Wednesday, May 31, 2006

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


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.


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.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

New Exhibition: Day for Night

To anyone unfamiliar with the critical reception surrounding this year's Whitney Biennial, suffice it say that it has been predominantly negative. That Day for Night (1973), François Truffaut's facile abandonment of the ethos of the nouvelle vague, was selected to brand the exhibition should call into question its facility in representing contemporary art's genuine vanguard -- and particularly, anything even resembling interesting audio-visual art. Or perhaps the mainstream of America's art world today is as shallow as was Truffaut's paean to the joys of creation.

Either way, the inclusion of Francesco Vezzoli's Trailer for a Remake of Gore Vidal's Caligula (2005) speaks to the aesthetic paucity of the Biennial endeavor.
First there is the trailer's credited writer and its namesake, Gore Vidal: before his participation in such unremittingly trashy exercises as Myra Breckinridge (novel) and the aforementioned Caligula (screenplay), Vidal was responsible for some of the greatest dross ever to grace the silver screen -- he penned Suddenly, Last Summer and Ben-Hur in a single inglorious year (1959). Second, there is the fact that a trailer, an advertisement for a film -- albeit for a non-existent remake -- is somehow supposed to constitute noteworthy art. The best trailers either a) tell us what a film is about and/or b) convey the film's mood or a feeling for the film that will c) encourage the spectator to want to see the film. This is their function. A fictitious trailer will continue to do a) and/or b), producing irony when thoughts of c) are broached. Are we really being told that this experience is as important to us as are our traditional inquiries into who we are, where we come from and where we are going, or at least to questions concerning the ontological status of the art -- and no, a flaccid critique of "capitalism" or "media" or what have you does not an engagement of these questions make -- or is it that no one is willing to ask these questions any more? Whichever way you look at, Vezzoli and Vidal's inclusion in the Biennial is troubling.

Fortunately, not all the video art in Day for Night was nearly this inelegant and insubstantial. This year's best in show, regardless of medium (and by a large margin at that), was Pierre Huyghe's A Journey That Wasn't (2005), "a travelogue/ fairy tale/ performance of immense beauty and mystery," as it has been described by its Termite Art advocate, R. Emmet Sweeney. A Journey That Wasn't alternates super 16 and HD footage of Antarctica and Central Park's Wollman Rink, where Huyghe staged a performance of his voyage in October 2005, backed by a 42-piece orchestra. The expedition itself centers upon the attempted discovery of a rare albino penguin, which Huyghe's film captures in the closing minutes. I mention this lest any of its spectators missed the penguin's appearance, which I should also mention matters neither to one's assessment of the work's quality nor even to the viewer's experience of the work. The fact is that as a film intended for gallery rather than theatrical exhibition, The Journey That Wasn't is to be (and most certainly will be) viewed in segments that often commence after the film has begun and conclude before the film is over -- in other words as its spectators walk into and out of its exhibition space.

Corresponding to this variation in form, The Journey That Wasn't articulates its content through a frequent repetition of leitmotifs, rather than via a more conventional story arc. Specifically, it is the documentary facts of each, both the topographical details of the spaces and also the spectacle of human -- and animal -- presence. Resulting is a work that both emphasizes the Biennial's stated preoccupation with reflexivity, and more subtly, the texture and tactile cold of the environs. Whereas Huyghe captures the placid black surfaces, floating snow-packed isles and brutal cold of a liquid that barely surpasses 32º F, with a conscienciousness rivaling Flaherty or the recent landscape documentaries of James Benning (13 Lakes and Ten Skies, both 2004), an indeterminacy surrounds his mist-shrouded Central Park reproductions: is it a crisp autumn evening or is it more unseasonnal; and does the water have any discernable cooling effect of its own? In short, the artifical setting lacks the tactile precision of the natural locale. All of this is to say that The Journey That Wasn't utilizes its form to stimulate the sensorial memory of its spectator (in responding to the work's tactility) while asking he or she to consider their experience of viewing the film, which is simulated in the Central Park reproduction; the Whitney spectator, like the Wollman rink participant, views an aesthetic interpretation of an Antarctic expedition.

Apart from the moving image, another of the more compelling reconfigurations of form belonged to Urs Fisher, who attached burning candles to a pair of swinging pendulums, thereby charting its invisible path on the floor beneath. (Fisher's sculpture fills a space confined by cut-out walls that similarly annunciate the otherwise unseen.) Likewise, Elaine Sturtevant's reproduction of Marcel

Duchamp's epochal display of "found" objects translates a discrete space through a specific aesthetic idea -- that her feeling for these pieces constitutes as much of an artistic expression as did his -- which nevertheless succumbs to the same cynicism of the original, even if it avoids the joking quality of both Duchamp's instillation and most of the other work contained in Day for Night.

