Tuesday, July 31, 2007

In Memory of Michelangelo Antonioni (1912-2007)

Italian film director Michelangelo Antonioni, who passed away at his home yesterday at the age of 94, was once the most fashionable of European directors: notoriously, the director's 1960 masterpiece L'Avventura, the ultimate succès de scandale, was greeted with catcalls at its Cannes premiere, before being awarded a Special Jury Prize that stipulated its invention of a new film language. Two years later, L'Avventura finished number two in the second ever Sight and Sound poll of the "ten best films of all-time," placing behind only Citizen Kane (1941).

Antonioni directed his first feature, the very good Chronicle of a Love Affair (1950), at the tail end of neorealismo's salad days, procuring an aesthetic that featured empty compositions and circling long takes - that is, an aesthetic that immediately enunciated its distance from Rossellini (to whom he nonetheless owed more than a passing debt - Antonioni-ennui, evident in his very best works of the next decade, was the direct descendant of Rossellini's Europa '51 [1952] and especially Voyage in Italy [1953]) and De Sica. Following such an auspicious debut, Antonioni made two of the better woman's pictures of the decade, A Lady Without Camelias (1953) and the underrated Le Amiche (1955). In 1957, Antonioni shifted gears somewhat with his Il Grido, which more than any of his previous works anticipated his great films of the early 1960s.

In 1960, Antonioni made the first of four consecutive films with muse Monica Vitti, L'Avventura, which has come to exemplify a certain strain European modernist filmmaking, distinguished by its use of long shot/long takes, empty frames and the overarching subject of modern alienation. It is one of the singularly defining films of its era. A year later, Antonioni made La Notte (1961), a fine effort that all-the-same may be the director's weakest of the period. However, the next year, Antonioni would direct his finest film, L'Eclisse (1962), which along with Rossellini's Paisan (1946) rates as the most profoundly Italian work that this writer knows - that is, L'Eclisse (aka The Eclipse) highlights the act of living with and among works of art in a manner that I would argue is both unique to an experience of the director's homeland and also rare in works of this national cinema. Likewise, L'Eclisse charts the relationship of sex and money as few films have, to say nothing of the film's concluding montage that further defines the new language evident in L'Avventura. L'Eclisse is a work of extraordinary formal rigor and invention.

In 1964, Antonioni made his first color feature, the exceptional The Red Desert, with a now red-headed Vitti. Two years later, Antonioni again defined the zeitgeist with his English language world-conquering Blow-up (1966), which may at once be the director's most overrated film and nevertheless a very fine work indeed. Antonioni, however, would not be so lauded for his next production, Zabriskie Point, which remains perhaps the one film maudit in his body of work, though in again capturing the spirit of its era, the late 1960s counterculture in its case, it is in many respects just as successful as Blow-up. The director's next fiction feature, 1975's The Passenger, starring Jack Nicholson, experienced a major reversal in its reputation following its theatrical re-release a couple of years ago - that is, it is now one of the director's acknowledged classics. This essential entry into Antonioni's corpus features one of the director's most inspired moments: the penultimate tracking shot that departs from the living protagonist, tracks through window bars, circles the courtyard and then returns to the same gentleman shot dead in his bed. A new language indeed.

While Antonioni would not attain such a height again in his later corpus, Identification of a Woman (1982) remains an interesting late instantiation of the master's personal universe, and Beyond the Clouds (1995) is a surprisingly buoyant and successful experiment co-directed by Wim Wenders. The director's most recent effort, a segment for the omnibus Eros (2004), has been unfairly vilified given its coherence to the director's preceding body of the work. Even to the end Antonioni was very much his own artist.

For me, Antonioni was one of the most important figures in my own growth as a cineaste. I first encountered the director as a name in the appendix of Roger Ebert's Great Movies volume, where the magical name L'Avventura (once again) was once considered the second best movie of all time. I tracked it down soon after in a suburban Minneapolis video store and would find myself completely mystified after a first viewing. After a second screening, not long after, I would be convinced that it was one of the very greatest films of all-time, a position from which I haven't strayed - that far - in the eight or nine years since.

