Sunday, March 16, 2008

Francisca & Manoel de Oliveira's Masterpiece of Theatrical Modernism

Manoel de Oliveira's Francisca (1981), from the director's adaptation of Agustina Bessa-Luís's 1979 novel Fanny Owen, represents one of the most complete expressions of the filmmaker's eight decade career. Whether, as is claimed for the film, that it showcases the director's mature style for the first time, Francisca regardless presents Oliveira's "open air" theatrical aesthetic at its most fully realized, and provides a template for the filmmaker's greatest accomplishments of his strongest phase (No, or the Vainglory of Command [1990] and Abraham's Valley [1993] come to mind, as well as the very similar 1999 The Letter). Francisca is that proverbial work where its maker's universe is fully present and transparent.

Of course, Olivera's universe is singular for its absence of narrative universes, which is to say its lack of diegetic worlds. Following a letter recounted in voice-over and the concurrent film credits, Oliveira frames the first of the picture's male protagonists staring directly into the camera as an Oporto costume ball proceeds behind. With the lead turning around, the party's revelers approach the camera gesturing as they cross before it. This strategy of approximate direct address, where the film's figures look toward, into or even through the camera recurs throughout Francisca, particularly in two-shot framings of characters blocked immediately before the apparatus in dialogue.

In these conversations, the figures repeatedly reject eye contact with each other, often again looking directly into the camera. At times, this strategy is somewhat more naturalized, as when the persons stand one in front of the other looking in the same direction - not that it is so accurate to call such a figural organization "natural" - or more commonly, and even less naturally, when they sit side by side staring straight ahead or across each other's gaze.

As a formal strategy, Oliveira's insistently frontal framing and his dependence upon un-met glances reduces the sense that the spectator is looking onto a world that exists in its own right, into a diegetic or story world. Rather, Oliveira's art comes into being purely in front of the camera, as the fragments of plot that are told in the voiced-over letters, frequent intertitles and in the illustrated tableau framings that construe the narrative. The use of the term "illustration" to refer to these sequences is used very specifically to emphasize the lack of mimetic effect; what we have here, as in so much of his subsequent work - including his 1988 filmed opera, The Cannibals, and his opus to Portuguese military defeats, No, or the Vainglory of Command - is a telling rather than a showing, where the elimination of a cogent fictional world reaffirms the primacy of the narrative act.

This emphasis may also explain the film's literary subject to the extent that one of the piece's three leads, Camilo (Mário Barroso; modeled on a second Portuguese writer of the same name), is not only an author by vocation, but in fact delivers a key, life and narrative-shifting letter whose provenance remains unclear - it may even be his product - repeatedly, prophetically warns the eponymous female protagonist (Teresa Menezes) that her lover José Augusto (Diogo Dória) will kill her, and later recites a second character's monologue verbatim, indicating his possible agency in the generation of Francisca's narrative. In other words, he seems to act both as a facilitator for the narrative and also possesses an awareness of the picture's narrative that exceeds his spatio-temporal situation. Camilo, is in short, one of the artist's self-portraits in his own work (cf. his Bovary in Abraham's Valley, for instance).

Also like Abraham's Valley, which along with Francisca represents the director's other career peak, Oliveira's picture seeks to convey the "chaotic state of society," in this case explicitly in the supremely "egoistic" figure of José Augusto. Likewise, Francisca (once more in line with the director's 1993 masterpiece, among other works) similarly imagines its medium as the synthesis of a dramatic arts tradition that includes theatre, opera and the novel rather than as an ontologically distinct medium. Francisca represents an art that does not attempt to pass itself off as life - it is by no means "pure cinema" - but rather as a latter-day instantiation of Europe's high and low art traditions alike. Francisca expressly shares in the artifice of its extra-cinematic sources.

