Sunday, April 09, 2006

New Film: The Sun

Aleksandr Sokurov's The Sun (Solntse, 2005) is the third chapter in a tetralogy, for which Moloch (1999) and Taurus (2001) were the first two parts. Like these, The Sun treats the subject of a 20th century dictator -- or "hero" -- who "suffers a personal tragedy" (Islands of Sokurov). In the case of The Sun, Sokurov depicts Emperor Hirohito in the final days of the War, while he is awaiting the fate to be handed down to him by the "occupying forces." Sokurov's episodic narrative includes a conference of the Emperor's cabinet, Hirohito's study of marine biology, two of his meetings with General MacArthur, a photo-op with the Allied forces, a sit-down with a biologist and a reunion with his family. While their temporal relationship to one another is imprecise (and unimportant) the basic arc of the narrative suggests one day with the dimly-lit, misty morning giving way to a sunny afternoon and then to the pale light of evening: these transmogrifications portend the drift from the nebulous opening moments with the Deity cocooned in his palace to the sun-diffused, white light and candle-lit distinction of his meetings with MacArthur where he agrees to renounce his divinity.

Yet, to even make this claim for The Sun is to participate in the sort of analysis that a work as impressionistic as Sokurov's would (almost) seem to resist. Almost, as Sokurov's hieratic shot-reverse structure -- frequent transgressions of the 180 degree rule -- discloses his interest in preserving the spatial disorientation that his eschewal of establishing shots effects. The idea is that we never really know the spaces of the Imperial Palace, as if the narrative were remembered, dictated from a point in the future; at the same time, The Sun offers an imprint of that evanescent moment existing immediately prior to Hirohito's end -- immediately before and after the dictator renounced his divinity (and suggestively, before his final fate). It is a refashioning of Mother and Son's subject, as it is of Russian Ark's interest in preserving a disappearing culture (and even of Dolce's articulation of Eastern visual aesthetics).

All of this is to say that The Sun coalesces a number of Sokurov's preoccupations -- it could even be described as a signature. Then again, the seriousness of much of Sokurov's work is absent in The Sun, in spite of its ostensible subject: there is the old servant who lusts after the Hershey bar, to say nothing of the dictator's peculiar gestures. Indeed, it is in these actions, strange and banal alike, that Sokurov conveys the humanity of his subject (much like as he does with Hitler in Moloch). Ultimately, this can be said to be the director's purpose, namely to tactilely lend presence (and humanity ) to the person of Hirohito, as when we see the Emperor sliding on his slippers, smelling his breath in his hands -- there exists an effervescent quality to this gesture which could be said to summarize his entire aesthetic: as with Whispering Pages he reproduces the impression of a place and time that is as fleeting as the enveloping mists that descend upon the island nation -- or when we see his mouth forming words which never pass through his lips.

This brings us to another key feature of Sokurov's inimitable style: namely, the sometime absence of naturalistic synchronicity between sound and image. But even more, it is the soundtrack's discordance, such as the scrambled radio transmissions or even the crickets' chirping, that offer an often menacing oral counterpoint to the narrative's quotidian incidents. In the end, of course, this is a film about a man meeting his fate, though it almost goes without saying that something of this dramatic register will not appear on screen.

Qualitatively, it could (and should) be argued that Sokurov is working on an entirely different plane than virtually anyone else in cinema today, and that The Sun rates as one of his most accomplished idiosyncrasies. It is the ultimate Sokurov film, far more so than his international art house breakthrough, Russian Ark, both for its instantiation of such a large number of his key themes and also for its attempted recreation of the profoundly transitory -- the life of a God in a disappearing world. In closing, I would also wish to praise Issei Ogata's brilliant recreation of this living deity, which no less than animates Sokurov's glorious work of art.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