In fact, I would publicly screen L'Avventura during my junior undergraduate year at Hillsdale College, where it was received better than almost anything else I showed that year. (I remember getting three times the number of spectators for my video tape screening than did the University of Michigan for their 35mm showing, where I was also in attendance. At that time Antonioni was nowhere near as fashionable as he is now; funny how quickly these things change.) For some reason, as difficult as it was, Antonioni still spoke to twenty year-olds at the end of last century as it had to viewers forty years before. For me, Antonioni will always be indispensable to a certain, exceedingly formative time in my life. And less subjectively, he remains one of the very best Italian directors of that cinema's finest moment.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Uncovering the Author: Michael Curtiz's Angels with Dirty Faces (1938)

"Perhaps more than any other director, Curtiz reflected the strengths and weaknesses of the studio system in Hollywood... The director's one enduring masterpiece is, of course, Casablanca, the happiest of happy accidents, and the most decisive exception to the auteur theory."

-Andrew Sarris, The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968

As with so many of his entries in The American Cinema, Andrew Sarris' account of Michael Curtiz's oeuvre has become the received wisdom among his auteurist followers, myself included. For Sarris, the Vasari of the classical Hollywood cinema, the "Lightly Likable" Curtiz - the author's classification for "talented but uneven directors with the saving grace of unpretentiousness" - was among "the most amiable of Warner's technicians faithfully [serving] the studio's contract players." A quick survey of his best-known, mid-career works would seem to reflect Sarris' assessment: whether it is his work with Errol Flynn in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938, co-directed by William Keighley); with Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca (1942); or with Joan Crawford in her Academy Award-winning Mildred Pierce (1945) performance, in each we seem to see the director's personality superseded by that of his stars. (One might add Yankee Doodle Dandy [1942] as decisive evidence to this end, as Sarris has, though I cannot corroborate the point having never seen this acknowledged "classic," in spite of my increasing fondness for its star, Mr. James Cagney.)

Angels with Dirty Faces (1938), starring Cagney, Pat O' Brien and Bogart, is another film in this tradition, coupling Curtiz's own celebrated direction of actors with one of the studio's "steady output of crime dramas and gangster films with James Cagney," around which the "Warner's style in the 1930s... coalesced" (Thomas Schatz, The Oxford History of World Cinema, 227). In other words, Angels with Dirty Faces is the Warner's studio picture par excellence, even if it represents a late entry into the gangster film cycle that reached its peak in the early 1930s (as for instance in William A. Wellman's superlative Cagney vehicle Public Enemy [1931] or Howard Hawks' superior, Caddo Company-produced Scarface [1932], which rates as one of the decade's finest films in any genre).

So what then is there to say about Angels with Dirty Faces apart from its easy assignment among Warner's products of the time? Is its significance, assuming perhaps wrongly that there is one, its ordinariness, or more charitably its representative facility? Curtiz's film commences with a crane shot, opening on a newspaper headline that places the film's start in 1920, before it begins to move across a crowded tenement, which IMDb identifies as Hell's Kitchen (though it might have just as easily been the Lower East Side, given its similarity to the urban landscapes of George Bellows). In this circling, opening camera movement, the set itself is very much the point, as is the narrative world that it is seeking to represent. Curtiz's world is familiar, perhaps as recognizable as his Casablanca, though it is every bit as teeming with artifice as does his better-known, subsequent pic.

After a single cut, we are introduced to a pair of rather unkempt young men who harass a group of girls as they cross below their fire escape platform. Suffice it to say that the former pair will grow into Cagney and O' Brien, the first of whom becomes a gangster after moving into and out of a series of reform homes throughout his adolescence, and the latter later emerges as a Catholic priest, who reunites with his childhood chum after fifteen years (making Angels with Dirty Faces roughly contemporary by the end of the film).

