Thursday, November 20, 2008

New Film: A Christmas Tale / Un conte de Noël

Arnaud Desplechin's A Christmas Tale (Un conte de Noël), from a screenplay by Desplechin and Emmanuel Bourdieu, opens stateside to near unanimous orgiastic praise, save for a smattering of immediately dismissible complaints that the film is overly long and/or boring - one's inability to engage with a film is not a sufficiently empirical argument by which to establish a work's relative merit; chances are pretty good in such instances that it is the reviewer rather than the work solely that wants - and to resident critical curmudgeon Armond White's critique that the director's latest "isn't repugnant, just regressive." (For this writer, White's contrariness and his lack of political correctness does not only not disqualify his opinions, but in fact confirms the vitality of his film criticism, even when he gets it wrong; dissent is nothing to fear, or to classify as "dangerous," as the anti-White watchdog site once qualified it.) On the side of more measured praise, Time Out's invaluable Geoff Andrew, who as it happens was "consistently engaged," remarked on the film's "lively if sometimes annoyingly arbitrary use of flamboyant stylistic devices." Setting aside whether or not Desplechin's formal choices are indeed 'annoying,' it is through this question of the arbitrariness of A Christmas Tale's formal choices that this writer seeks to place Desplechin's latest, both film historically and qualitatively.

A Christmas Tale opens with voiced-over narration and black paper cut-outs enacting the tragic history of the Vuillard family. Desplechin utilizes the former technique repeatedly in the film, though in future he frequently transforms the initial interior monologues into exterior vocal exposition, addressed directly into the camera. In these moments A Christmas Tale achieves a measure of immediacy, of vitality effectively foreclosed against by classical narrative cinema and its system of diegetic formation. Here, classical form is not only continually an option, but so is its transgression, for which Desplechin repeatedly opts.

On the conventional side of this rule-breaking, Desplechin's cutting reads as Godardian in its frequent usage of the jump cut and derivative of Alain Resnais circa 1963 (Muriel, namely) in its narrative elliptically. Musically, A Christmas Tale's selections range from Charles Mingus - this former sign of modernity now signifies the film's older generation - to hip hop, with youngest son Ivan (Melvil Poupaud) acting as D. J. In the utilization of this latter musical form (likewise present in the director's 2004 Kings and Queen) the film's current-ness is vividly construed. A Christmas Tale is resolutely a work of the present, of a post-modernity.

Why postmodern rather than modern, given especially the narratological inspiration of the 'New Wave'? For starters, A Christmas Tale trades on a strategy that combines the disparate, particularly on the somewhat ephemeral level of texture - hence the frequency of bad metaphors (in reviews of the work) comparing Desplechin's work with over-filled holiday confectionery. Narratively, this sense of 'post' finds representation in the feeling of aftermath, of a dysfunctional family experiencing qualified restoration. A Christmas Tale comes from precisely the same mold as Wes Anderson's The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), with which it shares the classification of modern, or again postmodern Christmas classic. (Ingmar Bergman's Fanny and Alexander [1982] likewise is a much remarked-upon source, as is the less commonly quoted The Dead, John Huston's masterful 1988 adaptation of James Joyce's The Dubliners.)

So now that the qualitative is being articulated, it remains to be said that Desplechin's is often a distinctively funny, and yes entertaining work, thanks in no small measure to Mathieu Amalric's anti-functional middle son, which is perhaps best illustrated in his misanthropic exchange with matriarch Catherine Deneuve, who professes to dislike her third child as much as he does her. Desplechin axiom Emmannuelle Devos and Deneuve's real-life daughter Chiara Mastroianni additionally make welcomed supporting turns as the lover and wife of the aforementioned brothers. They helped to bring the Vuillard's to vivid life.

But back to the matter at hand: again, is the form organically-generated or is it arbitrary? The short answer is that it is both. On the level of effect, Desplechin's intuitive filmmaking does demonstrate his care with selecting variable forms, in creating a work that continually succeeds in being formally unexpected. The word that most immediately springs to mind is free - though a freedom that is hard-worn by the film's formal choices. To once again evoke Godard, and especially My Life to Live (1962), A Christmas Tale is a work that opts for every non or anti-classical technique open to its maker. A Christmas Tale never falters texturally.

Yet, on the level of the specific, the director's choices do not always or even often follow from the work's narrative content. One of the most remarkable examples is a sudden split screen in the doctor's office that Desplechin seems to adopt in lieu of shot/reverse cutting. Similarly, there is the usage of irises with no other clear justification than their unusual-ness. Or I suppose the director's free application of technique, his intuition. A Christmas Tale is properly postmodern in the sense that the signifier dislodges from the signified. Style no longer serves its narrative or thematic content as much as it seeks an effect: to procure the unexpected. Though not unexpected in the sense of shock. Rather, Desplechin's point seems to be the film's multi-grained texture; its ornate filigree as Lisa K. Broad puts it. In the words of this author, the semantic meaning of forms has been expelled and replaced with figures chosen purely for their syntactic effectiveness.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Sarabande: The Poetic Cinema of Nathaniel Dorsky (Co-Written by Michael J. Anderson & Lisa K. Broad)

Screening under the heading "Sarabande: The Poetic Cinema of Nathaniel Dorsky," the American avant-garde filmmaker's three most recent works represent a peak in not only the artist's superlative latter-day corpus, but in the experimental cinema of the first decade of the twenty-first century - alongside the 16mm cinemas of James Benning and Tacita Dean, among others. United not only by this same 16mm format and their enveloping silence, Dorsky's most recent films (Song and Solitude, 2006; Sarabande and Winter, 2008) likewise share a preternatural color palette, abyssal spaces, and "crisp" and "soft" variations in texture. Sarabande, for example, achieves many of the most luminous hues, as with the supernatural crimson of the leaves (pictured above); an indistinct, gauzy green that saturates the celluloid; and scores of tones and their combinations from a single coral to a spectural set of lens fares that paint the camera lens. The same short, moreover, supplies one of the best examples of the final category with a soft blue along the bottom of the frame, which plays against more metallic diagonal gold streaks that descend from the upper left. Sarabande, along with Song and Solitude in particular, affirms the aesthetic potential of the 16mm medium.

Yet, it is not simply the found subject matter or even the films' extraordinary light sources that account for their successes; rather, what is truly distinctive in Dorsky's most recent films is their unwavering plastic sense. In each work, Dorsky does not so much shoot a variety of subjects through found filters or lattices, but instead films spaces that compress and erase a series of planes that alternate the deep blacks and vibrant highlights spoken of above. To quote the filmmaker, he produces "models of existence" as opposed to images of the world - models of subjective vision that articulate a set of spatial vectors which crash (silently, of course) into a single, two-dimensional composition. This is not exactly to say that the images are flat. More precisely, they play with flatness and depth, dictated by the degree of illumination found in the specific images.

Or, in the words of Lisa K. Broad, Dorsky's graphic compositions resist a theatrical cinema conceived not only as fiction, but as the cinematic space as a box that holds objects. Sarabande, etc. think of the screen as a screen. This is not cinema as painting but cinema as itself in the truest sense - a cinematic flatness.

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.