Sunday, August 14, 2005

Current Exhibition: Oteiza: Myth and Modernism

The Guggenheim's Oteiza: Myth and Modernism, running now through the 24th, is the first comprehensive survey of the Basque sculptor's work ever to be mounted in this country. That his art not only prefigures 1960s-era minimalism but even exceeds much of it in its theoretical complexity renders any Jorge Oteiza exhibition essential. Yet, because of his limited exposure, Oteiza's reputation isn't what it deserves to be: as one of the key sculptors of the twentieth century.

The corpus of Jorge Oteiza (1908-2003) represents an early expression of the minimalist aesthetic in sculpture, presaging the work of Donald Judd and Basque countryman Eduardo Chillida by more than a decade. Yet it is not simply his timing in art historical terms that lends Oteiza's art its substantial merit, but instead it is the success of his formal experimentation in finding an original idiom through which to express his spiritual content. To be sure, this is an art that seeks to express immaterial, metaphysical reality through the decidedly material means of the sculptural medium. However, it is less matter that dictates the tenor of his work, but rather space which defines Oteiza's aesthetic.Particularly, Oteiza, by the mid 1950s, sought to give life to the negative space that conditioned his craft: in carving slits and "light condensers" into slabs of marble and alabaster, Oteiza called attention to the spatial transformations undergone in the process of sculpture, and moreover, to the fact of an invisible presence in the location of a negative space. Oteiza's work instantiates a world unseen; in absence and through absence, Oteiza depicts presence.

Naturally, this formal idiom translates religious allegory to the extent that the latter is similarly concerned with the metaphysical. The fact that Oteiza's corpus features such titles as "You are Peter" and "Portrait of the Holy Ghost" confirms this confluence of formal concerns and religious subject matter. Yet, Oteiza's work retains a clear pedagogical dimension apart from its utilization for religious expression. First, there is its function in shaping one's perception of the medium: no longer is sculpture defined by matter, but instead by the space of which that matter is only a part.

Second, as with his alabaster works, the permeability of the sculptural surface is underscored. Then again, this instability of surfaces retains a certain spiritual resonance to the degree that it elicits a fluidity of visible and invisible reality that denies the false posturings of skepticism. To deny immaterial existence is to twine one's epistemology to the very limited sensory experience of seeing. By the limiting means of sculpture, Oteiza conveys a world that far exceeds its material dimension. This is spiritual art of the first order because it asks the necessary formal questions.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Dimensions of Dialogue

With the DVD release of Jan Svankmajer's 12-minute animated bricolage Dimensions of Dialogue (1982) earlier this summer, one of the truly singular works of the animated cinema is finally available in the United States. Certainly, Svankmajer's reputation as one of the great Surrealists of his chosen medium was already secure with the wide availability of such recent major works as Conspirators of Pleasure (1996) and Little Otik (2000). However, it is with the relatively diminutive Dimensions of Dialogue that Svankmajer shows himself to be one of the three or four most important artists of the Communist twilight in Eastern Europe. Surely, for the brilliance of its form, the ambitiousness of its subject and the boldness of its critique, Dimensions of Dialogue deserves to be considered in the class of this epoch's greatest achievements and as Svankmajer's masterpiece to wit.

Divided into three separate dialogues entitled 'Exhaustive Discussion,' 'Passionate Discourse' and 'Factual Conversation,' Svankmajer indeed exhausts the subject of social interaction in this unbounded critique of human malfeasance. In the first dialogue, two anthropomorphized assemblages of food-stuffs and kitchen utensils respectively lurch towards one another with the latter devouring the former. In turn, this pattern is repeated when a collection of intellectual markers vies with the kitchen products destroying the returning collage with similarly ease. Next it is the now degraded food objects which sully the books, paints, etc., as though the two were mingling in some fictious trash bin. This process of disintegration continues with the resulting forms appearing closer and closer to the form of man himself.