While various other plot machinations introduce Bogart as Cagney's underworld attorney, George Bancroft as Cagney and Bogart's co-conspirator and Ann Sheridan as Cagney's love interest - not surprisingly she was one of the aforementioned victims of harassment - the core of Curtiz's narrative remains centered around Cagney and O' Brien, and particularly their struggle for the souls of "The Dead End Kids," not that is that Cagney actively endeavours to corrupt the young men; in fact, he uses his influence with the young would-be hoods to get them into O' Brien's gym for one of his buddy priest's basketball games. Ensuing is an extraordinarily long sequence in which we see the young men slowly - and admittedly, unevenly - purged of their violence during a very rough game of round ball, of which mobster Cagney ultimately officiates. Unlike in the NBA of our own time, however, Cagney fairly records their offenses, leading the young men to plead for a re-match.

In truth, Cagney's own road to redemption is itself every bit as uneven, though it is worth noting that his detour through the underworld commences after Bogart and Bancroft's unsuccessful assassination attempt on the film's first lead. In the end, (partial spoiler coming, though if it is at all a surprise, you are probably not terribly familiar with Hollywood filmmaking of the period) Cagney is redeemed, though it takes a final act immediately prior to his execution to secure this redemption. As such, Curtiz externalizes his lead's salvation, removing it from the realm of the spiritual and translating it into a recognizably cinematic form: that of action. Likewise, Angels with Dirty Faces reaffirms its social message at this same juncture, which is itself cardinal to Curtiz's narrative where his priest initiates a reform movement on his own. Ultimately, Cagney is compelled to act for the betterment of society, rather than persisting in his own self-interest, which we might say is the same moral of Casablanca. However, unlike the later film, Cagney's good work is quickly followed by the execution that is dictated by his crimes.

Even so, it is perhaps less in the director's clearly discernible message than in the visual style that Angels with Dirty Faces shares with Casablanca, where Curtiz's imprint is most evident (importantly, the two pictures share neither the same screenwriters nor the same directors of photography; Curtiz, Bogart and composer Max Steiner are the most conspicuous constants). In the earlier, as in the later film, Curtiz again combines exotic (at least for the middle class, American viewer), detailed sets with sparer backdrops that alternately highlight the film's studio genesis. Of course, the occurrence of the latter is not an intrusion of Brechtian theatrics but rather proof that sometimes the set's the point of the mise-en-scène and sometimes its not.

A more intentioned element of the director's technique is the film's mobile camera work, which follows Cagney and company through art director Robert M. Haas' pregnant slums, dank hideouts and glittering night spots. Curtiz and cinematographer Sal Polito's compositions achieve a dynamism both through this mobility and also in their selection of striking angles, and in particular, overheads, as when we see Cagney spying (from an upper floor) on the police who have infiltrated his place of residence. In this regard it is possible to see the immediate, Germanic visual tradition that Gregg Toland perfected in the subsequent years - most spectacularly of course in Orson Welles' Citizen Kane (1941) - though without the benefits of the famed lenser's deep focus photography. Distinctly, Curtiz and Polito combine sharply focused middle grounds with either fore or backgrounds that do not share its resolution (a telling instance occurs where we see one of the 'Dead End Kids' playing pool with an out-of-focus solid closest to the camera). Significantly, this same pre-Toland cinematography dominates in Casablanca as well, which, for whatever its contemporary political resonance, looks very much like a product of the previous decade. As with the latter film, likewise, Curtiz and Polito show a predilection for filming spaces filled with smoke or gas, as for instance in the conventional climactic shootout, which seems to prefigure Casablanca's indelible final image.

