Monday, November 26, 2012

New Film: Tabu (2012)

Orchestrated brilliantly in a measureless variation of silky gray tones and underwritten ironically by a light twinkling of ivory, the 35mm prelude for Miguel Gomes's third feature Tabu (2012) subtly sets the internal parameters for the fast-rising Portuguese director's sidelong take on F. W. Murnau and Robert Flaherty's eponymous original. Gomes's robustly referential fiction opens on a dejected intrepid explorer, a Robinson Crusoe-type in darkest Africa, who in Wes Anderson-esque ethnographic voice-over laments the loss of his beloved wife. The latter however will appear as an apparition-like presence to the suicidal bereaved, before taking her place in a still photo beside the now dead explorer's melancholic crocodile alter-ego. Gomes thus infuses the faux ethnography of his crisply cinematic open with a Bataille-inspired surrealism that (together with the Flaherty-inflected former) will continue to obtain, as categorical opposites, throughout the remaining two halves of the forty year-old director's post-colonial, post-structuralist narrative.

Inverting Tabu: A Story of the South Seas's (1931) two-part organization, Gomes's twenty-first century incarnation opens with "Paradise Lost," a Rouch In Reverse bit of first-world ethnography that soon finds first-half lead Pilar (Teresa Madruga) in a semi-fluent English exchange with an itinerant EU traveler. Pilar is then summoned by her elderly neighbor's African servant Santa (Isabel Cardoso) after the aged Aurora (Laura Soveral) loses a fortune at a local casino. Arriving, Aurora confesses her folly, observing that "peoples lives aren't like dreams," before narrating the fantasy (replete with gambling, monkey men, and dead women who fornicate with celebrities) that somehow convinced Aurora to imprudently try her luck. Gomes's luminous black-and-white 35 captures the elegant Aurora, masked by her prominent, dark-rimmed sunglasses, as she narrates her fever-dream atop a slowly rotating restaurant platform. In so doing, Gomes provides a richly lensed, lightly uncanny visual backdrop for what amounts to part one's first incursion of the surreal - a sense of everyday unreality that will return immediately thereafter in Pilar's flare-lit visit to a local Roman catacomb.

As 'Paradise Lost' progresses, Aurora accuses Santa, her fellow remnant of Portugal's colonial past, of devil-worship and witchcraft; she pleads with the devoutly Roman Catholic Pilar to entreat St. Anthony on her behalf (something that the focalized lead will do, impolitely, at a UN protest). In Gomes's Tabu there is no substantive difference between religious belief and superstition; both belong to a category of belief that no longer obtains in part one's alienated, post-Christian European civilization. With Aurora's health continuing to decline thereafter, she begins to speak in a surreal code that will become lucid only with the consequent arrival of "Paradise." Before reaching part two, however, Gomes stages one last set-piece in a liminal shopping-center jungle, which is to say in a threshold space that connects and combines the first half's urban capitalist-twilight with the second part's primitive plantation economics. As Gomes thusly exchanges his Oliveira-esque isomorphic dialogues for voiced-off recollection, part two commences with its very specific and radical aesthetic break.

With 'Paradise' being restored in part two, Gomes replaces the expansive 35mm gray-scales and crystalline conversations of the first half for a grainy 16 stock and even more conspicuously, a non-dialogue soundtrack (which nonetheless incorporates post-synchronous sound effects and even vocal pop performances). That is, Gomes trades in the loss of sound cinema for the paradise of Murnau's silent-shot, post-synchronous sound original. Of course, in dividing his film into sound and silence, 35 and 16mm - with a brief, super-8 home movie diversion in part two - Gomes procures a vivid sense of technologies and textures that, in the contemporary aftermath of the digital turn, speaks to the filmmaker's overriding scholarly impulse. We see this same instinct likewise in the filmmaker's encyclopedic approach to the stylistic figures (from the festival long-take to trick POV set-ups), media forms (the still image, the films within the film of part one, and even the Blissfully Yours-inspired scribbling on the image) and most distinctively of all, the modes of narration that structure Gomes's Tabu (the mimesis of part one, voice-over diegesis of part two, and the letters that conclude the film). As in his very fine Our Beloved Month of August (2008), Gomes seeks to include everything in his 2012 follow-up.  

