Saturday, December 11, 2010

Ten Best Films of 2010

In an act of impetuousness, I have submitted my annotated list of the "ten best films of 2010" on sister site Ten Best Films.  In my defense, I would point to the improbability of seeing anything better than these ten during this December Oscar season, though a future viewing of Mike Leigh's Another Year may just confirm my prematurity.  (At year's end I do promise a more thorough stock-taking of 2010 on this site, which will account for the best of the last two-and-a-half weeks; I hope there is much to report.)  Regardless, these are ten films that matter, which should be seen by those who really care about the medium. Whether or not any are displaced ultimately is beside the point.

As for the films themselves, close readers of this site might be able to guess most if not all of my selections, as I have written about each over the course of the past few months.  In order of preference, my choices for the "ten best films of 2010":

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Apichaptpong Weerasethakul)
Certified Copy (Abbas Kiarostami)
Mysteries of Lisbon (Raoul Ruiz)
Aurora (Cristi Puiu)
Tuesday, After Christmas (Radu Muntean)
The Social Network (David Fincher)
Ha Ha Ha (Hong Sang-soo)
Le quattro volte (Michelangelo Frammartino)
Unstoppable (Tony Scott)
The Strange Case of Angélica (Manoel de Oliveira)

Sunday, November 28, 2010

This Week in New Haven: "Films from the Darkest Hour: Europe, 1942-1943"

This week in New Haven, Connecticut, Yale University will be presenting its seventh annual Film Studies conference and film festival dedicated to the work of a single year or two in European cinema.  This year's event, devoted to the cinema of 1942 and 1943, brings together nine features, four shorts and a collection of newsreels from eight European nations, with introductions and panel discussions featuring faculty members and advanced PhD candidates from Yale, Bard, University of Chicago, Columbia, NYU and SUNY-Albany.  All Whitney Humanities Center screenings and panel discussions are free and open to the public.  

Below is a complete list of the films, formats, times and dates, along with my program notes for the screenings.  "Films from the Darkest Hour" begins Thursday, December 2, with the screening of a subtitled, archival 35mm print of Manoel de Oliveira's first feature Aniki-Bóbó.  For more information, including a complete list of the speakers, please visit the Yale European Studies Council home page.

Aniki-Bóbó (Manoel de Oliveira, 1942, Portugal, 71 minutes, 35mm with English subtitles)
Screening: 7:00 PM, Thursday, December 2, 53 Wall Street, New Haven

Portuguese master Manoel de Oliveira’s extraordinary first feature Aniki-Bóbó, following a Soviet-inspired, silent documentary short made eleven years earlier, Douro, Faina Fluvial (1931), takes its name from an “eeny, meeny, miny, moe”-style nursery rhyme, frequently repeated by the film’s mostly child actors. Oliveira’s children’s film centers on the experiences of a group of primary school-age boys as they suffer their disciplinarian schoolmaster, navigate pre-pubescent romance and commit more and less routine youthful transgressions – with the specter of the avowedly pro-Roman Catholic Salazar dictatorship fleetingly apparent in the slogan on a book bag (“remember the golden rule”) and in the persistent police presence on the centuries-old Oporto streets. Prefiguring his future directorial signature, Oliveira guides his young leads to remarkably “theatrical” performances, as Gilbert Adair has noted, in clear contradistinction to the more naturalistic acting styles that would emerge shortly in the neorealist movement. Oliveira’s feature-length debut, however, would prove much closer to the spirit of neorealism in its reliance on location shooting: the Douro’s banks in the filmmaker’s hometown once again provides the setting, as they did in Douro, Faina Fluvial, and as they would in many of the director’s subsequent works, including his most recent feature, 2010 Cannes festival-favorite, The Strange Case of Angélica. It remains to be said that Oliveira, at age one hundred-one at the time of this writing, persists in being the last active filmmaker of the silent era.

Once at Night / Odnazhdy noch’yu (Grigori Kozintsev, 1942, USSR, 22 minutes, DVD with no English subtitles)
Screening: 10:30 AM, Friday, December 3, 53 Wall Street, New Haven

Raisa Sidenova's program notes are available here.

Ukraine in Flames / Battle for Our Soviet Ukraine / Bitva za nashu Sovetskuyu Ukrainu (Aleksandr Dovzhenko, Yuliya Solntseva and Yakov Avdeenko, 1943, USSR, 80 minutes, DVD with English Subtitles)
Screening: 10:30 AM, Friday, December 3, 53 Wall Street, New Haven

Raisa Sidenova's program notes are available here.

