Thursday, September 30, 2010

The 48th New York Film Festival: Film Socialisme (Written by Lisa K. Broad)

If the cinema was born on a train loaded up with all the promises of modernity, it seems content to spend its twilight years adrift at sea. With Film Socialisme, Jean-Luc Godard joins fellow NYFF staples Aleksandr Sokurov and Manoel de Oliveira in creating a ship-bound fable that serves as an elegy both for film as we know it and for the western civilization that gave it birth. In the first, and most evocative of the film’s three parts, Godard – ever a devotee of montage – creates a metaphoric vessel that is at once an Ark and a Ship of Theseus.  (A philosophical thought experiment concerning identity across time, the Theseus paradox involves a ship whose various parts are destroyed and replaced until no original material remains.  And yet one is still inclined to say that the identity of the ship remains intact.)  In the same way, the cinema seems to have incorporated myriad new technologies while allowing the celluloid-based medium with which it was initially identified to fall by the wayside.

In much the same way that Dziga Vertov assembled Man With a Movie Camera’s (1929) virtual city from fragments of different places, Godard fashions his film’s cruise ship out of bits and pieces of digital footage shot on camera phones, consumer grade DV, and luminous HD. Ironically recalling and perhaps standing in for the richness of ‘real’ film, the HD passages, often scored to a haunting string sound track, take on a veneer of acute if unearned poignancy. While Godard has long explored the effects that can be achieved by juxtaposing sounds and images, the conjunction of different kinds of digital images adds a new dimension. For instance, the seamlessness of the HD images makes the consumer grade footage seem sometimes disturbingly immediate, while the heavily pixilated camera footage takes on an almost abstract quality by comparison. The shimmering tension that arises from the convergence of the diverse media recalls Eisenstein's notion of the overtone – an abstract aesthetic element that derives from the process of image juxtaposition without inhering in any of the images themselves.

While Film Socialisme is distinguished in large part by its commitment to an all encompassing multiplicity and heterogeneity, the film as a whole can be viewed as questioning the relationship between concrete parts (individuals, images) and imagined wholes (nations, families, art forms, industries). However, the result of this inquiry is frequently obscure or unsatisfying. Ultimately, Film Socialisme’s form is more eloquent than its content. While the brusque "No Comment" that ends the film seems to foreclose on future political discussion, the silent dialogue Godard opens between desperate incarnations of the cinema speaks to the director's continued aesthetic relevance.

Monday, September 27, 2010

The 48th New York Film Festival: Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives

Warning: the following post contains spoilers.  Also, a very special thanks to film scholar Lisa K. Broad for her substantial contributions to the writing of this piece. 

Thai auteur Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives opens in a silvery day-for-night, framing a long-horned steer as it crosses through the verdant edge of a forested landscape.  A second set-up offers a set of picnickers, briefly presaging one of the film's subsequent cardinal set-pieces, before the film moves into the enveloping jungle with a loin-clothed hunter addressing the animal of the open.  Apichatpong follows these with a piercing red-eyed creature stalking the same nocturnal landscape. Thereafter, the narrative shifts into an automobile, with the film's consequent principles sharing the interior as the vehicle crosses the Northeastern Thai countryside.  As the filmmaker alternates between close-ups of the passengers and static long framings through the car's front windshield, Apichatpong calls to mind his 2002 breakthrough Blissfully Yours in what accordingly proves one of a series of references that will construct the following passages.  In this way, the director immediately offers a counter-interpretation to the film's title: the past lives on display are not only those of Boonmee - the opening sequence presumably offers an example with Boonmee either the reincarnation of the steer or of the hunter - but of Apichatpong himself, with fragments of the auteur's corpus repeatedly returning throughout the film's 113-minute run-time.

A second example of Apichatpong's cinematic reincarnation occurs in the next scene, wherein the director reuses not only the rural landscape of his 2004 Tropical Malady, replete with its covered outdoor space, but also that film's first-half lead, Tong, who as in the earlier film is once again embodied by Sakda KaewbuadeeSyndromes and a Century's (2006) Jenjira Pongpas likewise makes a re-appearance, though in her case under the name (Auntie) Jen, rather than as the earlier work's Pa-Jane.  Indeed, it is more in Apichaptong-newcomer Uncle Boonmee's (Thanapat Saisaymar) kidney treatment, a detail gleaned from the life of the director's of physician father, that Syndromes reasserts its place among Uncle Boonmee's cinematic past-life sources, as well as in the antiseptic hotel room (befitting the 2006 work's urban second part) that closes the director's latest.  Here, the viewer sees Tong and Jen suddenly doubled in super-imposition, leaving to eat dinner at a garishly designed, over-loud restaurant - as their second selves remain glued to their television screen.  In this respect, Apichatpong re-introduces the forking-path, doubled narrative structure that emerges strongest in Tropical Malady and Syndromes and a Century (in addition to its slightly less conspicuous instantiation in Blissfully Yours), albeit only at his latest's close.  Hence, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives does not adhere exactly to the two-part, bifurcated constructions that distinguished his trio of 2000s masterpieces, and defined in some sense, along with the work of Hong Sang-soo in Korea, the art cinema for the decade as a whole.