If the latest Tabu is most obviously a consummate work of historical reference and obsessive piece of postmodern scholarship, this is not to suggest that it, in any respect, lacks more conventional narrative and psycho-sexual pleasures. The adulterous, taboo romance of the young Aurora (Ana Moreira, pictured, in 16mm) and her globetrotting musician lover Ventura (Carloto Cotta) will provide many of the film's more lusty pleasures, while the Iberian translations of "Be My Baby" and other period pop hits introduce a kitschy experience of nostalgia that is no less immediate. However, as pleasures go, there are none more bracing - and memorable - than Tabu's densely luxurious black-and-white visuals.

New York-based Adopt Films will be opening Tabu at Film Forum on December 26, with a series of single dates to follow, including Minneapolis's Walker Art Center on January 11.

Monday, November 12, 2012

35th Starz Denver Film Festival: Barbara

Recipient of the Silver Bear for best director at the 2012 Berlin International Film Festival, Christian Petzold's Barbara (2012), from a screenplay by Petzold and renowned experimental documentarian Harun Farocki, succeeds in providing one of the most incisive portraits yet of the everyday paranoia brought into existence by the German Democratic Republic's all-seeing Stasi. In Petzold's highly accomplished latest, everything is minutely calibrated detail and unerringly precise observation, which is to say that Barbara is absolutely saturated with its police state subject matter. Nowhere does this discourse play out with greater concentration or drama than on Nina Hoss's angular, intractable face. Petzold both opens and closes his film on the visage around whom will build his GDR-era thriller - on the dark blue eyes, high sculpted cheekbones and sullen lips that will conceal the mysteries of past traumas and keep secret personally damaging future designs.

Barbara commences with the arrival of Hoss's eponymous heroine in the East German countryside, 1980. Barbara is a reassigned Berlin physician and former member of the nation's prison population, for crimes not specified anywhere in Petzold's film. Being fully aware of the Stasi's constant human surveillance, Barbara is deeply guarded and cautious upon first arriving in the provinces; when, for example, her immediate supervisor André (Ronald Zehrfeld) fails to ask her address when driving her home from the hospital, she protests and demands that she be let out of the vehicle - thus recognizing that he is one of the East German police's countless civilian agents. At home, the sudden shock of her apartment buzzer - Petzold has long since mastered the sonorous effects of the horror film - is accompanied by the appearance of a prying neighbor who demands that Barbara immediately inspect a storage area. Barbara, in other words, is surrounded by those who will scrutinize her every gesture.

Of course, Barbara's own actions early in the film also resonate with intrigue: after receiving a small monetary package inside a restaurant lavatory, she departs for a desolate stretch of countryside where she buries her newly acquired bundle. Returning home on her bicycle later that evening, she is stopped by state officials who are dubious of her nighttime choice of transportation. Indeed, they will later pay Barbara a pair of home visits, which in both instances will include off-camera cavity searches administered by a female agent. Petzold's slow-burn narrative thusly shades from the initial mystery of Barbara's undisclosed identity to the realm of suspense as her clandestine activities, including her secret meetings with a West German lover Jörg (Mark Waschke), must be kept from the watchful eyes of the Stasi's expansive network of civilian informers. In Barbara, the smallest of on-screen details possess the capacity to destroy the film's focalized female lead - and her hopes of reuniting with the no less enigmatic Jörg.

As Barbara progresses, Petzold's subject begins to pivot from pure political thriller to ethics-oriented melodrama, with the needs of the titular lead's patients coming to take increased precedent. Of particular note is a hysterical young female patient named Stella (Jasna Fritzi Bauer), whom Barbara soon discovers has spent time at an East German prison/concentration camp. Barbara's compassionate attitude toward the patient is contrasted early on with André's lack of apparent sympathy: he inhumanely refers to Stella on multiple occasions without once mentioning her by name, a point that Barbara accusatorially notes. André, however, will consequently show his own Hippocratic commitment and human feeling in treating another male patient, who, like Stella, will play a key role in the film's final suspense-filled act. Suffice it to say that admitted Stasi informer André will prove more an ally than an antagonist as the film transforms into medical melodrama. Petzold in this sense, as in another key instance, humanizes the film's Stasi, though admirably not to the point that they are prevented from carrying out their heinous activities.