Still, these are dynamic works, not only for Curtiz's mobile camera and selection of baroque angles, but particularly for his editing technique that pushes forward his brisk narratives. Uniquely striking are Curtiz and editor Owen Marks' montage sequences covering extended durations, as with a series of documents that comprise Cagney's adolescent and adult criminal record early in the film or the the Dead End Kids' spectatorship of his trial during the film's culminating act. In sequences likes these, Curtiz and Marks utilize a series of stylized wipes introducing an additional level of dynamism to Angels with Dirty Faces. In fact, it is Curtiz's faculty for storytelling, and more accurately, for creating works of entertainment that may be the most conspicuous sign of his artistry: if The Adventures of Robin Hood, Angels with Dirty Faces, Casablanca and Mildred Pierce share anything, it is that they are foremost first-class entertainments. And as it is today, to be entertaining is no minor accomplishment, just as being 'Lightly Likable' is no small success.

Perhaps then Sarris' framework is not quite as foreign to Curtiz's aesthetic as it may at first appear. Regardless, auteurism, it is important to remember, is first a system of classification. As a theory, it exists because it allows us to conceptualize, catalog, and finally choose between and among larger bodies of works. An exception here and there doesn't doom the theory - which is fundamentally pragmatic - especially that is when it is no exception at all. In other words, Sarris may have spoken too soon.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Scandinavians in Minnesota: Sweet Land & A Mirror of Nature: Nordic Landscape Painting

Ali Selim's Sweet Land, adapted by Selim and Will Weaver from the latter's short story "A Gravestone Made of Wheat," distinguished itself as a word-of-mouth favorite, running for a remarkable 37 consecutive weeks on 300 screens, though the independently-financed film brought in a mere $1.7 million during its exceptional run. Never mind its popular and even critical success - which extended to two Independent Spirit Awards, including best actress for Elizabeth Reaser - Sweet Land may well be one of the worst high-profile independent productions of the past few years. Whether publicly taking this position means that I have forfeited my Minnesotan birthright (as the descendant of Swedish and Norwegian immigrants) remains to be seen.

Sweet Land opens with a framing device (situated in the present) that challenges the decision of a middle-aged man to sell his grandparent's family farm - upon the death of his grandmother - which is located on the tall grass prairies of western Minnesota. From here, we flash back to the 1960s for a second framing segment, wherein the same grandchild mourns the death of his Norwegian grandfather along with his aged grandmother and family friend Frandsen. Having thus described the passing of each, we finally arrive in the immediate aftermath of World War I. Here, a pair of beautiful German mail-order brides (including the aforementioned Reaser as Inge, who is destined to become the family matriarch) reach their Upper Midwest destination. Presently, we are also introduced fleetingly to a forward-thinking socialist promoting universal suffrage, and to the pervasive anti-German sentiment that otherwise defines the prairie community.

This intolerance is greatest, according to the convention that Selim reflexively adopts, in the community Lutheran church, even though Frandsen (Alan Cumming) cheekily mentions that Martin Luther was a German. (For whatever reason, I was reminded of a line in the British Office where David Brent defends pal Finchy's alleged misogyny: "how can I hate women, when my mother is a woman?" Salim and Weaver's screenplay showcases the same intellect throughout as does Brent's best bloke.) However, when faced with the loss of Frandsen's family farm through its foreclosure by the local bank - one thing we are repeatedly reminded of is Selim and Weaver's axiom that "banks and farming don't mix"; whether or not it is possible that the pair know so little about the economics of farming remains to be seen, though their complete lack of understanding of a how a farm is operated (according to my hobby-farmer father and Swede Jay) is manifest elsewhere and indeed suggests that they don't know the first thing about either - the intolerant Lutherans band together to save the aforesaid farm, following the lead of patriarch Olaf (Tim Guinee). Thus, through this social action, the rural Christians are redeemed, as is Inge in their view - that is, as she works for the benefit of the collective.

