Thursday, June 16, 2005

New Film: 5x2, Batman, and Miranda July (as well as a corresponding look into the future of motion picture distribution)

Opening in limited release last Friday, Francois Ozon's 5x2 (2004) confirms the director's place at the forefront of France's latest generation of filmmakers. Structured in five separate segments ordered in reverse chronology, 5x2 begins with a couple's divorce proceedings and then moves backwards, concluding before the "2" were together. As gimmicky as this might sound, Ozon's structure assures that its viewers will react differently to the film's two protagonists than they might have were the same events arranged chronologically. In other words, suspense becomes a matter of psychological revelation rather than the traditional mechanisms of cause and effect. Nevertheless, Ozon eschews lucidity. When an opportunity to clarify previously narrated actions does arise -- either in terms of what actually happened or in why a character may have behaved in such and such a way -- Ozon refuses to comply.

Batman Begins plays by very different rules. In Christopher Nolan's origins narrative, the future contours of the Batman persona are psychologized to painstaking -- and painful -- extents. Jung is the explicit point of reference here, in everything from Bruce Wayne's motivations to the villainous archetypes that populate Gotham.

Yet, if Batman Begins suffers from an overdetermined application of psychoanalytic theory, this is about the only level where it proves lacking. Otherwise, the fifth installment in the Batman series soars on the basis of Christian Bale's incomparable Capped crusader -- he deserves to be a huge international star, Nolan's crisp (if a little too montage-friendly) direction, and his and David S. Goyer's witty script. It hardly seems possible, but Batman Begins demands a sequel, whereas the year's other blockbuster source narrative, The Revenge of the Sith, succeeded only in mercifully guiding its audience back to its Episode IV starting point.

Of course, Batman Begins is your prototypical event movie, monopolizing multiplex screens as it creates a panic not unlike the one that grips the Narrows in Nolan's pic. On the other hand, 5x2 is destined to a limited national release before it appears at only those video stores which are a bit more subtitle friendly. Closer in fate to the latter than the former is Miranda July's feature film debut Me and You and Everyone We Know, which christens the new IFC Film Center (at the corner of Sixth Avenue and Third Street in Lower Manhattan)this coming Friday. The winner of numerous prizes at both Sundance and Cannes, July's film reimagines Hal Hartley, exchanging a y-chromosome for an x. This is to say that Me and You... does not exactly cover new territory in its postmodern universe, though undoubtedly it will be welcomed as a fresh indie alternative to the dog days of the blockbuster season, which surely it is.

More than anything else, July's film demonstrates a tenderness for its characters, which the director democratically extends over her entire cast. In this way, July avoids the pitfall of the narcissistic actor-auteur -- that is to set his or her own character above their supporting players, intellectually and/or morally. Yet, it is not even this admirable characteristic that might be the film's greatest virtue, but rather Miranda July's own performance, which exudes a charm that is rare in any type of cinema, let alone a postmodern one that so often succumbs to bad faith (think the Coen Brothers).

Unfortunately for July's film, it does suffer a bit for its timing: Me and You and Everyone We Know possesses a mildly-creepy pedophiliac tenor. Now we're not talking Michael Jackson here, but in the days following the verdict you get my point. With that said, there is narrative justification for July's benign adoption of this trope, which it would seem redeems any hint of something uglier (which is only that, a hint). In the end, sex is never the motivation.

So what is the box office potential for Me and You and Everyone We Know? That of course remains to be seen, though surely it will not be hurt by its multiple prizes and what I suspect will be very good word of mouth. Both certainly are essential for any financial success that it may experience, as they are for most indie and mid-major motion pictures. As long as films of this scope -- and of 5x2's -- continued to be produced, they will depend greatly on the power-broking of the festival circuit. Likewise, your Batman Begins' will continue to be impervious to critical appraisal as their inherent cultural traction combined with obscene ad budgets will solidify their statuses as events.

Does this mean that film distribution is static? No, but in my judgment the future will not be characterized by a leveling, but rather by amplification of trends already current. Admittedly it was a Thursday afternoon screening six days after its premiere, but there were only nine other people in the Quad Theatre with me to see 5x2. Of these, at least three were senior citizens, meaning that they would have paid $7 max. That leaves, at most, seven people who paid the full $10. How can a theatre in Greenwich Village maintain the sort of overhead it does with such meager audiences? The answer is that it can't.

Now while the tendency might be thus to decry the injustices in the distribution process, this inviability might just pave the way for greater viewing opportunities for everyone -- not just those who live in the dozen or so US cities where one can expect to see your 5x2's. In my mind, on-line distribution is an inevitability: as long as there is a demand for art films, distribution will exist at some level. What on-line distribution affords is a minimal amount of overhead and a maximum audience. While the technology may or may not be there for all films to be made available thusly, it is going to happen because it is far and away the most economical system.

Consequently, one should expect the same thing to happen in film that has already happened in the music industry: increased fragmentation. As filmmaker and critic Chris Petit once speculated, in the future art films will be shared by e-mail. At the same time, for those more ambitious independent filmmakers, in my estimation, film festivals and critics will become even more important, as their roles as guides to the vast cosmos of independent film crystallize.