The resulting clay human figure proceeds to spit out a facsimile of himself, as does the copy and so on. Consequently what this series of degradations finally produces is a human figure to be sure, but one lacking in any distinguishing characteristics. Given this lack of defining humanity, Svankmajer invites his spectator to read the inscribed process in negative terms: in turning over from one identity to the next there is a loss until ultimately, variation from one figure to the next ceases to exist. Moreover, the identities of these figures seem to cast light on the specificity of Svankmajer's critique -- the first seems to figure agrarianism, the second, industrialism, and the third a life of letters perhaps most closely associated with the bourgeoisie. In this series of revolutions, mankind destroys its uniqueness, which provides Svankmajer's 'Exhaustive Discussion' its critical heft; Marx's understanding of class antagonism is the subject of Svankmajer's critique.

Though it hardly seems possible, the second section of Dimensions of Dialogue exceeds even the first in its organic representation of critical discourse within an ostensibly analogical narrative. Here two clay figures, a man and a woman, commence an amorous affair. The two figures literally become indistinguishable from one another as Svankmajer manipulates the forms while utilizing his typical stop-motion technique (as he does in the first and third parts as well). In the midst of their passion, Svankmajer shows great economy depicting their love-making in such visuals as a hand and a breast alone amidst a large, amorphic blob of clay.

Once the pair finish, a small piece of their shared physical intercourse is left bouncing about on the table. Neither wishes to reclaim this lost substance, leading the pair to fling it -- their shared past -- at one another. This emerging antagonism becomes only a prelude as the two, now in full No Exit-mode, proceed to rip each other's faces out. What began as ecstatic passion ends in mutual annihilation; certainly, Svankmajer possesses no less skepticism towards the hope of romantic satisfaction than he does in the benefits of revolution seeded in class conflict.

The final section, 'Factual Conversation,' begins with the harmonious interaction of two male busts as they produce various complementary objects from their mouths. After this first concordant round, they produce objects that no longer work together, producing a relative absurdity and incongruence of interaction which is definitively surreal. Yet, their give-and-take does not stop here. The two continue in this exchange until their respective orifices begin to offer similar, competing objects, which eventually assures their mutual destruction. While it might be tempting to read part three, consequently, as a critique of capitalism -- which it may be -- the more compelling reading, given the film's historical circumstances and the undeniable tenor of the first part, would be as a breakdown of mutual benefit, thereby skewering socialism in equal measure. (Though it might also be tempting to view part three in light of the Cold War provided the above verbal analogy, the shared benefit inscribed would seem to rule out this possibility.)

Whatever the precise reading is of this third part, however, what does remain clear is that together, Svankmajer underlines the folly of human interaction on the levels of power (political), sex (interpersonal) and capital (financial).

Saturday, August 06, 2005

New Film: Broken Flowers and 2046

How much of Broken Flowers can be attributed to director Jim Jarmusch's contribution and how much to Bill Murray's? Though the auteur theory seems to have been made for corpuses like Jarmusch's -- as uniform as it is in style and point-of-view -- there can be no mistaking the consistency of Murray's performance in Broken Flowers with his recent work for directors as disparate as Jarmusch (also Coffee and Cigarettes, 2003), Sofia Coppola (Lost in Translation, 2003) and Wes Anderson (Rushmore, 1998; The Royal Tenenbaums, 2001; and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, 2004). Increasingly, Mr. Murray looks as if he is little more than a Cossack away from starring in a series of lost Bresson features. Then again, performance style itself is meaningless without the manner in which the actors are framed and the quality of light that illuminates their gestures. Bill Murray may set a new standard for dead-pan in Broken Flowers, but without the over-arching structure and articulating style of the film, his performative restraint is meaningless.

So it is back to Jarmusch's contribution, which in terms of the work's style is unmistakable: typically, Broken Flowers features the director's use of fades to mark scene-changes, an often static camera, his frequent recourse to pillow shots -- especially in the film's numerous traveling sequences -- which once again mark the director as Ozu's clearest follower in the American cinema -- and even a Bressonian restraint which Murray brings flawlessly to screen. Collectively, these elements of style bring to life the story of Don Johnston -- not to be mistaken with, wait.. give me a second to catch my breath... Don Johnson -- an over-the-hill Don Juan (as we are told two hundred and forty-six times in the first ten minutes of the film) who discovers that he might have long-lost son from one of his many affairs. With Murray's Johnston being persistently brow-beaten by would-be private eye neighbor Jeffrey Wright, the former sets off in search of the mother of his potential off-spring, thereby mixing elements of detective fiction and the road movie, a favorite genre of the Stranger Than Paradise-auteur.

