Sunday, October 12, 2008

The 46th New York Film Festival: Tôkyô sonata (Co-written by Michael J. Anderson & Lisa K. Broad)

Warning: the following post contains spoilers in the fifth paragraph.

Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Tôkyô sonata, from a story by Max Mannix and screenplay by Kurosawa and Sachiko Tanaka, caps what has been a very strong year for new Japanese cinema in New York. Following three superior comedies at this year's New York Asian Film Festival - Adrift in Tokyo (Satoshi Miki, 2007), Dainipponjin (Hitoshi Matsumoto, 2007) and Fine, Totally Fine (Yosuke Fujita) - Kiyoshi Kurosawa's telescopic latest stakes out more dramatic terrain in its portrayal of Japanese institutions in crisis. In Tôkyô sonata, Kurosawa challenges the Japanese male, the stability of the familial unit, the economic health according to which many of its institutions have been re-orientated and Japan's (seemingly) diminishing place on the world stage. While Adrift in Tokyo (the Japanese family), Dainipponjin (its cultural mythology and the status of the male) and Fine, Totally Fine (again the family and also the more universal subject of maturation) all address topics of Japan's institutional health and self-image, no film this year can claim the comprehensiveness and ambition of Tôkyô sonata's diagnosis.

Tôkyô sonata commences in the same narrative territory as Laurent Cantet's 2001 Time Out, and even Yasujiro Ozu's I Graduated, but... (1929), with family patriarch Ryuhei Sasaki (Teruyuki Kagawa) losing his job at the outset in a cost-cutting measure that will relocate his firm to China. As with the earlier French picture, Sasaki finds himself unable to tell his wife that he is newly unemployed, compelling the middle-aged former administrator to spend his days amid the island nation's unemployed throngs, standing in line at work agencies - where he is assured that he will never find work to match his earlier position (concisely describing an economy and nation in decline) and where he rejects their initial offers (cf. the Ozu) - and for free rice porridge, in spaces that look directly lifted out of My Man Godfrey's (1936) Depression-era waterfronts. Sasaki soon meets a former classmate who has a three-month jobless head start on his pal, having cultivated a routine that includes a very funny, little-known cell phone feature. Indeed, in spite of the tragic nature of his position, Sasaki's classmate infuses Tôkyô sonata with much of the film's distinctive light humor.

Younger son Kenji's (Inowaki Kai) plot-line likewise introduces the comic into Tôkyô sonata with the twelve year old's audacious defiance of his school teacher, whom he notes was reading manga porn on his commuter train. This defense leads to complete classroom chaos, wherein one of the young Kenji's classmates claims that a "revolution" is afoot. Societal dissolution has spread, in other words, to the school house. Yet, Kenji, in spite of his teacher's insistence that he is being bullied by the mostly introverted young teen, is most interested in learning piano, which his father opposes on principle, even after he receives indications of his son's virtuosity. Piano seems to be an ill-suited hobby for the young Japanese man.

Sasaki's harsh treatment of his younger son proceeds from his feeling that his older son Takahashi (Yû Koyanagi) was coddled in his younger years. After breezing into and out of the family home earlier in the film, Taka suddenly proclaims his intention of joining the United States military, which he points out protects Japan. (At a festival where an opening weekend screening prompted a "down with capitalism" shout at the end of the picture, and where any anti-American screed, no matter how trivial or poorly conceived, receives reflexive applause, the apparently reasoned choice to join the American military absolutely silenced festival-goers.) While Taka will ultimately resist Japan's one-time war enemy, his desire to serve his nation again falls outside of the corporate paradigm that the quintessential Sasaki believes to be the only path for the Japanese male, in spite of his personal failure.

The most passive resistance to the film's patriarch and to circumscribed societal positions is enacted by stay-at-home mother Megumi (Kyôko Koizumi). Refusing the divorce that Taka encourages, Megumi finally defies her husband in playing an active role in a crime for which she is the victim. Without being too specific, suffice it to say that this incident prompts an allegorical "earthquake," hoped for in an earlier line of dialogue, that finally leaves each of the family members effected and in need of a new beginning after a late film trauma. The rattled Sasaki family, seated together at the end in a messed living space, will thus begin their collective redemption, figured in the father's tacit acceptance of a new class (occasioned by his evident peace with a janitorial position and his return of a large sum of money) and Kenji's concluding piano recital. As a family unit, the Sasaki's resist Japan's capitalistic value system.