Ultimately, Sweet Land rates as the most openly socialist American indie in quite some time (along with Half Nelson perhaps) beyond its status as avowedly anti-Christian, so long that is as it doesn't serve the film's social agenda. Indeed, it is compelling to read Sweet Land as a modern American variation on Aleksandr Dovzehnko's sublime tractor epic Earth (1930). However, rather than securing a transcendence through its depictions of the landscape - that in the case of Earth challenge its socialist program - Salim establishes the film's generational component through its adoption of a pair of framing flashbacks. In other words, whereas Dovzhenko adopts a visual poetics worthy of Mizoguchi, Salim favors a Spielbergian manipulation of sentiment that has made Sweet Land more the heir to Saving Private Ryan (1998) than to the best examples of the Soviet cinema. In the tradition of Spielberg, Sweet Land is filmmaking with the heaviest of hands.

Though ostensibly serving rhetorical programs of their own, the works on display in the Minneapolis Institute of Arts' A Mirror of Nature: Nordic Landscape Painting 1840-1910 lack the insufferable didacticism of Salim's film. Offering instead the beauty and majesty of nature as source for national pride - hence the exhibition's title - A Mirror of Nature showcases a tradition of landscape painting that is mostly unknown outside of its native Scandinavia. Perhaps the best comparison I can make for my film literate readers is that Scandinavian landscape painting compares to South Korean cinema: while it is influenced by a number of its surrounding national traditions that are well known to the West, the rich tradition of Scandinavian landscape painting, like Korean cinema, remains the purview largely of its national audience and the occasional expert. In each case, a wider audience is well deserved.

Among those works that best exemplify the eponymous aims of the exhibition are a series of works that collectively amount to what might be best described as a tradition of the Norwegian sublime, following closely in the manner of Caspar David Friedrich. Customarily, these works represent a figure or set figures immersed with an enormous, awe-inducing nature. While this effect possesses religious connotations in Friedrich - let alone in progenitors of the American sublime such as in the work Frederick Church - again the exhibition curators have emphasized its nationalistic meaning in works by Norwegians Johan Christian Dahl, Thomas Fearnley and Peder Balke (pictured above). That this characteristic would appear particularly prominent in works by Norwegian artists follows from that nation's tenuous existence during the period (in a union with Sweden under the control of the latter rival state; Norway did not attain full independence until 1905).

If there is a nation that stands out among the five represented (Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden) it is Norway, not only for its indigenous tradition of the sublime, but also for a set of later works that emphasize a Parisian influence, be it the works of the Scandinavia's best-known painter Edvard Munch, or Harald Sohlberg's art nouveau Flower Meadow in the North (1905, pictured above).

Apart from the Norwegians, perhaps the most interesting national body of work on display is that of the Finnish, and particularly the work Akseli Gallen-Kallela. While Mirror of Nature's Finnish painters otherwise highlight a singular tradition of primitivist folk art, Gallen-Kallela's art may be among the most sophisticated in the exhibition. For instance, in Lake Keitele (1905, pictured above), the painter combines the placid, mirror-like surfaces of the lake with large washes of gray that emphasize the formal properties of the medium. In a second composition, Waterfall of Mantykoski (1892-4), Gallen-Kallela superimposes five vertical bars over the image of a waterfall, thus figuring the harp whose sonority compares to that of the cascade.

Other than the corpuses of Gallen-Kallela and certain of his countrymen, perhaps the most peculiar included in A Mirror of Nature is that of Sweden's Prince Eugen, which is noteworthly less for any representational ticks, than it is for the uncomplicated accomplishment of its royal creator. As the exhibition label states, "The Cloud [1896, pictured above] may at first sight seem to symbolize an ideal summer's day, but its mood is in fact more complex, marked by an undefined tension and a sense of a presence beyond what we are able to see." Along with Carl Larsson (his Open-Air Painter, 1886, is pictured at the beginning of this review), Price Eugen is the finest Swedish painter included in the exhibition and one of a number of revelations awaiting its Minneapolis patrons.

