Saturday, February 24, 2007

New Film: Ten Skies

In the spirit of tomorrow evening's celebration of the 79th Academy Awards, let me say a few words on the best new(ish) American film I have seen in the past twelve months, James Benning's Ten Skies (2004). A companion to his similarly constructed 13 Lakes (also 2004), Ten Skies is assembled of ten static ten minute shots of Val Verde, California skies. Each is composed of continually changing cloud formations, which emit an enormous degree of variation from one set-up to the next. For instance, Benning's film begins with a relatively clear blue sky occupied by a pair of intersecting jet trails that gradually disappear out of the top of the frame. In his second set-up, the film shifts to fluffy cumulus clouds with dark shading that start to resemble trompe l'oiel paintings of the same subject. In the third, Benning's color palette shifts to a grayish blue green supporting fast moving blanched clouds. In other words, Benning's film offers substantial variation in its color schema from one sky to the next and even within each shot.

Certainly, the moment-to-moment transformations of his aeriel views is among the principle subjects of Ten Skies. Then again, not only does Benning's film not require its viewers' continued attention, but in fact it encourages distraction. That is, with the renewal of viewer attention after moments of intellectual drift -- a mechanism built into his discursive structure -- Benning's film produces drastic changes that seem unthinkable after even the briefest of intervals. Further, the film's alternation from one set-up to the next eventually produces a sort of suspense in the disclosure of the following scene, even as a drama can be produced from a cloud's gradual overtaking of the full frame or in an airplane's inching toward the image's edge.

Speaking of the edge, as with 13 Lakes, Ten Skies adheres to Andre Bazin's notion of the frame as a mask, calling attention equally to what remains outside the visual field. Indeed, it is not simply the passage of cloud formations into and out of the frame, but even more the non-sync off-camera soundscapes that transform Benning's spaces from their minimal enframed sections to a maximal combination of on and off camera fields.

Therefore, Benning articulates his medium's spatial ontology (with its relation to the frame), as he also underscores the perpetual remaking of space that separates his medium from the other visual arts. Then again, it is less these didactic functions than the aesthetic properties that adhere in his images which truly recommend Ten Skies. Specifically, it is his panchromatic palette and the variations in textures that these distinctions produce, which mark the artistic achievement of Benning's film. For example, one of the film's darker skies figures a second, silky veil in the fore of the larger climatic formation. Separately, the film's concluding pairing of gray and deep blue ultimately yields a preternatural blue that begins to look like something quite distinct from nature. Indeed, Benning's sky-scapes secure an abstract patterning before our eyes with a hard, mineral texture that ultimately loses even this tentative visual grounding. (It is worth noting that Benning's choice of 16mm is essential to attaining the effects that distinguish Ten Skies.)

In the end, Ten Skies encourages a keener vision of not only cinema but of nature itself. It compels its spectator to notice more subtle variations in color, texture and movement than we are accustomed to seeing. In other words, Benning (to paraphrase an earlier purpose statement by the filmmaker) is teaching his viewers to see like artists see. Moreover, Ten Skies, again like 13 Lakes, represents a sustained examination of cinema's unique character, locating its specificity in its capacity to represent movement and also its construction of a space greater than the visual field. Thus Ten Skies once again calls us to see anew, though in this latter case it is cinema rather than nature which the filmmaker's lesson emphasizes.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Correspondences from Sixty-Eight!: The Structure of Crystal + Early Garrel

Krzysztof Zanussi's The Structure of Crystal (Struktura krysztalu, 1969) concluded Sixty-Eight!, Yale's 1968 film festival, with yet another entry from outside that year. While admittedly I did not attend every festival screening, of the seven features and six shorts that I did manage to see, less than an hour of the footage was shot during 1968. However, with the previous evening's closer, China is Near (1967), and that day's biggest surprise, Birds, Orphans and Fools (1969), the drift away from 1968 yielded many of the best moments of Sixty-Eight!. (For the record, the festival's best picture was Miklós Jancsó The Red and the White [1967] presented on a gorgeous new print; nevertheless, its inclusion irked me as it meant that Jancsó's rarely seen The Confrontation was elided -- maybe the 1968 film I would have most wanted to see.)

Zanussi's The Structure of Crystal compares most closely perhaps to another 1969 classic, Eric Rohmer's My Night at Maud's, though Zanussi has replaced the latter film's theological conversations with those of physics, and particularly the titular crystals. Then again, Zanussi has likewise diverged from Rohmer in that his conversations contain explicit ellipses: when the picture's two physicists begin discussing the historical concept of "infinity," for instance, the music on the soundtrack swells, even as stills of the various authors and books discussed grace the screen. In this way, the director is both condensing what might not be a terribly interesting conversation to most, even as he suggests that the film contains subject matter that cannot be directly expressed on screen (be it for both political and pyschological reasons). The Structure of Crystal is in fact a film that is very much concerned with interiority.