Instead, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives's fluid fabulist registration suggests an exceedingly appropriate return to the director's "exquisite corpse" first feature, Mysterious Object at Noon (2000) - 'appropriate' given the more recent film's governing interest in origins, be it those of the forms and places of the eponymous uncle's past lives, the director's prior cinematic efforts and influences (including those of the Thai soap opera) and even of the cinema itself.   In one of the latest film's most staggering set-pieces, preceded immediately by an uncharacteristic hand-held follow through the jungle, the trio of leads enter an explicitly originary, primordial cave, with primitive paintings decorating the rock walls and gemstones magically glittering overhead.  Through this space, an automatic metaphor likewise for the cinematic art in its evocation of Platonic shadow play, Apichatpong suggests the origins of his and all (cinematic) art; the spectator sees as the director's figures, filmed from above as they lie against a bright limestone backdrop, suddenly break from the slumber, in essence animating the cave paintings spotted only moments earlier.    This indeed follows on Uncle Boonmee's avowed Chris Marker moment - which is to say its clearest acknowledgment of film's still photographic origins - with a series of stills, taken from the filmmaker's "Primitive" instillation (of which Uncle Boonmee is the culmination), providing the visual counterpoint to the titular figure's voiced-off dream.

A second self-contained dream-encoded passage occurs with the on-screen, cinematically self-reflexive fable of the princess, subsequently pleasured by a catfish, at the water's edge.  Here, Apichatpong transitions to the sequence's day for night, marking one of the film's six disparate stylistic regimes (each culled from a separate real), immediately upon showcasing Tong lying in a hammock.  The viewer is invited in this instance to read the scene as a dream, with Tong's status as Apichatpong's closest narrative surrogate implying that the set-piece is a product of the director's fiction, even as he or she also assumes that the un-spooled is another of Boonmee's past lives.  As such, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall Past Lives presents multiple, porous and concurrent ontological registers, befitting the film's intrinsic Surrealism (considering again its solicitation of Mysterious Object at Noon's narrative organization).

Then again, it is less the film's depiction of surreality in the traditional meaning of the dream than it is its configuration of local animist myth and superstition - as for example when both Boonmee's dead wife and his transmogrified (Monkey Ghost) son appear at their ultimately comic al fresco dinner - that insures the work's true singularity.  Apichatpong reinvents not only his narrative structure to process Boonmee's Buddhist procession of past lives, along with the director's (cinematic) own, but also the film's relationship to the material world, validating the presence of apparitions and their communion with the living through their co-equal presentation.  Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, in other words, thoroughly reinvents film language, what it allows as possible and how it depicts this possibility - Uncle Boonmee does not simply replicate Tropical Malady's doubled form with one-part accordingly claiming a metaphoric valence; rather, the director's latest offers the folkloric to fully permeate the presumed real - in order to facilitate its parallel presentations of reincarnation, the spirit world, human subjectivity and even the director's auto-biography and artistic history.  For the writer of this piece, Uncle Boonmee appears at first glance to be Apichatpong's career best, and quite conceivably the strongest new work of cinematic art in some years.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The 48th New York Film Festival: The Social Network

