Monday, February 14, 2011

Mon cas (1986): Manoel de Oliveira's Four-Part Personal Cinematic History

Manoel de Oliveira's fundamentally experimental Mon cas (1986), from the filmmaker's adaption of José Régio's play "O Meu Caso," with additional dialogue excerpted from Samuel Beckett's "Pour Finir et Autres Foirades" and the Biblical "Book of Job," orchestrates the same stage performance three times, first as filmed theatre (pictured), then in silent black-and-white, and finally as imperfectly dubbed sound cinema. In each of the repetitions, Luís Miguel Cintra precedes Bulle Ogier's actress onto the proscenium, intruding on stage with the intention of stating his "case" to the audience just as the latter is about to commence with her performance. Oliveira follows these three takes with a contemporary re-staging of the Job narrative in the midst of a contemporary urban wasteland that is no less artificial and theatrical in its stagecraft. Beyond recapitulating the filmed theatre of the opening stanza, the fourth provides an additional variation as it likewise adds to Cintra's 'case,' expanding especially upon the documentation of gross human suffering that appears explicitly during part three (on a film screen in the rear of the stage; among the most indelible images are those of bodies disfigured by the famine then contemporary to the Horn of Africa). Mon cas's 'case' accordingly poses the theodicean questions of Job in this earlier segment as well, thereby offering another interruption of the bourgeois entertainment that Ogier and her fellow players are attempting to provide. Oliveira indeed insists on an engaged art, in the manner of Picasso's "Guernica" (1937), which the director introduces in a pointed in-film reference, as opposed to the frivolous, light comedic fare that Ogier begins to annunciate early in part one.

Oliveira directly precedes the first part - which he marks with the on-screen snapping of a clapper and the words, "Mon cas, first repetition" - with long shots of an auditorium filling around a camera and crew. The filmmaker focuses attention on what shortly will become the space behind the camera, with Oliveira drawing an analogy between theatrical audiences and those persons who watch the filmed performances from behind the camera; or, more precisely, Oliveira reminds his viewer that film actors likewise play to real people in a manner comparable to the theatre actor. Cinema, in other words, is revealed to share more with theatre than arguments for the two arts' inherent specificities commonly concede - an opinion that Oliveira has articulated throughout his work, as for instance in the concluding passage of his sublime I'm Going Home (2001). Moreover, Oliveira's filmed theatre feels the most like the cinema of its present day, thanks to its comparative lack of technical limitations that mark parts two as silent (lack of sound save for the voiced-off monologue, sped-up footage) and three as classical sound (overdubbed, with an exaggerating echoing effect to emphasis the sound of a second space housing the recording equipment). That is, cinema becomes most recognizable here when it is at its most theatrical; Oliveira's thesis is, as always for this writer, more compelling than it would appear at first glance.

If parts two and three therefore mark a progression out of the theatre, first to silent and then to sound cinema, part four implies both cinema's passage into a modernist phase, and also a form of regression to a much earlier (passion-play, or even oral history) mode - not that an exploration of pre-modern sources is any way inimical to modernism. This progression does not occur by virtue of formal inscription, however, but rather by dint of artistic self-reference, as a symbolic continuation of the cinematic history that Oliveira's career likewise instantiates. (In this sense, Mon cas prefigures the director's most recent effort at cinematic history/autobiography, 2010's The Strange Case of Angélica.) That is, part one also suggests Oliveira's own adolescent, pre-cinematic artistic passion: the stage. Part two similarly depicts not only cinema's silent start, but Oliveira's as well, with the filmmaker's silent Douro, Faina Fluvial (1931) his first effort in the medium. Part three consequently inscribes both classical sound cinema and also Oliveira's lone offering in this mode, Aniki-Bóbó (1942), which like Mon cas's third part, presents theatrical performances before real-world backgrounds (though as open-air theatre rather than through a substitute for rear-projection footage). Lastly, Oliveira's Biblical fourth part suggests not only a post-classical phase of cinematic modernism in its self-reflexive, artifice-laden updating of the Job text, but also the director's specific post-Aniki-Bóbó move into this mode with Acto de Primavera, the filmmaker's equally self-reflexive 1963 staging of a passion-play. In the case of part four, it is only through an awareness of this particular point of self-reference, of the Biblical play as a threshold for modernist practice in Oliveira's work - given the degree to which Mon cas proves Brechtian avant la lettre otherwise - that the completion of Oliveira's personal cinematic history registers.

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.