Friday, June 16, 2006

New Film: A Prairie Home Companion

To the distant observer, the fact that I never once listened to "A Prairie Home Companion" in the nearly quarter century that I lived in the North Star State may come as something of a shock. Then again, I suppose your average Venetian might not be so inclined to tune in to a program populated by crooning gondoliers and waxed mustachioed pizza chefs named Luigi with a penchant for "cheesy" jokes. (I of course would listen to that broadcast religiously, provided that there were the offensive accents to match.) No, I've never possessed even a modicum of curiosity has to what was going on over there at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul, in part because I am more than passingly familiar with concepts such as pot lucks and Lutherans. And to tell you the truth, I've never been a real big fan of either. Besides which, as any true Minnesotan would know, we get our facile populism from WCCO, where at least one has the chance to hear a Twins or Wild game every now and again.

Consequently, the simple fact that there was going to be a Prairie Home Companion movie scripted by Garrison Keillor was nowhere near sufficient inducement to get me to see the film, even if it was to be shot entirely in the Twin Cities -- so was Jingle All the Way, and heaven knows I love me my Christmas. However, the "Directed by Robert Altman" credit, shall we say, changes things. Not that I am that big a fan of Altman myself: at best, I remain on the fence regarding the merits of McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971) -- I'm not exactly a fan of unrelenting vulgarity and the aesthetics of the zoom lens -- to say nothing of the abject hatred I possess for the borderline pernicious MASH (1970) and the profoundly unlikable Cookie's Fortune (1999). (As Matt Singer astutely summed it up over at Termite Art awhile back, "Has there ever been a great director who has made as many bad movies as Robert Altman?"; let me add that I haven't even seen any of the films Singer disparages, though I should also mention that he regards the first two films that I note quite highly.) Having said that, I would not hesitate to call Robert Altman a major American director, with at least one masterpiece, The Long Goodbye (1974), to his credit, as well as a couple of other works that deserve to be mentioned in that conversation, namely the uber-zeitgeisty Nashville (1975) and the admirably Renoiresque Gosford Park (2001). So while the film's pedigree portended anything but a sure thing in this writer's opinion, even the possibility of major new Altman was enough to get me in the theatre.

And as circumstances would have it, the film's opening coincided with what has become my bi-annual pilgrimage to the land of my father: was this serendipity, to be shared with about fifteen others at a $5.25 Monday matinee in one of the state's reddest corners? Or was I about to see my first Popeye-sized flaming disaster? It almost goes without saying that the truth was to be found somewhere in the middle.

First to those with a similarly prejudiced opinion of Keillor going in, A Prairie Home Companion will do little to endear you to GK (in spite of the Gophers hockey sweatshirt he wears in the film's final scene): he has, after all deigned to memorialize himself; one could even say he has even has eulogized his own death. Unless, I suppose, you possess a heretofore untapped penchant for homespun Upper Midwestern existentialism tempered with more than its fair share of bad jokes and a glibly reductionist view of rural life. Through all this, Keillor plays a Joel Gray-mould master of ceremonies, with a yen for collaborating with each of his schematized performers. Yet, for all the star-power that graces his stage, A Prairie Home Companion remains Keillor's show -- right down to the intimations of an affair that his GK supposedly once had with Maryl Streep's Johnson Sister (with the latter seeming to maintain romantic and bad feelings for Garrison in equal measure).

Of course, being an Altman film as well, A Prairie Home Companion is in no short supply of highly memorable, nuanced supporting performances: including Streep, her low-grade Carter imitation sister Lily Tomlin, daughter Lindsay Lohan, singing cowboys Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly (whose "Bad Jokes" number registers as a best of show), pregnant stage manager Maya Rudolph, Virgina Madsen's metaphysical femme fatale, and especially Kevin Kline as Guy Noir, who gets the pic's best joke, which anyone familiar with the trailer will already know -- that Rudolph, well into her third trimester, should lay off junk food and "sex with men."