Indeed, The Structure of Crystal is also the second film in the series -- after Birds, Orphans and Fools -- to present a menage-a-trois, though here it is far more understated than in the high-key Slovak film. Again, these thoughts and desires burn, or at least smolder under the surface. Beyond this interest in the mind, a second point of comparison is the director's countryman Roman Polanski's Cul-de-sac (1965), wherein an explicitly existentialist sensibility and thought has been imparted in the picture. In The Structure of the Crystal it is the twin preoccupations of engagement and the feeling of waiting (for something to happen) that marks Zanussi as an heir to Beckett, Camus, Sartre, et al. -- the expansive horizons of the films' exteriors underscore the accompanied sense of isolation. To be sure, The Structure of Crystal is marked by dead time, which is occupied not only by the aforementioned conversations, but also by moments of play and levity, including a mimed athletic competition performed by the two physicist leads, a visit to town and to an erotic film, which is preceded by a newsreel depicting a shiny factory, and recounted later with comic visuals. Ultimately, it was the Sixty-Eight! film that I was most hoping wouldn't end.

While I can't also say this about Philippe Garrel's Le Révélateur (1967), I would say that at the very least that the nineteen year-old Garrel's sixty-minute silent possesses the same visual grace -- visible in the low contrast deep blacks and neon whites of his palette -- as his more recent, acclaimed Regular Lovers (2005). Actually, that recent Manhattan release could serve as a spiritual epitaph for Sixty-Eight!, and in a perfect world, would have closed the conference.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Correspondences from Sixty-Eight!: China is Near

Warning: the following post contains spoliers.

Five feature-length films and an additional five shorts into the festival, I have seen exactly three minutes of film dating to 1968 (Harun Farocki's The Words of the Chairman, which the program notes actually lists as 1967, so that number may in fact be zero). Yet, as a portrait of the era's convoluted radicalism, Sixty-Eight! has proven continually illuminating -- and I really don't mean that pejoratively. Friday night's closing offering, Marco Bellocchio's China is Near (La Cina è vicina, 1967), following a screening of Jean-Luc Godard's La Chinoise (also '67) again paired bedroom-themed political satire with Godard's fragmented ruminations on the state of the present. In the case of China is Near, Bellocchio's second feature, the satirical subject is not the sexually revolution, but rather Italian class dynamics. It is worth noting, parenthetically, that the director adopts a classical narrative structure, which in the midst of so many self-reflexive works, gives China is Near a vibrancy and timelessness lacking in the majority of the festival's remaining narrative offerings.

But, to the story itself, China is Near tells the story of Glauco Mauri's billionaire school teacher Vittorio (he's a member of the titled aristocracy, so don't let his c.v. fool you) who is drafted to run on the socialist ticket, even though he has failed to show any consistent political vision of his own. His recruitment riles loyal party man Carlo (Paolo Graziosi) who acts out his resentment by sleeping with Vittorio's spinster sister Elena (played by Elda Tattoli). This in turn drives Vittorio and Elena's maid, and Carlo's girlfriend, Giovanna (Daniela Surina) to couple with the overweight late thirty-something Vittorio. In fact, it is after this first round of sexual treachery that Bellocchio creates one of his finest set-pieces: the former working-class couple dress in silence in the hallway, as each has been expelled by their wealthy lover in order to keep up appearances.

Soon, we learn that Carlo has impregnated Elena, which leads the young man to ask the heiress to marry him; he confesses to Giovanna: "I like her, and her money -- I like her too." This series of events in turn compels Giovanna to ask Carlo to do the same for her, which he succeeds in doing (that is, Giovanna presents the unborn child as Vittorio's). In the meantime, an infuriated Elena demands that Vittorio arrange for her an abortion -- which proves unsuccessful after some bullying by Carlo -- and finally, that he expel both Carlo and Giovanna from their house. Finally, Vittorio showing an expected savvy attempts to persuade Carlo to take Giovanna as his wife -- both to fulfill his sister's wishes, and also to protect the woman he fears he defiled. Of course, this request echoes Giovanna's desire to marry Carlo which she had proclaimed at the film's beginning. Thus, Bellocchio would seem to be confirming the impossibility of social mobility, which the younger couple's plan had seemed destined to secure.

Then again, Bellocchio leads us to believe that Giovanna does end up marrying Vittorio, which is an intention he confesses during a political rally -- thereby making the act one of political expediency. At the same time, Carlo is shut out of the lives of both his children confirming again the rigidity of class dynamics, as well as providing the film with a more mythic register. (It is worth mentioning that while Giovanna does herself escape her class, which in a way would seem to blunt the satire's impact, though she is at the same time a beautiful young woman which is surely a tried-and-true ticket to prosperity.) In the end, the wealthy control all the power and exercise it as they feel fit; indeed, the project of socialism is shown to be fruitless as it relies on the good graces of the upper class, which of course it does not extend. As Millicent Marcus noted in her introduction: China is in fact not near. The revolutionary politics of that state are far removed from the class collaborations of the Italian system, which invariably end poorly for those on the lower end. And certainly it doesn't help that the only character Bellocchio grants this political foresight is the third sibling of Vittorio and Elena, who doubles as an altar boy and political terrorist -- he does succeed in having sex with a young woman to awaken her class consciousness ,by the revealing to her the exploitative nature of the act; in painting "China is Near" on a wall (before being reprimanded by a police officer); and finally, in blowing up a toilet in the socialist party headquarters.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Correspondences from Sixty-Eight!: Birds, Orphans and Fools + Slavic shorts

