Thursday, December 11, 2008

Feliz aniversário, Manoel!

Manoel de Oliveira, one of the true giants of world cinema and a strong contender for the greatest of all Portuguese artists (in any medium), turns one-hundred today. It has been reported that Oliveira will spend the centennial of his birth on the set of his latest production, Singularidades de uma Rapariga Loira. Nothing could be more appropriate certainly, nor anything quite so gratifying for those admirers of Oliveira, who, much like myself, have long entertained this scenario. After all, does not a filmmaker who has succeeded in making more than one film per year throughout his nineties deserve to make history as the first active 100 year-old auteur?* That his primary subject has long been an ironized assessment of Europe's waning civilization - from the standpoint of an inheritor of its aristocratic high culture - makes his unparalleled time as a working artist all the more poetic. For those of us in the cinema, today belongs to one of our greatest masters.

For those who are less familiar with the director, let me direct you to a series of posts (linked to below) that I have dedicated to Oliveira during my three-and-a-half years writing for this site. The fact that I have written on the Portuguese filmmaker more than any other individual is I suppose the greatest testament I could offer to the artist's continued vitality; his films have inspired me to make my thoughts public like none other. Feliz aniversário, Manoel!

Full-length reviews and essays available at Tativille: Doomed Love (1978), Francisca (1981), No, or the Vainglory of Command (1990), Magic Mirror (2005), Belle Toujours (2006).

Capsule pieces (for my annual 'top ten' lists) available at Ten Best Films: I'm Going Home (2001), The Uncertainty Principle (2003), A Talking Picture (2003).

* Leni Riefenstahl's Impressions Underwater (2002) was released to commemorate the then-living German filmmaker's 100th birthday. Riefenstahl, however, shot the documentary film while still in her nineties.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

New Film: Fengming: A Chinese Memoir

Wang Bing's non-fiction Fengming: A Chinese Memoir (He Fengming, 2007) establishes a new twenty-first century standard for conceptual minimalism: a single frontal camera set-up for most of its 186-minute duration, occasionally alternating between a default medium-length composition and less ubiquitous medium close-up framings. In front of the documentarian's mini-DV camera, He Fengming (pictured), in a near endless stream of expertly-narrated anecdotes, recounts her experiences as the victim of Mao Zedong's Anti-Rightist purge and the subsequent Cultural Revolution. Wang uses neither archival footage nor photographs to illustrate Fengming's personal history, limiting his film instead to his subject's on-camera act of recollection. Fengming is more than He's opportunity to tell her story, it is her chance to speak.

Fengming's identification with anti-Maoist factions began with her husband's publication of an article warning against the dangers of bureaucratic excesses. In spite of the fact that both He and her husband were avowedly socialist in their politics, and that Fengming offered no anti-governmental statement either publicly or privately, the PRC successively labeled each as "rightist," leading to their submission to "struggle sessions" in which their friends and colleagues were called upon to offer denunciations. With their guilt thereby established, each was reassigned to labor camps - Fengming with a substantial reduction in her pay grade and change of vocations, and her husband with a loss of employment. Fengming and her husband - whose love story is among this year's most luminous - were thus among the victims of the first Anti-Rightist movement, which commenced in 1957, and would lead to the internment of hundreds of thousands of persons, 99.8% of which were exonerated after Mao's death.

Fengming and her husband's assignments occurred during the early stages of the Greap Leap Forward (1958-1961) in which Mao's disasterous agricultural policies lead to the starvation of 30,000,000. Miraculously, Fengming was somehow able to escape this fate, unlike so many in the camps - she and her comrades were forced to eat stolen cotton seeds - and was eventually cleared of the Rightist tag in the early 1960s. With the Cultural Revolution, however, Fengming was again identified as a Rightist and was accordingly sent to live with an extremely poor country family. As Fengming notes, theirs was a dirt-walled house without rafters or ceiling panels. (Cinematic comparisons to the family in Yellow Earth [Chen Kaige, 1984] seem apt.) Yet, as poor as they were, Fengming's newest hosts showed a great deal of compasion, as did those at the Dry Gulch farm, who housed He during her visit.

