Saturday, July 24, 2010

New Film: Inception (Co-written by Michael J. Anderson & Lisa K. Broad)

Indisputably the movie of the present moment, though perhaps not entirely of its moment, Christopher Nolan's Inception is even more, and more importantly, the film of its writer-director's career, distilling Nolan's thematic concerns, style and signature narrative constructions within its single, "A"-picture shape. For good or ill, and it is indeed both, Inception contains all of Nolan's cinema - often not simply through allusion, but in visual citation as well - construed in a form that intermittently engages with the digital-age cinematic medium. Ultimately, it is on this last level that Inception proves of greatest interest to this piece's writers, at once extending the late 1990s, early 2000s engagement with the ontology of the analog-digital hybrid, while staking the director's place on the personal-impersonal artistic continuum.

In this latter respect, Inception joins David Fincher's own recent career-peak Zodiac (2007) in favoring its maker's effacement, albeit in a form subsumed by subjectivity, rather than by Fincher's comparatively fact-based approach. In Inception, Nolan introduces the question of the artist's place in the incursion of artist-surrogate Leonardo DiCaprio's memories into CillianMurphy's dream world - where the aforesaid seeks, along with his colleagues, to implant an idea at the behest of Ken Watanabe, Murphy's Far East corporate rival. (Following in the pattern of Memento [2000], Inception introduces the concept of the idea as "virus," as an all-consuming contagion that remakes the individual.) As DiCaprio's dead wife, Marion Cotillard, comes to disrupt her husband and his co-conspirator's work of inception, and with the couple's children more benignly present on repeated occasions, Nolan constructs a narrative where the personal not only challenges but in fact threatens to destroy the work of creation at hand. In order to successfully implant the idea, to create Murphy's recollection ex nihilo, DiCaprio is forced to resist his own traumatic past - his subjectivity, in other words.

In more straightforwardly psychoanalytic terms, trauma proves formative for Nolan's latest, where the director's leads mine progressively deeper into human interiorty, seeking those secrets that are quite literally, in the film's science-fiction world, locked away within vaults. In its exploration of a repressed past, Inception particularly recalls the filmmaker's retrospectively cardinal psychoanalytic prequel, Batman Begins (2005), as it does DiCaprio's previous pairing with Martin Scorsese, Shutter Island (2010); DiCaprio himself seems in the incipient stages of establishing his own authorial voice. Batman Begins also generates one of the more obvious citations in Inception, with the former's Tibet set-piece returning as a cite of Freudian extraction. On the other hand, the director's behemoth box office follow-up to said reboot, The Dark Knight (2008), proves most formative for the low-key visual design of Nolan's current feature: The Dark Knight's warm golden light once again radiates through Inception's mahogony-paneled interiors. Present likewise is the 2008 film's reliance on a Griffithian form of cross-cutting, which in Inception, as in Peter Jackson's capstone to his 'Lord of the Rings trilogy,' The Return of the King (2003), sets a new standard in its activation of multiple, simultaneous narrative stages. This trio of contemporary blockbusters accordingly signals a return of Hollywood's repressed feature-film origin, The Birth of a Nation (1915).

Inception, however, adds a new dimension to the technique, thanks to its multiple dream-within-a-dream scenarios, each of which possess their own temporal schemas. Thus, an extended battle sequence in one dream-scape occupies the same relative story duration as a van's drop from a lift bridge. In this regard, Nolan again returns to the American cinema's original master, whose cross-cutting once pitted a cross-town traversal in The Drive for Life (1909) with the time it would take to raise a single piece of poisoned candy to its heroine's lips - in both Nolan's and Griffith's work, a Hollywood ending ensues. Of course, Inception explains its adoption of proto-classicism's temporal distensions through its science-fiction conceit; Nolan naturalizes Griffith's improbable last-minute rescues. Inception's narrative structure, like The Prestige's (2006) subject matter, returns to cinema's relative nascence.

