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.

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.