (a film à thèse) while pushing the boundaries of self-referentiality (to Epidemic, most clearly, but also the anti-naturalistic, almost Brechtian acting found in many of his films), irreverent playfulness and irony to the very limits. Nymph()Maniac also gives us at long last what von Trier always seemed to teeter on, often breaking down his films into chapters, namely a form of ‘cinematic novel’. The frame narrative of the film, constantly interrupted à la Tristram Shandy, is in itself perfect material for a dark comedy, and it titillates one to see how far von Trier is going to push the parallel with several Marquis de Sade books, wherein a young woman is taken in by an apparently well-meaning man who turns out to be an even greater sadist than the ones she met earlier. Other more punctual references to literary classics include Nabokov’s Lolita, or the greatest poet of grotesque and sublime eroticism who ever set word to paper, Georges Bataille. As for the film’s ‘chapters’ per se, Joe’s recollected stories, as in a picaresque novel, introduce random characters which are often jubilant grist for the Dane’s comedic mill: in the first film, special mention ought to go to Uma Thurman as an apodictic cuckolded wife, as she bursts into Joe’s apartment with her children in order to show them ‘the whoring bed’, to much comic effect. Yet all these scenes in the first film constantly elude the proverbial punch. In similar anticlimactic fashion, it ends with young Joe (model Stacy Martin) claiming to her lover (Shia LaBeouf) that she can’t experience orgasms anymore, the image fading in the most cheap fade fashion into the credits. The latter are accompanied by footage from part two, wherein other familiar von Trier character actors appear, and of far more grotesque qualities: Willem Dafoe, Jean-Marc Barr and the inenarrable Udo Kier, for what promises to take us into the darker, ‘Maniac’ part of the narrative, where all hell will break loose.

In spite of its pronounced literariness, far from feeling like an unrealized book, this film creates a perfectly original—if heavily derivative—form of this hybrid, between the purity of the nymph and the provocation of the maniac, and the gaping hole in the middle, the disquieting mystery (and meaninglessness) of life, all bathed in a jarring, absurdist humor. Like the grotesque bodies it bares naked, Nymph()Maniac never shies away from exposing this aspect, opening on a series of mysterious and beautiful shots of walls and pipes in a snowy alleyway (evocative of 1950s Japanese cinema), followed by the nihilistic chords of Rammstein’s heavy and foreboding music—the tone of dark irony and excess of the film set from the get go. And the conversations between Joe and Seligman, filmed mostly with fixed shots and in a dull interior are starkly counterbalanced by the postmodern pastiche that constitute each recollected story/chapter, all boast a different visual style, filled with playful elements of mise-en-scène where von Trier seems to nod toward Hal Hartley more often than to his much revered Andrey Tarkovsky—although the episodic and formally diverse looks also reference The Mirror, in a rather irreverent way. This, needless to say, makes for a highly original, but also heavy to digest, mix. Admittedly the various episodes could become quite tiresome, were the film a single opus. As for the segues which stitch the various chapters together, peppered with Joe’s awkward non-sequiturs and Seligman’s eager displays of pedantic erudition (from fishing techniques to Bach and Fibonacci’s number) they are so preposterously arbitrary and contrived in their effort at imparting structure (and therefore control) onto the universe, i.e. giving meaning to what has none, that they can only elicit laughter (or at least a satisfied grin) in the audience.

But all of the above doesn’t do justice to the participative dimension of the film—during the short narratives that Joe tells Seligman, it is the question of veracity rather than the picaresque erotic adventures which fascinates the viewer. We become the investigators, never fully identified with Joe or Seligman, trying to see through their lies: Seligman claims to be Jewish, yet his wall shows a Christian Orthodox icon. And while he tells Joe that he is asexual, the lecherousness deep in his voice and the eagerness with which he spurs her on betray his further, darker intent—as much as his sexual frustration and the limits of his super-ego. Joe, for that matter, could be lying too, but it is her ambiguity which makes her titillating: as she recounts, in a fragile, almost angelic voice, a story that is so utterly comedic and implausible, it seems as though most of it is pure fabrication. This is allegorized in the way a bruised and beat-up Charlotte Gainsbourg projects herself as the young Stacy Martin. Phony and hokey, the dialogues also constantly remind us of the falseness and pretenses of the characters: Joe, for instance, often delivers her story in an impeccable English, but will pause at words pronounced by Seligman that she couldn’t possibly not know otherwise, yet sheepishly insisting that she doesn’t, inviting more pedantic elaborations from the older man. But it isn’t the lies she tells so much as the story she never reveals which give the film its psychoanalytical interpretive key: if it seems quite clear that Joe didn’t have a fraction of the sexual experiences she professes to, the question of her loving, idealized father’s role (Christian Slater) in shaping her psychosexual profile remains suspended. But its presence, the poetic lyricism of the early years, clearly idealized and contradicted by the father’s dark delirium on his deathbed and Joe’s lubricating at the sight of it, elegantly suggests Freudian explanations without actually bringing them to the fore, eliding and leaving heavily pregnant the incestuous, melodramatic cliché. Constantly going from lies and fabrications to the next, all the while feebly explained and ‘boxed up’ by Seligman, the film allegorizes the manipulative and enticing nature of cinema itself: a constant work of deception and engulfment to which we develop a fetishistic and libidinal attraction.

Those disparaging critics who derided the film as pretentious and boring are at once spot-on and dead wrong. Nymph()maniac cultivates boredom like the greatest works of modern literature did: with relish and distinction. This distinguished ennui becomes utterly fascinating as we are forced to contemplate the very fabric of the film, indeed becoming its writers instead of the readers of the film. This participative stance is invigorating, and has seldom been witnessed in recent art-house cinema, harking back to the great triumphs of the 1960s, but with von Trier’s added postmodern gimmicky pauses, which are indeed pretentious but also endearing in the way in which they unmask the mad hatter that is the director, all the while keeping us guessing as to what this wildly original and creative mind is made of—perhaps a mixture of childish imagination and cruelty with the maturity and weathered perversion of a (dirty) old man, itself referenced in the constant ebb and flow in the narrative between youth and jaded middle-age. And this is becoming insofar as the film narratizes the life of a proxy for the filmmaker, Joe being about von Trier’s age at the time of the making of the film, moving from the adorable child to the rugged, beat-up adult who lives in a world of dangerous fantasy. The scenes involving Joe as a child, for that matter, play to the music of Shostakovich’s jazz waltz, used most memorably in another faux sexy thriller, Eyes Wide Shut, but more to the point here, in von Trier’s remarkably kitsch commercial directed in the early 90s for the French insurance company CNP, where a child traverses several decades and becomes an adult in a faux one-take lateral tracking shot.

