Tuesday, January 25, 2011

"Not As Good As...": The 2010 Best Picture Oscar Nominees

As I do every year, let me begin with the qualification that no real importance should be attached to the Academy Award's selection of "Best Picture" nominees nor to the Academy's ultimate determination of the "best" in said category. The Academy remains an extraordinarily taste-deprived organization historically, whose very few citations of comparatively deserving films suggests the happenstance of such picks - even a broken clock, as they say, is capable of honoring Clint Eastwood twice.  This year too the Academy seems poised to bestow their highest prize justly on David Fincher's The Social Network, if that is the AMPAS manages not to take customary leave of their senses in order to honor risible co-front runner The King's Speech instead.  If in fact the latter manages to pull out the win, it will be one more for strikingly indifferent craftsmanship and the "good story." If, however, the right film somehow does prove victorious, chalk up a rare top prize about which the auteurist faction can and should be pleased, and one for a genuinely first-rate piece of audio-visual storytelling.

While The Social Network is clearly the fillet among this year's ten selections, at least for this writer, the remaining nine nominees do include (at minimum) one and perhaps two or three additional choices that rank among this year's better English-language efforts.  That 'one,' that other unequivocal pick, is Joel and Ethan Coen's exceptionally well-made True Grit, with very fine, nominated performances from Hailee Steinfeld and Jeff Bridges, as well as from the snubbed Matt Damon.  Though there seems to be less of the Coen's in their latest than there was in the brothers' very respectable 'best picture' winner, No Country for Old Men (2007) - not that Fincher's Zodiac (2007) wouldn't have qualified as the superior choice that year as well - True Grit nonetheless emerges as one of the year's singular entertainments, and one of the better films in the Minnesota-born duo's career.  After all, less of the Coen's for this native Minnesotan is not always such a bad thing.

Among those films for which I am more qualified in my support, the one title that I would be most inclined to argue deserves inclusion among this year's nominees would be Christopher Nolan's Inception.  Synthesizing the director's previous efforts, for good or for ill - and I do believe it is for both in this instance - Inception ultimately proves remarkable, likewise, for its skillful manipulation of Griffithian cross-cutting to balance its multiple overlapping temporalities (contained especially in the film's final act).  While his partisans may disagree, Inception betters Martin Scorsese's career box-office peak Shutter Island, whose "B"-form feels as bloated and distended as Inception's "A"-form proves crisp; it is altogether unclear to this writer what lessons Scorsese gleaned from his comparatively lean pulp sources.  On the other hand, Banksy's very solid Oscar-nominated documentary, Exit Through the Gift Shop, might offer stiffer competition for Nolan in the category of ontologies in crisis, though it is not entirely clear to this writer that Exit Through the Gift Shop's advantage on the level of content bests Nolan's final-act formal superiority.

With the remaining seven 'best picture' nominees, however, I am quite certain that the Academy might have managed better selections - with some of its choices naturally much more egregious than others.  What follows, accordingly, are this author's picks for films that, in a more just Oscar world, would have taken the place of those that were in fact selected.  (Not that I am so sure that I really want to live in such a world, however, given how much fun it is, year in and year out, to come up with strained comparisons and to bad-mouth the Academy's breaches in judgment.)      

Danny Boyle's 127 Hours
Not As Good As: Tony Scott's Unstoppable
Connections: Hyper-kinetic aesthetics, real-world heroism

Among 2010's slate of undeserving choices, there is a very special place reserved for Boyle's 127 Hours.  What is most remarkable to this author about Boyle's latest exercise in bad taste - leave it to the director of Slumdog Millionaire (2008) to reintroduce the motif of the body's contact with human waste; an authorial signature to be proud of! - is how astonishingly unsuited the filmmaker's hyper-kinetic form is for his motionless subject: Boyle's coked-out aesthetic essentially militates against reproducing the experience that ostensibly provides the film with its subject.  By comparison, Scott's relentless idiom perfectly suits his runaway train subject matter, while his predilection for multiple screens (unlike Boyle's similar, unmotivated split-screen technique) explicitly springs from a real-world, twenty-four hour news cycle analogy.  In a perfect world, Unstoppable and not The King's Speech would be the film challenging The Social Network for the top prize.    

Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan
Not As Good As: Frederick Wiseman's Boxing Gym
Connection: Footwork

Though it is a far less embarrassing a choice than 127 Hours - Aronofsky's film does at least manifest impressive craft appropriate to its subject - Black Swan was not 2010's best depiction of a dance-like athletic pursuit.  Rather, this honor belonged to Frederick Wiseman's La danse - Le ballet de l'Opéra de Paris (2009) follow-up, Boxing Gym, with its commensurate emphasis on the internal rhythms of the sport's training (not that this writer has seen La danse, for the sake of full disclosure).  While both 2010 films indeed reconfigure the forms of their narratives in the shape of their respective contents - with Boxing Gym providing the more radical departure from narratological norms, and thus the more substantial generic redefinition - Wiseman's invisible-observer documentary adds an allegorical dimension in the invisibility of the cameramen in the interior space's numerous mirrors that serves to define the filmmaker's idiom across his career.  In the case of Black Swan versus Boxing Gym, it is more a matter of the omission of the latter than it is of an outright injustice.

