Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Postscript to the 48th New York Film Festival: Hereafter

Warning: the following post contains spoilers.

Clint Eastwood's Hereafter, from a Peter Morgan original screenplay, has generated frequent, and not altogether unfounded comparisons to Alejandro González Iñárritu's risible effort at disclosing global inter-connectivity, Babel (2006), with which it minimally shares a multi-nationalism in its tripartite presentation of three persons plumbing the mysteries of life after death.  Where Iñárritu's four-parter ambitiously (and for this writer, absurdly) seeks to reveal a socio-political super-structure underlying his apparently unconnected tragic events, Eastwood and Morgan argue rather for a common condition of loneliness* - far less beyond their respective intellectual pay-grades - that links Cécile De France's tsunami survivor, Matt Damon's reluctant medium and child actors Frankie and George McLaren's surviving twin as all explore a permeable afterlife, depicted somewhat inelegantly in a series of bleached, startle-framings.^  Though Eastwood and Morgan in this respect offer a vision, in both senses, of life after death, the filmmakers' answer to the aforesaid proves less cardinal to their treatment and interest in their spiritual cum supernatural subject matter than do the purposes for their characters' contact, as well as the consequences of their interactions.  Indeed, in grounding their work  in the personal causes underlying an exploration of the afterlife, focalized in this instance through the death-defined lives of the invariably sympathetic Damon, De France and especially the identical McLaren's, Eastwood and Morgan have produced work that is perhaps notable foremost for its emphasis on human feeling and on the warmth which it exudes.

Of course, being the latest by Eastwood, latter-day Hollywood's inheritor to the great John Ford for both his insistent reflection on the American experiment and indeed for the breadth of his artistic achievement, Hereafter naturally sustains interest on the most basic authorial level.  As an exploration of its precise historical moment, one of the director's greatest and most consistent accomplishments from the explicitly post-Watergate, post-Vietnam The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976) onward, Eastwood's latest perhaps lacks the interest of his previous Invictus (2009), which captured the long-since eclipsed, cross-aisle "hope"-filled immediate aftermath of the current President's election (offering a model in Nelson Mandela, from a center-right perspective, for America's first commander-in-chief of color); nevertheless, Hereafter does at least wink at the current economic crisis in Damon's layoff, the continued threat of global terrorism in a London underground bombing, and most notably of all, the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, which Eastwood reproduces to great immersive effect in the film's action set-piece opening, wherein the director showcases his unmistakable aptitude for perspectival cutting (with Joel Cox, as always, collaborating on the editing table).  As an expression of Eastwoodian craft, Hereafter likewise reveals the director's hand in both a frequently lower key lighting strategy - with Tom Stern once again stepping in, under the sign of the extraordinary Bruce Surtees - and in its structuring parallelism, which the director has developed throughout his career, after his apprenticeship as Don Siegel's leading man. That Surtees and Siegel come to mind should indicate, parenthetically, that Dirty Harry (1971) remains perpetually the point of origin for Eastwood's corpus.

On the level of theme, Hereafter's strongest debt to the director's previous output emerges in its emphasis on childhood trauma and deprivation, which has remained present in the actor-director's work since his earlier collaborations with his children, Kyle and Alison Eastwood (in Honkytonk Man [1982] and Tightrope [1984] respectively).  In Hereafter, Bryce Dallas Howard's romantic interest proves the victim of childhood sexual assault, a motif explored most notably in the director's late-period masterwork Mystic River (2003), while the McLaren twins' characters struggle with a drug-abusing single mother; in this respect, Hereafter indirectly reflects the director's concern with absent fatherhood, which has found its fullest expression in Eastwood's supreme masterpiece A Perfect World (1993), along with later iterations True Crime (1999) and Million Dollar Baby (2004).  Accordingly, Hereafter proves in both respects a typically personal work for the director, thanks not only to the repetition of the apparently deeply felt aforesaid themes, but in approaching the question of the afterlife as the filmmaker enters his eightieth year.  It is in this sense characteristically the work of an old man.