In terms of the women whom he visits -- played by Sharon Stone, Frances Conroy, Jessica Lange, and Tilda Swinton respectively -- Jarmusch tends towards schematics, producing something of a coiling miasma of Middle American banality: its not just that Jarmusch gets much of his financing from Europe, but no small portion of his perspective as well. Yet aside from this bit of slouching towards the Brothers Coen and a few flat jokes (including Sharon Stone's seductress daughter being named Lolita), the Director's typically-dry sense of humor remains in tact, which surely is a good thing given the work's dark denouement. In the end, Broken Flowers does offer a modicum of resolution even as it maintains the openness that has long signified the director's craft. Indeed, there is a fundamental relativity to his art which is best stated by Murray himself near the end of the film: "the past is gone... the future isn't here yet... so all there is is this, the present."

However, there does exist a fundamental flaw to Jarmusch's basic conceit: the present itself is the most unstable category of all, forever dying the moment it comes into existence. Wong Kar-wai's 2046 operates with this understanding, belying the impossibility of Jarmusch's philosophical gloss -- the present is never immune from the past, nor can the future escape an ever-constricting set of possibilities conditioned by what has already come into being. When Chow awakens to his feelings for Fei Wong's (Chungking Express, 1994) Wang, it becomes clear that they will never get together, not because she isn't interested, but rather for the fact that she is already in love. As the voice over narration states, "love is matter of timing; it is no use meeting the right person too early or too late."

Of course, Wang is not Chow's first love interest in 2046. She follows a series of one night-stands, her own incursion as a non-romantic presence, and Chow's fling with the incomparable Bai Ling (Zhang Ziyi, House of Flying Daggers). In Wong's universe, nothing lasts -- people come into our lives, move out of them, and in some cases reappear, as with Faye Wong's character. In Chow and Wang's case, it is not a matter of lovers reuniting, but rather casual acquaintances who become much closer during a second go-round. In this second turn, she begins to assist Chow in his writing. He in turn pens "2047," named after the room in which he lives, and in which they now work. While this text is ostensibly concerned with her absent Japanese lover, the narrator admits that Chow is the true subject of this oblique take on his own feelings for Wang. Importantly, this same Japanese lover is the protagonist in a second novel, "2046," thereby establishing that the film of the same name is also about its author: Wong.

At the end of the film's prequel In the Mood for Love (2000), Leung's character whispers a secret into a wall. 2046 overtly instantiates the substance of his feelings -- or rather Wong's -- not only at the moment of confession but over the course of the director's entire career, even if he sustains the same degree of mystery that "2047" purportedly does: to everyone but (perhaps) those involved. In this way, 2046 is not only the most self-reflexive work of the director's career, but is in fact the fulfillment of a trilogy begun with Days of Being Wild (1991) and continued in In the Mood for Love. Wong shares the secrets of his deepest feelings -- and those of his art -- though with the same degree of abstraction as his fictional science fiction novel "2046." Significantly, this choice of genre is an organically-chosen means for referring to the same obliqueness with which Wong narrates his own feelings.

Lest all of this makes 2046 seem overly-intellectual, the reality is that Wong remains the most purely visceral filmmaker alive today. If Abbas Kiarostami's films pose the great formal questions of our time, Wong makes us feel as no other director can. He is the great aesthete of his time, attuned to the curve of a woman's hip and how the slit in her skirt rides up the side of her leg as no one else is. Then again, his films offer a form that is both original and that breathlessly express his own anxieties: just as people move in and out of other's lives, so do the narratives of his seemingly aleatory art emerge and collapse. 2046 becomes all the more essential for its role in the clarifying this very process.

Friday, August 05, 2005

Recommended Propaganda: Went the Day Well?

