Monday, August 04, 2008

New Blog: Ten Best Films

Dearest Tativille readers,

To provide greater access to Tativille's most popular feature - the film lists - I have created a second site exclusively devoted to these: "Ten Best Films." In the meantime, Tativille will continue to feature my original film and art analyses, including a newly published extended essay on Rossellini's thematic emphasis on hagiography. Enjoy the new site!

Update: And for a little context as to what you may be looking at with all those lists, see David Bordwell's spot on new post, detailing the differences between cinephiles and cinemaniacs, and apropos of "Ten Best Films," the games we cinephiles play.

Rossellini & Sainthood: A Tativille Essay

What can be seen on earth indicates neither the total absence, nor the
Manifest presence of divinity, but the essence of a hidden God.
-Blaise Pascal, Les Pensées, c. 1650s

In the fall of 2003, the Museum of Modern Art programmed a series of films under the heading The Hidden God: Film and Faith. Spanning much of the history of international art and popular cinema, from Leo McCarey’s Love Affair in 1939 to Steven Spielberg’s A.I. – Artificial Intelligence in 2001, from Au hasard Balthazar (Robert Bresson, 1966) in France to Yaaba and Tilai (Idrissa Ouedraogo, 1989 and 1990) in Burkina Faso, all the works had in common an emphasis upon the invisible presence or the explicit, directed absence of the divine. In other words, they are films that largely maintain the material nature of the cinema – that is, they do not figure immateriality through special effects, animation, etc, – whatever their stances may be on the existence of a reality beyond the physical world.

Consequently, it should surprise no one that among those filmmakers featured in the program (and in a subsequent volume of essays on the film) Roberto Rossellini leads all directors with four features: Stromboli (1950), The Flowers of St. Francis (1950), Europa ’51 (1952) and Voyage in Italy (1954). Of these, what is immediately striking about each, with the exception of The Flowers of St. Francis, is that they are collaborations between Rossellini and his then-lover Ingrid Bergman, that they feature present-day settings, and including St. Francis now, that they were made in succession. Indeed, it is almost as if we can see an attitude and emphasis in these works that was specific to a single moment in the director’s career. That is, during his Bergman cycle, Rossellini exemplifies a strain in postwar European modernism, where in a religious context the formal limits of the material medium is used to figure the limits of epistemology and materialist conceptions of the universe. Divine presence equates

to the un-representable in its cinema, as it does in other art forms. [1]

Of course, this moment is far from exhaustive when it comes to religious subject matter in Rossellini’s work. To begin with, there is the director’s sympathetic portrayal of clergymen in his epochal Rome, Open City (1945) and Paisan (1946), his fable of a simple woman who believes she is going to give birth to Jesus Christ in The Miracle (1948), his biography of French theologian Blaise Pascal (1971) and most striking of all, his ‘life of Christ’ narrative, The Messiah (1976). In the last of these in particular, God is no longer hidden, but is made flesh in the person of Christ, which in fact is the very economy that serves as the basis for religious representation in Western art. At the same time, Rossellini retains a purely material mise-en-scène in The Messiah, refusing to represent the miraculous on screen (this includes even the resurrection which is implied by Christ’s absence in the tomb and a cutaway to the clouds above). In other words, Rossellini’s The Messiah attempts to realize the physical experience of Christ’s life on earth, retaining the realist aesthetic for which he is remembered. Like The Flowers of St. Francis, The Messiah reproduces a facsimile of what this world must have looked like, thereby eschewing a tendency to remake the past in the image of the present. [2]

So if realism is an irreducible quality of Rossellini’s figuration of metaphysical content, what are those factors that distinguish the works from each other? On what basis, in other words, might we erect a taxonomy of religious expression in the director’s corpus? Recalling both their refusal to embellish – that is to depict the immaterial materially – and also the situation of many narratives in the present tense, an emphasis on the life of the believer in the modern world becomes an obvious stage for the films. In particular, Rossellini’s religious work seems divisible into two primary categories: films that treat the life of the saint, and those that represent the experience of the sinner. Among others, a definitive example of the latter is the director’s Stromboli, which “reduced to its simplest terms… turns out to be, with a new accent but with age-old significance, the struggle between Creator and creature.” Here, however, all is not hopeless; grace intervenes: “God, her antagonist, will reveal himself to her only at the end, triumphing over both chorus and protagonist and leading her to the summit of despair, and after focusing her to invoke the light of Grace to come free from her inhuman solitude.”