David O. Russell's The Fighter
Not As Good As: Ben Affleck's The Town
Connection: Working-class Massachusetts

Substantially more inferior to Wiseman's boxing film, while also being more generically relevant on the surface, Russell's Rocky-Raging Bull mash-up in fact lacks mostly for the sport's visceral dimension, opting instead for the genre's against-all-odds, super-conventional story-arc.  What Russell's film does bring, however awkwardly, is the local Lowell color; in this respect, The Fighter compares - and again suffers by virtue of the comparison - to Affleck's Charlestown-situated, second directorial offering.  Indeed with The Town, Affleck continues to chart life in his hometown with an amoral sympathy not unlike that of Scorsese for his own New York.  Of course, it must be recalled that Scorsese's similarly cartographic Taxi Driver (1976) was passed over by the Academy in favor of Rocky, as was Affleck's classical antecedent Clint Eastwood's un-nominated The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976).

Lisa Cholodenko's The Kids Are All Right
Not As Good As: Mike Leigh's Another Year
Connection: "Interlopers" and the well-healed, modern liberal family

Like The Town, and quite unlike Unstoppable or Boxing GymAnother Year represents another instance of an easily conceivable nominee that somehow missed the cut.  Among those films this year in which a well-healed, modern liberal family is impacted the actions of an "interloper," the Academy has opted predictably to cite the platitudinous The Kids Are All Right rather than Leigh's rich treatise on the difficulties of adult friendship.  Though admittedly Another Year's conversations suffer from being a bit too on-point early on, Leigh's supremely humanist film ultimately overcomes this deficiency in its creation of nuanced, living characters with lives traveling very different trajectories.  For this viewer at least, Leigh's characters, especially Lesley Manville's deeply flawed Mary, are people with whom one wants to spend time as the seasons organically progress.  By comparison, Cholodenko's casually fake film overwhelmingly relies on its viewer's consent to its politics in order to reaffirm its modern family - despite the fact that arguably we would prefer to see Julianne Moore with 'interloper' Mark Ruffalo.

Tom Hooper's The King's Speech
Not As Good As: Roman Polanski's The Ghost Writer
Connection: World leaders experiencing crises of communication

Polanski's The Ghost Writer is everything that Hooper's multiple Oscar nominee The King's Speech is not: the former is a very carefully composed work with clearly discernible artistic (Hollywood "B" picture-brand works of classical decoupage) and philosophical (mid-century, Judaic Existentialism) points-of-view  that maintains an approximate (that is, Bush-era) contemporary resonance.  In contrast, Hooper's film follows Hollywood's default narrative arc and reaffirms its ideological assumptions, despite its UK pedigree, within an indistinct form that foremost privileges award-attracting performances.  That is, Polanski's film suggests an art made out of the desire for personal expression, whereas Hooper's indicates the pursuit of prestige and material reward.  Oscar typically prefers the latter.    

Lee Unkrich's Toy Story 3
Not As Good As: Sylvain Chomet's The Illusionist
Connection: Nostalgic "Best Animated Feature Film" nominees

While I have limited myself to English-language works heretofore in keeping with the Oscar's own de facto procedures, the apparently now annual Pixar slot offers a natural point of deviation, given especially the Academy's willingness to nominate Chomet's The Illusionist, along with Toy Story 3, as one of the year's 'Best Animated' features.  In both cases, the animated film's makers trade in nostalgia, with Unkrich depicting a lost childhood (as instantiated by the franchise's discarded toys) to Chomet's articulation of a waning artistic mode - that is, of the music-hall culture in which the latter film's real-life model Tatischeff is forced to participate.  Where The Illusionist truly emerges as the superior option, however - beyond its more sensitive object of its nostalgia - is in its connection to film history, not only as a posthumous, comparatively Chaplinesque entry into story-author Jacques Tati's great body of work, but also as a metonymy for the disappearing craft of hand-animation itself.  

Deb Granik's Winter's Bone
Not As Good As: Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor's Sweetgrass
Connection: Flyover-country ethnography

Admired presumably for its mythic, if ostensibly naturalistic portrayal of its under-class Ozark subjects, Granik's Winter's Bone in fact does little to chart real life in its cold-hued, late-season landscapes; rather, Granik manipulates the spareness of her locations for her outsider's tale of suffering and momentary relief, producing a work that pities before it alleviates its spectator from a specific social responsibility.  (Granik's film therefore lacks both the authentic regionalism and the social import of Lance Hammer's Oscar-ignored indie Ballast, 2008.)  Barbash and Castaing-Taylor's Sweetgrass, on the other hand, subsumes its viewer in the now lost tradition of public lands grazing in rural Montana, showcasing a life that is authentically difficult without offering a pat, feel-good resolution. And it does so with a sense-of-humor that Granik's miserablism lacks.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Special to Tativille: "Vomitif to the Heavens – Enter the Void" (By Jeremi Szaniawski)

A review of Gaspar Noé’s Enter the Void (2009), nearly two years after this uncompromising and thoroughly authentic epic of garishness had its official premiere at Cannes, and months following its American release, might be a bit overdue. As a matter of fact, this ‘little’ review has been brewing for the past eight years, ever since I saw (and loved) Noé’s Irréversible (2002), which was merely to serve as a spring-board to his next project, set in Tokyo and based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Enter the Void, Noé’s third feature film, ended up spending several years in pre-production limbo, mostly due to difficulties in gathering the necessary funds for such an ambitious project, until its artistic ambitions and scope finally found sufficient backing and dwarfed its already impressive predecessors, I Stand Alone (Seul contre tous, 1998) and the above-mentioned Irréversible.

