Thursday, August 17, 2006

Two Traditions of Late Soviet Counter-Cinema: Zero City and Stalker

The Film Society at Lincoln Center's From the Tsars to the Stars: A Journey Through Russian Fantastik Cinema does precisely what repertory cinema in the age of DVD ought to do: expose audiences to large numbers of otherwise unavailable titles, selected from a historical moment that remains mostly unknown to moviegoers. Karen Shakhnazarov's Zero City (1988) is in this way representative of the series as a whole, representing neither the salad days of the Soviet silent cinema nor the period of the Thaw and the subsequent emergence of a poetic counter-cinema in the works of Sergei Paradjanov and Andrei Tarkovsky. Instead, Zero City is very much a product of its own, slightly overlooked moment -- the late perestroika era, of which Kira Muratova's The Asthenic Syndrome (1989) and Aleksandr Sokurov's The Second Circle (1990) are the better-known masterpieces -- with its preminition of the Soviet Union's disintegration twined with an ambivalence toward the nation's post-communist future. Shakhnazarov's picture, like Muratova's, relies heavily upon the (il)logic of the absurd and trades heavily upon the creation of images of striking visual beauty, which to be sure would reach its stylistic apogee a decade later in Aleksei German's virtually incomprehensible Khrustalyov, My Car! (1998).

As an earlier step in this tradition and not that latter point of extremum, however, Zero City does paint a somewhat clearer portrait of both Soviet administrative disfunction, in the not-so-with-it provincial office replete with its very own nude secretery -- unbenounced to the boss -- and the trans-Atlantic crassness that seems to infect both Shakhnazarov's home country and its Cold War opponent -- which the director dissects first in the oddly out-of-place waxworks museum and later in a hotel meeting that makes careful reference of both anachronistic American rock-and-roll and even more out-dated Soviet song.

If anything, Zero City has the flavor of a David Lynch-Theo Angelopoulos mash-up, even as it maintains a strongly allegorical, and therefore late Soviet narrative: particularly revealing is the tree, whose branches were said to have granted the Russian state's greatest leader their might, but whose limbs have become startlingly brittle. Indeed, if there is a single image that can be said to sum up the Soviet Union's subsequent collapse in the cinema of that still relatively nigh era, it is this twilight visual.

Neither as epochal as Zero City nor as little-known internationally, Andrei Tarkovsky's crowning masterpiece Stalker (1979) is likewise being screened as part of the Russian Fantastik series, before receiving its long-awaited US DVD release from Kino International -- in a beautiful new print supplied by Russian distributor Ruscico -- on the third of October. Yet, if Stalker fails to summarize an era, it nonetheless impresses mightly with the courage of its critique of the then current political realities of Soviet life, and particularly its figuration of religious supression: it is no coincidence that Stalker is Tarkovsky's last Soviet film before seeking political refuge in Italy. To be specific, Stalker allegorizes the process of spiritual journey in a state that has forbidden an equivalent form of knowledge, which in Tarkovsky's film is translated into the space known as "The Zone."

Stalker opens with the titular lead leaving his wife and crippled daughter to lead two seekers to the aforementioned location (behaving as though he is answering the New Testament call to leave everything and follow Christ). His fellow travelers are referred to merely as Professor (a physicist) and Writer, thereby providing the film with unmistakable metaphorical grist for its narrative mill. The stalker subsequently leads the pair under the noses of armed military guards into the so-called Zone, at which point Tarkovsky transforms his palette from a sepia monochrome to full color. If this shift is the most obviously totem of Tarkovsky's stylistic transformation, it should be likewise noted that the Zone itself is filled with tall grasses that have overtaken the military hardware that is scattered throughout the space. This is a post-apocalyptic world to be sure, but one in which nature has begun to reclaim its place among the symbols of desolate industrial landscape. Of course, Tarkovsky's configuration of the space thusly not only fits his narrative discernment of the sepia industrial wasteland and the color-filled Zone, but it offers an external expression of the human beings in-born quest for spiritual fulfillment and its inability to be supressed through the rational ordering of human life within the socialist state -- a sort of reverse Man With a Movie Camera (1929).