Importantly, Kline (the perfunctory narrator), Madsen and Tommy Lee Jones's Texas magnate each operate on a level beyond that of the fictional final performance at the Fitzgerald Theater: they are what might be termed fictional-fictional characters; that is, they seem to function on a meta-narrational level, fulfilling formal concerns while at times bypassing their material existence within the space and time of the story. Moreover, where Kline's character at least is a hold-over from the radio program, he and Madsen, along with the singing cowboys, instantiate types of a now-disappeared filmic past that Altman has remade over the course of five decade career. In his handling of the metaphysical status of Madsen's Veronica Lake-type in particular, there is a narratological freedom to counter-balance the director's tight directorial control.

As to this control, A Prairie Home Companion showcases the continually moving camera of Gosford Park, along with a graceful, if not masterly lighting schema that principally features warm, golden light, which if anything seems to amplify the film's highly elegiac tone (perhaps by virtue of proximity to candle light). In fact, Altman's utilization of these warmer tones, along with the film's funereal implications -- both for the program itself and also for the fates of certain characters -- closely matches the final (and greatest) film of another American director with a similar ethos, John Huston's The Dead (1987). While I would pause before saying that it fulfills a similar purpose to that which The Rules of the Game does for Gosford Park, namely in acting as a prototype for not only the film's narrative, but further for Altman's multi-character structures, there is some in wisdom in viewing Altman as a combination of Renoir's humanism and Huston's high-key pessimism.

Yet, there is nothing so mournful about A Prairie Home Companion, which is ultimately just about the most visually graceful concert film ever made. Simultaneously, Altman's film retains the disaffectedness of the director's youth, even if it is masked by Keillor's Norsk mannerism(s). Jones, who has come to close down the radio show, conveniently is a Texan, and even more importantly, is a man of religious conviction. The world that Altman and Keillor create on-stage and off, though very much suggestive of small town values, is a secularist's world that is perhaps best represented in another characterization: the "Lunch Lady" (Marylouise Burke), who we discover is the long-time lover of performer Chuck Akers (L. Q. Jones). In his translation from radio to screen, Keillor has opted to uncover the vestiges of the sexual revolution beneath the surface of Lake Woebegone. Perhaps it is not simply "A Prairie Home Companion" that Keillor and Altman are eulogizing, but the remaining parcels of blue, middle America that are themselves disappearing, as the Texans move in. Unfortunately for the Jones character, however, and red-staters everywhere, Altman and Keillor still hold the narrative strings. In other words, A Prairie Home Companion is a summation of America's internal power structure, circa 2006. And its’ got some real nice music too.

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

All Things Spanish & American: The Hispanic Society of America & Whit Stillman's Barcelona



I.

Little-known even among New York's cultural cognoscenti, The Hispanic Society of America, located on Broadway between 155 and 156 Streets in Manhattan's Morningside Heights neighborhood -- hence its lack of notoriety -- houses one of the city's finest collections of Golden Age and Impressionist-era Spanish art, which given in particular the breadth of the Metropolitan Museum's collection in the former area, is no small accomplishment. Chief among its treasures, and indeed among all the works that contribute to New York's glorious panoply of aesthetic riches, is Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes' Duchess of Alba (1797), a work that almost single-handedly (literally, as it happens) points the way to the modern period of which Goya is thought to be the ancestor. Specifically, Goya's Duchess points with her lowered arm to the painter's signature traced in the sand; that her toe is also pointing further directs our attention, while suggesting that she might be the author of this message. In this way, Goya prefigures a movement whose principle earmark is its positioning of the artist as the center of the work -- just as the Renaissance's distinction can be said to consist of, once again, making man the measure of all things. Not only does the artist paint his signature, but he makes it the focus of the viewer's attention. This definition of modernism, to be sure, includes romanticism, which again the "Duchess of Alba" signals in its move away from neoclassicism and toward a more modern conceptualization of artist as genius. Yet, this is not the definition of modernism that another of New York's epochal canvases signifies -- Pablo Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907), which reinterprets space to dispose of Renaissance perspective in exchange for a multiplanar space-time that is closer to a set of syntagmas than it is to any traditional definition of the objective world -- though it does share its predilection for reflexivity, giving shape to what might be called art's mirror phase.

