Monday, April 14, 2008

Michael Snow & the 1970s Aesthetic of Excess: La Région centrale (1971)

If 1970s film aesthetics was defined by a single common feature, it was the principle of excess. In Hollywood, this quality of excess manifested itself in the further roll-back and transgression of Hays-era prohibitions, leading not only to the so-called Hollywood Renaissance of the late 1960s and early 1970s, but also to the well documented explosion of exploitation cinema. In Japan, the X-rated pink movies of the era bested Hollywood's comparatively mild attempts to create a morally retrograde cinema. India witnessed the emergence of a relatively artless blockbuster cinema to compete with similar developments in Hollywood excesses in their own right - while Europe seem to discount the concept of popular cinema altogether. Indeed, in that latter context, the art film experienced its least commercial instantiation with running times often exceeding the 180-minute mark: Andrei Tarkovsky's Solaris (1972) comes in at a lean 165-minutes when compared with Céline and Julie Go Boating's (1974) 190 minutes, Jeanne Dielman's (1976) 201 minute-length, The Mother and the Whore's (1973) 210 minutes, the four hours of Theo Angelopoulos's Travelling Players (1975) and Manoel de Oliveira's Doomed Love (1979), and of course, most spectacularly of all, Jacques Rivette's 773 minute Out One (1971) and its 4-hour abridgement, Out One: Spectre (1972).

Along with Stan Brakhage's Scenes from Under Childhood (1967-1970), Michael Snow's 180-minute La Région centrale (1971) extends this principle of excess to the avant-garde. Of course, it is not simply for the film's punishing duration, but more importantly for the scope of its ambitions - another era hallmark - that La Région centrale rates as one of the defining examples of 1970s film art. Like the cinema of Rivette, Snow's concerns itself foremost with allegorizing his medium's basic ontology. Before expanding on the particulars of this process, however, a brief description of the film's singular technique might be helpful. From IMDb:

[La Région centrale was] entirely shot using a robotized camera set on the top of a mountain in the Canadian wilderness - in winter. The camera was mounted on a mechanical arm that could move in any direction (even upside down). Using instructions recorded on magnetic tape, the filmakers could control the arm's movement, creating short "routines" that had do be checked and programmed daily. During the entire movie the only sound heard are mechanical blips and electronic noises synchronized with the camera movement...

From the start, we see a series of fluid, spiraling camera movements punctuated by jerky in-camera reframings. The shadow of the aforementioned apparatus is visible on the frozen ground. Shortly, the view shifts from a Smithsonesque ("Spiral Jetty") pebble field to the horizon of this Northern Québec locale. As the film continues to unspool, the pre-programmed 'routines' slowly omit more and more of the icy, light blue sky until we are faced with this barring-less color field. At this juncture, the camera movement of the prior passages has become virtually invisible, though it is equally clear that the same strategy continues (which the return of the horizon will soon confirm). In the meantime, Snow's image has collapsed into virtual abstraction, rendering the texture of the grainy 16mm stock increasingly visible.

So too are we made aware of the camera's lens in the extensive flaring that characterizes this and a number of the film's subsequent 'routines.' In these, moreover, the glass surface becomes progressively dirtier, thus giving us a sense of a world delimited by the lens's impermeable boundary; the camera at this moment is more than the lens - it is a behind the glass as well.

The physical properties of the camera, however, are made clearest still in a series of jagged, diagonal vectors that imitate a bouncing when the camera quickly shifts directions after reaching the ground line. In these moments, the camera's physical volume, its embodied quality in essence, is made manifest: the camera can only move through negative space; its lower limit is the same as the human body - even as it seems to travel freely through the heavens.

Speaking of the camera's export to the upper reaches of the visible, Snow begins by offering us progressively larger glimpses of the Québec skies again before thrusting into the deep blue. Thereafter, Snow offers us segments of each splitting the screen, first horizontally and then vertically. With the latter configuration in particular, especially once the camera movement is sped up to the point of abstraction, Snow imports a sense of his mise-en-scène as film stock, passing through the projector in a succession of moments too quick to glimpse on the atomic level of the individual frame. In a similar passage rapidly skimming the surface of a mountain lake, La Région centrale mimes an image stream, run too quickly to be examined, but theoretically subject to a slowing that could again make the image readable once more. What we have is projection in short.

