Saturday, October 10, 2009

The 47th New York Film Festival: Around a Small Mountain & White Material

Jacques Rivette's Around a Small Mountain (36 vues du Pic Saint Loup), from a scenario by Rivette, Pascal Bonitzer and Christine Laurent, follows The Duchess of Langeais's (2007) classical subsumption of the filmmaker's arch emphasis on repetition, with a more straightforward, performing arts world-motivated presentation of the theme. In transitioning back to one of the director's most familiar environs (L'amour fou, 1969; Out One, 1971/4) - here a traveling circus in the empty-tent image of Clint Eastwood's Bronco Billy (1980) mobile Wild West show*, a director for whom it is worth noting Rivette has cited an admiration, saying that he has liked "all his films, even the jokey 'family' films with the ridiculous monkey" - the French maestro has reintroduced the primacy of fictional worlds to his film, which in this instance characteristically spill out into the world beyond the big top.

Around a Small Mountain establishes its pervasive focus on repetition through a series of performances of a comic skit, whose totally Rivette cobbles together in its multiple stagings, as he does the peak of the film's French title from multiple vantages. Alternating with these set pieces, which emit variations only on the basis of their live-ness (a suggestion that a detail of the act be changed is rejected flatly), Rivette offers conversations between the circus's participants, whether it is a nocturnal romantic confrontation staged on a found proscenium and lit overtly theatrically, or more regularly, in the afternoon interstices that follow their poorly attended Midi shows. Of particular note among these are the on-going dialogues between clown Alexandre (André Marcon) and affluent Italian fan Vittorio (Sergio Castellitto), whose presence among the troupe follows his chance meeting with Jane Birkin's Kate in the picture's incipient passage. (Kate, moreover, is noteworthy additionally for a pair of monologues that again attest to the film's theatricality.) In each of these instances, then, the repetitions of the theatrical rehearsals and performances are displaced onto daily conversations that follow the same routine template.

This overarching sameness, as much a film being un-spooled continuously as it is a play's confining written dictates (this point is confirmed by the inflexibility of the clown act noted above and to Vittorio's insistence that were he and Kate to meet again, it would be necessarily on the same terms - with her broken down on the side of the road, and he coming to her aid; in other words, like a film, the narrative cannot change), is shattered at Vittorio's behest when he learns the secret behind Kate's disappearance from the circus fifteen years earlier. Indeed, the very fact of this secret and its delayed disclosure links Around a Small Mountain to the director's earliest conspiratorial features, from his Paris nous appartient (1960) debut on through his 1970s masterworks, where additionally the liberatory dimension of Rivette's cinema comes to the fore. As in Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974), a film that remains conceivably not only the filmmaker's greatest but also the masterpiece of the 'New Wave,' Around a Small Mountain's protagonist brings down the film's fictional world from the inside, which once again is undertaken to free a female character from the world of performance's structuring repetition, which in Kate's case ironically entails an inability to perform.

In totality, Around a Small Mountain serves as an organically motivated signature for its author, with the added qualification that Rivette no longer insists on the exceptional duration of his best known work (the director's latest is a lean 85 minutes). Yet, that Around a Small Mountain so fully expresses Rivette's auteurist identify indicates that pure duration is less a necessary and sufficient condition for the characteristic Rivette feature, than it is a facilitator for its emphasis on repetition, and to that theme's incumbent insight into the making and viewing of film fiction. With Around the Small Mountain, the director has again made a film, and a very fine one at that, which once again to quote Rivette on Eastwood, "belong[s] to [him] and no one else."

Equally a work that belongs to no one other than herself, former Rivette protégé Claire Denis's White Material replicates the latter director's singular, overtly subjective Beau Travail (1999)-Friday Night (2002) idiom, replete with their rhythmic editing pattern; preponderance of tight, medium-length compositions; and lastly, their lyrical, contextualizing landscapes. (By contrast, Around a Small Mountain, maintains an even lighting in its outdoor, southern French spaces, favoring long shot-long take set-ups that again affirm the film's connection to theatre.) Furthermore, White Material shuffles its temporal structure - in line with 2004's L'intrus, though arguably much more lucidly in the later picture, and older Rivette - to procure the strong sense of an interior narrative filter, often though (importantly) not exclusively aligned with Isabella Huppert's Maria. Denis specifically cuts from Maria, separated from her family estate, to earlier scenes depicting her coffee plantation's overtaking in the midst of civil war.

In this way, White Material registers a dream-like character, or more precisely a nightmarish valence that in some respects, to make another comparison to the American cinema of the late Carter-era, suggests Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now (1979). For Denis, the hell is an unspecified, war-torn, post-colonial African, where DJs call for revolt against the country's remaining whites, and where bands of child soldiers sport fire arms and machetes, as they prepare to ambush the aforesaid. Indeed, it is details such as the latter that White Material proves its immense topicality as one of the only recent examples of Western world cinema willing to engage with the tragic reality of its former African colonies. Denis's film is many parts of post-colonial Africa, to extend the Coppola comparison. And while there is a certain political incorrectness in highlight such ignominious realities, or to worry about colonizer subjectivity at all, unjustified in this writer's view (especially when one considers Denis's stated sympathy for the "rascals"), White Material equally acknowledges the film's French colonist's ability to leave - albeit at the great cost of their life's works - in contrast to its African nationals whose future reality promises unemployment for those lucky enough to survive civil war at all.

Ultimately, White Material is vital filmmaking both on the level of global political realities, and also that of filmic form. Of course, its very impressionistic nature also makes it among the more difficult major works of 2009, and, for this writer, one of those films most in need of a repeat viewing. Nevertheless, however allusive it might prove to be, Denis's accomplishment is unmistakable.

Note: [*] Eastwood's film manifests a proto-Reaganism in its patriotic renewal of the US, whereas Rivette's film, typical for the director, lacks such a (French) sociological context. Thus, Rivette's film, which in some respects presents itself as a final testament, does not allow for a full house at the film's end. Rather Rivette's art, emblematic not of a nation writ large but of the director's own art historical context which has become by this point classical, embraces its continued minor popularity.

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.