If there is an overarching weakness displayed in this year's biennial, it is that same pestering rash that has inflicted the Western art world since the end of the modernist age: irony. Everything has to have a punch-line. The artist is forever superior to his or her subject. Humility does not exist in postmodern art. Whatever this portends, western art has not been able to find its way since modernism first began to lose its momentum. If nothing else, the Whitney Biennial offers us a glimpse into contemporary art's most celebrated placeholders.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

New Film: United 93

"Let's roll!" Well, actually, "Are you guys ready? Let's roll... come on, let's go!" Herein lies the difference between the film that many people were either dreading or hoping for, and the film that English-born director Paul Greengrass ultimately produced. United 93 is in this way a marvel of understatement, opting whenever possible to downplay the subject's more incendiary facets, while maintaining a plausible correspondence to that day's grave events. Consequently, United 93 more closely resembles a memorial than it does a political tract -- Greengrass commemorates their heroism to the measure that the flight's braver passengers acted beyond their mere survival instincts, in order to prevent their plane from becoming the weapon that 9/11's earlier flights had become. That this might stimulate in the film's audience (myself included) the hope that they might act like these valiant men, should they ever find themselves in a similar situation, does not connote anything resembling propaganda; rather, what is in evidence is an art that elevates the spectator with the awareness of the capacities of human nature. Uplift has always been a part of great art (not to say that Greengrass' film is exactly this). To demand its suppression for fear of its political consequences is to participate in a cause made dubious by its dependence upon withholding facts or encouraging that thoughts and emotions of a certain moment to be forgotten.

Of course, the story of United 93 is by no means obscure to most American viewers. Then again, Greengrass attempts to reproduce the events of that day from an epistemological position that none of us shared. Simply put, United 93 puts us inside the plane and air traffic control centers as the events of 9/11 unfold in a facsimile of real-time. This is to say that Greengrass is interested in recreating the experiences of that day, not simply in telling a story, which he further conveys through his hand-held, interventionist camera work that places the spectator in a position inside the action. Greengrass' point in making United 93 is therefore quite clear: to give the viewer a sense of what it might have been like to participate more intimately in the incidences surrounding the hijacking of United flight 93.

What results is a narrative of great fascination that at once communicates the banality of that early Tuesday morning -- the flight 93 travelers on their cell phones holding their stiff coffees, the air traffic controllers nonchalantly preparing for an ordinary, problem-free day (after all the weather, the only x-factor, was perfect) -- as well as the extreme pressures that result once the situation has become clear. For the terrorists, with whom Greengrass begins his film, this exists from the outset; that the director has made this storytelling choice allows even these men to retain a modicum of humanity as they prepare for their inhumane violence. Again, this is a mark of realism, not of propaganda -- in spite of the murder that these men will commit, they must have experienced some nervousness, some doubt (not in their cause, perhaps, but in their ability to complete their mission) before they commenced with the hijacking. Greengrass shows that there is no need to exaggerate either the heroism of the passengers or the villainy of the terrorists; his narrative superbly honors the victims without succumbing to what might be an understandable tendency.

Once more, let us to return to one of the chief objections leveled against United 93: "why now?" After all, the Bush administration is finally being excoriated on the war and his administration's foreign policy in the way that many of his detractors feel is due. Why tempt fate with a film like United 93 if not to serve their interests? Again the response should be abundantly clear: even assuming that position, September, 11, 2001 was one of the most important days in our history, whose impact and memory provides us a key to understanding the world we live in today. And of course, those persons who indeed gave their lives that day -- to his credit, Greengrass allows them to first demonstrate a willingness to overcome their fears and do whatever necessary for the good of their country, before they seem to grasp for their survival in developing a contingent strategy for landing the plane -- deserve our continued remembrances and admiration. September 11th deserves not one but any number of films, given its centrality to American life in this new century, as well as for its verification of both humanity's capacity for evil and for bravery and heroism. Should this spate of movies ever arrive as one would expect it will, United 93 will undoubtedly remain one of their very best.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

New Film: Water

Warning: the second and third paragraphs contain partial spoilers.

Deepa Mehta's Water (2005), a Canadian-Indian co-production that concludes the director's 'elemental trilogy,' is foremost an object of social protest against the continued practice of child marriage in India, and particularly, the Hindu prohibitions against remarriage placed on widows of any age. Mehta's film, situated during the reform-minded late 1930s, tells the story of Chuyia, a seven-year old widow who is sent off to spend the remainder of her days in a monastery that we later discover is financed by the prostitution of another of its inhabitants, the radiant Kalyani (Lisa Ray). Like the much younger Chuyia, Kalyani never did meet her husband, but has been nonetheless conscribed to an existence best described as a sort of living death -- the only other options that these women have, we are told, would have been to burn themselves on their husbands' funeral pyres or to marry their brothers-in-law.