Once there, it soons become evident that neither passenger possesses the purity of motives that the stalker had hoped they would: the Professor reveals his desire to destroy the Zone, and the Writer instinctively collaborates. In this way, Tarkovsky seems to suggest the Soviet Union's systematic elimination of religious life and the complicity of his country's artists (Eisenstein and October [1928] for example) in discouraging faith -- often by the barrel of a gun, to be sure. As such, Stalker reveals a crisis of faith certainly, but it is one shared by his fellow countrymen to the exclusion of the film's lead, and implicitly Tarkovsky, both of whom can only despair at its prospect (though, importantly, Stalker does suggest that there may be hope for the next generation, which the director establishes via the stalker's daughter's telepathic powers).

That one can read Tarkovsky in Stalker, moreover, is an important element of both the film's narrative structure, as well as its style: at one point the stalker himself argues that purpose of life is to create art, through which one can't help read the author's point-of-view. Likewise, even the picture's style, as has been suggested, indicates the conscious agency of a creator artist. As an example, take one of the film's opening long takes -- Tarkovsky's preferred means of constructing the time and space of his narratives -- wherein the titular Stalker exits frame and then reappears immediately in front of Tarkovsky's camera. In so doing, the camera seems to announce its presence in Stalker, as said character gets too close to the camera to maintain the illusion of an unembellished depth-of-field, even if he moves unawares through the space of the film. Similarly, the director's use of a zoom lens and even two seperate instances in which a character looks at the camera, in the second the character addresses it verbally, further confirms the interventionism of the director's practice, and ultimately the self-consciousness of his directorial style.

Even so, if Stalker can be read both as a direct condemnation of the Soviet Union's supression of religious expression (and the subsequent barrenness of spiritual life in that state) as well as an affirmation of art's privileged status, and particularly of its importance to the director himself, Tarkovsky language often remains analogical and his symbolism personal: what for instance is to be made of the profusion of water throughout the Zone? In this way, one might position Stalker within a tradition parallel to the absurdist school noted at the outset, noteworthy for its poetic language rather than its illogical impulse.

Friday, August 11, 2006

New Film: Vers le sud (Heading South)

One of the unmitigated commercial art house successes of the summer, Laurent Cantet's Vers le sud (Heading South) continues that director's examination of the intersection between the personal and the political in a very uncharacteristic environment -- 1970s Haiti. Leaving behind the industrial French and Swiss hinterlands of Human Resources (1999 ) and Time Out (2001) respectively, Cantet fixes his gaze on the Western hemisphere's poorest state during a moment in which that nation profited exceptionally from the pre-AIDS sex tourism industry. Specifically, Vers le sud treats the practice of middle-aged Caucasian women traveling to Haiti to experience all the sensual pleasures that their wealth will purchase them.

Vers le sud focuses upon Brenda, a woman of in her late forties, who returns to the island nation three years after she had a life-changing sexual encounter with a then fifteen year-old black boy. Upon her reappearance, the finely-sculpted young man, Legba (Ménothy Cesar), has become the favored paramour of fifty-something Wellesley professor Ellen (Charlotte Rampling). The former is in the employ of a full-service, so to speak, resort catering to all the hedonistic whims of its female clientele. However, with the arrival of Brenda, Ellen's domination of Legba, and indeed the equilibrium of the world they inhabit, is threatened. At the same time, Legba unwittingly finds himself becoming the object of desire of a well-taken-care-of lover of a Haitian military leader.

To be sure, the stakes of Vers le sud are not exclusively personal, but in fact reverberate according to the film's anti-colonialist allegory. Precisely, Cantet's picture utilizes this narrative structure to produce a parable for the Haitian people's tragic fate, being stuck between their capitalist colonizers -- from whom they readily accept the benefits of their riches -- and an oppressive state instantiated both by the aforesaid colonel and his lover and also by the resort's defacto pimp, who contrary to his inherited anti-white, anti-American sympathies, readily sells out his own people for profit. Indeed, the film's social situation is expressed acutely in an opening, pre-credit preface in which a woman attempts to sell her daughter to the resort worker in order to prevent the young girl's rape at the hands of a lawless populace that would just as soon murder the mother if it would make it easier to get to the fifteen year-old (the age being no coincidence, certainly). In other words, the position of the underclass in Vers le sud is represented by the untenable choice between being used and abused by Haiti's Western colonizers or becoming the victims of the nation's despotic -- terroristic -- regime.

