Sunday, June 24, 2007

On Connoisseurship (& the Achievement of Valeska Grisebach's Longing)

In a recent exchange in the comments section of the excellent group blog Termite Art, my good friend and site co-founder Matthew Singer and I had an extended exchange on the relative merits of reviewing films like The Fantastic Four: The Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007). At the time neither of us had seen the film, though at least in my view it nonetheless could serve as emblematic of all supposedly "critic-proof" films whose audience is assured more by the popularity of its comic source, the film franchise to which it belongs and most importantly the advertising dollars spent to generate interest than to the response of the critics. Admittedly, my commentary suffered from a naivete that Mr. Singer rightly pointed out. In my advocacy of ignoring films like The Rise of the Silver Surfer - assuming that it is indeed not of interest - I suggested another film that I had yet to see, Valeska Grisebach's Longing (Sehnsucht, 2006), as more deserving of print publications' attention. For this, Matt again called me out, asking who was to be the "arbiter" of what is "interesting." In my opinion, both Matt (host of IFC News and Internet film critic - and for those who have not read him, Matt is a very talented critic in the Roger Ebert mold, in my opinion at least) and myself (film studies PhD and Internet film critic - though less talented I'm afraid) qualify, inasmuch as we share a formal training in the discipline, and possess a discernment that follows from it and also (and perhaps more importantly) from instinct.

In retrospect, I should have expected the reaction I received on Termite Art: what I was advocating - and indeed I have come to realize that this is the driving force for all my work in the field of cinema studies - was connoisseurship, which is as uncommon in the field of cinema studies today as it is in the discipline of art history, where the term has been used pejoratively since the 1970s. Connoisseurship is viewed with skepticism by both the defenders of popular and "low" culture on the one hand - primarily for its elitism - and ideologically-minded critics and scholars on the other (for whom the determination of a work's value based on aesthetic critique is itself ideologically loaded). When one does see advocacy in film criticism currently, it is for political engagement, not for the determining of the status of the work of art over and against those of other works. Either art is fundamentally about pleasure, and therefore quality is subjective, as is I believe true for the modern-day defenders of popular culture, or culture is principally a tool for both political progress and regimes of suppression, shifting a work's value from criterion of aesthetic quality to those of political expediency.

As a connoisseur I deny both. For me, art enriches, it can instruct and it can improve. It helps us to see, and even more, to think. This is not to say that any work needs to say something novel or complex. In fact, I tend to subscribe to the theory that many of the best works are themselves mirrors, that they show us ourselves and that we are not alone in what we think or what we feel. In other words, they show us the truth - which as we all know continues to be under assault from those who would deny that such thing exists.

Moreover, works that do this are rare indeed. While, the Internet, an all-region DVD player and a small amount of disposable income has basically put the corpus of an entire art within reach of the spectator, the ever-expanding number of choices that one faces militates against seeing something worth the viewer's time. This again is where I believe the connoisseur comes in: namely in directing the interested spectator to works that will have an effect of enrichment. Above I mentioned that I had yet to see Longing when I used it as a counter-example; I based its utility on the high regard it found last year among British critics (and the certainty that few readers would have heard of the film). Having since viewed Grisebach's work let me redouble my advocacy: Longing is exactly the sort of film that critics have the responsibility to lead their spectators to, so long as they believe film is an art and that art can elevate.

What is it one might ask that separates Longing from other works currently in the marketplace? (Usually Tativille commits itself to this precise task without the meta-commentary; in future I will continue to do exactly that.) To begin with, Longing secures an emotional complexity in its female performances that is rare indeed - in one particularly remarkable moment, upon discovering that her new lover does not remember that they slept together, we see one of Grisebach's heroines masking her fleeting joy behind an expression of jubilation. She has to show her new lover her satisfaction while hiding the sadness that his question has wrought. We see in this instance the intimations of what her life may have been, that perhaps such opportunities are not so common with her and when they do seem to occur, that they evaporate just as quickly. In other words, Grisebach gives us a mirror.

