Sunday, September 21, 2008

New Film: The Sky, The Earth, and the Rain

There is much to admire in José Luis Torres Leiva's The Sky, the Earth, and the Rain / El Cielo, la tierra, y la lluvia: the film's haptic Chilean landscapes, its textured aural compliments, a precise feeling for the region's unceasing winter precipitation and its metaphoric relation of class with the aforesaid deluge. Indeed, few examples of recent world cinema can claim to match The Sky, the Earth, and the Rain's tactile expression of environment, and of the human body's comfortless occupation of its spaces, perpetually soaked by Southern Chile's downpours and by the standing water through which these underclass protagonists cross (or in one case, by the Pacific waters after two of the film's heroines save a third from the powerful ocean tides). The wet is inescapable for the film's working poor, as is the biting, consuming cold that is empathetically imputed to the The Sky...'s spectators. Likewise, the olfactory presents itself in the damp country fields or in the decaying wallpaper framing Ana's (Julieta Figueroa) dying mother. Torres Leiva's picture activates the viewer's full sensorium.

If The Sky, the Earth, and the Rain's achievement is thereby locatable in the details of its mise-en-scène - in the haptic sense of a damp, deteriorating fencepost - and on its animalic soundtrack, weakness is revealed in their narrative combination and in the connotative uncertainty of Torres Leiva's elliptical strategies. This is a film that systematically elides narrative information and dramatic detail, though without a strong sense of the world that is being eliminated. This is to say that it is unclear why Torres Leiva has adopted the poetic tradition that Abbas Kiarostami or later Carlos Reygadas have utilitized to refer to what is left off screen. In fact, following the film's most dramatic revelation (much of course does not get revealed) Ana begins to sob, thereby calling into question whether the surfaces restrict in the same manner as the ellipses. The Sky..., in other words, seems not to present the organic unity of a Kiarostami or Silent Light.

If there are further reasons to be critical - namely the film's cliche-ridden story (a dying mother, its fraught maid-employer relationship, a mentally unstable young woman) or the odd lack of an authorial presence, in spite of its unmissable style - The Sky, the Earth, and the Rain nonetheless suggests real filmmaking promise, grounded in the picture's luminous photography and its real facility to encourage the viewer's tactile participation. Optimally, The Sky... will someday prove to be an immature work.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

New Film: Momma's Man

At a time in which the designation of independent cinema suggests a highly formulaic blend of calculated quirkiness and upper-middle class nihilism made for the boutique outfit of a Hollywood studio, which is to say a movement lacking in even the modest virtues of those same studios' big-budget offerings, writer-director Azazel Jacobs' Momma's Man represents a genuine alternative to your Little Miss Sunshine's of our unlucky world, not only for its fully-independent financing and distribution (via true indie Kino International) but for its insistent, actual authenticity. At the most basic level, Jacobs generates his genuineness through his setting, which is not only the New York or Lower East Side of his childhood, but in fact the top-floor loft that his artist parents, Ken and Flo, continue to reside in. And there is Ken and Flo as themselves, co-starring beside Azazel surrogate Mikey (Matt Boren)* in this story of an early thirty-something's inability to leave the world of his childhood once he has returned - following the chance cancellation of his flight. Consider it, as J. Hoberman rightly has, as a Mother (1996, Albert Brooks) for the gen-x set. Or better yet, as an Exterminating Angel (1962, Luis Buñuel), where the first step beyond the apartment's threshold becomes - for a time - an impassible boundary. His inability to leave, as we will see with his cooking sherry inebriation, is more than psychological.

Inside, Mikey settles into his childhood space, thumbing through a book highlighted by the presence of a prized garbage pale kid card and singing the lyrics to the very angry song he long ago penned for his first love. In the latter instance, we hear his father Ken - yes, its that Ken Jacobs for those familiar with the New American cinema^ - screaming for him to keep it down. Indeed, it is at this moment that particularity of Mikey and of course Azazel's childhood becomes clearest, where it becomes entirely foreign to those, this writer included, who grew up in the suburbs, small towns and rural interstices of fly-over country. Unlike Albert Brooks returning to his old room, the consummate American act of revisiting one's childhood, Mikey crawls back up onto his loft bed, pressing his face toward a gap in the exterior wall that opens onto the cold New York street. (My regular viewing companion, Ms. Broad, adeptly noted that Jacobs succeeds here and elsewhere marvellously in registering the bright cold of winter common to all New Yorkers. It is an experience that anyone who has spent anytime in the city will know quite well.) Certainly, Jacobs' accomplishment is located precisely in his recreation of the singularity of his own adolescence, of growing up in this apartment.

