Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Film Comment Selects: Jerichow & A Week Alone / Una Semana solos

Warning: the following contains partial spoilers.

Where is cinema today? To answer this question on the level of the nation, our current decade has provided a few new answers beyond the familiar France of the postwar era or the Taiwan and Iran of the 1980s and 90s (the first and second still hold, while the third arguably does not). Among these current hotbeds, few seem as substantive and surprising as Germany and Argentina: the former has reclaimed its leading status in the European cinema through a "minor-key," intimate psychological idiom, concentrated in its Berlin School, which differs substantially from the big subjects and historical specificity of the nation's 1970s New German pinnacle, whereas Argentina's rose to a position of prominence just as the South American nation commenced its economic free-fall in the late 1990s. Naturally, questions of class have proven cardinal to the work of many of Argentina's leading filmmakers.

Back across the Atlantic, writer-director Christian Petzold's Jerichow establishes a similar class consciousness in its exposition of dishonorably discharged ex-soldier Thomas's (Benno Fürmann) ascension from the bottom of the economic food chain, following his unexplained beating and robbery - ostensibly to pay off an outstanding debt - in the film's opening scene. Petzold's accomplished direction is immediately manifest: a hand-held, mobile framing of Thomas immerses the spectator in the film's diegesis, while identifying the narrative's principle focus from the opening shot; after a cutaway to car filled with gentlemen arriving at what appears to be a funeral, this group escorts Thomas back the latter's country family home. One of these gentleman finally breaks the silence with a tender "sorry" that he then follows immediately with a screaming tirade where he begins by shouting "damn it." After a line of expository dialogue reveals the setting to be the East, the aforesaid gentleman discovers a cache of bills that Thomas had been hiding from the group. This leads to a blow to the back of Thomas's head, and his consequent night passed out in the grass of his newly deceased mother's homestead.

In the meantime, Petzold briefly depicts the film's second and third leads speeding along the countryside as Thomas lays motionless in the vicinity. Petzold withholds their meeting momentarily, he is a filmmaker who systematically delays and postpones acts of confrontation, instead mapping wealthy Turkish immigrant Ali Özkan's (Hilmi Sözer) driving itinerary, which returns to the narrative fore shortly with Özkan's inebriated fishtail off the side of the road, into a nearby river. Thomas, who is at the moment walking home with his groceries, purchased by food stamps, aids the driver, taking credit for the accident to save Özkan from having his license revoked (after spotting a roll of cash on the driver's seat). Thomas drives Özkan home where he is introduced to the latter's beautiful German wife Laura (Nina Hoss), who slips cash to the romantically interested Thomas as he begins to walk off.

Özkan, however, arrives at Thomas's shortly thereafter, with a job proposition: having had his license suspended, Özkan has use of a driver to shuttle the gentleman between his many food stands; ex-military man Thomas, for his part, rapidly shows himself to be very capable of not only the stated position, but also as a bodyguard for the Turkish entrepreneur. Of course, Thomas's presence also poses a romantic threat to Özkan, who barely masks his culturally-reinforced jealousy with leading questions concerning his wife's attractiveness. This envy compels Özkan to demand that Thomas follow Laura as she drives to a vendor not on her official itinerary - again, there is s subsequent, delayed pay-off for this plot-line - and further, to orchestrate some beach-set intimacy between the pair, with Özkan looking on furtively. Hear, Özkan demands that the pair dance, which they do closely in the foreground, as the former slinks off into the distance. As such, Petzold perfectly visualizes the film's central narrative thrust with a new couple forming with the recession of a third.

After nearly falling from a nearby cliff where Özkan attempts to spy on the pair, Thomas and Laura take the drunk gentleman home. As he is about to leave, Thomas passionately embraces Laura in a hallway just off from Özkan's bedroom; the pair slip down to the floor where they commence screwing with Özkan only a feet away. The latter eventually calls for his wife, providing yet another delay in narrative - and in this case, physical - fulfillment, to which of course Petzold will return.

