Friday, October 02, 2009

"Hatari! and the Hollywood Safari Picture" & "The Mortal Storm: 1940 and After" @ Senses of Cinema + Recommendations

I wish to alert Tativille's loyal readership to two new pieces that I have in Issue 52 of the newly (and beautifully) re-designed Senses of Cinema: "Hatari! and the Hollywood Safari Picture" and "The Mortal Storm: 1940 and After". The first places Howard Hawks's late-period masterpiece within the cycle of safari "A"-pictures that seems to have fed off the success of Compton Bennett and Andrew Marton's 1950 remake of King Solomon's Mines, while using a footnote in André Bazin's "The Virtues and Limitations of Montage" as an interpretative key for the mini-corpus. For those who are interested additionally in the subject of Bazin and wildlife, see the highly perceptive Seung-hoon Jeong's "André Bazin's Ontological Other: The Animal in Adventure Films". Likewise, for further reading on the safari film from yours truly, see my Tativille entry on Cornel Wilde's The Naked Prey (1966).

The second (playfully, in my own dry prosaic way, I hope) considers Frank Borzage's fine feature within the context of its very strong year of release - a year that I suggest was better than the more widely esteemed 1939, as a stylistic apogee for the decade it followed and as a bellwether of the ten years to come.

While I am writing in abbreviated form, let me also offer my recommendations for three new films that I will not be writing about on this site in detail (because of both time constraints and the lack of inspiring or inventive things to say for each): Jane Campion's Bright Star (2009, Australia), Manoel de Oliveira's Eccentricities of a Blond Hair Girl (2009, Portugal) and Zhao Dayong's Ghost Town (2008, China). Campion's imagistic return to form once again reverses the object of desire in old-school Mulveyan terms, producing a work that (refreshingly) would have been much more at home in the 1990s, for which Campion was one of the key figures, than it is in our current decade. Maybe not so much new to say, but it says it very beautifully.

The 100 year-old, and still active Oliveira's film is relatively standard for the director's ultra-late period (meaning quite good, if not at the peak level of I'm Going Home [2001] or the valley of The Fifth Empire, 2004), replete with its emphasis on diegesis over mimesis, telling over showing. In other words, it would be more of the same were I to write on this film, as I have with so many Oliveira films in the past. (My wife Lisa has some great ideas on the film that I hope she will share with the blogosphere before the end of the festival.)

Lastly, the nearly three-hour, non-fiction Ghost Town paints a picture - on its often choppy, low-grade DV - of a rural, remote China for which the past sixty years seems to have made little perceptible impact. Rather, the film's location bears a distinctive similarity to much of the rural United States (though not materially) thanks to the central place that the film's evangelical church plays in the lives of a seemingly large segment of townspeople - while its absence elsewhere is equally felt. Both lightly comic in parts and harrowing especially in a third and final act where we have a teenager living very primitively on his own after being abandoned by his parents, Zhao courageously concludes with a highly damning reference to Mao Zedong and implicitly, to a faith in the PRC's material beneficence. Ghost Town is an especially important rejoinder to the "Seventeen Years" cinema being celebrated at this year's New York Film Festival.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The 47th New York Film Festival: Police, Adjective

Warning: the following post contains spoilers.

Corneliu Porumboiu's
outstanding second feature Police, Adjective (Politist Adjectiv), from the Romanian director's screenplay, renews the temporal emphasis that is among the key markers of its country of origin's nascent "new wave," whether one looks to Cristi Puiu's exceptional The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (2005) with its real-time synchronization of narrative duration and Mr. Lazarescu's final moments, or to Porumboiu's 12:08 East of Bucharest (2006) debut, where an on-screen television program wryly considers whether or not a shadow protest occurred in a provincial town around - or even before - the time specified in the English title. (Cristian Mungiu's comparatively underwhelming Cannes prize-winner 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days [2007] might be proffered as a third example, if for no other reason than for its duration-specific title.) For Police, Adjective, this defining interest characteristically finds expression in an archly modernist long-take aesthetic that underscores the duration of the film's central investigation, and facilitates our own exasperation at its tenor. As such, Porumboiu's latest proves closer to Puiu's organic application of this technique than to Mungiu's ersatz introduction of the long-take.

