Monday, April 10, 2006

New Film: Magic Mirror & A Comedy of Power


Warning: the following contains spoilers in the fourth paragraph.

96 year-old Portuguese auteur Manoel de Oliveira -- that really says it all doesn't it -- is the world's oldest active filmmaker and is the only director to begin his career during the silent era. Oliveira has been particularly active since the mid-1970s, having made approximately one film per year in the period since. Yet, what is more remarkable than the director's age or even his late-career productivity is the consistent high quality of his work: no European filmmaker has made more great films in the past fifteen years than Oliveira (and were not such a large number of his films from the 1980s still unavailable, one could perhaps push that date back even further). For arguments sake, one could name Abraham's Valley (1993), The Convent (1995), Party (1996), Voyage to the Beginning of the World (1997), The Letter (1999), I'm Going Home (2001) and A Talking Picture (2003), and one would have one of the world's most autobiographical and formally adventurous cinemas without even naming such agreed upon masterpieces as No, or the Vainglory of Command (1990), Inquietude (1998) and The Uncertainty Principle (2002), which like the earlier films, remain unavailable to US audiences.


Oliveira's latest feature, Magic Mirror (Espelho Magico, 2005) -- if one doesn't count the picture he is currently shooting with Bulle Ogier and Michel Piccoli -- has likewise not yet secured US distribution, and may remain without a distributor into the immediate future. For one, Oliveira hardly rates as a household name, despite the brilliance of his body of work; and two, the Portuguese master remains one of the international art house scene's most challenging auteurs.

Magic Mirror continues many of the master's long-held formal and thematic preoccupations: namely, mortality, the relationship between film and theatre and the moral status of wealth. Similarly, Oliveira utilizes the gorgeous Leonor Silveira (a mere 60 years his younger) as a proxy for his person, just as he did with his supreme achievement of the past decade-and-a-half, Abraham's Valley. In this case, Silveira plays the devout Alfreda, whose childlessness compels her to fantasize about seeing the Virgin Mother, particularly after she is told that Mary was the product of a wealthy family: she too was born into enormous wealth (as was Oliveira himself), and hopes above all else to talk to the woman, presumably in hopes of unlocking the mysteries of both the Christ child's miraculous birth and also the Judean woman's relative fortune -- thereby settling the issue of the wealthy's difficult path to salvation that one finds in Christian doctrine.


Significantly, Alfreda never finds the answers she seeks, just as one might suspect Oliveira himself has not found sufficient answers to the questions of God's existence (The Convent and Party seem to treat this subject most directly; and in a similar fashion, one might see Ricardo Trepa's freed criminal and his prison companion as exemplars of a protest theodicy of sorts, particularly with the latter's instance that he is animated by hate) and second, to means by which he might reconcile his social position and the social imperatives of his art -- again Abraham's Valley is the finest treatment of this subject. Still, Oliveira does happen to save one unprecedented moment of genuine magic for the end: the narrative continues after Alfreda passes on, without the answers, compellingly giving us Oliveira's own conceptualization of life after his own death. Here, we see a newly-minted couple, a smiling young child and the continuation of the estate (that houses much of the drama) accompanied by the joyous lilt of the score. Life continues, unabated, in all its richness.

In this concluding passage, Oliveira offers what could have been a wonderful epithet to his career -- just as I'm Going Home could have been one of the most profound final films ever made -- were he not already at work on something new. Whether this film rates with the others listed above (it most likely does not, though it is by no means minor within the context of European art cinema) the fact that we still have Oliveira and that he is still as prolific as ever is itself cause for celebration.


Also without US distribution at present, is the latest from French New Wave auteur Claude Chabrol, A Comedy of Power (L'Ivresse du pouvoir). While Chabrol is more known in the broader culture and film world as a whole, the quality of his work is far less consistent than is Oliveira's. The French director's latest effort is middling to be sure, even if it begins with an absolutely brilliant opening sequence: in one unbroken take, Chabrol follows a corporate criminal from the heights of his suburban Paris office to the street where he is apprehended and charged with defrauding shareholders. From this bravura opening shot, Chabrol establishes a spatial logic that he maintains for much of the film -- namely that power relationships are established in terms of distance from the ground. The film's conspiring CEO's occupy the upper floors of glass and steel behemoths, while the film's crusading magistrate, Isabella Huppert, operates far closer to ground level. Of course, the point is to get the big-wigs out of their towers, just as it is for Huppert to herself ascend. Conflict, on the other hand, is the result of shared heights, such as Huppert and her cause-weary husband, as well as with the fellow female magistrate next to whom they (the conspiring Gaullist power-brokers -- very much Lang territory -- that is) place Huppert, in the hope that they will take each other down.

Together, these threads suggest a narrative critical of bourgeois greed and the will to destroy those with money -- an interesting critique by a director like Chabrol in a nation like France, certainly. However, Chabrol's narrative soon loses the focus of its first part, en route to one of the least satisfying endings of the director's recent career, which is doubly disappointing considering that the spatial logic is for time, the most rigorous of any of Chabrol's films since Le Boucher (1970). Yet even in this system, Chabrol doesn't complete the promise of what at first appears to be genuine mastery.

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.