Lars von Trier is a master of (self-)advertising and promotional coups, and so it is probably very cynically that he has marketed his Nymph()Maniac for what it is not (cf. Paul Verhoeven's Showgirls), namely a film filled with sexual tension and enticing erotic material—the film, at least in its theatrical version, features far less nudity and eroticism than, say, Blue is the Warmest Color. Whenever the film comes anywhere close to becoming arousing (mostly thanks to the rather unambiguously beautiful body of Martin), the director playfully reverts to the grim interior of Seligman and Joe’s bruised and fatigued features. This is a film about the sexual frustration and utter deprivation of an erotic life in most of the Western world, and as such it serves as a brilliant indictment of that very state of things; or at least it does show how pornography reifies the body and sucks passion and meaning out of physical ‘love’.

Even though the film is definitely not about its ending, I shall not reveal it for those who might care about Seligman’s and Joe’s wretched fates and all their many glaring contradictions, discursive and otherwise. The film’s finale continues, however tamed, the grand climaxes of Antichrist and Melancholia, wherein vindication or cataclysms are completely thwarted by a profound nihilism, adding another layer of meta-commentary on the senselessness of existence and, more to the point, on the lack of pertinence of the vast majority of cinema today, equating it with the episodic, procrastinating and addictive nature of TV shows and the raw and monotone nature of pornography, two of the (sadly) major ‘cultural’ phenomena of the early 21st media. Nymph()Maniac, a paradoxical miracle of a film(s), will leave the viewer wanting, whetting a welcome appetite—specifically for good cinema, a thirst that can never truly be quenched. In this, the film brilliantly establishes a parallel between its characters’ compulsions and us spectators, caught face to face with our sobering condition and destiny.

Monday, February 17, 2014

New Film: Like Father, Like Son (2013)

Reaffirming its writer-director as one of the contemporary screen's most effective makers of sentimental, family-centered melodrama, to damn with faint praise in any context other than the filmmaker's country of origin or his own, exceptional body of work, Kore-eda Hirokazu's Like Father, Like Son (Soshite chichi ni naru, 2013) displays the same gentleness and narrative restraint that has long proven a hallmark of the Japanese auteur's corpus. Elliptical and delicate in its presentation of its ripped-from-the-headlines-style shocker - six years earlier, two newborn boys are switched at birth - Kore-eda's Cannes prize-winning, Ozuesque latest emerges above all as a subtle, yet sharp (in the manner of the great master) critique of historical Japanese notions of parent- and especially father-hood.

The most emotionally satisfying solution to the mix-up, at least to the distant observer - the situation remaining status-quo, with the Nonomiya and Saiki families raising their 'adopted' children, rather than their long-separated blood off-spring - is rejected quickly by the professionally driven and rather successful Ryota (Fukuyama Masaharu). Indeed, in keeping with what we are told is the long-held habit of the Japanese people, from an era when such mix-ups were commonplace, Fukuyama's lead defaults to blood, a decision that is made that much easier for Ryota by his adopted son Keita's (Ninomiya Keita, in one of the Nobody Knows and I Wish director's uniformly accomplished child performances) comparative lack of natural ability. In the end, Like Father, Like Son is about Ryota's struggle to overcome the idiom named in the English title: he must at once resist the cold, disinterested parenting style of his own father, and at the same time become the father that he has failed to be, both to his biological offspring Ryusei (Hwang Shôgen) and more importantly, to the loving, loyal (and impossibly cute) Keita. Ryota, in other words, must reject the less and less culturally valid economic and masculine ideal that he has spent his life pursuing.

The Saiki family, on the other hand, provides an alternative to the career-oriented Nonomiya's and their sterile urban bourgeois existence. Alternate patriarch Yudai (Furankî Rirî) in particular offers a point of contrast in his lax attitudes toward work - why do today what can be put off to tomorrow? - and his more nurturing, hands-on style of parenting. Though the buffoonish and occasionally greedy Yudai is himself no unambiguous ideal, as his wife Yukari (Maki Yôko) makes abundantly clear time and again, his virtues do serve to highlight Ryota's archly Japanese shortcomings. Indeed, for all Yukari's faults and for the Saiki's far more modest circumstances in general, their larger nuclear family does seem to work in a manner that the reconfigured, biological Nonomiya's fail to. Nurture most certainly rules out over nature and blood in Like Father, Like Son's cinema of reassessed cultural priorities.

Through all the above, Kore-eda manages, rather masterfully, to be both universal and culturally specific in his humanistic, paternal melodrama. The same also can be said for his keen eye for middle-class detail - an observational skill perfected previously in the director's Still Walking (2008) - which here finds expression in the chewed straws that restate the film's final thesis or in the Red Lobster setting that provides a meeting point for the families, their attorney and representatives of the negligent rural hospital. (Kore-eda's camera naturally pursues a similarly observational tact that at the same time allows for mimetic grace-notes, such as the concluding rainbow flare that emotionally echoes the film's final, ever-so-slightly unconventional familial reorganization.) Ultimately, Like Father, Like Son, like all the very best Kore-eda, is a robust cinema, a work of precise gestures, carefully crafted familial relations and lived-in (or in the case of the Nonomiya's hotel-like flat: not-so-lived-in) places that do not so much provide added value as they comprise the very substance of the director's sterling middle-range craft.

This piece was written by Michael J. Anderson with significant authorial input from Lisa K. Broad. Like Father, Like Son is now playing in Denver, Minneapolis, New York and a number of additional North American cities (in which I have not lived).

Saturday, February 01, 2014

January In Review (feat. Spike Jonze's Her)

Always a welcome relief from the rigors and assumed responsibilities of year-end list-making season, January is that month, at least for this academic critic, where things get back to normal, where my viewing log again begins tilt away from the current releases that have dominated since at least early November, toward a more privately enriching balance of old and new. This changing of priorities, so to speak, has already yielded more than its reasonable share of exceptional viewing, beginning with Frank Borzage's recently released on home-video Little Man, What Now? (1934), a film that falls squarely within my academic area of specialization. Written about in this space, the outstanding Little Man, What Now? is perhaps most extraordinary (and exciting) as an object of auteurist research. A different kind of context - the social history of Shah-era Iran - provided the primary interest in and my reason for writing on another key January discovery (in one of my secondary scholastic fields), Dariush Mehrju'i's The Cycle (1977). But, of course, loyal Tativille readers will already know my admiration for both of these remarkable films.