This recurrence occurs on the occasion of Özkan's departure for his homeland; after Thomas drops his employer off at the airport, Petzold lingers long enough to show Özkan staying with neither Thomas or Laura aware of his presence. Still, Petzold continues his strategy of narrative delay even here, with Thomas first rebuffing Laura's advances, and second with Özkan's return not corresponding to their preceding adultery. Without elaborating too much further on this latter point, suffice it to say that the film's withholdings always do eventually find confirmation; Petzold maintains a high degree of consistency on the level of narrative structure throughout, facilitated by the director's skilled control of not only narrative information, but of an often voyeuristic visual field.

Then again, Jerichow does maintain a second, social dimension hinted at in Thomas's food purchase and visit to a work agency. He is at the very bottom of the economic latter, following again his dishonorable discharge and the death of his mother, where he meets the wealthy immigrant Özkan. In this regard, Petzold reverses traditional economic cliches, procuring a narrative that trades on German class anxiety rather than on a simple description of racism. Here, it is the Islamic immigrant who has the upper hand in a new Germany, not only over the economically disadvantaged Thomas, but likewise over Laura who Özkan later admits to have "bought." Power, as it does nearly everywhere, comes from economic rather than social status - and it is a power that is leaving the Europe of old behind.

Celina Murga's A Week Alone (Una Semana solos), co-written with Juan Villegas, likewise constructs an economically layered society, though in its case divided on the more traditional - and static - basis of an upper class deriving from the descendants of European immigrants and a mestizo lower class. The latter is represented by housekeeper Esther (Natalia Gomez Alarcon), who watches the film's set of wealthy cousins as their parents vacation, and by the twenty-three year-old mother's teenage brother, Juan (Ignacio Jiménez), who quickly becomes an object of interest for older teen cousin Maria (Magdalena Capobianco) and tween Sofia (Eleonora Capobianco). Juan, however, in arriving at the family's residence, located in a heavily guarded gated community, is made to wait outside the subdivision, seemingly for hours, even after the family matriarch confirms his visit over-the-phone.

Inside, the two families and their assorted, hanger-on friends, spend their daytime and evening idle hours playing video games, watching television, swimming - both at their house and complex pools; Juan is chastised at the latter for wearing tennis shoes (an unexplained prohibition) - inventing games, and most distinctly, breaking into the many empty homes that populate the neighborhood. Throughout their routine, Juan is largely ignored by the young men, and engaged by the two girls - particularly by Sofia who reaches out to Juan at a pivotal late juncture in the film's narrative. (Speaking of narrative, Murga's is exceedingly loose and open-ended in contrast to Petzold's rigorously controlled story structure.)

Of course, Juan, like the two girls, does possess a distinctive psychology, in his case as an outsider, in comparison to the mostly interior-less young men. Then again, Murga's most vivid characterizations are those of the two girls, whether it is the nascent sexuality of Maria who flirts and makes out with cousin Facundo (Lucas Del Bo), before throwing him over once Juan arrives, or that of Sofia who finds herself in the more precarious position of a girl on the brink of pubescence. Sofia is also Murga's richest and most endearing character, whether it is her interactions with Juan and Esther - she confesses her desire to have a first communion like everyone else (including the devout housekeeper), which her atheist parents have not allowed - her uncomfortable exchanges with her older cousin, or most spectacularly, her vocal performance at a teen dance, much of which Murga shoots in an extended close-up. For this writer, Eleonora Capobianco's amateur performance of this pop song may just be the most endearing on-camera musical exhibition since Andreas Müller's committed dancing to the Robbie Williams song in Valeska Grisebach's Longing (2006) - a film that remains the masterpiece of the Berlin School.

Ultimately it is Murga's ability to limn vivid female characters, who never devolve into ciphers, that accounts for one of the female director's greatest strength as a film artist. Likewise, Murga here, as in her superlative, Rohmer-inspired Ana and the Others (2003), richly articulates her film's setting, be it the space's warm climate (particularly in the languid nocturnal passages), the changing qualities of light from a mid-morning walk to school to the oblique angle of the sun's rays late in the afternoon, and finally to the gated community itself, with its unlocked homes, rent-a-cops and unbreachable outside walls. Whereas fellow countrywoman Lucrecia Martel (The Headless Woman, 2008) distinguishes her art on the basis of the pervasiveness - narratively, visually, formally - of her metaphors, Murga's art is grounded in the concreteness of her places and characters, which nonetheless explicitly point to social inequalities. Martel's mise-en-scène is remade in the image of her subject, while Murga's exactly observes to find her equivalent subjects.

