Thursday, September 29, 2011

The 49th New York Film Festival: A Separation & This Is Not a Film

Opening with a pre-credit passage in which separating eponymous leads Nader (Peyman Moaadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami) address an off-camera magistrate in a tight, frontal two-shot, writer-director Asghar Farhadi's A Separation (Jodaeiye Nader az Simin, 2011) proceeds to cultivate the first long-take's implied logic of domestic surveillance, with the film's consistently transparent home architecture taking the lead hereafter. Farhadi's focal domestic interior - in which Nader and sixth-grade daughter Termeh (Sarina Farhadi) live with the former's Alzheimer's debilitated father (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi) - is divided by a series of French doors, interior apertures and even a translucent glass front entrance that all bring the film's domestic melodrama into public view. Consistently compressing the visual field in telephoto, Farhadi and cinematographer Mahmoud Kalari's camera shoots through these visually permeable barriers, as well as through the home's exterior windows, in a creating a sense that nothing in this household (as in the Iranian nation itself) is beyond the purview of its invisible monitors. With new nurse Razieh (Sareh Bayat) brought in following Simin's departure, the film's virtual surveillance is extended to both the culture's religious authorities, with the former consulting church-leaders to determine the spiritual legality of a series of actions, and also to the Islamic faith's patriarchy, which in this case is adjudicated by Razieh's bad-tempered, out-of-work husband, Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini), from whom the pregnant co-lead initially is forced to hide her place of work.

A Separation will turn on those things, within its governing system of abundant visibility, that may or may not have escaped witness, whether it is the ambiguous, just-out-of-view accident that transforms the film from household drama to criminal mystery or the piece of related information that will dictate the magnitude of the legal charges. With Farhadi's film accordingly shifting into crime-thriller mode, the picture's leads and supporting roster - the full slate of performers are superlative in their respective roles - are forced into investigative positions, as they attempt not only to make sense of their incomplete perspective on the events, but also on what will prove uniformly unreliable testimony. Consequently, the film's players, along with its spectators, who in the latter case participate in the same acts, calling not only on their intuition, but also on their murky recollections of seemingly off-handed moments in the narrative, are made complicit in the operation of A Separation's inscribed surveillance society. They become actors in the film's economy of monitoring and reporting, which will result finally in a denouement that escapes every witness expect the religiously conditioned moral guilt that impacts one character disproportionately. Farhadi's robust depiction of modern-day theocratic Iranian society, as comprehensive as any that this particular writer knows, is reproduced accordingly in the very structure of A Separation's narrative, just as the film's mediated visual strategies allegorize the same theme imagistically. In transforming both in the image of the film's distinctly big subject, therefore, Farhadi's film qualifies as a genuine masterpiece of the contemporary Iranian cinema.

Among the higher profile victims of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's authoritarian regime, from which he has received a six-year prison sentence and twenty-year filmmaking ban for colluding to commit crimes against the nation's security and producing propaganda against the Islamic Republic, Iranian master Jafar Panahi subverts if not openly transgresses against the ruling with his latest, This Is Not a Film (In Film Nist), shot by the director and documentarian Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, under the conditions of Panahi's house arrest. Drawing on the caption to René Magritte's Treachery of Images (1929; see below) - "Ceci n'est pas une pipe" - Panahi and Mirtahmasb create a work that like the painting, isn't and is that to which it refers: after renouncing the unintended fiction of the film's commencing static set-ups in which Panahi goes about his quotidian daily activities, the filmmaker proceeds to read and reenact a scene from his latest banned screenplay, judging that he has been prohibited neither from acting out nor reading his un-produced material (though his direction to Mirtahmasb to "cut" does lead the latter to insist that he and not Panahi will control the subsequent filming). This, it should be added, follows on the aforementioned set-ups that likewise offer an additional, audio-visual alternative to traditional, screenplay-based narrative filmmaking in the rough form of surveillance once again - with a phone conversation dictating, fictitiously in all likelihood, that Panahi himself was not responsible for at least one of the shots. In other words, Panahi seeks at this point to represent rather than make his film, to transform himself and his work in every respect into the subject of his art, which theoretically will be documented without out his intervening agency as director.

