Sunday, December 10, 2006

New Film: Inland Empire

The following dialogue is a fictionalized recounting of a conversation that I had with my girlfriend, Lisa Broad, following a screening of Inland Empire last night. At this point, my thoughts on the film are too tied up with her insights to offer a straight-forward review that doesn't continually succumb to plagerism. Also, it gives Lisa a chance to experience what it would be like to hear her words in someone else's voice, which seems as though it might be an appropriate experience to connect to the film. *Be advised that the following conversation includes spoilers.*

Lisa: So what did you think?
Me: I am considering it.
Lisa: Me too.
Me: I guess I could begin by saying that I thought it was easily the most ambitious American movie of the year.
Lisa: I agree... What I would say is that it was horizontal rather than vertical. Does that make sense?
Me: I think so.
Lisa: (Motioning with her hands) If Mulholland Drive is this set of ideas stacked one on top of the other, Inland Empire was like a series of paper clips combined into a single chain. Does that make sense?
Me: I think so. It's like Inland Empire is a series of variations on a single theme, a study of all of its ramifications: stardom.
Lisa: Not stardom. This isn't one of those facile examples they're so fond of in cultural studies.
Me: Maybe not stardom -- instead say the persona of an actor.
Lisa: I think that's true. It's interesting that Laura Dern has had all these performances where she has been made to suffer over her career... and not just in David Lynch's films. It must be difficult to see one's self on the screen and to see these things done to one's body. That's what all those reaction shots of Dern are about: she is watching herself suffer.
Me: That's true, I didn't even think of that.
Lisa: And yet, it's a very hopeful film.
Me: I wouldn't say hopeful.
Lisa: No, I think it is. After all, during the credits we see her 'Producer credit' at a very intentional moment. And of course, there's the point in which she shoots the Mesmerist, after which everything is restored. And back to the end, there is joy in this ending.
Me: I'm not sure that means it's hopeful. It is still a very dark and punishing film.
Lisa: But seems it wants to say that it's worth it. That's what the ending is about.
Me: But you can't forget the death -- even if it is only that of her character's in a film (within the film). There is a clear tragic tragectory. After words, she shoots the Mesmerist, as you've said. She then kisses the brunette, passing the role on to this other female, before she finds herself in effect in the after life.
Lisa: So you think there is transcendence?
Me: I guess I would say there's an immortality that redeems it.
Lisa: Yes, there is this, and there is also a way out: remember the producer credit and the feeling that the film effects, after being so very punishing, and not entirely pleasant up to the end.

David Lynch's Inland Empire is indeed the most ambitious of all this year's English language fare: it represents a genuine contribution to the form-class of the reflexive dissection of acting, of which Mulholland Drive (2001) is a second example. Here, Lynch interests himself in examining all the implications of the star persona, structuring a picture on either the many variations of a single role and/or the many related roles enacted by a single actress. Either way, this is a film that further extends the critique of the earlier film, inquiring as to the impact that the act of fulfilling a role has on those who do this work. (Lynch explicitly links Dern's work to prostitution.) Moreover, this is also a work that seeks to consider the idea of "role" from every angle.

Me: There is this idea of the "role" which is articulated early on when Grace Zabriskie visits. She says she's heard Dern has a new role, Dern responds that she's up for a new role, and Zabriskie says she has it.
Lisa: Yes, she starts the new film and soon learns it's cursed. After this point she no longer can distinguish whether she's in a film or not... That's one thing I don't like, this psychological dimension. It makes for poor insights into the film. Its the same problem with inadequate readings of Mulholland Drive as a lesbian love story, rather than what it is: a film about the medium...
Me: Yes, a film that divests performers from roles to conceptualize both. But I would say that like that film, Lynch gives the spectators who are insistent upon a psychological reading just enough rope to hang themselves.
Lisa: But in this film there are those things which cannot be reduced to this framework: the rabbits, the Polish setting...
Me: About this part, did you notice that at one point, one of the Polish characters repeated the exact lines that Dern delivered in a conversation with the therapist? My thought was that it too represents another version of the film-within-the-film...

(Cross-chatter about the Polish performers, the implications of Eastern Europeans to represent evil, etc.)

Lisa: There's one other thing I wanted to mention: its as if the Mesmerist stands in for the director, who makes the characters act the way they do. Of course, he's also the person Dern kills near the end of the film.
Me: Actually she shoots him, but we don't see any wounds.
: Except on his face, we see a grotesque morphing of her own. This is a film that uses DV well, by the way.
Me: I agree, and it's important that it is him she shoots. It is after this point that she is liberated. It is almost like a Rivette film.