Update: See also R. Emmet Sweeney's elegant A Week Alone appreciation over at Termite Art, with its emphasis on ritual - most memorably their collective predilection for Nesquik - and its insightful exegesis of Juan's marginal position within the frame.

Friday, February 27, 2009

New Film: Still Walking & Birdsong

The quintessence of global humanist art cinema, Still Walking (Aruitemo aruitemo), writer-director Hirokazu Kore-eda's sixth narrative feature, manages to illuminate its familial subject in equally local and universal terms. The former, a direct articulation of Japaneseness, figures prominently from the opening close-up of food preparation - carrots and daikon radishes are peeled - to a concluding epilogue that re-situates the narrative in generational turnover. Kore-eda, indeed, trains his often static camera on the film's perpetually bright seaside setting, where quiet commuter trains emerge as unobtrusively as a sudden salty breeze; the Yokoyama's airy, wood-floored interiors lit sparingly in daytime; and on the crackling oil that fries the corn tempura. Matriarch Toshiko (Kirin Kiki) scrutinizes over her take-out sushi order for the subsequent family gathering commemorating eldest son and heir Junpei's death. In sum, Still Walking's exacting presentation of detail registers a very specific, upper middle class Japanese existence that strikes this writer a plausibly authentic, inasmuch as its Western equivalent is easily, and immediately, recognizable.

However, it is on the level of Kore-eda's characterizations that its global implications emerge - albeit through his characters' unmistakable particularities. Beginning with Toshiko, Kore-eda has created one of this (or any year's) most convincingly human screen characters, from her gentle, unaware nagging of daughter Chinami (You) to her palpable excitement at the arrival of son Ryo (Hiroshi Abe), from her good-humored, if evidently habitually recounted anecdotes of the Yokoyama's happy past - told in concert and competition with husband Kyohei (Yoshio Harada) - to insensitive digs at her widowed daughter-in-law Yukari (Yui Natsukawa), and her unwillingness to forgive an obese anniversary visitor, who comically is unable to stand after sitting on his leg for an extended duration. In fact, Dr. and Mrs. Yokoyama are in agreement that their guest's life has been a waste. Their is an edge to the film's humanism.

A similar pessimism manifests itself in the patriarch's disappointment that his son Ryo did not fulfill an earlier desire to follow his father into the medical profession. Reflecting Kore-eda's most conspicuous influence, Yasujiro Ozu, Chinami notes: "children don't necessarily grow up the way you want." Indeed, Ryo has not only failed to follow in his father's footsteps, but has recently lost his position as an art restorer. An active cell phone ringer, and his complicit wife, helps him to hide this fact, though Kore-eda's relatively tight static framing allows for his actress to showcase her character's extraordinarily subtle panic. As unemphatic as Still Walking's mise-en-scène typically is, the director's observational camera ideally suits the film's carefully shaded and gradated performances, which to a one bring Kore-eda's film to extraordinarily vivid life - from Toshiko and the squeaky voiced Chinami, to her tween daughter who preens, standing on her tiptoes and gesturing with her hand over her head, at the mention of her recent growth.

The film's greatest strength is this unshakable sense of a real family, so uncommon to the screen, which Kore-eda further populates by persons like Chinami's husband whose good nature is only matched by a complacency at no longer having to prove his worth to the family (or by Ryo's stepson, who true to preteen form, opts for a Coca-Cola/Ginger Ale mix at a self-service soda fountain; here the film's precise sense of detail is much more global than local). More critically, on the other hand, Kore-eda introduces a late temporal shift that alters the film's well-earned, very admirable smallness, as well as the narrative's carefully constructed impression of unfolding in the present; then again, this shift, more positively consider, re-focuses the narrative as universal rather than local, while highlighting its East Asian specificity - Ryo's fate, whatever his intentions, may not be dissimilar from that of his parents. Ultimately, the above quibble, if it has any merit finally, is a small one beside the picture's enormous - and enormously rare - sense of reality.