Snow's work, in sum, highlights both the element nature of the medium - its division into discrete frames unspooled too quickly to be seen - and again the process of projection itself, with landscapes running horizontally and vertically before our eyes, at an ever-changing pace. In this respect, La Région centrale bares more than a passing resemblance to the work of Brakhage, from Anticipation of the Night (1958) onwards. This particular film is echoed in the film's brief night-time segment with the moon swinging quickly across the upper right corner of the frame. In fact, as we see this single, luminous object crossing the screen, its projection like a flashlight broaching an otherwise pitch black theatre, we are made aware of its trail scorched onto our retinas in its absence. Metonymically, we are reminded of the film's winter landscape, out-of-view, but still present in our collective remembrances. No less than Brakhage, La Région centrale is about the act of seeing.

As the film reaches its conclusion, Snow's abstraction becomes even more pronounced with a thin band of land briskly moving in and out of our view. On this occasion, a second of the director's work, Mothlight (1963), serves as a reference. However, in those moments of purest absence, the films of Paul Shartis emerge as the closer point of comparison, as for instance the filmmaker's N:O:T:H:I:N:G (1968), which seems to counter Wavelength's arguments for an ontology of cinema emphasizing space with one that highlights the fundamental work of light in the medium. (I was fortunate enough to see both films on a Madrid double bill eight years ago - one of the finest avant-garde double features I suspect I will ever see.) In this regard, La Région centrale positions itself as summa for the North American avant-garde of the previous two decades, while reframing this tradition within the newly emergent aesthetic of excess that would characterize the rest of the decade.

In the end, La Région centrale is the spiritual twin of Jacques Rivette's Céline and Julie Go Boating (1974) and that film's allegorization of the filmmaking process. Then again, if there is greater emphasis on the act of creation, of invention in Rivette's subsequent opus, Snow's film emphasizes the projected image and therefore the experience of film viewing itself. (So they are fraternal twins, I guess.) In other words, Rivette seems more concerned with the making and Snow with the seeing. Of course, this is not to limit Snow's ambitions: La Région centrale further makes us aware of our place on this planet, the workings of gravity and its stipulated absence, and finally this planet's revolving trajectory through the heavens. Snow's masterpiece is not only reflexive, it's cosmological. There is, in other words, an excess of ambition here.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

On the Occasion of Rewatching the Turning Gate: A Korean Rohmer

Warning: the following post contains spoliers.

Writer-director Hong Sang-soo's 2002 Turning Gate (a.k.a. On the Occasion of Remembering the Turning Gate) presents one of the clearest expressions of the Korean auteur's artistic universe: in the case of Turning Gate, the director's signature narrational duplication is located in the interplay between a series of on-screen captions and the subsequent story fragments that either literally or obliquely illustrate the aforesaid titles. Likewise, the film's two-part structure, though not a literal retelling as in his previous minor masterpiece Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors (2000), nevertheless procures a doubling, in this case of the two women that the film's thespian lead Kim Sang-Kyung romances over the course of the narrative. (In this way Turning Gate looks forward to the director's definitive 2006 Woman on the Beach, with which it also shares the subject of an artist protagonist - though in Hong's 2002 film his male lead is viewed far more sympathetically.)

Of course, commensurate with the director's wryly cynical take on the male-female dynamic, Kim's Gyung-soo fails to secure lasting companionship with either the aggressive Myung-sook (Ye Ji-won, pictured above) or the beautiful and ultimately willing, if married, Seon-young (Sang Mi-chu), whom Gyung-soo pursues every bit as fully - following her initial rebuffing. Importantly, his quest to land the buxom Seon-young supposedly replicates a similar strategy of conquest that the lead undertook with the same woman fifteen years previously, providing yet another replication for Hong's principal narrative strategy. When Gyung-soo's chosen love interest subsequently and finally rejects the gentleman, Hong uncharacteristically displaces the protagonist's interior melancholy unto a sudden rainstrom, providing the film with a concluding visual summation of theme - in much the way that the director will even more sophisticatedly match Woman on the Beach's narrative preoccupations with the final image of his heroine dislodging her car from the mud. To return to Turning Gate, this is Hong at his most Wongian, where the wrong time has made the once-in-a-lifetime romance impossible.

Then again, Turning Gate is not nearly as serious as all that: typical of the director's corpus more broadly, Hong makes great use of static, long-take framing to emphasize the quotidian absurdities that comprise his narrative (a wonderfully telling example features Gyung-soo climbing atop a table for a second consecutive meal-time kiss). Indeed, early in Hong's film it seems as if the director might be limiting himself exclusively to a one scene-one take strategy similar to the punchline idiom of Tsai Ming-liang. However, with the appearance Myung-sook, Hong opens the sequence with an uncharacteristic establishing shot and thereafter cuts within the constructed space, thus opening the filmmaker's seemingly closed system.