Beyond its abundant art historical significance, this portrait of the lady in traditional dress showcases Goya's debt to fellow Iberian master Diego Velázquez in its painterly treatment of the woman's garment -- that is, Goya's brushstrokes are often visible, especially in his representation of her gold-lattice sleeves; her lips are pulled tight into a pucker, commensurate with his simplification of means down to the level where his depiction of this feature and this feature alone succeeds in communicating personality; and indeed, in his facility with the color black itself: this final characteristic is determinate of his abstract "black paintings" phase, and is also something, parenthetically, that I noticed of the best Manet's (particularly his 1873 Masked Ball at the Opera) in my recent, first-ever visit to the National Gallery in Washington, DC. To the last of these, the point is that he produces a texture in his utilization of black that is noticeable for its near singularity in visual art. That a work of this stature should appear to be propped up on a table top, leaning against an abutting wall -- fear not it is tied up with thin wires -- perfectly condenses this work's (and the Hispanic Society in general)'s neglect.

What makes this all the more unfortunate is the alluded to largess of the museum's permanent collection. Aside from Goya -- there are other substantial works by the master including his "Brigadier General Alberto Foraster" (1804) with its Moorish-patterned metallurgy and its eyes worthy of Rembrandt -- the Hispanic Society has no shortage of Spain's consensus pre-modern masters, including the aforementioned Velázquez. In his case, the Society possesses (among other works) the beautiful small-canvas Portrait of a Young Girl (c.1642-43), which confirms Velázquez's complete mastery of texture in a very immediate and exacting fashion: the girl's soft brown hair, done up in something of a bob, precisely registers its weight and tactility, while its beautiful auburn color, along with the girl's like-colored eyes, smallish chin and soft, thin lips collectively encapsulate the girl's ideal, pre-pubescent beauty. It may be worth mentioning that the girl is thought to have been one of the painter's grandchildren.

Another familial connection featured at the museum links the slightly earlier, though no less well-renowned El Greco (Domenikos Theotokopoulos) and his son Jorge Manuel Theotosopuli, whose derivative (of his father that is) "Supper at the House of Simon" is displayed in the gallery space. The former, moreover, maintains one of the biggest presences at the Hispanic Society, with his striking middle-period The Holy Family (c. 1585) standing out among the lot. "The Holy Family" features an exceedingly beautiful and feminine Mary breast-feeding the Christ child, who tightly clasps two of his mother's fingers in his tiny little hand. Rarely has Christ's pre-Age of Consent humanity, Mary's graceful sensuality and their biological mother-son bond been show with this same level of exactitude. If this work, along with an earlier "Pieta" (c. 1570-75) show El Greco to be a son of the late Renaissance, his later, masterful "Penitent St. Jerome" (c. 1600) offers evidence of the maestro's late-period invention of a highly mannerist technique with his figure's very small head, elongated torso and gray beard, the ecstasy written across his face and picked up in the surrounding storm clouds, and the mauve form (a city perhaps) hovering in the upper left corner of the canvas. Given the evolution of his aesthetic on display at the Hispanic Society, it is difficult to support the sentiment (which I have heard voiced, and may have echoed myself) that El Greco is something akin to the last of the Medievals. Furthermore, an aesthetic such as his does provide art historians with a bridge from that earlier age to a modernity that owes much to Domenikos Theotokopoulos' internal way of seeing.

Beyond the big three of pre-Picasso Spanish painting, the artist to figure largest at the museum is Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida, who in fact preceded Pablo by a mere generation. The grandest of his featured pieces, and certainly the most monumental work at the museum, is his fourteen panel Visions of Spain (1913-19), which encircle a gallery space flanking the main exhibition hall, for which they were commissioned directly. Arranged in an order to reflect each region's location within the greater Iberian Peninsula, these large pastel panels impress more for their scope -- which to be sure is quite remarkable -- than for their level of craftsmanship, not that they are in any way lacking in this respect. At least they can be easily examined by the museum patron, unlike much of the work that adorns the narrow corridor walls of this turn-of-the-century palace.