Police, Adjective opens in the midst of an on-going police investigation of a hash-smoking teenager, with young cop Cristi (Dragos Bucur) following the aforesaid in the film's opening, mobile take. Porumboiu wracks focus to introduce Cristi, who characteristically, as in the numerous similar passages to follow, steps into the shot that commences with the human subject of his investigation. Indeed, while these zoom-lensed sequences offer the point-of-view of surveillance, it is not Cristi's literal p.-o.-v. that Porumboiu presents, but rather an omniscient, authorial view that in effect Cristi and the viewer shares, without precisely inhabiting this perspective. Moreover, the location of Cristi's entry into the frame becomes minor drama in a fashion, thanks to the pattern established in the frequent utilization of this strategy, as well as in the film's dearth of more conventional dramatic occurrences.

Throughout his lengthy passages of surveillance, spread over an eight-day span that again precedes the film's opening, Cristi stays out of sight, rushing to collect physical evidence after the underage trio - including Cristi's unreliable mole - disperses. As these scenes proliferate, Porumboiu provokes in his spectators a feeling of the waste involved in this investigation, not simply at the thought of its subject going to prison for three-and-a-half years on the basis of minor drug use, but of the resources wasted in nabbing the young man on what has every appearance of being a relatively venial crime. Again, this is a matter of time, of longer takes presenting the banal work of police surveillance, and even of the film's deviations from this strategy, where a cut-in, often accompanied by changes in the soundtrack, immediately signifies a temporal ellipsis.

While the film's investigation trades on temporal excess, the impossibilities of syncing schedules comes to the fore later in the narrative, as the sudden time crunch involved in concluding the investigation produces a situation where there is far too little time as opposed to the picture's prevailing circumstance of overabundance. Once more, in this emphasis on the temporal, Porumboiu stimulates his viewer's frustration, which in this instance ironically focuses on the possibility that the prosecution of this young man is being rushed into. For all the waiting and down time presented throughout Police, Adjective, which extends beyond the actual surveillance to passages that focus on Cristi dining and drinking alone, or in the off-camera presence of his wife who listens to a You Tube clip at an ear-splitting volume, there is too little time at the film's conclusion.

By virtue of Porumboiu's extensive engagement and manipulation of the temporal aspect of his medium, Police, Adjective does emerge as a fundamentally cinematic work, to define cinematic in this regard as the emphasis on a quality of the work that belongs particularly to its medium's ontology, something to which its medium is particularly well suited. Moreover, Porumboiu certainly reinforces his film's self-reflexive interest in its specific art form through an on-screen definition of "police" that locates the film squarely within the police procedural form, as J. Hoberman noted in the film's introduction for its New York Film Festival screening, and which compels a certain, genre-necessitated conclusion, as NYU film scholar Lisa K. Broad observed, to match the procedural form. However, as Ms. Broad also argued, this same on-screen inclusion of 'police's' dictionary definition contributes to the film's generally un-cinematic character: namely, Police, Adjective's obsession with language - which includes not just this ultimate on-screen definition, but also two hand-written police reports scanned slowly for the spectator to read, in addition to the verbal exchange in which 'police,' among other pertinent words such as "conscience," "moral" and "law" are defined, and a pair of earlier discussions with his wife on a song's meaning and his report's misspelling - speaks to a work that might have been equally well-suited to the short-story, prosaic format.

Yet, as undeniable as this might be, Porumboiu nevertheless actively articulates an off-camera space that is very much the purview of sound cinema. In this way, the language and even time of the written media is joined with the space of the visual arts (and in particular, to cinema again in its combination of on and off-camera spaces) to create a work that is compellingly cinematic and un-cinematic at once. Along these lines, it remains to be said that Police, Adjective combines highly verbose passages with equally wordless sequences, most of which revolve around the surveillance portion of the investigation. In other words, this is a film in which alternately we watch, we read and we hear; this is a mixed cinema that is nonetheless cinematic.