Yet, it is an accomplishment that extends beyond the film's undeniable local color to its conception of the space it presents, which is to say its mise-en-scène. His camera peers around corners, through narrow passageways into out of which Ken and Flo make their presence felt in the context of this unified, open space. Jacobs' hand-held DV camerawork favors the tightly framed close-up, the extended take medium follow shot, the aerial composition, and in one of the most compelling of the film, a circular panning shot that locates Mikey in different locations (at different times) along an unbroken, circular trajectory. In this one place, Jacobs recalls the ghosts of Ugetsu (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1953) and the choreographic cinematography that seems anathema to the digital video format. (It still remains for digital medium to show that its up to matching the Japanese master's mise-en-scène, beyond that is Aleksandr Sokurov's impossibly accomplished single Russian Ark take. If it fails to do so it may never claim to be photochemical cinema's equal.) In short, Jacobs' cinema is made to the measure of the loft's architecture - which to reiterate the Mizoguchi comparison or to evoke Ozu is very much the source of a cinema's cultural singularity.

It might not be so surprising then when Jacobs' similarly constructed spaces fail to convince when outside the familiar, comfortable confines of the Lower East Side - when specifically the attention migrates to his wife and young child in California. The same constricted mise-en-scène that is so natural to New York fails to capture the openness of this second location, of living with nature closer at hand (even in America's second largest city). So too does his Californian rival lack the authenticity of his pal Dante and the latter's a Capella rendition of the Indigo Girls which manages to be both endearing and embarrassing. This of course is no criticism of Jacobs or even his Dante, who as much as anyone in Momma's Man reads as authentic to this environment. Jacobs is unambiguously a New York filmmaker. He sees the world, through his camera, as someone who grew up on a bunk in this LES flat.

* Boren's centering performance is one of the better that I have seen this year, while Ken and Flo Jacobs show themselves to be more than up to the task of playing themselves.

^ Significantly, Azazel's film practice deviates greatly from the experimental practice of his father - seen in snatches. A. Jacobs is a narrative filmmaker whose surrogate spends time neither reading "American Fascists" nor listening to reports re the
Iraqi Civil War on NPR - though the references place Azazel culturally. He is something less than the intellectual that his parents remain, recognizable in their habitual discussions of Abstract Expressionism or the nature of their own art. Mikey, comparatively, reads comic books and trounces around in his red parka, with the letters U.S.A. emblazoned on the back.

Monday, September 01, 2008

"Doomed Love / Amor de Perdição (1978): Manoel de Oliveira's Greatest?" - Co-written by Michael J. Anderson & Lisa K. Broad

Warning: the following post contains spoilers.

Portuguese filmmaker Manoel de Oliveira's Doomed Love (Amor de Perdição, 1978), an adaptation by the director of Camilo Castelo Branco's nineteenth century novel, has very recently emerged as the knowledgeable cinephile's choice for the greatest of Oliveira's films - a position, it should be added, that has found a convenient alibi in the film's virtual invisibility (it remains unreleased anywhere on VHS or DVD). Following a recent 16mm screening of the 265-minute picture at Washington's National Gallery, this piece's two authors can do nothing but agree with the above position, however unlikely it might seem that one of the director's least seen should rate as his very best. That this position is in no small measure a product of the narrative's real emotive strength only reinforces the unlikelihood of its obscurity (in the clandestine context of Oliveira's high art corpus, of course).

Unlike the impossibly arcane focus on Portuguese history and nationality that characterizes many of the director's better films, Doomed Love trades on the more universal Romeo and Juliet plot that Branco's novel triangulates with a second love interest for its male lead Simão (António Sequeira Lopes). The aforesaid devotes himself fully to Teresa (Cristina Hauser), who naturally is the daughter of his father's sworn enemy. Simão is himself worshiped by the beautiful daughter of a blacksmith, Mariana (Elsa Wallencamp), though his star-crossed love for Teresa, accepted if not tacitly endorsed by the second woman, prevents their coupling. Suffice it to say that neither of Oliveira's pairings will find satisfaction, though Mariana will press her lips against Simão's at the moment of his death and then will join him - diving alone through the canted frame - under the water's surface, following his burial at sea.