Outside of the medium of painting, The Hispanic Society's decorative objects span the greater portion of the Peninsula's history, from Imperial Roman rule (a personal favorite of mine was the museum's collection of tweezers -- not typical art gallery stuff), Moorish control (a 10th century ivory box made by Halaf at Córdoba; a 15th century Mudejar door) and Catholic Spain (a Toledo baptismal font from 1400 and a pair of intact 16th century tombs, replete with larger-than-life marble effigies of the dead). Indeed, I might have even concluded that The Hispanic Society's greatest riches were to be found in these countless artifacts, had I not been greeted by one of New York's greatest art treasures (seemingly) balancing on a card table.

II.

Not content with my brief visit to the museum, I supplemented my taste for all things Spanish later that same day with a very belated first viewing of Whit Stillman's Barcelona (1994). The funny thing about seeing it now is that it has become a very current film. Stillman's second feature is the story of an American salesman and his Navy officer cousin as they attempt to navigate Catalunya's very liberal and often openly anti-American society during the "last decade of the Cold War." The film opens with Fred's (Stillman axiom Chris Eigeman, who is exceptionally well-suited to this form of comedy) surprise arrival at Ted's (Taylor Nichols) apartment. Ostensibly there to prepare for a broader military visit, Fred doesn't hesitate to show his disdain when faced with hostility: as he points out, "it's well-known that anti-Americanism has its roots in sexual impotence. Then again, when one character does concede that Fred is intelligent for an American, he responds dryly, "no, I am not."

Like his marvelous debut Metropolitan (1990), Barcelona is a erudite, conversation-heavy comedy of manners -- a post-modern Eric Rohmer with an Upper Manhattan sensibility -- that, like his later The Last Days of Disco (1998), focuses upon a historical moment that has already passed (which could similarly said of Metropolitan and its description of New York's debutante scene). Here, in his treatment of European anti-American sentiment during the final years of the Cold War, Stillman surrenders nothing to his European betters, who continually speak of the AFL-CIA with knowing hauteur. His American characters, on the other hand, have problems of their own -- not the least of which is Ted's Bible-dancing -- but there is something to be said for a good hamburger, and we're not talking that crap that they have over there. Stillman is a very American director, but of a type that we have been led to believe doesn't exist (or at least not anymore): the refined, urban moralist -- dare we even say conservative, though not necessary right-wing -- for whom manners are everything. Barcelona is made current for its resistance to anti-Americanism, which in Stillman's version is largely supported by a mythic evil; if the recourse to inventing bogeymen bares any similarity to the anti-Americanism of today, it is, as they say, purely coincidental.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

New Film: Le Filmeur (Filmman)

Seventy-four year-old French festival-circuit auteur Alain Cavalier, best known in the U.S. for his exquisite, highly Bressonian Thérèse (1986), is the latest Gallic director (of that generation) to synthesize his or her own ideas of craft within the autobiographical essay genre. Whereas Jean-Luc Godard's masterful JLG/JLG (1995) offers a romantic's faith in beauty through a typically indirect means of exposition and Agnès Varda's The Gleaners and I proposes that the latter's work can be understood in the terms set forth in the film's title, 2005's Le Filmeur (Filmman) finds its genesis in Cavalier's admitted inability to see "touching" things disappear, following his similar confession that he wrote everything down prior to turning to video.

Indeed, what has preceded this qualification is a series of poignant passages and moments that are largely lacking in sentimentality, even though they depict such occasions as his father's death, his mother's 99th birthday -- okay, so there is some here -- and his bout with skin cancer, which periodically disfigures the director's face. Yet even more than these larger events, Cavalier composes his portrait as an accumulation of interstical moments, from his birdbath's ornithological visitors to a series of motel rooms where the director lives during one of his tours of the French festival circuit. The implicit poetry in this approach -- emphasized in the director's magnified reproductions of natural phenomenon -- certainly serves his profoundly elegiac perspective well, which is itself expertly summarized in the succeeding images of his ancient mother's birthday, the tiny rips in a still green leaf (portending the coming autumn, as is made clear in the accompanying voice-over) and the film's final fade to black.