In my estimation, the point of Sixty-Eight! is to screen films exactly like Slovakian Juraj Jakubisko's Birds, Orphans and Fools (Vtackovia, siroty a blazni, 1969): that is, to uncover major works of art that have remained obscure to even the most knowledgeable of cineastes (even if the film again falls outside of the conference's '68 auspices, as have the other four shorts and two features that I have viewed thus far). Birds, Orphans and Fools begins innocently enough as an absurdist Jules et Jim (1962, François Truffaut) located in the ruins of a large manor -- that is, after a compulsory self-reflexive (read Godardian or Brechtian) interlude and a carnivalesque parade of outcast children and adults. At first a poly-amorousness rules, with the lead Yorick (Jirí Sykora) even remarking that he mast have been really drunk to end up in bed with a woman (Martha, the initially androgynous though exceptionally beautiful Magda Vásáryová). A third, Andrej (Philippe Avron) joins the couple and what proceeds seems to be a fairly standard page out of Vera Chytilová's Daisies (1966) anarchic playbook. However, with Yorick's shipment off to prison and his return as a normalized member of society replete with suit and tie, Jakubisko's narrative shifts courses revealing its position within the tradition of a conflated love-and-death that marks Luis Buñuel's narratives of sexual obsession -- i.e. El (1952), Diary of a Chambermaid (1964) or part one of Viridiana (1961). In fact, this last work remains an essential point of comparison for Birds..., particularly as Jakubisko's film seems to resurrect the idea of the lunatics running the asylum -- that is the breaking into the manor of the Spanish film and its occupancy in the Czechoslovakian one. Then again, Jakubisko's points-of-reference are not exclusively meta-cinematic: there is the immolation with its clear Vietnamese, anti-war implications, and perhaps more importantly still, the short cropped hair and the train ride with the Orthodox Jew, to say nothing of a number of lines of dialogue that all seem to reference the Holocaust. This last point seems especially pertinent as it gives existentialist weight to the 'eat, drink and be merry ethos' of the film's first three-quarters. However, as with I Am Curious - Yellow of the previous evening, love is not an emotion so easily contained by liberation politics.

If the above work has been the "discovery" of the fest to date, an earlier surprise addition rates as a close runner-up: Armenian Artavazd Peleshian's We (Menq, 1969). Described by Soviet specialist John MacKay as the Soviet Union's most important maker of avant-garde documentaries after Dziga Vertov, We seems to bear out that accolade, particularly in its remarkable capture of visual rhythms and textures. In one particularly striking overhead, an undulating crowd becomes viscous -- as in glutinous -- before our eyes. In another, Peleshian compares the sweaty, muscular physiques of workers with the towering stone mountains. Apart from We, the most impressive of the remaining works of experimental documentary may be Ivan Balad'a's Metrum (1967, Czechoslovakia), which compares closest, in my estimation to Jon Jost's rarely-screened London Brief (1997), though Balad'a's work achieves an exceptional visual richness manifesting in the beautiful flares of his Moscow underground locales.

Correspondences from Sixty-Eight!: Far From Vietnam & I Am Curious - Yellow

Yale University's Sixty-Eight! Europe, Cinema, Revolution? opened this evening with a pair of films preceding its year-specific subject. Far From Vietnam (Loin du Vietnam, 1967) represents the collaboration of legends Jean-Luc Godard, Joris Ivens, William Klein, Claude Lelouch, Chris Marker, Alain Resnais and Agnès Varda in the production of a pro-North Vietnamese tract, assembled from the filmmakers' documentary (and in some cases, fictional) footage. In a word, Far From Vietnam is propaganda, which in many cases raises more questions than it answers: for instance, what role were the Soviets and the Chinese playing in South-East Asia? Are the filmmakers overstating the Edenic, pre-industrial qualities of North Vietnam, etc.? Then again, Far From Vietnam's one-sided narrative should not be counted as a weakness: the picture never pretends to be anything other than what it is, agit. prop. And in this regard, which is to say on the level of the visceral, Far From Vietnam is powerful work, at least to the sympathetic; for the skeptical, Far From Vietnam can be a maddening experience.

