Sunday, July 03, 2005

Current Exhibitions: Pioneering Modern Painting / The Fabric of Dreams

The museum equivalent of Batman Begins -- a major summer blockbuster, though one lacking the cache of say a Van Gogh, the Sith of the art world -- Pioneering Modern Painting: Cézanne and Pissarro 1865-1885 (running now through September 12th at the Museum of Modern Art New York) seeks to contextualize the work of these two late nineteenth century giants within their working relationship. At first glance one fears a curatorial straw-man: none of his contemporaries, let alone Pissarro, can match Cézanne's achievement in reinventing the language of an entire medium. After all, the art of Cézanne represents no less than a translation of 19th century science into the medium of painting, providing an important precursor to profoundly subjective literature of Joyce and Proust: in looking at one of Cézanne's paintings, the spectator is compelled to overlook intentional inconsistencies and to combine the work's disparate color fragments in his or her own mind's eye. In other words, the art of Cézanne portends a shifting paradigm in which it is no longer the artist alone who creates the visual object, but rather the artist in collaboration with the spectator, and particularly the eye of the spectator. Visual truth becomes subjective.

Who indeed can match this reconstitution of the medium's mode of spectatorial address? At best, Camille Pissarro is a master of atmospherics and a poet of the melancholy; his is not an original idiom. Still, Pissarro's excellence, such as it is, is on full display in the MoMA's double exhibition. In his Banks of the Marne in Winter (1866), the leaves that have fallen from the trees, the grey skies, and the field that is still green (befitting the earliest days of the season), all combine to create the sadness that marks Pissarro's finest work. On the other hand, when Pissarro's work fully inhabits the summertime -- occasioning not even a cool shadow as he does so well in Crossroads at L'Hermitage, Pontoise (1876) -- it seems little more than comfort food.

If Pissarro is thus a bit uneven, there would seem zero evidence of this in Cézanne's enormous corpus: he is very much the Bresson of painting, steadfastly proceeding according to an individual logic which has touched everything of importance since. Cézanne is not only the father of twentieth century painting, but is almost certainly the greatest single artist in his medium since Rembrandt. None of his peers compare in terms of both aesthetic invention and historical importance... and yet, Pissarro somehow remains a master hanging beside Cézanne. The moral of this is that surely Pissarro is a superlative artist indeed, with touches of grace when his subject matter matches his melancholic temperament. Similarly, Pissarro's work also serves to illuminate Cézanne's somewhat counterintutive high-key tonal register (that is for someone who spent a lifetime painting landscape's, still life's and self-portrait's: Pissarro's is an art of muffled tears, Cézanne's of guttural whelps).

Then again, in contrast to Matisse: The Fabric of Dreams His Art and His Textiles, Cézanne's work seems down right Apollinarian. To me, the real value of the Metropolitan Museum's reconsideration of Matisse's extra-textual sources (on now through September 26th) was its revelation of Matisse as a supreme aesthete, as opposed to the artist-philosopher that I had long assumed, provided his unmistakable preoccupation with line. Speaking for instance of Morocco in connection to one his famed Odalisque's, Matisse noted that he "felt an irresistible need to express that ecstasy, that divine unconcern, in corresponding colored rhythms, rhythms of sunny and lavish figures and colors." In other words, Matisse's confesses a memory and preoccupation with the visual stimuli of the place. Surface appearances guide Matisse no less than touch does Renoir (which can be seen in his soft, gauzy works), or light and air does Monet. One can see Matisse's eye in this assembly of his work.