Alberto Cavalcanti's Went the Day Well? (1942) is the sort of film that gives me pause concerning one of my firmer held beliefs: that the measure of a film's value lies not in what is said, but in how it says it. You see, Cavalcanti's picture is a piece of British war propaganda, made in 1942, which paints the British public as a noble fraternity -- duplicitous double agents aside -- sacrificing everything in order to defeat the common enemy. It is not just the men of Bramley Green who put their lives on the line to defeat their German captors, but the women and even the children who do so as well. Went the Day Well? does not shy away from the collateral costs of war nor does it merely schematize the Germans as a bumbling, easy to defeat opponent. This is a work of the highest level of integrity that no less than expected its spectators to show the same vigilance as those who gave their lives to defeat the enemy force. Cavalcanti's picture is a work of profound nobility.

Of course, some of what I have just mentioned is not strictly a matter of content, but is likewise attributable to the film's particular form. For instance, Cavalcanti's representation of the Germans as a competent military force -- not always the rule in the period's films -- proves essential in the film's discourse, and ultimately its strength as propaganda: they cannot be easily beaten; it will take extreme fortitude. On a visceral level, moreover, Went the Day Well? also benefits from Cavalcanti's dexterous manipulation of suspense. (This quality is also evident in his subsequent They Made Me a Fugitive (1947), perhaps the greatest British postwar thriller -- exceeding even Carol Reed's better-remembered classic, The Third Man [1949]). With Went the Day Well, one of the key components of his mastery of tension is his use of sound. In one of the key scenes, where the British civilians have escaped their German captors, Cavalcanti completely cuts the sound altogether, thereby translating this affected silence into the veil of night that the medium's visual mandate precludes. No film, after all, can represent action in complete darkness. So, in this way the distinction established at the outset -- between the telling and the message -- is moot. Went the Day Well? excels in both its form and its moral resoluteness.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Looking at Ford, Looking through Hawks

"I repeat myself in keeping with Orson Welles who after viewing Stagecoach 40 times before embarking on Citizen Kane said he was influenced by the old guys; the 'classical' film makers, by which he meant 'John Ford, John Ford and John Ford.' If the pantheon of classical music is 'the three Bs' (Bach, Beethoven and Brahms), then it is arguable there is only one true great in cinema - and that's the man who won more Academy Awards (five) than anyone before or since."

-Richard Franklin

"The problem lies in Hawks's apparent transparency, in a stylistic presence that is relentlessly invisible, self-effacing, difficult to see, and extremely difficult to analyze. The subtlety of Hawks's style is one of the most significant features of his work, but it is also the greatest obstacle to the widespread recognition of his talent as a film-maker."

-John Belton

Atop the pantheon of great Hollywood directors, three men tower above the rest -- and with all due deference to Richard Franklin, these men are not named John Ford, John Ford, and John Ford. Well, one of them is, but the other two preferred to go by their given names, Alfred Hitchcock and Howard Hawks. In the case of the former, no further allowances need be made at the present: few filmmaker's can claim an academic journal devoted entirely to the scholarly research of their career's as can the 'Master of Suspense' (for the record, the publication in question is the Hitchcock Annual, edited by a former professor of mine, Richard Allen). Hawks, on the other hand, remains the red-headed step child of the big three, never quite reaching the same level of international acclaim as the other two; his corpus seems to lack a Vertigo (1958) or a Searchers (1956), which is to say a single masterpiece generally considered to be not only his best, but further one of the great works of world cinema.

Again, much of the difficultly surrounding Hawks's work lies not so much in his choice of subjects or in his themes, but instead in the apparent invisibility of his style. Ford is the perfect counterpoint to the Hawks's visual schema. To paint the great director of western's in the broadest of brushstrokes, Ford's is a cinema devoted to a mythology of the West, whereby the wilderness is painstakingly brought under the thumb of civilization. This cursory explanation for his primary mega-theme is consequently translated into imagery that contraposes a nascent civilization and said wilds. Take for instance the adjacent image from My Darling Clementine (1946): here, Henry Fonda's Wyatt Earp reclines on a porch overlooking the wilderness that surrounds the ominously-named Tombstone. In so doing, Ford has visualized his principle theme, inasmuch as Earp (and Tombstone) itself) stands for an ordering force challenging a brutal nature. A second exact visual expression of Ford's ideas occurs in the sequence where a dance is staged at the site of the church's construction. With the half-built structure allowing a vantage out onto the surrounding desert, Ford effectively imparts his basic conflict visually: the wilderness is being tamed with the aid of society's bedrock institutions, the church and the law. Our understanding of his art is therefore deepened by our reading of his imagery. In the interplay of the foreground and background, Ford establishes his principle dialectic.