Police, Adjective, it remains to be said, is also quite funny in its moments of verbal sparring amid the picture's longer passages of silence, whether we consider the early discussion of Paris, Prague, Bucharest and a fourth Romanian backwater, or the final dictionary reading, where Porumboiu implies that modern-day Romania might still qualify as a police state. In this regard, Police, Adjective continues the Romanian 'new wave's' express emphasis on its nation's current institutional deficiencies, inherited from Ceauşescu's Soviet satellite; in this instance, Porumboiu presents a legal infrastructure that is as broken as the bureaucratically crippled medical system of The Death of Mr. Lazarescu. As such, Police, Adjective emerges as a signature work for not only the Romanian 'new wave' but for the 2000s modernist art cinema itself, which has shown a marked movement away from the more poetical 1990s (exemplified by Abbas Kiarostami) to a socially conscious idiom. Porumboiu's film also joins Puiu's Lazarescu at the very peak of this new Romanian cinema.

Police, Adjective is scheduled to be released on a limited basis in the US through IFC Films, beginning 12/23/09.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

That Scandinavian Teenage Feeling: Roy Andersson's A Swedish Love Story (Co-written by Michael J. Anderson & Lisa K. Broad)

Roy Andersson's A Swedish Love Story (En kärlekshistoria, 1970), the first of the intermittently active writer-director's four features, conspicuously advances a very different aesthetic from the filmmaker's two more recent sequence-shot dominated, episodic comedies, the highly estimable Songs from the Second Floor (2000) and You, the Living (2007). In this, the director's very impressive diploma film, a shot/counter-shot editing strategy and telephoto lensing often predominates, whereas Andersson tends to reserve action in his later work for frequently-static, deep space compositions. However, it is less these formal differences that prove immediately noteworthy than the earlier film's arresting teenage romanticism, figured within the still shocking - at least to these US-based writers - sexual morays of the Swedish social democracy.

A Swedish Love Story treats the tender, burgeoning love affair of fifteen year-old
Pär (Rolf Sohlman) and sub-fourteen Annika (Ann Sofie-Kylin, who is quite strong, and memorably alluring, in her role) as they move from endless clandestine glances, captured in an equally unending series of match cuts, and messages sent via intermediaries - the stuff of preteen romances everywhere - to their first night of carnal love. This encounter is comically interrupted the next morning with Annika's aunt Eva's (Anita Lindblom) arrival, leading a shirtless Pär to dash for the nearest closet. Annika assures Pär that everything's copacetic, given that it's just her aunt; yet, Eva, who throughout the film laments her own loneliness, subtly shows her concern - and perhaps the film's own disproving - when she asks her niece her age, which we then learn is "almost fourteen."

Andersson's critical perspective becomes even sharper, especially in contrast to the earlier romantic passages, during the subsequent crayfish feed at Pär's parents' summer home, replete with light physical violence and a very pushy salesman. In this extended, concluding scene, with the adults and children alike wearing shellfish-sporting bibs and tiny hats, Andersson's dark comic sense comes into the fore, as will his absurdist-cum-surrealist touch subsequently, with the inebriated party-goers combing a misty lake side for Annika's missing, disgruntled refrigerator salesman father (Bertil Norström). With their search concluded, the partiers return to the family cabin in the early dawn light, prefiguring mentor Luis Buñuel's The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie's (1972) roadside close.

Before Andersson shifts to this more familiar register, however, A Swedish Love Story operates closer to the musical tone poetry of Jacques Rozier's Adieu Philippine (1962), and to the palpable naturalism of primary Rozier inspiration, Jean Renoir. Like both French directors, Andersson fills his first feature with saturated, indelible exterior visuals, whether it is the pastoral space of their first outdoor encounter; the film's memorable dusk motorcycle ride, which the Swede typically cuts with highly evocative, youthful pop scoring; or the warm golden lanterns that illuminate the final section.

Or there is a pair of parking lot-set encounters that nicely underline the film's genuine romantic content: Pär first rides into the midst of the leather-clad, chain-smoking young teenagers, for which he receives a beating. This leads to a second confrontation in which the emotionally hurt Pär snubs Annika, speeding away on his moped. As disappears from the space, Annika breaks down in tears, emphasizing the real affection that augments their shared passion; this is a love story. Yet, Pär does return, providing the sort of visual punctuation in long take that has become the director's signature. Though it is fundamentally a work of naturalistically-infused lyricism, A Swedish Love Story nonetheless contains a germ of the director's more mature, though not necessarily superior, later work.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

New Film: Liverpool & Extract

Warning: the following post contains spoilers.
Lisandro Alonso's
Liverpool (2008), which concludes its one week run at New York's Anthology Film Archives this evening, proves to be the third superior work of the "New Argentine Cinema" to have premiered in Manhattan during the past twelve months (following Lucrecia Martel's The Headless Woman and Celina Murga's A Week Alone, both 2008). Whereas Alonso's countrywomen emphasize social contexts in their latest, be it in Martel's compositions that push the picture's under-class members into an out-of-focus periphery or in Murga's allegory-imbued gated community, Alonso's subject is an expressly de-contextualized male protagonist, Farrel (Juan Fernández), in his return journey to the rural home of his estranged, aged mother.