However, it is the first category – the life of the saint – that will be examined in greater detail over the course of the subsequent pages. In giving shape and substance to this delineation, three films will be treated in greater depth: Rome, Open City, The Flowers of St. Francis and Europa ’51. While two of the three were made consecutively, there seems to exist enough variation in these films to adequately rend the theme of sainthood in Rossellini’s corpus – the first is a “dramatised documentary” narrating the recent past, the second a biography of a canonized evangelist (and his followers) who lived in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, and the third a fictionalized depiction of a woman whose saintly actions alienate her from the modern, rationalized world in which she lives. Together, in the view of this author, these films illuminate an essential dimension of Rossellini’s artistic practice: namely his examination and contemplation of the Christian life. As these films reveal, it is not only a context but a purpose for his work, and is therefore elemental to any understanding of Rossellini as a director – as elemental that is as his realist aesthetic or his engagement with contemporary social realities. It is fitting therefore to begin where the director’s verisimilitudinous style and his political viewpoint are most clearly in evidence: in Rome, Open City.

Rome, Open City

More than any other of Rossellini’s films, the circumstances of Rome, Open City’s making directly impact its iconological content. Accordingly its extensive documentation becomes not only fortuitous but indeed essential to an understanding of the picture’s meaning. David Forgacs’ account in his recent B. F. I. tome on the film is instructive in this regard:

Allied (British and US) troops had entered the city on 4 June 1944 and the film had begun to take shape that summer. The script was written between September and December 1944. The film went into production in January 1945, when the Germans still occupied the north of Italy and as Soviet troops were advancing west across Poland. It was post-produced in the summer of 1945 (all the sound was post-synchronised) and its first public screening was in Rome on 24 September, five months after Italy was liberated and just three weeks after the Japanese capitulation in the Pacific.

So, Rome, Open City was conceived and produced during the dueling occupations of the Nazis and the Allies, at a moment when the outcome of the war had not yet been decided. As such, the subject was “still ‘scorching’” for Italian spectators, though the war had concluded by the time of its premiere. At the same time the characters depicted by Rossellini and his screenwriters, represent a semi-fictionalized recent past. For example, the original model for Don Pietro Pellegrini (Aldo Fabrizi’s character) was Don Pietro Pappagallo, who was arrested and executed in “one of the most notorious events in the preoccupation” in 1944, while Don Giuseppe (Peppino) Morosini became a second model. The second was likewise executed by the S.S. on Easter Monday, leading to “commemorations… and accounts of his death… immediately after Rome was liberated.” “The episode of Pina’s death,” moreover, “was based originally on that of Maria Teresa Gullace, a pregnant woman of thirty-seven with five children who was shot dead in Viale Giulio Cesare on 2 March 1944.” (Concerning the Communist character, Forgacs argues that he is a “composite of different people and events,” while the historicity of Romoletto’s gang is uncertain.)

Thus to summarize, Rossellini and his collaborators rendered a series of characters who either directly evoked recent axioms of the modern resistance mythology, or would suggest types of figures who fought on their side. Either way, it seems clear that there is an act of commemoration in Rossellini’s schema, even if its effect was a call to action, or at least a redoubling of resolve. A contemporary equivalent might be Paul Greengrass’s docudrama United 93 (2006), which foremost attempts to memorialize the courage of the men and women who participated in the downing of the plane – though of course it meant that they sacrifice their lives to save those of others. Indeed, one might imagine the impact intended to be something like ‘I hope I could have or would act similarly were I ever to be in a comparable situation.’ Likewise, one might say for Rome, Open City that its political raison d’être is both a desire to commemorate those who had acted so courageously and selflessly during the resistance, and similarly to induce consonant behavior should circumstances merit it once more (in addition to the straight-forward autobiographical role that it shares with all of Rossellini’s immediate postwar work).

For the purposes of this piece, however, it is less the theme of engagement than it is its commemorative function which is of interest. Surely, this is among the key functions of hagiography – that is to honor those who have lived admirably, and as such, to provide a model for right living. In this way, not only are the commemorative and engagé themes intertwined, and indeed contingently related, but the film’s temporal situation becomes clear likewise. That is, as a film that reproduces recent events in an attempt to shape the future. To be sure, its confusion with documentary form, instantiated by the term “docudrama,” demands precisely such a connection to temporality, given that it suggests a situation of the narrative in a historical place and time – by necessity, any documentary (or docudrama) viewing supposes the presentation of a historical moment. Now while it is obvious that all films depict a time now lost, there are manifold examples of work that propose a situation in the present of the spectator’s viewing – in Rossellini’s work, his Bergman cycle – and even in the case of science fiction, a future not yet achieved. By virtue of its facsimile of documentary and its evocation of recognizable historical persons, Rome, Open City is a work of the past, however recent.

