Monday, October 11, 2010

The 48th New York Film Festival: Mysteries of Lisbon + Festival Recap (featuring Le quattro volte, Aurora & The Strange Case of Angélica)

Raúl Ruiz's Mysteries of Lisbon (Mistérios de Lisboa), from a Carlos Saboga adaptation of Camilo Castelo Branco's nineteenth-century novel of the same name, recasts the Chinese box narrative structure most famously associated with the director's earlier period masterpiece, The Three Crowns of the Sailor (1983), where stories continuously unfold within stories and more within these and so on, through a series of graceful, circling sequence-shots that call to mind the temporally-unstable spaces of the filmmaker's Marcel Proust-adaptation Time Regained (1999).  Here, however, Ruiz does not alter temporality within a single spatial field - though he does at one point present two of the lead's selves within a single frame, thereby replicating Time Regained's stunning denouement - but instead reserves his ever shifting chronology for the editing room, with his cutting again rarely employed analytically within a single fragment of time and space (save for a handful of passages of shot/reverse-shot, often presenting two male speakers).  In Mysteries of Lisbon, Ruiz's fluid camera work principally serves his fluid progression of stories, their next-to infinite regression, with re-framings in all but a handful of examples accomplished within rather than without the camera and figure movement universally recapitulated in the visual field through its tight figural identification - moored to his stories' many tellers.  The director's long-shot, long-take work also affords for the re-introduction of The Three Crowns of the Sailor's aggressively planar, baroque compositions, at times inorganic and at others not, with servers, in their organic usage, adopting foreground positions where they will overhear the gossip, in the frame's recesses, that will lead to the masters' ceaseless miseries.  (Ruiz, it is worth noting, also recalls the trick cinematography of the earlier masterpiece in his use, for example, of an extreme low-angle that takes the place of a floor, onto which shards of a ripped paper are dropped.)

Yet, for Mysteries of Lisbon, as for The Three Crowns of the Sailors, it remains all about the telling.  Borrowed from the novel, Ruiz and screenwriter Saboga replicate the multiple-twist narrational structure of the late nineteenth century serial for their conventionally melodramatic, ultra-Romantic tale of masked identity, unknown paternity and ubiquitous suffering and heartbreak.  Standing at the center of Ruiz's latest is Joao/Pedro da Silva (played in his teenage years by João Baptista, and José Afonso Pimentel for his young adulthood), an epileptic orphan, under the care of shape-shifting priest Father Dinis (Adriano Luz), who comes to discover the identity of both parents, before involving himself in the same socially-determined tragedy as those who have preceded him - including his father, mother and even Dinis himself.  Each of the latter's stories, and those of many, many more, are narrated on-screen and then in flashback, within Joao/Pedro da Silva's overarching, voiced-off recounting.  Ruiz additionally offers static illustrations of numerous scenes with the younger Joao's puppet theatre, which not only implicitly allegorizes the fate of the young man and his ancestors, but also suggests a manipulator of the broader narrative - which is to say Ruiz himself.   

Mysteries of Lisbon very much proves the ultimate vehicle for its ever narrative-obsessed director, with its structure that allows for storytelling to become an endless, virtually existential act - highly appropriate for the Chile-born author of more than one-hundred films; Mysteries of Lisbon is the director's career in 272-minute microcosm - its subject that springs forth finally from memory (in the image of Time Regained) and its figures whose identities and even self-hoods prove as fluid as the film's time and space.  The director's latest emerges as a new signature accomplishment, a masterpiece no doubt for the director, and also a worthy companion to Manoel de Oliveira's supreme masterwork culled from the same authorial source, Doomed Love (1978).  There could be no greater compliment to Ruiz's latest than this.    


For this writer, the 2010 New York Film Festival provided the strongest set of high-end cinematic achievements in quite some time, with Mysteries of LisbonUncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, Certified Copy and Tuesday After Christmas leading the way, followed, on a somewhat lower level, by The Social Network.  In addition to these, this author was also present for a trio of significant, if not major works, recapped below in order of viewing, along with Lee Chang-dong's solid and solidly mid-range Poetry (pictured), with the director characteristically guiding Yoon Jeong-hee to a laudable lead performance, and Jean-Luc Godard's gorgeous in parts, though opaque and exasperating in more, Film Socialisme, which Tativille guest contributor Lisa K. Broad recounted in far more skillful terms than this writer would be able.  

Michelangelo Frammartino's Le quattro volte / The Four Times adds to the La libertad (2001)-brand, work-oriented documentary-fiction hybrid in its construction of a primitive economy that accounts equally for the unique contributions of man, goat, tree and charcoal to the life and operation of a small Calabrian village.  Frammartino succeeds in both reducing the cardinality of man to cinema - not only narratively but also in terms of his mise-en-scène - and in finding a greater degree of structure than is common for Lisandro Alonso imitations.  Whether or not Frammartino's worldview is productive remains an open question, though his attempt at a Pythagorean sketching of spiritual transmigration, to paraphrase the Italian filmmaker, undoubtedly offers something new to the medium.