Note: Le Filmeur does not have U.S. distribution, and is unlikely to receive anything other than some form of direct-to-video release, at best.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

New Film: Whisky

Juan Pablo Rebella and Pablo Stoll's Whisky, a 2004 Uruguayan film that was recently released on DVD in the US in lieu of a wider theatrical run, further confirms the vitality of Latin American art cinema, while introducing a new nation and its under-35 talent(s) to global audiences. Allying themselves with Finnish master Aki Kaurismäki -- and displaying the director's same droll treatment of the banalities of working class life, which is to say the Kaurismäki touch -- Rebella and Stoll bring their poker-faced humor to a retrograde sock factory, where its proprietor prepares for the visit of his estranged brother (who happens to own a flashier sock factory in Brazil, replete with the latest in Italian technology). Without providing any verbal justification or even explanation, the Uruguayan factory head Jacobo asks one of his older employees, Marta, to stay with him during his brother's visit. Marta seems to understand implicitly that she is to pretend to be his wife, to which she agrees without protest.

When Herman arrives, ostensibly for some fete celebrating their mother, the former quickly ingratiates himself with Marta, demonstrating a far sunnier disposition than his über-dour sibling. Parenthetically, it should be said that this is a film of exceptional preformances, particularly that of Mirella Pascual as Marta. Much to their credit, the directors successfully showcase her understated, aged, everyday beauty in a manner that belies her plain appearance.

So, returning to the narrative, when Herman suggests that the three travel to a seaside resort and casino, Marta hastily consents, even as Jacobo refuses. Suffice it to say that they go.

Once at the resort, the three occupy themselves with such world-wide pass times as air hockey (more movies need air hockey in this writer's opinion), karaoke (Uruguay's chances of producing the next Shakira seem bleak indeed), and gambling (the film's single greatest moment of suspense surrounds Jacobo's all-in wager on a single number in roulette).

Yet, it is not simply this one moment which Rebella and Stoll imbue with suspense, but indeed they succeed in producing one of the most dramatic narratives in the past few years from a single tension: will Jacobo and Marta stay together after the play acting has concluded? The seemingly happily-married father of two Herman is little more than a McGuffin with respect to his own potential for interference. Ultimately, the Jacobo and Marta union represents a life that could have been, maybe -- after all, we cannot say with any certainty that Marta is single. The spectacle of Whisky is in seeing a life the way it perhaps should be, with persons filling roles that they certainly seem adept in filling. Why can't life just be this way: two lonely people coming together, ordering each other's lives (with her tidying of his flat, for instance, Marta breathes a certain life back into Jacobo's formerly dingy living space) and spending their free days playing at a resort?

But of course, when the vacation ends, its back to the dreary industrial city, back to the sock factory, where one day passes like another. Though it is clearly subsumed in a plausible-enough narrative structure, the contingent quality of the plot offers an instantiation or at least a congruence with the character's feelings -- and more importantly, the spectators', from a position of limited psychological insight -- that suggests possibility rather than actuality. Though the film is doggedly observant, its structure almost effervescently signals a narrative of fantasy rather than reality.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Three Crowns of the Sailor: A Resurfaced Masterpiece from Cinema's Forgotten Decade

As I have noted before, one reason for the persistently low opinion of the 1980s as a decade for film art is that such a large number of its greatest works remain unavailable to audiences in this country. Supreme achievements by directors of Hou Hsiao-hsien's (A City of Sadness, 1989), Edward Yang's (Taipei Story, 1985) and Alain Resnais' (Mélo, 1986) stature exist only in foreign-region DVDs or bootleg videocassette versions at best, while those of other masters, such as Manoel de Oliveira (Francisca, 1981) and Jacques Demy (A Room in Town, 1982), continue to be even more obscure.