For those persons truly interested in the art of cinema, these are all good things, even though it shatters notions of cinema as a communal experience. Then again, when was the last time you interacted with someone you didn't know at a movie theatre? Of course one of the broader implications is the increasing isolation of recreation, but this isn't a factor that will shape the economics of film distribution. It's the cost efficiency of this system that will rule, which for anyone, who like myself may one day wish to make films closer to Ozon's or July's than to Nolan's, is a good thing. And for anyone who just likes to go to movies and pass a few hours experiencing visceral pleasure and eating popcorn, you know what, as long as there are millions of others who continue to share this desire, this will not change either. In fact, theatrical distribution may just become (or remain, I suppose) the prestige-guarantor for entertainment-first works, serving as little more than a tool to sell film downloads or DVDs -- however it will work -- just as festivals and critics will do the same for smaller films.

Saturday, June 04, 2005

Miyazaki, Shintoism & Ecology

Commencing yesterday and running through the 30th of this month, New York's Museum of Modern Art presents Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata: Masters of Animation. The retrospective's centerpiece will be the North American premiere of Howl's Moving Castle (2004), Miyazaki's latest, which will subsequently receive a limited national release starting June 10th. (For Minneapolis readers, the film will open on that date at the Uptown Theatre.)

As no great fan of animation, let alone animae, I will admit that I think of Miyazaki as something of an exception. His best films manifest many of the same qualities as the very best of the classical Hollywood system: that is, they succeed in addressing multiple audiences at once, both as organic works of art and as entertainments in their own right. Spirited Away (2001), for instance, is targeted at ten year-old girls, seeking to remedy their principle anxieties, while operating as a parable for the economic crisis for older viewers. Then again, those not within the former demographic are likewise given a glimpse into the young female's psychoses. It is in other words an art that operates on numerous levels, separately addressing different viewers.

Another instance of dual and even multiple address in Miyazaki's work is in its salience for culturally Japanese and non-Japanese audiences. In any context, Spirited Away is a fantasy. However, for the Japanese viewers, it is a fantasy mitigated by Shinto metaphysics. Spirits are everywhere in the work, as kami are everywhere in nature. When a creature enters the spa with a horrendous odor, it is the product of a spirit. Chihiro, the ten year-old protagonist, judiciously cleans the monster, ridding the spa of this terrible spirit. In this way, not only does Spirited Away manifest a Shinto causality, but further upholds one of the religion's four affirmations: the importance of physical cleanliness. To bath in Shinto is to participate in an important purifying ritual.

Another of these affirmations is the sacredness of nature, which is a concern that the filmmaker often returns to throughout his corpus. In films like Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984) and Princess Mononoke (1997), this Shinto belief is fused with an ecological allegory that condemns reckless industrial civilization, and particularly its employment of nuclear weaponry. That Shinto has so easily coopted environmentalism surely accounts for the latter's prevalence in recent Japanese cinema -- beyond Miyazaki, major works include the Shinto-titled Himatsuri (Mitsuo Yanagimachi, 1985), Rhapsody in August (Akira Kurosawa, 1990), and Charisma (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 1999), among others.

Beyond Japanese cinema, where ecological concerns flow from Shintoist thought, environmentalism has become, arguably, the chief religious art of the modern world. The cathedrals of the medieval world have been since replaced by public spaces that call attention to a transgressive industrial past. Another recent MoMA exhibit perfectly articulated the religious intimations of environmentalist art. Groundswell: Constructing the Contemporary Landscape offers a view of contemporary urban landscapes reappropriated after their industrial dereliction. As the program notes, "nearly every significant landscape designed in recent years occupies a site that has been reinvented and reclaimed from obsolescence or degradation as cities in the postindustrial remake their outdoor spaces." In other words, these new designs represent a sort of contrition toward a misused Mother Earth, often maintaining the scars of their industrial abuse as if a continual reminder for generations ahead of the industrial era's grave sins.

But more on that later: in a film review of mine to be published next month, I further articulate the reasons for evaluating environmentalism as a religion. If you are unable to wait that long, I would recommend Michael Crichton's speech to the Commonweath Club.

As for the current film program at the MoMA, or for Miyazaki's art more generally, it almost goes without saying that it is essential, whether or not its respective religious intimations are of any interest to you. I mention these only out of what is otherwise critical slight: to understand Miyazaki's work in particular, I would argue, it is necessary to understand it within its Shintoist rubric.