Speaking of, the Dry Gulch anecdotes offers two of the year's most vivid images: a cave filled with the discarded blankets of the deceased, and, thirty years later, the mounds and faded grave-markers of a make-shift cemetery. Fengming: A Chinese Memoir in this respect is a supremely visual work, even as Wang's camera does not stray from the film's eponymous subject. However, it is an imagery generated not by potentially-problematic reproductions (given the film's inherent melodrama, an entertainment in suffering might entail) but through He's expert storytelling, shading and foreshadowing - a perfect, similarly visual moment is her description of a possibly wolf-filled winter landscape - concealing and repeating for clarity. Fengming brings her unspeakable world back into existence.

Of course, Fengming put her narrational facility to use in an earlier written memoir on the same subject, thereby prompting the question of why a film version. The answer, it would seem, is present in the camera's ubiquitous subject: Fengming's face and more generally, her corporeality. Wang's film offers its spectator the experience of this woman's presence, her imminence at the time of Fengming's filming. Once more, we do not simply have the telling of a story, but the body (and spirit) of the woman who suffered, before our eyes, letting her memories roll of her tongue in near real-time.

Wang emphasizes this embodiment in a prefatory passage and coda that both film He in her everyday environs. In the former, we see her walking to her apartment house over the surrounding icy streets, and in the latter, sitting on her couch watching television and answering a phone call (from another survivor of the camps). She is not the abstract author of her written memoirs, but a physical member of the world we share. Fengming is also representative of the 550,000 denounced rightists; this again is a 'Chinese' memoir.

Ultimately, a story like Fengming's needs no aesthetic justification. Her's is an enormously vital story in any society - and no less in liberal ones like our own. Fengming's life is a reminder, if any is necessary, that we must always resist the suppression of opposing points of view, no matter to what end. Nonetheless, Wang's film does more than instruct, it does more than give voice to its' extraordinary subject, which is certainly all that we might ask of a work of Fengming's importance: Wang's latest provides an ontological justification for its (otherwise redundant) celluloid representation.

I would like to thank Lisa K. Broad for her many insights included above. I wish to dedicate this piece to the memory of Andre Bazin, whose life - and the fiftieth anniversary of whose death - has been celebrated this weekend at a Yale University conference organized by Dudley Andrew.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

New Film: You, the Living

Writer-director Roy Andersson's You, the Living (Du levande, 2007), which as of the date of this writing remains unreleased in the U.S., represents the sixty-five year old Swedish filmmaker's second feature this decade, following his superlative 2000 release Songs from the Second Floor. For this author, the somewhat qualified, if not mixed response to the earlier film made for one of the new decade's biggest surprises, inasmuch as Songs...'s admixture of Luis Buñuel and Tativille namesake Jacques Tati resulted in one of the finest Swedish films since Ingmar Bergman's late masterworks (namely his 1982 Fanny and Alexander and 1984 After the Rehearsal). Whether or not You, the Living equals the earlier film's stature - I disqualify myself from making this judgment on the basis of my hazy recollections of the prior work's particulars, which of course I should have done likewise when making the larger claim for Songs...'s relationship to a national cinema that I know very little about - it minimally qualifies as a major work of the European fin-de-siècle cinema. (The rarity of internationally-distributed Swedish films of this distinction obviously occasioned the above claim.)

With two exceptions, You, the Living is structured as a series of sometimes related sometimes not one-shot scenes that culminate in a punch-line or in its withholding. Parenthetically, the two aforesaid variations occur when one set-up is followed by a second (though never a third) in an adjacent space. In most instances, the characters of one take do not return in the following shot, though in many instances they do return sporadically throughout Andersson's narrative. Occasionally, however, a variable series of places are linked in the telling of a mini-narrative embedded within the film's broader structure of largely unrelated episodes. In a number of these sub-narrations, the sequence is initiated by the sketching of the contours of a dream. Thus, the proceeding reads as surreality, as in the very funny passage where a figure's breaking of age-old china leads to his electric chair execution or to a more poignant marriage fantasy with a domestic interior rolling atop rails.