This shift from static set-ups to hand-held documentation occurs after a pivotal telephone conversation first, where Panahi's dire legal status is reinforced, and his screening of a clip from his second feature consequently, The Mirror (1997), which the filmmaker argues provides a model for what he should be attempting with the work that will become This Is Not a Film - namely, that he should take his "cast" off and respond authentically like his young child actress. Panahi's screening of his Mirror clip provides the first of three of on-screen passages from the director's prior corpus, with the latter two moments from Crimson Gold (2003) and The Circle (2000) illustrating the unplanned contributions of the actor and the power of plastic representation respectively. That is, they each show the limitations of an experiment in cinema-based imagination with respect to which Panahi becomes quickly disillusioned. They also comprise a film critical intervention that combines with This Is Not a Film's theoretical examination of the natures of film and documentary to construct a discourse that in some sense surrounds or encircles the act of filmmaking that Panahi of necessity musty avoid. As such, it might be argued that Panahi substitutes the acts of documentation (which he further does on his cellphone later in the work), collaboration and analysis for the auteurist production of narrative art cinema, which is to say the activity that drew the administration's ire.

It needs not be said what Panahi in fact produces with This Is Not a Film - the auteur's latest naturally demands a certain degree of spectatorial complicity - except to say that the banned filmmaker has produced a work of exceptional entertainment and surprising humor, as well as one of lasting impact, thanks especially to the same ontological play and litany of questions that formerly appeared in relation to the Magritte - albeit with greater plausible deniability in 1929. Panahi's effort additionally provides the latest entry into the fact-fiction hybrid that Abbas Kiarostami's Close-Up (1990) inaugurated (at least in the context of the international festival circuit), with performativity providing as key a motif for Panahi and Mirtahmasb as it once would for the former's mentor. The banned filmmaker likewise draws on Kiarostami's more recent Shirin (2008) in embedding his own un-filmed work within the diegesis of This Is Not a Film. In this respect, the tacit discourse on censorship that occurs throughout Kiarostami and especially Shirin becomes a matter of a terrible practical necessity in Panahi's latest. 

Considering both the interventions of This Is Not a Film and A Separation, therefore, there emerges yet further of evidence of a distinctive Iranian art film idiom, as developed foremost by Kiarostami, with Moshen Makhmalbaf serving as his earliest and most significant respondent. Within both of the latter-day films, this national form is articulated in their referential emphasis on what remains off-camera (out of view and between the cuts) as a result of domestic censorship, once again; in their semantic properties (telephone conversations in the former, automobile travel in the latter, strong female and child characters in both); and in the spaces that each leave for viewer adjudication, whether it is the ending of the latter or the ontological questions of the former. Suffice it to say that with A Separation and This Is Not a Film, Iranian filmmakers have not only developed and expanded the horizons of their nation's cinematic art, but have also produced the year's strongest domestic double bill. With that said, the tenuous nature of the industry, to say nothing of Panahi's even more tragic circumstances, provide substantial reason for pause before declaring a full-scale renewal of the nation's cinematic fortunes - to the lofty place it occupied when Panahi was first emerging as one of the globe's leading art cinema auteurs, as a maker of films.

A Separation will screen twice for the New York Film Festival, once on October 1st and again on October 2nd, while This Is Not a Film will play only once on the evening of October 13th. Both films do have U.S. distribution, with the former beginning its limited run December 30th.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

The 49th New York Film Festival: Dreileben

Comprised of three occasionally interlacing, though separately authored and shot tele-visual features issuing from Germany's ever-vital "Berlin School," leading-light Christian Petzold's Dreileben - Etwas Besseres als den Tod (Beats Being Dead), Dominik Graf's Dreileben - Komm mir nicht nach (Don't Follow Me Around) and Christoph Hochhäusler's Dreileben - Eine Minute Dunkel (One Minute of Darkness), the broader Dreileben project grounds itself in the spatiotemporal narrative fact of a prisoner Molesch's (Stefan Kurt) escape from police custody, with each of the three successive films representing an increasingly intimate connection with the pivotal plot point. Occupying the same literal terrain (and overlapping temporality), the three Dreileben's explore very different generic territories and narratological focuses within what will prove a single diegetic world in which characters from one repeatedly make cameo appearances in the others. In this sense, the Eastern 'Berlin School' is making its best effort at commemorating the memory of Polish master Krzysztof Kieslowski and his single-diegesis multi-part sagas - both The Decalogue (1989) and the Three Colors triology (1993-1994) are very germane to the latter-day trio - following more than a decade after the FDR-born Tom Tykwer began his own work of elaborating upon the former's idiom. Kieslowski, in other words, is once again proving to be an over-sized influence in his neighboring Germany, even as the tenor of modernist and postmodernist world cinema elsewhere appears less and less indebted to the maestro of multitudinous parallel narrative forms and especially to his very keen sense of filmic craft.