New Music: Ringleader of the Tormentors

Two years ago, in a year flush with comebacks, none loomed larger than Morrissey's. While Prince and others may have sold more records overall -- though Mozzer's superlative You Are the Quarry did manage to debut at #11 in the US, the highest of his career -- it was Morrissey who was re-established as a cultural paragon. And not just for YATQ (abbreviations of this sort are code amongst his legions of fans) but for the influence that his solo career, and that of his former outfit, The Smiths, cast over a new generation of Brit pop and its North American equivalents. Virtually every new artist of the moment, from Franz Ferdinand to The Libertines to The Killers, not only acknowledged the Mozzer's influence, but were at pains to elevate him to the status of mentor and icon. 2004 was the year of Morrissey, with tomes like Saint Morrissey and the second edition (!) of Songs that Saved Your Life, to go along with the countless cover stories and magazine spreads that greeted the return of a man who was not so long ago the least fashionable person in alternative music -- so much so that the had gone seven years without a record contract, in spite of the fact that he still (I believe) holds the distinction of selling out Madison Square Garden faster than anyone else in its history, and in spite of the fact that in 2003, the world's biggest-selling music weekly, NME, named solo Moz and The Smiths the "most influential" artists in pop music history, controversially above even The Beatles. (If you've been following British music since their demise, this opinion may not sound quite as absurd as it may to those who haven't; depending on how highly one rates The Stone Roses, Radiohead, Oasis, The Strokes, Arctic Monkeys and even Andre 3000 and Interpol, one could make the case.)

All of this is to say that this past Tuesday's release of Ringleader of the Tormentors finds its creator at the peak of his vogue, with expectations to match such a lofty reputation. For those of us who found in his most recent success vindication (my self included) there comes with the obvious anticipation for the new album, a feeling of anxiety and even dread -- will it be ordinary enough to push Morrissey back to his Southpaw Grammar-Maladjusted-phase of reduced stature. You see, in Morrissey we start to glimpse what could have been, an alternative music history, a possible world where The Smiths were as big as The Beatles and where all other musical injustices have been righted. Yes, we see this in Morrissey, whose graceful transition into middle age (both physically, and more importantly, vocally) reminds one of no one so much as Frank Sinatra.

Like Nancy's dad, Mozzer's solo work can't exactly be said to challenge our sonic assumptions -- even his much-heralded YATQ sounded very old fashion, when compared to the other best records of its year. Yet to even make this observation is to miss the point when it comes to Moz; no, the point is that Morrissey has always challenged our assumptions about popular music when it comes to content, as always delivered with an unprecedented immediacy for popular music, whether it is in tandem with Johnny Marr's brilliant, and often quite unconventional song-writing for The Smiths, or with his less vanguard solo career. Morrissey is always Morrissey, a genre unto himself, a popular music of the utmost literary pedigree and one in which rock's fundamental presuppositions are questioned: the sex, drugs and rock-and-roll lifestyle has always been anathema to rock's best-known celibate straight-edger. For Morrissey, however, it's never been about morality, but rather about discontent -- his is the only truly punk corpus; Morrissey hates everything.

Well, while, this might be an exaggeration, Morrissey's aesthetic and his content are as always essential to an understanding of his latest instantiation of his own personal genre. Ringleader of the Tormentors finds the "Pope of Mope" on the heels of both unmitigated success and in a change of scenery: the Los Angeles transplant (remember: "we look to Los Angeles for the words that we use, London is dead") has relocated to the Eternal City, Rome. From the strong opening track, "I Will See You in Far Off Places," a change is evident, with its Oriental themes and instrumentation. Then again, as with YATQ's "America is Not the World," Morrissey opens with a confrontation of US foreign policy. Yet, whereas Mozzer concludes the earlier opener with the strangely touching repetition of the line "I love you" over and over (referring to his adopted homeland), here he seems to be addressing some anonymous one outside the US, perhaps Muslim, as he says "if your God bestows protection upon you... and if the USA doesn't bomb you... I believe I will see you."

Of course the "one" in ROTT is ambiguous and open to slippage, as is the addressee, interestingly (though not unprecedentedly -- his masterpiece "I Know it's Over" makes very good use of this): perhaps the most interesting instance of the latter being teh similarly exceptional "Dear God Please Help Me," track 2, where he sings "Then he motions to me... with his hand on my knee... dear God did this kind of thing happen to you?" At once imploring God and seemingly addressing a confident, Morrissey shows himself as always to be adept with double meanings -- though we must remember anything is possible with this forgiver of Jesus.