In the final analysis, Oliveira's work establishes the endpoint of a theatrical modernism, a third modernism that is neither chiefly literary in its origins (Antonioni-ennui) nor derivative of modernism in the visual arts (Brakhage, et al.), but instead follows a Brechtian formula that operates to sever any connection to dominate cinema. (Among other films, Jacques Rivette's late 1960s/early 1970s corpus also belongs to this tradition. In fact, with respect to Oliveira's film, its emphasis on cruelity also suggests the inspiration of a second theatrical source, Sartre.) Francisca is the reverse, the negation of everything we think we know about the cinema, at least since Bazin. It is a cinema possessive of a counter-intuitive ontology that nonetheless remains fully plausible in the implementation of its aesthetic. Against everything we know, Francisca shows that the medium is implicitly theatrical, by its telling.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

More than a Glimmer of Hope: The Consequences of Love (2004)

Warning: the following post contains partial spoilers.

Perhaps no other national cinema to have ever reached the heights of the Italian industry has thereafter experienced a decline comparable to Italy's. The story hardly demands repeating: from the rise of neorealismo in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War to the deaths of Pier Paolo Pasolini, Luchino Visconti and Roberto Rossellini in the mid-to-late 1970s, the Italian cinema was among the world's most notable. And since? Italy's most recognizable cinematic accomplishments, apart from a handful of relatively minor works from aging masters Michelangelo Antonioni and Federico Fellini, have included Nanni Moretti's critically-lauded, if narcissistic film treatises - such as Caro Diario (1993) and The Son's Room (2001) - as well as the occasional exploration of the nation's previous century, from veteran director Francesco Rosi's Three Brothers (1981) to Marco Tuillo Giordana's The Best of Youth (2003). (A less generous accounting might also point to Cinema Paradiso [1988] or the films of Roberto Begnini, which together represent the best known Italian film art of the past two decades.) If Moretti has served as the leading international figure of the era, the source of the crisis is clear enough: Italy has not found artists to fill the enormous gaps left by its now departed masters.

The first decade of the twenty-first century, however, has provided a glimmer of hope in this otherwise depressing filmic landscape. In addition to Giordana's aforementioned The Best of Youth, a male weepy to stand beside the best of De Sica, the 2000s has brought world cinema Italy's first new major filmmaker in ages, writer-director Paolo Sorrentino. Sorrentino's strong 2006 release, The Family Friend (L'Amico di famiglia), which screened last spring at Walter Reade, demostrated an affinity with Fellini, though one that had been filtered through American maestro David Lynch. However, it is the director's more Antonioniesque 2004 title, The Consequences of Love (Le Conseguenze dell'amore), which truly reveals the extraordinary talent of the Naples native. The Consequences of Love opens with a wide-angle, oblique framing of a moving walkway and the neon lighting over head. A figure moves slowly toward the foreground in this extreme long take that Sorrentino has chosen to score with electronic music, as he has much of his film. With the camera reframing to capture the male subject getting off the walkway - with the music eliminated - Sorrentino joins the image with the excessively loud sound of his suitcase being drug across the steel boundary delimiting the rubber path and the adjacent floor. In other words, Sorrentino creates a wry punch-line out of this sudden change in figure movement and the accompanying audio.

The figure presented in this first sequence will be shortly confirmed as the picture's protagonist - through his authorship of the subsequent voice over. As his monologues commence, he tells us that "the worst thing for a man who spends a lot of time alone is a lack of imagination," and hence, that "I am not a frivolous man; the only frivolous thing about me is my name, Titta di Girolamo." Titta (played by Toni Servillo) may well lack imagination, but as it will become clear, it is his shyness that is his larger flaw. Not that he is otherwise without his shortcomings: as another bit of voice over will indicate, his one vice is the use of heroin once a week - and only once a week, always at the same Wednesday morning hour - for the past twenty-four years. Likewise, as will take even longer to make clear, his business involves delivering suitcases of mafia money to backrooms - a job that requires that he hold but not use a pistol. There will be one pivotal exception to both his use of firearms and also his weekly consumption of narcotics later in the picture.

But first to the ultimate cause of each: Sofia (the exceedingly beautiful Olivia Magnani, granddaughter of Anna). Sofia is employed as a bar waitress at the hotel in which Titta has resided for the previous eight years. At the conclusion of her shift, she wishes "arrivederci" to the intractable male lead who invariably fails to respond to the gorgeous brunette. Rather he simply watches her leave, through the large sidewalk-facing windows, in the driver's seat of an automobile with an unidentified - for the moment, at least - male. But he, and Sorrentino's camera take notice, with the latter panning in slow-motion from her lips down to her legs, or subsequently sneaking a peak of the beauty topless as she changes following her shift. Titta, for his part, finally works up the courage to at least sit across from her at the bar, an act that he describes as the most "dangerous" of his life.