A Mirror of Nature: Nordic Landscape Painting 1840-1910 runs now through September 2 at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. Following its lone North American venue, A Mirror of Nature will continue its tour of Scandinavia's capital cities. Sweet Land received its DVD release earlier this month.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

New Film: Lady Chatterley

Pascale Ferran's Lady Chatterley may well have established a new standard in screen Romanticism, and at least indicates the currency of anti-Enlightenment thinking in our own time, as "John Thomas and Lady Jane" did within D. H. Lawrence's. Indeed, Ferran's film suggests the re-occurrence of this system of thinking not only in the aftermath of the First World War - in which Lady Chatterley's narrative is situated - but also in the 1960s (whose floral and free-love iconography are present) and implicitly again, in our own war-defined present. Perhaps the question becomes whether we have experienced any substantive change since the Second World War, Hiroshima and the Holocaust - at least within the Paris-New York axis - though that may be too much to hang on Ferran.

Rather, in spite of a certain historicity that is most evident in the above symbolic forms and even further in a passage adopting the style of home movies (where the medium's more recent specificity is highlighted - otherwise, with the help a minimal amount of imagination, Lady Chatterley's style almost seems commensurate with its historical situation), Lady Chatterley remains a relatively pure instantiation of the much earlier ethos. Throughout, Ferran emphasizes the narrative's rural setting, figuring both her heroine within the natural landscapes, in the vicinity of the gamekeeper's - her lover's - cabin, and commonly, elements of the environment itself isolated in close-up. Moreover, when finally the eponymous Lady Chatterley (César winning best actress Marina Hands) and the aforementioned Parkin (Jean-Louis Coulloc'h) finally do couple, Ferran manages to impute an incongruity to the garments they wear, in the face of the uncultivated nature. Of course, the pair will soon lose their apparel altogether, culminating in an ism-defining nude chase through an overgrown wood.

In short, Ferran's narrative imitates the conventional return to an animal nature from a constrictive civilization that was de rigueur within Romanticism. Exemplifying the scientific rationalism against Lady Chatterley is positioned, beyond the context of the recently-concluded Great War, is Lady Chatterley's husband Clifford (Hippolyte Girardot), who is not only wheelchair bound but further impotent as a consequence of the combat. In a particularly telling sequence, Clifford, in a new, motor-powered chair, attempts to climb a grassy hill with the assistance of neither his wife nor of the close-by gamekeeper. Unable to make it up the incline, he is assisted by the pair. In this way, not only his sexual inadequacy figured, but, following closely on the heels of a conversation with his wife when the latter advocates socialism, the powerless of the ruling class without the gamekeepers' and more directly, the soot-footed miners who occasionally appear in Ferran's narrative. To put it another way, Lady Chatterley showcases the congruence of left-wing politics and the Romanticism that defines the narrative. Undoubtedly, the critical enthusiasm for Ferran's film, both in France and most recently in New York, is a by-product of this seductive, politically-correct convergence - and again perhaps further confirmation of Romanticism's contemporary salience.

Still, speaking of the narrative, Lady Chatterley is most clearly a work of erotic cinema, though an instantiation with implications for the politics of the personal. During the first act of coitus, Ferran tightly frames her female heroine in close-up, registering her largely intractable expression throughout the act. In this way, Ferran maintains a system of identification that largely sutures Lady Chatterley's perspective by combining frontal framing and inserts of her visual point-of-view, or, as in an opening conversation recounting the horrors of World War I, her mindset via auditory means. At the same time, Ferran does not limit the viewer to the lead's psychology, but figures that of Parkin and those who share the Lady's estate.

