Saturday, October 25, 2008

New Film: Rachel Getting Married (Co-written by Michael J. Anderson & Lisa K. Broad)

Jonathan Demme's Rachel Getting Married, from a screenplay by Jenny Lumet, condenses many of the key preoccupations of a three-decade directorial career that is better-known for its less personal The Silence of the Lambs (1991) and Oscar-aspirant Philadelphia (1993) examples, or even for its inexplicable remakes - The Truth About Charlie (2002) and The Manchurian Candidate (2004) - than for its more accomplished and integral Melvin and Howard (1980) and Something Wild (1986), or for his assured cycle of concert films, including Talking Heads instantiation Stop Making Sense (1984). Thus, to rephrase slightly, Rachel Getting Married condenses Demme at his best - a Demme that is all-to-often not on view.

Shot on hand-held DV by frequent collaborator Declan Quinn, Rachel Getting Married follows sister-of-the-bride Kym (Anne Hathaway) as she returns to her southwestern Connecticut home for the marriage of big sis Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt) to musician Sidney (Tunde Adebimpe). With Kym in rehab as the film commences, Demme and Lumet's narrative gradually discloses the traumatic underpinnings of her chemical use, which she has kept under control for the previous nine months. In one of the first scenes following her somewhat ambivalent reunion with Rachel, Kym clumsily enters a mandated twelve-step meeting where she unknowingly crosses paths with best man to be Kieran (Mather Zickel). Though Kieran and Kym will shortly engage in a romantic tryst, the primary dramatic upside of their coupling becomes the revelation that Rachel has chosen best friend Emma (Anisa George) as her maid of honor.

It is indeed the estranged bonds of Rachel and Kym's broken nuclear family that will provide much of the film's melodramatic grist, just as it is the wedding's preparations and ceremonies that account equally for its unmistakable texture. Set in a communal-minded, multi-racial milieu, the WASPy girls' frigid interactions introduce dissonance into Demme's utopia. Musicians are constantly rehearsing, vows are delivered in a Capella (in Neil Young lyrics - recall Neil Young: Heart of Gold, 2006), and Robyn Hitchcock (Storefront Hitchcock, 1998) makes an appearance at the wedding reception. In other words this a very Demme-ian utopia, brought to life with the songs and the performers that have populated the director's documentary sidebar.

Moreover, the synthetic quality of the ceremonies' cultural sources strongly mark this as (good) Demme territory. Whereas Something Wild provided one of the templates for generic inter-mixture in the American cinema, along with the work of fellow post-modernist Jim Jarmusch, Rachel Getting Married's combine occurs on the level of culture, incorporating jazz, Brazilian percussion and South Asian dress into the bi-racial ceremony. Obviously a taste for any of the above is by no means a criticism, though their artificial applications, especially in the very current if altogether arbitrary interest in India, is. Demme has always been cool - after all Something Wild does feature The Feelies - for better or for worse.

This worse comes in on the level of Rachel Getting Married's inauthenticity. Make no mistake, to say that the film features inauthenticity is not to say that it is inauthentic, even if Demme seems to endorse the values his picture espouses. This is a real world of real people who share the same artificiality. Theirs is a world immured from the stresses of finance or class, where a utopianism can be practiced between outbursts of bourgeois self-distruction. Contrary to those critics who have professed their desire to attend a wedding like the film's, this piece's writers were more irritated than envious.

Yet, none of the above is to argue that Rachel Getting Married is anything other than a good film. Whatever one may feel of Demme's calculated cool, the director does know the world he inhabits, and one suspects, the people with whom he associates. The film's politics may suffer from streaks of the utopian and the self-congratulatory, but Rachel Getting Married nonetheless wears its ethos, from the aforesaid cultural pluralism to the touchingly expressed wish that a soldier come home soon, lightly and with grace. There is a life to Demme's film, whatever its shallowness.

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.