Among those older January 2014 films that I have not considered previously on this site, Chu Yuan's The Magic Blade (1976, pictured), available on Eastern Masters home video, surely stands as the most purely pleasurable: composed in Shawscope with an at times almost Mizoguchian depth and elegance, The Magic Blade adopts a proto-gaming structure for its spatially dislocated pageant of studio-set-driven stagings - and the deliriously bizarre hired-killers that magically materialize in each. For the Bollywood enthusiast, the Chinese-language Magic Blade approaches the high kitsch that was being created by Manmohan Desai at approximately the same moment. From earlier in that same odd-ball decade, this past month also provided my first opportunity to view Barbara Loden's counter-classic debut Wanda (1970), or a better, and more richly specific Bonnie and Clyde, stripped of any semblance of Penn's romanticism. As befits a work of its now monumental critical stature, the sexual politics of Loden's exceptional film hint at the actress-director's profoundly marginal position in an inequitable and excluding American film industry.

As is inevitably true, given the studios' propensity to release their award-hopefuls late in the calendar year, my January also witnessed its share of noteworthy newer titles, with Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) and Asghar Farhadi's The Past (2013) among the more successful. The only film that I felt the need to view twice in January 2014 - I wrote about my less conflicted second screening here - The Wolf of Wall Street exhibits both the strengths and limitations of the director's worldview, with the former ultimately overwhelming the latter in one of Scorsese's most entertaining epics in ages. As for Farhdi's latest, though it does not quite rise to the masterful level of A Separation (2011) in its manipulation of architecture for the purposes of its melodramatic narrative, The Past, reviewed here, does succeed in re-imagining its primary virtues within a decidedly French context. I also belatedly caught French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve's Prisoners (2013, pictured), a strong piece of revisionist, vigilante-themed cinema that finds real interest in its curious and compelling religious discourse; Prisoners emerges, above all, as a consummate work of mood and mid-winter atmosphere.

Then there was Spike Jonze's Her (2013, pictured), my personal choice for the best new film I saw last month, and to my present thinking, the second best American fiction film of twenty-thirteen (just behind Richard Linklater's superlative Before Midnight). Extrapolating ever so slightly from our own, less-than-admirable iPhone-dominated existence, Her achieves an extraordinary intimacy and even empathy in its depiction of Joaquin Phoenix's attraction to and romantic affair with his operating system, voiced by Scarlett Johansson in a role that relies heavily on the spectator's cognizance of her absent, very familiar body. Her is a film filled with questions and ideas, and not simply those of a speculative, science-fiction variety: we are asked to consider what it is exactly that we love in another, and are confronted by the dangers (for any romantic relationship) inherent in the processes of growth and change. Jonze brings this story to the screen within a synthetic, digital environment - a flat, pro-filmic world dominated by whites, reds, pinks and oranges - that in some sense fuses with and confuses the film's sci-fiction subject with our own aesthetic connection to an anesthetized, Apple-style digital cinema. Her in this respect, which is to say in both content and form, is all about our love of machines - even as it seems to disclose something much deeper of Jonze's own romantic history.

Finally, to January's misses, more to footnote and give context to my cinematic month than to grind axes, not that you shouldn't be skeptical: excluding the more immediately forgettable and culturally off-the-radar - including a handful of American features from the early-to-mid 1930s, which I need not mention here - my most notable disappointments included the first and last films I saw in January 2014, Joel and Ethan Coen's Inside Llewyn Davis (2013) and Woody Allen's Blue Jasmine (2013, pictured). Though the former feels fairly central to the brothers' work, inasmuch as it provides a synthesis of their archetypal Odyssey and Job (sans restoration) narratives, and though Oscar Isaac is as good as advertised, I must confess that I found the experience of watching Inside Llewyn Davis to be, on the whole, quite unpleasant. While the same cannot quite be said for Blue Jasmine, Allen's dialogue - a veritable master-class in cringe-worthy exposition - insures its place at a level below the Coen's current critical favorite.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Iranian Oscar-Submission Supplement: The Past (2013) & The Cycle (1977)

Anointed Iran's submission for the 86th Academy Awards, following its fêting for 'Best Actress' at last year's Cannes Film Festival - it failed not only to receive a 'Best Foreign-language' nomination, but even, quite unexpectedly and undeservedly, to secure a place on Oscar's nine-film shortlist - Asghar Farhadi's French-Italian co-production The Past (Le passé, 2013) transposes the transparent settings of the director's Iranian-set Oscar winner A Separation (Jodái-e Náder az Simin, 2011) into the French doors and sliding glass of contemporary France. The Past accordingly lacks some of the former's cultural specificity, its inscription of a surveillant, theocratic society - though The Past does still rely on acts of spying, of overhearing to expedite conflict. The Past, in other words, loses a bit of what might be described as the architectural masterpiece's 'Iraniness', though it will make up for this with a more Antonioni-esque form of incommunicable modernity that materializes in an opening set-piece where separated spouses Marie (Bérénice Bejo) and Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) attempt to speak through a transparent airport barrier: here, Farhadi's film adopts the inaudible perspective of the hearer, rather than the speaker, reversing fields as their exchange progresses in silence. (Speaking of silence, there is a palpable, almost heavy lack of sound throughout much of Farhadi's un-scored film, which above all suggests the deep and fundamental theatricality of the director's latest feature.)

The Past also witnesses the return of A Separation's divorce-themed subject - a topic that seems to be inspiring a new generation of Persian filmmakers^ - albeit from a perspective that again resounds more immediately with European and French stereotypes than it does those of the Islamic republic - though, of course, there remains the almost inescapable intimation that the morality that Farhadi realizes is also present, however covertly, in his Middle Eastern homeland. Specifically, The Past brings a French heroine to the screen, in Marie, who has moved through a number of men over the course of her adult life. She lives with the married Samir (Tahar Rahim; pictured, middle), and as we soon discover, they've conceived their first child together. Meanwhile and melodramatically, Samir's wife lies comatose following an attempted suicide that thusly calls to mind the director's fine, L'Avventura-inspired About Elly (Darbâreye Eli, 2009), as will, more directly, the film's subsequent investigation into the causes for her self-inflicted act-of-violence. Ultimately, the admirably complex The Past favors something approaching the former film's uncertainty, which will again place the filmmaker's engaging and effective latest - a work, which it almost goes without saying, that is very well performed from the deeply unlikable Bejo down through to the film's adolescent and child actors - squarely within the domain of the Euro-Asian art film.  