With these three features and a score of short films, all unified tonally and thematically, dealing mostly—on the surface, at least—with graphic representations of sex and violence, Noé has established a strong scandalous reputation for himself, spanning a wide range of derogatory labels on the critical spectrum, from ‘fascist’ to ‘degenerate’ and ‘Jew’ (on fascist blogs, such as the French site Anti-Impérialisme). This speaks to the complex persona and universe of Noé’s films, which explore the transgressions of boundaries and the limits of representation, and whose imagery of incestuous fathers, sado-masochistic drug-dealing homosexuals, grotesque transsexual prostitutes, elaborate anal rape sequences and graphic murders, are, indeed, bound to be somewhat offensive to some of their audience (it is part of their charm, appealing to the horror and Georges Bataille fan in me). And yet, I would argue, Noé’s racist/sexist/misogynistic representations are not what irks his detractors the most. As a matter of fact, they could even be said to skillfully deconstruct the ethics of fascism and racial/sexual hatred—whether or not this stems from Noé’s unconditional love of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salò (1975). There remains, to be sure, an aestheticization of an (un)certain ideology in Noé, as in his use of brassy and tautological slogans (for example, Irréversible’s ‘le temps détruit tout’—‘time destroys everything’), which would be typical of any populist movement. In my view, however, the over-the-top nature of Noé’s slogans-coup-de-poing (‘fist-blow-slogans’) serves the purpose of their own distancing, while also delivering the violence and exhilaration of their spectacular and oft-exploitative narrative baggage (in this, Noé can be linked to Paul Verhoeven, and particularly his fabulously jubilant Starship Troopers (1997), often called a fascist film). And, after all, there is truth, sometimes, even in the most grating and unsubtle statements: if you think about it, le temps détruit tout indeed—even asinine criticism, and since its release in 2002, for instance, Noé’s (in)famous Irréversible has gradually been acknowledged by critics for what it is: one hell of a cinematic feat and exciting thrill-ride, and not an entirely brain-less one, at that.

Yet, as I just hinted, it is not the depiction of marginal gay S&M acts or violence against women that have caused the biggest uproar against Noé. His obvious fixation with nightmarish gay loves, bathed in hellish Boschian dark red hues, and the coterminous anal and incest anxieties, would make a Freudian psychoanalyst very happy indeed, and could serve the filmmaker’s detractors to easily dismiss him as immaturely scatological, molested-child-turned-traumatized-vicious-artiste. But much like Irréversible departs from the gay bar (aptly, if un-poetically called) ‘Le rectum’ to slowly elevate itself to a lofty cosmic abstraction—although the reversed time structure of the film would imply that all ends in the gut(ter)—so do we, in the present piece, want to move away from the miasma of the subconscious and focus on what lies not beneath, but beyond and above the surface. But let us return to what bothers some in Noé. His depiction of ‘normal’ bourgeois people as dull, idle, cynical, self-congratulatory, and potentially monstrous (Vincent Cassel’s ugly mug cum ‘sexy’ persona was a perfect casting choice for the bourgeois-gone-berserk in Irréversible, beyond his real-life engagement/marriage to co-star Monica Bellucci), in line with the anti-establishment rhetoric drawn from Sade and the surrealists, is one point that certainly puts a substantial section of his audience in an awkward position: Noé will spit, if not vomit, right in your face (his cinema has aptly been referred to as vomitif, and the profusion of intestinal imagery in his films certainly supports the observation), with a vengeance, and yet the liberal bourgeois, épaté as he/she will be, will praise the film and ask for more, out of open-mindedness more so than sadism—which is entirely missing the point. Besides, more insidiously, there is a brand of perverse bourgeois decadent tenderness running throughout Noé’s oeuvre: beautiful, mostly naked female bodies are a fixture of his films, albeit one that is pleasing to look at, yet always edgy and excessive, such as for instance in his short video Eva (2005), featuring supermodel Eva Herzigova playing with a kitten in a blood-red hotel corridor, echoing the sinister underground passage tunnel in Irréversible. But the most aggravating element of the ‘anti-Noé’ camp, no doubt, is his societal message, neither nihilistic, nor didactic, but both, namely, the statement that we live crappy, senseless lives in a world of crap, peopled with loud, brutal and deadly crap. And yet, this world of crap is filled with sublime and at times soothing beauty, which by and large completely escapes us. It appears that the scatological imagery in his films has a metaphoric dimension, rendering it all much more interesting and arresting. Noé, far better than many ‘socially’ aware filmmakers, yields an accurate picture of the dreadful situation of our world at the start of the 21st century (socially, but also environmentally speaking, with a cynical sense of fiddling while Rome is burning which seems to inhabit all his narcissistic characters). While doing so, he still imparts a sense of control, of a world whose apparent chaos is actually articulated by laws and a clearly cyclical scheme, where horrible violence occurs as some sort of twisted and blind divine ‘justice’, and where the wrong person is systematically killed in retaliation, while the source of evil goes unscathed. For example, in Noé’s medium-length debut, Carne (1991), The Butcher (Philippe Nahon) stabs the wrong man—clearly typified as a Northern African immigrant—in the mouth, for the alleged rape of his daughter (a rape he would gladly have committed himself, and which he presumably does, after being released from prison, in I Stand Alone). In his sophomore effort Irréversible, the rapist (Jo Prestia) (referred to as ‘le ténia’ – the tapeworm), watches, fascinated, as a frenzied Pierre (Albert Dupontel) reduces another sado-masochistic gay man’s face to a pulp with a fire extinguisher, in clearly coital and orgasmic fashion, thus unleashing his own sexual frustration and long repressed desire. It is not the graphic violence that is disturbing, nor even the pleasure that we derive from it, but rather, the compelling discourse behind it—a discourse that smothers us all, all the more since, beyond it lies an unreachable promise. Noé offers, at every turn, a despairing causal, cyclical mechanics of the (horribly) wrong turn, implying a teleological representation filled with the idea of an absent and yet omnipresent God (the filmmaker or the artist), following each detail with a paradoxical mix of care and detachment. The inquisitive camera, lingering on the most disturbing detail, or quizzically spinning around like some drunken fly in the room, morphing into an inescapable whirlwind going down an existential drain, is always poised somewhere between the ultimate voyeurism—an emotive, personalized view, a character within the film underlined by the camera’s baroque movements—and the cold, distanced referentiality of an indifferent god—a third person, objective mode. One is constantly led by the belief that these are the realms of Dionysus, and yet, on the contrary, we truly are in a well-disguised Apollonian scheme, perfectly crafted and controlled. Reinforcing this idea of control and cycle is the way in which each of his films are clearly connected, not only formally, but also with cameos from characters from the previous installment, or by audio-visual cues. All of the above is nowhere clearer in Noé’s oeuvre than in Enter the Void, where God (but a Homo homini deus type of god), comes down to earth once more to watch over a slice of degraded humanity.