All of this is to say that Rome, Open City is not only a call for action, but also an act of memorializing (a time, a place, its people). In this respect, Rossellini’s film depicts not only the heroic acts of a clergyman, and a leader of the women’s resistance who is herself religious, but also a Communist party member and even the children of Rome. In other words, Rossellini’s rendering of these heroic figures is both universal in that encompasses left and right, secular and religious, and also abstract, in that there remains some ambiguity as to the historical identities of those who are honored. The common thread is their action – it is their engagement that makes these men and women modern saints.

At the same time, the ultimate martyrdom of Don Pietro retains a privileged status according to its position near the conclusion of the narrative, and also for the psychological detail with which the director has invested this sequence. If Pina is gunned down suddenly in the street, Don Pietro is given ample time to weigh his actions and their consequences; he knows that he is going to die if he fails to name names. Yet, it is not only that he is going to die, but that he will experience the torture that he can hear the Communist submitted to in the other room. Still Don Pietro doesn’t talk. He dies well, which he remarks is “not difficult… The difficult thing is to live well.”

All of this is to argue for a slightly modified model of focalization that pertains to the director’s rendering of sainthood: while it is true that the film discloses the thoughts, feelings and anxieties of Don Pietro, and that we can empathize with these, we are likewise watching someone who (given the film’s autobiographical genesis) actually experienced something like this. In other words, there is a slippage between the historical circumstances for the film – with which Italians of the time would be intimately aware – and its fictionalization that becomes inscribed in the film’s focalizing system.

Importantly, the reapplication of this commemorative mode and its implications for spectatorship occurs in the director’s Paisan as well. Specifically, it is in the first, fourth and six sections of the six-episode film, depicting events in Sicily, Florence and the Po Valley respectively, where partisans are martyred for the resistance cause. While Rossellini does not evoke particularly instances of martyrdom, each of these deaths serves to provide a generic example of sacrifice that occurred time and again during the war. It is as if in Paisan Rossellini is no longer saying ‘remember what such and such did’ but rather ‘remember your many countrymen who gave their lives for the cause during the war.’ Indeed, it is almost as if Paisan operates as a war memorial, dedicated to all those who lost their lives during the war. And of course, it is a memorial targeted not only at Italian spectators, but at American ones as well.

The Flowers of St. Francis

Theoretically less ambiguous as an example of filmic hagiography is the director’s 1950 masterwork The Flowers of St. Francis, whose Italian title, Francesco, giullare di Dio translates as “Francis, God’s Jester.” However, in its case, the director has made clear that his purpose is not the representation of a saint’s life per se, but rather to show the impact of “the Franciscan message… and spirit” on its followers. In fact, The Flowers of St. Francis depicts both scenes from the life of the titular St. Francis (Brother Nazario Gerardi) and also dramatizations of the friar’s experience with Franciscan monastic life. (The friars similarly are played by uncredited members of the Nocere Inferiore monastery.) Specifically, the film opens with the friars beginning their mission amidst a torrential storm, and ends with the men playing a game to decide where each will disperse to, after locals offer alms to the impoverished friars. In between these book-end sequences, their lives are depicted in a series of vignettes that collectively suggest a certain randomness, at least with respect to their occurrence in time – which is to say that Flower’s narrative is not necessarily sequential.

As to the episodes themselves, each is introduced with an intertitle (and an organ interlude; music otherwise is used rarely in The Flowers). Included among these are ‘How Brother Ginepro returned naked to St. Mary’s of the Angels, where the brothers had finished building their hut,’ ‘How Giovanni, known as “the simpleton” asked to follow Francis and began imitating him in word and gesture’ and ‘How Francis, praying one night in the woods, met the leper.’ It is worth noting, for instance, that the last depicts an event noted by a number of the saint’s biographers. To take one example, in the four volume Butler’s Lives of the Saints, Francis’s hagiographer details the scene as follows: “Riding one day in the plain of Assisi he met a leper, whose sores were so loathsome that at the sight of them he was struck with horror. But he dismounted, and as the leper stretched out his hand to receive an alms, Francis, whilst he bestowed it, kissed the man.” Indeed, in this account there emerge slight differences, such as its occurrence in the day rather than at night (as it is in the film). Still, Rossellini’s presentation of the events, less a few minor details, retains the spirit if not the authenticity of the historical account. And in a sequence such as the saint’s encounter with the leper, The Flowers of St. Francis operates as hagiography.