Then again, in her male lead, we have a cipher. We understand what he is thinking as much as his wife (the film's third principle) does, which is to say that his psychology is a source of mystery. As such Grisebach reverses the logic of most films that employ this epistemological pattern - wherein the woman is the greater source for mystery. Further it is truly his body, his face that is the more acutely fetishized: in another of the great moments in the cinema of the past year, Grisebach frames her male lead dancing to a Robbie Williams song in tight medium close-up, from his shoulders up. He closes his eyes and sways to the music, reminding us how young he is. Truly, he has become the object of the spectator's - and shortly as we see the waitress/his future lover's as well. In short, Longing, helps to see both the complexity of its very real characters and also the narrative systems it is responding to and revising.

We also see a world that is at once quite foreign - small-town, rural Germany - and still quite familiar to this viewer at least. Grisebach shows us a place/a community that most viewers of her film will never see in person. This I would submit is its own justification. At the same, and thus expanding the work's value further, her rendering of the landscape and particular the sensitivity she shows for light - particularly that light just after sunset - shows a nature that may be very familiar to viewers, even if it is rarely detailed on screen. Longing indeed evokes a feeling of place that is dependent on the spectator's awareness of this time of day at a particular time of year. The tactile feeling of place that accompanies this knowledge therefore becomes an end of Grisebach's work, open to those with a familiarity for such places, just as her characters introduce us to real, albeit complex emotions. To see ourselves and the world we live in we as spectators do need a certain degree of sensitivity.

In sum, Longing proposes to show us truths, emotional and natural, that it relies upon us to confirm through our experience. Then again, its situation - an instance of adultery and its consequences for a marriage - are unfamiliar to many a spectator. In this regard, Grisebach allows for the possibility of a moral truth, though suffice it to say that she ultimately leaves it open to the spectator to determine the film's conclusion. In the film's closing, semi-diegetic (as my viewing companion Lisa Broad so eloquently put it) scene, Grisebach makes us aware of her own agency - thus highlighting the film's construction - in the person of a tween, even as she establishes the film's open ending. As such, Longing asks us to decide for ourselves; it raises a scenario and invites its spectators to find a solution. It asks us to engage with the work of art, while delineating the roles of filmmaker and spectator. She makes it abundantly clear how her film is constructed, while preserving her narrative world.

This active role for the spectator is essential to the connoisseurship I have above highlighted as my methodology. When viewed as a source of pleasure foremost, passivity is the rule. When viewed through an ideological lens, the artist's manipulation, for better or for worse, becomes key. However, when art is considered for what it shows us, the spectator becomes cardinal. This I believe is a verification of the above system's merit: that compels its viewer to think, to remember and even to judge.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

The Best in (Not Exactly) New Korean Cinema: Peppermint Candy (2000) & Christmas in August (1998)

With the feting of his latest film, Secret Sunshine, at this year's Cannes festival (in the best actress category) director Lee Chang-dong appears poised to break through to Western audiences - in that way that Korean art house directors do, on the festival circuit. In other words, Lee could soon be familiar to the same European and American spectators who know the names Im Kwon-taek and Hong Sang-soo, should that is Secret Sunshine receive the attention that some critics have been arguing it deserves. (Of course, there is another stratosphere of Korean art house success - namely Park Chan-wook's Oldboy [2003] and Bong Joon-ho's The Host [2006] - that does not apply here.)

With that perhaps overly optimistic scenario in mind, it would seem fit to turn our attention to the most widely acclaimed of the director's previous three features, 2000's Peppermint Candy, which remains in the opinion of many one of the pivotal works of the New Korean cinema. Peppermint Candy opens with a small, light colored dot in the upper half of the screen that continually increases in size. Soon, it becomes clear that said shape is the opening of a rail tunnel that we are about to exit in the film's inaugural phantom ride. After this single take opening, Lee includes a title, 'Outdoor Excursion Spring 1999,' before cutting to a middle-aged man lying motionless on the ground. The aforesaid prefatory image, as we will soon discover, becomes a visual motif for the picture, which Lee has structured as a series of scenes or sets of scenes that are arranged in reversal chronological order. Concurrent with this, it will also become evident that the transitional phantom rides are themselves spooled backwards, reinforcing the film's narrative-in-reverse organization.