There is perhaps no better compliment to the on-going Jacques Rivette series at the Museum of the Moving Image (and an earlier one at the Anthology Film Archives) than Inland Empire. Like Rivette's masterpiece Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974), Lynch's narrative does not delineate between dream and reality, but rather creates a reality that operates according to the logic of the first. Again, Inland Empire permits a reading that traces Dern's further estrangement from sanity, but this is to miss the point: the point is that the structured effected allows Lynch to consider the art form he is working within. Likewise, as again with the best of Rivette, Lynch makes his roles interchangeable -- first it is a love triangle with Dern, her husband and her co-star(Justin Theroux) with the former gentleman in the role of killer (so long as the co-star touches his wife). Upon a second image of a needle on a record, this dynamic reverses with Theroux's character, his wife and Dern making up the three components. Now it is Theroux's wife who is thrust into the role of the killer. Then again, it is she who we see at the beginning of the film -- in the role of someone condemned to kill -- meaning that this approximate structure is only that, approximate.

Lisa: But I don't think it's really put in order at all... or at least in a particular first second and third order. All the stories are chopped up and rearranged. The stories themselves have an order, obviously. But they are chopped and strung together.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

New Film: Borat, For Your Consideration & The Queen

There is no easier way to kill a discussion about a film's merits than to call it "funny." To use this description is to stop the conversation, much like making an accusation of "racism" will in most cases end further debate. Larry Charles' Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, the brainchild of co-writer and titular star Sacha Baron Cohen, is in generous measure both of these, though the latter is certainly directed toward a presumably higher purpose: namely, to reveal that many Americans harbor innate racist and anti-Semitic sympathies. Of course, the problem is that Cohen attempts to make his case for America's equity with his portrait of a fictionalized Kazakhstan -- read: the Muslim world divorced of a racial component -- on the basis of some good 'ole boy rodeo patrons, a Humvee dealer, drunken frat boys, and a Southern Pentecostal assembly. Not that any of the above actually advocated the eradication of Israel as has the very real Ahmadinejad regime in Iran, but why let perspective get in the way of an anti-American polemic, even if it supposes that his generic Islamic state has nothing to learn from the U. S. of A.

Ultimately, Borat trades on -- or better yet courts -- specific stereotypes to prove the picture's pedagogical point: New Yorkers are rude, feminists are humorless, Southerners are overly polite... and racist, Black youths hang out shooting dice (though they are far more welcoming than the snooty hotel proprietors he will ambush in the next scene) and so forth. In order to achieve their effect, Charles and Cohen often cut following very short segments -- its interesting and perhaps telling that so little came of the Bob Barr encounter, for instance -- which respectively emit varying degrees of staging.

Still, irrespective of these ethical considerations, Borat remains a very funny film. And to this point little needs to be said, because, of course, you'll either get it or you won't. You'll either find the fact that his sister is #4 prostitute in all of Kazakhstan funny, or you won't. You'll either find his epic nude struggle with sidekick Azamat (Ken Davitian) funny, or you won't. If you are somehow still on the fence, watch this trailer. If you find it funny, you'll find the film funny. And if you don't, you won't.

I wish the same could be said for Christopher Guest's For Your Consideration -- even if it would have meant sitting through another facile polemic. Unfortunately, For Your Consideration is far less funny than Borat, so long as you don't find limply anachronistic satire of a Hollywood that never existed hilarious. (One thing that it does have in common with Charles' and Cohen's picture is its very calculated attempt to avoid offending America's costal cultural elite.) It's one thing, surely, to be on the margins of the local theatre, dog show or folk music cultures; it's quite another to represent outsiders to a culture that doesn't look little like anything we know. My viewing companion -- the oft-mentioned Ms. Broad -- pondered whether perhaps there was something meta and even avant-garde about this send-up, pointing to the out-of-place characters and to the picture's visual echoes of the ultra low budget film-within-the-film. Perhaps, though even in this respect it falls short: no other comedy this year can match Albert Brooks' Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World when it comes to experimenting with less than funny material.

So what then is the best 'funny' English language film of the year? Well, a film about the Royal Family's poor response to the accidental death of Princess Diana of course! Stephen Frears' new career high, The Queen, from Peter Morgan's exceptional screenplay, sustains a consistently light tone in spite of its very real tragic content. Opening with Tony Blair's (Michael Sheen in one of many stand-out supporting performances) landslide 1997 election on the eve of the Princess's sudden death, The Queen is as much about his relation to the Windsor's in this time of extreme friction as it is about the Queen (an Oscar-worthy Helen Mirren) herself. In fact, The Queen is no less polemical than the aforementioned Borat in its excessive valorization of the Prime Minister, though it is the absence of this quality in other respects that finally ennobles the picture.