Then again the historical authenticity of The Flowers of St. Francis has little bearing on the film as a work of art. Certainly, it is less important for an understanding of The Flowers than it was for Rome, Open City. Indeed, in the later film, the details of Francis’s life are less essential than are the decisions the authors have chosen to represent, and to be sure the form that has been adopted for the film. Regarding the latter, the key significance of the episodic narrative is its facility in generating a temporal model that can be regarded as uniquely Christian: that is, time does not simply pass in The Flowers of St. Francis, but is instead suspended through the episodes that eschew specific relations to a time in Francis’s life. Surely, there is a beginning – “So Francis, to vanquish the world, made himself contemptible and humble. He became a child in order to be worthy of the kingdom of heaven.” – and there is an end, “How Francis left St. Mary of the Angels with the Friars and preached throughout the world.”

Yet, it is the mode of existence that defines the interim which establishes this distinctly Christian temporal mode. Indeed, it is this concept of a “kingdom of heaven” that influences Rossellini’s rethinking of temporality – where ‘the life of the world to come’ is established in this life. Existence with the friars, possession-less and without desire for worldly gain, prefigures the after life, which is to be understood in terms of an eternal communion with the divine, divorced from individual property or gain. In that life, as in the corporeal existence of the friars, everything is directed toward a worship of the Godhead. They efface themselves in committing themselves completely to the directed worship of the divine through acting in His behalf. Consequently, the following Christian axiom is fulfilled in their choice of vocation: “For whoever wishes to save his life shall lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake, he is the one who will save it.” In other words, the friars gain eternal life, but importantly this life begins not after death but in their daily existences. As such, the sting and significance of death is reduced to the degree that life will continue unabated for these brothers once they pass over to the other side – though it will no longer be ‘through a glass dimly’ that they understand.

This then is the relationship of Christian thought to The Flowers of St. Francis’ temporal structure: namely, in figuring eternal life by mitigating time’s passage and as such the death that such transience automatically inscribes. Of course, Rossellini did not invent the episodic structure nor are all episodic films ‘Christian.’ Rather it is that in this case, through the manipulation of standard form, a particular idea or worldview has found its articulation in the picture’s structure.

Consequently, one might ask from whence has Rossellini’s structure come? While certainly there are manifold examples of episodic narrative structure from the silent era on – Intolerance (1916) is a defining example; and in the director’s own career, Paisan (which will be discussed again in the following paragraph) – additional precursors to The Flowers of St. Francis emerge in literature and especially in icon painting. Though the director expressly warns against interpreting his film according to the former, there are instances of hagiographic content, as has been noted above. In terms of the latter, the episodic structure suggests a basic congruence. To take just one example, a thirteenth century Saint Catherine with Scenes from Her Life is sufficiently descriptive. Here a central image of the saint is surrounded by scenes that dramatize her life with no particularly emphasis placed on their arrangement. At the same time, the effect of flanking scenes is proto-cinematic as it narrates the saint’s life, adding propositional content to the figure at the center of the panel – that is, Saint Catherine who experienced such-and-such forms of tortures, etc. It is her story, told in an episodic format, just as The Flowers conforms to a similar structure. To be sure, it is possible to imagine a portrayal of the same subject matter in a painting that would share Saint Catherine with Scene’s from Her Life’s form: with a portrait of St. Francis and his “flowers” in the center, abutted by the scenes from their lives.

Of course, The Flowers of St. Francis is by no means the best known of the director’s episodic pictures. This distinction goes to his Paisan, which at the same time, submits to a different structure than The Flowers inasmuch as the characters vary from scene to scene. At the same time, the theme of time’s suspension remains integral to at least one of the six segments, the fifth. Here, in the Franciscan, Apennine monastery section, repeated reference is made to the present’s unity with the past: “this time of the evening 500 years ago,” and “the footsteps of monks for 500 years.” Indeed, Rossellini is suggesting a life that remains unchanged, and is therefore very much out of time (which positions the episode in direct contrast to the other very timely segments of Paisan). These men too are seeking to conform themselves to the will of God and to begin eternity in this life, though in contrast to St. Francis, the film’s multi-episode structure interrogates this decision to be apart from rather than in the world. Besides which, charity is the central focus of St. Francis’s gospel in the film that bares his name. The friars are anything but outside the world.