Of course, the textiles that are on display beside the paintings clearly did provide Matisse with many of the patterns that he would replicate in one work after another. Indeed, the Met exhibit makes a compelling case for his heavy borrowing of this curious source. However, the true value of "Matisse: The Fabric of Dreams His Art and His Textiles" is less in the details of his debt to these pieces than in the role they play in showing how his artistic mind worked. Surely, the textile was precisely what occupied his two-dimensional imagination. It was the sort of subject that engaged his Dionysian spirit. It seems strange to me to classify Matisse in opposition to Cézanne (and with Renoir no less!), but there can be no denying his interest in the purely aesthetic. In this way, Matisse almost becomes an ahistorical figure, guided by the dictates of his aesthetic feeling and not the broader cultural fources that shape each age's art. Then again, the reflexive results of Matisse's concerns produced an art that perfectly instatiates the self-consciousness of his epoch. As such, Matisse must remain to us one of the defining creators of his generation.

In closing, let me make the following observations concerning the curation of the two shows: both do an excellent job providing context for the particular pieces, whether it is the similar subject matter produced by Cézanne and Pissarro or Matisse's borrowing of the graphic qualities of certain textiles. The MoMA exhibition falters a bit in its lighting, impelling the viewer to search out a passable vantage from which to view the paintings; but otherwise, these are first rate, blockbuster shows, more Christopher Nolan than George Lucas.

Friday, July 01, 2005

The Poetic Gesture and Tropical Malady

At the conclusion of Chantal Akerman's feminist masterpiece, Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1976), the titular protagonist, a housewife and prostitute, murderers one of her john's. This sudden act of violence shatters the prevailing transparency of Akerman's work: to this point her narrative has been a kind of Sisyphus with spuds, rendering the crippling banality of Jeanne's life in a series of static, one shot-one sequence takes. Her life consists of cleaning her house, preparing meals for her son, running errands, and performing sex acts on her afternoon clients. (As glib as I might make it sound) the underlining point to this objective representation of her routine is quite obvious: to underscore her psychological inquietude and to reveal the fundamental incongruities produced by her attempt to remain a doting mother and provider for her student son.

However, Akerman moves beyond a simple description of Jeanne's emotional state with the concluding murder. Unlike the acts of prostitution which are woven into her daily routine, this violence represents a definitive break from the everyday, in turn providing the film with its political meaning. And yet the preciseness of this gesture's meaning remains unclear: surely it intimates a break from the roles ascribed her, especially after it follows a day filled with frustrations unlike the routine others; and even so, what then is the solution to her alienation outside of the narrative's negation? Indeed, Jeanne's act is not one which unmistakably announces its reasons. There is a strangeness too it, and an openness involving its interpretation. It is, to coin a phrase, a poetic gesture.

The poetic gesture is by no means alien to film history -- it appears time and again throughout history and across cultures. Then again, the sheer profusion of this (often) causally-unconditioned trope in the work of Apichatpong Weerasethakul sets a new standard. From the outset of his latest, Tropical Malady (2004), Apichatpong features circumstances that at best defy logic: for instance the opening clamor by soldiers to have themselves photographed with a dead body that they've found, the next sequence's quixotic presentation (in long shot) of a naked man walking in the brush, or the ostensible occupation of the local boy in a factory where ice is cut. To see these actions and events is to witness behavior (and perhaps customs) that has not been explained sufficiently. Again, this is why Jeanne Dielman is so instructive: in spite of the clarity that the narrative presents up to its denouement, there is an interpretative opacity created by so odd a behavior.

Which leads one to the second point involving the so-called "poetic gesture": that it presents behavior which is not commensurate with our understanding of rational action. It is in this capacity that Apichatpong's films show the fullest co-option of this trope. Part one of Tropical Malady ends with a scene of romantic intimacy involving its two gay lovers, where they take turns licking one another's hands. On its own, this behavior is preposterous: this is not a normal expression of physical love and desire, full stop. However, when understood in terms of the film's guiding matrix -- "that all of us are by nature wild beasts," and that it is our "duty" to keep our "bestiality in check" -- the impetus behind such behavior is articulated. Like the concluding card game in Luis Buñuel's Viridiana (1961), sex is transfigured into an action whose literal reading does not follow causally from the preceding.