With its putrid green-yellowish hues, interspersed with the purple, blue, red and yellow neon lights of a phantasmagoric Tokyo, Enter the Void introduces us exclusively to lame or objectionable characters, devoid of ethics, thinking only of their own earthly pleasures: Oscar (Nathaniel Brown), the young North American tourist-turned-drug dealer in order to sustain himself in Tokyo, fills the void of his existence by indulging in casual sex with girls at every turn and seeking the ultimate trip on DMT, a drug provoking particularly striking hallucinations and out-of-body sensations—compellingly recreated throughout the film—allegedly akin to the brain’s final voyage into death. Yet Oscar loves Linda (Paz de la Huerta), his borderline 19-year-old sister, and his drug-dealing endeavors derive in part from his efforts to bring her to Tokyo in order to be with her. Yet their reunion is hardly bed of roses, as he watches his sibling embrace nightlife and drugs, sleeping diffidently with a local mobster, Mario (Masato Tanno), and dancing in his strip club to make a living. Oscar’s best friend, Alex (Cyril Roy), a loopy French painter, seems quite interested in Linda’s luscious curves, but his lecherous affection seems unrequited. Needless to say, Noé’s fascination for lurid eroticism has never been more in view, but since we never really care about the characters, we watch all this with a great deal of detachment, as though, indeed, under the influence of some drug (the film’s remarkable sound design being a major factor in this). In the end—or, rather, in the beginning—it is indeed a mixture of drugs and sex, as in the best (or worst) pulp exploitation fare, that proves the protagonist’s undoing: shortly after Alex has introduced him to the Tibetan Book of the Dead, Victor (Olly Alexander), one of Oscar’s clients, finds out that he has been sleeping with his mother (Sara Stockbridge), and turns him in to the police, who shoot Oscar, since they believe that he has a gun—again, the trope of the lethal blow against the “wrong man.” The diegesis, and Oscar’s ghost’s ventures, stem from there, before coming full circle as Oscar is reborn as the fruit of Linda and Alex’s absurd and unlikely loves.

The whole film is shot using the POV technique, as we watch the universe of the film through Oscar’s eyes, first an active participant of the diegesis, before his death and newly acquired ghostly status puts him in some liminal status between the viewer—incapable of intervening, following the action—and the filmmaker, who chooses where to have Oscar’s ghost “look.” The film thus poses the question of directorial agency, through its various modes of subjective perspective: embodied, then disembodied, with several variations: when the ghost sees himself, as a memory of a baby bathing with his gorgeous mother (Janice Béliveau-Sicotte), or as a nightmarish projection of the future—the “bad trip.” In doing so, Noé interrogates the profound metafilmic nature of any shot, in any film, and so addresses cinematic perspective—perhaps the most difficult question of all with which a filmmaker is faced. Besides, through its use of subjective perspective, Enter the Void leaves the interpretive door wide open as to whether there is indeed transcendence and resurrection of the soul—as predicted in the Tibetan Book of the Dead—embracing a cyclical conception of the universe, or whether it is all a hallucinogenic trip/dream of the protagonist in the seconds preceding his death. Either way, the film sucks us in, for better or for worse.