Yet, it is perhaps less You, the Living's exceedingly droll humor than its articulation of its comedy within extreme depth, and again with infrequent recourse to cutting, that provides the film's relationship to the cinema of Tati. Though Andersson typically does not opt for the French maestro's multiple centers of interest (that compete for the spectator's attention within a single frame) his use of a similarly deep space does register in much the same way as 'objective.' They are read as subject to the viewer's act observation, even when it becomes clear that what follows is the visualization of a dream. The reason for the maintenance of this ontological distinction, and for our dissonance in viewing the internal as an external, Albertian space, seems to be Andersson's adoption of forced perspective, as site collaborator Lisa K. Broad puts it, of the looking into a diorama-like space. The film's studio setting acts to contain the action.

Nonetheless, Andersson does not allow his viewer full protection from reciprocity. Indeed, the dreams again are told directly into the camera, just as the film's second set-up features a grizzled female figure singing to the apparatus. Beside her, a pink, late-day light reflects upon a tree, as it does on the skyline behind her, though in the instance of the latter, unlike on the tree, an appropriate angle is maintained. As such, it becomes evident that You, the Living's mise-en-scène obtains an extreme artificiality to parallel the outburst of song that has become this scene's ultimate subject. Andersson's work truly earns the distinction of surreality in its expression of another reality consubstantial to the real world we think we know. Though You, the Living's does mark it dreams, those passages outside it obtain the same dream-like quality.

The previously-mentioned hard-living female returns in another set-up shortly, though she quickly disappears into the stage craft, with an apparent shift to other sources of interest. That is, the punch-line in the passage would seem to lie elsewhere. When, in this scene, last call is announced, the convergence of persons around the bar, from outside the original frame, would seem the natural source of comedy, though Andersson avoids the obvious joke - that is, to absolutely fill the frame. In this respect, our expectations and their subversion each derive from the set-up's static framing. Hereafter, a second chance for comedy comes with a young woman professing her admiration to the lead singer of the Black Devils. (They will be the married couple of the subsequent dream.) However, it is not even this aggressive fanaticism, but the sudden reappearance of the older woman, who continually claims to be misunderstood, that proves to be the punch-line. You, the Living's comedy, at least throughout this particular take, is generated by our narrative expectations.

Other punch-lines require a baseline, as for instance with the aforesaid dish-breaking. Here, the passage opens with a group of dinner guests surrounding an extraordinarily long table covered in fine china. Since the forthcoming pulling of the tablecloth does not exactly leap to mind, Andersson creates the comedy by planting an expectation of spectacle in the dream narration; consequently, the waiting proves as important as the gutsy action. Of course, a disconcerting note is struck with the swastikas that are revealed by the act. This dark undercurrent, a reminder of Sweden's "neutral" WWII stance, is reaffirmed by this narrative-within-the-narrative's conclusion with the protagonist's execution.

While brassy, a subsequent graphic sex scene outdoes every other moment in You, the Living on the level of its audacity. With a large woman on top supplying all the effort as the skinny gentleman below complains about finances, Andersson has very lewdly succeeded in sketching the archetypal impervious Scandinavian. (Let us just say that the comedy here resides in what we are not able to see.) As in the film's closing shot, the fin-de-siècle malaise is precisely construed at this moment.

With regard to the film's conclusion, You, the Living's opening set-piece is belatedly fulfilled, albeit at the expense of a dream that is not represented directly (unlike the aforesaid fantasies), creating a structure where the vignettes, ultimately, embed themselves within the large structure of a bracketing dream. Then again, Andersson's closing note, his final dream reality, though extraordinarily light in tone, reaffirms the film's occasional inquietude. Andersson's is a Sweden and Europe on decline, awaiting the bombers, even as his alienated protagonists face 'Lethe's ice-cold wave.'

You, the Living is available on a subtitled, region-2 DVD through UK distributor Artificial Eye.

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.