This existential act follows the arrival and departure of Titta's brother, nineteen years his younger, who shallowly chats up the same woman that the former can not even greet in passing. Sitting with his brother in the same seat he always occupies, Titta's brother witnesses Titta's poor treatment of the woman, who in the presence of both complains that the older gentleman does not even notice or respect her enough to return her daily goodbyes. Obviously this is far from the case for the lead who is already contemplating the "consequences of love." Thus, with this confrontation and his subsequent successful encounter with the lady, Titta becomes emboldened, leading the gentleman to plunder a large denomination of mob money for the express purchase of buying the woman a gift - which she correctly interprets as an attempt to buy her love. It goes without saying that there will be consequences for this act, but indeed it will be a second shortfall that prompts greater problems with the syndicate.

The resolution for both plot lines will rely on a formal strategy unique to The Consequences of Love: namely, of the temporary withholding of details germane to the narrative, only to be revealed thereafter in an explanatory manner. With respect to the romantic resolution of sorts, Sorrentino temporarily suppresses a piece of recent action in order to inhabit Titta's psychology (and to create suspense) at the decisive juncture. With regard to his encounter with the mafioso bigs, Sorrentino hides a key plot point until the confrontation occurs, in this case divorcing spectatorial knowledge from that of his protagonist - again in order to magnify the suspense of the situation. Sequence is repeatedly suspended for the sake of suspense, whether at these key moments or in less dramatic passages, where the technique is effectively used for the sake of explanation.

Apart from the film's remixing of sequence, it is the director's jarring use of soundtrack - with an unmistakable taste for both moody electronic and pulsating house styles - juxtaposed with the film's continually mobile visual track that marks Sorrentino's disctinctive, and one might even argue post-modern aesthetic. Post-modern, or post-modernist, less for either of the above than for Sorrentino's ironic world view, emphasized in his glib sense of humor (other great example include a figure walking into a pole in a silent bird's-eye view, cross-cutting that provides ironic commentary and his pitch-black culminating inversion of The Family Friend's opening) and his all-permeating taste for the cool. We might also see his post-modern qualities in his engagement with the mafia generic tradition and finally his signposting of national cinematic traditions - and particularly his relationship to Antonioni, not only in his adoption of that director's erotic subject matter twined to matters of commerce (The Consequences of Love refracts the master's L'eclisse, 1962) but also in the cranes that loom over the post-industrial landscape. The Consequences of Love, like The Family of Friend, is a work that responds and indeed even adds to the tradition of the Italian cinema. There is more than a glimmer of hope here.

Both The Consequences of Love and The Family Friend are available on Artificial Eye Region 2 DVDs.

Monday, March 10, 2008

New Film: Be Kind Rewind (by, Lisa K. Broad & Michael J. Anderson)

Never lacking in the esoteric, the cinema of writer-director Michel Gondry has established itself as a intellectual node for the concerns of contemporary film theory, from the storage-retrieval allegory of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) to the film/museum interface of The Science of Sleep (2006). While Be Kind Rewind is no less attuned to either film theory as a discipline or to the current horizons of the visual art world - in the case of the latter to Bourriaud's Relational Aesthetics and its engineering of social relations - the director's latest emerges primarily as a hymn to the cinephile of the very recent past. Located in a Passaic, New Jersey video store that anachronistically rents only video tapes - at the bargain price of $1 per day - Be Kind Rewind proceeds following a more extravagantly-outdated science fiction scenario involving the erasure of the shop's entire collection at their exposure to a magnetized Jack Black. With one of the shop's more loyal patrons (Mia Farrow) requesting their copy of Ghostbusters, while holding its nostalgically-tattered black box, Black and store clerk Mos Def are ultimately forced into reshooting (on camcorder, of course, over the blank tape) the video-era staple, with the latter as Bill Murray and Black as everyone else - though a third, late middle-aged African American male compatriot will subsequently play Sigourney Weaver (who will make a cameo later in the film). Remarkably, their post-production edit-free gorilla remake finds a receptive public among Farrow's gang-banger nephew and his friends who themselves demand copies of their own preferences, including another mid-1980s mainstream genre classic Robocop.