The opposite is true of the cinema of Howard Hawks: if we look at the screen in Ford, we look through it in Hawks. First, while Ford is primarily concerned with the mythology of the West, Hawks seems to have no similar predilection for this subject matter. Rather what is most remarkable about the latter's corpus, famously dispersed over a wide variety genres -- including the western -- is its uniform interest in homo-social groups of men (and occasionally the spare woman) who are continually shown at work. As Andrew Sarris once put it so succinctly, the basic thread running through his cinema is that "man is measured by his work... not in his ability to communicate with women." This concern, again, manifests across genre boundaries, becoming the key theme in his own great western, Rio Bravo (1959), where Dude (Dean Martin) struggles with his own alcoholism, finally finding redemption in his renewed professional ability.

Similarly, John Wayne's John T. Chance, in an explicit reversal of Fred Zinnemann's High Noon (1952) matrix, must depend upon the help of others, even as he attempts to go it alone. This dialectic between an individualist ethos and his dependence upon the group is no less profoundly American in its analysis... but I digress; the point is that Ford's themes are central to the genre of which he is the most famous practitioner, while Hawks's manifest themselves time and again, across a wide array of genres.

But what does this have to do with the visual substance of Hawks's work? For the director, form is subservient to the greater themes of the work -- no less than Ford, in fact, form and discourse are consubstantial. Their intermingling, however, is expressed in a very different fashion: whereas, once more, Ford communicates the garden-wilderness dichotomy visually, among other ways, Hawks explicates his themes with a style that expresses his ideas cleanly and without distraction. He shoots his human subjects straight-on (just below eye-level) in comparison with Ford's favored lower angles, looking up at his heroic subject matter. Hawks's figures are commonly staged within the same space -- in two's, etc. -- at a medium distance. When his group is larger than two or three persons, his staging tends to recede to a middle distance that allows his character's to interact in a unified space. Very little action occurs in the background, which varies in size depending upon his utilization of the middle ground, which again flows from the number of characters who populate the scene. In any case, the interactions occur quite near to the camera.

A perfect illustration of Hawks's style can be found in the brilliant opening scene of His Girl Friday (1940). Here, Hawks cuts only when the content precipitates a change in framing or when it is merited, in order to accentuate an important moment in the drama. An example of the latter would be Hawks's cut when Hildy reacts to Walter's off-handed proposal of (re)marriage.

In so rigorously maintaining this schema, Hawks effects an invisibility to the degree the camera, in following the action with a very plain compositional style, refuses to call attention to itself. Thematically, his perpendicular camera, staging of characters so that they are able to interact within a single space, and unobtrusive editing all instantiate formal corollaries to the director's egalitarian vision. The problem is, with regard to his work's formal comprehension, that each of these techniques makes his artistry disappear. Then again, his egalitarian world view demands nothing less than his unpretentious mise-en-scene.

Ultimately, we look past the visual art of Hawks, through to a broader set of themes and concerns that appear and reappear in work after work. The form of his cinema is independent of the content in terms of its relation to genre; then again, Hawks's camera work and editing precisely enacts the ideology contained in his art. The point is that his world view necessitates an essential artlessness, and is protean mastery of genre demands light stylistic footprints, provided that his work is to maintain a thematic unity.

Returning thus to the above comparison, whereas Ford uses the space of his art to juxtapose conflict, Hawks's space is the location of his enacted subject matter. That his individual shots are so profoundly unmemorable, therefore, becomes part of this matrix. Again, we see through Hawks's films, figuratively, to the content, while in Ford's graphic constructions we see his ideology. In this basic difference, we see the very substance of their art.