Then again, the implications of Vers le sud's elegant allegory do not end with Haiti's poor, but indeed extend to the female Western subjects around which Cantet structures his story. The fact that it is women -- and not men -- who here partake in the sex industry reveals the power politics that are unique to the film's setting: they attain a desirability via their wealth, which is to say a power, that is absent in their lives in the States and Europe. Then again, this power is not unassailable as the laws of the transaction (and not the power of capital) remains immutable. Beyond the obvious implications for the romantic feelings of the middle-aged women toward Legba -- they cannot have whatever (or whomever) they want -- there is also, for the instance, the congruent moment when Brenda begins to dance like a Haitian and is quickly reined in by those who would deem it necessary to uphold the racial and social politics that define said transaction, even if it means ascribing acceptable modes of behavior to be determined by racial and social difference; in other words, the class system is static.

Nevertheless, if Cantet's narrative engages the injustice of Haitian sex tourism, it does offer a subversive counterpoint through the director's treatment of the Haitian male body: as inversion of the Mulveyan critique, it is "he" who is the object of desire, while the film's older female characters can be said to share the audience's point-of-view with respect to the fetishized body. This is not to say, however, that the film participates in the salacious: importantly, this sex tourism film never once depicts coital love on screen. In fact, when the sex act is not being elided, be it in the case of the first present-day love-making scene between Brenda and Legba or Legba and the colonel's lover connection (to be certain, we actually have no idea whether or not they ever consummate their "friendship"), it either doesn't happen, as with the one scene in which Legba and Ellen share a bed, or it is narrated through one of the film's talking head interviews, as with Brenda's clip.

Speaking of these insertions, it must be said that they lend a certain quality of the "document" to a film that is in other ways far from verite in its ethos. Having said this, there is a certain clunkiness to this stylistic choice, as could also be said of the polyphonic performances in general. Nevertheless, Cantet maintains a certain visual gracefulness otherwise, defined as it is by perpendicular, slightly below eye-level compositions and the sustained tight (identifying) framing of the director's camera. Moreover, there are the ubiquitous tans and turquoises of the Haitian beaches that are finally brought into full relief through a late travelling shot in Port-au-Prince that belatedly establishes the nation's extreme poverty -- the film's consistent natural beauty is tellingly confined to this privileged world of the resort in keeping with the picture's social critique. However, it is less in any of these details than it is in the film's narrative integration of political allegory that the success or failure of Vers le sud rests. And according to this measure, Cantet's film may just be the best new picture to be released this summer.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

New Film: Talladega Nights

Adam McKay's Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, from a McKay and Will Ferrell screenplay, might just represent Hollywood's fullest engagement with American consumer culture (or at least NASCAR's hyperbolic variation) since Frank Tashlin's classic 1957 satire, Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?. Like Tashlin's comic masterwork, McKay's Ferrell vehicle (he is, surprise, the titular Ricky Bobby) utilizes a spectacle-intensive technique wherein live action commercials are inserted into the body of the film -- though in the marked exception of Talladega Nights, the products being shilled are real products, and the commercial insertions are in the middle of the film, rather in the beginning (over the credits) as with the Tashlin picture. Of course, the hand-wringing has already commenced vis-a-vis the film's mimicking of NASCAR ad culture, revealing nothing so much as the new puritanism of those who would decry the creeping presence of product placement in film art. Amazingly enough, I did not slip into Applebee's after the film -- in spite of the fact that there was actually an Applebee's in the Times Square multiplex where I saw Talladega Nights -- just like I did not make clothes out of the size fourteen women I murdered after watching The Silence of the Lambs. I do, however, find myself craving chipotle shrimp-stuffed chicken breast smothered in Monterrey Jack and a bottle of chianti, for what it's worth.