Whatever false notes Morgan's screenplay ultimately introduces into Eastwood's latest - and it does introduce some in the film's occasionally if not often flat dialog and extreme redundancy (even by the director's conventionally repetitive standards) - it still affords an expansion of the Eastwoodian universe, which is by no means irrelevant to the film's merit.  This is not to say, however, that Hereafter is only notable as a reflection of Eastwood's archetypal concerns: beyond the humanity with which Eastwood infuses his work once again, the director's latest maintains an admirably brisk pacing, while additionally featuring a series of creditable performances achieved in collaboration with the filmmaker.  In the end, Eastwood is more than the sum of his themes, as singular and consistent as they may be; Eastwood remains one of contemporary Hollywood's very best storytellers, even where his material somewhat falters.

Notes: [*] In suggesting a near universal condition of loneliness, Hereafter finds an appropriately European source in Pedro Almodóvar's masterpiece Talk to Her (2002).
[^] Eastwood's afterlife bears some resemblance to purgatory, thereby continuing the Roman Catholic interest of the director's recent Gran Torino (2008).

Monday, October 11, 2010

The 48th New York Film Festival: Mysteries of Lisbon + Festival Recap (featuring Le quattro volte, Aurora & The Strange Case of Angélica)

Raúl Ruiz's Mysteries of Lisbon (Mistérios de Lisboa), from a Carlos Saboga adaptation of Camilo Castelo Branco's nineteenth-century novel of the same name, recasts the Chinese box narrative structure most famously associated with the director's earlier period masterpiece, The Three Crowns of the Sailor (1983), where stories continuously unfold within stories and more within these and so on, through a series of graceful, circling sequence-shots that call to mind the temporally-unstable spaces of the filmmaker's Marcel Proust-adaptation Time Regained (1999).  Here, however, Ruiz does not alter temporality within a single spatial field - though he does at one point present two of the lead's selves within a single frame, thereby replicating Time Regained's stunning denouement - but instead reserves his ever shifting chronology for the editing room, with his cutting again rarely employed analytically within a single fragment of time and space (save for a handful of passages of shot/reverse-shot, often presenting two male speakers).  In Mysteries of Lisbon, Ruiz's fluid camera work principally serves his fluid progression of stories, their next-to infinite regression, with re-framings in all but a handful of examples accomplished within rather than without the camera and figure movement universally recapitulated in the visual field through its tight figural identification - moored to his stories' many tellers.  The director's long-shot, long-take work also affords for the re-introduction of The Three Crowns of the Sailor's aggressively planar, baroque compositions, at times inorganic and at others not, with servers, in their organic usage, adopting foreground positions where they will overhear the gossip, in the frame's recesses, that will lead to the masters' ceaseless miseries.  (Ruiz, it is worth noting, also recalls the trick cinematography of the earlier masterpiece in his use, for example, of an extreme low-angle that takes the place of a floor, onto which shards of a ripped paper are dropped.)

Yet, for Mysteries of Lisbon, as for The Three Crowns of the Sailors, it remains all about the telling.  Borrowed from the novel, Ruiz and screenwriter Saboga replicate the multiple-twist narrational structure of the late nineteenth century serial for their conventionally melodramatic, ultra-Romantic tale of masked identity, unknown paternity and ubiquitous suffering and heartbreak.  Standing at the center of Ruiz's latest is Joao/Pedro da Silva (played in his teenage years by João Baptista, and José Afonso Pimentel for his young adulthood), an epileptic orphan, under the care of shape-shifting priest Father Dinis (Adriano Luz), who comes to discover the identity of both parents, before involving himself in the same socially-determined tragedy as those who have preceded him - including his father, mother and even Dinis himself.  Each of the latter's stories, and those of many, many more, are narrated on-screen and then in flashback, within Joao/Pedro da Silva's overarching, voiced-off recounting.  Ruiz additionally offers static illustrations of numerous scenes with the younger Joao's puppet theatre, which not only implicitly allegorizes the fate of the young man and his ancestors, but also suggests a manipulator of the broader narrative - which is to say Ruiz himself.   

Mysteries of Lisbon very much proves the ultimate vehicle for its ever narrative-obsessed director, with its structure that allows for storytelling to become an endless, virtually existential act - highly appropriate for the Chile-born author of more than one-hundred films; Mysteries of Lisbon is the director's career in 272-minute microcosm - its subject that springs forth finally from memory (in the image of Time Regained) and its figures whose identities and even self-hoods prove as fluid as the film's time and space.  The director's latest emerges as a new signature accomplishment, a masterpiece no doubt for the director, and also a worthy companion to Manoel de Oliveira's supreme masterwork culled from the same authorial source, Doomed Love (1978).  There could be no greater compliment to Ruiz's latest than this.    