Of course, 'the earthquake' spoken of above is a long time coming - that is, without a revolutionary turning over; perhaps it is closer in spirit to a landslide. Kurosawa and his fellow screenwriter construct their narrative upon a pattern of repetitions with an increasing set of variations that finally shatter the familial cohesiveness that is under burgeoning pressure from the first. The tension of Sasaki's efforts to preserve normalcy lead to the film's late passage devastations in an ever increasing pace of cross-cutting. In this regard, Tôkyô sonata's elegant conclusion provides needed, real-time relief.

More immediately distinctive, however, are Kurosawa's expressionist spaces, with their projections of narrative dynamics and drama in a sudden rain, background pools of blue light and in the muffled sight and sound of a passing train detectable in a horizontal slit of glass. Kiyoshi Kurosawa's filmmaking touch appears most vividly in his mise-en-scène, in those visual accents that perfectly underline accompanying narrative feeling. On this level, Kurosawa has never been better; and yet, it is ultimately the breadth and ambition of Tôkyô sonata's societal critique that determines its status as the director's masterpiece. Needless to say, this is one of the year's very best films.

Tôkyô sonata will receive U.S. distribution through Regent Releasing.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

The 46th New York Film Festival: The Headless Woman

Lucrecia Martel's The Headless Woman (La Mujer sin cabeza), from an original screenplay by the director, marks 2008's first piece of unequivocally great filmmaking. Contrary to critical intimations of The Headless Woman's narrative opacity, Martel builds her picture entirely around female lead Veró's (María Onetto) distressed psychology following an automobile accident of her own distracted making. Driving down a rural road paralleling a concrete ravine, Veró hears and feels a sudden thud as she attends to her cell phone. A dog, which Martel introduced previously as belonging to a group of indigenous Argentine boys, lies lifeless on the road. Veró shortly stops her car, exiting into the sudden rainfall. Martel's camera remains in the vehicle, maintaining an extreme shallow focus (putting Veró outside the thin foreground focal plane, beyond a rain dropped-studded window) that dominates not only this sequence but the whole of the Argentine director's film.

Martel's decision to maintain excessively shallow depth of field in her wide screen compositions, many of which present Veró and Veró only in focus, serve to emphasize the cardinality of her psychology to the film's narrative - that is, it is purely Onetto's registration of the various shades of her character's anguish and discomposure that comprise the sharply-focused vectors of the mise-en-scène. Moreover, her addled mentation finds a corollary in the film's elliptical narration, which jumps ahead with protagonist and spectator alike uncertain as to where we find ourselves and how we got there. Of course, Martel's refusal to introduce her spaces with establishing shots promotes this sense of spatial unmooring that clearly inflicts Veró.

Ultimately, Veró acknowledges that she may have hit something more than the canine that we see in the film's opening, thus explaining the depth of her despair. However, with police confirmation that no deaths have been reported near the accident site, Veró's anxiety begins to dissipate, and as such, the film's mimetic fog begins to lift. Veró, in other words, increasingly seems capable of processing her surroundings (though in keeping with the film's spirit, further reversals will dictate additional stylistic modulations).

Yet, Martel continues to maintain the aforementioned framing strategies even when the psychological haze becomes less all-consuming. In this respect, Martel's stylistic choice takes on a second, in its case social function: to close off Veró from the surrounding lower depths. The Headless Woman's narrative, following the additional turn(s) of the plot alluded to above, will likewise articulate Argentine class relations, visible not only in the manual labor performed by the indigenous populations, but in the corrupt dealings that ultimately deny Veró her just fate. This use of metaphor, similarly richly mined in the director's strong debut feature, La Ciénaga (The Swamp, 2001), is both as precisely articulated as the lead's psychology, and also as richly-layered. The director's social critique must be seen additionally, for instance, in the film's notation of incest and the insistence of Veró's aunt that her still beautiful, though middle-aged niece has not kept herself up. Indeed Veró's extended family surely functions as a metonym for Argentina's corrupt upper class, which is by no means exonerated by the sudden pangs of liberal guilt that Veró seems to experience.

All of this is to argue for the organic rigor of Martel's latest, and most certainly greatest work. What the above largely fails to note in its emphasis in the relationship of form to content in The Headless Woman is the sheer beauty of the imagry that enacts Veró's remarkably credible psychology - unlike such lesser lights of recent art cinema such as Julian Schnabel's The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007), which attempts a comparatively similar visualization of non-normative cognitive states, though without a shread of Martel's film's success - while concealing the world beyond her mental and social spheres.