What sets Tropical Malady apart as an exemplar of this trope, however, is not simply the presence of irrational behavior, but is moreover the form's facility in lending meaning to the unaccountable. Part two of Apichatpong's film ultimately refracts the first half, consigning new meaning to a romance masked by the protagonists' near ubiquitous smiles. Subtitled "A Spirit's Path," this journey into a folkloric world populated by a shaman with the power to turn himself into animal form, establishes a parallel to the first half, albeit in a phenomenologically unreal space. Whereas part one purported to present an unembellished modern world, though one whose meaning is obscured in the strangeness of the protagonists' behavior, part two is a purely fictional, fabulist world where causality is dictated by the parameters of the narration. Yet, it is through this illusory world the abstruse earlier half is explained: desire, as is present in the preceding romance, invariably leads to the same destruction wrought by the tiger-spirit in the subsequent fable. Through the second-level matrix of the 'Spirit's Path' narrative, Apichatpong sheds meaning on a sequence of outward gestures which are at once obscure and unreliable; in theory, part one could represent a replicated time and space in a way that science makes clear part two does not. However, Apichatpong uses the unreal to give meaning to the real, which is nothing more than the essence of art itself.

However, it is important not to go too far afield from the topic at hand. Part two also succeeds in further instantiating the poetic gesture's operative function: to convey meaning elliptically, just as poetry uses language in the same capacity. As art is itself a step back from reality with the intention of seeing with greater clarity -- as if we are not only seeing through a glass dimly but are likewise far-sighted -- the poetic gesture's purpose is to distance representation from the everyday, to shatter the illusion of mimetic reproduction, and in the process, to compel active critical interpretation. When meaning is not immediately evident within the contours of an action, the viewer must work more judiciously to grasp a work's meaning. This very process is allegorized in Tropical Malady: the strange world of part one is shown to signify broader truths, while the isolated expressiveness of its gestures often fail to sufficiently convey meaning. With the accompaniment of the second part, the unaccountable things of the first again gain intellection. Indeed, part two is the critical process demanded by the first half's ambiguity; that it is in fable where the truth becomes clearest -- not in the less abstract replication of reality described in the first part -- only underscores art's functional remove from the banal.

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

New Film: Tropical Malady ~ 2005's best to date

As we approach 2005's midpoint, there has been no better picture to receive its American theatrical premiere this year than Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Tropical Malady, which opens today at New York's recently-christened IFC Center. The 34 year-old Thai auteur's third feature to garner significant international attention, Tropical Malady exceeds its predecessors in virtually every respect, showcasing a form that provides a potential new direction for art cinema worldwide. Apichatpong splits the narrative of Tropical Malady into two parts: the first is a gay romance focused upon a soldier and a small-town young man, while the second is a fable concerning another soldier's hunt for a shaman with the power of transforming himself into animal form.

If it sounds as if Tropical Malady is therefore comprised of two distinct short stories, the brilliance of Apichatpong's form rests in the interdependence of these discordant tales. On its own, part one (or part two for that matter) is a relatively pointless exercise in its subject matter: in the case of the first, the nascent romance of a same-sex couple concluding in an oblique gesture of physical love followed by the descent of one of the two into a dark forest. However, when taken with the second part, Apichatpong imbues his narrative with an entirely different meaning. Importantly, the folkloric second half self-consciously references filmic past through its recourse to intertitles, which in turn accentuate the section's antiquated fabulist narrative. This second part is juxtaposed with the modern narrative of part one, which depicts Thailand's hinter-regions as containing elements of the old and new in equal measure. Most examples of international art cinema, circa 2005, are no more than what Apichatpong depicts in this earlier section: man in a world which is in the process of modernizing, both in terms of its infrastructure, and more importantly, morally.

