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.