Europa ‘51

‘Being in the world’ certainly characterizes the final film to be discussed as well, Europa ’51 (released in 1952). In this work, Ingrid Bergman’s Irene Girard commits herself to a life of service after her young son passes away soon after he throws himself down a set of stairs intentionally. Initially, she twines herself to Marxist Andrea Casatti (Ettore Giannini) who practices a social gospel of his own in his charity for the poor. However, Irene soon becomes disillusioned with the “hate” that animates Andrea’s class rhetoric, arguing that her search is for a “different path, a spiritual path… something eternal.” Truly, it seems as though she tries to “love her neighbor,” though in the end she admits that something else animates her: “the love for others is born out of the hate I have for my self, of all that I have and have ever had… it’s nothing more.” Nonetheless, whatever her motives, a chorus of admires can be heard at the film’s end pleading that “she’s a saint,” even as she is being locked up in an asylum permanently.

Thus, Europa ’51 functions as the most explicitly hagiographic of Rossellini films, though it is that of a saint in our time. As Martin Scorsese puts it in his short essay on the film, “every aspect of Rossellini’s artistry is at the service of questioning modern sainthood.” Indeed, it is for this reason that she is condemned to an asylum: namely, that there is no place for simplistic religious faith in rationalist postwar Europe. When someone does attempt to live their life expressly for the betterment of others, “bound to nothing,” and therefore “bound to everyone,” there is no conclusion to be drawn other than that such a person must be mad. (It is both a rejection of capitalism and also Marxism, making it therefore untenable to the power-brokers of her world, and in micro, to those running the institution.) Yet, in her madness, “Irene has truly become, or made herself, God’s instrument.”

As such, we are reminded of what was said of St. Francis in the film’s opening intertitle: that ‘the world laughed at him and called him mad.’ Certainly, Europa ’51 can be seen as an extension of that work, rendering sainthood within the strictures of modern secular society: as Rossellini has said, “the idea came to me while I was filming The Flowers. I asked myself: if Francis, or someone like him, came back to earth today, how would he be treated? He could only be treated as a madman.” Surely, Bergman’s institutionalization makes this theme explicit – and the reality again that there is no place for a saint in this world. Thus, Europa ’51 accentuates the incongruity that emerges between the world and the life of the Christian. Indeed, it is in this respect that Rossellini’s rhetoric seems to have changed since the ecumenicalism of Rome, Open City and Paisan. If brotherhood was the defining position of both, emphasizing the political project of nation-building in the immediate postwar period, Europa ’51 figures a disillusion with this project that is every bit as powerful as Vittorio De Sica’s in Miracle in Milan (1951). In the case of Rossellini’s film, the possibility of cooperation between left and right that was so powerfully represented in Rome, Open City has reached its breaking point in the inconsistency between class (struggle) politics and the Christian faith. And if Europa ’51 is any indication, it is the Christian faith that Rossellini confirms – though certainly it is a faith that expresses itself in the same good works undertaken by Andrea.

Europa ’51 likewise distinguishes itself in Rossellini’s corpus as the present-day Bergman collaboration that depicts the life of a saint rather than that of the sinner (present-day as their Joan at the Stake [1954] is one of the director’s earlier efforts at historical biography – along with the aforementioned St. Francis). In their earlier pairing, Stromboli, as well as their subsequent Voyage in Italy and Fear (1954), human weakness and particularly adultery emerges as the principle subject. Moreover, grace intervenes to save the heroine and the marriage respectively in Stromboli and Voyage in Italy respectively, while Fear concludes with another of the director’s suicides (cf. Germany, Year Zero [1948] and Europa ’51). Fear, like the other two suicide pictures, is a work of despair arising from the director’s biography: whereas the first two reflect his son Romano’s premature death in 1946, the final film – and indeed the theme of adultery – surely coincides with the marital problems that he and Ingrid were having up until their split in 1957. Likewise Fear is a film about a consuming guilt that ultimately overcomes the heroine; she is her own judge and is unable to redeem herself, ultimately prompting her suicide.

Of course no similar degree of guilt can be ascribed to either of the children in Germany Year Zero and Europa ’51 respectively. Moreover, the first is a noticeable deviation from the taxonomy offered for the director’s early corpus, from Rome, Open City to Fear. Then again, that it so clearly documents a specific time and place, which bares on the psychology and fate of the young protagonist, to say nothing of the noted autobiographical resonance, certainly establishes it as major Rossellini – and perhaps an exemplar of another taxonomic category with religious implications, the work of desperation (Europa ’51 and Fear being other examples, while its opposite, the film of hope would include such films as Rome Open City, Stromboli, and Voyage in Italy; and again, Paisan straddles both categories, as it does with the sinner-saint distinction.)