The Prestige similarly proves a precursor for Inception's fable of the ontological loss of innocence, where the original sin of the copy begins the work of robbing the individual of his or her sense of reality. In the director's current work, the infinite regress dovetailing from waking life invites a skepticism that at least in one instance proves fatal. In this sense, Inception offers an allegory for the cinema not simply within the present digital age, but also inclusive of its proto-chemical mode. Still, Inception does belong meaningfully to the digital and new media moment, presenting a world that is wholly created, however uniformly photo-real, while also adopting video gaming's logic of immersed multiple lives. Consequently, Inspection repeats the narrative pattern instantiated previously by David Cronenberg's eXistenZ and the Wachowski Bros.'s The Matrix (both 1999), albeit from within rather than on the threshold of the digital revolution.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

New Film: Alamar (Co-written by Lisa K. Broad & Michael J. Anderson)

Writer-director Pedro González-Rubio's Alamar (To the Sea, 2009), one of the past year's unequivocal festival-circuit breakthroughs, pursues the same unmarked path between documentary and fiction as another of these writers' favorite 2010 New York premieres, Lisandro Alonso's La libertad (2001). In González-Rubio's seventy-three minute feature, as in Alonso's similarly undersized debut, the narrative focuses upon the rituals of its non-fiction leads within a rural Latin American backwater. Unlike in La libertad, however, which Alonso grounds in his protagonist's work environment, Alamar centers on Jorge Machado (as himself) as he travels on holiday with his young son Natan Machado Palombini to the Chinchorro-reef Caribbean home of his father, played by Nestór Marín. Hence, Alamar presents its human subjects, save for the grandfather, in a world that is removed from their typical daily habits, though Jorge is clearly conversant with his father's routine. Alamar thusly concerns itself within an exceptional moment in the lives of father Jorge and son Natan, as they vacation together before the latter returns to be with his mother in Rome - and even of Nestór as he receives his absent son and grandson - rather than with the everyday monotony that characterizes La libertad.

Indeed, it is Alamar's externally imposed spatio-temporal unity - its holiday, or idyll structure - that lends it a sense of fictionality. However, the events contained within these loose narrative boundaries seem to unfold with a kind of naturalistic grace that feels entirely unconstrained. While La libertad consciously privileges the messier, more elemental aspects of man's relationship with nature, positioning itself at the mythical apotheosis of neo-realism, Alamar strips away the rough edges of subsistence living, creating the kind of shimmering, romantic lyricism that Robert Flaherty sought among the natives in Nanook of the North (1922). Not coincidentally, then, La libertad, despite its eminent naturalism, somehow feels more fictional than Alamar's Edenic ethnography.

If Alamar therefore injects less ambiguity into the relation that it procures between fiction and non-fiction, it nevertheless captures its real-world spaces not in conventional 16 or 35mm, but in a DV that ratchets up the film's gorgeous sea-green waters and pink sunsets to an almost preternatural degree. González-Rubio's intense daylight features significant bleaching, thereby providing a canvas upon which the circling scavenger birds appear about as real as the namesakes of Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds (1963). The director's camera work likewise follows its leads as they take their trade underwater, capturing the vibrant, undersea life of the world's second largest coral reef. As Michael Mann's Miami Vice (2006) and Nuri Bilge Ceylan's Climates (2006) have before it, Alamar's breathtaking vistas reveal the digital cinema's unique, medium-specific capacity to exquisitely render both sea and sky in a profusion of vivid color and fine-grained detail that seems almost on occasion to exceed the real.

If the film's landscapes provide a poetical excess of beauty, its representation of the process of fishing endows an often painstaking and patience-trying trade with a fantastic sense of ease and pleasure. In Alamar's magical realist universe, each cast of the fishing line almost instantly brings in a gleaming, exotic fish, just as every dive concludes with a ruddy, oversize lobster. The fruits of the catch invariably provide rustic cuisine of the highest order, which again is very different from the pot that La libertad's lead returns to daily, or to the armadillo from which he gleans a very perfunctory meal. In this respect, as in the film's varying depictions of labor - Alonso's film discloses nothing if not the banal details of its lead's very small-scale logging operation - Alamar proves to be an almost anti-La libertad, despite the two films' immediate similarities. Where the earlier work emphasizes the labor performed by its subject, thereby proving ceaselessly ordinary, however novel it may be to many viewers, the later is anything but, erasing the hardships of the work in a world that verges on becoming fantastic. In other words, while the Sisyphean labors of the La libertad's man-in-nature come to take on a mythic cast, Alamar presents a kind of ultra-masculine fairy-tale.