Yet, Tropical Malady defiantly undercuts the logic of part one, and in the process, modernist cinema: Hou Hsiao-hsien, this bitch-slap is directed at you. With part two, Apichatpong allegorizes the romantic coupling presented in the earlier half, arguing for the inherent compatibility of sex and death -- as such becoming the latest advocate of Bataille's conflation of the two. The all-smiles romance of the first part is revealed to be phony and transient, assuring a destruction symbolized by the stalking tiger. Indeed, it is worth remembering Apichatpong's opening quotation as a signifier of the meaning meted in part two: "all of us are by nature wild beasts... Our duty as human beings is to be like animal trainers... keeping our bestiality in check." This applies no less to the lovers than it does to the soldier and shaman -- and after all, it appears preceding the first part anyways. The pursuit of desire leads to the destruction signaled in the second half.

In fact, the meaning of the folkloric second half is to explain the oblique opening salvo, which in spite of its transparent form, offers a vision of society that is shown to be deceptive when refracted by its parallel half. (Consequently to call it "phony" is to do it a slight disservice: part one is the mirror image of part two, even if it is unintelligible without the second.) Similarly, a narrative concerning a hunter in search of a shaman that features intertitles, primitive illustrations, and a logic with no grounding in phenomenological reality becomes true in its revelations concerning human behavior. Again, part two is the interpretative matrix for the first. It also advocates a new kind of art cinema that dispenses with a default realism that is not only wanting, but fundamentally deceptive in its presentation of life's details: all cinema is selective in its narration; the stuff of fable is every bit as capable of clarifying life's crises, so long as the human condition remains immutable, as Apichatpong's adaptation of fable suggests.

Monday, June 27, 2005

The Taste of Tea & A Few Cursory Notes on Current Japanese Cinema

Among the new titles at this year's New York Asian Film Festival, Katsuhito Ishii's The Taste of Tea (2004) deserves nothing less than to become a major cross-over arthouse hit. Why? Ishii's film is exactly what everybody always says they want their film-going experience to be: something new and different. While The Taste of Tea, easily one of the funniest films I have seen in the past year, consciously references Japan's cinematic past -- namely the works of Yasujiro Ozu and particularly The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice (1952) -- it does so in order to define Japanese experience here and now. Ishii, who according to the program notes directed the animation segment in Quentin Tarantino's splatter-riot Kill Bill, Vol. 1 (which I detested, by the way), refracts Japanese experience through recent pop culture, creating a set of characters who possess cartoonish qualities of their own, at times dress in superhero costuming, and who in a few cases are themselves manga illustrators. Yet, if Tarantino's first Kill Bill delights in a dehumanized violence of a sort that comes from thorough participation in video culture, The Taste of Tea -- like the second Kill Bill -- manifests a genuine sympathy and generousness towards each of its characters, allowing Ishii's film to transcend the post-modern trap of self-satisfied irony. There is a warmth mingling with all this absurdity, making the experience of The Taste of Tea something more than pop-culture masturbation.

Beyond Ishii's post-Superflat work, Hayao Miyazaki's latest animated opus, Howl's Moving Castle, and Hirokazu Kore-eda's richly allegorical, high-concept Cannes prize-winner, Nobody Knows (both 2004), likewise mine similar adolescent territory, though offering far less pop-infused takes on modern Japanese life. Each of these films shows an emotional depth that is all-to-often a casualty of our ironic zeitgeist, which is not to say that Japan isn't as guilty as the rest of us in this respect: Takashi Miike's Ichi the Killer (2001) remains the most horrifying cinematic experience I've had all decade, and represents one of the few times in which I have found myself genuinely concerned with the impact that a film might have on its viewer's. Having said that, Japanese cinema at its best, as opposed to Ichi, seems to be experiencing a renaissance, if these three works are in any way representative. In fact, for all the hoopla surrounding recent Iranian, Chinese, Taiwanese, and South Korean cinema, I'm not so sure that there's any richer center of filmmaking today than Japan, especially when one also considers the work of Kitano, K. Kurosawa, Aoyama, and Oshii, to name only a few. Here's hoping that this thesis can be tested by all of us before what seems to be another "golden age" passes.

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.