Nonetheless, Lady Chatterley is dominated by long shot/long takes, lit by sensitively rendered natural light, which positions Ferran's film as the inheritor to a naturalist tradition in post-nouvelle vague French color cinematography that is perhaps best exemplified by the cinema of Claude Sautet (Nelly & Monsieur Arnaud, 1995) and André Téchiné (Wild Reeds, 1994). Perhaps the film's general suitability to its period follows from that era's proximity to the late 19th century visual tradition that Ferran's camera simulates. Similarly, Lady Chatterley shares in the slower pacing that is characteristic of many films in that tradition - often for the better - though in its case the value of this is perhaps a little less certain with a 168 minute running time that feels not a minute shorter.

Monday, July 09, 2007

New Animation: Ratatouille (co-written with Lisa K. Broad)

Writer-director Brad Bird's Ratatouille opens with a talking head from food critic Anton Ego, in which the Peter O'Toole-voiced pundit disputes legendary TV food personality Gusteau's (Brad Garrett) claim that everyone can cook. Enter the film's protagonist rat Remy (Patton Oswalt), an admirer of human beings - contrary to his father's wisdom - and their ability to not only survive but also to "experience and create," as well as the possessor of a very un-rodent like refined palette. With the latter acumen and the company of the hovering, transparent ghost of the late Gusteau, Remy endeavors to prove his maestro's point, first in his furtive visits to widow's farm house, and subsequently in the kitchen of Gusteau's eponymous Parisian eatery. (Each offers a similarly disgusting visual of a space besieged by the Remy and his kin.)

Once in the kitchen of Gusteau's, the suddenly silent rodent forges a puppetmaster-marionette relationship with gangly new hire Linguini (voiced by Lou Romano), himself completely helpless in the kitchen. Here, Remy fulfills the role of manipulator, thus securing an allegorical meanining in their relationship that is as pertinent to animated cinema than it is to its conventional photography-based format. Similarly, the licensing of Gusteau's image for microwavable burritos and bagel bites figures Bird's own creative product over and above the mass-produced items (animated and otherwise) from which Ratatouille is distingusihed.

Of course, the fact that Ratatouille lacks a human hand in its actualization potentially problematizes its anti-assembly line ethos. To this point, Bird's insistence that anyone can create - which is subsequently highlighted in a second speech by Ego where he notes that he saw something completely new in the kitchen - is itself a defense of the creative work accomplished in its this piece of computer-based animation. In Ratatouille we have a creator who is not human, but who has nonetheless created a work of a superlative aesthetic character that is simultaneously (and against expectations perhaps) warm. The true measure of computer-based animation is not simply its graphic successes, but moreover its status as a truly human art.

If therefore it seems as though Bird has made a bold claim for his own creation, fortunately for the director his filmmaking talents are more than equal to the task described in the film's rhetoric. Indeed, the director of the fine The Iron Giant (1999) and the extraordinary The Incredibles (2004), to date the finest work of American animation thus far this decade (in the opinion of Anderson), has again succeeded in creating a work of admirable visual narration. As with the latter in particular, Bird again adopts a facsimile of his protagonists' point-of-view, viscerally following his minute, fleet-footed hero as he races in and out of the tight spaces for which Bird's medium seems particularly well-suited. However, it is less his action direction capabilities (as advanced as they may be) then his attention to the details of his subjects: to the rats wet hair - this is the film where Pixar has finally overcome its textural limitations, achieving an unforeseen lightness; to the plating of an updated variation on the film's epnoymous dish that truly underscore Bird's artistry. Surely, Ratatouille is a work of total art. It is the rare piece of animation that is not intended primarily to sell toys.

Then again, Ratatouille is equally a work of premiere entertainment. In fact, when Ego receives the aforementioned plate, an old favorite transporting him back to the time of his childhood and memories of his mother, Ego drops his notebook and simply savors the dish before him. If Bird is addressing critics directly, he suggests that ultimate justification of Ratatouille like the eponymous plate on the dish, is enjoyment. The first rule is that the food tastes good, and that popular cinema be entertaining. With this baseline necessity, the aesthetic elaborations of each may be made.