World War II Newsreels (Presented on DVD with no English subtitles) 
Screening: 2:00 PM, Friday, December 3, 53 Wall Street, New Haven

Le Corbeau (Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1943, France, 91 minutes, 35mm with English subtitles)
Screening: 3:15 PM, Friday, December 3, 53 Wall Street, New Haven

Produced during the Nazi occupation by Continental-Films, a company created and financed by Joseph Goebbels’s Ministry of Propaganda, Le Corbeau took as its subject a real-life incident that incurred in Tulle, France more than twenty years earlier: at that time, according to a 1922 New York Times report, a series of “poison-pen” letters were mailed that ultimately cost the life of a police official, the sanity of at least two others, and “the marital happiness of dozens of families.” In Clouzot’s update, the letters encircle the somewhat mysterious Dr. Rémy Germain (Pierre Fresnay), accusing the physician of providing abortions and of conducting affairs with a pair of attractive young townswomen, who likewise receive anonymous messages from “Le Corbeau” or “the Raven.” With the villagers of the fictional St. Robin accordingly beset by paranoid speculation, Clouzot expertly invites parallel suspicion in his viewer, introducing pieces of circumstantial evidence to implicate not only Dr. Germain’s proposed lovers, but especially the underage, if treacherous Rolande. In the words of one of Rémy’s colleagues “since this tempest of hate and calumny hit our town all moral values have been corrupted.” Le Corbeau provides just such a portrait of Provincial France, leading to the director’s censure immediately following the Liberation. Today, however, Le Corbeau is equally seen through the prism of anti-Nazi resistance, most recently garnering an affirmative quotation in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (2009).

Day of Wrath / Vredens dag (Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1943, Denmark, 97 minutes, 35mm with English subtitles)
Screening: 7:00 PM, Friday, December 3, 53 Wall Street, New Haven

Born the illegitimate son of a maid and Swedish factory-owner in 1889, Carl Theodor Dreyer is widely considered today to rank among the greatest of all film artists, despite a relatively modest fourteen features in forty-five years. Of course, the works themselves display no similar slightness, with such confirmed classics as The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) and Ordet (1955) numbering among the director’s unusually high proportion of masterpieces. Day of Wrath is certainly no exception with Dreyer providing an analogy to the Nazi persecution of the Jewish population (at least in the view of many Danish critics, according to film historian Paolo Cherchi Usai) through his treatment of religious intolerance in seventeenth-century Protestant Denmark. On a formal level, Dreyer builds causal ambiguity into his occult-focused narrative, while also constructing spaces wherein strong off-camera glances facilitate his viewers’ awareness of an invisible, off-screen field. From the outside looking into Dreyer’s visuals, the director extracts a mood of surveillance, again apropos of the period’s political situation, as well as a surfeit of suspense, though the diegetic source of the look, be it Rev. Absalon Pederssøn (Thorkild Roose), his mother, the townsmen or perhaps even a judgmental, wrathful God, remains uncertain. Indeterminacy likewise finds its way into the image in the expressions, or rather in the eyes of Absalom’s much younger wife Anne (Lisbeth Movin), with their piercing presence providing the film with its carnal core. Day of Wrath ultimately makes a strong case for being the very best of 1942-1943.

Torment / Hets (Alf Sjöberg, 1944, Sweden, 101 minutes)
Screening: 9:00 PM, Friday, December 3, 53 Wall Street, New Haven 

Jeremi Szaniawski's program notes are available here.

The Next of Kin (Thorold Dickinson, 1942, United Kingdom, 92 minutes, 35mm)
Screening: 9:00 AM, Saturday, December 4, 53 Wall Street, New Haven

Commissioned by the British War Office as a training film for the benefit of counter-espionage efforts in the armed forces, Thorold Dickinson’s The Next of Kin dramatizes the wartime admonishment that “careless talk costs lives,” charting a series of small disclosures, both verbal and visual, that ultimately forge a causal chain leading to the film’s “very costly” concluding battle – and thus to the notification of the “next of kin.” Lacking both the “conventional big scene” and the “star performer,” Dickinson’s narrative doggedly pursues its central security conceit through a shifting series of social interactions – many of which prove romantic in nature – with each offering, in the words of the director, a game of “what is wrong with this picture.” The Next of Kin likewise breaks with convention, or rather, again in the view of Dickinson, anticipates a new set of postwar norms, both in the United States and Italy, through its procurement of a fact-based approach that would prove authentic enough to lead Winston Churchill to temporarily withdraw the picture ahead of the Allied raid on St. Nazaire.