In both content and form Barbara again represents a new peak in Stasi-themed cinema, easily besting Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's somewhat suspect Academy award-winner The Lives of Others (2006). What von Donnersmarck's film does well, Hitchcockian suspense, Barbara does even better, which following first-rate thrillers like Jerichow (2008) and Beats Being Dead (2011) - Barbara strongly recalls the former in its low-key nocturnal set-pieces and the latter in its cool verdant landscapes - should come as no surprise. Petzold indeed has long since confirmed his stature as the Berlin school's master of genre, while that movement's leading female lights especially - Maren Ade, Valeska Grisebach and Pia Marais, to name three - continue to supply the small "a" art cinema (when, that is, they have the opportunity to work). Of course, Petzold is no stranger to this latter mode, having made one of the first humanist masterworks of the Berlin-school movement in 2000's adolescently focalized The State I Am In. In returning in Barbara to terrain proximate to the historical-political content of The State I Am In, Petzold has made his best film since the latter work - and perhaps his best film to date.

Let me thank Lisa K. Broad for her many contributions to this piece, and throughout the festival. Speaking of Lisa, be sure to check out her final festival report card, where she and I grade eighteen films from this year's event.

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

35th Starz Denver Film Festival: Paradise: Love & Paradise: Faith

Released as the first installment in writer-director-producer Ulrich Seidl's "Paradise trilogy," a set of three features that the Austrian filmmaker first conceived as a single epic-length work, Paradise: Love (Paradies: Liebe, 2012) follows the late middle-aged Teresa (Margarethe Tiesel) as she travels to coastal Kenya for an extended stint of sex tourism. Upon arriving, Teresa joins a similarly robust friend (Inge Maux) who details the ease with which she has secured a young, well-endowed lover. Teresa accordingly commences with her own search for erotic companionship, a process that is simplified somewhat by the crowds of young males who offer goods (and implicitly, their services) to the seashore's female visitors, Teresa included. (Paradise: Love's extreme gap between its wealthy neo-colonialist tourists and its colonized Kenyan under-class occasions a reversal of the traditional economics of sex.) Teresa ultimately settles on Munga (Peter Kazungu) who, to the lead's mind, chivalrously saves her from her more aggressive suitors. Munga seems to understand Teresa's desire to be courted, something that her first potential hook-up misses as he attempts to force himself on the lead in a narrow hotel room. Indeed, throughout Paradise: Love, Seidl shows a special facility for shooting constricted interior spaces (like the aforesaid hotel bedroom) with his often static camera frequently holding for extended intervals on the narrative's darkly comedic interactions. Seidl privileges duration over movement and scale as he produces long takes that speak less to the composition of the image over time than to a stubborn unwillingness to end his shots, to cut. In Paradise: Love, Seidl frequently makes his spectator feel as though she or he has overstayed their welcome, as, most spectacularly, when birthday-girl Teresa and her fellow Germanic tourists fail in their attempts to arouse a lanky male sex worker in one of the film's more graphic set-pieces.

Paradise: Faith (Paradies: Glaube, 2012), Seidl's second installment - the third is planned for release in 2013 - manifests an even more more rigorous relationship between its form and content, thanks in particular to Faith's reliance on thematically meaningful, confined domestic settings. The irony implied by the film's title, in the pattern established by Paradise: Love (with its conspicuous absence of liebe), is particularly well suited to the filmmaker's static frontal set-ups of Anna Maria's (Maria Hofstätter) kitschy Austrian home. Seidl's immobile, symmetric part two framing emphatically presents the film's religious fanaticism in a manner that is at once clinical and deadpan; it professes a lack of commentary to accompany its intrinsic (ironic) criticality. Outside her own home, in a series of evangelically minded visits to a progressively more hostile set of immigrant households, the careful circumscription of Anna Maria's home life disappears, with Seidl's ever looser camera work capturing the increasing chaos of the respective scenes. The unexpected return of Anna's wheelchair-bound Muslim husband Nabil (Nabil Saleh) contributes, to an even greater degree, to Anna's destabilization and ultimate crisis of faith. At the same time, the presence of Nabil also crystallizes a set of references from Fassbinder (Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, 1974) to von Trier (Breaking the Waves, 1996) to Buñuel (Viridiana, 1961) as Paradise: Faith devolves into a pitch-black, if somehow still subtly comedic struggle between the sexually frustrated Nabil and his bride of Christ wife.