No, the point to the film's incessant commercialism is ultimately verisimilitudinal -- this is what NASCAR is like, and for those not in the know, it works: if you're a Dale Earnhart, Jr. fan, you're gonna drink Bud, and you've probably done so since you were six, when Bud Light started to taste like water to you. (Oh, all this jesting is in good fun; the truth is that I'd much rather watch NASCAR than say the NBA, and am knowledgeable enough to know that Jimmie Johnson is again in the points lead and that Jeff Gordon and Jr. are in real trouble this time.) And indeed, McKay, Ferrell, et al. make the most of this environ, which is perhaps most brilliantly sent up over one particularly juicy dinner scene, wherein, amidst a sea of Domino's boxes, KFC buckets and two liters of Coke, Ricky squabbles with his speed groupy wife over which is the best Jesus to pray to -- he prefers the infant Christ -- while his violently precocious boys, Walker and Texas Ranger, or T.R. for short, threaten their shrinking maternal grandfather.

Speaking of grandfathers, it is their paternal grandpa and Ricky's deadbeat dad, Reese Bobby (Gary Cole, in the best grandfather performance since Gene Hackman's magnificent Royal Tenenbaum) who really chews up his scenes, particularly when he reconnects with his son to help the latter regain his love of speed -- be it in getting his son to drive with a cougar to steady his nerves or by forcing him to outrun the cops after he tapes coke to the bottom of his son's car and then proceeds to snitch on him. Likewise, John C. Reilly as his best pal Cal Naughton, Jr. and Jane Lynch as his mother prove equal to Ferrell's comic brilliance. And then, of course, there's Sacha Baron Cohen's French Formula One drive, Jean Girard, who would seek to dethrone Ricky, before later admitting that his one dream in life is to move to Stockholm with his husband (Andy Richter in the arm-candy role he was born to play) and design currency for dogs and cats.

But in the end, this is a Will Ferrell vehicle, and the big guy doesn't let us down, whether he's running around in his tighty whities convinced that he's on fire -- this happens more than you might think -- selling pork rinds or wrestling the aforesaid cougar, Ferrell shows himself again to be the most dependably funny one-man show in American screen comedy today. And if you do go, stay through the final credits for Lynch's bed time reading -- and discussion of Southern lit. -- with her grandsons. After all, this is the type of American filmmaking where little distinction can be made between the closing credit blooper reel and the gags in the picture itself.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

New Film: Miami Vice

Michael Mann's Miami Vice is, if nothing else, certain to be the year's best looking American film. Transmogrifying his palette with the pastel and Caribbean hues of South Florida and its Latin American neighbors, Miami Vice follows the director's masterful Collateral (2004) as an articulation of the beauty of the urban landscape, dictated by the vibrant neon lighting -- particularly the electric blues -- that bathes the City. In terms of the aforesaid color schema, Mann registers Miami and its environs in a tapestry of mint greens, whites and pinks (which even combine in particularly aestheticized lens flares) that connote the tropical flavor of the region; the surrounding seascapes are even more startling, particularly, in one over-saturated sequence where Crockett (Colin Farrell) and Gong Li speed over the sea blue-green straight between Miami and Havana -- on a mojito run -- leaving a bright white wake behind.

Indeed, the appearance of these locations is not just background to Miami Vice but is central to the film's discourse -- as were the nocturnal, postmodern Los Angeles cityscapes of Collateral. And like that film, Mann manipulates the picture's narrative structure to call attention to this precise feature. Here, Mann structures the relatively looser plot (compared with the tight scripting of the previous feature) around movement between Miami, Havana, Haiti, Columbia and Brazil. In this way, Miami Vice effectively articulates Miami's unique position as an interface between the United States and Latin America, as well as the sense in which America is less a nation-state than a continent -- and therefore the degree to which the contemporary American experience necessitates the expression of numerous regional variations.

Moreover, Miami Vice shares a similarity to that most American of genres -- the Western -- with the directors' previous forrays into cop land, be it his neoclassical meta-western Heat (1995) or even Collateral and its echoes of the pre-determined structure of Budd Boetticher's Seven Men from Now (1956). In the case of Vice, the clearest predacessor may just be Howard Hawks' Rio Bravo (1959) and in particular that film's climactic shootout: as with that earlier picture, Mann's officers enact a flanking manuver around the sides of their opponents. Nonethless, Vice's stylistic élan shares as much with Wong Kar-wai (Gong Li's appearance almost feels like a reference in this respect) as it does with Hawks' Hollywood classicism -- though it should be noted that Mann similarly uses a very classical shot-reverse editing style in the cutting of his film. (Adding to this classicism, Mann utilizes pyschologically-incisive sound work, as for instance when the pair enter the South American kingpin's car and the music cuts out entirely, suggesting the gravity of the situation in this particularly stark artisitic choice.)

