Thursday, June 22, 2006

Footnoting Goodbye, Dragon Inn & Cars

Last night, I had the opportunity to view Tsai Ming-liang's Goodbye, Dragon Inn (2003) for a third time. Although I am ashamed to admit it, the first time I saw Tsai's film, I found it to be visually beautiful, however slight -- that is, lacking a substantial connection between its form and content -- as well as quite boring. My second viewing led me to dramatically revise my opinion: let me just say that I now feel that it is the best film of its year, which remains my judgment having now seen it for a third time. While I would change little of my formal analysis other than to say that the first lines of dialogue occur closer to 45:00 than to 1:00:00, an intervening viewing of Tsai's most recent film, 2005's epic misfire The Wayward Cloud, afforded me a new perspective on the subject of the earlier film's elegy: not only is it the movie palace that is memorialized in its final, depopulated throws, but so is it the end of the communal period of the arts that such public spaces represent: namely, modernism. Indeed, Tsai is himself noteworthy for coming to prominence with works that are unmistakably high modernist in both their ethos and also in their subject matter: Vive l'amour (1994) is the ultimate oriental Antonioni, whereas What Time is it There? (2001) wears its Truffaut debt -- right down to its Leaud cameo -- on both sleeves.

The Wayward Cloud, on the other hand, crosses over from the dead-pan of Tati to an anarchic nihilism hiding beneath the surface of a soft-core musical fantasy -- it is, in a word, postmodern. If ever there was a path leading back toward a common cinephilic culture, The Wayward Cloud is nowhere near it; it is the ultimate marginal art film. Goodbye, Dragon Inn, oppositely, revisits the aesthetic of the high European art film at the peak of its mid-60s celebrity. As an advocate of that movement, particularly when its positioned against its more recent counterpart, I have to hope that Tsai doesn't forever intend to work outside the aegis of modernism and that any apparent turning point will someday prove to be nothing more than an anomaly. Or maybe Tsai will show us a way forward.

While browsing one of my favorite industry blogs the other day, Anne Thompson's Risky Biz Blog, I noticed that my site was listed under her Hollywood blog roll (as opposed to the "Indiewood" sites, where I would assume that it might be a better fit). Never mind the strange categorization, I was just happy to see that Tativille was listed on a site with far more traffic than I could ever dream of. So I suppose it was with this newfound (and uninvited) commitment to Hollywood that I decided to see John Lasseter's Cars -- that, and my bandwagon support for Pixar's preeminence among studios, at least since I saw Brad Bird's superlative The Incredibles (2004) two winters ago. Suffice it to say that Cars fits squarely within Pixar's discursive project, with the same nostalgic emphasis as Lasseter's earlier work: think of Cars as a Nascar Toy Story from Buzz Lightyear's perspective. The Incredibles, to be sure, also trades on the idea that things used to be better, though in its case, Bird laments our self-esteem-obsessed and litigation-happy society's war on exceptionalism; for Cars, its the quainter view (not to use that word pejoratively) that something has been lost with the bi-passing of America's small towns along with the construction of the interstate system. It is communalist in the classically American sense of simple people and small town values.

Because of Cars' preference for Route 66 America, it does seem somewhat counterintuitive that it would be the bearer of the latest in animation technology: were it to have ambitions to equal the Goodbye, Dragon Inn's of the world, one can imagine the filmmakers' switching from computer-based to hand-drawn animation to match Lightning McQueen's integration into this earlier way of life. Then again, Pixar -- and Lasseter in particular -- seem intent on co-opting the values of the past for its new technology. Nevertheless, Cars should be regarded for what it is, not what it isn't... and what it is is a film that soars in its best moments (even if it also languishes for a large portion of Lightning's sojourn in Radiator Springs). In particular, Lasseter demonstrates his exceptional action direction in the racing sequences, where his positioning of the spectator in the middle of the speeding automobiles adeptly draws on the picture's animated form. Likewise, Lasseter, co-director Joe Ranft, and their animators deserve particular credit for bringing the inorganic to life, while maintaining a sense for their material nature. Also, has there been another so thoroughly Dixie feature-length cartoon from Disney since Song of the South (1946)?

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.