From the humble location beginnings of Ghostbusters to their no less humble subsequent productions of Rush Hour 2, The Lion King, 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, et al., Black, Mos Def and third-party Latina participant Melonie Diaz forge something of b (or z)-film local studio using their Passaic neighbors as the bit players in their never less than ingenious - and inaccurate - re-stagings of the aforesaid video store axioms. In other words, Gondry grafts an allegory for early film production's rationalization onto the film's overarching metaphor of video's displacement by DVD. In fact, to speak of the film's early film references, Be Kind Rewind does contain an original production, on supposed Passaic native, jazzman Fats Waller - screened for the neighborhood on a white sheet (rather than on a destroyed television set; Gondry's film also, importantly, bemoans the loss of a public sphere in the video and now digital eras) that utilizes black-and-white celluloid and inventive production techniques to similuate lower projection rates and the scratches of old film stock. And then there is the filmmaker's ingenuity, which mirrors no one so much as cinema's original magician Méliès himself.

Apart from the meta-text's early film and video-era points of departure (another obvious nod is to Back to the Future, 1985) it is Spike Lee's cinema that account for many of the most direct film-specific references, from that director's Do the Right Thing (1989) and store-owner Danny Glover's implorations to the police to avoid a riot by allowing a screening of the aforesaid original production - as well as in Black and Mos Def's comical brick-through-the-window set piece - to Glover's gentle, inaudible rebuke of Black after the latter shows up to a casting in black face (cf. Bamboozled, 2000). Like Lee's earlier work in particular, Be Kind Rewind is very much concerned with the growing pains of its economically depressed, though communally-tight locale, which in the case of Gondry's picture is beset by a culturally euthanizing process of gentrification. To extend the metaphor, this is a film concerned with cinema's analogous gentrification.

So too its globalization. If there is a societal villain in Be Kind Rewind, it is the Hollywood and Blockbuster-styled West Coast Video with its multiple copies of a very limited selection of action-adventures and comedies, the only two forms that remain in the DVD age outlet. In contradistinction, Gondry's DIY fan-inflected remakes provide an antidote to these toothless blockbusters, in much the same way that his own work operates within the system: that is as products for a small, but devoted following connected not by Passaic's community ties but by the virtual network of cinephilia. Obviously, this new configuration is no replacement for the dystopian Passaic utopia imagined (though rendered impossible) by Gondry.

The above piece, as the title makes clear, represents a collaboration between my wife Lisa and I - with Lisa receiving top-billing not because of any chivalrous feelings on my part, but rather due to the simple fact that most of the best ideas were hers. For more wife and husband reviews, please check out our friends Maggie and Mike Lyon who have begun each writing reviews on the large number of films they see. If you do, you may notice the preponderance of films from 1978. The reason? The Lyon's have begun research to each construct their annual ten favorite films - I wonder where they got such a marvelous idea? - beginning with Mr. Lyon's year of birth and moving toward the present. With so much original content from two very talented film scholars, you won't want to miss any of it.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

New Film: The Edge of Heaven (Auf der anderen Seite)

Warning: the following post contains spoliers.

Fatih Akin's German-Turkish co-production The Edge of Heaven (Auf der anderen Seite), from a script by the director, received a well-deserved best screenplay citation at last year's Cannes international film festival - well-deserved not simply for the impressive acrobatics of its plot, but by virtue of the fact that Akin's writing does the majority of the work in The Edge of Heaven. Following a short, geographically and temporally undefined prologue that will be repeated later in the work, Akin introduces the first section, stipulating the death of someone named Yeter, whom we soon learn is a Turkish prostitute in Germany (played by Nursel Köse). After a couple of meetings, Ali (Tuncel Kurtiz) invites Yeter to live with him, to which she consents after being menaced by a pair of Turkish men on the train. (The disquieting subtext, surely, is the spectre of the possible future establishment of sharia law in Europe.) Following Yeter's death, Ali's son Nejat (Baki Davrak) returns to his and Yeter's native Turkey in search of the latter's estranged daughter.