As with the director's ode to human excellence The Incredibles, there may be no American filmmaker today as devoted to human greatness as is Bird. The irony, of course, is that Bird remains likewise the leading artist in the cinema's least human incarnation.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

In Memory of Edward Yang (1947-2007)

Courtesy of GreenCine Daily, Taiwanese director Edward Yang passed away earlier today at age 59. Best known in the U.S. for his 2000 masterpiece, Yi Yi, which is this writer's choice for the best film made thus far this decade, Yang directed only seven features and an eighth segment for a portmanteau feature over his three decade career. Yang was born on November 6, 1947 in Shanghai. After moving to Taiwan shortly after the 1949 revolution on the mainland, Yang and his family (like fellow master filmmaker Hou Hsiao-hsien) moved to Taiwan. Yang would later spend time in the United States, where he studied electrical engineering and thereafter filmmaking at USC (where he dropped out), before returning to his adopted homeland.

Having returned to Taiwan, Yang, along with Hou, spearheaded the "Taiwanese New Wave," which yielded a number of the finest films made over the course of the past twenty-five years. After contributing to In Our Time (1982), Yang released the seminal That Day, On the Beach (1983) a year later. However, it was with the director's 1985 Taipei Story, starring Hou himself, that Yang was established as one of the greatest directors of the late twentieth century. In Taipei Story, one of the three or four best films of the 1980s, Yang asserted his place as the contemporary heir to the 1960s cinema of alienation, introducing a formal rigor (one might be tempted even to see his engineering training as a formative influence on his technical precision) that has elevated Yang among his international art cinema colleagues.

After 1986's The Terrorizer, a strong film by any measure, except for perhaps against the films that preceded and followed it in the Yang's oeuvre, the director's next film was A Brighter Summer Day, which was in the opinion of many (myself included) the director's best, and, not to sound like a broken record, one of the very best films of its or any decade. As it happens, I was fortunate enough to see A Brighter Summer Day during my undergraduate years - spring of 2001 - though it did take something of heroic effort to attend the film: it screened one night only in Chicago, which at the time was three-and-a-half hours away from home. Knowing that it might be my only chance to see the picture (having discovered it through Jonathan Rosenbaum) I drove the seven hours round-trip on a school night to see Yang's sublime masterpiece. Suffice it to say that it remains one of my most precious film-going experiences.

Following a pair of comedies in the mid-90's, A Confucian Confusion (1994) and Mahjong (1996), the director made the third supreme masterpiece of his career, Yi Yi. To summarize, quoting myself from an earlier post,
'Yi Yi contains more than virtually any other film ever made. What is meant by [this] is not excess, but rather the full scope of existence: comedy and tragedy, happiness and sadness, feeling and empathy, the physical and the metaphysical, art and life. Indeed, Yi Yi represents nothing more than it does a prayer, offered on the part of its maker for its many characters who continue to make the same mistakes in their lives, generation after generation. After all, the literal translation of the title is 'One One,' intimating precisely this sort of repetition, which is likewise picked up in the names of the younger generation's protagonists, Ting Ting and Yang Yang. The latter, a clear stand-in for the director, becomes a photographer in order that he might show people the half of life that they do not normally see: in this case, the backs of their heads. His engagement is thus art, as his older sister, who repeats the same romantic mistakes as her father, chooses to speak to her comatose grandmother, who thusly becomes a stand in for god. At one point she even breaks from her coma (her silence) to comfort the young girl, even if it remains unclear as to whether this represents a literal occurrence. Either way, Yang's is a film that intentionally confronts as much of life as possible, offering open conclusions to the eternal questions it raises.'
Surely few filmmakers have ever made films that approach Yang's in terms both of their formal richness and in their depth of insight. Though film lovers everywhere should mourn the fact that we will never get the chance to see a new masterpiece by Yang - though for many, myself included, the difficulty in securing some of the above titles will mean that the joys of his work are still to come - the corpus he has left is one one of greatest we have ever been blessed with. Edward Yang will be greatly missed.