Of course, none of this exactly speaks to its placement at the head of Sixty-Eight! While surely its inclusion suggests a precondition to the Leftist revolts of the following spring, and specifically to the currency of anti-war sentiments in France, Far From Vietnam seems better positioned as a work of our time, contextualizing Franco anti-Americanism in the Bush era. If anyone wants to say unequivocally that the current U.S. President lost the rest of the world, they may want to consult Far From Vietnam. Then again, a screening of Far From Vietnam might have also saved the right the trouble of worrying about whether or not Europe would support Bush's war. Actually, Far From Vietnam raises an even bigger question, though: whether a broad war can possibly sustain popular will at all in Western societies, now that television has made everything visible to the general public.

Far less fraught perhaps, but similarly political in its subject, the evening's second offering, Vilgot Sjöman's I Am Curious - Yellow (Jag är nyfiken - en film i gult, 1967) manifests even less connection to the conference's 1968 topic. Even so, Sjöman's notorious soft-core art film served as an excellent balance to the collaborative doc. Whereas, Far From Vietnam is rhetorically unambiguous, I Am Curious - Yellow instantiates a more measured approach to its topic. Here, Sweden's revolutionary sexual politics are interrogated in what one could only call a conservative fashion: early twenty-something protagonist Lena (Lena Nyman) experiences the consequences of her liberated sexuality -- namely, a broken-heart and venereal disease. Then again, given Sweden's extreme liberalization in the post-war period, it follows that its filmmakers would have to combat the deficiencies of their relativistic society, wherever they appear, with moralist rhetoric; basically, there was no space to satirize Swedish society on the left.

However, it is not simply in the relative conservatism of Sjöman's content that I Am Curious - Yellow balances Far From Vietnam, but indeed in its own admittance of contrary and contradictory perspectives. I Am Curious - Yellow utilizes a fictionalized direct, cinema-verité form that includes a spectrum of reactions, even if, ultimately, Sweden is portrayed as a nation largely lacking a class consciousness. Then again, the film's filmmaker-character (played by Sjöman himself) is as subject to his individual needs as are any of the anonymous Swedes on the street, of which the film's 'meta' structure is a reflection. That is, Sjöman reminds us of his role in constructing the explicit sexual content of the picture, and particularly in the pleasure he takes from watching his actors perform the acts. (And make no mistake, I Am Curious - Yellow truly does set the standard for explicit content in the European art cinema of the time.) Nevertheless, even if Sjöman's picture partakes in Sweden's extreme participation in the sexual revolution, his picture remains aware of its limitations, as his portrayal of Lena makes clear.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

This Weekend In New Haven

Sixty-Eight! Europe, Cinema, Revolution?
A Film Festival and Conference at Yale University
Thursday, February 15 to Saturday, February 17, 2007
Whitney Humanities Center, 53 Wall St., New Haven, CT

Sixty-Eight! Europe, Cinema, Revolution? will focus on the New Wave cinemas of Eastern and Western Europe leading up to and in the aftermath of the political showdowns of 1968. The European Studies Council, along with the Film Studies Program and the Department of the History of Art, has organized the festival around a wide variety of films from many countries, from little-known gems and avant-garde shorts to recognized cinematic classics. The festival will interlace feature films, documentaries, and experimental films with introductions by scholars and critics from a range of disciplines, and informal panels and open discussions. A complete list of participants and details may be found at http://www.yale.edu/macmillan/europeanstudies/1968

Thursday, February 15
7:00pm Far From Vietnam (Jean-Luc Godard, Joris Ivens, William Klein, Claude Lelouch, Chris Marker, Alain Resnais and Agnes Varda, France, 1967, 16mm)
9:30pm I Am Curious - Yellow (Vilgot Sjoman, Sweden, 1967, 35mm)

Friday, February 16
9:00am Cinegiornali liberi (Cesare Zavattini et al., Italy, 1968, 16mm)
Classe de lutte (Les Groupes Medvedkine de Besancon, France, 1968, 16mm)
La reprise du travail aux usines Wonder (Etats generaux du cinema, France, 1968, DVD)

10:45am Discussion: Giorgio De Vincenti (Universita di Roma-III), Michael Denning (Yale), Annette Michelson (Tisch School of the Arts, NYU), Jennifer Stob (Yale)

11:45am: Metrum (Ivan Balad'a, Czechoslovakia, 1967, DVD)
Forest (Ivan Balad'a, Czechoslovakia, 1969, DVD)
Silence (Milan Peer, Czechoslovakia, 1969, 35mm)

2:00pm: Birds, Orphans and Fools (Juraj Jakubisko, Czechoslovakia, 1969, 35mm)
The Red and the White (Miklos Jancso, Hungary, 1967, 35mm)

5:00pm Discussion: Katerina Clark, Laura Engelstein, Alice Lovejoy, John MacKay (all from Yale)

7:00pm: The Words of the Chairman (Harun Farocki, West Germany, 1968, 16mm)
La Chinoise (Jean-Luc Godard, France, 1967, 35mm)

8:45pm Discussion: Francesco Casetti (Universita Cattolica, Milan), Kristin Ross (NYU), Sally Shafto (Big Muddy Film Festival, Southern Illinois University)