By comparison, Catalan filmmaker Albert Serra's Birdsong (El Cant dels ocells) explores a very different kind of reality in its retelling of the nativity story within the film's Icelandic and Canary Island landscapes. Here, the fact being explored is that of the three wise men's physical effort in travelling, their bodily experience of visiting the Son of God from lands far afield. That is, facilitated by the film's ironic sense of humor in which the most rotund of the three slowly slips down a hillside and later dominates a compressed exterior space where the three nap, Birdsong makes a case for his medium's specificity as a primarily haptic art form, incarnating its subjects over and above the dramatic highlights of the Biblical narrative. What the nativity narrative does not present is the physical toil, and in Serra's hand the petty in-fighting of the three devotees. Birdsong gives us the phenomenological experience of the journey - on which the narrative opens and closes - rather than the story per se.

Yet, in breaking from an evident verisimilitude, Serra's selected landscapes - and in one spectacular set-up, an image of the swimming kings shot from below the water's surface - uniformly possess a preternatural quality. (The director, in a question-and-answer noted his desire to create icons through this imagery, to disassociate man from landscape; the exact opposite, thankfully, appears on screen.) Yet, neither the sense of a reality not present in the traditional narrative nor that of an experienced duration ever lags in Serra's poetic idiom: the three magi disappear over a desert horizon, before reappearing without any clear sense of direction - a sacred journey in all its banality; Mary and Joseph sit outside their stone house, seemingly without end, under the intense Mediterranean sun and after it has set in a rapidly darkening dusk - the downtime involved in raising the Messiah. Serra renews the time image, though again to a specifically haptic effect, in a work that makes the holy, human.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

New Film: Three Monkeys

Warning: the following post contains partial spoilers.

Nuri Bilge Ceylan's
Three Monkeys (Üç maymun), from a screenplay by the director, his wife and former lead Ebru Ceylan (Climates, 2006), and supporting player Ercan Kesal, opens on an extended close-up of a driver followed immediately by a sparely lit, wooded highway, illuminated only by his automobile's headlights. After disappearing deep into the distance, a third set-up frames a gentleman scurrying away from a mass lying motionless in an equally dim segment of asphalt, with an on-coming car entering into the frame. Noticing that the object is a body, the driver speeds off, leaving the former gentleman (Kesal) to reenter the frame from below. Subsequently, Eyüp (Yavuz Bingol) receives a phone call from the said gentleman, his employer Servet, wherein the latter pleads with Eyüp to take the blame for running down the person in the road - with the enticement that he will receive a large, lump-sum payment upon leaving prison. Eyüp agrees, leaving a wife Hacir (Hatice Aslan) and son Ismail (Rifat Sungar) on the outside.

Ceylan shoots this nighttime phone call in a pale low-key that he likewise adopts for the consequent morning, with Eyüp and family seated before a large window emitting the early day light after what seems clearly to have been a long night. The director, in fact, favors shooting his interiors in these lower keys, which cinematographer Gökhan Tiryaki - with whom he collaborated on Climates - lenses with a Sony HDW-F900. Likewise, the distinctive winter storm clouds of the director's 2002 Distant again feature prominently in the DV picture's seaside exteriors, thereby modeling the emotional desolation that increasingly pulses through the narrative; a sudden thunderstorm at the film's conclusion, for example, exteriorizes individual psychology. Likewise, the aforesaid pale morning light crystallizes that morning's combined feelings of exhaustion and desperation. In sum, Ceylan's mise-en-scène proves substantially mimetic in articulating the film's psychological frame.

The substance of the film's cognitive subject matter migrates from Eyüp's incarceration to Hacir's infidelity, particularly after Ismail discovers that his mother has taken up with her husband's employer Servet. We first see the pair together in Servet's office, where Hacir's Turkish musical ring tone comically stalls their meeting. With Servet waiting beside his window, Hacir leaves without a word. (Ceylan utilizes a point-of-view shot to represent this depature.) Servet, however, chases after the gorgeous forty-something on the street below, ultimately succeeding in getting her into his car (after a similarly humorous reverse-shot in which a car-full of young men collectively glower at Servat) to drive her home. During this ride, Ceylan utilizes one of a series of sound bridges in which the audio precedes - often by a substantial duration - its formulation within the space of the film; that is, we begin to hear their conversation before they begin speaking on screen.