Begun in 1973-74, but not officially released until 1977 when it became Iran's first submission for Best Foreign Language Film*, Dariush Mehrju'i's The Cycle (Dayereh-ye Mina) remains one of the most forceful and unflinching social-problem films that the nation has yet produced, a work that seeks to expose and testify against the appalling (real-world) conditions of Iran's black-market blood banks*. Building on the social realism of the director's lightly surreal, symbol-laden New Wave landmark The Cow (Gāv, 1969), The Cycle deliberately discloses the abject conditions - almost unbearable from our post-HIV perspective - under which the gangsters prey on the approximately eight-hundred addicts (according to one the feature's physicians), who supply the nation's tainted blood supply: junkies huddle together on the floor, giving liter upon liter of blood, for a small fee, until they literally pass out. Among those who will find themselves in this hellscape is handsome seventeen year-old Ali (Saeed Kangarani), whose presence here is dictated by his father's failing health, rather than by addiction. In fact, Ali's intrinsic intelligence, ambition and resourcefulness, not to mention his material want, will insure his transformation into a successful black market entrepreneur and criminal facilitator - and even more insidiously, his loss of familial obligation and human compassion. Mehrju'i's Iran thus emerges as a nation ripe for the revolution it would soon undergo - a revolution, ironically that led the filmmaker to reside in The Past's France for several years (after another incidence of censorship) before finding the opportunity to direct his sharp housing-crisis satire, The Tenants (Ejareh Nesheenha, 1986), more than a half-decade later.

Then again, owing to its late-Shah-era historical moment, a period that famously experienced increased Westernization (and greater opportunities for women than would be the norm, subsequently), The Cycle displays a liberal modernity that at best has been a rarity in the post-revolutionary Persian cinema. Mehrju'i's film is frank not only in its depictions of the nation's grave social ills, but also in its presentations of the uncovered female body - both at the very top and very bottom, see pictured - and even in its elliptical inscriptions of casual extra-marital sex. Just as notable is Mehrju'i's characteristically deft light comedic touch, which we witness, for example, in Ali's wide-eyed encounter with Fourouzan's comely nurse Zahar: coming upon the bare-legged young woman as she plucks leg hairs, Ali quickly ducks behind a frosted pane of glass, where he will slide to the floor while maintaining his broad, unblinking gaze (which Zahar reciprocates as she slides on her stockings and covers her bare head). In this very Western moment, we see a society in the process of a sexual modernization that nonetheless would soon be arrested with the arrival of the Ayatollah Khomeini's theocratic Iran.

This, of course, is also a moment of unabashed youthful vigor, which, in Mehrju'i's work, would eventually give way to the sophisticated middle-age of the director's deeply Fellini-esque tale of spousal mistreatment and divorce, Hamoun (1990), and to Leila (1996), Mehrju'i's justly lauded polygamy-themed post-Revolution pinnacle. The Cycle, even more than The Cow in this critic's view, comes closest to matching Leila's achievement, as it attains not only the aforementioned candor, but also an incantatory, almost uncanny visual beauty that materializes, above all, in the film's hazy natural sunlight. From a pro-filmic perspective, beauty balances the ugliness - even within the filmmaker's establishing exteriors of a bleak, industrializaing urban landscape - that provides The Cycle's final justification.

***
Notes:
^ The best of the plausibly Farhadi-inspired features that I saw in 2013 was About Elly and A Seperation star Peyman Moaadi's Snow on the Pines. Named 2012’s best feature, and awarded the best screenplay prize by the Iranian Film Critics and Screenwriters Guild, at a ceremony in which Merhruj'i also won a lifetime achievement award, Moaadi’s directorial feature-debut presents its subtle and open-ended narrative of marital infidelity and protracted dissolution in an alternating set of fluid hand-held framings and static set-ups that each make successful use of the film’s sensuous black-and-white cinematography. An actors’ film, naturally enough, Moaadi uses his performances to support a narrative that withholds the dramatic confrontation between the cheating husband and wronged wife - one that will prove comparatively low-key, ultimately - until very late in the narrative.

* According to Shahin Parhami, the Shah administration lifted its ban on The Cycle only after the state opened its first blood bank.

Sony Picture Classics is currently distributing The Past in North America, while The Cycle is available on Region-1 DVD courtesy of Nima Pictures.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Too Poor and Too Rich: Little Man, What Now? (1934) & The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)

Premiering finally on home video last October as part of TCM's Universal Vault Series, Little Man, What Now? (1934, Universal) provides even further evidence of the extraordinary emotional richness and thematic consistency of director Frank Borzage's Depression-era body-of-work, a cinema that considered as a whole comfortably places the Italian-American auteur in the pantheon of studio-era filmmakers. Adapted from Hans Fallada's best-selling 1932 novel, Little Man, What Now? opens with a lengthy intertitle from producer Carl Laemelle, Jr. that defines the filmmakers' intentions in presenting the work: namely, to render a "social service" by offering a solution to the "WORLD'S DAILY PROBLEM," which is to say the economic hardships that prevailed in its mid-Depression time of production. This answer is proposed early in Borzage's German-set, Pre-Code melodrama, following the soapbox homily of a socialist speaker who opines that the "rich are too rich and [that] the poor are too poor." Though Borzage's film isn't without sympathy for this view, particularly where it comes to the deeply felt material sufferings of his under-class protagonists, Little Man, What Now? ultimately proffers a more Roman Catholic response commensurate with many of his other signature achievements, from the supreme Man's Castle (1933) to the more middle-range, though no less thematically essential Mannequin (1937); here, Borzage frames his family-centered, hearth-and-home philosophy in the form of question, one to which male romantic lead Hans Pinneberg (Douglass Montgomery) will receive an affirmative answer: "if one is satisfied to accept his life, peacefully, he's better off, isn't he?"

Little Man, What Now? finds much of its drama in Hans's struggle to do something so seemingly simple, to accept the domestic happiness that his beautiful young wife Lämmchen (Margaret Sullivan) seems eager to provide, even in the most materially scarce - and thus classically Borzagian - of circumstances. In his resistance, Hans provides another example of the director's archetypal male, a man of some ambition, and even more pride, who fruitlessly strives after worldly success. (By contrast, Sullivan's Lämmchen, in the image of Man's Castle's Loretta Young, embodies the redemptive woman, the figure whose extraordinary love and uttermost faith provides meaning in an indifferent Depression world.) At the same time, as the film's opening political rhetoric indicates, Little Man, What Now? does not entirely lack a class consciousness, thanks not only to its inscriptions of poverty and on occasion, ill-gotten wealth, but also to its dramatizations of Hans's mistreatment by a deeply unjust employer class. Little Man, What Now? accordingly accedes to the problem that the film's inscribed politics approaches - but not its materialist solution (thankfully, given the film's situation in Düsseldorf and Berlin on the eve of National Socialism). As always, Borzage's is a fundamentally Roman Catholic work, a film that imagines happiness within the context of the sacramental family - not in wealth or even the lack of material want. (Of course, owing to its late Pre-Code timing, Borzage depicts a couple who, at the film's open, are both unmarried and expecting their first child; this is simply to point out that marriage is not a pre-condition for family in Borzage's liberal, post-World War I universe.) 