In this opening passage, the whiskered, disheveled gentleman to whom we are initially introduced, Park Yong-ho (Sol Kyung-gu), rises from the ground and approaches a group of late thirty-somethings who are picnicking on the banks of a river. Park walks into the center of the group, bumping into the puzzled picnickers; however, these bewildered day-trippers soon recognize Park's identity, he was old friend of theirs, and one of the celebrants even says that he wanted to call Park, but no one knew his whereabouts. Following his uncomfortable reintroduction to the group, Park commences singing karaoke with a song featuring the lines "what can I do if you leave me behind" and "I loved you so much." At this point, with only the strangeness of the lead's gestures to guide us, we anticipate that these lines of dialogue might tell us something about his behavior, perhaps that he was long ago estranged (or even abandoned) by the group he now confronts.

After this opening salvo, Park continues with his inexplicable behavior, walking out into the nearby river, and a moment later, climbing onto the top of a rail bridge. After a train passes by on an adjoining track - much to the relief of his acquaintances - a second approaches on the bridge upon which he stands. Thrusting his arms open, Lee waits for the on-coming train, which obliterates the protagonist a moment later.

Immediately prior to this accident, Lee freezes on Park's gesture, relayed in a freeze frame, and then we have the film's second phantom ride image accompanied by a subsequent title reading 'The Camera. Three Days Earlier. Spring 1999.' In this sequence we are introduced to the protagonist's despair in the days before his suicide - he even holds the gun to his head, though as per the film's structure we know he does not pull the trigger. Likewise, through rare a moment where the dialogue is used for exposition, we are made aware that he has a wife that has left him, and in a scene intentionally robbed of its poignancy, we see the lead meet with a former love, from whom he receives a gift whose significance only becomes clear toward the film's conclusion.

As we continue to move backward, Park next introduces the spectator to his wife in the throws of an affair, and thereafter to someone whom Park knew when he used to be a police officer (by this point he has entered the private sector and become a successful businessman). In this passage he rhetorically asks the second male, while they stand side by side in a public restroom, whether "life is beautiful." While this question seems to possess an ironic quality given the scene that we have just witnessed, again Lee invests it with a deeper resonance as his narrative continues its backward trajectory.

Lee's narrative reaches a climax in the film's penultimate passage, 'Military Visit May 1980,' named for a visit from the protagonist's first love Sun-im (Moon So-ri). (Spoiler for the less detail conscious viewer: Sun-im is the woman we are introduced to, on her death bed, three days prior to Park's suicide.) During this scene, coinciding with the declaration of martial law on the Korean Peninsula, Park commits an act that it becomes clear shaped the totality of his future life, leading ultimately to the suicide that opens the film. Similarly, the declaration of martial law was a moment from which contemporary Korean history. In fact, as has been cofirmed by a Korean colleague of mine, all of the key moments in Lee's film correspond to quintessential junctures in the nation's history. The personal and political are consubstantial in Lee's picture. Peppermint Candy is a national history in the form of an individual-centered narrative.

In delaying his revelation of the aforementioned acts, Lee refuses the simple causal reading that would dominate the same narrative spooled in chronological order. Instead, Lee secures a new position for his spectator: as a voyeur privy only to the acts and the immediate clues disclosed in the scene; in Peppermint Candy we see as we always see the unfamiliar, from the outside, without the privilege of knowing the thoughts of another. At the same time, Lee's structure suggests, as the narrative slowly proceeds in reverse, that life was once better for Park, and as we are introduced to Sun-im to a greater and greater degree, that somehow the film's protagonist has lost his opportunity to be happy. Again, the film's reverse narrative does not allow the spectator to develop a false hope; whereas a more conventional narrative would always allow for a possible future happiness in that which has yet to occur, we know that things are going to end badly for Park. Lee rends with certainty and all lack of ambiguity the narrative of a life that was not as it could have been. The past truly cannot be remedied.