Their relationship proceeds by intimation, with Hacir stealing away to answer her cell phone, or dangling her high-heeled shoe on the tip of her toes - until, that is, Ismail returns home to hear his mother and a man behind her bedroom door. The young man looks into the keyhole through which their shadows dance, and though Ceylan cuts to a reverse-angle of the boy's eye rather than a p.o.v. composition, his reaction confirms our shared suspicion. Subsequently, following another untimely ring of Hacir's mobile phone, the recently released Eyüp rips the strap off his wife's negligee, pushing the woman onto their bed as he violently fondles her brest. Though, it should be added, Hacir approximates the role of an Ebru Ceylan surrogate in the narrative, both in terms of their general appearance and also for Climates and Three Monkeys's shared emphasis on marital infidelity, their significant age gap does militate any direct identification (in contradistinction again to Climates, where the real-life husband and wife played the romantically estranged leads). Three Monkeys, in other words, seeks to equal Climates's immediacy without procuring an equally personal stake.

Three Monkeys also adopts - and indeed extends - the earlier film's utilization of fantasized imagery, though to diminishing ends: here, a dead son (the family trauma cliché par excellence) appears sporadically in a narrative where his presence seems less than organic. On the other hand, the film's careful manipulation of reverse-field editing does ideally convey the film's deliberate regulation of narrative information. In essence, Three Monkeys modifies a frontally staged, classical shot/reverse-shot and point-of-view structure by delaying the film's reverse fields; at key junctures, refusing the opposed composition, and in other instances, supplying a reverse-field in the place of a p.o.v. In addition to the aforementioned keyhole example, a second pivotal usage of this last techniques occurs with the cut from an extreme long shot of Servet and Hacir standing near a cliffside. Here, Ceylan follows the first set-up with an axis-out framing the same interaction beneath the arched bow of a nearby tree. As such, Ceylan confirms the status of the first shot as surveillance without disclosing the identity of the viewer. Ceylan thus has remade classical editing in the image of his conventional crime narrative.

In sum, then, Three Monkeys largely formulates its subject - consonant with the director's Climates in particular - through an organically consistent style, with regard to its editing and also its lighting, in spite of the occasional lapse (as in the dead child motif). Though not to the level of the director's supremely Tarkovskian Distant or his masterpiece to date, Climates, Three Monkeys nonetheless remains unmistakably good filmmaking, a far more impressive work than its initial minor reputation would suggest.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

The 2008 Best Picture Nominees

Following are my very brief impressions of this year's five 'Best Picture' Oscar nominees. While I have attempted to rank the films in descending order of preference, I will admit that the second and the third, as well as the fourth and the fifth, are virtually indistinguishable in terms of their relative quality. Of the five, I would argue that only the first is reasonably deserving of a picture nomination, though even then I prefer five other films (which I have listed at the bottom of the post). Similarly, only the first ranks as the equal of last years uncommonly justifiable selections.

Though David Fincher's The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is the most deserving of this year's five choices, it is the film for which I may have the least to say. Benjamin Button is very much a Fincher film in its production of a graphic style that seems most concerned with illuminating its synthetically created spaces (often in a low key). Impersonal as always, another trait that I would argue distinguishes Fincher's cinema, Benjamin Button nonetheless succeeds in generating a substantive amount of feeling from its life-in-reverse conceit. (I suppose it is worth noting that I am as a viewer very susceptible to the impossible love narrative prototype to which Benjamin Button corresponds.) On the negative side of the ledger, however, there is Benjamin Button's superfluous framing device, positioning the film needlessly in a Katrina-battered New Orleans.

Milk represents a return to a more mainstream aesthetic for auteur Gus Van Sant after his experimental run of indie features - including Gerry, Elephant (perhaps the finest of his recent work), Last Days and the better of his two 2008 releases, Paranoid Park. A supremely conventional if largely entertaining biopic, Van Sant's Milk succeeds in gently highlighting the genuine injustices experienced by the pre-equal protection-era homosexual community. Then again, at least according to the Guardian's Mark Simpson, Milk whitewashes its eponymous hero's promiscuity, which would have at once made Van Sant's film less conventional, and counter-productive to the current debates surrounding the merits of gay marriage. In this regard, Milk's original appearance as implicitly political is shown to be inaccurate; Milk's historical revisionism serves an express legislative purpose. Sean Penn and Emile Hirsch are particularly memorable in their lead and supporting roles.