For his magnum opus, Noé has picked his (mostly unknown) actors carefully, choosing common, unglamorous faces coupled with handsome (no)bodies, most notably in the case of the hyper-sexual(ized) Paz de la Huerta, whose top model measurements are in constant contrast with her spaced-out facial expressions and irritating voice—she had already been seen nude in Jim Jarmusch’s underrated The Limits of Control (2009) and the HBO program Boardwalk Empire. While the acting and dialogues are systematically flat, reflecting the characters’ own philosophical flatness, we see, as we follow them, that they are not any fouler nor more mundane than anyone else: Oscar is a clear proxy to Noé, just as Alex, the strangely-surrogate father figure who becomes the actual biological father in the end, is a proxy to Noé’s father, Luis Felipe, also a painter. Like us, these every(wo)men drift in a senseless existence, animated by a pathetic lust for life. Pathetic is not too strong a word, as we relate more to the predicament as archetypes of a new era of useless mobility of these banal ex-pats (concepts such as ‘deterritorialization’ or ‘uprootedness’ would loom large in another take on the film) than to their specific fates and actions, which we sense are going nowhere, even before the film’s conclusion.

To be sure, it is a little surprising, at first viewing, to find oneself fascinated and enthralled by a repetitive narrative of the lower-depths such as this one, so formally radical in underlining its own dullness, and rather unpleasant in its depriving the spectator from the implicative and adrenalin-inducing jolts of Noé’s previous efforts, lacking also the staggering performance of a Philippe Nahon, or the plastic beauty of a star such as Monica Bellucci (or Beethoven’s 7th symphony) for us to identify with and cling onto. And yet, the film does work. One obvious reason is the technological feat it achieves, very often seamlessly, courtesy of the hypnotic, floating camera movements and countless instances of image manipulation, deepening Noé’s formal pursuits and experiments with the fake sequence-shot, using hundreds of instances of digital stitching, facilitated by the fact that the film takes place almost exclusively at night; but also the use of miniatures of Tokyo, over the streets of which (filled with CGI silhouettes of passersby) the camera—operated by Noé himself—hovers, to the psychedelic lighting of Belgian cinematographer Benoît Debie. In technological terms, Enter the Void is a pure gem, refined in places by instances of what Stan Brakhage referred to as the ‘hypnagogic’ view. While the whole film is dominated by slow, floating camera movements, it also resorts to electrifying outbursts—as in its memorable titular sequence—to quasi-epileptic editing, an efficient means of being pushed, head-on, into the void. Surely Noé has learned his lessons from the films of the American avant-garde, and the kinship with Kenneth Anger must be pointed out here as well. (For the film’s opening credits, see here.)

But the film, of course, is more than just a pure feat of technology, or an invitation to a mere synaesthetic ride—although it can and should be best appreciated in 35mm, sitting in the front row, where its engulfing somatic dimension will be at its most potent. Because it depicts mundane individuals, with no major interesting or illuminating plot points, arch psychoanalysis thrown in the mix and trivial dialogues, some may dismiss the script as melodramatic or mediocre. Enter the Void is, actually, quite carefully written, its structure much better than many contemporary films praised for their screenwriting, including the cleverly dialogued but ultimately (very) boring The Social Network (2010): these two films, can be compared as negative reflections of one another—the latter as a truly nihilistic exploration of nothingness parading as a humanist investigation of a man’s soul, using slick video techniques, quick cuts and relentless dialogue to try to conceal its vacuous nature and sheer lack of sincerity; while the former is a voyage into the soul of the artist parading under the guise of a nihilistic argument, deploying a falsely boring fetishism of ‘dead’ time, but filling each frame with a vibrant, vital élan and a mastery of filmic tempo. This being said, Enter the Void’s story’s matters little, and in the end, it dissolves into nothingness. What does matter, on the contrary, beyond its somatic effect, and the paradoxical life-affirming drive I just pointed out, is its philosophical affect, its personal, insolent energy, and in this sense, the story only serves as a pre-text, quite literally. It is in what lies beyond the ‘story’ that the actual cinematic experience of Enter the Void begins. And just to make this point unambiguous, the whole narrative is laid out to us early on in the film, as Alex, walking down a staircase, summarizes the Tibetan Book of the Dead to Oscar, in a clear gesture of baring of the film’s narrative structure. But in doing so, it also evokes the epic or mythical structure, summarizing the main elements of a quest before illustrating them at great lengths. The film, in scope, in length, in structure, is an epic—of the void of our existence, which we are meant to attempt to fill. The film tries to come to terms with the beauty that emerges at the very bottom of things, the light in the darkness, the spark in the eternal night of the soul, something the characters seem dimly, subconsciously aware of: their dim-wittedly pensive or stoned gazes in the thundering night club atmosphere expressing a vague fascination and yearning for immortality (the immortality of angels), the transcendental promises and a sense of spiritual rebirth and elevation. The motif of drugs, here, binds together aspirations of physical and mental escapism with the utopia of a higher state of being and consciousness.