Collectively, it might be said that Mann puts style before substance, or to be more generous, that for Mann, the style is the substance. This is not to suggest that Mann's film lacks an ideological content. In fact, Mann expressly argues for an existentialism imbibed with the moral relativism that South Floridian life seems to ooze -- be it the visceral sex that seems aware of the film's axioms that "probability is like gravity" and "time is luck" (and in a very Wongian turn, that time seems to "run out" for two of the characters) or even in Mann's seductive aestheticization of violence. To be sure, this is a city where a vice squad is very necessary indeed.

Friday, July 28, 2006

The Movie that I've Seen the Most...

Slate recently ran a feature asking a number of esteemed film people which motion picture they've seen the most. When initially I read the piece, many of the responses struck me as improbable: for instance, does Phillip Lopate (one of my favorite critics, mind you) really expect us to believe that he's seen Mikio Naruse's Flowing more than any other film, given particularly that it is and has always been unavailable on any format in the United States? Or how about Judd Apatow and Bottle Rocket? Come on Judd, you and I both know that a sensibility like yours could have only been forged through serial viewings of Meatballs.

Speaking of which, it speaks well to the parenting skills of Lawrence Kasdan that his son Jake has seen Ghostbusters more ofter than the more ignominious, aforementioned Reitman. Given my own age and upbringing, it would seem likely that I too should cite a film similar to the junior Mr. Kasdan's -- if not Ghostbusters, then perhaps Return of the Jedi (my favorite movie when I was five, before I ever saw it), The Goonies or Back to the Future. Then again, I was never a serial movie-viewer as a child, meaning that even with these early favorites, one could count the number of times that I actually saw them on one hand. Likewise, I am not one to catch The Wizard of Oz or It's a Wonderful Life, every time it airs, though I do have that tendency when it comes to Dumb & Dumber (good thing I don't make a habit of watching TBS). No, my obsessive streak manifested itself only after I began to seriously engage with individual films as works of art. As a result, excluding those films that I've viewed in a professional capacity, a few come to mind as genuine contenders: Max Ophüls' Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948), Eric Rohmer's My Night at Maud's (1969), Robert Bresson's Pickpocket (1959) and the likely winner, Kenji Mizoguchi's Ugetsu Monogatari (1953).

The first time I saw Ugetsu followed shortly after my discovery of the Sight and Sound polls of the 'ten best films of all-time,' in the back of a Roger Ebert tome, the title of which I no longer remember. At the time, I remember my fascination with the idea that there might just exist films that I had never heard of, but which were nonetheless objectively among the greatest films ever made. I supposed that Ugetsu, like the equally mysterious La Règle du jeu/The Rules of the Game (Jean Renoir, 1939) was one of these films. I was right, but I certainly didn't get it at first -- to me, Ugetsu was an interesting, if a somewhat dull ghost story, just like La Règle du jeu was some kind of impenetrable hunting film. I was wrong... and so very stupid.

My second time with Ugetsu marked my first appreciation of the film as a masterpiece, having since discovered the director's Sanshô Dayû (1954) and Street of Shame (1956) -- and in the process, the manner in which his mise en scène served to guide his spectators' attention. Three, four, five and six (viewed over four consecutive nights in the sad comforts of my childhood bedroom, well after childhood) established my current opinion of the film: that it is that rarest of all breads, the perfect work of art. (The only other film that I have ever viewed in multiple consecutive days was Letter from an Unknown Woman -- another manifestly perfect film --which I additionally screened back-to-back one night; this distinction for me, interestingly enough, it shares exclusively with another Ophüls' film, Lola Montès [1955].) By my count, then, this latest viewing of Mizoguchi's masterpiece was my seventh, if I'm not forgetting a time or two. And as with each of my previous viewings, Ugetsu once again showed itself to possess a richness that transforms and deepens upon every viewing.