If, as some maintain, it is possible to trace a spiritual itinerary throughout my films, I would say that Germany Year Zero is the world that has reached the limits of despair because of its loss of faith, whereas Stromboli is the rediscovery of faith. After which, it was natural to look for the most accomplished form of the Christian ideal: I found it in St. Francis.
-Roberto Rossellini, The Message of The Flowers of St. Francis

As the above account of Europa ’51 should make clear, the director’s “spiritual itinerary” does not end with The Flowers, but extends in the director’s next film, charting the new territory of contemporary sainthood. Moreover, if one is to posit the film of the ‘sinner’ as its dialectical opposite, the narrative likewise continues through his final collaborations with Bergman. Indeed, this proposed division of the director’s religious work seems to be confirmed by his own mid-career itinerary, as he identifies Germany Year Zero as a film with religious implications – namely, where despair is total, and faith is identifiable in its complete absence. As such it becomes increasing clear that to speak of a religious trajectory in the director’s work is to consider films beyond those with expressly religious subject matter – hence his mention of Germany Year Zero, and the closing descriptions of Fear.

Ultimately, the above attempt to create a taxonomy for this subject has no justification beyond its facility in clarifying certain themes and tendencies in the director’s work. That Rossellini fluctuated between the two categories shows a persistent interest in the themes, especially during the period in question (1945-1954). Then again, as the brief mention of The Messiah – and Blaise Pascal – indicates, Rossellini did not abandon an interest in religion later in his career. It did, however, take a different form: cultural history. In each, history is demystified, assuming the form of the quotidian – Christ, for example, does his carpentry work while preaching to his followers. As such, the one aspect of the director’s work that remains present even in these latter deviations from the earlier taxonomy is the director’s realism. In each, Rossellini attempts to reproduce reality through a reproduction of surface verisimilitude. Indeed, in all of his works, Rossellini never fails to show the world as it is or was. God is irreducibly present, but divine form is forever hidden from sight.
[1] For an equivalent in the plastic arts, Spanish sculptor Jorge Oteiza (1908-2003) is particularly revealing. In his minimalist facture, Oteiza draws attention to the possibility of the divine through the focus that his pieces place on space - rather than matter, which is itself equal to the material world. Lest this equivalency is less than clear, Oteiza gives many of his pieces expressly religious titles.

[2] This quality is most striking in The Messiah’s depiction of the ‘Last Supper’ and the ‘Crucifixion.’ With regard to the former, in contrast with better known Renaissance examples, Rossellini represents his figures seated on the ground, whereas Giotto’s and Leonardo da Vinci’s frescos showcase Christ and his disciples seated around a banquet table in an Italian-style structure. In terms of the latter, Rossellini depicts the three crosses hoisted above a rocky hillside that is almost entirely de-populated otherwise. In this way, Rossellini departs from traditional iconography (instantiated in Mantegna’s “Calvary,” c.1457-60) which typically features the mourning Virgin and Roman centurions – casting lots for his garments – beneath the crosses.
For a full list of citations, please consult the author.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Thursday, July 10, 2008

New Film: WALL·E

The latest from Pixar, the most consistently rewarding of the present-day Hollywood studios, WALL·E both manifests its production company's greatest strengths, namely a striking process-oriented, formal intelligence and a clearly proscribed point-of-view, while presenting a line of argumentation that is by any measure inconsistent. WALL·E is nothing short of an artistic indulgence, in the Reformation-era Roman Catholic sense, made to atone for the sins that it will commit by virtue of its hyphenate co-producer Disney's marketing strategies. Like the codified latter-day practice of giving to off-set one's carbon footprint, a twenty-first century indulgence to be sure, WALL·E's anti-consumerist screed is a rhetorical propitiation for the prominence of its action figures on Wal-Mart endcaps everywhere. Whither an Environmentalist reformation? Who will be its Martin Luther to the Environmental movement's private jet-papist Al Gore?