Recently making the jump from the latter category to the former -- thanks to Blaq Out's invaluable three-film Raoul Ruiz box set, released in France this past March, and also containing the director's Suspended Vocation (1977) and his somewhat better known Hypothesis of a Stolen Painting (1979) -- is Ruiz's Three Crowns of the Sailor (Les Trois couronnes du matelot, 1983), a work that surely rates among the decade's dozen or so best films, no matter what clandestine masterworks may be revealed to us next.

Based on the Chiloé Island myth of the 'Ship of the Dead' (Ruiz, it is worth noting, is from the nearby southern Chilean city of Puerto Montt, even if most of his nearly 100 films, including the film in question, were made while in exile in France) Three Crowns of the Sailor tells the story of a man who seeks passage on a ship, after committing murder in the film's opening sequence. Actually, the initial set of shots, prior to this opening scene, depict a man writing, which, as it will become clear, is the primary preoccupation of the film.

But back to the plot. The man with whom he seeks safety requests two things: first, that he listen to his life story, and second, that he gives him three Dutch crowns. The younger gentleman reluctantly agrees, and the sailor begins to describe his passage as the only living member of the ship. What ensues is an episodic narrative, dictated less by any plausible formulation of spatial or temporal unity than it is the exigencies of narrative invention. In other words, the world of the film is constructed out of the unfolding of the plot, rather than existing prior to and apart from a plot that more characteristically would proceed while preserving its integrity (as if it were itself a reality incapable of logical contradiction).

This pretence of realism, however, does not hold in Three Crowns of the Sailor, wherein it is possible for a character to be both alive and dead, in two places at once, etc. As analytic philosopher cum film scholar Lisa K. Broad puts it of her fellow former analytic philosopher Ruiz's work, we often see things through the sailor's eyes while seeing him in the space of the frame; in this contradiction we see the essence of a narrative art that expects us to accept this logical incongruity.

And of course, this is very much the point of a film structured on the basis of a continual flow of stories and storytellers; Three Crowns of the Sailor is a narrational Chinese box where new characters are always ready to tell their tales. Explicitly positioning himself within the Latin American literary tradition of 'magical realism' (both in this text and in subsequent interviews), narrative becomes the primary tell of cinematic form: no longer is it the photographic basis of the medium alone that lends it its ontological shape, but instead it is the presence and contours of storytelling (along with that photographic basis, providing a quality of the uncanny, as Broad also points out) that dictates the internal logic of Ruiz's picture. Moreover, not only is it a work aware of its own form -- insistently recalled in the choruses of "I have a story to tell" -- but it is conscious of its creator as well, which Ruiz slips into one of the closing lines of dialogue, "there always must be one living person on the ship:" Le matelot est Ruiz; he is the living one in this ship of the dead, cinema.

At this point, it may be worth cautioning that all this talk of narrative (and in effect time) does little to address the other essential elements of its form: namely, space and light, which is to say its visual style. While perhaps less integral to the form of Three Crowns of the Sailor than are concerns of narrative and plot, Ruiz nevertheless showcases a visual flamboyance, style to burn, in this work. For one, there is Sacha Vierny's (Last Year in Marienbad, etc.) cinematography, varying between black-and-white and color -- the former for the present-tense of the sailor's narration, and the often shifting palette of the latter for the stories that shape the narrative. As to his black-and-white, Vierny's lensing alternately evokes (quite literally, in fact) the baroque hall-of-mirrors aesthetic of the aforementioned Marienbad (1961).

Yet, it is less the occasional opulence of its mise en scène than it is the compositional embellishment between extreme foreground and the deep recesses of background that distinguishes Ruiz's (and Vierny's) protean style in Three Crowns of the Sailor: Ruiz and Vierny utilize extreme close-ups to frame distant action, whether it is a character's arm or an empty glass near the camera. While there may be space to interpret Ruiz's utilization of space with relational to the picture's narrative content, it would seem more accurate to say that the visual style of Three Crowns of the Sailor represents an incidence of style for its own sake, a means of description that is more interested in the visual elegance and extravagence of what it shows rather than in finding spatial corrollaries to express the film's themes. Perhaps this apparent absence of rigor is not a want at all, but rather further conformation of the film's key ethos: that the point is in the telling, not in what is being told.