Friday, May 27, 2005

Current Exhibitions: Monet, Basquiat, and "Little Boy"

Opening today at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, Monet's London: Artists' Reflections on the Thames: 1859-1914 is what it promises: a multi-media survey of England's most famous waterway. Likewise, as the name intimates, it is Monet's work which is not only the centerpiece of the exhibit, but is also its most interesting feature. Given the artist's declaration that it was "instantaneity [and] above all the enveloping atmosphere" that most interested him, the Thames with its infamous fog perfectly suited his purpose. In his "Houses of Parliament..." cycle (1903-4) for instance, the titular structure is portrayed through various densities of fog, rendered by the relative sharpness of the structure and the intensity of the light, whose position likewise marks the specificity of the time depicted. In this way, Monet limns both a precise moment in time -- the program of the Impressionist -- and also the tactile presence of the fog. Put another way, Monet's Thames work seeks to transcends its sensory limitations, adding touch to its optical aspect. It does so not through physical reproduction of the tactile, but rather in a certain evocation, impelling the viewer to recall their former experience of precisely such a place. The strength of Monet's London paintings thus depends upon the imagination of the viewer; however for the viewer who actively engages with his work, the effect is an art that transcends the immediately contours of the medium's ontology.

Outside of the Monet's, perhaps the most interesting piece in the exhibit, at least for his aficionados, is James McNeill Whistler's Nocturne (circa 1870). This early work of a series with the same name, having the appearance of a single grayish, pale-dark blue color-field, with a barely visible horizon line, possesses the same quality as his decorative arts interior design or his portraiture wherein the subject's garment and the backdrop seem to be cut from the same material. In all these, attention is called to the unity of the work, and implicitly, in the case of the paintings, to the fact that the aesthetic object is in fact a painting. His is an inherently reflexive, and therefore, profoundly modern art.

Elsewhere in the Brooklyn Museum, Basquiat, a career survey of the notorious Brooklyn-born artist who died in 1988 at the age of twenty-seven, continues to draw well (the exhibit will close on the fifth of next month). If "Monet's London..." shows how painting can transcend its own material limitations, Basquiat is symptomatic of everything wrong with the plastic arts of the not-to-distant past. Sure, his is an ouevre that builds upon the iconography of his ancestral Caribbean, the graphic forms of his lower-class rearing, and taps into the anger of his zeitgeist, but then again, the lack of lucidity on display in Basquiat's work sorely limits its rhetorical strength. In an untitled piece (1981), said to have been mistakenly referred to as "Skull," the limits of Basquiat's art finds its pictorial analogy: a cluttered skull, filled to overflowing with violent forms that add up to little more than the uncertainty that it initially announces. Lest Basquiat's irrationality is taken as insight, however, it should be added that a chaos of this sort is often under-girded by rhetoric which is clearly imparted to the observer, as with the best of surrealist art. Indeed, the ultimate problem with Basquiat's art is that it argues through emotion without making sufficient recourse to the intellect. It is angry art that fails to make the case for its rage.

Whereas Basquiat fails to adequately articulate the crisis of his moment, there is no similar deficiency on display at the Japan Society's Little Boy: The Arts of Japan's Exploding Subculture (which runs through July 24th). In this multi-artist, multi-media survey, the vitality of Japan's youngest generation of artists is drawn into sharp focus. From the monumental works of Chiho Aoshima (born 1974) that first greet visitors to the exhibition, it is clear that Japan's current crop of visual artists is reinventing traditional and newer idioms alike in order to parse a particular anxiety evidently shared by a number of its artists. In Aoshima's Magma Spirit Explodes -- Tsunami is Dreadful (2004), manga (comic book) art and the horrors wrought by the subject matter are mixed with traditional understandings of a universe animated by spirits (Shintoism) and the traditional form of a scroll to create a work that is at once of its moment and deeply indebted to Japanese tradition. Aya Takano (b. 1976), who claims the influence of 14th century Italian religious art, mysterious crop circles, and the music of Bjork, shows an ouevre that is far less opaque than these cursory influences would suggest. Takano's sketches and paintings, often depicting teenage and tween girls, manifest a disquiet that is everywhere in "Little Boy." They seem to be the new girls of the Folies Bergere, imbued with the same ennui (in all aspects of life, including sexually), though again they are much younger than Manet's woman -- in keeping with Japanese society's ubiquitous fetishizing of very young women. Like its cinema from the previous two-plus decades, Japanese visual arts has transformed a European vernacular into one that is very particular to its own cultural variances. Perhaps much of the recent hand-wringing that has occurred over the sorry state of painting may be due in part to Western commentator's failure to look in the right places? As with the cinema, the epicenter of the visual arts may have shifted east.

More evidence of this exists elsewhere in the exhibit. Beyond Aoshima and Takano, there is also Chinatsu Ban's (b. 1973) pixilated canvas, Digital Elephant Underpants (2005), which thusly reconfigures cubism in light of primitive computer graphics, and Izumi Kato's (b. 1969) untitled sculptural cycle (all three from 2004), which feature painted neon green inflections that seem to speak to a dread that continues to infect society. Indeed this creep is also picked up in Takashi Murakami's (b. 1962) Time Broken-Black, which references a Japanese cartoon from the 1970s that ended with the same mushroom cloud animation signifying the animae's happy ending. In fact, it is this subject that would seem to hover over so much of this work, which is no great surprise provided that the title of the exhibit, coincidentally curated by Murakami himself, is code for the nuclear bomb. Thus, Murakami offers an interpretative thread that ties together these collected works, and more profoundly the artists of his shared time. Little Boy is without question a major event in contemporary art, not to be missed by anybody within a commutable distance to the Japan Society.