Listen to Britain (Humphrey Jennings and Stewart McAllister, 1942, United Kingdom, 20 minutes, 35mm)
Screening: 10:45 AM, Saturday, December 4, 53 Wall Street, New Haven

Produced by the Crown Film Unit, Humphrey Jennings and Stewart McAllister’s Listen to Britain discloses the film’s advocated method of spectatorship in its title, with an image track that frequently provides visual accompaniment to the documentary short’s aural content. Constructed of a series of sound motifs that emerge, disappear, and periodically reemerge, Jennings’s self-described “picture about music” scores a portrait of home front Britain, with the BBC Overseas Service and the chiming of Big Ben among the many recognizable symbols. Indeed, Jennings and McAllister articulate their nation’s specific identity through their soundtrack, with the film’s human subjects registering more often a familiar anonymity, a mirror for the wartime viewer. Then again, Listen to Britain does offer pivotal on-screen exceptions, with a uniquely indexical impact coming from the on-camera appearances of Flanagan and Allen crooning their war-era hit, “Round the Back of the Arches,” Dame Myra Hess performing one of her 1,700 lunch time concerts, and the future Queen Mother seated in Hess’s National Gallery audience. The image track here becomes as cardinal as the score, as it will remain with the pianist’s Mozart spreading out into the leafy capital, and with “Rue Britannia” juxtaposed over a luminous coal furnace and a windswept wheat field. Listen to Britain remains one of the uncontested masterpieces of the documentary mode, the short form and of the British cinema.

The Silent Village (Humphrey Jennings, 1943, United Kingdom, 38 minutes, 35mm)
Screening: 10:45 AM, Saturday, December 4, 53 Wall Street, New Haven

On June 10, 1942, under the orders of Adolf Hitler, the entire adult male population of Lidice, Czechoslovakia was murdered, with its remaining women and children sent to concentration camps as retaliation for the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, deputy Reichsprotektor of the Nazi Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. German and Czech radio publicized the event, claiming in addition that “the buildings of the locality have been leveled and the name of the community has been obliterated.” The Silent Village accordingly counteracts this attempted obliteration, superimposing the fate of Lidice onto the rural Welsh community of Cwmgiedd, where the events of 1942 are reenacted by the village’s population, who play themselves rather than the fallen and imprisoned former residents of Lidice. In this way, Jennings’s short film not only memorializes the victims of the Lidice massacre and the decimated village, but also reminds its British viewers of the stakes of the current war, in addition to providing a troubling counterfactual scenario of life in Britain had Germany been successful in their 1940 invasion. At the same time, there remains “a civilised reticence about Jennings’ treatment,” in the estimation of British critic Dave Berry. “Sometimes the approach seems distant and the film occasionally has a desiccated feel,” he continues, “but overall Jennings instinctively finds the right tone.”

Romance in a Minor Key / Romanze in Moll (Helmut Käutner, 1943, Germany, 98 minutes, 16mm with English subtitles)
Screening: 1:45 PM, Saturday, December 4, 53 Wall Street, New Haven

Inspired by the Guy de Maupassant short story “Les Bijoux,” Helmut Käutner’s Romance in a Minor Key withdraws to late nineteenth-century Paris, a city under German occupation since June 1940, for its tragic retelling of Madeleine (Marianne Hoppe) and Michael’s (Ferdinand Marian) extra-marital love affair. Käutner’s film opens among the city’s chimney-tops, his camera craning as it moves toward Madeleine’s bedchamber. Pushing into the room, the female lead lies motionless, a pearl necklace around her neck and a vial of poison at her bedside, as her husband (Paul Dahlke) arrives home following a late night out. Unfolding thereafter through a set of flashbacks, Käutner’s narrative stages the married woman and composer’s initially and ultimately “minor-key” romance, with major-key moments emerging in between, beginning with Käutner’s elegant ellipsis linking Madeleine’s insistence that she will never be Michael’s mistress to her symbolically rich performance of her lover’s composition with his gift strung across her declitae. This latter object, the prompt for Dahlke’s discovery of his wife’s indiscretion, calls to mind German-Jewish-born auteur and fellow Maupassant screen-adapter Max Ophüls’s masterpiece Madame de… (1953), as does the crane-facilitated fluidity of Käutner’s mise-en-scѐne.