David Fincher's The Social Network, from an Aaron Sorkin adaptation of "The Accidental Billionaires," Ben Mezrich's 2009 account of the contested founding of Facebook, resolves itself by insisting that Jesse Eisenberg's Mark Zuckerberg is not in fact an "ass-hole," in spite of a cold open that provides seemingly incontrovertible (and indeed explicit) evidence to the contrary, and a storyline that does little to dispel the impression.  Rather, Zuckerberg is assured that he is "just trying so hard to be" the aforesaid, having adopted the posture first in an Anglo-Saxon Harvard world in which his Hebraic origins are a social deficiency, and thereafter in his pursuit of a billion-dollar valuation, following the lead of hard-partying Napster creator Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake). Mark's character failings and in particular his willingness to double-cross his friends and associates is linked finally to his lack of official social acceptance in one of Harvard's "final clubs," while the impetus for the multi-billion dollar company itself continues to the film's end to possess a romantic dimension, with Mark sending ex Erica (Rooney Mara) a friend request (which he monitors by frequently refreshing his site) following one of his legal depositions.  Fincher and Sorkin's The Social Network therefore provides an explanation for Zuckerberg's behavior, the question of his asshole-ness, rooted entirely in the traumas of his early Harvard years.  As Orson Welles's Charles Foster Kane finally pines for his lost youth in Citizen Kane (1941), for a time before his great wealth and monumental ambitions, so does Zuckerberg thirst for his lost love, from a similar juncture situated before his rise.  

That Fincher identifies a single object of romantic longing at the core of his male protagonist's experience insures that The Social Network shares at least some common ground with the director's previous The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008).  However, it is much less his strategies in Benjamin Button than those of his superior Zodiac (2007) to which Fincher is returning in The Social Network.  As with Zodiac, Fincher's latest provides a real-life variation on an earlier, fictionalized cinematic source: for the 2007 film, it was Don Siegel's fully fictional transcription of the "zodiac" killings, Dirty Harry (1971), which the director revises in light of the known facts of the same case, while for The Social Network, it is Welles's veiled treatment of the life of media mogul William Randolph Hearst that provides a point of embarkation for examining that of the latter-day, on-line impresario Zuckerberg.  In both Fincher films, each based on a work of recent non-fiction, the director restricts himself to the recounted histories of his real-life subjects, depicting only those killings on screen for which there were witnesses in Zodiac, and sketching Zuckerberg's life through the deposition testimonies that enable the film's flashbacks.  (It is for this reason that the often uncommunicative Zuckerberg - when he is not dressing-down his countless intellectual inferiors, that is - begins to recede from his own biography.)  Each film attempts to produce a reasonable solution to an open question: who is the Zodiac and what was Zuckerberg's malfeasance?                

Where the two films diverge foremost is in their respective relationships to their sources.  Whereas Zodiac seeks to critique the vigilante premise of its Dirty Harry source in elevating due process over the questions of victim's rights and public safety, and by highlighting the epistemological uncertainty endemic in treating an unsolved case, The Social Network more or less refreshes Kane, adopting that film's shuffled chronology in its recounting of Facebook's contested history. For his latest, Fincher structures his narrative through a pair of parallel depositions, comparable to Citizen Kane's archive and interview prompts, which in the former, as in the latter, seek in some sense to clarify the film's opening: why or is Zuckerberg an "ass-hole?"  What is "Rosebud?"  Though he is undoubtedly responding to richer material with the (still somewhat over-valued) Welles than he is with the (still somewhat under-appreciated) Siegel, the fact that he and Sorkin opt for the same virgin, comprehensive explanation for The Social Network that Welles did for Kane suggests the 2010 film's comparative limitation (versus the revisionist Zodiac).  Where The Social Network could have truly shown some film historical ambition in challenging Welles's slightly pat solution to the Kane/Hearst paradox, it offers instead the same all-encompassing answer.  In any case, Fincher reveals the same small-'r' romanticism that he showcased in Benjamin Button.

In additional auteurist terms, The Social Network again highlights the centrality of lighting (particularly of an overhead, neon variety) that is visible in the director's oeuvre from Se7en (1995) onward.  In contrast to a Welles, for example, whose spaces often organically disclose his narrative's themes - much more than for its subject, Citizen Kane's greatness originates in the meaning that Welles introduces into Gregg Toland's deep focus compositions through his organization of figures - in Fincher, disbursement of bodies in space often seems to be of only secondary importance, with a very classical shot/reverse-shot decoupage predominating.  Instead, the director secures his mimetic effects largely through his choices of illumination, often favoring sickly green or warm yellow filters that inflect his mise-en-scène with a particular mood, while also commenting on aspects of the psychology of his characters.  That the director would favor the creation of meaning in visual tone rather than in the organization of a spatial field recalls Fincher's start as music video artist, where that form's conventional aversion to the long-take militates against the sorts of spaces in which Welles reveled.  Of course, Trent Reznor's participation (in collaboration with Atticus Ross) as the creator of the film's soundtrack likewise reaffirms Fincher's music video past, not only on a filmographic level, but also for the manner in which meaning is conveyed through the film's scoring: to take just one example, Eisenberg's post-breakup, anguished cross-campus flight, through seductively elegant Ivy League surroundings, is suitably mimicked by Reznor and Ross's simultaneous inclusion of a melodic piano theme and overlaid discordant soundscaping.  Sound and image act in complete concert, in other words.  This is the total art of the music video artist.