Few filmmakers working anywhere today (at least this side of David Fincher) have demonstrated as high and consistent a level of achievement in the latter regard, over the past decade, as has part one's writer-director Petzold. Beats Being Dead once again applies the director's highly composed, old-fashioned visual sense and horror film shock-effect repertoire - especially in the feature's expert sound design - to a narrative that like Petzold's outstanding Jerichow (2008), combines a socially and ethnically-tinged love-triangle with the suspense strategies of the thriller form. As young lovers Johannes (Jacob Matschenz) and Bosnian-immigrant Ana (Luna Zimic Mijovic) peregrinate through the magnificently crisp mixed evergreen forests that surround the eponymous northern German village - constant Petzold collaborator Hans Fromm captures the verdant exteriors and antiseptic hospital interiors in a saturated, hyper-detailed HD - Petzold cuts to a series of surveillance inserts of the frequently quarreling couple, which within the context of the larger project (and as a consequence of the set-ups' twinned rapid movements and over-dubbed guttural sound effects) emerge as unmarked point-of-view stagings from the predominately out-of-view Molesch. The trilogy's central figure indeed will remain peripheral, both spatially and also narratively, throughout much of Beats Being Dead's eighty-eight minute running time, with only a late, initially ambiguous on-screen appearance substantially breaking from this strategy.  

Petzold's feature instead centers on the burgeoning, and very sexy, romance between the young medical student Johannes and his new hotel-worker acquaintance Ana - both Matschenz and Mijovic are excellent in this entry - after the male lead cares for the latter following her public sexual humiliation at the hands of her thug-motorcyclist boyfriend. (Johannes, who clandestinely witnesses the scene while lying nude in the nearby grass at the edge of the woods, rescues the abandoned and shirtless young woman as she huddles behind a nearby tree.) Throughout Petzold's installment, clandestine glances, sweeping searches, and voyeuristic gazes generate a creeping sense of suspense and unease. The dense forest that lies at the center of the trilogy's fictional geography is also its dark heart; the epicenter of a developing manhunt for the escaped Molesch, it is also a site of nameless, almost supernatural dread that darkens the edges of the young couple's developing relationship. Emerging from the woods in a bedraggled red dress after a lover's quarrel, Ana brings to mind a present-day Little Red Riding Hood. 

Ever expert at the art of manipulation,  Petzold cuts violently against the spectator's established sense of the characters late in the narrative, reversing fields as he reveals both Johannes' far less admirable side and also Ana's commensurate instability. In so doing, Petzold reinforces the psychological importance of the literal, black-and-white surveillance footage that Johannes views in the picture's opening scene - Beats Being Dead ultimately introduces an economy of such points-of-view within a variety of contexts, including the three noted above - while even more significantly revealing the presumed working-class, native German Johannes' particular relationship both to his economic betters and also to Ana's  immigrant underclass. From the cultural differences that constantly drive a wedge of misunderstanding between Ana and Johannes, to the lack of private transportation that forces Ana to take a dangerous road to work everyday (more than wolves or even madmen) it is the longing for social mobility that ultimately threatens the young couple's future. In Beats Being Dead, as in Jerichow, Petzold's re-imagines Germany's multi-cultural social and demographic presents in decisively personal terms.

While politics likewise play a role in Dreileben's equally striking second part, Don't Follow Me Around, Dominik Graf and co-writer Markus Busch depart from the class-based rhetoric of Petzold, in exchange for an institutional criticism that finds targets in both the systematic crimes of the GDR and also those of the film's neighboring small-town police force. Ostensibly employed to help track the escaped Molesch, police psychologist Johanna (Jeanette Hain; pictured, left), who it should be added makes an initially opaque cameo in Beats Being Dead, in fact is brought to Dreileben foremost to suss out the aforementioned departmental abuses, with her pursuit of the convicted killer occurring only after the former situation is resolved. While in this sense Don't Follow Me Around attends more closely to the principle narrative focus of the 'Berlin school' triptych, Graf's principle subject (like Petzold's) lies foremost in a love triangle, which in the second feature develops between old friends Johanna and her local host Vera (Susanne Wolff; pictured, right) after they learn of a point-of-convergence in their respective romantic pasts. In this sense, Don't Follow Me Around extends its larger focus on historical incident, on the past, to a matter of more personal interest (thus replicating Beats Being Dead's comparable grafting of social and ethnic politics onto the interactions of its own triangular narrative structure; and as in the earlier film the results tilt in favor of the same Nordic archetypes). Fittingly, given  the sprawling novelistic feel of the entire Dreilieben series, the central mystery of Graf's episode is linked not to murder or police misconduct, but to paternity. Perhaps a reflexive comment on the authorship of this unique collective work, questions of parentage run through all three strands of the trilogy - like Johanna's young daughter, Johannes, Ana, and Molesh have missing parents.