Desiderio (Roberto Rossellini and Marcello Pagliero, 1943-1946, Italy, 79 minutes, 35mm with printed subtitles provided at the screening)
Screening: 4:00 PM, Saturday, December 4, 53 Wall Street, New Haven

Though it was begun in partnership with Ossessione screenwriter Giuseppe De Santis – much to the consternation of Luchino Visconti, who according to De Santis, “wouldn’t speak to me for some time and did everything to hinder the collaboration” – and though the film’s second part, if not significantly more, would be shot by Marcello Pagliero in 1945, Desiderio nonetheless emerges, in the words of Rossellini biographer Tag Gallagher, as “the most seminal of his early pictures.” Starring Elli Parvo as runaway cum prostitute Paola, “the first full-fleshed character in Rossellini,” Desiderio depicts its heroine’s chaste romance with horticulturist Giovanni (Carlo Ninchi), and her consequent attempt at shielding her profession from her new lover. This leads Paola to return to her rural home, where she is received coldly by her father and lusted after by her sister’s husband Nando (Ossessione’s male lead Massimo Girotti). Indeed, even in this setting, Paola remains unable to escape the unwelcome, coercive attention of men, compelling an act of desperation that will conclude the film as it had began, with an act of suicide. In introducing this particular motif, which Rossellini added in his rewrite, Desiderio significantly prefigures Germany Year Zero (1948) and Europa ’51 (1952). Together likewise with the director’s La paura (1954), these later works accordingly form a sub-corpus of despair for which Desiderio provides a clear template.

Gente del Po / People of the River Po (Michelangelo Antonioni, Italy, 1943-1947, 10 minutes, Blu-Ray with English subtitles)
Screening: 8:00 PM, Saturday, December 4, 53 Wall Street, New Haven

Following a short stint as a critic at the publication Cinema in Rome, and work as an assistant for Marcel Carné (on Les Visiteurs du soir, 1942) and as a screenwriter for Roberto Rossellini (on A Pilot Returns, 1942), Michelangelo Antonioni began shooting his first documentary in 1943, based on an article he published in 1939, “Concerning a Film on the River Po.” With the Allied liberation of Southern Italy in mid-1943, Antonioni was forced to suspend shooting. After concluding production four years later, Antonioni lost seventy percent of his footage in a development accident. Even so, the truncating finished product displays interest for its disclosure of information “on purely visual terms,” according to Antonioni scholar Peter Brunette, and as the fount of the director’s consequent career, in the opinion of the director himself.

Ossessione (Luchino Visconti, 1943, Italy, 135 minutes, 35mm with English subtitles)
Screening: 8:00 PM, Saturday, December 4, 53 Wall Street, New Haven

The Milanese-born son of an aristocratic father and an extremely wealthy mother, Luchino Visconti began his work in cinema as a third assistant to French master Jean Renoir, after an introduction to the filmmaker by Coco Chanel. Renoir would subsequently furnish Visconti with the script for his first feature Ossessione, based on James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934), with shooting conducted on location in Emilia-Romagna (the Po Valley) and Marche in 1942. The extraordinary resulting feature has frequently been credited as “the first neorealist movie,” due to its “hardscrabble look and focus on the have-nots.” However, as critic Philip Lopate has pointed out, “to the degree that Italian neorealism was a specific response to a historical moment (the end of the war and its aftermath), it would be more accurate to say Ossessione was pre-neorealist,” or as Millicent Marcus has described it, a “harbinger” of the movement. In fact, Ossessione has as much in common with the French cinema of the late 1930s as it does the Italian cinema after 1945, displaying the same planar organization of space as Renoir’s supreme masterpiece, La Rѐgle du jeu (1939), as well as the “sensual fatalism” of the earlier period’s “poetic realism” (again to quote Lopate). In this respect, Ossessione proves pivotal in the migration of Europe’s broader realist tradition from France to Italy, and for the introduction of a pervasive eroticism into the nation’s cinema that would find its most famous expression in co-screenwriter Giuseppe de Santis’s postwar Bitter Rice (1949).

Select Bibliography
Andrew, Geoff, ed. Film: The Critics’ Choice (2001).
Armes, Roy. French Cinema (1985).
Brunette, Peter. The Films of Michelangelo Antonioni (1998).
Gallagher, Tag. The Adventures of Roberto Rossellini: His Life and Films (1998).
Horne, Philip and Peter Swaab, eds. Thorold Dickinson: A World of Film (2008).
Jackson, Kevin, ed. The Humphrey Jennings Film Reader (1993).
Marcus, Millicent. Italian Film in the Light of Neorealism (1986).
Nowell-Smith, Geoffrey, ed. The Oxford History of World Cinema (1996).