While sharing its 1970s world of politics setting with Milk, Frost/Nixon nevertheless manages to be the most sociologically current of this year's selections. (Aesthetically, the honor might go to Fincher's purely digital world, while Milk's release on the heals of the Proposition 8 defeat suggests its political currency.) Indeed, Frost/Nixon's subject feels perfectly in tune with Hollywood attitudes at the end of the Bush years: a lightweight celebrity learns to become politically engaged in the process of taking down - symbolically, of course - a Republican pol. No doubt Frost's surrogate trial was for director Ron Howard (lightweight celebrity anyone?) and screenwriter Peter Morgan a virtual indictment of the previous GOP administration; is it any wonder Frost/Nixon managed a nomination from Hollywood's elite body? Morgan's script, however, like his previous work on 2006's excellent The Queen, finds plenty of sympathy for this most unsympathetic of former leaders of the free world. Frank Langella's strong work also helps in this respect.

Presumptive 'Best Picture' favorite Slumdog Millionaire, directed by similarly favored Danny Boyle, seems to have connected with mainstream American critics and audiences in spite of its extraordinary intellectual simplicity and implausibility. Do we really need a series of vignettes to explain how the film's central "Slumdog" (a term that was very problematically invented by the film's makers, as it happens) came to learn a series of not-so-little-known facts? Of course, Boyle manages to equal his screenplay's triteness with moments of extraordinary grotesqueness and sadism: from a child's sewer bath to secure an Amitabh Bachchan autograph - so he does know who India's biggest celebrity is... I was wondering how he could! - to the blinding of a young beggar child to the female lead's implied rape. Uplifting to say the least... at least the slums produced a millionaire to gloss over these many invented injustices. Suffice it to say that 2008 was not Hollywood's most inspiring year.

Like one of 2008's best-reviewed films, the seemingly never-on-the-Oscar-radar Wendy and Lucy, Stephen Daldry's (justifiably) critically ignored The Reader centers on an implausible, unexplained characterization: in its case - spoiler - that its former Nazi female lead is illiterate. Of course, The Reader's narrative twist, excessively telegraphed by Daldry, provides cover (and potentially exculpation, as Ron Rosenbaum notes) for the serious question of individual complicity in Germany's Nazi war crimes. Daldry instead shoots for a dishonest moral equivocation in which we are led to have sympathy for the former prison guard (while Daldry assures us that we need not feel bad for one of her victims who, after all, has become wealthy in America). This year's Munich, The Reader is (to be overly generous) all about securing Oscar hardware - which it seems it will for Kate Winslet - by pairing the unconscionably fashionable combination of moral equivalence and Nazi sex. That Hollywood does not see how disgusting this film is indicates a fundamental lack of intelligence in its elite class.

While 2008 was a disappointing year for the American cinema, there were a handful of bright spots beyond Benjamin Button, even if Hollywood did not quite produce a great film as it has the past few years. To me, a better collection of 'Best Picture' choices, however improbable the majority are, would include, in alphabetical order: Be Kind Rewind (Michel Gondry), Gran Torino (Clint Eastwood), Momma's Man (Azazel Jacobs), Redbelt (David Mamet), and The Wrestler (Darren Aronofsky). This motley assemblage of termite art, populating the most minor of genres, reflects Hollywood cinema at its latter-day best - works of the first-person that reflect meaningfully on themselves and on their culturally-invisible working class subjects, living as they do in America's rarely projected rundown urban centers and anonymous first-ring suburban margins. Then again, Hollywood has always been at its best when being similarly disreputable.

Note: In the first draft of this post four and five were reversed. In thinking more of my order, however, a reversal seems imperative (as much as I detested the original #5). It is simply that The Reader is so reprehensible that giving any indication it was better than another film feels unjustified - as bad as that other film was.