This piece was co-written by Michael J. Anderson and Lisa K. Broad.

Paradise: Love will screen at the Starz Denver Film Festival on Friday, November 9th at 1:30 PM, Saturday, November 10th at 10:00 PM and Sunday, November 11th at 2:15 PM. Paradise: Faith screens on Thursday, November 8th at 2:15 PM, Saturday, November 10th at 11:30 AM and Sunday, November 11th at 7:45 PM. 

Saturday, November 03, 2012

35th Starz Denver Film Festival: Surviving Life & Flower Buds

In a matter of speaking, Surviving Life (Přežít svůj život, 2010), Czech master animator Jan Švankmajer's feature-length collage of live-action cinema and stop-motion cutout animation, may prove among the 35th Starz Denver Film Festival's more old-fashioned offerings, thanks to its highly orthodox surrealist iconography and its no less conventional readings of both Freudian and Jungian theory. Surviving Life, a "psychoanalytic comedy" as the filmmaker describes his work in an introductory talking head, functions no less as a primer to all of the above, with the film's immediately absurd flow of symbols all systematically decoded over the course of the film's explorations of middle-aged lead Václav Helšus's Oedipal unconscious. Švankmajer allows for very little ambiguity, which adds both to the lucidity of the film's narrative - Surviving Life is about as accessible as any work of traditional European surrealism - and again insures that on some level the filmmaker's latest is anachronistic, that it is a work of the twentieth century (and its first half at that). Yet, it is in its commitment to surrealism and the dream, which Švankmajer insists our civilization "has no time for," particularly as there no money in the latter, that Surviving Life gathers its force.

Two generations Svankmajer's younger, fellow Czech director Zdeněk Jiráský's handsomely photographed Flower Buds (2011, Poupata) expresses a decided nostalgia for the socialism of Jiráský's youth, the same socialism that Svankmajer's masterpiece Dimensions of Dialogue (1982) devoured with a relish equal to the anti-materialism of all three films. In Flower Buds, Jiráský stages his contrast between the collectivistic old and capitalistic new in a set of competing dance outfits and styles: the "flower buds" of the film's title, a middle-aged, all-woman exercise club who rehearse and perform socialist-brand mass spectacle routines for their small town public; and the millennial-aged strippers who perform for the community's inebriated pub habituates - and at one point, markedly displace the older women. Of particular note, with respect to the latter, is the focal Susana (Aneta Krejčíková, pictured) who in a measure of the perversity of the new system, is purchased by Joseph Gordon-Levitt lookalike Honza (Miroslav Pánek, right) in attempt to insure her affection. Though the specter of middle-aged dance rehearsals and dive-bar stripteases suggests the path of quirk or worse yet condescension, as do the the hobbies of building match stick shops in a bottle and the presence of Vietnamese immigrants, Jiráský mostly avoids these world cinema traps, as he likewise escapes the miserablist tendency that his struggling backwater subjects would no less seem to telegraph. Instead, Jiráský pursues a strategy of realism - with one major, unfortunate exception in the picture's penultimate scene - that emits occasional moments of humor and irony that help to elevate Flower Buds above the more standard backwater subject.

This review was co-authored by Michael J. Anderson and Lisa K. Broad.

Surviving Life plays once more at the Starz Denver Film Festival, on Saturday, November 3rd at 5:00 PM. Flower Buds will screen Monday, November 5th at 6:30 PM and Tuesday, November 6th at 5 and 9 PM.