"Films from the Darkest Hour: Europe, 1942-1943": Raisa Sidenova on Once at Night & Ukraine in Flames

Aleksandr Dovzhenko
Once at Night / Odnazhdy noch’yu (Grigori Kozintsev, 1942, USSR, 22 minutes, DVD with no English subtitles)
Screening: 10:30 AM, Friday, December 3, 53 Wall Street, New Haven

Kozintsev’s short is representative of the Soviet wartime genre, boevoi kinosbornik, a thematic compilation of short films. Once at Night, made in Alma Ata, Kazakhstan at the evacuated Mosfilm studio, was released as a part of Boevoi Kinosbornik No.2 entitled Our Girls and dedicated to the courageous Soviet women. The film was paired with Abram Room’s short Tonia, which showed a sacrifice of a woman. In a suspenseful yet comedic manner, Kozintsev, faithful to the avant-garde roots of his earlier ‘eccentric’ works, tells a story of Nadia Shilova, a young and naïve veterinarian (played by a hilarious Nina Petropavlovskaya), who encounters two soldiers, one of whom is supposed to be a German spy and saboteur. Nadia identifies the enemy between her two visitors by declaring that she put poison in their tea. The atmosphere of duplicity, fear and doubt is masterfully captured by the camera of Andrei Moskvin, who two years later worked on Sergei Eisenstein’s magnum opus Ivan the Terrible. Despite being set in the time of war and dealing with the controversial subject of war treason, Once at Night is delightfully thrilling and somewhat inappropriately funny. Due to the formal and narrative ambiguity of both Kozintzev’s film and Room’s Tonia, Boevoi Kinosbornik No.2 was banned by Stalinist censors and was not released until the Thaw.

Ukraine in Flames / Battle for Our Soviet Ukraine / Bitva za nashu Sovetskuyu Ukrainu (Aleksandr Dovzhenko, Yuliya Solntseva and Yakov Avdeenko, 1943, USSR, 80 minutes, DVD with English Subtitles)
Screening: 10:30 AM, Friday, December 3, 53 Wall Street, New Haven

Ukraine in Flames is Dovzhenko’s first WWII documentary. The film’s central story is the Battles of Kharkov, put into the context of Ukrainian history and the excruciating struggle of its people during the war. Compiled out of documentary footage made by more than a dozen cameramen as well as German newsreels, Ukraine in Flames presents a powerful montage of Nazi atrocities and its toll on the filmmaker’s native soil. While Dovzhenko’s wife Yuliya Solntseva and filmmaker Yakov Adveenko were credited as directors of the film, Dovzhenko, who worked as a war correspondent for the Izvestia newspaper at that time, authored a passionate and didactic (if at times clichéd) text to accompany the images (narration by voice-over actor Leonid Khmara). Dovzhenko’s poetic sensibility shines through the Russian language narrative with the quotations from Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko, folk songs, and heartbreaking testimonies of Ukrainian villagers and partisans (in Ukrainian). The tragedy of the war is both universal and personal for Dovzhenko: he cannot stay indifferent to the struggle of his country, whose history and beauty he so lovingly glorified in his celebrated masterpieces Earth (1930) and Zvenigora (1928). Like many Soviet films of the war era, Ukraine in Flames was made as a cry for help to the rest of world. In his diary, Dovzhenko wrote: “Yuliya and I are working on this film that is addressed more to the world rather than our own audience.” The film was a success in the Soviet Union as well as abroad, where it was shown in 27 countries.

Ukraine in Flames will be screening courtesy of the Ukrainian Film Club of Columbia University, the only permanent forum of Ukrainian film in North America since 2004.