A work therefore that is consistent both thematically and morally with Borzage's broader body-of-work, Little Man, What Now? equally shares the fleshed-out domestic spaces that define the director's visual art - and confirm his family-centered philosophy - with the couple's various top floor flats echoing the private worlds, for instance, of 7th Heaven (1927) and Man's Castle. (In Little Man, What Now?, a ladder memorably leads to the couple's final flat, a space so modest that it transforms Lämmchen, her husband and their newborn into a modern-day Holy Family.) Borzage's signature is no less present, likewise, in the film's smaller details and motifs, in the bread (cf. Man's Castle again) that one supporting player complains is being fed to the birds rather than to he and his starving wife. It is indeed here, above all, that the Depression and Borzage's social consciousness is felt most acutely - even as the politics that this same secondary character spouts are undercut by a previous act of political selfishness, one that indirectly will lead to his devoted wife's death.

Though to do so would be hardly fair or even appropriate, Little Man, What Now? is precisely the sort of film that might be used against Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street (2013): Borzage concerns himself with the victims of financial injustice, while Scorsese's narrative (in terms of screen time, at the very least) favors a predatory elite; the studio-era director grants his heroine moral strength and greater spiritual intelligence, whereas Scorsese's depiction of his female characters has occasioned vociferous accusations of misogyny; Borzage's spaces are memorably robust and feel lived in, while Scorsese's shallow visuals routinely strike the viewer as overly artificial and can be inelegantly planar; and finally, Little Man, What Now? is upfront with its conceived social value, one that speaks eloquently to its precise historical moment, where The Wolf of Wall Street's is perplexing at best. In short, Little Man, What Now? offers a sort of accusation and even testimony against the lapsed Catholic's latest, a film, speaking of Scorsese's, which seems to do little more than exist in its flawed, even suspect form.

And yet, exist it does with so much comedic verve and formal adventure*, that the above litany of accusations, whether or not they merit serious consideration, lose any real force. In bringing Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio, in what might be a new career best performance - see the "cerebral palsy-stage" scene, a latter day master-class in the key of Gilbert Grape) and his marry band of idiots and rakes to the screen, The Wolf of Wall Street proves extremely effective farce - as opposed to satire - an object of ridicule wrapped in the (occasionally) more and (more often) far less appealing dimensions of their unfettered consumption. Well, actually Jordan's addiction, be it his dependency on sex, narcotics or money, which in each instance the filmmakers bring to the screen with extraordinary frequency and excess. Scorsese's latest is indeed another work of his signature expressionism^, where Jordan's internal life ultimately intrudes on and shapes the world that reaches the viewer - in its visual distortions and gaps in continuity, not to mention its detours into contingent possibility (cf. the two depictions of his drive home from the country club) and even its free and playful use of an audible interior dialogue at the Swiss bank. Scorsese's form, not to mention the tone and content of his dialogue and the lead's near constant voice-over, brings a lightness ultimately that belies the implications of Jordan's crime and his self-destruction.

The Wolf of Wall Street thusly stands as the latest of the director's Citizen Kane narratives, a film that witnesses the rise and fall of a great (American) man who is anything but, and in this particular case, has no obvious excuse - in his social acculturation - for his beastly behavior. Jordan, in some sense, just is this way, he exists as a figure of corrupted animal nature who, in the end, receives a typically (for Scorsese) small dose of redemption. The Wolf of Wall Street devours the straw man and emerges as one of the best films among this year's Oscar hopefuls.

* Little Man, What Now? also witnesses a moment of genuine formal freedom in its wonderful carousel set-piece: Sullivan and Montgomery are able to carry out their conversation only in snippets, on the occasion of each of the merry-go-round's revolutions. 

^ Tativille co-author Ms. Broad emphasized both the filmmaker's expressionism and the film's tepid redemption in a post-screening discussion.

Wednesday, January 01, 2014

The Best Films of 2013

The Twenty Best New Films of 2013:
1. A Touch of Sin (Jia Zhangke)
2. The Grandmaster (Wong Kar-wai; pictured)
3. Leviathan (Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel, 2012)
4. Stray Dogs (Tsai Ming-liang)
5. The Great Beauty (Paolo Sorrentino)
6. Before Midnight (Richard Linklater)
7. Neighboring Sounds (Kleber Mendonça Filho, 2012)
8. You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet (Alain Resnais, 2012)
9. Beyond the Hills (Cristian Mungiu, 2012)
10. To the Wonder (Terrence Malick, 2012)
11. Viola (Matías Piñeiro, 2012)
12. Spring Breakers (Harmony Korine, 2012)
13. Frances Ha (Noah Baumbach, 2012)
14. Camille Claudel 1915 (Bruno Dumont)
15. Bastards (Claire Denis)
16. Post Tenebras Lux (Carlos Reygadas, 2012)
17. Pain & Gain (Michael Bay)
18. 12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen)
19. Vic+Flo Saw a Bear (Denis Côté)
20. Museum Hours (Jem Cohen, 2012)

Twenty might have been thirty-five or more in a year that showed exceptional depth beyond 2013's peak achievements. At the summit, the Sinophone cinema dominated with the competition best from Europe's three leading fests, Berlin (The Grandmaster), Cannes (A Touch of Sin) and Venice (Stray Dogs). The Sensory Ethnography Lab's avant-garde doc masterstroke Leviathan and Paolo Sorrentino's deliriously pleasurable The Great Beauty, a La Dolce Vita for the Berlusconi era, rounded out a decisive personal top five. Six through nine sported the American fiction film of the year (Before Midnight); an outstanding first feature from Brazil (Neighboring Sounds); one more masterwork from one of the medium's true giants (Alain Resnais's You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet); and a new career best from a critical favorite of the New Romanian cinema (Beyond the Hills). This second group represents the next tier, a cut above the remaining eleven selections for this year's top twenty.

Overall, I hope that my list provides some sense of the 'where,' 'what' and 'who' of film art in 2013 - even if my list is short on 'event' films, be it the multiplex's Gravity (mostly successful, in my estimation) or the art-house's Blue Is the Warmest Color (which I found only slightly praiseworthy - and almost exclusively for Adèle Exarchopoulos's performance). Then there are the inevitable blind-spots, from The Wolf of Wall Street and 1/10 local debut Her, to the very large number of international premieres that have yet to open commercially in the United States, let alone in Colorado. Consider these exclusions the context for what remained a very good year, even here deep in flyover country.

Finally, I should mention that my use of boldface type (on both the above and below lists) indicates those works about which I have written during the past twelve months. Together these posts, accessible by clicking on the respective titles, comprise my public (critical) engagement with a medium that remains very much alive, aesthetically at least, in this age of long-form television - speaking of 'events,' there was none bigger than the final season of Breaking Bad, another personal audio-visual highlight - and the continued collapse of celluloid as a medium of both production and projection.