Sunday, July 31, 2005

Miroslav Tichý

This past month, the first ever exhibition of seventy-nine year old Moravian recluse Miroslav Tichý commenced at the Kunsthaus Zurich, thrusting a major new voice (in terms of the collective consciousness, at least) into the international art spotlight. For anyone interested in this "dissident" and "hermit" -- he spent eight years in Communist prisons and clinics for his nonconformity before building a camera out of trash as per his epic poverty -- let me commend Modern Painters' characteristically informative piece. (Though to read the piece in its entirety it is unfortunately necessary to purchase the publication; then again it is the best arts journal going, so just buy it!) I will also use the opportunity of this introduction to post photos on Tativille for the first time, which is perhaps not the best idea given his nude female subjects. Still, with the physical deterioration that he allows his images to suffer, there is an undeniable sense of the transience of physical beauty included in these exceptionally elegiac works. Their subject matter thus is not the nude figure alone -- thereby portending something other than pornography -- but rather beauty's passage, consequently reminding us all of life's evanescence. This is dimly-recalled eroticism, somehow closer to memory (making it all the more wistful) than it is to photographic reality. Take a look and see if you agree:

Saturday, July 30, 2005

The Limitations of Brilliance, Better than Perfection: The Conformist and Au hasard Balthazar

As with few other films, I envy the newcomer as I envy David Niven for having made love to Merle Oberon; that Bertolucci's masterpiece -- made when he was all of 29 -- will be the most revelatory experience a fortunate pilgrim will have in a theater this year is a foregone conclusion.

-Michael Atkinson, The Village Voice

Exactly. Then again, Bernardo Bertolucci's The Conformist (1970, Italy) may have something else in store for its more seasoned admirers: incipient indifference (albeit on the smallest of scales). Lucky for Bernardo, few spectators fall into this latter category. For reasons unknown, given especially the film's lyrical immediacy, The Conformist continues to be available only on an out-of-print, dubbed VHS format. Doing its best to rectify this grave want, the Film Forum will be screening Bertolucci's opus now through August 11th. And as Michael Atkinson notes, few films this year will be able to rival its potential impact.

From the flashing neon of the opening credits, The Conformist is awash in visual ideas. Or more precisely, so begins its rolodex of unforgettable images. Indeed, there is no final rule for Bertolucci and legendary cinematographer Vittorio Storaro's visual strategy other than that will it lean heavily on the indelible -- be it a whitewashed roof-top asylum, Jean-Louis Trintignant walking alongside a vintage automobile in a canted composition, fallen leaves swept up by a sudden gust, the beautiful Stefania Sandrelli dancing with the even more gorgeous Dominique Sanda, or the latter pounding on Trintignant's automobile window as he looks on impassively, The Conformist is the sum of its visual highlights.

It is also, of course, a parable about fascism, as is confirmed first by its literal-minded title. Then again, The Conformist is a film where everything is made clear, abundantly, whether by a score that highlights significant moments with a bull-horn's subtlety, or in a narrative that never allows its viewer to escape from its Marxist cum Freudian interpretative framework -- right up to a final plot twist straight out of the Psychopathology of Everyday Life. To be sure, The Conformist is a work of boundless talent, but it is also a film of limited mystery, born of the unrelenting certainty beget by Bertolucci's youthful brilliance. Even at its most formally unconventional -- i.e. its temporal leap-frogging -- Bertolucci psychologizes his character's actions (and inactions) so assiduously that there is no mistaking his intentions: a fascist is built according to the measure of his desire for an illusory normalcy corresponding to a supposed cultural normativity, full stop. Though The Conformist may resemble at first truly challenging film art, the clarity of this discourse as well as the directness of its pleasure argue otherwise. This is a work of simplicity, however ambitious, whose first taste will always be its sweetest. With that said, its sumptuousness is not to be missed.

The same spectatorial arc does not apply to another of this year's resurfaced masterpieces, Robert Bresson's Au hasard Balthazar (1966, France), released last month in the U.S. for the first time ever on home video. If The Conformist orchestrates the making of a fascist in its precise detailing of psychological causes, Au hasard Balthazar seems to encounter its protagonists' unawares, articulating the effects prior to and apart from their causes. In other words, Bresson's film showcases life as we witness life, uninformed of the immediate causes of events. However, it is not simply events or actions that Bresson is portraying in Au hasard Balthazar but rather sin; and consistent with the Christian notion of iniquity, it is not something to judge situationally. There are no causes, no justifications for the transgressions represented on-screen. Moreover, the concept is expressed in purely carnal terms -- sin is a matter of flesh; spirit is absent. (It is also of note that in spite of its coldness, Bresson's is a profoundly sensual film in the most literal of senses.)