It is not often that a film has such brazen philosophical ambitions and goals—especially in such outrageous guises—and those of Enter the Void’s are never a mystery: it wants to emulate Noé’s favorite film, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), and become its equivalent for the ‘post-2001’ era, where the airplane replaces the space-ship, and thick smog prevents earthlings from seeing the stars, all ambitions diminished in scope. Noé has quoted Kubrick’s masterpiece repeatedly (most literally in the final shot of Irréversible), and in general, one can feel the great model’s operatic and sublime aesthetics lurking everywhere in Noé’s frame of a degraded, dehumanized, social-network infused, post-industrial, late (too late, I am tempted to add) capitalist society. There is quite a bit of hubris in this gesture, no doubt, and for all his talent, Noé is not Stanley Kubrick—he lacks the master’s versatility, if not his subtle perversity. As Manohla Dargis has pointed out in her New York Times review of the film, ‘for some, Kubrick is God. Mr. Noé, on the other hand, is a follower, if one to watch.’ There are several such followers, of course, among contemporary filmmakers: of the many ersatzes, we can point out two other noted directors who also clearly quote Kubrick, be it in their music videos or feature films: Jonathan Glazer and P.T. Anderson. But there is a great difference between Noé and his American colleagues: Glazer quotes shots from A Clockwork Orange (1971) - in his music video for Blur’s "The Universal" (1995) - and The Shining (1980), in Birth (2004), to no specific avail other than the pleasure of the useless pun, the postmodern homage. Anderson tries very hard indeed to become the most important living American filmmaker with each new film (nowhere more conspicuously than in his mangled epic of self-importance, There Will be Blood (2007) – a title just as bombastic as Enter the Void’s, for that matter, but without the latter’s obvious punk insolence), by recreating a series of mere visual or aural quotes from Kubrick’s work. What these American ‘heirs’ fail to understand is that what is Kubrickian, in essence, is not the over-the-top aesthetics, a certain mode of acting or framing, the operatic use of music, nor even the epic breadth: it is, clearly, about expressing a form of secular transcendence, an affect deeply present in all his films since 2001. To this, of course, one can add the notion of the (ultimate) trip, of cinema as a new philosophy, a new mode of thinking and perceiving the world, of a juncture between the fairground attraction—a Ferris wheel for the mind—and new psychotropic invention—at one point the most important of all the arts (sadly, not any more). To be sure, Noé’s film does that, wanting to expand on the final chapter of 2001 by constantly evoking its psychedelic and/or sublime imagery, but in a consciously degraded form, for instance in his quoting the star child, in the shape of a dead aborted fetus.

2001 was a voyage to the confines of human nature and destiny (and beyond), offering the promise of a new stage in human evolution; Enter the Void proposes to glimpse at such exalting perspective and then remain prisoner of a vicious circle for all of eternity, but not completely so. As Alex lackadaisically tells Oscar: ‘It’s a little bit complicated, you know.’ Lulling and jolting us, the film constantly revisits its own internal spatio-temporal geography, taking us back to scenes previously visited, but always with a variation—a line of dialogue will change, an action will be altered, and of course the camera’s ghostly perspective will shift—so that it is not only the angle or point of view that is modified, but the texture of reality, almost imperceptibly, acquiring the vague and un-crystallizable, ever slightly elusive, quality of a dream. And by the end, Enter the Void abandons all verisimilitude, as we see all the film’s protagonists indulging in one grotesque orgy, Linda’s and Alex’s embraces ironically (and yet somewhat touchingly) fulfilling the promise of the brother and sister’s reunion beyond death. It makes no sense that Linda would have sex with Alex, especially considering that, as she picks him up, he is stinking and feeding on back-alley restaurant trash (a detail lost in the US cut). It makes no sense, and yet it imposes itself to us, because such is Noé’s design. When he offers a truly ridiculous shot of Alex’s gigantic gland ejaculating inside Linda’s vagina—inescapably, a visual pun on the notion of cinematic climax—the line is drawn: between those who will, like Noé, embrace the over-the-top and ridiculous dimensions and inhale, live through the experience fully, warts and all, and those who will have long relinquished the opportunity.

Enter the Void, in spite of its anesthetic, hypnotic aural and visually overwrought nature and floating images, is a challenging, uncompromising work. In this sense, it is jarring and oftentimes the viewer will be genuinely taken aback by Noé’s aesthetic parti-pris. But the minor miracle happens precisely then: almost each scene starts with a mise-en-scène choice that one can reasonably question—the dialogue will sound arch, the music will be grating, the whole situation uselessly tasteless. And then, gradually, the choices impose themselves, the irony emerges, the idea comes through and shines, against all odds, imposing the scene’s full artistic integrity and earning the viewer’s respect. Take Linda’s abortion, for instance, or the scene in which Oscar returns as a zombie, only present in the (17 minutes longer) European cut, as it illustrates the concept of ‘bad trip’ which is almost entirely absent from the US version, and which compels the anti-hero to be reincarnated. And this demands a very active—pro-active, even— dimension on the spectator’s part, something the floating, spaced-out, limbo-like universe of the film, again, does not seem to lend itself to whatsoever, even in its brief violent outbursts (the car crash in which Oscar and Linda’s parents are killed, most notably).

As a deceptively difficult, ‘writerly’ film, Enter the Void continues a trend in cinema that I once called ‘transmodernism’. Transmodernism, in my view, is both a continuation or revival of modernist impulses (in the films of, say, Alexander Sokurov or Bruno Dumont) or a superseding of postmodernism, but having incorporated traits of the latter, as is clearly the case in Enter the Void, with its echoes of pop aesthetics bordering on camp fare and Japanese B cinema of the seventies. In a slightly less garish way, one can see a similar phenomenon at work in the recent films of Gus Van Sant, such as Gerry (2002), Elephant (2003), Last Days (2005) or Paranoid Park (2007). As so often with (post)modernist art, Enter the Void bears a dimension of self-reflexivitiy, not referencing overtly the act of filmmaking, but being profoundly, over-determinedly about cinema, if only in its acquiescing and inviting the work of the viewer, something the Cahiers du Cinéma’s new chief editor Stéphane Delorme failed to understand in his punishing (and perfunctory) review of the film, stating that ‘the film [was] yet to be made’ (‘le film reste à faire’), and lamenting the fact that he, the critic, did not find in the film what should have been there. Clearly, one must participate and must do one’s work in order to live the film fully, and gain its many rewards. It is not enough to take the smoke into the mouth—one has to take it in the lungs to venture into Noé’s despondent, yet life-affirming trip. A trip which grows with every viewing, qualities taking over the flaws and general conceit standing the test of time. With this film, Gaspar Noé has cast aside his guise of extremist and provocateur, to concentrate on the adventurer, the explorer, the inventor—one of the few left in contemporary cinema. His latest effort is already considered great by some (surely it has acquired a ‘cult’ status), and as trash by others (a friend suggested that I tattoo the title of the film on my rear end), but one thing is for sure: Enter the Void captures our contemporary morally and environmentally degraded and yet detached zeitgeist to perfection, a lurid picture of our very existences in a decadent era—one of art’s fundamental purposes. If not a great film, Enter the Void is, at least, great cinema—and there goes another tautological slogan, no less true for all that.