As far as his sexuality is concerned, the always elusive Morrissey – is he gay, straight, bi-sexual, a-sexual? -- leaves some pretty compelling clues on the excellent mid-tempo third track, "You Have Killed Me": "Pasolini is me..., Visconti is me..." Indeed, by name checking Italy's two most famous homosexual directors (with complications, importantly -- though the latter could be his producer as well) perhaps we can finally lay to rest the speculation; evidently, Morrissey himself has even admitted to recently breaking his long-held practice of celibacy, to say nothing of his rumored spottings at gay night-spots.

Musically, the following track, "The Youngest Was the Most Loved," with its refrain, "there is no such thing in life as normal," rates as a highlight and instantly establishes itself as Morrissey classic, particularly for its children's chorus repeating the above line, though it is by no means one of his lyrical masterpieces. In fact, ROTT gets off to a rather remarkable start musically, continuing into the proceeding, up-tempo, "In the Future When All is Well."

After the forgettable sound of "The Father Who Must Be Killed," a stilting mid-tempo number, Morrissey offers another essential track, "Life is a Pigsty," which displays Tony Visconti's lush productions at their richest. (In placing the track in the center of the album, Morrissey uses a strategy similar to the construction of his solo debut, Viva Hate [1988], where "Late Night, Maudlin Street" serves a smiliar function.) Of course, it is not simply this track's aural terrain, but the repeated lyric "even now, in my final hour of my life... I'm falling in love again," which establishes its importance to ROTT -- has he found someone, is he referring to Rome, etc.?

Then, demonstrating the intelligence of ROTT's track sequence, Morrissey tells us "his one true love is under ground": now, is he talking about The Smiths and his partnership with Marr or a friend or lover of the type that Mark Simpson, in Saint Morrissey, claimed prompted his masterpiece Vauxhall and I (1994)? Musically, this track, "I'll Never Be Anybody's Hero Now," another strong entry, operates in the "I Am Two Persons" mold.

In the subsequent four tracks, the highlight would seem to be #10, "To Me You Are a Work of Art," a torch-song with the Morrissey difference: you see, he would give you his heart, if he had one. More than any other song on the album -- with the exception of his first single, the uber-catchy "You Have Killed Me" -- it is easy to imagine Morrissey performing it live, which at this point is what it's all about. Not so much seeing Moz in the flesh, though there are few who are any better, but having Morrissey in the flesh, whatever he decides to do with it. Besides, we feel he has already given us his heart -- nobody has laid his thoughts and feelings so bare in their art as has Morrissey from "Hand in Glove" onward.

Monday, March 27, 2006

New Film: Inside Man

Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love (no, not love; let's say like or even like a lot, if we must) Spike Lee.

It is interesting that Inside Man represents one of those archetypical instances of a director, seemingly under contract for a fairly straight exercise in genre, which might as well have been crafted for him or her in advance. Then again, it is precisely in these sorts of works that the merits of the auteur theory become clearest: it is, after all, a theory that defines the status of the director as an artist, not simply an advocation of autobiographical filmmaking. And there can be no denying Lee's imprint on Inside Man, in spite of the fact that it may well be one of the director's least personal pictures.

At the level of technique, Lee's stylistic elan is apparent from the opening shot: Clive Owen's bank robber addresses the camera, telling us his name, profession and location (a cell, though significantly, not a prison cell). The director proceeds to adopt Hitchcock's technique -- from Vertigo -- wherein a tracking shot is accompanined by a zoom. The effect (also used spectacularly by Scorsese in Goodfellas' diner scene) brings us closer to the character, even as the space behind the figure is reconstituted. It is, in other words, a signifier of a baroque style, as is for instance Lee's frontal tracking shot, in which Denzel Washington's fluid movement seems to suggest that he is standing on top a scooter or cart of some sort. These moments of excess, within the broader framework of generally terse direction, indicate the same flamboyant stylist who translated the American baroque of Welles and Scorsese to Brooklyn's Bed-Stuy neighborhood in his exceptional Do the Right Thing (1989).