Writer-director Andrew Stanton's (Finding Nemo, 2003) WALL·E opens eight hundred years into a dystopian future, wherein the earth has been depopulated save for a super-resilient insect and the squat, eponymous robot (pictured above), whose programmed function is to compact and stack - in skyscraper form - the planet's (read: America's) seemingly bottom-less sea of waste. After an introduction to the robot's gleaner's instinct and his lonely bachelor love of Hello, Dolly!, we are introduced to the Apple™-inspired EVE, Pixar's latest sexy new toy - even if she lacks the threat of replacement embodied by Toy Story's Buzz Lightyear (co-scripted by Stanton). EVE, as we will shortly learn, has been dispatched to search for organic life on the once green planet, which she finds among her new robotic suitor's collected treasures. With her discovery, EVE is summoned back to the mother ship, that is, to an enormous space vessel, the Axiom, that has preserved human life beyond our atmosphere for the previous five and seven-hundred years.

Prior to EVE's return, with WALL·E predictably stowing away, the bulk of Stanton's picture occurs without dialogue - as many critics have rightly noted, this is indeed an exceptionally experimental narrative device for an animated work. The exceptions occur on the level of WALL·E's attempts at anthropomorphic utterances - the iconic instance (at least for those who have seen the film's trailer) is his incorrectly accented "Wall-e" - EVE's (still limited) later model speech and most conspicuously, a televised spot from retail powerhouse "Buy and Large," with an on-screen Fred Willard narrating.

The fact that
WALL·E presents actual human beings within the frame of its computer-animated narrative is of no minor significance. This is a film that is making a greater claim for its plausibility than any of its Pixar fore-bearers. WALL·E does not represent a parallel world where for instance monsters generate a city's power by scaring its children (Monsters, Inc., Pete Docter, 2oo1) or where a family of superheroes are forced under cover (The Incredibles, Brad Bird, 2004); rather WALL·E is this world, hundreds of years from now, when our massive Bush-era consumption has left the earth uninhabitable. The form of Stanton's picture is in other words less parable than it is cautionary tale; rats (Ratatouille, Bird, 2007) will never become great chefs but our consumer habits might just imperil the planet's future, the filmmakers' argue. This linking between commerce and environmental degradation, it is worth noting further, makes explicit the prevailing anti-capitalist bias inherent within the modern Environmentalist movement.

Outside the earth's atmosphere, amid the black expanse and violet solar systems that combine to create WALL·E's most visually striking spaces, the aforesaid vessel houses the fattened, static remnants of human civilization, now confined to floating, mobile chairs with their ubiquitous television screens that forever shield their eyes from the rest of the ship, let alone from the cosmos beyond. (When their flat screens malfunction, two separate passengers express surprise that the shuttle contains a pool, which naturally figures prominently in the Axiom's floor plan.) The human figures themselves remain plastic and relatively lifeless when contrasted with the inorganic robotic figures that this inorganic medium successfully anthropomorphizes.

Of course, their reliance upon televisual images marks yet another of WALL·E's prominent inconsistencies. As if it were necessary to remind Stanton and company, WALL·E is after all a work of visual culture, which as it happens has blinded the film's obese human subjects from each other and the world around them, to say nothing of softening their minds to the point that the Captain is required to ask what farming is, and later to explain it to his fellow travelers. It is likewise a children's film in the Disney-Pixar stable, meaning that its introduction into the world of consumption will be followed naturally by scores and scores of cute new toys, which let us be reminded, is precisely what got us into the place we are when WALL·E commences. WALL·E is in other words both disease and cure; an extraordinary moneymaker for its filmmakers' that deigns to critique the very activity that it participates in. If the system allows for it, why not act as both prophet and parasite?

In the end, WALL·E's proscriptions emerge as more measured than many of its diagnoses. The very notion of moderation is by no means controversial, nor is that of stewardship, though its conceit of a fragile biosphere - in contrast to the resiliency of its automated protagonists - remains open to debate. Less modest, however, are the film's closing credits that trace the history of Western art from the Egyptians through Van Gogh, while figuring the renewal that the film's conclusion stipulates. Here, still another Pixar artist has made a claim for his medium's role among the arts, though unlike Bird's Ratatouille which claims that a non-human can create an art worth savoring, Stanton seems to imply that his is the next step in the storied tradition into which he has inserted his robotic figures. Presumably this is great art - an art for the ages - because of its (presumably, again) unassailable politics. WALL·E is nothing if not ambitious.