Part two commences with a similar title reading "Lotte's death." Following the same pattern, we are shortly introduced to the namesake of this second title (with Patrycia Ziolkowska in the role). Yet her presence in the narrative is preceded by the introduction of Yeter's aforementioned daughter, Ayten (Nurgül Yesilçay). The latter comes into contact with Lotte only after she is forced to flee Turkey following the compromise of her radical identity to the state's police. In Germany her initial search for her mother proves unsuccessful, though she does move in with Lotte and the latter's mother (Rainer Werner Fassbinder's axiom Hanna Schygulla). Here, the two young women sleep together before the latter is deported following a traffic stop. This incident prompts Lotte to travel to Turkey to seek the now imprisoned Ayten's release. However, before she can complete the task, the film's second intertitle is fulfilled.

The third and final part, introduced with the film's title, witnesses Schygulla's trip to Istanbul following her daughter's death. In this section we have the further convergence of the two plots, which have already coincided not only in the identities of the characters, but even in a single shot featuring mother and daughter unwittingly and unknowingly within the same frame. Hence, part two does not follow the first chronologically, as it at first seems, but rather overlaps, positioning the film within the tradition of European master Krzysztof Kieslowski. Indeed, like many films in the Polish director's corpus - from Blind Chance (1981) through The Double Life of Veronique (1991) and the 'Three Colors' trilogy (1993-4) - chance encounters and near misses structure Akin's narrative.

Unlike Kieslowski's baroque cinema, however, Akin's mise-en-scène does not find (or even search for) a visual metaphor for its thematic content. Rather, The Edge of Heaven systematically utilizes wide-angle lenses, staging in depth and longer than average takes to record the film's script. Admittedly, this visual rhetoric can itself be defined as baroque - in the fashion of post-Toland Hollywood filmmaking - as can the picture's relatively circular structure and its open ending. (Perhaps the film's most visually distinct moment - and its most pronounced break from the prior matrix - is likely a series of overhead framings that render Schygulla in the process of grief; though somewhat novel, this passage may be among the film's weakest moments given its award-pandering foregrounding of performance.)

Still it is less Kieslowski who serves as the principle inspiration for The Edge of Heaven than it is Akin's European countryman R. W. Fassbinder. Indeed, each of the film's two parts decisively reference the director's well-known 1970s corpus, as does obviously Schygulla's presence. In part one, and to some extent in part three, Fear Eats the Soul (1973) provides the primary referent - each contains a Muslim immigrant named Ali in a relationship with a woman. Unlike Fassbinder's film however, where it is a German woman and the racial other, The Edge of Heaven represents a Germany that is increasingly defined by its Islamic minority. In the case of part two, on the other hand, the clearest point of reference seems the director's lesbian themed The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972) with its blonde (Schygulla) and brunette leads - and a third party, which in this case is filled by Fassbinder's frequent performer.

Once again, it should be repeated, Fassbinder's inspiration finds its expression less in the film's visuals, as striking as the late director's mise-en-scène often is, than it procures a template for the picture's narrative, which again is the picture's greatest strength. Surely, like The Lives of Others from the previous year (which as with The Edge of Heaven was chosen as Germany's entry for the Academy's best foreign language prize), Akin's film represents high-level mainstream art filmmaking, manifesting high production values, exceptional performances and a strong script. While it may not be the equal of the best German productions of the past couple of years - namely Valeska Grisebach's Longing , Stefan Krohmer's Summer '04 (both 2006) and even Christian Petzold's Yella (2007; in its case less for its writing than for the Petzold's "slow-burn" direction) - The Edge of Heaven remains noteworthy cinema nonetheless, which is no small feat given its essentially middle-brow ethos.

In sum, The Edge of Heaven marks a respectable mainstream art cinema to parallel Germany's rich independent (or if not independent at least smaller scale) vein of filmmaking; there really seems to be a "new wave" here.