The Social Network accordingly represents both the latest iteration in Fincher's perpetually more impressive career body of work - upon a first viewing, this writer would rate the film a shade below Zodiac perhaps, but the equal certainly of anything else the director has done to date - and a work that benefits greatly from its collaborators.  (Again Citizen Kane is not an altogether unfruitful point of comparison.)  Most notable among these are Sorkin, particularly for his perceptive, rapid-fire dialogue; Reznor and Ross once again, not only for their thematically organic, multi-layered scoring, but for their occasional sense of humor; Armie Hammer as twin Aryan specimens, the Winklevoss's; and finally Eisenberg himself who brings far more in his caustic embodiment of Zuckerberg for instance than Brad Pitt did previously as Benjamin Button's eponymous cipher.  Even when hunched over or staring blankly out at a sudden rain - and thus only fractionally engaged with the world around him, which Mark admits to being in one of the film's sharpest edged exchanges - Eisenberg exudes a sense of the ass-hole (or wanna be ass-hole) at the center of Fincher's real-world biopic.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

New Film: The Town

Warning: the following post contains spoilers.

Ben Affleck's The Town, from an Affleck, Peter Craig and Aaron Stockard adaptation of Chuck Hogan's novel "Prince of Thieves," distinguishes itself from Hollywood's comparatively recent set of Bostonian Irish mafia A-pictures, Clint Eastwood's late-period masterwork Mystic River (2003) and Martin Scorsese's Academy-endorsed, nihilistic divertissement The Departed (2006), through its exceedingly precise rendering of its Charlestown setting.  Affleck registers the once predominately working class redbrick district through a series of aerial takes that frequently juxtapose the North Boston neighborhood in the lower foreground against the city center receding behind Christian Menn's Bunker Hill Bridge, and in a series of depressed and depressing locations that include abandoned ice arenas, gravel pits and housing projects.  Indeed, The Town proves fundamentally geographic in its orientation and its intention, sketching the neighborhood and its parasitic relationship to Greater Boston (as the point of origin for a nationally unparalleled population of armored vehicle and bank robbers).  On the most basic level, the multi-hyphenate's latest suggests a filmmaker working to stake his claim as the Boston auteur, forging a body of work that attempts to procure a robust sense of the city, from Gus Van Sant's Good Will Hunting (1997),  through to Affleck's own Boston-based policier Gone Baby Gone (2007) and his 2010 latest.  Affleck may yet prove a New England parallel to Gotham's Scorsese, albeit in a very nascent stage in his career; or more conservatively, he may become to his hometown what Paul Mazursky, whose An Unmarried Woman (1978) mapped New York far better than most, once was to his.    

Ultimately, what Affleck presents is his city's myths, in this case Charlestown's criminal disrepute, which the director filters through an exceedingly familiar moral relativism.  His city's thieves, even those who enjoy their line's brutality (Jeremy Renner), are naturally never without positive qualities (with loyalty being the default).  If The Town is therefore highly conventional in the moral code it depicts, so too is the tenor of the film's narrative focalization, with the spectator heavily invested in the fate of Affleck's bank robber cum kidnapper Doug MacRay.  In the director's hands, the potential imminent revelation of Renner's neck tattoo offers a virtually Hitchcockian example of suspense, equivalent in effect to Sabotage's (1936) public transport explosive, with Doug's freedom and romantic happiness perilously hanging in the balance.  In the end, however, Affleck opts to insure only one of these two for his MacRay, leaving the second open to speculation in a concluding set-piece that seems to be lifted directly from Frank Darabont's The Shawshank Redemption (1994).   That Affleck would favor such a source at this pivotal moment reinforces his own ambitions with The Town: to create a well-crafted piece of A-picture storytelling (of the sort that would largely disappear in the early 2000s, save for an occasional Mystic River).  In other words, Affleck produces a largely edge-less work of the middle, where the director's able regulation of pace and his fine direction of actors - extending beyond those mentioned to a plausibly 'rode hard and put away wet' Blake Lively; her Oxycon-abusing, Irish-American single mother proves the ideal role for the alluring young starlet's overbite - remain its most memorable virtues.  Other that is than the film's urban geography.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Looking Back at 2010, Looking Forward to 2010