Ten Outstanding Older Films Seen for the First Time:
Beware of a Holy Whore (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1971)
Dawn of the Dead (George A. Romero, 1978)
Le grand amour (Pierre Étaix, 1969)
The Hanging Tree (Delmer Daves, 1959)
Professional Sweetheart (William A. Seiter, 1933)
Revenge (Yermek Shinarbayev, 1989; pictured)
Three Resurrected Drunkards (Nagisa Oshima, 1968)
To Live (Zhang Yimou, 1994)
Travels with My Aunt (George Cukor, 1972)
Yoyo (Pierre Étaix, 1965)

A far more subjective and scatter-shot experience of the year that was, a year that most significantly introduced this writer to the wonderful mini corpus of long-forgotten French comedian Pierre Étaix.

The Best Films of 2013

1. The Grandmaster (Wong Kar-wai)
2. The Great Beauty (Paolo Sorrentino)
3. Frances Ha (Noah Baumbach, 2012; pictured)
4. Leviathan (Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel, 2012)
5. Post Tenebras Lux (Carlos Reygadas, 2012)
6. A Touch of Sin (Jia Zhangke)
7. Before Midnight (Richard Linklater)
8. Gravity (Alfonso Cuarón)
9. Spring Breakers (Harmony Korine, 2012)
10. Museum Hours (Jem Cohen, 2012)

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Twenty-thirteen - Better by the Help of a Good Epilogue: Matías Piñeiro's Viola & Claire Denis's Bastards

Taking its title from the gender masquerading protagonist of William Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, and borrowing story-lines and snatches of dialogue from both the aforesaid and also the playwright's As You Like ItMatías Piñeiro's Viola (2012) presents its theatrical subject in a de-spatialized fugue of tightly framed faces, shot just above or at the eye-level of the film's shifting set of speakers. Piñeiro elegantly cuts within the camera, moving between his stratum of actors as they articulate the author's words or elaborate in their own philosophical flights of fancy. In thus abstracting the Bard's (and Piñeiro's) dialogue from a proscenium-like setting, the early thirty-something Argentine writer-director re-conceives his sister art subject - this is a film that engages and explores questions of theatrical and cinematic ontology and specificity - as an object, foremost, of language, as an endlessly reproducible and transportable series of conversations that will quickly move beyond the film's opening, imprecisely marked theatrical space (where the disguised Viola first meets countess Olivia). Piñeiro consequently presents Shakespeare's art in the form with which it is most often lived, as words to be read, recalled and repeated, rather than as a fully formed art-object to be received within the space of exhibition. Theatre is dialogue, and cinema faces in this searching, intelligent sixty-minute interstitial.   

Twelfth Night and As You Like It additionally offer points of theoretical and narrative departure, all in a manner that distinctively recalls the verbose cinema of Eric Rohmer - the Millennial director accordingly joins fellow Argentine auteur Celina Murga in finding significant inspiration in the work of the late French master. The performance's Viola, the pictured Cecilia (Agustina Muñoz), plays the disguised Cesario both on and off the stage, inserting herself in the romantic life of her co-star countess, before attaining the same heterosexual fate as her Shakespearean model. (In so doing, Piñeiro makes even more explicit the essentially modern gender instability of the author's original.) A second Viola (María Villar) materializes just before the film's mid-point, bringing with her a shift in emphasis from the world of theatre to that of D.I.Y. arts publication: Viola and her boyfriend produce the multi-media "Metropolis," which she disseminates by bicycle throughout Buenos Aires's underground arts community. Indeed, it is this latter sub-culture that the film's second half - which will bring together the two Viola's, occasion the As You Like It dialogue referenced in this post title's (in the midst of a spatially disorienting dream sequence) and conclude with an off-key musical 'epilogue' that follows a Rohmerian bit of voice-over business - ultimately sketches. Piñeiro's highly accomplished re-appropriation of Shakespearean light comedy is in the respect a fundamentally social affair in its orientation, a work of film art that achieves its communitarian vision through its overlapping multi-character story construction, romantic entanglements and of course, its sinuous, sensual mise-en-scène.

Where narrative subject and visual style prove elegantly coterminous in Piñeiro's Viola, leading French auteur Claire Denis's Bastards (Les salauds, 2013) emerges more, by contrast, as an application, however tonally appropriate, of the filmmaker's exceedingly distinctive audio-visual idiom. Combining the dusky vocals and moody instrumentation of Tindersticks with the tenebrous cinematography of Agnès Godard, consistent collaborators both, Denis's film evocatively sketches the grim, conspiratorial story of the extended Silvestri family as they suffer through a Great Recession-era crisis of their own partial creation. From the rain-soaked streets and facades that accompany the film's elliptical opening suicide set-piece, cause and effect of the aforementioned familial breakdown, Denis fixes her post-Bressonian gaze on a series of lightly stroked surfaces that together mark the filmmaker's immediately recognizable signature. Most notable among these forms are the focalized bodies of co-leads Vincent Lindon and Chiara Mastroianni: respectively, we behold the middle-aged Marco's muscular physique beneath his clinging linen shirt and Raphaëlle's supple, mole-covered skin as she writhes beneath her mysterious new neighbor. The body, or more precisely the abused anatomy of Lola Créton's Marquis de Sade's namesake Justine*, presents a site likewise for the film's uttermost expression of abjection, intimated and articulated in increasingly troubling a-chronological snippets, before being forcefully disclosed in the work's concluding low-res shocker. Bastards finds a filmmaker in full control of her inimitable art - if also a shade ambivalent toward the arch provocation that she is bringing to the screen.

* The Justine reference was noted by Tativille contributor Lisa K. Broad.

Cinema Guild is distributing Viola in North America, while Sundance Selects is responsible for Bastards, having released the film both theatrically and via Amazon's streaming service in the United States.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

New Film: Stray Dogs & 12 Years a Slave

Following the Berlin and Cannes premieres of Wong Kar-wai's The Grandmaster (2013) and Jia Zhang-ke's A Touch of Sin (2013) respectively, films that in both instances conceivably merit the title of best in competition, Venice witnessed the debut of a third, prodigious masterpiece of the Sinophone cinema that looks to be the unequivocal equal of the first two, and again a leading pick for the best of its fest. Tsai Ming-liang's Stray Dogs (Jiao you, 2013), from a Tung Cheng-yu, Song Peng-fei and Tsai screenplay, matches The Grandmaster's overriding temporal obsession and A Touch of Sin's encyclopedic inscriptions of space with its own exceptionally rigorous study of physical presence, of the spatialized experience of time that is no less the (story-based) cinema's fundamental subject and substance. Or, to put it another way, Stray Dogs is all about the occupation of spaces, whether it is lightly surreal urban architecture that provides the film with its indelible, post-deluge setting - Tsai expressly personifies these places - or the exceptionally marginal edge of the capitalist economy where the film's protagonists live their unendingly difficult lives.