9:30pm: China is Near (Marco Bellocchio, Italy, 1967, 35mm)

Saturday, February 17
9:00am: The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach (Jean-Marie Straub and Daniele Huillet, West Germany, 1968, 35mm)
Alaska (Dore O, West Germany, 1968, 16mm)
Jum-Jum (Werner Nekes, West Germany, 1968, 16mm)
Raw Film (W. and B. Hein, West Germany, 16mm)

12:00pm Discussion: Thomas Elsaesser (University of Amsterdam), Terri Francis (Yale), Gundula Kreuzer (Yale)

2:00pm: Artists Under the Big Top: Perplexed (Alexander Kluge, West Germany, 1968, 16mm)
4:00pm: Notes for a Film about India (Pier Paolo Pasolini, Italy, 1968, DVD)
Black Panthers (Agnes Varda, USA, 1968, 16mm)

5:30pm Discussion: Hazel Carby (Yale), Kathleen Cleaver (Yale), Anita Trivelli (l'Università "Gabriele d'Annunzio", Chieti-Pescara)

7:30pm: Le Revelateur (Philippe Garrel, France, 1967, DVD)
La revolution n'est qu'un debut: continuons le combat (Pierre Clementi, France, 1968, DVD)

9:30pm: The Structure of Crystal (Krzysztof Zanussi, Poland, 1969, 35mm)

For those of my readers who might be in the New Haven area this weekend, Yale will be hosting a film festival and conference focusing on of the most politically-contentious years in the postwar era: 1968. As a point of reference, it is important to note that this is the third such conference hosted at the university, with the first two focusing upon the years 1945 and 1956 respectively. In other words, 1968, with all its connotations, is not the sole purpose behind the conference. This is first the opportunity to screen a number of European films that emerged from the same zeitgeist. While I myself would have preferred a less shall we say "obvious" year -- and one richer in film art -- such as say 1962 or especially 1967 (which you will notice is the year of many of the films screened for the conference anyway), the opportunity to see so many rare works is indeed tantalizing, and not to be missed if you're anywhere close to New Haven. So too will be the discussions that include a number of my former and current professors and colleagues including NYU emeritus faculty Annette Michelson. For those outside the area, I will do my best to blog as much of the event as is possible -- one could say correspondences from the front.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Bollywood on Tativille: Shree 420 (1955)

My discovery of Bollywood mimicked that of my introduction to classical Hollywood and later international art cinema: in each instance, I sought out an acquaintance with the subject after realizing that it represented a gap in my knowledge of the art. However, in the case of Bollywood, this exposure came at a pivotal moment -- at about the time when Turner Classic Movies was undertaking a fifteen-film retrospective predictably entitled "Hooray for Bollywood." Never mind, the series was a revelation, and for me, evidence that Bollywood deserved the same serious study that Hollywood studio filmmaking has long received. Thus, it is in that spirit that I am inaugurating the first in what I hope will be a series of miniature essays on noteworthy works of the Bollywood industry (especially from its classical phase -- from the late 40s to the early 1960s). For my first entry, I have selected a relatively unknown classic (to most Western cinephiles, that is) by one of "Hooray for Bollywood's" greatest auteurs, Raj Kapoor.

Raj Kapoor possesses a number of claims to fame: he is the Indian popular cinema's Charlie Chaplin, both for the discernible social conscious of his entertainments, and also due to his status as a comedic actor-director (who happens to play a version of Chaplin's Tramp in a number of films); he directed one of the era's most critically-heralded and popular works, Awaara (Vagabond, 1951), which both cemented his reputation at home, and made the director a star in the Soviet Union as well; he formed perhaps the best-known and most highly esteemed actor-actress pairing in the history of the industry with the legendary star of Mother India (1957) and future member of parliament, Nargis; and so on. The point is, Raj Kapoor is one of the essential figures of Bollywood's "golden age," and deserves to be known by anyone with a passion for cinema as art, no less than say this web site's namesake.

While the aforementioned Awaara is the natural starting point for an appreciation of Kapoor both as an actor and also a director, each of the three remaining collaborations between Nargis and Kapoor as writer-director -- Aag (Fire, 1948), Barsaat (Rain, 1949) and Shree 420 (Shri 420, 1955) -- rate as classics of Bollywood's heyday, to varying degrees (Aag being the least of the three, though even it displays a certain expressionistic artistry). Among these, Shree 420 in particular fits within the framework expressed above, and specifically, the director's debt to Chaplin. In fact, the picture opens with Kapoor running down a country road toward the camera, pantomiming in his tramp garb. Here, as in many of the passages that compose the first half of the picture, Kapoor speeds up the film stock to imitate that staple of silent comedy. Further, while Kapoor's Raj is not beyond certain petty deceptions, such as in lying in the middle of the road so that a wealthy driver picks him up, he is comparable to Chaplin's noble clown in that he is a man of integrity: as he tells us early on "speaking the truth you suffer."