Liverpool opens inside a cargo freighter as it approaches a remote Patagonian port. Amid the vessel's enveloping din, Alonso highlights the everyday interactions and tasks of the all-male crew, whether it is the shared play of a largely off-camera video game - depicted within a typically very low-key lit interior - or an extended take of a crewman steering the ship. Indeed, it is the latter figure, later identified as Farrel, who henceforth will become the narrative's principle focus, following his entreaty to see his mother in the next port. Consequently, after an extended, excessive passage of Farrel at the wheel succeeding his aforementioned request, Alonso follows the lead into his tight cabin where the middle-aged sailor prepares for his shore leave; here, the director magnifies the quotidian through his systematic use of long takes, with details like a sticking desk door, a momentarily caught zipper and the screech of an object pulled across laminate, brought into focus.

On shore, Farrel steps through the wet, coastal snow, which Alonso likewise captures falling in front of nearby floodlights. After stashing a bag and taking a swig of an ever-present vodka bottle, Farrel dines in front of a large photographic mural of an autumnal lake, alone in the frame. With the sound of off-camera diners juxtaposed with the solitary Farrel, the protagonist's lonely existence becomes palpable, and highly empathetic, as it does likewise in his short shared occupation of a frame with a pair of card-players and a woman viewing a telenovela at a truck stop, as well as in a second solo dining passage in a logging camp. From the truck stop, Farrel rides on the back of a logging truck, atop a cold, snow-dusted log as the vehicle passes though the icy fog of this Southern locale. Once at his destination, Farrel trudges through the thick Patagonian snow before stopping beside a rusty tank resting on top of a wooden platform (where he takes another drink), that is itself covered in pyramids of untouched snow.

Throughout Farrel's journey, then, Alonso emphasizes these tactile experiences, and more broadly the viewer's sensorial memory, triggered again by a scraping sound or the feel of snow-covered bark. (Having been born and raised in a largely wooded and rural northern environment, this writer can attest to the indelible singularity of the latter sensate experience, namely sitting on a cold, snow-brushed log, which is as much haptic as olfactory.) Alonso's cinema, grounded in a modernist, long-take aesthetic, seeks to communicate first on the level of the senses, making the director's spectators aware of the natural and man-made environments that the medium is uniquely skilled in bringing to robust life. Liverpool both pulls its remote world into existence and re-introduces its spectators to the natural world.

Once at the logging camp, Farrel does see his mother, if only for a very brief time (over which his mother never seems to realize fully who her visitor is). Sitting beside the bed-ridden elderly matriarch, he says very little, typical of Liverpool more generally, anxiously pulling up her comforter. Having arrived only a few minutes before, Farrel departs, giving money to the seemingly handicapped Analía (Giselle Irrazabal), as well as the eponymous key chain. The latter object, examined in the film's final shot, is clearly, according to film scholar Lisa K. Broad, an empty signifier for this young woman of indistinct age, cut off from the rest of the world in this remote camp.

However, this final shot does not immediately occur upon the gift's bestowal, but rather awaits an interval of quotidian activity that succeeds Farrel's departure. Analogous to Alonso's tendency to hold his shots even after the primary activity concludes and/or figures have left the frame - defining examples include Farrel steering the ship after making his request, the card-game continuing after the young television-watching woman and Farrel leave the room, and Farrel's final disappearance at the tree-line, deep into the distance of a long landscape shot - Alonso continues his narrative for a short duration even after his protagonist has made his final appearance. Here, as in his shots, life likewise goes on, as it will even after the narrative, when we fear Farrel's mother will pass on, or, more tragically given the former's advanced age and medical condition, Analía could be taken advantage of by the young man who shows her some attention in the camp.

