Monday, September 26, 2005

New Film: L'Enfant (The Child)

Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne's Cannes Palme d'Or winner, L'Enfant (The Child), deserves perhaps the highest praise that can be bestowed upon a work of art -- that it is true. To make this claim is not to suggest that it speaks from a right perspective or that it possesses a style that commensurately depicts its setting; rather, to say that L'Enfant is true is to acknowledge the verisimilitude of its psychological description. From this its viewpoint is to be judged, not vice versa.

That viewpoint, a Jamesian Christianity (as in the works-driven epistle), extends the logic of the brothers' previous masterpiece, The Son (2002). If the earlier film manifested an artisanal purity in the singularity of its purpose, both narratively and formally, the latter is a far messier affair, consistent with the titular adult lead's indirect path to salvation. His is not an easy attainment of maturity founded upon self-actualization, but is instead a reaffirmation of The Son's earlier claim that man is to be judged by his actions. It is not enough for one to be contrite in their words; genuine behavior modification must follow. That this is so is not simply a matter of a divine calculus but is instead reflective of self-absorption's power to destroy the lives of others, whether it is the emotional destruction of Sofia after he sells their newborn child or Bruno's abandonment of his weakened adolescent protege after a robbery. This is the true meaning of 'love thy neighbor.'

Of course, the film's inclusion of the theft and the subsequent theme of redemption through imprisonment reference the brothers' most consistent source, Robert Bresson, and particularly Pickpocket (1959) -- just as their Rosetta (1999) refashioned Mouchette (1967). (So too there exaggerated use of sound and extreme reduction of depth of field.) In this way, they continue to be the master's most loyal followers, updating his inimitable cinema with their own Jamesian variation. Moreover, the film's absence of arc befits their own revision in L'Enfant: it is no longer the struggling saint but instead the sinner who is now the subject of their allegory -- a Child, helpless without the love of his Father.

Saturday, September 24, 2005

New Film: The Weeping Meadow

There are anachronisms and then there are anachronisms. If in the past I have found it necessary to praise a director like Clint Eastwood for a technique more at home in 1962 than in its own age, I have done so with the feeling that for someone like him, form was only a means to an end. For Eastwood, style was (and is) never its own justification, but can be rather something to detract from the urgency of his narratives. To someone like Eastwood, modifications in form, rather than indicating some sort of aesthetic progress, possessed a danger in their potential to obscure his artistic intentions. At the same time, these same purposes were never themselves static, but instead experienced remolding in the image of their own particular moments. In short, while his technique stayed the same, his thought was evolving.

At first glance, Theo Angelopoulos might strike one as the same sort of figure. After all, The Weeping Meadow, whatever else it is, is a film from a different stylistic moment. Nonetheless, the ideas contained in The Weeping Meadow show the director's evolution from a Marxist historicism, focusing almost exclusively on Greek history (The Travelling Players, 1975), to a more existential consideration of Balkan realities (Ulysses' Gaze, 1995). Yet, there is one important difference between the aforementioned Eastwood and Angelopoulos: whereas invisibility of style is Eastwood's ultimate end, Angelopoulos has long foregrounded his own once dazzling technique.

 The problem is, it no longer seems as though the Greek auteur is utilizing his form to ask questions. If The Travelling Players established a fatal continuity to the exigencies of Greek history, via a camera that moved from figure grouping to figure grouping, often bridging temporal discontinuities over the course of a single tracking shot, The Weeping Meadow's continued employment of this same style, minus its formally radical employment, fails to remain self-justified. If anything, The Weeping Meadow is a film that should have been made twenty-five plus years ago, considering its scant modifications of his own modernist form. (Sparing use of music psychologically is in fact the only reevaluation of Angelopoulos' Travelling Players' technique.) This is, in other words, a profoundly dated text. Of course,The Weeping Meadow has its moments of beauty -- which Angelopoulos, as always, never allow his spectators to forget -- but the ability to photograph a Greek landscape poetically loses some of its appeal as the film drags on toward the three hour mark. Its one thing to watch Angelopoulos reinvent the medium for four continuous hours in The Travelling Players; it's yet another thing to see him copying himself -- poorly -- for three.

So again, there are anachronisms and there are anachronisms. Unfortunately, a thirty-year late re-tread of late modernism is not exactly the most enticing variety. If anything, The Weeping Meadow reconfirms the necessity to understand films at the moment of their creation. If we can forgive a film like The Birth of a Nation (1915) for its aberrant politics (by today's standards) it is likewise important to understand the inadequacy of a film like The Weeping Meadow on the basis of its historical moment -- which unfortunately for the director ended long ago.