At the same time, The Queen is not all nuance when it comes to its depiction of the House of Windsor, either. To do so would be to jeopardize its claims of authenticity, provided after all that Prince Charles (Alex Jennings) is the next in line to Elizabeth II. Here, he is every bit as hapless as one has come to expect from the real-life antics of the über-unpopular heir, though Frears does make the point to show his genuine grief and apparent concern for his sons when he is confronted with the news. Less inclined to these feelings are Prince Philip (James Cromwell in another strong performance), who insists that the Princess's public and private personas were very different indeed and the Queen Mother (Sylvia Syms), who along with Philip demands that Elizabeth follow the protocol of her throne, in dealing with Diana's death.

In the end, Elizabeth, in opposition to her own better judgment -- that is, in her estimation of the British people whom she has ruled since the early 1950s -- and the traditions of the crown, acquiesces to public sympathy, which in Frears' film is less a triumph of populist justice than a personal defeat for a woman who has far more faith in the British people than perhaps she should. On the other hand, Frears shows himself to be precisely what Elizabeth imagines of her subects; his directorial choices often display the same restraint that the monarch incorrectly imputed to the British public: at the very moment of Elizabeth's fullest outpouring of emotion, Frears films the weeping Queen from behind.

Indeed, one of the surprising accomplishments of The Queen is its success in humanizing Elizabeth, which to an American viewer like myself, is a need for which I had no conception. But it is this very process, that is in helping the spectator to understand why the Windsors' fumbled Diana's death to the degree that they did -- without fully excusing it, to be sure -- that marks the unique contribution of Frears' film. As to its ability to reveal the latent royalist sympathies of one American spectator and amateur critic, I can only say that in this respect, it was also successful.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Now At The Getty: The Religious Art of Sinai and Dresden

Running now through March 4th at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, Holy Image, Hallowed Ground: Icons from Sinai represents the largest American instillation of Byzantine icons from St. Catherine's Monastery on the Sinai Peninsula -- which happens to house more than half of all Eastern icons in existence. As such, Holy Image, Hallowed Ground constitutes a major event in the art world on the basis of its subject alone. Therefore, it is all the more gratifying that the exhibition not only establishes the stylistic and thematic range of the pieces, but their substantial aesthetic value as well, and at least a facsimile of their impact. These are works that don't reproduce well, however -- the pieces require the beholder to interact with them in their space. Take for instance the masterful Late 12th century Annunciation from the Holy Monastery: here, a burnished golden ray of light cuts through the large, empty gold-leaf background, depicting the Holy Spirit's descent in the scene. In print -- or on-screen -- the work's compositional grace is manifest, though it fails to reach its genuine phenomenological impact: in person, the ray of light seems to almost descend toward the Virgin when one moves in front of the icon, with the burnished ray becoming apparent from certain angles when it is invisible from others.

Another instance of this work's power in its presence can be found in the superlative 11th century Scenes of the Nativity immediately to the Annunciation's left. In its case, the work's beautiful color palette becomes visible in a manner that seems impossible in print or on line. Yet, it is not simply that the work utilizes rich hues, but that they guide the beholder's view, narrating what is genuinely a sophisticated narrational space: the viewer's gaze lands at the Mary and then the midwife in the upper center of the composition, before his/her attention is led to the magi approaching and then to a scene of their adoration of the Christ child. (This element again is not evident in print, and therefore does not fully tell the story of their readings; in person, the nativity works in much the same way as Masaccio's Tribute Money.) However, this piece's complexity does not begin and end with its color schema, but indeed finds a form to communicate multiple narrative scenes within the hilly topography of the composition -- often in clearly readable sequences. In addition, this eleventh century work (most likely originating in Constantinople) utilizes space in a fashion where form articulates content, as with the beam of light that connects the Christ child with the ethereal upper register, or with the magi literally leaving on the panel's other side (thereby giving form to the axiom that they left on a different route after being warned by an angel -- whom we see with them elsewhere). And then of course there is the exceptional detail that was once thought to be the purview of the illuminated manuscript, but again in the presence of these works is shown to be essential to their achievement.

If I am becoming a bit long-winded with reference to this single piece, it is because I have been studying it specifically for the past couple of months, in preparation for the exhibition. For the sake of total disclosure, in my new life as an art historian, I have been enrolled in Holy Image, Hallowed Ground's curator Robert Nelson's Icons seminar at Yale. Having said that, let me also say that with my intimate experience of the pieces for these past few months, I can say without reservation that Prof. Nelson's exhibition has exceeded my expectations. These are works that are not only made to be seen, but to be interacted with, in space that the Getty has recreated admirably. For those who can and do see these pieces at the Getty sometime in the coming months, this is the sort of exhibition that can make one rethink its period, and in fact the history of art. Future writers of textbook surveys will need to contend with the Annunciation, Scenes of the Nativity, St. Theodosia (from the catalogue cover; above), a remarkable 6th century St. Peter, and countless other works of similar sophistication -- not that their reproduction will tell us what we need to know about these wonderful works.