"Films from the Darkest Hour: Europe, 1942-1943": Jeremi Szaniawski on Torment

Torment / Hets (Alf Sjöberg, 1944, Sweden, 101 minutes)
Screening: 9:00 PM, Friday, December 3, 53 Wall Street, New Haven

Torment, Ingmar Bergman’s first produced screenplay, is a dark coming-of-age drama about a high school senior, Jan-Erik Widgren (Alf Kjellin), terrorized by his sadistic Latin teacher, nicknamed Caligula (Stig Järrel). Caligula also happens to be involved in a weird and lurid relationship with Widgren’s lover, the troubled Bertha (Mai Zetterling), a petty store clerk with a taste for alcohol and rather loose morals. When Caligula’s schemes and sick games occasion tragedy, it is uncertain as to whether any good can come for the tormenter’s victim. Torment, whose Swedish title Hets in fact translates as “incitement” or “baiting,” thus shifting the focus of attention from the suffering of the characters to the nature of the film’s actual protagonist, deals not only with the constrictions of Swedish bourgeois society, but also, however cryptically, with the demons of Nazism and totalitarianism at large. A tale of the uneven fight between the all-powerful and profoundly iniquitous teacher and the mass of alienated, powerless students, the film often teeters on the borderline between nightmare and reality, while the cinematography, informed in places by German expressionism, helps to further the allegory, in line with the theses of Siegfried Kracauer. Still, since Caligula is as much a Caligari-figure (the names’ quasi homonymy cannot be pure coincidence) as he is inspired by The Blue Angel’s loathed, yet tragic Professor (Un) Rath, nothing is ever all black or white in this harrowing psychological tale.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

New Film: Ha Ha Ha

Warning: the following post contains spoilers.

In Ha Ha Ha (2010), recipient of this year's Prix Un Certain Regard at Cannes, leading Korean auteur Hong Sang-soo substantially modifies the "twice-told" narrative format that he inaugurated in his masterful second feature The Power of Kangwon Province (1998), transforming his signature two-part structures into a series of alternating inter-cut episodes narrated by a pair of conversing friends.  Ha Ha Ha accordingly represents 2010's second high-profile abandonment of one of the key trends in early twenty-first century world cinema, joining Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010): the Structuralist-inspired narrative diptych.  While Apichatpong's relinquishment facilitated the Thai director's epic return to his "exquisite corpse," Mysterious Object at Noon (2000) narrative origins, Hong's eschewal, by comparison, suggests a path forward for the Korean filmmaker.  Or at least Hong's capacity to make an old subject new.  In this regard, Hong remains ever the Structuralist; his oeuvre, taking its cue from Eric Rohmer's, may just be the cinema's closest equivalent to Piet Mondrian, with Ha Ha Ha thereby representing something akin to the painter's "Broadway Boogie Woogie" (1942-1943), though this writer is most certainly not suggesting that Hong has reached his artistic endpoint.

Ha Ha Ha opens with a series of black-and-white stills, where the viewer hears two men speaking in voice-off.  As the film progresses, their conversation, to which Hong repeatedly returns, utilizing the same black-and-white still motif - Hong's strategy feels like the latest of the director's increasing set of Gallic references; in this case to Chris Marker's sub-thirty minute masterpiece, La Jetée (1962) - becomes the impetus for the film's narrative, with incidents from the lives of each in the same coastal Korean town alternating in succession. Though it is not at first clear as to when these two stories are occurring in relation to one another, the film's progression confirms their overlap, not only temporally, but also, and more importantly, in terms of those figures that populate the two comic narratives.

In particular it is leggy tour guide Seong-ok (Moon So-ri) who proves pivotal to both story-lines, as the girlfriend of handsome poet Jeong-ho (Kim Kang-woo)a friend of the "severely" depressed first narrator Joong-sik (Yu Jun-Sang), and as the love interest of his conversant, Jo Moon-kyeong (Kim Sang-kyung), a relatively infantile out-of-work film director from Seoul.  As Ha Ha Ha proceeds, potential romantic rivals Jeong-ho and Moon-kyeong cross paths, first outside Seong-ok's door; then on the street where Seong-ok unexpectedly offers her (by this point) ex-lover a piggy-back ride - which she administers in her high heels to disastrous results; and finally after a play where Jeong-ho executes a beating to the supposed former member of a South Korean airborne division.  Joong-sik and Jo, however, fail to meet, despite their shared network of friends, and even though, on at least one occasion, both find themselves concurrently in Jo's mother's restaurant.  Ha Ha Ha choreographs the experience of lives lived in parallel, which fail to intersect.

Ultimately, though, it is the portraits of Seong-ok and Jeong-ho sketched by Hong's overlapping stories that provides Ha Ha Ha with its substantial auteurist interest.  While the writer-director's 'twice-told tales' (as for example Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, 2000) introduce a comparatively novel form of subjectivity in their two presumably objective views on a single series of events, Ha Ha Ha proffers its fuller view through its twinned subjectivities, unfolding in stories whose overlap the two narrators fail to see.  Indeed, it remains to be said that neither Moon-kyeong nor Joong-sik realize that the other is speaking of their mutual acquaintances, Seong-ok and Jeong-ho, as they causally take turns relating their experiences in voice-over and on-screen.  All of this is to say that Hong persists in showing two views, even as he dispatches with his former two-part structure.