This same feeling of a life not consummated pervades Hur Jin-ho's much more conventional Christmas in August (1998), another of the New Korean cinema's key works. Like Peppermint Candy, Christmas in August centers ultimately on a love affair that is not meant to be, in its case due to the terminal disease afflicting the film's male protagonist, Jung-won (Han Suk-kyu). Jung-won operates a photo gallery, where he shortly meets a pretty young woman, Da-rim (Shim Eun-ha), who is at least a decade his junior. She begins to come by more and more often to chat with the perpetually smiling Jung-won, of whom at no point does she know that he is in the final days of his existence. For his part, the unmarried Jung-won - he does have a past love who comes by asking about his health and why he never married; he tells the woman he was waiting for her - suffers in silence, at night, and in a drunken confession to a male friend, discloses his numbered days, though his companion does not seem to believe him immediately.

As Hur's light-hearted, chaste romance progresses, we are at once aware that their nascent relationship cannot work out, even as the film's forward trajectory reserves the possibility for a (conventional) miracle, unlike Peppermint Candy where such a scenario is prevented by the film's reverse structure. Nevertheless, Christmas in August conveys a life that could have been, a possible happiness finally denied to its protagonists. Indeed, Hur crystallizes this theme in one of the film's final images: Jung-won looks at Dar-im in the distance; we see his out-of-focus hand - Hur uses a telephoto lens to compress the distance - touching the section of glass behind which the woman is visible. As such, the glass itself becomes a pressing reminder of the impossible gap that separates the pair - his illness - however close they have become.

Ultimately, if Hur's film lacks the immutability of Peppermint Candy's tragedy, it gains in pathos through our awareness of the circumstances of the romance, in comparison again to Da-rim who does not share our and Jung-won's knowledge of the situation. Indeed, this is a film where everything meaningful can be read in the protagonists' gestures, emotions, and especially in the male lead's withholding of the latter. Christmas in August's power comes from our knowledge of the suffering that Jung-won keeps hidden in his final few days of bliss, behind his grinning mask.

In this regard, Hur's film owes no small debt to the cinema of Japanese master Yasujiro Ozu, whose influence can at times be overstated with regard to contemporary Asian cinema. Here, there can be no mistaking the director's inspiration - though it could just as well have been Hou Hsiao-hsien's early work which that director has long claimed was not inspired by Ozu, though he would later make an homage (Cafe Lumiérè, 2003) to the director - which was always true of Kore-eda Hirokazu's After Life (1998). In fact, like that death-centered narrative, Hur utilizes frontal set-ups that coincide with snap-shots taken in Jung-won's studio. Likewise, Christmas in August compellingly overlaps with a second film from that same year, Olivier Assayas's Late August, Early September (itself a clear homage to Ozu in title if not in subject) in both theme and once more, even in title.

Of course, Peppermint Candy also has a significant correspondence of its own: Christopher Nolan's 2000 Memento. Nolan's film, which in the opinion of this writer Peppermint Candy bests in virtually every regard, including the wonderful lead performance that has been heretofore neglected, uses the structure to convey the protagonist's state of amnesia to the spectator, where again Peppermint Candy uses a similar structure to make one's fate irreversible. Peppermint Candy says something profound about time, namely that it cannot be countered, whereas Memento's time structure smacks of gimmickry, though executing in a highly entertaining and innovative manner.

With the curious overlap between Christmas in August, Peppermint Candy and the aforementioned better-known Western (and Japanese) art house films, the development of the New Korean cinema as a shadow to the established canon begins to emerge. While again the films of Im, Hong, Park and Bong have begun to remedy the neglect of a national cinema whose vitality has long preceded its visibility, it is high time that some of the very best works in this tradition become better known to the Western cineaste. Hopefully Secret Sunshine can accomplish this for Lee. For Hur, wide-spread appreciation may not be as immediate, though any viewer with a DVD player (the region 3 Edko Video DVD for this film will pay in region 1 players) will have the opportunity to see what we have been missing in the neglect of the New Korean cinema - a work of boundless warmth and humanity, the very antidote to the high-key, extreme Korean cinema best known to film-lovers outside Korea. At the very least, Christmas in August and Peppermint Candy confirm the substantial breadth of the New Korean cinema.