Author's Note: I would like to express my gratitude to Marcelline Block for her diligent copy-editing of this piece.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this piece do not reflect those of the site's proprietor.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

New Film: Boxing Gym (2010)

In Boxing Gym (2010), documentarian Frederick Wiseman procures a singularly powerful metaphor for his non-interventionist, invisible strategy of human observation: with the eponymous gym's fighters consistently engaging in exercises before the space's numerous mirrors, Wiseman and cinematographer John Davey's 16mm camera never once becomes visible in any of the interior's reflective surfaces.  Indeed, Wiseman and Davey's camera remains unseen in Boxing Gym, much as the filmmakers' refuse to interact with their on-camera subjects (to remain invisible to, namely).  Wiseman not only presumes an invisibility in his filmmaking strategy; he and Davey uniformly position their camera to remain out of view, despite the ease and verity with which the camera would appear to spectators (and presumably did on the cutting room floor).  In other words, Wiseman's filmmaking technique presumes and indeed registers an illusion, invisibility, which further extends to the film's on-camera human subjects.  That is, Boxing Gym postulates an invisible observer, who of course, though not intervening within the film, is nonetheless present to the film's athletes.  Thus, while the boxers do not acknowledge the cameras or the filmmakers, their training, conversations and anecdotes are impacted by that which Wiseman insists on effacing.  Boxing Gym's invisibility therefore is a matter of the filmmaker's unacknowledged, exceedingly careful craft.

Likewise, Boxing Gym's absence of avowed manipulation extends to the film's non-narrative organization.  Rather than imposing a story-arc onto his film, Wiseman again records the training regimens and interactions of his boxers, with the former's rhythms emerging as a pivotal organizing principle.  Wiseman presents a series of fighters - in no immediately discernible sequence - at various stages of development, and culled from nearly every age group, social class, race and both genders.  (As many of these seem to train in the ever-present Richard Lord's Austin, Texas gym in order to get or stay in shape as they do to practice the sport.)  What they share is an induction into the sport's temporality - as does the spectator, analogically - which as a new fighter is instructed at one point, must be learned before anything else can be.  Where the viewer sees this rhythm's manifestation, in addition to experiencing it on the level of the film's story-less temporal organization, is in the boxers' dancing feet - in the ring, on overturned semi-truck tires and as they skip rope; they are as conspicuous a motif as the film's reflection-less mirrors.  Indeed, Wiseman and Davey's camera commonly emphasizes the footwork of the gym's fighters, often in tight, close-in framings, which commensurate with the sport itself, proves as fundamental in Boxing Gym as the boxers' thrusting arms and wrapped hands.

Friday, January 14, 2011

New Film: The Illusionist (2010)

Warning: the following post contains spoilers.

Sylvain Chomet's The Illusionist (L'illusionniste, 2010), from an unproduced script written by the great comedic master Jacques Tati (1907-1982) in the early 1950s* - at about the same time Manoel de Oliveira (b. 1908) penned his own 2010 release, The Strange Case of Angélica - represents one of the most clearly biographical entries in the late filmmaker's micro-sized corpus: modeled on Tati's dispiriting return to the music-hall circuit following the completion of his first feature Jour de fête (1949), The Illusionist centers on Monsieur Hulot's real-life alter-ego, Tatischeff, as he performs an outmoded magic act to a set of largely empty venues scattered across Paris and Britain.  Landing ultimately on a remote Scottish island, Tatischeff enchants a young teenage bar-girl, Alice, upon whom he takes pity, purchasing her a pair of strapped, bright-red shoes before setting off for the next destination in his itinerant tour.  Alice, however, clandestinely follows Tatischeff, joining her new middle-aged acquaintance on a vessel crossing back over to the mainland, with Alice suggesting Edinburgh as the next stop.  Tatischeff complies, taking the young woman as his roommate as he applies his trade at the city's Royal Music Hall.  With his act unable to supply Alice's increasing, if still modest material wants, Tatischeff ultimately takes on a series of odd jobs that uniformly conclude with the clumsy hero's termination.