After being tossed out of the first car, where we also meet underworld tycoon Seth Sonachand (Nemo) who will become Raj's employer in the film's second half, the protagonist soon finds his way to Bombay. In the process, Kapoor articulates a nationalism that he will later give a decidedly socialist inflection later on -- for now, suffice it to say that at least his heart is "Hindustani." In Bombay, Kapoor again makes use of fast-motion to indicate the disorientation that his bumpkin feels; here he is immediately warned that if he looks for a job, he'll never find one, though if he cheats and steals, he will find find 420 ways to succeed. (As a point of reference, "420" is a term for petty thieves, and is mentioned in a number of the film's contexts including an earlier road sign that reads "Bombay 420.") At the same time, Raj is not without his charms which he makes use of to secure a banana -- and later, a place to sleep -- from Lalita Pawar's street vendor. Then again, he does arrive exceedingly naive, prompting a group of card players to take advantage of the gentleman as soon as he sells his orphanage honesty medal (a rather explicit symbol for one of the film's primary subjects -- the selling, and indeed abdication of honesty).

At the pawnbroker's, Raj first spots Nargis's Vidya, whom we soon learn is a teacher and the daughter of an impoverished, paralyzed school master. Raj quickly ingratiates himself into her life -- not without the requisite resistance on the part of the beyond-reproach Vidya -- in no small measure by charming the young woman's father. Vidya, however, remains apprehensive of the sly Raj who uses a populist speech to sell tooth powder to a clan of the city's poor. Aware of his want of respectability, Raj obtains a job as a launderer; with this display of integrity, Vidya's enchantment with Raj becomes love, which will provide the framework for the picture's most famous musical number -- a duet between the principles during a rain shower. Specifically, the opening of the heavens brings the pair together under the woman's umbrella, which allows for their mutual display of their passions in song. That is, in their sudden proximity and the consequent flaming of their respective desires, Kapoor clearly offers a distention of the moment in this omni-present feature of the popular cinema.

Thus, with the formulation of the couple tentatively complete, Kapoor's narrative introduces Raj to the world of wealth and luxury that his honest life with Nargis will necessarily exclude. In his capacity as launderer, Raj encounters the sultry Maya (Nadira) who glimpses Kapoor's conjurer's touch with playing cards. Leveraging his tenuous work status, Maya convinces Raj to accompany her to a casino, where donning a tuxedo, he'll play the role of 'Raj,' which is to say 'prince.' As such, Kapoor makes explicit an earlier observation that "fine clothes are more important than human sentiment." In this new world of opulence that he finds himself thrown into, Raj is instantly respected, whereas his earlier tramp's garb generated nothing but contempt or at times pity from his social better's. Suffice it say that Raj is smitten with his new role, though not enough to help Maya again after she refuses him a cut of his winnings. However, his ultimate victim in the casino, the previously mentioned Seth, soon secures his services, seeing the talent in Kapoor's character.

At this point, it is worth noting a key shift that has occurred in Kapoor's narrative. Absent are the frequent slapstick elements, and specifically the sped-up film stock that dominate the first half. In their place, Kapoor's narrative emphasizes his new world of luxury, instantiated inside the casinos, which on more than one occasion are compared to Monte Carlo. Indeed, it is as if Kapoor's film has switched off its Chaplin influence and on that of Erich von Stroheim's masterpiece Foolish Wives (1922), which of course likewise depicts a fake prince in the world of Monte Carlo's casinos. Apropos of his character's transition from a clown (who's mask "is the best way to hide one's suffering") to that of a prince, Raj declares: "I will remove one mask and replace it with another." So too has Kapoor replaced one genre with another -- not uncommon for Bollywood, to be sure, but rarely so explicit.

Similarly unique its explicitness, in a subsequent song number where Nargis proclaims her broken heart, Kapoor shows an apparition of the actress's character step out of the body of his lead. This figure approaches Raj while the corporeal Vidya stands impassive in the distance. While, as the performance in the rain listed above should demonstrate, music in Indian popular cinema often suggests the interiority of its singers, rarely has this precise relationship been so clearly indicated -- that is, it is uncommon for a director to tell us that his characters simply feel this way and are not actually performing thusly in time and space as Kapoor does here. It is again as if he is literalizing and therefore defining the codes of Indian popular cinema.

Of course, Raj's criminal turn does not last, as any spectator of classical Bollywood cinema will have already anticipated. Obviously, Raj and Nargis will end up together, though in keeping with the director's insistence on the mutual exclusivity of material success and integrity, not on the terms for which Raj may have hoped. It is likewise worth stating that with his resolution, Kapoor's narrative reverts to its first generic form, slapstick, in keeping with the masks worn by his lead (while also adopting direct-address for a speech on collective action; in other words, Kapoor evokes The Great Dictator [1940] as well).