I would like to as always thank my wife, Lisa K. Broad, for those insights of hers that I have cribbed either knowingly or unknowingly. She certainly knows which they are.

Monday, October 06, 2008

The 46th New York Film Festival: RR

If James Benning's RR (2007, 112 mins.) does indeed prove to be the filmmaker's final work in the 16mm format, as was suggested by Mark McElhatten prior to last night's Views from the Avant-Garde screening, Benning will have selected the ideal content for his farewell to the medium: projected celluloid's first subject, the arriving train^. More accurately, RR is comprised of 43 separate set-ups of trains crossing into and out of the filmmaker's static landscapes, thus repeating the essential format of his 2004 masterworks, Ten Skies and 13 Lakes - where the filmmaker procured variations in immobile ten-minute takes. Of course, RR refuses the countdown structure of the previous two entries, as well as their fixed durations, adopting instead a logic, once again, that requires the appearance and subsequent disappearance of the eponymous trains. In this way, RR denies the anticipation of its end that is written into the earlier films'; Benning's latest offers no similar substitution for expected narrative closure.

RR does however present a structure that is otherwise identical essentially to Ten Skies and 13 Lakes: like these films, RR proceeds according to the minutest of variations. In Benning's most recent, the visual and auditory content almost immediately proves redundant, less of course on the level of the landscapes themselves, than on the ostensible subjects of the images - the freight trains passing through Benning's assorted landscapes. As such, RR quickly encourages its viewer to search out areas of interest beyond these, corners of the frame where an unrelated movement or sound encourages the spectator's redirected attention. An early instance occurs in an Alabama location where a fish's jumping activates the previously placid water occupying the lower half of the frame. With this sudden ripple and the accompanying sound, we search for something new in the image, for variability in content.

This pursuit of difference manifests itself in many of the film's seemingly less significant details. In a Milwaukee location, a single piece of blue refuse in the lower left corner of the frame immediately attracts our attention, even as the abutting train passes by (at least for a time) unnoticed. Here, it is this primarily color highlight that prompts our interest. Elsewhere, a California view attracts our interest for the strangeness of the space, where a bridge crosses over a dark red flat. In this instance we search for any sign of the landscape's composition - if it is water, which in fact it is (covered in alga) we seek that ripple that would indicate its status. Again, the train crosses through the frame largely unnoticed. Or in yet another subsequent set-up, the appearance of the train no less than cancels the background landscape, largely excluding visual interest from the shot.

Of course, there are places where we do focus more intently on the train, whether it is a zip shadow holding stationary in counterpoint to the moving train or at Caliente curve in California where the foregrounded train's disappearance from the frame is followed presently by its second appearance in the recesses of the composition. In this instance, Benning demonstrates a wryness that appears often in RR: among the more memorable examples are the film's only withholding of a train - the approaching headlights prove to be a truck driving atop the rail bridge - and the NWA soundtrack displaced by the sound of the on-camera train. In the latter case, the shot's primary source of interest becomes whether this music will recommence once the the train is out of ear-shot.

RR further differs from its immediate predecessors in its use of found audio, which in certain cases is calibrated to approximate a plausible source within the frame: as for instance the rap in a RV encampment or "The Battle Hymn of the Republic's" low volume suggesting a location in a distant structure. In others, the audio finds no precise location, as with Gregory Peck's reading of Revelations, a circa 1990s Toronto Blue Jays broadcast or Dwight D. Eisenhower's farewell address (where he warns against the military-industrial complex). Excluding the baseball game, these latter examples suggest a cursory critical perspective, or better yet a diagnosis of the American present, in addition to the auditory thematic - principally, our attempt to listen under the louder rail sounds.

It is our attempts as spectators to find the subjects of the images, both visual and auditory, as well as its jokes, which provides RR with its substance. It is likewise the film's theoretical foundation: namely, to produce moment-to-moment interest in the introduction of new and novel items in his mise-en-scène and on his soundtrack. Through the film's repetitions Benning highlights the minimum conditions for the temporal side of cinematic form (most commonly, though not here, taking the form of narrative). RR represents yet another essential entry into one of the the contemporary avant-garde's most indispensable corpuses.

^In an earlier article on the filmmaker, I made the comparison to the Lumière's famed genesis of cinema. As such Benning's latest, on the level of conceit, provides me with no small amount of satisfaction, and even confirmation. (I hope my readers forgive this boasting; at least I confined it to a footnote.)