In this way, Alonso breaks from a direct identification with his protagonist, both in individual shots and in the wider narrative, giving us instead a more full depiction of the reality that this would limit. Then again, the director's modernist restrictions do very much restrict the narrative details we are presented, providing us instead a sensorial experience of Farrel's journey, and plenty of space for narrative speculation that the film's post-Farrel passage analogizes.

Having opened wide in 1,600 theaters this past weekend, which though boundlessly more than Liverpool certainly is far from an overwhelming number, Mike Judge's Extract (2009) represents the opposite side of the artistic spectrum from Alonso's long-take modernism and narrative revisionism: Judge instead employs a television-friendly, classical Hollywood decoupage editing style and traditional three-act story structure that looks old-fashioned even next to today's film comedy standards (where, as in the collaborations of Adam McKay and Will Ferrell, essentially any deleted scene might replace any included narrative set-piece with little discernible impact). Yet, in spite of its exceeding conventionality, Extract, and Mike Judge's televisual corpus more broadly, does share Liverpool's emphasis on the banal, and its facilitation of a recognizable reality. Indeed, it is precisely these qualities that has made Judge's and Greg Daniels's King of the Hill among the most vital and profoundly American visual culture texts of the past decade (easily besting its long-since irrelevant, elite popular culture-pandering network cousin The Simpsons for most of its run), showcasing as it does a Middle American, working/lower middle class reality that otherwise has been so rare on the small screen. Every bit as much as Alonso's sensory experiences, Judge's America proves authentic.

Extract returns to the work place world of the director's cult 1999 Office Space, with the latter's cog in a corporate environment protagonist replaced by the former's small business-owning, entrepreneurial hero Joel, here played the perennially under-appreciated Jason Bateman (Arrested Development, another of the past decade's absolute TV highlights). Joel's biggest problems at the narrative's open are David Koechner's always irritatingly present neighbor, who charges Joel's BMW as soon as he pulls into his gated community driveway, and his less-than-amorous wife Suzie (Kristen Wiig) who goes into romantic lock down each night at 8pm when she changes into her sweat pants - and a corresponding insulation problem that he confesses to the appropriately off-casted Ben Affleck (who plays Joel's drug-pushing and man-pimping bartender confidant Dean). At work, Joel's hard-won success is about to pay off with a potential sale to General Mills looming. This, of course, is imperiled with a lost testicle, the arrival of Mila Kunis's "criminal drifter" seductress and Gene Simmons as an ambulance chaser who will stop at nothing, including bankrupting the company, to insure that his newly half-male client gets payed well beyond what we are assured will be a very large settlement regardless.

In all of the above, Judge presents Joel as the victim; however, in his private life, Joel proves quite self-destructive. After taking one of Dean's unmarked pills, Joel agrees to tempt his wife - in hopes of feeling guiltless in his pursuit of Kunis's nubile Cindy - with extraordinarily dim-witted man-whore Brad (Dustin Milligan). Suzie succumbs to Brad's masculine wiles, which Judge presents in a highly comic soft-focus insert narrated by the aforesaid gigolo. Indeed, for this writer at least, Judge's latest is perhaps, joke-for-joke, the funniest of the writer-director's film comedies.

Extract is also among his most current light satirizations. Opening concurrently with Michael Moore's Capitalism: A Love Story's (2009) Venice premiere, Judge's work provides a preemptive counterpoint to Moore's anticipated class warfare, eschewing a Manichean good/labor-bad/capital, employer split, with a more subtle, good, but flawed boss who ultimately chooses to make a financial sacrifice of his own for the good of his workers - and admittedly, for the preservation of his small business. That his flavor-extract company, like King of the Hill's Strickland Propane, is ultimately presented favorably, unlike Office Space's more corporate Initech or Chotchkie's, indicates the nuance in Judge's own pro-Capitalist inclinations: his sympathies reside with the small businesses rather than with the kitschy chains or the anonymous corporations. Still, the very act of standing up for business at all, amid all of the criticisms of the aforesaid economic system, whether judicious or not, assures Extract's cultural importance and place - as always for Judge, standing with the non-elite Americans whom he only gently scrutinizes, whether the assistant manager of Strickland Propane, a relatively affluent small business owner in the heartland or his newly single-testicled floor manager.