Ha Ha Ha however does not simply prove exceptional within Hong's oeuvre for its introduction of original narrative strategies, but instead also emerges as exceptionally notable for its consistently successful comedy and for the overall strength of the film's performances.  Of particular note is Moon So-ri, who combines a sexual appeal concentrated in her much commented upon legs, with a pronounced awkwardness, both in the manner in which she carries herself, and also in her sudden verbal outbursts.

Ha Ha Ha additionally represents a greater assurance in the zoom-lensed aesthetic that Hong has developed since A Tale of Cinema (2005).  In Ha Ha Ha, Hong seems to move past the somewhat more impressionistic application of the zoom figure in the director's archly French, comparatively lesser Night and Day (2008) - Hong's other recent break from the 'twice-told' pattern - adopting the strategy instead to degree that it serves his narrative. With Ha Ha Ha, Hong selects points of interest within his mise-en-scène and gracefully reframes within his single-take scenes.  In this respect, Hong has transformed his static one-shot set-ups - again of works such as The Power of Kangwon Province - no less than the narrative strategies of his 'twice-told tales.'  

My special thanks to Lisa K. Broad for her substantial insights included in this piece.  Ha Ha Ha is available on English-subtitled Region-3 DVD through YesAsia.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

New Film: Unstoppable

With his 2006 masterpiece Déjà Vu, Tony Scott, the much-maligned "action hack director" of such blockbuster-mode entertainments as Top Gun (1986), Crimson Tide (1995) and Man on Fire (2004), produced  a work of mainstream Hollywood cinema that had as much insight into the contemporary, post-9/11, post-Katrina American spirit as any film released in the past decade.  Combining these two tragedies with a third, Oklahoma City-style act of domestic terrorism, Déjà Vu provided a means by which the film's unsolved composite trauma could be undone by the efforts of law enforcement lead Denzel Washington.  In Scott's science-fiction narrative, time-travel presented this opportunity, with an ostensible tool of surveillance in fact acting as a means of bringing the past into physical proximity with the present (and thus allowing for Washington's return to the scene of the New Orleans crime, before it had occurred).  In this way, Déjà Vu eschewed Bush-era concerns regarding the defensibility of preemptive action, opting instead to engage only with the traumas themselves, for which the film would offer a momentary, virtual form of psychic relief.    

Unstoppable (2010), Scott's latest from a Mark Bomback screenplay, continues in the post-9/11 and Katrina vein of the 2006 work, albeit from source material based on true events - the immediately pre-9/11, "Crazy Eights" runaway train incident of northwestern Ohio.  Shifting his narrative to a present-day fictional set of small and mid-sized rural western Pennsylvania communities, in an area not far from the actual crash site of United flight 93, Scott re-conceives his subject in view of the 2001 act of terrorism, with the film's mode of transport described as a "missile" by Rosario Dawson's highly skilled yardmaster Connie Hooper.  Carrying toxic chemicals and heading unmanned at very high speeds toward the population center of Stanton, PA, following prior human error at the rail yard, Washington and Chris Pine's railroad engineers, Frank Barnes and Will Colson, voluntarily risk their lives in an effort to prevent mass civilian casualties.  In so doing, the film's leads emerge as post-9/11 era domestic heroes, preventing the further loss of innocent American lives on its native soil.  Though again the film's non-fiction source precedes that aforementioned September Tuesday morning, the film's re-situation in the present moment suggests not only a shadow history of heroic action and terrorism-prevention in the years since, but also reminds its spectator that the 9/11-era has yet to conclude.

Hence, whereas Déjà Vu presented a scenario whereby a traumatic history might be revised, Unstoppable depicts the prevention of further tragedy.  Or, to put it another way, the former deals with the past and the second with the present - with a second 9/11 or Katrina-style disaster being prevented in both films.  Of course, Déjà Vu's science-fiction scenario insures that the past is not simply engaged from a point in the present, as Washington and company do as they view the past brought near through that film's meta-cinematic "Snow White" (surveillance) technology, but that it is engaged moreover as a second present, from a position within.  In this way, as this writer has argued previouslyDéjà Vu introduced two forms of diegesis: the video-gaming inspired viewer-activated form that presents itself in the film's present-tense, and a classical, impenetrable formulation that comes to supersede the first when Washington's Agent Carlin travels back in time, immersing himself in the world of four days past. Unstoppable, by comparison, relies strictly on the latter classical-style conceptualization of fictional space, with its heroes located in a world not subject to Déjà Vu's viewer-activated space, which cannot be impacted from the outside, as can be the past in Déjà Vu.  Instead, Unstoppable registers a single present that only those inside the world can affect.