Tsai sets the template immediately, providing, in the first of the film's exquisite (and exquisitely slow) sequence-shots - Tsai's visual constructions find the director at the absolute peak of his powers - a formally re-focused emphasis on patient observation, on a multi-sensory exploration of the decomposing mise-en-scène, which will lend the sudden kick of a sleeping child something approaching narrative significance. Both Tsai's obliquely staged, elegantly lit landscapes of a rain-sodden and wind-swept Taiwan, and his unshaven close-ups of patriarch Lee (Lee Kang-sheng) ironically serving as human advertising for new housing, unfold over a matter of minutes rather than the seconds that they would cover more conventional art-house fare. Invested with phenomenological force thus, Tsai creates a marginally narrative cinema, however lacking in dramatic action and verbal exposition for the most part, which draws more on the visual arts, ultimately, than it does on literary and theatrical (read: temporal) media. In fact, in the film's final set-piece, Tsai evacuates his long-take imagery first of human presence, and consequently, of ambient sound, leaving only a monochromatic mural in the rear-distance as his visual field becomes little more than filmed visual art.

The Taiwanese master's profoundly painterly idiom spreads across a series of discrete set-pieces that slowly disclose the film's human subjects: single-father Lee, his two children (Lee Yi-cheng and Lee Yi-chieh) and the unidentified mother or motherly figures (Yang Kuei-mei, Lu Yi-ching and Chen Shiang-chyi; all three have collaborated with director previously) who move into and out of their orbit. Stray Dogs centers on the family's meager, mundane existence, depicting their daily struggle to satisfy even their most basic needs, from the shelter they find in a grim single-room space to the grimy public lavatory where they brush their teeth and wash their feet - in the trickle that escapes from the bathroom plumbing. Tsai fills his film with the quotidian, with the ways in which the Lee family subsides and spends their days on the most distant margins of the Taiwanese economy, be it again in the work to which the semi-homeless Lee is subjected, or the childhood fantasies that the young heroine pursues in the film's gorgeously lensed supermarket, a vast space of reflective surfaces and painstakingly curated displays. Stray Dogs similarly concerns itself with biological necessity, with the acts of eating, sleeping and even urinating (all of which the films' actors do in full view of the spectator).

As befits this subject, which is to say as is appropriate for characters who struggle to maintain without any hope of economic advancement or personal progress, Stray Dogs proves a comparatively static experience, for most of its two-hour plus running time at least. This will change, at least momentarily, following the film's most memorable (and certainly discussed) set-piece, Lee's violent, inebriated, psychoanalytically ripe fondling and consumption of his daughter's toy cabbage head - a cousin as it were to The Wayward Cloud's (2005) even more shocking watermelon. Following this outpouring of abject despair, Tsai will momentarily break from the everyday, as the film's focal patriarch, in a passage reminiscent and worthy of Kenji Mizoguchi - a key source for Tsai's compositional strategies - leads his children to the water's edge in the midst of precipitous nocturnal downpour. Melodrama, in other words, will make a brief but impactful cameo.

In the extended (concluding) flashback that follows, the Lee's reemerge within an ultra-modern domestic interior that was devastated by the act-of-god that has occurred before the film's narrative begins. Here, in this once comfort-filled setting, there is at least some sense of the upper middle-class experiences and modern conveniences that the family has heretofore lacked, whether it is the homework that the children work on in the presence of their mother (presumably) or the illuminated leather chair in which Lee relaxes. The flood-decimated flat, however, discloses the fundamental sickness that inflects this bourgeois family - a thematic motif that is confirmed in one of the film's rare moments of exposition, and which the viewer is led to speculate may be connected to the male lead's apparent alcoholism. This displaced emotional devastation will come to the fore, moreover, in the film's staggering thirteen minute-plus static penultimate camera set-up, a scene, which in its divergent gazes and multi-planar staging, calls to mind the interpersonal alienation of the director's outstanding Vive l'Amour (1994). Indeed, in the emotional terrain it explores, its predilection for narrative experimentation, its implicit political discourse and even in its occasional recourse to the surreal, the very great Stray Dogs will keep the same modernist faith as the aforesaid late twentieth-century masterpiece.

If in spirit Stray Dogs belongs most to modernism's (twentieth) century, Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave (2013) finds its inspiration in the nineteenth, and not simply by virtue of its slave-era subject. Based on freeman Solomon Northup's published 1853 account of his kidnapping and subsequent decade-plus as a slave in the Antebellum South, McQueen's third theatrical feature reverberates, as Tativille contributor Lisa K. Broad has smartly observed, with the tropes of nineteenth century melodrama. 12 Years a Slave indeed hinges on that most Hugoesque of concerns - here it is worth remembering that Northup wrote his memoirs in the very specific discursive context of the mid-nineteenth century - namely, a concealed identity that provides the key to the hero's future happiness (and in this particular case, his freedom). The (legally sanctioned) breakdown of the family and the moral compromises foisted upon Lupita Nyong'o's Patsey, which is to say two of the greater sins perpetrated by an ostensibly religious, thoroughly wicked public, only deepen the emotional impact of McQueen's period melodrama.

Of course, 12 Years a Slave is also a movie of its moment, of an increased interest in the abhorrent institution of Trans-Atlantic slavery, in the midst of the Obama presidency, that in the past year has beget the uniformly rich Lincoln (2012), Django Unchained (2012) and Chris Eska's indie The Retrieval (2013). 12 Years a Slave adds an extreme sense of visceral pain - aided by ear-splitting sound-cues - and a searing sense of injustice to this latest American feature-film cycle, as well as a carefully observed lyricism and sensitivity toward duration of which McQueen makes discerning use (as for instance in the film's extraordinary long-take lynching scene). Though not ultimately among this writer's choices for the year's best, 12 Years a Slave nonetheless would make a perfectly respectable choice for 'Best Picture' - much as Lincoln or the superior, if less-than-safe Django Unchained would have one year ago. While in recent years Oscar seems to have perfected the selection of films that would quickly enter the annals of its most uninspired favorites, 12 Years a Slave in the end may be too much (and too obvious a film) for the middle-brow body to ignore.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

"I like these Anglo-Saxons": In Consideration and Great Appreciation of William A. Seiter's Professional Sweetheart

Bowing at Radio City Music Hall in July 1933, an apt setting for the New York premiere of RKO's radio-sponsorship send-up, Professional Sweetheart, director William A. Seiter's early Ginger Rogers vehicle appeared in the latter stages of an epochal cultural transformation of which Seiter and his playwright screenwriter Maurine Watkins (Chicago, 1926) seemed almost uniquely discerning. Defined by a rising consumer capitalism, anti-immigration sentiment and increasingly liberal sexual mores, the immediate postwar years represented what would prove the last glorious gasp for the nation's long dominant Protestant mass culture - sociologist E. Digby Baltzell has named this the "Anglo-Saxon Decade" - though it would be an apogee that already contained the seeds of its own decline, a fall that would be felt acutely with the imminent rise of the more heterogeneous New Deal coalition. Professional Sweetheart, released in the earliest stages of the latter's ascendancy, observes the conflicts or space between prewar heterogeneous Protestant culture, here a lucrative commodity sold to denizens of the nation's "Corn Belt," and both a newer urban secular American Protestantism and an emergent Rooseveltian cultural multiplicity.