For its fundamental narrative similarities to Beats Being Dead, not to mention its overlapping incidents that the second film on occasion helps to clarify retrospectively, Don't Follow Me Around nonetheless breaks substantially from Petzold's film on the level of the image, both in terms of Graf and cinematographer Michael Wiesweg's shooting strategies and also of the content of what appears before the camera. Graf's film relies both on a less crisp, grainier 16mm stock and also on hand-held camera work in its articulation of domestic melodrama in the tradition of Ingmar Bergman and Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Pro-filmically, Don't Follow Me Around matches Beats Being Dead's overriding emphasis on surveillance with its own even more pronounced constellation of concrete settings. Indeed, from Johanna's original departure for the village to her collaboration with the local police department that takes the single-mother on a series of dining excursion throughout the community, Graf stacks location upon location, in essence (and in one instance literally) mapping the film's Dreileben setting. Even more distinctive than these exteriors, however, is Vera and hack-author husband Bruno's (Misel Maticevic) village home - once purportedly the site of a communist brothel. The villa provides an apt setting for the second parallel love triangle that the grows out of the trio's amusing wine-fueled meditations on love and memory, with the homestead's exterior shower permitting at least one passage of comic titillation, while the series of locked doors inside invite a psychoanalytic interpretation to match the film's psycho-sexual content.

While Don't Follow Me Around succeeds in further enriching the experience of part one, thanks both to its substantive convergences and divergences from Petzold's film, Christoph Hochhäusler's One Minute of Darkness ultimately fails to achieve the same. One Minute of Darkness, co-written by Peer Klehmet, indeed suffers not only from its comparably insufficient development of its middle-aged police detective co-lead Marcus (Eberhard Kirchberg), who spends the narrative pursuing the fugitive Molesch as well as the truth of the brutal murder that led to his incarceration, but also from the arguably unsatisfying nature of the reversals that Hochhäusler's film employs in resolving both the latter film's own structuring mystery, and also that of Beats Being Dead. The initially compelling relationship between the laconic Marcus and the adult gym-owner son, who seems starved for his affection and regard, is briefly sketched and quickly abandoned. Likewise, the flesh and blood Molesch, emerging from the obscure darkness of the woods into the center of the narrative both figuratively and visually, additionally fails to live up to the leering phantom of the first two episodes.  

Ultimately, the comparative weakness of Hochhäusler's effort belongs as much to its position at the end of the series, as a work that according to logic of the project demands some form of resolution or at least a consistent logic - One Minute of Darkness does not refashion the love triangle; it does not inaugurate an original DV idiom wholly distinct from the first two parts - as it does to any internal falterings per se. Perhaps Hochhäusler should not be held accountable for failing to produce a summarizing work on the level of Three Colors: Red (1994), given the discrete nature of the Dreileben productions. Nevertheless, One Minute of Darkness reveals a structural deficiency in the project that insures that at best, Dreileben remains two-thirds great cinema.

This review was co-written by Michael J. Anderson and Lisa K. Broad. Dreileben will screen at the New York Film Festival in its entirety on Saturday, October 1, beginning at 1:00 PM , and over three successive days, starting Tuesday, October 4, at 3:30 PM.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

New Film: Drive (2011)

Testifying convincingly to the New Wave axiom that superior sources breed better art, Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive, from Hossein Amini's fine adaptation of James Sallis's novel, compiles more than four decades of action-film antecedents for a work overwhelmingly lauded as an exercise in consummate style, in cool, when not (or not also) derided as an empty example of the same. With Jean-Pierre MelvilleMartin Scorsese and late Cronenberg, Oldboy (2003) and a very pointed Mr. Arkadin (1955) reference - which happens in this instance to be both signposted and embroidered - all providing motival filigree, the real substance of Refn's generic inspiration flows from Drive's proximate namesake, Walter Hill's The Driver (1978), as well as from Michael Mann's masterful celebration of Los Angeles at night, Collateral (2004). Combining the professional acumen, not to mention the getaway profession of the Hill - as well as a very striking resemblance between the two unnamed male leads, Ryan O'Neal in The Driver and Ryan Gosling in Drive respectively; both are credited only as "The Driver" - with Mann's fluid aerial mapping of the glowing cityscape in high-definition digital, Drive pays conspicuous homage to some of the most elegant mid-level auteurist action filmmaking of the forty year-old Danish director's lifetime, that is, to the American formalist tradition that Refn very ably extends.