To this latter end, the film's trio occupies a home constructed on stilts over the turquoise water, with a crocodile circling beneath the structure in search of scraps. (In a moment reminiscent of film theorist André Bazin's description of the danger posed to a child in the 1951 British film, Where No Vultures Fly, Natan does get perilously close to a crocodile at one point, with the child's father and grandfather causally, laughingly warning the young boy as they sand their gleaming white boat at the water's edge.) An ibis that they nickname "blanquita" not only visits their home repeatedly, becoming something of an ersatz pet to the child, but is even trained by Jorge to wait patiently for a handful of food. There is something perfect about the world they construct apart for these two weeks; the film very much veils itself in their fond recollections of the vacation.

Of course, Alamar does depict a very transient moment in their lives, before they will once again separate, with the child returning to his mother in Italy. (The film opens with black-and-white footage and then voiced-off stills that detail the family's current estrangement.) Jorge has a very small amount of time with his son, which he makes the most of by tenderly holding the seasick child on his lap as they first travel to the house on the sea and when they wrestle under the hammocks that they sleep on nightly. If Alamar does offer a sort of paradise for the film's three male generations, it is a momentary one only, one that will conclude before the film's seventy-three minutes.
The writers of this piece would like to thank R. Emmet Sweeney especially for his strong and insistent recommendations of both Alamar and La libertad.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Certains Regards: La libertad (2001) & Ten Canoes (2006)

Receiving its New York premiere this past weekend in conjunction with the just-completed 2010 Robert Flaherty Seminar, Argentine filmmaker Lisandro Alonso's La libertad (2001), the 1975-born director's first feature, provided a fit course for international modernist art cinema in the years immediately following the Abbas Kiarostami-dominated 1990s. With Kiarostami redrawing the boundaries delimiting fact and fiction from Close-Up (1990) onward, La libertad emerges as a sensible extension of the aforesaid's ontological interest, providing a work that is properly speaking neither fiction feature nor documentary. La libertad's grounding in the factual - its non-professional lead performs actions belonging to his daily ritual - insures that this is not fiction filmmaking as it is conventionally defined, while the film's lack of explanation equally argues against its status as documentary. If anything, La libertad suggests a form of semi-fictionalized cinema that is separated from more traditional fiction film by the gulf of non-fiction; in specifying so little, La libertad becomes something other than the non-fiction that a description of its scenario might suggest otherwise.

After the black and red credits and heavy industrial-style scoring that have since become a discordant signature of Alonso's, La libertad opens on Misael Saavedra as he performs the tasks of a lumberjack: the young male fells trees, stripping the bark off the dead trunks with his forearms pulled tight as he flicks the steel blade against the thin outer layer. The viewer can almost feel the vibrations of the axe handle that accompany the thud of the blade as it catches in the thick trunk. Alonso's camera remains fixed on Misael, often in longer compositions and extended duration takes, as he repeats the same practice on a number of the locale's leafless trees, both fallen and standing, before leaving for the shade of his camp and a meal from an iron pot. Once he finishes, pushing the remnants of his lunch back into the same pot, Misael leaves his shaded exterior, covered by a sheet metal roof that also provides its waist-high fencing, the film's subject lies in the dark of his exposed bedroom with his gaze directed outside his makeshift hut.

At this juncture, Alonso's camera peels off from his lead, moving independently to a wire fence that closes off an adjacent field. As such, Alonso intimates the presence of his own narrational position within the film, separating subject from apparatus for the remaining duration of the take. Upon the conclusion of this visual diversion, Alonso returns to Misael who subsequently meets a man and his son after they pull up in an empty pickup truck. After loading the flatbed, Misael rides on the bare logs, with his hand resting on the neck of a panting dog. Throughout this sequence, Alonso awakens his viewer's sensory memory, calling to mind the smooth textures of the logs covered in fine sawdust, the warmth of the animal's neck and its angular shoulder bones. In this way, La libertad prefigures Alonso's outstanding recent Liverpool (2008).