The rambunctious pre-pubescent quickly befriends the twenty-something Kalyani, as well as an ancient woman she calls "Auntie," but runs afoul of the shrill mistress Madhumati, whose only companion seems to be Gulabi, the transvestite "eunuch" and pimp who whores out Kalyani. When Madhumati learns of Kalyani's plan to marry the liberal-minded law graduate, Narayan (John Abraham), she chops off the younger woman's hair -- until now, she is the only one who has been allowed to grow her hair long, owning to certain economic imperatives -- and locks her in her room. After being freed by the religiously-conflicted Shakuntala (Seema Biswas), another of Chuyia's early antagonists who will later become one of little girl's chief advocates, Kalyani joins Narayan in preparation for their union. Kalyani's fellow widows celebrate by flinging vibrantly-colored powders (including an incandescent shade of fuchsia) on one another, as the tragedy of their existence seems to have been mitigated by the social reforms championed by progressive political paragon, Mahatma Ghandi.

Yet, the logic of Mehta's social critique does not allow for such a happy resolution. After Kalyani inquires as to whom Narayan's father is, she abruptly ends their engagement. Without providing further spoilers, suffice it to say that Chuyia will be subjected to the same ruinous experience that assured the former's tragic end. The point is that the restoration of the familial structure, long an axiom of the popular Indian cinema, is here denied its currency; such conservatism is disavowed by Mehta's progressive platform.

Rhetorically, Water belongs to a tradition whose origins can be traced back to Satyajit Ray's epochal Pather Panchali (1955), which itself challenged India's dominant popular mode by bringing neo-realist social description to a cinema that similarly excluded the use of diegetic song picturization and epic temporal structures. (For instance, Bimal Roy's Do Bigha Zamin [1953] likewise invested its content with a neorealist style, though it maintained Bollywood's musical and epic conventions.) In the case of Water, however, Bollywood-styled music is still utilized, though not in the typical diegetic manner -- this is to stay that the characters don't themselves sing, though the narrative placement of the numbers and the choices of the singers' voices effectively dictate their emotions. As such, a perfunctory realism is maintained, while the conventions of Bollywood cinema are referenced (and revised).

Likewise present are a variety of Indian character types, which find rather direct correspondences in Ray's corpus. There is the Bengali archetype of the urbane, well-educated, liberal-minded son who returns to the countryside (cf. The World of Apu, 1959); his friend, the lazy descendent of aristocracy who embraces Western mores (cf. The Chess Player, 1977); the rascally, toothless old woman (Auntie) who befriends Chuyia (cf. Pather Panchali); and of course, there is the head-strong, if somewhat mischievous child protagonist, whose perspective guides the narrative -- all the way down to the camera's insistence eye-level framing (again cf. Pather Panchali, and particularly Apu's sister).

In fact, Mehta's connection to Ray's feature debut is made even more explicit by the opening compositions of a lily pad-covered marsh, which while imitating the master's indelible black-and-white photography of the corporeal world, nonetheless incorporate an extreme over-saturation of color that is all her own. Moreover, if Ray's exposition of natural beauty serves to underscore the director's ideas concerning human transience, his latter-day counterpart's co-option of this schema indicates nothing so much as an aesthetic preference and an awareness of its position within the history of Indian counter-cinema. Nevertheless, the visual grace of Water nearly matches the Ray: consider for instance the images depicting the couple beneath the giant hardwood on the banks of the river, with its powerful bleached white light pouring through the tree's tangled branches.

Indeed, Mehta's is a work unapologetically grounded in the concerns and the immediacy of this life. In this manner, the film's greatest provocation is its challenge to the wisdom of a religion that could countenance such a deplorable tradition. While, the evils of child marriage remain a distant -- and obvious -- transgression for any Western audience member, the film's inversion of the equation "God is truth" to read "Truth is god" could be counted as a rebuke to any theistic faith. In this way, the hyperbole of the melodrama -- make no mistake, Water is propaganda -- and its apparent distance from Western practices, becomes less safe than it would at once appear. Still, this is a film whose potency remains twined to one's feelings concerning the evils of child marriage and the Hindu religion's traditional prohibitions on remarriage. That Water is therfore the ultimate middle-brow art house spectacle -- one can feel bad about what is presented on-screen without ever being accused of complicity -- should not mitigate its very real power.