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.

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.