In many respects this is what is most commendable about both WALL·E and latter-day Pixar filmmaking more broadly. From Toy Story to The Incredibles and Ratatouille to WALL·E, Pixar has introduced a set of auteurist filmmakers within the form of computer animation, and each with their own distinctive point-of-view. John Lasseter's (Toy Story and Cars, 2006) is a cinema of nostalgia, Bird's of a Randian advocacy of excellence and now Stanton's an anti-capitalist, orthodox Environmentalist animated film practice. (Stanton's has naturally connected with the left-leaning critical apparatus in excess of any of his esteemed antecedents.) Moreover, WALL·E manages the texture of subjective film art, or at least of an empathetic filmmaking, with its shy, nerdy protagonist, frequently fixing his viewfinders like slipping spectacles. Whatever one's feeling might be about WALL·E's politics or about the inconsistencies that threaten its rhetorical heft, Stanton does manage to continue his inhuman format's remarkable, sustained propensity to create in the first-person. Stanton is, in other words, one more distinctive voice in Pixar's polyphonic factory.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

7th New York Asian Film Festival: Fine, Totally Fine & Sukiyaki Western Django

Arriving on the final weekend of the 7th New York Asian Film Festival, first-time writer-director (and former janitor) Yosuke Fujita's Fine, Totally Fine (Zenzen daijobu) rates as one of the latest installment's unqualified highlights, and one of the funniest pictures to screen inside or out of the fest midway into 2008. Whereas Hitoshi Matsumoto's previously-screened Dainipponjin found its comedy in its satirization of the classical monster genre, video game aesthetics and reality television - as well as its study of the nation's evolving values - the grist of Fine, Totally Fine's humor is its finely sketched characterizations.

As the focal point of the film's love quadrangle, Kimura Yoshino's Akari is less noteworthy for her allure per se, than for her epic clumsiness, manifesting itself in a pair of remarkably unsuccessful attempts at opening a box of tissues, an equally unaccomplished attempt at sliding a porno mag into an undersized wrapper - along with its catastrophic consequences - and finally, her performance of a routine gesture that ranks as one of the most cringe-worthy inserts in the medium's history.

The first of her three suitors is Hisanobu (Okada Yoshinori), a hospital administrator who hires Akari as a janitor and manages a second older woman who repeatedly claims that he is the only person in the world who is actually nice to her. He really is that nice, which leads him to a rather uncomfortable evening in the latter's flat. Here she assures him that she won't "rape" him; the older lady assures Hisanobu that she has "graduated" from that. Indeed, Hisanobu often plays the straight-man, be it in his encounters with his employees or those with his fellow twenty-nine year-old pal, Teruo (Yoshiyoshi Arakawa).

Teruo, an overgrown adolescent whose dream is to revolutionize the haunted house industry, and whose greatest pleasure seems to be frightening young children, matches Akari punchline for punchline. Teruo's comedy is less purely physical, however, than it is the sum of his expressive responses (frequently to his elaborately-plotted shocks), his bizarre actions - at a business meeting he opts for a spoonful of sugar to a cup of tea or coffee - or more generally, his slow up-take. If anyone could be said to "carry" Fine, Totally Fine, its Arakawa. Of course, Fine, Totally Fine quite liberally shares its humor with its supporting players as well, as for instance Teruo's father whose peak occurs with an improbable, unexpected musical performance during a television broadcast (spoiler: its a love song about rice).

If it were to be said that Fine, Totally Fine was only as strong as its jokes, then Fujita's debut would be a very strong work indeed. However, the film's genuine sweetness and warmth, always worn quite lightly, be it in a gesture of kindness from a little girl (when a moment of discomfort seems imminent) or in the final exchange between Hisanobu and Akari emphasizes the work's depth, and moreover the maturity of a work framing its protagonists movement toward a belated adulthood - all within a Farrelly-esque milieu that matches the Brothers' hard-won affection for its under-dog heroes.

By comparison, Takashi Miike's Sukiyaki Western Django (2007) exemplifies nothing so much as it does a filmmaking that is unwilling to be anything other than sophomoric. Sure there's an intelligence here - Miike's translation of the genre finds an equivalent in the film's phonetic English dialogue, for example - but never is there a sense of stake or depth in Miike's work, to contrast it with Fujita's picture or even the best of Sukiyaki Western Django's most buzz-worthy supporting player Quentin Tarantino (i.e. Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown and Kill Bill, Volume 2). Rather, Miike's soul-less cinema is all about its punchlines - never as funny as Fine, Totally Fine, though they do have a formal side in the director's tightly-framed reveals - targeted toward a public who want nothing more in the world (evidentally, if the Japan Society crowd is any indication) than a bad-ass grandma with an enormous dragon tattoo on her back. This is a film for Miike's audience, for his post-modernist public - a club that most certainly does not include this writer as a member. Yet even for today's small "n" nihilists, Sukiyaki Western Django may not exactly rate as major Miike, if its relatively lazy action set-pieces are any indication.