New Filmkritik
has compiled stills of each of the film's 43 set-ups as selected by the filmmaker himself.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

The 46th New York Film Festival: Night and Day

Warning: the following post contains spoilers.
Writer-director Hong Sang-soo's Night and Day (Bam gua nat) furnishes incontrovertible evidence that rumors of Eric Rohmer's retirement have been greatly exaggerated. As the third film made by an Asian master in the past two years to engage directly with French film history - along with Hou's Flight of the Red Balloon and Johnnie To's Sparrow - Hong's latest dispenses with the Korean director's trademark two-part, 'twice-told' structures* for Rohmer's diaristic narrative pattern, replete with dated intertitles that are graphically-identical to those utilized in the director's 1986 masterpiece, The Green Ray/Summer. Indeed, Rohmer's Marie Rivière starrer represents one of Night and Day's most conscious sources with its initial August in Paris locale, protagonist Seong-nam's (Kim Yeong-ho) propensity to sob^, and most significantly, object of desire Yu-jeong's (Park Eun-hye) declaration - following a framing emphasizing the late-day sun - that she now knows her feelings. Of course, contrary to Rohmer's work, Hong fixates on a male lead.

In this respect, Night and Day is closer to the French maestro's Claire's Knee (1970), recapitulating that film's character geometry: in both instances, a male protagonist spends time apart from his lover (fiancee and wife, respectively) wherein he comes into contact with an old acquaintance and two younger romantic prospects. Likewise, Hong matches the earlier picture's fetishistic emphasis on a single feature of his female protagonist's anatomy - in this case her feet rather than the eponymous knee. While Jean-Claude Brilay finds satisfaction in touching the latter, Seong-nam dreams of sucking Yu-jeong's toes, which does nothing to satiate his desire. In fact, it precedes his romantic confrontation of the more attractive of his sexual prospects.

This facing contradicts his earlier insistence to old flame Min-seon (Kim Yu-jin) that they resist the temptation to cheat on their spouses, quoting the Biblical passage that it is better to cut off your hand or gouge out your eye if either causes you to sin, rather than to enter hell whole. Seong-nam claims to read the Bible as if it is history, though a later prayer (or napping) session in a French church compels the lead to ask forgiveness of a North Korean he has offended; then again he soon embarrasses his political rival anew in a bout of arm wrestling. (Suffice it to say that as is often the case with Hong, Night and Day is routinely quite funny.) In the film's stew of Christian theology, sensuality and comedy, therefore - to say nothing of its characters' frequent falsehoods, as Lisa K. Broad has perceptively noted - the director's latest also compares strongly to Rohmer's My Night at Maud's (1969).

Interestingly it is very much on the level of theology that Rohmer and Hong differ. Whereas Rohmer's Christianity demonstrates a Jansenist tendancy - that sect's predestinarian aspect is articulated through the Frenchman's tales of tempted protagonists who return to their original lovers - for Hong, free will remains paramount, and actions continually produce unforeseen consequences. Former lover Min-seon, for instance, claims to have had six abortions secretly during their affair and after being rejected anew by Seong-nam, commits suicide; Yu-jeong tells a departing Seong-nam that she might be pregnant. Though Seong-nam will find his way back to his wife, he will not only experience temptation, as does Jean-Louis Trintignant in My Night at Maud's, but will actively, aggressively pursue the object of desire, whom he will leave after one of the aforesaid lies. Hong does not merely ape Rohmer on the level of theology, but instead offers a plausible counter-position.

A final point of comparison with My Night at Maud's is Night and Day's frequent use of zooms, rhyming with the earlier film's telephoto exterior framings. Of course, Hong's own A Tale of Cinema (2005) provides the more direct source; yet unlike A Tale of Cinema, where the style seems to organically reflect its film's student filmmaking subject, in Night and Day the technique feels more ersatz, as does Hong's general utilizations of long take, often static compositions. Of course, Rohmer himself confines his technique to a decoupage deriving from Hollywood sources, even if it is carefully manipulated to reflect the film's content. In this respect, Hong's reliance on a relatively uncalibrated style fits the film's principle inspiration.

*On the level of theme, this doubleness is still present in the coexistence of Korea and its expatriot community in Paris. Seong-nam's phone conversations with his wife make this point most explicitly, figuring a population divided that is further registered in the presence of the North Korean player.
^In the gender reversal of the sobbing, Night and Day reads as a critique, as does so much of Hong's cinema, of the Korean male. The same can certainly said of the protagonist's series of lovers and his serial mistreatment of women. Of course, the Korean female, in her frequenty duplicity, does not come off much better.

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.