This same evolution in form is experienced in the picture's increasingly opaque and long-winded illustrations of the the numbered captions. Following a series of very short and seemingly redundant expositions of the titles, Hong's narrative moves further and further afield from the stated chapter headings, at times even failing to directly express their stated purposes - as when we are told that Myung-sook will tell Gyung-soo that she loves him. (All we see is her passioned love-making to the lead - an expression of this same feeling perhaps?) Indeed, in this same segment, we are given the caption before being introduced to Myung-sook, thus cuing us to wait for her entry into the narrative, which we are assured will be pivotal. Similarly, the second female lead gives Gyung-soo another name, which though rather inconsequential to their initial meeting, throws us off as spectators given that Hong has used her real identity as the cue in the corresponding title. Hence, Hong's use of this strategy at times serves more to confuse than to clarify the focus of the director's narrative. He uses the technique against his story, to separate one storyteller from the other.

If this theme of the twice-told narrative is all Hong, the basic narrative structure of consecutive seductions closely resembles one of the undisputed masterpieces of Hong's clearest ancestor, Eric Rohmer's My Night at Maud's (1969). In that case, Rohmer's Catholic lead, though tempted, fails to consumate his first encounter. By contrast, Hong's passive intellectual goes ahead with it, placing the figure in a tradition of the flawed Korean male stretching back to at least Kim Ki-young's startling The Housemaid (1960). As Gyung-soo meets his second option, whom like Christine in My Night at Maud's he also first spots prior to the first woman - though its unclear as to whether he actually remembers the incident fifteen years prior - Hong's lead, like Rohmer's, goes into active mode, doing things he supposedly has never done before. However, unlike the French master's treatise on Jansenist predestination, Hong's lead is explicitly not fated to be with his chosen mate. (In the use of taro-like cards, Rohmer's Summer/The Green Ray [1986] seems to be the more direct reference, as it does also for its utilization of bright green title cards to match Rohmer's chosen hue-key for that earlier picture.)

Further extending Turning Gate's debt to My Night at Maud's is the latter picture's inclusion of a third-wheel old friend in the first part who is also hurt by the hook-up (real as opposed to expected as in Rohmer's picture) in addition to its more basic romantic geometry that Hong's and Rohmer's collective corpuses respectively share. In terms of narrative, Turning Gate also derives fairly decisively from Rohmer not only in its non-work settings (here Gyung-soo is between jobs; in Woman on the Beach, the Rohmerian holiday location is explicit) but in the manner that they are told, by the use of intertitles (cf. Claire's Knee [1970] and Summer/The Green Ray) and the film's characteristic temporal ellipses. That is, Hong, like Rohmer before him, tells his chronological story in brief snippets of narrative that combine to construct the discourse on the basis of disparate, often comic human interactions. Of course, the internal coherence of Rohmer's individual narrative systems gives rise, along with his consistent visual strategies and most of all, the persistence of a limited set of themes, to the sense of his art as a closed-system ala Piet Mondrian. Here, again, Hong allows this consistency to unravel in the increasing durations of his segments, establishing his formal contribution to the Rohmerian idiom he so distinctly adopts. Hong loosens Rohmer's rigidity.

One of the bigger weakness of the "ten best lists" that remain one of the most conspicuous features of this site is their ultimate inability to provide an accurate accounting of which works are most important by any given author, even if the repeated presence of certain directors demonstrate their relative importance to their particular times. In the case of Hong - who at this juncture appears to be one of the key figures of the current decade along with such leading film artists as Apichatpong Weerasethakul in Thailand, Jia Zhangke in China and David Cronenberg in the Anglophonic world - this seems particuarly true, due in no small part to the significant variations in quality that emerges from year to year. As such I have constructed a taxonomy (presented below) to register what I see as the relative quality or importance of his features, which no less than the lists themselves, is open to revision. In my opinion, it is a format that might be replicated for any director. (I have underlined films on my annual ten best lists to illustrate my point.)

Career Peaks: The Power of Kangwon Province (1998), Woman on the Beach
[Exceptional Works that Rate] Just Below Peak: Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Turning Gate
Varying Degrees of Good: The Day a Pig Fell into the Well (1996), Tale of Cinema (2005)
Works of Mixed Success: Woman is the Future of Man (2004), Night and Day (2008)

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.