Following the final, and most demeaning of his positions, where he performs his magic act to sell goods in a shop window - the town public seems far more willing to watch his performance in the context of consumer advertising than it was in attending his music-hall show - Tatischeff re-embarks on his travels, though without in this case both Alice and also his pet magic-show rabbit.  In the meantime, Alice has completed her transformation from a pubescent washer-girl dressed in rags to a young woman in love for the first time, and sporting a pair of high, white heels that only recently she could barely manage as she treacherously attempted to cross Edinburgh's cobblestone.  Tatischeff's departure thus coincides with Alice's attainment of sexual maturation, with the young woman preparing to leave her surrogate father for her new lover (which she does upon discovering Tatischeff's good-bye letter).  The Illusionist, in other words, presents a parable of a young woman's rise to adulthood, and of her shifting dependence from father-figure to new lover.  Whether the source of Tati's inspiration was his daughter Sophie Tatischeff, to whom Chomet dedicates the film, the director's illegitimate and abandoned daughter Helga Marie-Jeanne Schiel (a strong possibility given both the surrogate nature of the film's relationship and Helga's location in Northeast England) or most plausibly both, under Chomet's direction Tati's script proves unmistakably personal.

Of course, The Illusionist is also the work of Sylvain Chomet, and not only for the animated film's re-situation in Schiel's Britain and in 1959, with Tati's Mon Oncle (1958) playing in cinemas, and with effete rock-and-roll outfits pushing vaudeville acts like Tatischeff's out of auditoriums.  Most notably, Chomet brings an extraordinary sensitivity to and emphasis on lighting effects to his drawn work of cinema: The Illusionist's neon marquees, its blinking hotel sign, the warm diffused glow manufactured by a light-colored lampshade, the harsh white of a hanging bulb reflected off bathroom tile and the blinding morning light refracted by millions of dust particles all offer memorable visual effects.  So too does Chomet attend exceedingly to his film's places, especially to a luminous postwar Edinburgh, which like The Illusionist's attention to light sources suggest an animated cinema concerned foremost with reproducing reality - and in so doing, in doing what cinema achieves by virtue of its indexical contact with the outer world.  Even so, it is not a world robustly replicated in excessive detail, but rather one registered in sketchy outlines, impressionistically under-drawn by Chomet and his co-animators.

The Illusionist likewise affirms its insistence on the real in its comparative restriction to physical laws, thereby eschewing the animated medium's inherent phantasmagoria.  Chomet's strategy in this respect similarly attends to Tatischeff's claim that "magicians don't exist"; that is, The Illusionist refuses to break with the natural in most respects, save for the spring-loaded contortions of the picture's acrobatic trio, who directly recall the animator's Triplets of Belleville (2003).  (It should also be noted that the angular physicality displayed in Chomet's earlier work, along with the film's mumbling, multi-lingual soundtrack, both spring directly from Tati's cinematic universe.)  Nonetheless, even Chomet's least natural motif dovetails from a real-world, Tati-inspired source with The Illusionist's bouncing triplets proving reminiscent further of the circus subjects of the master's creditable televisual swan-song, Parade (1974).

Tati's directorial corpus, moreover, offers a source for The Illusionist's critical edge, though in this case it is the director's mid-career peak, comprising the referenced Mon Oncle (with the hand-drawn Tatischeff at one point watching the photographed Tati on a film screen) and the filmmaker's supreme masterpiece Play Time (1967), which offers the hermeneutic key, rather than the final stage that Parade instantiates; that is, it is the period of the film's original script that is pivotal in The Illusionist.  Specifically, it is the dialogue between old and new structuring both of the earlier works that Chomet re-introduces into The Illusionist, with Tatischeff's music-hall performances representing the past - a metonymy for the Paris of another era, as always - along with Alice's attempt at forging a community within their hotel, reaching out to a down-on-his-luck, alcoholic ventriloquist and a suicidal clown.  (Both are therefore dark counter-factual representations of the obsolete music-hall artist's fate.)  By comparison, the film's American-inspired modernity appears in Billy Boy & the Britoons rock show, a jukebox that literally replaces Tatischeff as the entertainment in the Scottish bar and a white-suited Chevrolet-driving American, whose vehicle Tatischeff looks after to comic effect.  (It should be noted, likewise, that Chomet himself composed the sweet, woodwind-dominated score, presented in contra-distinction to the film's diegetic pop music; the former recalls Francis Lemarque's morning-after theme and the work of Franck Barcellini and Alain Romans for the Parisian segment of Mon Oncle, whereas the latter reflects the modern forms most notable in Play Time's nightclub segment.)

In charting a disappearing culture of which Tatischeff is one of the last representatives, Tati via Chomet has produced a work that shares The Strange Case of Angélica's consideration of outmoded forms (in Oliveira's film this motif appears in the antiquated agricultural strategies that the director's grandson documents on a similarly out-of-date photo-chemical celluloid) and by extension a Europe that is losing its singularity.  Both Tati and Oliveira in other words rank among the great chroniclers of Europe's eclipse.  With Tatischeff reduced to hocking department store wares as the last of his venues cancels his theatrical engagement, The Illusionist emerges additionally as the most bathos-filled of Tati's films, perhaps not only as a result of Chomet's co-authorship, but also for the film's apparent autobiographical elements and especially for the film's clear debt to another key work of the early 1950s, Charles Chaplin's Limelight (1952).  Indeed, The Illusionist suggests a different, more maudlin Tati than the poker-faced Keaton-style figure to which the viewer is most accustomed (not that this Tati wasn't also sentimental); in The Illusionist, Tatischeff proves positively Chaplinesque.

Note[*]:  See David Bellos's Jacques Tati, p. 153, for details on the script's authorship.