Then again, Unstoppable does not lack Déjà Vu's profusion of images and screens, which in the latter look into a world of the past, brought near by an enormous expenditure of energy, and through a technology that greatly resembles Google Earth.  In fact, both remain quite prominent in Unstoppable, with Hooper manning a control center that might have been lifted from the 2006 film or from the director's previous, lesser, though still authorially notable Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 (2009).  In Unstoppable, the film's high-def monitors and unending streams of video footage not only present CCTV-style constant surveillance, but much more explicitly signal the current method of broadcasting breaking news events, both on twenty-four hour news outlets and on most local affiliates (as well as the large number of broadcast options and information alternatives).  Scott in fact cuts to a pair of separate local news reports periodically as he alternates between an immersion-based presentation of the action, and its coverage on a pair of Pennsylvania stations - from which Hooper and others frequently get their news as events unfold.

Indeed, Unstoppable  presents a world in which major events are captured on-screen from a near ubiquitous number of sources and angles, which are limited not only to the aforementioned broadcast networks, but also include crowds filming events as they happen on their cell phones, which Scott highlights in one particularly noteworthy long-shot. Unstoppable in this regard re-conceptualizes the surveillance-style footage of Scott's masterpiece to reflect the way in which most Americans consume breaking news stories, with events streaming on a variety of networks and platforms, and with private videos shared by on-the-scene amateurs.  Unstoppable is thus a work of its imagistic moment, and may even retrospectively provide a hermeneutic key to the director's earlier surveillance-obsessed work.

Unstoppable is also exceedingly a film of surfaces, both those of the flat screens that transmit the broadcasts, and also those that in some respect filter the images, such as the constant transparent surfaces that come between the camera and the performers.  In these many images, such as the frame reproduced at the outset, Scott manages to maintain moment-to-moment visual interest - not unlike one of the best-looking productions on cable television today, the Scott-inspired "White Collar" on the USA Network - while also reminding his viewer of the barrier between apparatus and subject.  The world of Unstoppable is foremost a filmed world, a world that is constantly and ubiquitously mediated, though not exactly manipulated in the sense of the earlier film.  If Déjà Vu indeed presented a filmed and viewed world within its world, Unstoppable re-frames the object of surveillance as the world of today.

Scott's Rust Belt-situated film also reflects America's present day socio-economic reality, with African American Washington's twenty-eight year railroad veteran facing forced retirement, while Caucasian Pine's low-wage, union trainee - and beneficiary of nepotism - receives assignments over his more qualified co-workers.  (In this way, Scott succeeds in revising subtle racial stereotypes.)   Colson, however, does manage to prove himself in the course of the duo's efforts, thus conferring his value in Scott's extraordinarily Hawksian world - Will indeed shows himself to be "good enough," and thus to be a fit member of Unstoppable's male homo-social group engaged in dangerous work.  In the film's privileging of intuition, practical knowledge and competence, Unstoppable proves a profoundly American work of film art, despite its British helmer.  Then again, Scott's inclusion of Dawson and Kevin Corrigan's Inspector Werner suggests that women and theoretical knowledge likewise have a place in Scott's world, so long, that is, that they prove 'good enough' - an equally Hawksian inclusiveness to be sure.  Less inspired by Howard Hawks, perhaps, though again very much of the moment are Scott's execrable corporate villains, who prove willing to risk lives to save a few dollars.

In sum, Unstoppable may fall short of Déjà Vu's elegant interrogation of various forms of cinematic space, but it cannot be said to lack comparatively in its presentation of the America of its moment.  Unstoppable is indeed vitally of its time, as was the earlier feature, and of its national place of origin (despite Scott's), and for these two reasons alone would qualify among the more notable films of its year.  Of course, Scott's mastery of the music video-brand aesthetic that he helped to invent, decipherable in the film's consistently mimetic use of scoring and sound effects to convey character psychology, and his direction of characteristically fine performances from Washington - himself a master of timing and tone in his delivery of dialogue - and Dawson, among others, only add to the film's already substantial quality.