*** 

For this writer, the 2010 New York Film Festival provided the strongest set of high-end cinematic achievements in quite some time, with Mysteries of LisbonUncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, Certified Copy and Tuesday After Christmas leading the way, followed, on a somewhat lower level, by The Social Network.  In addition to these, this author was also present for a trio of significant, if not major works, recapped below in order of viewing, along with Lee Chang-dong's solid and solidly mid-range Poetry (pictured), with the director characteristically guiding Yoon Jeong-hee to a laudable lead performance, and Jean-Luc Godard's gorgeous in parts, though opaque and exasperating in more, Film Socialisme, which Tativille guest contributor Lisa K. Broad recounted in far more skillful terms than this writer would be able.  

Michelangelo Frammartino's Le quattro volte / The Four Times adds to the La libertad (2001)-brand, work-oriented documentary-fiction hybrid in its construction of a primitive economy that accounts equally for the unique contributions of man, goat, tree and charcoal to the life and operation of a small Calabrian village.  Frammartino succeeds in both reducing the cardinality of man to cinema - not only narratively but also in terms of his mise-en-scène - and in finding a greater degree of structure than is common for Lisandro Alonso imitations.  Whether or not Frammartino's worldview is productive remains an open question, though his attempt at a Pythagorean sketching of spiritual transmigration, to paraphrase the Italian filmmaker, undoubtedly offers something new to the medium.

Crisi Puiu's Aurora even more radically remakes cinematic storytelling in its elimination of dialogue signposting, in favor of a greater conceptual authenticity, where the scenes from the life and crime of Puiu's lead mostly appear as they might have were the scenario non-faction.  (No back-story is evident from the film's open, even as Puiu eschews cinema's characteristic redundancy.)  Hence, Aurora pushes the Romanian New Wave's default realist mode into truly original territory, where life is presented on screen as a largely unreadable sequence of events with immediately unclear character relations and motivations.  It is in this sense the ultimate work of surveillance.  Puiu's strategy is frustrating enough on occasion, however, to reinforce the virtues of what he negates - the elegance of the unobtrusive point of clarification reveals itself in its absence - though even this may add to Puiu's achievement inasmuch as it helps its viewer to better see the manner in which films traditionally disclose information.

Aurora is a major work to be sure, as much if not more - in many salient respects - than its exceedingly entertaining counter-point The Social Network, with the Romanian director organically constructing a visual corollary for his minimalist narrative: Puiu greatly restricts his framing by placing the camera just outside doorways, thereby displacing much of his busy domestic beehive spaces - Aurora confers a sense of how Romanians live - onto the off-camera field.  More obscurity, in other words, which Puiu further introduces in a consistently unanswered telephone (which if anything suggests an active obfuscation of information that exceeds the aforesaid surveillance).  Ultimately Puiu's work is about the absence of information that lends the film its substantial staying power: as its advanced reputation suggests, Aurora really does haunt its viewer long after its three-hours, perhaps offering more interest in its post-viewing cognitive reconstruction than in the experience of viewing the film itself.  For this alone, Aurora is one of the year's greater accomplishments.
Caught for the past two or three decades in the existential act of making his final film, to paraphrase the Village Voice's J. Hoberman, centenarian-plus one Manoel de Oliveira's latest last testament, The Strange Case of Angélica, fittingly provides a source narrative akin to Apichatpong's Uncle Boonmee, with the River Douro and trick cinematography (cf. Ruiz again) offering personal, Lumière and Méliès-style poles. As befits a filmmaker of Oliveira's unprecedented late stage, The Strange Case of Angélica is a work of uttermost freedom - like his recent Belle Toujours (2006) - with the director's interest typically alternating between cinema's original edge capabilities.  Of course, Oliveira also commemorates and embalms, whether it is his career, the cinema, the ways of life of his Oporto home or a Europe whose decline the director has been sketching as long as he has been making his last.  