Of course, absence is the key to Bresson's aesthetic, whether it is his denial of surface expression which calls attention to interiority through referential absence or in his mise-en-scene with its notoriously shallow focus -- rigorously depicted with a 50mm lens -- and tight, medium close-up framing. Similarly, this same austerity figures in his audio track which is as significant for its silences as it is for its amplified ambient sounds. Each unit of sound and image is a precisely modulated expression of what the director wishes to relay (less any superfluous detail). In this way, Bresson's past as a painter is drawn into particular focus inasmuch as his cinema manifests the same total control over his subject matter, even if there is not a single frame in Au hasard Balthazar that can rival the scores of unforgettable images in The Conformist. Then again, Bresson's film seeks nothing more than the representation of the ethereal in a medium beholden to the material. His is a reproduction of a life unseen. Even so, Bresson's cinema stands above all other's in its equitable presentation of sound and image. Au hasard Balthazar, along with works as A Man Escaped (1956) and the perfect Pickpocket (1959) -- which it nevertheless exceeds by virtue of the concreteness of its metaphor -- represent a cinema that has finally become fully itself (as Marguerite Duras once said), bringing into harmony its audio and visual components for the very first time.

But of course, Au hasard Balthazar is not form alone, but is instead the director's most carefully constructed Christian allegory. To begin with, the film's title character is a donkey -- a creature with its own special relationship to both the nativity and also the crucifixion narrative, named after one of the three wise men. After an idyllic youth spent with children in the French countryside, Balthazar becomes a beast of burden, used and abused by a series of owners. He is both a silent witness to their sin and a carrier of its weight, as when he is used to smuggle goods at night. Yet it is truly the former that best describes the animal's narrative agency: this is a film about the mankind for whose sins Christ died. When finally the animal's life comes to an end, Bresson makes the analogy precise surrounding the creature with sheep. Above all, Au hasard Balthazar is the great Christian allegory of the twentieth century.

Then again, given the director's refusal to explicate psychology in keeping with his programmatic realism, Au hasard Balthazar remains open to those who would deny this reference. By a subtle shift in emphasis, Bresson's film becomes a Marxist critique of capital or proof of God's death provided the picture's unending bleakness. Either way, it is for the audience to interpret, not the artist. Surely, Au hasard Balthazar is not so much reality itself as it is a mirror, calling all spectators to an act of spiritual evaluation -- with a Christ-figure at its core. The truth may be on-screen, as it is in life, but it is no easier to decipher. The depths and mysteries of Au hasard Balthazar are as deep as life itself.

Friday, July 22, 2005

New Film: Last Days, Bad News Bears & Wedding Crashers

Prior to his most recent renaissance -- culminating with the Palme d'Or-winner Elephant (2003) -- audiences could have been forgiven for assuming that Gus Van Sant's best work was behind him. After all, it was Van Sant who was responsible for the middle brow irrelevancy of Good Will Hunting (1997), exactly the sort of work that is mistaken for good by people who don't know anything about movies. What's worse, of course, is that this same film made the career of the pestilent Ben Affleck -- a sin for which no amount of good deeds can atone. If that leaves grace as Van Sant's only option, he got close with Elephant, which demonstrated a love of its adolescent character's otherwise unknown in contemporary cinema.