Ironically, then, another exhibition currently on view at the Getty showcases a series of works that are actually more impressive in reproduction, as a colleague of mine pointed out: Gerhard Richter's 2005 Wald Series in From Caspar David Friedrich to Gerhard Richter. These series of anti-art, semi-figurative landscapes, commissioned for this exhibit to respond to the half-dozen or so Dresden Friedrich's on display, suffer from the excessively intense over-head lighting and the space's stark white walls (in contrast to the purple tones in the two Romantic-era rooms) to be sure; even so, these spatial difficencies do not mitigate the garish palette of this modern heavyweight: the resonant golds of the catalogue are in the presence of the works, ill-conceived lemons. Moreover, the cycles themselves are incomplete, and at a point, arrest for lack of continuity -- while patterns emerge, to be sure, as with a rich series of landscapes reproducing water effects (again more poetic in print), at some point these same patterns fall apart, denying the cohesiveness that an engagement with the Romantic master would seem to dictate -- that is, if they are to respond to him at all.

As for the Friedrich's, in spite of their slim numbers, there is opportunity to learn something new about this artist -- namely, that his misty and often tumultuous landscapes were very much in the service of another project: his belief in transcendence, presence beyond surface, and particularly his devout Protestant faith. A Crucifix in a suitably Gothic frame (designed by the artist) makes this case as the centerpiece of the exhibition; however, given this point of reference, works such as the poetic Bushes in the Snow (1827-8; above) or Two Men Contemplating the Moon (c. 1819) register this same quality with greater nuance. In this way, then, From Caspar David Friedrich to Gerhard Richter at least provides a framework to view the former's metaphysical purpose -- to say nothing of giving American audiences the opportunity to see rarely-seen masterworks.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

New Film: Marie Antoinette

In the words of my girlfriend, Marie Antoinette is not just a girl's movie, but a very particular kind of girl's movie: a movie for girl's who don't mind quasi-long take movies with little dialogue. In other words, its for her -- or better yet perhaps, for who she was maybe five years ago; that is, the kind of girl who then (as now) knows that the first song was Gang of Four. So, I will leave the main -- albeit short -- assessment of the film to her, Lisa K. Broad, with my own similarly concise comments to follow. Enjoy.

Somewhere beneath the 80s-soundtrack and cotton-candy color palate of Sophia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette beats the heart of an American art film. Reveling in pure sensual experience, the film largely avoids the psychological terrain covered by most film biographies. The dialogue is sparse and strange, and the narrative nearly non-existent, but the vivid music and imagery demand not just to be seen and heard, but to be actively looked at and listened to. In its penchant for flat, frontal staging and cheeky reflexivity, Marie Antoinette brings to mind Sally Potter’s Orlando (minus the feminism). I also wouldn’t be surprised if Coppola had studied up on the punk period-pieces of Potter’s mentor Derek Jarman.

At once compromised and uncompromising, the film is alive with beautiful graphic compositions that manifest a painterly attention to color, light, and texture, and striking radial symmetry, but Coppola rarely allows them to linger onscreen long enough to be fully appreciated. Seemingly afraid of alienating her audience, she falls just short of the true long-take style she hints at. The subject, or perhaps the object, of each of these aesthetic meditations is the lovely Kirsten Dunst. Although Dunst’s Marie Antoinette remains completely opaque throughout the film’s duration, her body is exhibited to us so closely and at such length that a kind of phenomenological intimacy is generated that gives way to a creeping, visceral dread as the specter of the royal family’s grisly demise looms ever closer. Thus although Marie Antoinette isn’t terribly deep, it skims along the surface of things with a kind of rigor and sensitivity that escapes many films that presume to plumb the depths.

-Lisa K. Broad

Thanks, Lisa. Let me concur with your observation that "Coppola rarely allows [her compositions] to linger onscreen long enough to be fully appreciated." While one might say that this distinguishes the director as a post-MTV artist, it remains, to my thinking, a flaw of her aesthetic. In my opinion, this same element limits her highly-regarded Lost in Translation (2003), as does her generally tendency to film in a relatively shallow depth-of-field. Perhaps one could connect such a style to the inherent shallowness of the film's subject, but to do so does not exactly flatter the maker -- as she would have produced a superficial form to express her film's superficial content.

As to Coppola's choice of topics, let me say that it makes sense that this daughter of Hollywood royalty would dare to produce a biography of this oft-vilified historical figure. That she musically situates the picture in her own teenage decade -- the '80s -- provides added resonance (in terms of the film's biographical dimension). Ultimately, Marie Antoinette manifests nothing if not the director's ambition. And in its defense, let me add that I find the connection compelling: surely, Marie would not be so out of place in our celebrity-obsessed age.