Ultimately, Misael continues on alone in the truck, finally reaching a rural lumberyard where he sells the object of his work - below the price that he seeks initially. Having concluded his sale, he purchases gas and supplies at a petrol station, before returning finally to the same improvised homestead. Building a large bonfire, Misael sits staring into the camera - thus again enunciating the film's apparatus - which accordingly reenacts the shot that opened the film before the loose narration commences in earnest with the lead's work. In this respect, Alonso invites the viewer to consider the film's depiction of work as routine, as a repeated set of gestures carried out before the film begins and after the picture concludes. Here again Liverpool comes to mind.

In total, La libertad constitutes a form of cinematic portraiture, procuring an abundant sense of Misael's daily life, featuring not simply the actions performed on the job - though this does constitute the majority of the film as it would presumably Misael's waking life - but also the tactile sensations of these experiences and even those acts that are typically elided from feature and documentary filmmaking alike, whether it is riding in and driving the truck, preparing his meal (including his very ethnographic butchering of an armadillo, a scene that is essentially replayed in his masterpiece Los Muertos; 2004) or even defecating as he crouches toward the bottom of the frame. In this latter instance, the viewer hears though does not see said act, which Misael prepares for by clutching sheets of tissue paper in his fist. La libertad in sum seeks to comprehensively portray what Misael's life is like as he lives alone in the film's isolated rural setting.

Indeed, it may just be the solitary character of Misael's existence that provides the film with its most distinctive quality. The great majority of Alonso's seventy-three minute feature frames Alonso alone, where, save for his singing of a single song, he remains silent. The film itself, though it features an abundant ambient soundtrack, which attracts the viewer's attention as much as does the image track, likewise trades on Misael's silence, with the additional exception of the passages at his homestead where he turns on his hand-held radio. Alonso thusly identifies the experience of being alone as a silent one, where the viewer gradually becomes aware of Misael's lack of speech and the need for communication that will manifest itself in his moments spent listening to his radio, his brief conversation with the gas station worker, a phone call to a friend and even to his song declaimed as he crosses the field in late afternoon.
By comparison, writer-director Rolf de Heer's Ten Canoes (2006), co-directed by Peter Djigirr, which like La libertad premiered in the Un Certain Regard section of the Cannes film festival, abounds with speech, featuring a voice-over in English depicting the events occurring in not one but two pasts of increasing remoteness from the opening's present. In the first of these historical settings, an on-screen narrator (David Gulpilil) tells the same extra-diegetically told story in Aborigine to his fellow tribesman (Jamie Gulpilil), whom he suspects of coveting his wife. The story told on-screen is intended therefore as a parable for the young man, with the same actor playing his earlier, covetous counterpart. As Ten Canoes proceeds in its telling of this story, the filmmakers frequently shift between the film's two pasts and at times even the present, featuring black-and-white for the earlier past and color for the both the present and more frequently the distant past. While there is an inelegance to de Heer and company's visual choice in this respect, their strategy does at least insure maximum intelligibly. Indeed, Ten Canoes' non-sequential narrative structure is not adopted to disorient the film's spectators.

Rather, de Heer and his fellow filmmakers utilize multiple temporalities in order to provide a historical framework for the stories being told. Specifically, Ten Canoes pursues a form for the representation of its Aboriginal people's oral history, in this case literally passed down from the past depicted in the black-and-white to the present, with narrators at both historical stages sharing the same story. In this regard, Ten Canoes represents a remaking of film language no less than does La libertad's poetic sub-documentary narrative minimality, through a form of incessant narration that almost completely eschews mimesis (the act of showing rather than telling); in this sense it is the very opposite of La libertad that shows everything and provides no commentary. Instead, de Heer and company's film uses its image track to illustrate both the story being told twice - a mark of another major direction in twenty-first century modernist art cinema, as instantiated by the works of Hong Sang-soo and Apichatpong Weerasethakul - and also the ethnographic details, the spectacle articulated by the off-screen narrator that emerge throughout the goose egg hunt on which the on-screen narrator shares the film's oral history.