Thursday, March 15, 2007

New Film: Zodiac & The Lives of Others

David Fincher's Zodiac shoulders what might have been an insurmountable obstacle to its success as a thriller -- the fact that the true crime case upon which the film is based remains unsolved. Nevertheless, the director's latest serial killer picture secures a tension, though it is less connected to the police's investigation -- as of course its outcome is common knowledge -- than it is to amateur Robert Graysmith's (Jake Gyllenhaal as the author of the film's original non-fiction source) subsequent intervention. As Graysmith states when his wife (Chloë Sevigny) questions his motivation, he wants know to look into the eyes of the killer and to know that he is guilty. By this point, this is all that we as spectators want as well (or at least to know the murder's identity, obviously). And much to the credit of Fincher and his screenwriter James Vanderbilt, we become as convinced of a particular suspect's guilt as does Graysmith. Indeed, Fincher and Vanderbilt's control of circumstantial evidence ultimately points to the aforesaid suspect, even as we are compelled to at least wonder about the various other leads that Graysmith pursues.

To defer suspense until the film's second part -- that is, to transfer it onto the question of the killer's identity -- we are led to share in our degree of knowledge with the San Francisco P.D. (and especially its lead investigators Mark Ruffalo and Anthony Edwards) and the city's newspaper staff (where Gyllenhaal and Robert Downey Jr.'s Paul Avery work; the latter is another contribution to Downey Jr.'s drug-fueled persona -- cf. A Scanner Darkly, 2006) to which the Zodiac killer sends his encrypted missives. It is only after the investigation effectively concludes that Fincher and Vanderbilt begin to reveal the missteps of inter-departmental communication that assured the investigation's failure. As such, Zodiac offers a cogent account of this unsolved case and its likely perpetrator, and also a viable reason for its remaining unresolved.

Ultimately, Zodiac is less a sordid true crime case than it is a portrait of how these notorious murders remained unsolved. In other words, Zodiac is not Se7en (1995) -- not to imply that the earlier film has any basis in reality -- though it does share some of its tropes: perhaps the clearest example is the sparely lit, squirrel-infested trailer of one of the picture's suspects. Otherwise, many of Fincher's voluminous spaces feature visible overhead florescent lighting. Together, it again becomes clear, as it was in Se7en that the particularity of Fincher's style can be located in his modulations of (moody) lighting. Spatially, Fincher composes many of his shots horizontally across his wide screen.

Less obvious for any specific visual tropes, with the possible exception of occasionally distracting instances of rack focus, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen) offers another example of dubious recent history, albeit in fictionalized form. The recently Oscar-feted The Lives of Others -- the German picture was an upset winner in the 'best foreign language picture' category -- gives an account of one Stasi officer's (Michael Haneke axiom Ulrich Mühe) increasing disaffection with the GDR's practice of surveillance, though not on principle but rather by virtue of its abuses.

After one of East Germany's only loyal artists is placed under full surveillance as per a leading official's romantic interest in his actress lover, Stasi officer Wiesler begins his sabotage of the process, allowing the disenchanted writer and his compatriots to produce an anti-GDR tract that emphasizes the high incidence of suicide in the former state. Thus, Henckel von Donnersmarck limns a portrait of the GDR that both articulates the ubiquity of the state's crimes and also suggests the goodness and the courage of some of its citizenry. While of course both are undeniable, the filmmakers' emphasis upon the good Stasi provides a certain cover to those who may have been complicit; like De Gaulle's France in the postwar period, The Lives of Others indicates a move toward a revisionist, heroic history.

If it could be argued therefore that The Lives of Others presents a somewhat suspect glimpse at Germany's recent past, Henckel von Donnersmarck's direction of suspense leaves little to be desired. For example, the German director's staging of the climactic scene with all emphasis transferred onto a single feature of the architecture is worthy of and influenced by the 'Master of Suspense.' Then again, Henckel von Donnersmarck's assured direction of such sequences is accompanied by inclusions of passages that reiterate what the action has already made clear -- as with the overly distended conclusion. (The Lives of Others is nothing if not middle-brow.) Even so, the film's heart-warming final revelation, however overblown, achieves an undeniable emotional resonance.

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

New Film: Half Nelson & These Encounters of Theirs

The Jus Rhyme of this year's Academy nominated films -- that is "politically aware and socially responsible" with a graduate-level ethnic studies tool box -- Ryan Fleck's Half Nelson confronts its audience with its political imperatives: namely, to generate consciousness through the film's inhabitation and dissection of its structuring "dialectics." This is to say that Fleck's classroom-centered picture (and a history classroom at that) adheres to a Marxist model of conflict-based historiography, which is disseminated primarily in Ryan Gosling's homilies on topics such as "turning points." (Actually, Gosling's Dan Dunne is at one point asked whether or not he is a Communist to which he redirects the conversation.) His students, for their part, relate moments of historical tragedy and resistance through direct address, thereby reaffirming that purpose of these lessons are not only to instruct the film's characters but to teach its spectators as well.