Friday, June 01, 2007

The Best in Romantic Comedy: Knocked Up (2007) & Antoine and Antoinette (1947)

Writer-director Judd Apatow's Knocked Up opened Friday to near universal acclaim and the prospect of sizable box office. While I was a big fan of Apatow's largely under-appreciated television work (Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared), I was also a detractor of his previous feature, The 40-Year Old Virgin (2005), which was another well-reviewed box office hit that nonetheless struck me as one-note. With Knocked Up, Apatow exceeds these previous efforts in every respect, creating easily one of the funniest comic features in the past few years. In other words, Knocked Up fulfills the substantial promise of Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared.

As many of my readers are familiar undoubtedly with the premise of Knocked Up, I'll be very brief: Seth Rogan's Ben Stone, an apt name for the out-of-work (except for his development of a porn website) pot-loving illegal alien from Canada - a bogeyman to put the southern border's worst to shame - knocks up beautiful E! on-screen personality Alison Scott (Katherine Heigel) after a night of dancing (Ben may indeed throw the dice too many times, but that's all he's got) and one too many cocktails. Ben has his charms, to be sure, but the idea that she and he would end up together, regardless of the shots consumed, strains credulity.

After learning she's become pregnant following the pair's unprotected one-night stand - Ben just assumes she uses a "dam" or something, which he knows is disgusting - Alison reveals her pregnancy to her mother (Joanna Kerns) who says they'll get rid of it. She even reminds her of a relative who had a "real" baby after terminating a similar pregnancy. By contrast, Ben's father (auteur icon Harold Ramis) refuses to look at the pregnancy as a tragedy, reminding Ben that he's "the best thing that ever happened" to him, which Ben claims depresses him. In fact, Knocked Up may be the most pro-life mainstream Hollywood film in quite awhile - as Ben furtively tells the infant the story of its conception late in the film, he tells the child that failing to use a condom was the best decision he ever made.

This is not to say that Knocked Up is exactly safe for conservatives: beyond the fact of the one-night stand, Apatow's picture largely trades in sexual explicit jokes and stoner humor, with Ben's friends being more or less stereotypes of this latter sort - say That 70's Show with the cast of Freaks and Geeks (a skeevy Jason Segel may be the cringe-inspiring highlight, though its nice to see Martin Starr getting work, sporting a beard that is another of the film's running jokes). Still the film's profanity is no more the point ultimately than is its default pro-life stance. In the end, Knocked Up serves to reassure its twenty-something audiences (as also its protagonists from that same generation) showing them that there is nothing to fear from growing older and starting a family, however unconventional its construction. This is a film that gives its listless male viewers a gentle push toward responsibility (and its career-focused young female spectators the reassurance that having a child isn't life-ending - in fact, it helps Alison's career in Knocked Up), which both Ben and Alison accept at separate junctures of the pregnancy/film. Apatow's vision is unexpectedly generous - and in a way old-fashioned - coming on the heels of The 40 Year-Old Virgin.

Of course, Apatow's style remains televisual in Knocked Up: nearly every scene is constructed on the basis of a shot/reverse-shot editing structure, with the dialogue delivered in excessively shallow compositions of the scenes' actors. Inebriation, both during the original one-night stand and in a subsequent trip to Vegas produce two of the only deviations from this system. Indeed, Knocked Up is basically a film of one-liners, with Rogan and Alison's brother-in-law Pete (Paul Rudd in one of the film's most charismatic performances; his on-screen wife Debbie, Leslie Mann, is another stand-out) delivering many of the film's best lines. Be forewarned, nonetheless, that Apatow's humor combines graphic locker room banter with keen pop culture references; in other words, if you don't know Wild Things or Matisyahu, Apatow's humor might not be to your taste.

More universal in its light humor, and far more remarkable in its filmmaking technique, Jacques Becker's Antoine and Antoinette (1947) first came to attention for its Cannes prize victory sixty years ago, and as such deserves to be celebrated in a year where that same festival recently handed out its sixtieth anniversary prize. Instead, Jean-Pierre Melville's recent smash success (Army of Shadows, 1969) has assured that he will again represent film past during the summer retrospective season - this time with Le Doulos (1962). All Antoine and Antoinette has going for it is an infinite reserve of charm and boundless warmth, of a degree that has been rarely (if ever) achieved on screen. Obviously these are no competition for fashionable cynicism.