With Mariana pulling Simão below the water, to be followed by the latter's correspondences floating to the water's surface, where they are promptly snatched by a single hand, Oliveira crystallizes the central thematic preoccupations that animate Doomed Love: this is a film that uses text to reveal that which is hidden by surfaces, as instantiated by the narrator who reveals himself to be the novel's author, and possessor of the letters, in the film's closing voice over. This strategy, while purportedly exceedingly faithful to Branco's novel, nevertheless naturally breaks with cinema's own predilection for exterior manifestation. Here, the novel's interior voices are related in voice-over, both off-screen and on, which both match the images on camera, procuring a redundancy, or more interestingly perhaps, fail to synchronize. Among the finest examples of the latter is Simão's assassination of Teresa's cousin - and fiance - of which we are told of as the pair face one another. Following a fifteen-second gap, the on-screen narration reaches the aforesaid voiced-over revelation, thereby highlighting the novel form's summary quality.

In fact, Doomed Love is structured upon the formal differences between film and literature, appropriating the latter to underline the artificial quality of narration in cinema no less than in the art of prose. This arbitrary quality appears in Oliveira's framing choices, such as in Simão's brother's horse back departure through the woods - adopting a singularly obscuring angle - or in the picture's utilizations of zooms that traverse the interior spaces before abruptly stopping. Then again, Oliveira's organization of space as often emphasizes the inherently cinematic, as when an extended take framing Teresa behind a diamond-shaped iron screen continues to highlight the architectural device throughout the shot's duration, thus becoming not simply a novelistic detail but a figure generating a phenomenological experience in its own right.

This non-literary duration occurs throughout Doomed Love, as in an excessive passage depicting Simão lying face first on his bed or in an interval in which Teresa's father's servants light the candles of a chandelier and roll up a carpet in preparation for the girl's birthday dance. Here the mode of representation again trades on the experience of lived duration, though it does so with the inflection of opera, and of the servant chorus doing double duty as stagehands. Oliveira has adopted this tradition in a medium that no longer requires its practicality. Likewise, the blacksmith João himself seems to follow from theatrical antecedents, even speaking his lines directly into the camera as an actor in theatre or in the opera might speak directly to its audience. By contrast, Simão's younger sister pulls a chair into the camera's immediate foreground as she discloses her family's fate in direct address. In this moment, it is as though the camera is being addressed as a camera, as a device to record for an unspecified future.

Then again, it is the film's past-tense that shines through most clearly, from the opening titles that will only later be fulfilled in Simão's transport to India, to the picture's obsessive strategy of narration that seeks to tell a family history in the same language as the novel. This is a cinema of the past, and thus of fate, of "doomed love," rather than of the perpetual present-tense that the medium traditionally utilizes. To this end, Mariana's premonitions of Simão's future serves to make the future past, evisioned as it is in her off-camera imagings. These hallucinations, as well as the on-screen spectre of a dead, dictating Teresa provide the film with some of its less conventional modes of address. In the end, Doomed Love is a catalogue of modes of telling in its many cinematic and non-cinematic forms.

Further, this strategy of summary is further reinforced by Oliveira's uses of sound and dialogue that (seem to) literally transpose the source material, such as in a conversation between Simão's parents where the voice-over specifies that they argue. In so doing, the filmmaker eliminates the dialogue that would comprise this argumentation, choosing instead to adopt the novel's summary quality. They simply argue, silently.

This effort of transcription may also be found in the extreme low-key nocturnal passages that recur in Doomed Loved, though in these instances it is a matter of detail rather than elision, even if elision is the visual effect of pronounced darkness. Most spectacularly, the film's principle action set piece occurs in the pitch black of night, eschewing cinema's technically-demanded perversions of naturalism in conventional day-for-night strategies. In greatly reducing the visual field, Doomed Love, like Rainer Werner Fassbinder's Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980) and Victor Erice's El Sur (1983) follows Stanley Kubrick's Barry Lyndon (1975) in simulating its period's lower key lighting. In other words, it seems to be very much an art film of its particular moment.

Then again, as always, Manoel de Oliveira's modernism singularly partakes in a relation to the arts that generated cinema, from the novel to opera. Indeed, its stage-bound settings refer more to opera or theatre than art cinema's conventional documentations of place, such as in the plaster board sea-going and stage-coach vessels that reinforce its constructedness. Yet, while much of the director's corpus ultimately underscores cinema's deficient nature, as an augment of theatre, here Oliveira's anti-cinema adds to its medium, providing a means to supply the sub-surface while reframing cinema as precisely what it is: not life, but art - and art which is as gloriously and exhilaratingly arbitrary as its many antecedents.