Yet, it is that terseness, the film's economy, which truly recommends Inside Man. Much of this quality can be attributed to Russell Gewirtz's exceptional screenplay, though even in the film's dialogue Lee's voice is unmistakable -- particularly in the race-baiting that has been transformed from politically-militant axiom to politically-correct satire. Indeed, Lee's rhetoric seems to be in the process of softening, especially since his 2002 standout, 25th Hour, which encapsulates America's post-9/11 feeling that "we are all New Yorkers" better than any other film I know. Inside Man shares with that earlier pinnacle an ethnographic description of five boroughs life, as well as its referencing of incarcaration (though it stops short of making fear of anal rape a structuring motif, as is the case with 25th Hour, which itself might just portend the director's willingness to bait groups other than racial or ethnic in their orientation; here, Washington is allowed a single quip).

Returning for the moment to the narrative structure, Lee and Gerwitz encourage us to hope that Owen can get away with his crime -- a large portion of the heist genre's pleasures, after all, pertain to the intelligence and dexterity of the crimes committed; and from the opening monologue, Lee affirms his position within this tradition. It helps that Lee skillfully discloses and conceals many of the details of the caper, creating objects of suspense beyond the simple will they or won't they get away with it axiom. One of the best early examples of this is Lee's refusal to re-enter the space of the bank after being introduced to Washington's negotiator, for an extended duration. While we already know the anti-heroes, we are little more cued into what the protagonist is facing at this moment than he is himself. In this way, Lee shows himself to be a bravura manipulator of narrative information, as he will throughout the remainder of the film. I'm tempted to make a comparison to Bryan Singer's modern classic, The Usual Suspects (1995), though I would do so only with the caveat that Lee's twists don't entirely reach for that same epistemological vertigo.

Friday, March 10, 2006

New Film: Battle in Heaven & Old Joy

Carlos Reygadas' Battle in Heaven (Batalla en el cielo, 2005) opens and closes with a comely young light-skinned Mexican woman performing fellatio on an obese, unattractive, middle-aged mestizo gentleman, whom we later discover has been the girl's driver since childhood. That Reygadas would choose to begin his film with so graphic an image surely underscores his desire to incite. Then again, it quickly becomes evident that this selection does not serve as mere provocation alone, but rather provides a formal matrix through which the remainder of his film can be understood. Moreover, that he likewise concludes his film in this same fashion allows the director to crystallize the film's principle discourses, namely of cinematic representation, class conflict and religious belief. And all in a blow-job.

Following the shocking opener, Reygadas introduces us to his hero Marcos, whom we soon learn -- in an almost off-handed off-camera revelation -- has just been involved in the kidnapping of a baby who tragically died during the affair. This point, however, garners far less narrative time than the fellatio or than Reygadas' seemingly ethnographic interest in the Mexico City subway tunnels where Marcos' wife sells her wares. However, it is not a third-world tourist impulse that animates Reygadas in so precisely detailing the latter, but it is rather social commentary, particularly when Marcos' subsequent experiences are compared to those of his female employer, Ana, as he drives the young woman home from the airport, through the tree-lined boulevards of her leafy suburb. Importantly, Reygadas lingers on both the public space of the metro system and the private space of the automobile to convey the sense in which the dead time for the country's working poor is characteristically chaotic, whereas comfort defines these moments for the rich.

In a telling moment of social incongruity, Ana asks Marcos a question and then quickly interrupts him once her boyfriend is free again to speak with her on her cell phone. Yet, if Ana does treat Marcos as an employee who is of less importance than even the most trivial incidents in her own life, she does seem to maintain a certain fondness for and trust in Marcos, whom she asks to take her to a brothel where evidently she works in secret. There, Marcos, refuses the pleasures of a young prostitute insisting that Ana forced him to come. Ana then interrogates Marcos about his feelings for her, but drops it when it becomes clear how he feels.