Monday, October 04, 2010

The 48th New York Film Festival: Certified Copy

Abbas Kiarostami's Certified Copy (Copie conforme), the director's first feature-length, non-experimental fiction filmmaking since his 2002 Ten, and his only to date to be shot outside his native Iran, confirms or rather reaffirms the filmmaker's place at the absolute pinnacle of post-1960s international art cinema, through its re-purposing of both the director's own previous forays into the border territory between fact and fiction and also the very European modernist art cinema of which Kiarostami has proven the most notable inheritor.  Recalling foremost Roberto Rossellini's fluid, epochal examination of marital stress and miraculous renewal, Viaggio in Italia (1954), a film whose influence on the director has been crystalline since Kiarostami invented his own moving vehicle idiom in the early 1990s; the early 1960s period work of the former's high modernist countryman and direct artistic descendant, Michelangelo Antonioni; and finally, but certainly not least of all in terms of resemblance, Alain Resnais's parable of uncertainty, Last Year at Marienbad (1961), Certified Copy finds its fiction as Juliette Binoche (as French ex-pat Elle) and William Shimell (as English author James Miller) traverse the country roads and villages of the film's rural Tuscany, inventing a fifteen-year marriage as they ostensibly embark on their first afternoon together.  Unlike as in Resnais's topical source, however, with which the film shares an unclear past, Shimell's Miller does not resist Binoche's fabrication, but instead playacts in his assigned role as inattentive husband and frequently absent father, before being asked to make the intra-film fiction a narrative fact as the couple arrive at the (improvised) site of their "honeymoon."  In keeping with the director's signature technique of constructing unfinished endings, it remains for the spectator to decided whether Binoche and Shimell replace their invented pairing with a real coupling as the film fades to black - in this sense replicating Rossellini's marital restoration - or if instead Shimell shatters the fantasy in order to catch his nine o'clock train.

Certified Copy opens with a static figure-less framing of Shimell's eponymously titled tome propped up on a rectangular table between a set of microphones.  With the din of voices emerging beyond the extremely limited opening frame, Kiarostami immediately constructs a distinctive off-camera field, thereby renewing his most consistent formal obsession.  Following an introduction apologizing for his delay, Shimell's tardy Miller soon appears and thus commences his lecture on the subject of his book, originals and copies (in art), with his thesis favoring the historically neglected latter.  (Miller is a fairly obvious surrogate for Kiarostami in Certified Copy, given the director's own presence as a celebrated visiting auteur.)  Certified Copy accordingly revisits one of Kiarostami's cardinal subjects, namely the difference between real and fake, which documentary-fiction hybrid Close-Up (1990) famously took up for its presentation of the trial of real-life Mohsen Makhmalbaf impersonator Hossain Sabzian. As in Kiarostami's deeply-influential 1990 feature, Certified Copy thus invites the question of what constitutes "art," though its answer will prove less directly relevant to the director's latest than it is for the earlier text.  Here, the subject of real and fake, analogized from the fictional book's treatment of works culled from the visual arts, is displaced ultimately onto the relationship of Elle and James, with the fictional possessing the same transformative power for Elle as it does for Hossain, whose peformative act she replicates in pursuit of her own similarly elusive happiness.

However, it is less Sabzian than Ten's divorced, single-mother taxi driver, Mania Akbari, who provides the more immediate, and indeed initially apparent source for Binoche's Elle (though Elle decidedly lacks the prior feminist heroine's noteworthy strength).  In particular, it is Elle's relationship with her precocious, taunting son (Adrian Moore), a near replica of Ten's Amin, which most clearly evokes the earlier source; in Certified Copy, the video game-distracted tween memorably accuses his mother, much to his own delight, of romantic intentions toward the English author, leading Binoche's character to rush off in great frustration.  Of course, Elle's son proves perceptive in this instance, though it will only be after a grandmotherly restaurateur mistakes James for Elle's husband that the latter will begin to inhabit the role of her companion's long-suffering wife (and in this respect, to acknowledge her romantic interest).  While, the exchange between the older and the younger woman remains comfortably within the register of the white lie, Elle and James's interactions provide the film with its more complex parsing of the real and the fake within the contours of male-female relations, where in the words of film scholar Lisa K. Broad, it is as easy for this new couple to become long-married spouses as it is for them to inhabit the roles that their relationship would conventionally dictate.  That James moreover may have noticed Elle in her daily interactions with her son, and consequently that this may have prompted the book, further suggests a differing level of intimacy than their first afternoon together would typically compel.