In his latest, Last Days, as much a biopic of the late Kurt Cobain's final moments as Elephant was a picture about Columbine -- that is in everything but name -- Van Sant again tackles adolescence: in this case of the prolonged variety, the twenty-something rock star. As his drug-addled subjects, Blake (the Cobain character played by Michael Pitt) and his hangers-on, drift through a dilapidated Pacific Northwest mansion, which organically showcases the same deterioration as befell Blake's psyche in these "last days," Van Sant portrays lives lacking the emotional compass required for self-preservation. Yet unlike his beautiful, awkward, and in the case of his killers, tragically-misguided teenagers in Elephant, there is nothing but ugliness on display in Last Days. However romantic the character of Blake may be, beauty is not part of the calculus; the universality of Elephant has been replaced with the particularity of Blake, which indeed mediates the discursive power of his tragic end. To have compassion for the characters in Elephant is to draw on our own recollections of our teenage years. To watch Blake and his live-in guests idyll is to witness something to which the majority of viewers cannot relate out of their own experience. At best, pity ensues; at worst, disgust. In either case this is no replacement for a compassion compelled by understanding.

Though Last Days does not therefore equal Elephant in its emotional scope, it does rival the prior work in its aesthetic ambitions. Here, again Van Sant fragments time, replacing an exact inscription of the final 90-plus minutes of his life with a dispersed impression of these "last days." Dispersed, that is, as other characters float in and out of the narrative in order to give shape to his isolation -- gestures of help and abandonment are combined to instantiate Blake's final fate.

Of course, Richard Linklater took the opposite approach in his wonderful Before Sunset (2004), where the duration of the story is replicated in a near facsimile to real time. No similar ambition, however, is on display in his latest, Bad News Bears, a remake of the classic ESPN Classic, The Bad News Bears (1976). While this does not preclude the film from possessing substantial value -- School of Rock (2003) is not exactly ambitious, and yet it remains eminently entertaining -- Bad News Bears is slight nevertheless. Rewritten by the same pair who scripted Bad Santa (2003, Terry Zwigoff) and starring that film's vile Kris Kringle, Billy Bob Thorton, clearly Bad News Bears was conceived as an update of the earlier Bears with a shade of the Zwigoff film. However, Linklater's Bears can not match the unrelenting vulgarity of the Santa picture, which in its sustained lack of propriety achieved its own form integrity and demonstrated a clear (if decidedly bleak) world view. The film's mitigation, in this respect, is in part a function of its PG-13 rating. Likewise, Linklater's own political correctness softens the work's vulgarity: sure we laugh at the wheel chaired-character zipping out to play right field, but Linklater does allow him to make a key out. And of course the pitching sensation is female -- perhaps progressive pre Title-IX, but now, such a characterization is nothing more than comfortably liberal.

David Dobkin's Wedding Crashers is anything but. In this Owen Wilson-Vince Vaughn vehicle, women are gullible, if not down-right stupid. This is not a film that proceeds according to the Prizzi's Honor or Dirty Rotten Scoundrels cliché, where it might seem that the men are in control, but where it is genuinely the female characters who are orchestrating events. Here, these "wedding crashers" breathlessly manipulate women through the most-transparently phony gimmicks one could possibly imagine; and even, for instance, when the Gloria character shows herself to be a bit wiser than she first appears, she still falls for Vaughn's B.S.

If this makes Wedding Crashers sound unduly reactionary, the fact is that the picture's impolitic qualities make it a renunciation of contemporary cultural values. The fact is that what's good for the goose has long not been good for the gander. Wedding Crashers is the sort of politically-incorrect work that restores the equation (though admittedly there is a limit to such a renewed equality, provided that it depends on the inferiority of one of the two genders). Still, this is a film whose comedy succeeds because it s taboo. And like Bad Santa before it, Wedding Crashers similarly sustains an integrity of impropriety -- the funeral crasher who appears may be a scumbag, but he's also a genius.

Wedding Crashers similarly succeeds because of the charisma and likeability of its leads, Wilson and Vaughn. Amiable without being admirable, like their characters, they give off the impression of being the life of the party, generous with everyone, even if they have less than laudable ends. Excuse the expression, but these are two guys who can really shoot the shit, and come on, who doesn't like that? They're guy's guys, who are as comfortable in a pick-up football game as they are in their ill-gotten moments of intimacy. In a society that has effectively rid itself of masculinity, there is something deeply satisfying about seeing characters like this on-screen. Sometimes sensitivity is gratuitous. Sometimes what is called for is a good punch in the face. Sometimes you just have to call somebody a "pussy."