Rogers's radio spokeswoman Glory Eden is both cultural product, she is said to represent "the lost innocence that went out with the war," and also a site for the contradictions that had since developed among the nation's historically dominate Protestant faction. Billed as "The Purity Girl" for wash-cloth king Ipswich's "Ippsie-Wippsie Radio Hour," Glory's public persona is closely monitored and managed by her corporate handlers: she is ordered "certified milk" for the sake of the hotel's nosy staff, is forced to wear a modest nightgown for a matronly interviewer (Zasu Pitts as Elmerada), and is denied every postwar vice - be it drink, cigarettes or jazz. In private, however, would-be wild-child Glory demands sexy underwear and fantasizes about transgressive trips to Harlem. Belying her image spectacularly, Glory contends that she wants to go "the Devil," preferably with an international playboy; she wants to "sin and suffer," ruing that "now I'm only suffering." There is, in other words, a substantial disparity between Glory's wholesome public image, her commodified self, and what is in effect the acculturated postwar reality she embodies.

This gap is made possible by the lax censorship standards that obtained in Hollywood before the implementation of the Hays Code one year later. It is also indicative of a larger project that Seiter, in a measure of his considerable artistic imagination, pursues throughout the highly accomplished Professional Sweetheart. In the opening studio set-piece, where we are first introduced to our 'Purity Girl,' Seiter makes use of sound perspective to express the discrepancy between the ad campaign that reaches the airwaves and those who are producing the 'Corn Belt'-targeted program: as the camera surveys the studio space with Glory on-the-air, we see (but don't hear) the show's host berating a producer behind a thick pain of glass. That is, we see the reality that is concealed behind the kitschy 'Ippsie-Wippsie Radio Hour' that we, and Middle America, hears. Similarly, Glory's consequent on-air wedding again plays on radio's image-less ontology, with the broadcaster effusively describing the couple's gifts - even as Seiter's tracking camera discloses the far less impressive truth - while also lamenting the fact that they are not on television (in what is therefore a very early reference to the new medium). Seiter's pre-Code cinema shows the reality that 'The Purity Girl' radio spots conceal.

In an attempt to protect the restless, sex-starved Glory's small-town image, Gregory Ratoff's Ipswich namesake, along with his two protégées, Frank McHugh's Speed Dennis and Franklin Pangborn's Herbert Childress - which is to say, a thickly-accented non-native, Irish newsman-type and coded homosexual; there is again a different ethnic reality that the film's fake, commodified purity obscures - conspire to identify a suitable mate, "an Anglo-Saxon from the Corn Belt" as one of the men puts it. From her coterie of admirers, and much to Herbert's initial chagrin - Pangborn would prefer a blond - they choose Daniel Boone-figure Jim Davey (Norman Foster), a hulking Kentucky native of Anglo-Saxon (read: American or Scotch-Irish) ancestry. A real white American, in other words. When Speed travels to the "home of the purest Anglo Saxons" to recruit the unsuspecting Jim, McHugh's character insists that he not wear his "store cloths," but instead his rural, hunting garb in a further attempt to construct his own wholesome Middle-American (and indeed, pre-twentieth century) persona. Following their on-air nuptials, which Glory wrongly assumes will be her ticket to worldly pleasures, Jim whisks his new bride back to his back-country cabin, to the quieter life that he presumes every woman wants.

While Glory initially expresses satisfaction with her new life, her on-air displacement by another member of a charter demographic of the New Deal coalition, her black maid Vera (Theresa Harris) - when listening to Glory's replacement, Jim tellingly notes of her more jazz vocal inflections: "say, she makes you feel kind of, say they shouldn't let her do that on the air" - spurs Rogers's lead to return to her star-making role. (Seiter accordingly initiates a discourse that his subsequent Sing and Like It [1934] would pursue to an even greater degree: namely, the conflict between the life of the artist and that of a more banal, familial existence; in the latter comic feature, Pitts's modestly talented heroine, to be generous, resigns herself to the fact that she will have to sleep with one of his producers - a belief that she most certainly is alone in holding.) Returning back to New York, Glory and Jim now share the microphone in what will thus represent a détente of sorts between Jim's simpler prewar ('Corn Belt') world and Glory's more liberal postwar (urban) present.

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Professional Sweetheart represented Ginger Rogers's first role and starring performance for RKO, following her previous contract work for Warner Bros. (which concluded with her breakthrough appearances in 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933 earlier that same year). It was of course beside Fred Astaire at RKO that Rogers built her enduring reputation, beginning in yet another 1933 production, Flying Down to Rio, which was conceived originally as a Dolores del Rio vehicle. Professional Sweetheart was itself received as a Ginger Rogers film, despite her relatively short résumé, with Variety noting that the film "demonstrates again, as she has before, that light comedy is her apple pie." (7.18.1933)  Reviews were indeed generally positive, with The New York Times's Frank S. Nugent arguing that "Miss Rogers has rarely been more entertaining" and that "RKO Radio, which sponsored the picture, merits a vote of thanks for an entertaining comedy." (7.14.1933) Photoplay shared both sentiments in naming Seiter's film one of the "Six Best Pictures of the Month," alongside the aforementioned Gold Diggers of 1933 and the George Cukor classic Dinner at Eight. (Aug. 1933)  Though the film is largely unknown today, it is not for a general lack of critical appreciation in its own time.

Then again, there was at least one source of dissension: trade publication The Film Daily complained of Professional Sweetheart's "choppy story and mechanical treatment and situations," insisting ultimately that the RKO film was "very mild and unimportant." (5.27.1933)  To the latter point, there did seem to exist agreement that as pre-Code as it may now seem, Professional Sweetheart was in fact not prohibitively lurid for contemporary audiences, but instead was "wholesomely insane satire," as Motion Picture's more favorable review observed. (Sept. 1933)  That Professional Sweetheart presently appears, to its very benefit, to lack this same 'respectable' quality, above all speaks to the next two-plus decades of comparatively sanitized Hollywood practice. This is a racy, culturally irreverent studio cinema - before the Hays Code effectively suspended these birthrights - that continues to manifest a real daring in the true subject of its radio-world satire: an Anglo-Saxonism that had become a kitsch commodity in an increasingly pluralistic (newly New Deal) America.