Elle's aforesaid exchange in the restaurant notably provides the first of two prompts for her fictional engagement with James: in this case, it leads to their initial rehearsal as husband and wife.  A second sighting of a presumably long-married couple (strolling ahead of them along the village's cobble stoned streets) leads to Elle's consequent identification of a nearby hostel as the location of their 'honeymoon.'  Clearly, the couple reminds the female lead of her loneliness, leading to her fiction-based attempt to remedy her want - in much the same way again that Hossain sought to improve his own circumstances following an initially innocent falsehood.  In the segment that follows to close the film, the viewer is invited not only to complete the picture by deciding the fate of their relationship - the same ultimate choice left to the viewer of the director's supreme masterwork, Through the Olive Trees (1994); then again, Through the Olive Trees offered a clue to Kiarostami's affirmative choice in its use of an upbeat musical accompaniment, whereas Certified Copy seems to lack the tipping of the director's hand, save perhaps for the final allusion to Viaggio in Italia - but also by averring whether or not the pair will copulate.  Indeed, sex moves subtly into the foreground in the director's first non-Iranian fiction feature, having emerged from the deep shadows of Ten, where the driver transports a prostitute whom the viewer thereafter sees in the deep recesses of the frame negotiating her trade.  Binoche's natural, straight-forward sexuality and her intense romantic longing accordingly introduce a new element into Kiarostami's work: sex.

Of course, it is the fact that Certified Copy was shot outside of Iran that allows for this development in his oeuvre (which was again present in socially conscious rather than romantic terms in Ten).  Hence, the director's first attempt at ex-patriot filmmaking yields more than allusions to Kiarostami's sources in Italy and throughout Europe, an appropriate cultural background for his discourse on originals and replications (the Italian peninsula, home to the greatest imitators of Hellenic artistic tradition) and a new set of cypress-covered landscapes, through which his automobile snakes as his couple antagonistically gets to know one another by discussing the philosophy of copies - Certified Copy is in this last sense Richard Linklater redux, with its principles getting off to a very uneasy start.  Europe in the end provides the director with the opportunity to add a new dimension to his body of work that he has handled with customary assurance.  While Kiarostami is by no means the only recent example of an Asian filmmaker plying his trade in Europe - the Iranian follows contemporaries Hou Hsiao-hsien, Tsai Ming-liang and Hong Sang-soo, among others - the director's Certified Copy is the most achieved of these recent efforts, not simply because it transposes its director's aesthetic (including a near Kuleshovian use of close-up that translates the director's work in Shirin, 2008) and set of concerns in tact, filtering these through an explicit set of appropriate references, which certainly the aforesaid do as well, but because it has permitted its' director to make present what was absent, to construct an even more robust portrait of the world than he already has.  Certified Copy is no minor achievement for one of the medium's greatest masters. 

For the list-lovers among you, here are my choices for Abbas Kiarostami's ten best.

Saturday, October 02, 2010

The 48th New York Film Festival: Tuesday, After Christmas

Warning: the following post contains spoilers.

Radu Muntean's Tuesday, After Christmas (Marti, dupa craciun), from an Alex Baciu, Muntean and Razvan Radulescu screenplay, opens on a tight, two-shot framing of the graying, newly middle-aged Paul (Mimi Branescu) and the lithe, twenty-something, blond Raluca (Maria Popistasu) as they lie in each others' arms, nude, post-coitus.  Muntean's camera trains on her milky, mole-spotted flesh and her light-colored nipples, as well as his furry upper body and swelling stomach as they exchange pillow-talk for an extended duration.  As the couple begins to shift uncovered across the bed, Muntean re-frames his pair without cutting away, refusing any editing for what proves the film's opening sequence-shot.  In this way, Muntean  introduces a maximal degree of visibility and carnal, bodily presence from his narrative's outset, while also registering the long-take technique that has become the principle marker of the Romanian New Wave's group style, emergent in the half-decade since Cristi Puiu's The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (2005).  With a title to correspond, Tuesday, After Christmas's incipient segment suggests the same temporal obsession as is evinced within Lazarescu, Corneliu Porumboiu's 12:08 East of Bucharest - Muntean subsequently refers to the 2006 feature by name - Porumboiu's assured follow-up Police, Adjective (2009), and Cristian Mungiu's 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007).