Even so, Fleck's narrative refuses to glorify the consciousness-generating Mr. Dunne. Principally, Half Nelson's reversal of generic norms emerges when it is revealed that Gosling's character smokes crack -- make no mistake, Fleck is endeavoring to problematize the binary between white and black where smoking crack is a behavior of the latter. One of his students, Drey (Shareeka Epps), discovers the altered educator in the ladies room after her basketball game. As we soon learn, Drey's brother is incarcerated, and his business associate, Anthony Mackie as Frank, is a drug dealer with both proprietary feelings for the vulnerable 13 year-old and also designs to involve her in the business. Ultimately, she acquiesces, though her subsequent exposure to Dunne smoking rock ends her foray into dealing.

For his part, Dunne's use of this stigmatized substance can be explained for its facility in interrogating the racial dialectical that shapes the picture's context. That he uses drugs at all reflects an attempt "to get by," to somehow satiate the feelings of injustice that undoubtedly consume Fleck's hero. At the same time, Gosling's Dunne does engage with the social inequities that plague society. On the micro level, this is reflected in his attempts to protect Drey from Frank, which he prefaces with the knowledge that he "should be the last person to say this." However, owing to the film's project of unmooring the dialectics it preaches, Frank also warns Drey to be cautious of her base-head teacher.

Ultimately, Fleck's program seeks to reconstitute social systems synthetically, by achieving synthesis through the opposition of thesis and anti-thesis. This comes into the play both in the relationship between Dunne and Drey and also in its interrogation of elements of African-American culture (be it in the language he uses, the books he reads or the more structural articulation of Malcolm X's public proclamations). With regard to the first of these, Drey's epiphany occurs when she sees her teacher in the throws of the substance -- therefore awakening her to the consequences of dealing -- while Fleck needs the help of his younger student to clean up, which provides the film with its culminating two of the pair on a couch. As such, Fleck appears to flip the conventional assumed direction of paternalistic assistance, though it is likewise clear that in Half Nelson this inversion of trope serves strictly discursive purposes and thus partakes in the same stereotypes. In other words, Half Nelson makes paternalism palatable by artfully reversing its coordinates.

At this point, I would feel remiss were I not to mention the film's performances, which remain its principle popular claim to fame. At the center, Ryan Gosling's Mr. Dunne achieves an understatement that seems to be of a type with the film's iteration of nuance (that is, in laying claim to the competing factors that forge personality and finally humanity). Similarly, Epps and Mackie also exhibit this tendency toward underplaying that mute a narrative that is in other ways less measured -- as in again the historical lessons of Mr. Dunne's class. As per Mr. Fleck's visual style, the director sustains a like staidness throughout, composing his spaces in static set-ups that intimate a certain unwillingness to intercede and on the most practical level serve to represent the subtleties of his performances.

A film that forges a very different relationship between camera and performance is the similarly political final collaboration between husband-and-wife filmmaking team, Jean-Marie Straub and the late Danièle Huillet. These Encounters of Theirs (2006) begins its series of Cesare Pavese dialogues by framing its two actors with their backs to the camera as they stand on the edge of a Tuscan hillside. The pair, whom we only see speaking to each other subsequently (as they turn their heads partially to address one another) each enunciate in loud, unmodulated voices. As we soon discover, they are both gods, albeit gods dressed in inexpensive modern clothing. They are also gods whose claim to human worship have become increasing tenuous; to be sure, it is made quite clear that humanity does not need these immortal beings. Hence, it becomes apparent that Straub and Huillet are de-mystifying their inherently spiritual subject matter both in the specificity of the conversations themselves and also by making beings to appear as people in a relatively familiar setting. Indeed, there is a certain currency between these dialogues and Eisenstein's montage of cross-cultural idols in October (1928).

Nevertheless, by initially refusing the spectator a view of the speakers' mouths, Straub and Huillet reposition the voice as a mystical object that in fact confirms a presence while remaining invisible to the viewer. Of course, the voice is always de-spatialized (and unseeable) in this manner, but in the filmmakers' intentional introduction of their dialogues thusly, they remind of us of this essential property of sound -- of its invisible presence. It is only later that these sounds are embodied, that they are grounded in the physical presence of a human figure. As such, Straub and Huillet while removing the gods' mystery in one respect, are reintroducing a form of magic in another -- again, by focusing our attention on the voice's lack of spatialization. In other words, the filmmakers provide an analogy for representing the immaterial in cinema through their gradual reunification of voice and body, even if this analogy reappropriates the miraculous for cinema itself, and its accorded materiality.

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.