Before concluding, a word or two should also be said on behalf of the performances of the lead couple: in summary, they deserve their elevated position in the pantheon of film couples. As always, Nargis projects dignity and integrity in this warm-up for her subsequent Mother India, while Kapoor's Raj demonstrates a subtlety that the opening passages might suggest are far from his capacities as an actor. The truth is, Kapoor is just as capable of under-playing a scene, which he does in portions of the von Stroheim-inspired second part, where he wears the mask of deceiver, as he is of fulfilling the Chaplin-esque role of "tramp." Indeed, Kapoor's artistry as an actor in many way assures the successful generic transformations that distinguish Shree 420.

Monday, January 29, 2007

The 79th Annual Academy Awards: Monster House & Dreamgirls

One of three 'Best Animated Feature' nominations, Gil Kenan's Monster House is without question the underdog of the group (even with its citation by the mighty Florida Film Critics' Circle) in spite of its association with executive producers Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis. Never mind, Monster House is one of the better Hollywood features of 2006 -- animated or otherwise -- containing both assured classical direction from thirty year-old first-time director Kenan and one of the year's finest screenplays, authored by Dan Harmon, Rob Schrab and Pamela Pettler. Regarding the latter, Monster House sustains its admirable sense of humor throughout, generating a number of the funniest lines of 2006: my favorite has to be love interest Jenny to pubescent pals D.J. and Chowder, "are you two mentally challenged? If you are, I'm certified to teach you baseball." Others demonstrate expert delivery by the film's actors (for instance the exchange, "what's your problem?" "Puberty, and I'm having lots and lots of puberty"; or Kevin James' overweight officer, "I was in the forest wrestling with a bearclaw. I was eating a donut!") in additon to more generally off-beat humor -- Jared Hess' video game nerd opines "you make me wanna vomit in some tin foil and eat it," while a sign advertising a development exclaims "we drained the lake!"

At this point, it might be worth noting that Monster House utilizes motion capture technology (cf. Zemeckis' The Polar Express, 2004), where the animation is layered over live performances. Indeed, in moments such as D.J.'s attempt to step lightly as he crosses the "monster house," the benefits of the technology over traditional animation become clear -- we see the light pressure that the boy puts on the ball of his foot. Then again, Monster House, as its title should make obvious, very much trades on animation's ability to make the impossible possible, bringing to life the titular structure in a picture that might be best described as Mon Oncle meets The Goonies, with more than a touch of The Incredibles (2004) thrown in.

Of course, in Kenan's hands, Monster House is far more than high-concept 3D animation; Monster House is first rate Hollywood pop filmmaking, manifesting a highly creative manipulation of a classical point-of-view structure. Among other highlights, one of the most inventive examples is D.J.'s point-of-view as he is felled by Mr. Nebbercracker, who collapses as he is choking the boy. Likewise, Kenan's introduction of the house as a malevolent creature also represents a moment of acute directorial skill: the boy collapses on his bed in the left side of the frame, beside a window overlooking the house. Slowly, we see a black spectral sheet seep through the window before the room turns to crimson.

Monster House also includes moments of exceeding tension, many of which are quite frightening -- for instance, D.J. perilously swinging on a cable over the carnivorous house. Indeed, Monster House is not exactly a children's movie -- especially when one considers the sophisticated humor -- even as its presumed target audience (my guess boys around ten years of age give or take a year or two) might not be so quick to see animation of this sort. Nevertheless, Monster House deserves a wider audience than its relatively underwhelming $73 million box office tally indicates (fellow nominees Happy Feet and Cars have grossed two-and-a-half and three and-a-half times that number respectively). Whether a nomination will deliver greater popularity in home video -- particularly among adults -- remains to be seen.

In an entirely different strata of Oscar co-dependence, Bill Condon's Dreamgirls was anointed 2006's de facto 'best picture' well before critics, let alone audiences had the opportunity to see the director's adaptation of the 1981 musical. If pundits were basing their hopes on the earlier Broadway incarnation, they have not been disappointed, assuming of course that these analysts expected a film bearing the unmistakable texture of the early 1980s (call it Muppets Take Manhattan with a Motown twist). Remarkably, Condon has succeeded -- or failed ? -- in producing a film version that does nothing to modernize the story; had say Herbert Ross made the film on the heels of Footloose, I'm not so sure the end product would have been any different.

Obviously, Dreamgirls circa 1985 would not have included the startlingly beautiful Beyoncé Knowles and her occasional attempts at emoting or the Oprah-orgasmic performance of Jennifer Hudson (who remains the prohibitive favorite to walk away with an Oscar statuette next month) though perhaps Eddie Murphy could still have been cajoled. Nevertheless, what we have is a film that is fabulous for about the fifteen minutes of back-to-back-to-back musical numbers, before Condon's televisual handling of the material really becomes apparent. Ultimately, Dreamgirls was made for an Oscar telecast montage of high points, which the film's failure to secure a 'best picture' nomination has eliminated. In that format, Dreamgirls would have been tough to beat. As a feature-length film, less so.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Ivan's Childhood: For Beauty In The War Film


To introduce this year's Slate Movie Club, critic Dana Stevens felt the need to proclaim her dislike of the war film. That she would frame the argument in this fashion confirms the genre's centrality to current assessments of the state of cinema, and particularly its activist value. Indeed, in the present environment, anti-war films secure automatic vitality; they speak to us in recognizable slogans that most aficionados of "cinema" (as opposed to "movies" or heaven help us "flicks") readily endorse. War is hell. War wreaks devastation. War effects the poor, the weak, women, children and the elderly unduly.