Drive opens with one of the finest pre-credit sequences in recent film history: an essentially complete representation of the first of the film's getaways, with Gosling executing throughout with absolute precision. Befitting the Hill source once more, Gosling is the best at what he does, a professional in the mold of the aforesaid's stagflation-era transformation of Howard Hawks. Refn paints Gosling's expert split-second decision-making in an economy of close-up inserts of the poker-faced, toothpick-chewing lead and in over-the-shoulder set-ups that chart the hazy, low-key Los Angeleno side streets that Gosling has fully mastered. As he alternately flies and slinks out of view, Gosling's complete attention is calibrated to successfully elude the police dragnet that emerges moments after the heist concludes; to this end, even a seemingly distracting Los Angeles Clippers basketball game on the radio, which Gosling happened to have been watching at home prior to the start of the job, is used to free the lead and his two freelance employers from their pursuers (thanks to a perfectly timed arrival at Staples Center). As Gosling disappears into the departing masses, Refn cuts to gliding overheads of the nocturnal city, scored electronically by Cliff Martinez as the credits appear in cursive hot pink. In so doing, Drive synthesizes its two primary sources once again, bringing together the signature visuals of Mann's opus and Hill's larger late 1970s, early 1980s historical moment, both musically and graphically.

As Drive progresses, Gosling is revealed to work under Bryan Cranston's good-natured if also ethically impaired and down-on-his-luck garage owner and stunt director, in both of the latter's ventures. Cranston warmly confides to Carrie Mulligan's radiant married love interest Irene that he has been underpaying Gosling for years, while on the set, the latter is compelled to wave his right to seek legal restitution should the rollover he is about to perform goes poorly - after Cranston takes half of his $500 bonus; naturally, given again his extraordinary professional ability, the rollover does come off. The exploited, working class Gosling's life, in other words, proves to be of very little worth compared to those stars for whom he is performing the stunts. In this respect, Refn introduces both a backdoor social consciousness, commensurate with the work of Hill and even Mann's Collateral, as well as an interest in the periphery of celebrity culture that likewise provided a somewhat unsatisfying emphasis in the director's earlier Bronson (2008). Of course, Bronson and especially the stronger Valhalla Rising (2009) converge even more closely with Refn's latest in the brutality that ultimately overtakes Drive's narrative, with Gosling proving as capable with his clenched fists and a shower curtain rod as he is behind the wheel.

While Gosling's steely, if occasionally vulnerable performance quite effectively grounds Drive, Refn's co-stars and supporting players manufacture much of the film's moment-to-moment richness, beginning with Mulligan's sunny allure as the focal point of the film's romantic triangle. Cranston's hunched and weathered, though also sympathetic turn as Shannon is as Academy-worthy as any - no surprise from one of television's finest actors since his "Malcolm in the Middle" days - Christina Hendricks is well cast as a small-timer's Moll (her personalized nameplate earrings seem a good latter-day match for her impossibly curvaceous physique) and Ron Perlman and Oscar Isaac each effectively add tension in their antagonistic roles.  Finally, in yet further confirmation that Refn has somehow occupied this writer's subconscious in casting his film, Albert Brooks casually dominates the screen as ex-film producer cum gangster Bernie Rose (in precisely the type of role that the specifically late middle-aged Brooks was born to inhabit). Brooks's Rose, likewise, extends the film's late Carter, early Reagan-era reference point both within the diegetic world of the film itself - he claims to have produced  film actioners in the 1980s that one critic identified as European, not unlike the Dane Refn's twinned primary generic sources Hill and the Mann of Thief (1981) - and certainly extra-diegetically in the presence of that era's superlative comedic director Brooks. Refn as such remains remarkably loyal and thorough in his reformulation of his preferred generic moment, an era that he seems intent on (and capable of) reviving single-handedly as that period replays itself economically and socially in the early 2010s.

A special thanks is due to site co-author Lisa K. Broad for her input to this piece.