At this point, the opening salvo increasingly looks as if it may exist outside the time of the film narrative altogether, be it as a representation of his fantasy, or more compellingly, as a purveyor of formal and social meaning, at once illuminating Reygadas' post-Kiarostami tendency to constrict the visual field while creating an expansive aural space, even as his lowly mestizo character is pleasured by a woman of higher social standing whom we assume would never do something like this in real life. In other words, Reygadas uses his fellatio as a socially-leveling device. There is indeed something intriguing to this latter reading, even if Reygadas does have the pair engage in intercourse later in the film. Then again, this simulated sexual act is presented on screen in long take, whereas Reygadas masks this same activity between Marcos and his equally unattractive wife.

Speaking of this latter sex act, when it concludes, Reygadas moves his camera to disclose an image of Christ over the couple's bed, even as their heavy-breathing continues. This apparent visual joke, far from a throw away, in fact distills a key component of the director's vision: the idea of ecstasy (as in Bernini's St. Theresa). Following the pilgrimage that Marcos ultimately joins, seemingly in a desperate search for forgiveness, Reygadas closes his film with the second fellatio scene, which in this case shows Marcos grinning for the first time and hovering over Ana in a position of power. As such, Reygadas conflates the transcendence inherent in both religious devotion and sexual fulfillment, in a fashion that one could see as congruent with the noted trend in baroque figuration. Moreover, the pilgrimage itself follows a definitive conflation of sex and violence that seems to situate Reygadas in a tradition in Mexican filmmaking that also includes two of its most accomplished directors, Luis Buñuel and Arturo Ripstein.

However, it is not simply these themes that find their way into these concluding gestures -- both the violence and the sex act -- but it is moreover Reygadas' arguably radical view of a reconstituted Mexican society. The intimation may be that a violent overthrow of class structures is required, but in the universe of Battle in Heaven a little fellatio would seem to suffice.

Kelly Reichardt's Rotterdam prize-winner Old Joy, which will play at New York's Walter Reade theatre as part of their 'New Directors' series on March 21st (and which should manage some form of distribution thereafter, one would hope), begins with the image of a bird perched on a gutter followed by a series of shots of a man, covered in ants, meditating in the grass. In other words, its opening passage is a whisper to Reygadas' scream, even if similarities abound elsewhere. For one, both films share a documentarian concern for the non-fictional locations of their narratives.
In the case of Old Joy, this is (lower-middle class) Portland and its mountainous environs: roadsides and passing storm cloud formations seem to attract nearly as much attention as the strained interaction of the two 'old friend' leads, Mark (Daniel London) and Kurt (Palace Music frontman Will Oldham).

Backtracking for the moment, the spare narrative of Old Joy concerns Mark and Kurt's overnight camping trip, with a visit to a local hot springs to follow the next day. Throw in Mark's pregnant partner, an avowedly liberal radio talk show, and a diner visit in the morning and one has the totality of Old Joy's narrative. Nevertheless, Reichardt's narrative demands nothing further as she needs little more than a quick shoulder rub and an arm dropping into the hot spring water to say everything that we would ever need to know about the past, present and future of their friendship. Old Joy demonstrates an admirable economy, which along with its contemplative tone distinguishes it from the vast majority of "indie" cinema.

Then again it is not these qualities alone that recommend Reichart's film, even if she does mildly contaminate the film's understated poignancy with a final gesture consistent with the film's liberal humanist rhetoric. Old Joy importantly manifests a genuine nostalgia for Gen X's heyday -- the Slacker to Reality Bites years -- making it (along with the undeniably elegiac Before Sunset [2005]) as one of the first works to long for this not-so-long ago 'golden age.' However, what makes this film particularly significant on this front, given the liberal values espoused by Kurt and the left-wing, call-in talk show that Mark listens to, is the speed in which this impression has been reached by Generation X's left-of-center constituency (which importantly was always far smaller than their parents'). Evidently an era that made Eddie Vedder its mouthpiece wasn't entirely successful at changing the world after all? All kidding aside, Old Joy represents an important next step in 'Gen X' cinema.