On this occasion, seeing it for the first time on Criterion's pristine DVD transfer from late last year, I was struck most (counter-intuitively, perhaps) by the narrative's management of physical reality, metaphysical reality and dream/reality. To be more precise, Mizoguchi invests these three ontological categories with the same hyper-realistic verisimilitude so that none is distinguishable by its visual treatment, not that there isn't embellishment. For example, when the protagonist Genjurô (Masayuki Mori) examines a set of kimonos for his wife, Miyagi (Mizoguchi axiom and one of the most talented actresses in the history of cinema, Kinuyo Tanaka), the latter appears through a rear doorway, accompanied by a sudden, light lilt in the film's soundtrack. Indeed, a similarly sentimental theme procures the same effect in the celebrated scene wherein Genjurô crosses through his abandoned residence before re-entering to find his deceased wife waiting for him. Of course, Mizoguchi famously films this sequence in a single, unbroken take, seemingly disclosing Miyagi's entrenched presence in the same place through which Genjurô had walked only moments before (seemingly as Mizo pulls his camera back slightly, at one point, to reveal a new trajectory). In so doing, Mizoguchi produces a narrative logic where the external world and the spiritual realm cohabit the same space. In fact, the metaphysical imbues Mizoguchi's story, from the disembodied, acousmatic voice of Lady Wakasa's (Machiko Kyô) deceased father to her own posthumous population of the terrestrial realm.

At the same time, these incursions of spiritual figures into the physical universe are on multiple occasions referred to as dreamt, providing another potential source for their presence in the narratives, as projections of character subjectivity. If there is thus slippage in Mizoguchi's narrative, Ugetsu continues to portend the logic of a narrative completely under the control of its creator. Ugetsu is the way it is because its art; it possesses no necessity to distinguish between fact and fiction, dream and (metaphysical) reality. All inhabit the reality of a work that is ultimately distinguished by its determination to convey the tragic consequences -- and fatal ones for the women of the narrative -- that result from the quest for glory, be it materially or in terms of reputation. Truly, Ugetsu is a confirmation of those Buddhist axioms (from the 'Four Noble Truths') that state that all is suffering and that suffering comes from desire; Ugetsu is, in other words, a Buddhist fable that promotes the modest values of home and hearth, contentment.

It is also a meditation on the place of art and of the trappings of success: Genjurô's dissent begins when he is flattered by Lady Wakasa's appreciation of his art. Had only he been satisfied to make his pottery side-by-side with his wife, rather than thursting for wealth and later fame, the tragic consequences of his desire would have never come to fruition. Parenthetically, both of these themes can be said to represent the director's autobiography, and can therefore bestow Ugetsu with the title of "personal art": his sister was sold as a geisha to pay for his education as a painter.

Speaking of his background, my companion in this viewing, Lisa Broad, pointed out that Mizoguchi's palette effectively registers every gradiation of black, white and gray in his unequalled mastery of visual technique. To this, let me add that Ugetsu's compositional grace is a product both of this painting in light and shadow, and also in a compositional manipulation that relies heavily upon diagonal framing that seems to bespeak an internal harmony: a spare tree in a courtyard or meadow frames a seated protagonist; jutting, perpendicular beams parallel the head-lines of conversing characters; etc. Often, it is worth mentioning, Mizo utilizes overhead angles to forge these undeniably painterly spaces.

The point is that this is an artist who is in complete control of his medium, manipulating form according to the dictates of his subject. Another telling example of his free use of the art form is the well-known sequence where Mizoguchi's camera follows a small stream of water out of a hot spring, over stones, and to a field which, by virtue of a lap dissolve becomes a grassy meadow where the ritualistic infidelity between Lady Wakasa and Genjurô. Here, the mise en scène is no longer dictated by a spatial-temporal unity of time and place, but by the emotional cause-and-effect inherent in the hot springs' passion and the devotional, nay obsessive love that Genjurô succumbs to in the field.

Ultimately, the fabulist nature of his narrative makes all things permissible. At the same, his mature style, and particular the visual grace of his mise en scène make for a work that seems to harken back to the promise of early sound cinema, as my partner also stated. Or, as I would add, were we to discover some day that cinema can not progress aesthetically beyond the 20th century, this will be the pinnacle of the art form. A cinema of infinite beauty and of deceptive complexity in its conflation of ontological categories. To echo Luc Moullet upon its French commercial release, Ugetsu is the simplest and most complex film in the world.