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.