Of course, with this rhetoric comes a visual imperative to show this hell, this devastation and this collateral impact. For contemporary combat films, Saving Private Ryan (1998) has become the template, satisfying the above through a style that mimics the photographic record of the Second World War, while offering a simulation of the visceral experience of war that makes extensive use of CGI. Saving Private Ryan and its followers are in short war films in the image of video games.

I am a fan of neither Saving Private Ryan nor of combat (or really any, save for golf) video games, so in this respect I would side with Ms. Stevens. Where I depart somewhat is in my appreciation of a second tradition in the war film genre, which I will admit is far from a major one: the war film as platform for transcendental or universal themes. Among films that belong to this sub-type, the major recent example is certainly Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line, the other great war film from 1998. (For my money, of course, The Thin Red Line is the only great war film of 1998, and indeed one of the finest American pictures of the decade.)

In a similar mode, I recently caught up with Andrei Tarkovsky's Ivan's Childhood (1962), which establishes, along with The Thin Red Line, the possibility of beauty in this ugliest of genres. While let me say now that there is a place for ugliness in the arts surely -- what would painting be without Grunewäld, Goya or Picasso's Guernica, after all -- a genre precluding beauty would strike me as a limitation. Not so for either Malick or Tarkovsky's films, which incorporate the beautiful through digressions from the generic topic of combat. In The Thin Red Line, it is the author's contemplation of the violence in nature that yields the beauty in nature above or against the ugliness in combat, whereas Tarkovsky establishes beauty through the subjective fantasies of the child protagonist.

Among these, one of the most startling is a sequence featuring the child Ivan (Nikolai Burlyayev) in an apple cart with a pretty young girl -- they are both what has come to be called "tweens." Tarkovsky shows the pair besieged by rain, before an obvious back-projection photographic negative image, thus confirming the distance between the sequence and the reality of the wartime Soviet Union. Further, Tarkovsky adds clear Biblical connotations to the scene -- that is of a prelapsarian Adam and Eve. However, Ivan will not live long enough to sample the experiences that this sequence prefigures. Tarkovsky, in other words, suggests the tragedy of war through the poetry and beauty of these images. In fact, he will return to this conflation of the water motif and Ivan's lost childhood in a sequence where we see the child cavorting with other kids on the beach, before he chases and then surpasses his girlfriend as they sprint through a stretch of extremely low water. In short, while there may not be any metaphoric meaning to the water, it serves to connect the scenes thematically. It is analogical, which is to say poetic, and as such essentially Tarkovsky-ian.

Of course this watery theme reoccurs in the indelible marshes through which the young Ivan passes in his work as a war spy, and in the puddling that surrounds a series of ruins that is likewise distilled in an image of a free-standing door and frame. With respect to the former, Tarkovsky again produces images of exceeding beauty, particularly when we see the reflections of the flares traced on the water's dark surface. These landscapes, it is worth noting, confirm the picture's Belorussian setting, as do the similarly gorgeous birch wood forests, which more specifically act as a symbol for Mother Russia.

In the final marshland scene, where Ivan and his two adult companions must cross the swamps without the Germans noticing, Tarkovsky eliminates all light, which significantly refuses the spectator any clear view of what is happening on screen. In other words, we cannot see whether or not Ivan is safe, and yet, in the irony of Tarkovsky's mise-en-scene, this cover of darkness protects our protagonists. In other words, we don't want to see our hero as this would make the boy visible to the Germans as well. Thus, Tarkovsky takes away the substance of his art and we as spectators are grateful.

As such, Tarkovsky has transformed his form according to the desires of his spectators. More often, however, Tarkovsky's style adheres to a baroque program: time and again, we see a figure blocked in the foreground, in medium close-up, who sets off additional figures behind he or she in the middle and deep distances. In many of these scenes, the director places his camera below eye-level with large visible shadows. In short, this is not yet the director who looks down on his subjects from a God's-eye view as Chris Marker noted in his 2000 documentary One Day in the Life of Andrei Arsenevitch. Then again, in the film's utilization of Biblical imagery, to say nothing of the situation of much of the film within a ruined church, Tarkovsky's Christianity is already apparent. As such, it becomes clear that Ivan's Childhood is about more than the devastation of war -- it is at once a condemnation of Stalin's ambivalence toward the loss of life in World War II (not exactly controversial at the time) and also a critique of the violence done to the religious life in the Soviet Union.