Antoine (Roger Pigaut) and Antoinette (Claire Mafféi) are a poor, early twenty-something married couple. He's a typographer and she works in a large department store where she's in charge of the passport photos machine. The exceedingly attractive Antoinette is constantly receiving propositions from the store's patrons and especially from a wealthy, middle age store owner M. Roland (Noël Roquevert). He continually attempts to lure her with the promise of riches her husband does not have the means to provide - in fact, it seems as though he has succeeded in doing this with another of his female employees. Nevertheless, Becker leaves us no doubt that the couple is very much in love, whatever their material wealth.

Fates change, however, with the discovery of a winning lottery ticket in one of Antoinette's volumes. The pair plot out what they'll do with their jackpot winnings of more than 800,000 francs - a new dress for her, a couple of new suits for him, a motorcycle with a sidecar (far better than his bicycle with the wrecked tire). Going to bed, the ticket is placed in a secure position as Antoine bides his time until he can collect their life-changing winnings. He is finally going to be able to give his beautiful young bride the life she deserves.

Suffice it to say that Antoine and Antoinette complicates their collection of winnings, though the plot machinations are not those we initially expect. In so doing, Becker reveals the core of pathos that defines his narrative: Antoine is not the sort of man (without revealing too much of the Le Million-inspired plot, we are led to believe he'll never be the sort of man) who can give his wife wealth. How then can she be happy with him, when her beauty assures that countless men could and would do exactly that? This again is the essence of Becker's film; Antoine and Antoinette discloses an essential young male anxiety.

At the same time, in the object noted above, Antoine and Antoinette also offers a fantastic solution to the basic problem highlighted. So too is Knocked Up a projection of male fantasy: a listless, twenty-something impregnates a beautiful E! news anchor - much to Apatow's credit the protagonist does not know this before hand - with whom he would have no chance in any known universe. Okay, getting a girl 'knocked up' is shall we say not exactly a male fantasy, but being with a girl like Katherine Heigel most certainly is, unemployed Canadian pothead or not. Simultaneously, Apatow offers a glimpse of twenty-something anxiety commensurate with the new century: here, of getting older, of taking a job, and most importantly, of starting a family. Again, Knocked Up reassures us that things will work out. This is his generosity.

Becker's finds his in the form of film magic Antoine and Antoinette employs: here, the intervention occurs in the improbable discovery of the ticket. Antoine and Antoinette does not deny the currency of the anxiety, even when Becker gives us every sense that Antoinette will stay with Antoine regardless. We just really want everything to work out for both of them, and for there to be no reason for Antoinette in particular to regret being with Antoine. Actually, the same hope that they'll work it out permeates Knocked Up, though Alison does have a good deal more cause to choose not to be with Ben; in this respect, Apatow and Ben must work some magic of their own - cleaning his character up, getting him a job, namely in securing the lead some theretofore absent responsibility.

Of course, the magic of Antoine and Antoinette, to return to the earlier film, is not confined to the film's plot, but instead infuses the picture's immediate post-war settings (shot in longer duration takes that showcase the Parisian locations, both public and domestic) and the director's whimsical technique, which feature devices such as the iris underscoring the film's debt to early cinema and particularly to René Clair. Then again, Antoine and Antoinette provides one of the most definitive anticipations of the nouvelle vague that would transform international art cinema a dozen years later. This is filmmaking at its freest - the director's subsequent Rendez-vous de juillet (1949) provides an even more explicit link to the free-forms of jazz that Antoine and Antoinette seems to mimic on occasion. Antoine and Antoinette remains one of the nearly forgotten treasures of the international cinema, so deserving of remembrance in this its sixtieth anniversary.

In the end, like Knocked Up, Becker's film is about joy: whereas the former locates it in children, commemorated over the film's heart-warming closing credits, Antoine and Antoinette finds this same quality writ in its protagonists' situations - once again, of being young and in love. The precariousness of joy is to be defended at all costs, be it in the rearing of children or in the magical intervention of film itself.