Monday, February 18, 2008

New to DVD: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford + Best Picture Preferences

Writer-director Andrew Dominik's The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford extends both its generic model - the revisionist Western as exemplified by Sam Peckinpah's 1962 masterpiece Ride the High the Country - and also the early twenty-first century's preoccupation with proto-cinematic media (cf. Neil Burger's 2006 The Illusionist, among others). With respect to the former, the picture's near ubiquitous situation within the winter months alone (as compared to Ride the High Country's autumnal setting) locates the film after the Western, to the extent that is that Ride the High Country represents the symbolic end of the form and the director's subsequent The Wild Bunch (1969) is the supposed last Western. Indeed, The Assassination of Jesse James... figures not only a tradition that is already over (the Western), but also an era that has similarly concluded, a hero whose career (as robber) finishes shortly after the film's beginning and most obviously of all, whose life, the title tells us, will soon cease. The Assassination of Jesse James... does not preside over the death of a form; it lives after the Western's death.

Which leads one to Dominik's film's obsession with the proto-cinematic and all things nineteenth century - at a time that many of the earlier era's inventions are being displaced by newer (digital) technologies. In fact, The Assassination of Jesse James... exhibits frequent digital manipulation to simulate the visuals of the earlier period: i.e. with the edges of the frame blurring to intimate similar effects in the daguerreotype or on early film stock; and with monochromatic visuals that suggest the tinting of a pre-Technicolor era. Moreover, with the assassination complete, the eponymous Ford (Casey Affleck), himself a collector of Jesse James dime novels, reproduces the incident on stage. In sum, The Assassination of Jesse James... seeks the recreation of not only Jesse James's (Brad Pitt) last days but of the formal preconditions for cinema itself - again at a time when it is being transformed under the digital sign.

Nevertheless, The Assassination of Jesse James... may be less notable for its allegorical and generic valences, as noteworthy as Dominik's interventions may be, than for Roger Deakins's cinematography and for Affleck's performance - both of whom have secured well deserved Academy nominations. Regarding Dominik and Deakins's visuals, The Assassination of Jesse James... features a large share of the year's most unforgettable imagery, from the arrival of the train during the picture's first act robbery - a bright incandescent light glows in the distance with the wide-hooded thieves waiting in the fore; the robbers subsequently cross through the golden hued, claustrophic interior of the night train - to the frequent time-elapse skyscapes that decorate the work. To be sure, this is a work of the imagistic and of visual ornamentation (style here is certainly an add-on) though it is also rhetorically cognizant of its form's past and particularly to the equally image-oriented John Ford - and to that director's shadow-cast foregrounds with well-lit landscapes framed beyond.

And then there are the film's performances whether it is Pitt's stabilizing star-turn or Affleck's squeaking, fidgety Robert Ford, whose villainy this picture largely refutes on the basis of his sympathetically pathetic portrayal. Ford is the original celeb-worshipper who happens to be as at home in our age as he seems appropriately suited to the era of James. It is a performance of astonishing singularity to Pitt's notable abstraction (in the words of film scholar Lisa Broad).

All of the above should have made The Assassination of Jesse James by Robert Ford, in a perfect world, worthy of a best picture nomination. At the very least, this writer would argue that The Assassination of Jesse James... is clearly superior to three of this year's selections - Joe Wright's Atonement, Jason Reitman's Juno and Tony Gilroy's Michael Clayton - as good as each of these films might be, and is every bit the equal of a fourth, Paul Thomas Anderson's impressive if somewhat overrated There Will Be Blood. (Making a film that feels like one's sources - namely Kubrick's Barry Lyndon or Terrence Malick's Days of Heaven, which is itself a key point of reference for Dominik's picture - does not assure a film's greatness, even when it does demonstrate its maker's considerable talent.) However, in its effortless combination of Western and horror syntaxes and noir semantics, No Country for Old Men remains the cream of this year's best picture crop.

Apart from No Country for Old Men and The Assassination of Jesse James..., the aforementioned perfect year might have also included nominations for Wes Anderson's significantly underrated The Darjeeling Limited, David Cronenberg's English-language film of the year, Eastern Promises, and David Fincher's career-peak, Zodiac. Still, these personal preferences aside, 2007 proved a uniquely strong year in the American cinema, and even among those pictures cited by the Academy. Thankfully no Crash's or Little Miss Sunshine's in the lot, regardless of what Juno's most fervent detractors might believe.