With the length of my inactivity on this website, save for a new design necessitated by Tativille's illegibility on certain platforms, beginning to become something of an embarrassment, however slight, I would like to offer my seemingly annual mea culpa and promise of increased attention for the months ahead.  While naturally much of my neglect can be attributed to a relatively full summer and early autumn schedule, this alone does not explain my invisibility on this site, at least not entirely.   There is indeed an important factor beyond my various academic commitments that has prevented me from writing more: I haven't had that much to say.  Though certainly a general dulling of my mind is partially to blame, I would insist, nonetheless, that cinema has done very little the past few months to merit my recreational interest.  On those few occasions when I have found myself engaged by new or newish works, Alamar, The Father of My Children, Inception, La libertad (2001), I have taken the time to write down my thoughts, or minimally to transcribe the superior insights of my wife - for which I inevitably take co-credit.  (An exception to the former rule was the very fine I Am Lovewhich Lisa and I saw near the end of its run, in the midst of my summer class.  My single paragraph on the film can be found here, included among my retrospective choices for the "ten best" films of 2009.  I regret not committing a longer piece to the film.)

Such occasions, however, have been quite few.  Other than Inception, the American film of the summer almost certainly was Toy Story 3, provided both its top rank at the box office and the near ubiquity of its critical admiration.  Yet it was the "near" in this case that was the most interesting part for me, perhaps even more than this good though arguably unexceptional feature itself, and especially the vehemence leveled against its lone public detractor, Armond White, which approached shocking levels.  White dared to question a work whose popularity, I would aver, has at least something to do with its capacity for making teenage boys feel sentimental, and perhaps to shed their first post-pubescent, movie house tears.  The summer of 2010 also featured the belated release of 2009 festival favorite Wild Grass, which saw Alain Resnais morph into a poor-man's Pedro Almodóvar, and in the process land last year's opening night slot at the Lincoln Center event - not what I was hoping for following the director's elegant, confessional career peak, Private Fears in Public Places (2006).  Beyond the latter, the summer's biggest downer was the usually more reliable New York Asian Film Festival, which even so, at the very least offered Sammo Hung in the flesh, and his strong Eastern Condors (1987) on the screen.

In my own personal exploration of cinema's past, abstracted from 2010, the past eight months have been less notable than the previous twelve, thanks in no small measure to the extraordinary amount of superlative Pre-Code Hollywood cinema I finally caught up with in 2009.  One of the aforesaid era's high points that I did manage to see theatrically this year rather than last was Harry d'Abbadie d'Arrast's outstanding Laughter (1930), which accordingly I would rank alongside La libertad and Maren Ade's Everyone Else (2009) as one of the year's best.  Otherwise, it has been a year of more mediocre fare for this writer, mostly for reasons pertaining to my dissertation research, which over the course of the year focused first on Hollywood in the immediate post-World War I years, and then at the advent of synchronized sound.  In other words, I have seen a lot of Cecil B. DeMille - and more recently Alan Crosland - in 2010: interesting enough, and certainly notable from a film historical point-of-view, but hardly appropriate to a site devoted mostly to international art cinema.  Not that DeMille and Crosland fail to qualify as cinema or art.  Rather, I acknowledge that most readers who find this site thanks to something I have written on Lisandro Alonso or Manoel de Oliveira may not care so much about slightly above average Hollywood works from 1919 or 1926; and to be honest, I am not so sure that I have more to say about these films than the brief mentions I make in my research. 

Ultimately, for American cinephiles of the sort that I imagine read Tativille, this year, which is comprised of the truly vital, important work that will premiere somewhere in the world in 2010, has not yet begun.  Up to now, we have been experiencing the filmic foam following 2009's rather smallish wave, with the sporadic appearances only (now more than ever) of passable studio filmmaking.  2010 in particular promises foremost to be the year of the latest by Apichatpong Weerasethakul, a comeback from Abbas Kiarostami, another final film by Manoel de Oliveira, not to mention any number of unexpected pleasures from terra incognita (to steal Film Comment's expression).  Well, not really any number.  James Quandt seems to be fairly accurate when he speculates that “any given year turns up ten, maybe twenty good-to-great films, if we’re lucky.”  (This assumes, I think, that by 'good-to-great films' he means work at a higher level, though not necessarily that of the masterpiece.)  With the arrival of the New York Film Festival later this month, that higher level will again begin to emerge, and 2010 will finally commence.  With that soon-to-be eventuality, I too pledge to return to this site with increase frequency, charting once again where cinema is in this new year, 2010.