However, though Muntean continues to favor takes of an often exceedingly long duration, it is less time that remains Tuesday, After Christmas's principle formal interest, than it is space, and in particular off-camera space, as the director's narrative of marital infidelity unfolds with one or two members of the triangle excluded in most of the film's minimally cut scenes.  As such, the film's opening proves the negative image of the narrative to follow, a moment of abundant presence - where relationships and thus exclusions have not yet been identified - in a film that consequently, overtly signifies absence; indeed, as Muntean's film proceeds, the viewer becomes increasing aware of those excluded from any given set-up, whether it is Raluca, Paul's wife Adriana (Mirela Oprisor) or even the male lead himself.  The director emphasizes said absence not only by centering most scenes around two of the triangle's three parties, with the third at times referenced (or in one definitive moment, rung on the phone), but also in visually excluding figures within scenes in which they make an appearance.  Among the notable examples are Raluca's delayed appearance when Paul visits her at her mother's - Paul is left seated beside the hostile older woman, catercorner at a small square table, within a constricted two framing - and even more, a multiple-shot set-piece in which the trio, along with Paul and Adriana's charismatic, sharp-tongued tween daughter, appear at Raluca's dental office for the young girl's orthodontal consultation.  Here, Muntean's choreography expertly balances on-screen with off, removing from view and then fixing on the various members as they and the camera move about the interior.

Likewise, the faces of the performers prove pivotal throughout this passage, with the viewer searching for signs of recognition in Oprisor's expressions, and intimations of thought processes in Branescu's and Popistasu's.  Ultimately, the film's revelation of marital infidelity does not occur here, but rather in a later, off-handed exchange featuring Paul and Adriana at home alone.  With Paul confessing that he has met someone else, Muntean orchestrates the scene in a characteristic set of two-shots, with his couple alternately turned away from the camera and facing the apparatus in three-quarters view.  While Adriana accordingly confronts her husband, insisting on the ugliness of his actions, Oprisor's performance does not succumb to histrionics, but instead settles into an under-played, if nonetheless forceful, wounded defiance that perfectly suits her reasonable, characteristically good-humored wife and mother.  Though it is undoubtedly the most impacting of the film's performances, therefore, Oprisor's is by no means the only one of note in the uniformly well-played Tuesday, After Christmas.  Of course, much of the credit here belongs to Muntean, who has not only guided the aforesaid set of strong performances, but has further sketched, along with his fellow screenwriters, a singularly witty retinue of bourgeois characters.  Tuesday, After Christmas thusly offers further evidence of French New Waver Eric Rohmer's creditable influence over Romania's new cinema.

Under the same inspiration, Tuesday, After Christmas likewise proves a deeply moral work, not only in its assent to Adriana's charges against Paul, but in Muntean's narrative construction following the revelation.  In the film's concluding segments it is Raluca who is conspicuously absent, with Tuesday, After Christmas's emphasis becoming Paul as he moves into his lover's small flat, and his extended family (Adriana included) for one final holiday celebration.  In this concluding scene, as Paul and Raluca discuss their plans for disclosing their separation in the foreground of the frame, we hear their unaware daughter and his parents as they enjoy their Christmas off-camera - the last that they will enjoy as an intact unit.  As the film moves to its open ending, its stopping point, Adriana stands beside her father-in-law as they both look off-screen left toward a group of unseen carolers performing for the off-camera little girl and her grandmother (even as Paul clandestinely places his daughter's gifts from Santa under the tree in an adjacent room).  At this juncture, the film's off-screen becomes not only the unseen visually field and characters, or even the still absent Raluca, but a future moreover - referred to further by the date of the film's yet-to-come title - that will foreclose against moments of unambiguous happiness for the picture's pre-adolescent female, Paul's parents and Adriana herself.  Tuesday, After Christmas ultimately insists not on what Paul will gain in trading up for the attractive younger woman, but on whom his choice will impact - the sole focus beyond Paul as the film progresses toward its end. 

In closing, it remains to be said simply that Tuesday, After Christmas represents an unusually high level of filmmaking in its thematically inspired emphasis on off-screen space (to translate the moral implications of its adulterous subject); Muntean's film no doubt will prove - if it hasn't already - to be one of 2010's unqualified festival-circuit highlights, which is to say one of its better films.

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.