Crisi Puiu's Aurora even more radically remakes cinematic storytelling in its elimination of dialogue signposting, in favor of a greater conceptual authenticity, where the scenes from the life and crime of Puiu's lead mostly appear as they might have were the scenario non-faction.  (No back-story is evident from the film's open, even as Puiu eschews cinema's characteristic redundancy.)  Hence, Aurora pushes the Romanian New Wave's default realist mode into truly original territory, where life is presented on screen as a largely unreadable sequence of events with immediately unclear character relations and motivations.  It is in this sense the ultimate work of surveillance.  Puiu's strategy is frustrating enough on occasion, however, to reinforce the virtues of what he negates - the elegance of the unobtrusive point of clarification reveals itself in its absence - though even this may add to Puiu's achievement inasmuch as it helps its viewer to better see the manner in which films traditionally disclose information.

Aurora is a major work to be sure, as much if not more - in many salient respects - than its exceedingly entertaining counter-point The Social Network, with the Romanian director organically constructing a visual corollary for his minimalist narrative: Puiu greatly restricts his framing by placing the camera just outside doorways, thereby displacing much of his busy domestic beehive spaces - Aurora confers a sense of how Romanians live - onto the off-camera field.  More obscurity, in other words, which Puiu further introduces in a consistently unanswered telephone (which if anything suggests an active obfuscation of information that exceeds the aforesaid surveillance).  Ultimately Puiu's work is about the absence of information that lends the film its substantial staying power: as its advanced reputation suggests, Aurora really does haunt its viewer long after its three-hours, perhaps offering more interest in its post-viewing cognitive reconstruction than in the experience of viewing the film itself.  For this alone, Aurora is one of the year's greater accomplishments.
Caught for the past two or three decades in the existential act of making his final film, to paraphrase the Village Voice's J. Hoberman, centenarian-plus one Manoel de Oliveira's latest last testament, The Strange Case of Angélica, fittingly provides a source narrative akin to Apichatpong's Uncle Boonmee, with the River Douro and trick cinematography (cf. Ruiz again) offering personal, Lumière and Méliès-style poles. As befits a filmmaker of Oliveira's unprecedented late stage, The Strange Case of Angélica is a work of uttermost freedom - like his recent Belle Toujours (2006) - with the director's interest typically alternating between cinema's original edge capabilities.  Of course, Oliveira also commemorates and embalms, whether it is his career, the cinema, the ways of life of his Oporto home or a Europe whose decline the director has been sketching as long as he has been making his last.  


Lasse Winther said...

A month's time ago you complained about the lack of quality films released this year, but don't you - in light of the NYFF screenings in particular - agree that 2010 is shaping up to be one of the better years in some time? Maybe the best since the still unfathomably great year 2000.
I really thank you for your excellent coverage of the major films at the festival, though I have to say I'm somewhat disappointed with your sketchy treatment of Aurora which is undoubtedly the best film I've seen this year (closely followed by Uncle Boonmee (thanks again for a brilliant reading)). Perhaps it helped my reception of Aurora that I talked to Puiu for hours after the screening at this year's Sarajevo Film Festival, but regardless I still believe it to be the major work of the Rumanian 'wave' and a masterpiece in the vein of La maman et la putain and Jeanne Dielman (which Puiu somewhat surprisingly hasn't seen). Puiu is also - along with Apichatpong, obviously - the director I'm looking most forward to following in the coming decades.

Michael J. Anderson said...

Yes I do, and I think 2000 (which I agree was genuinely outstanding) really isn't such a far-fetched comparison in view of this year's best.

Otherwise, thank you for your complimentary words, and I would ask that you forgive my sketchy treatment of Puiu's, I would agree, major work (though I naturally disagree that it is the year's best). The reason for this neglect is simply that I have time for only one such post a week, and given that "Aurora" screened the same day as "Certified Copy," and being something of Kiarostamian myself, it only made sense to write on what I really know. Besides, in the end, I prefer the Kiarostami.

P.S. If you have the time, I'd love to hear more about your encounter with the director.

Lasse Winther said...

[Part 1 of 2]
Ok, it’s like this:
Puiu was head of the jury in Sarajevo and at the end of the week there was a special screening of Aurora with a Q&A afterwards. The film was a horribly amazing experience and lots of people walked out. The Q&A evolved into a show in itself mirroring the film’s impenetrability. Immediately after the film ended, a guy came to the microphone and said that Puiu wasn’t here yet but that he would come in a minute. Ten minutes passed and people started to look puzzled. Even more walked out, but the guy assured us once again that Puiu was on the way. At a time when there were about 15 people left in the theatre he finally came strolling in, demonstratively casually dressed in long shorts and a flax shirt. He came to the microphone and smiled and said that he was happy that at least a few people had managed to stay until the end of the film. His attitude during the Q&A was one of disinterest and sarcasm, and he shied away from answering even the most genuine questions with any sort of conclusion or seriousness. I asked him whether he would agree that Aurora was somewhat more spiritual and universal than the other Romanian new wave films that all seemed to deal with more specifically Romanian institutions and types of bureaucracy (the police, the health care, the prisons etc.), but his answer was so vague and evasive that I barely remember it.
Thus the director seemed just as impermeable as his film and he offered not the slightest solution or conclusion. Furthermore he was a bit rude, decidedly disinterested and not at all sympathetic. He more seemed to play the role of tortured male artist that the film itself in its way also conveys. In other words, the Q&A played like a continuation of the film itself. More obscurity, indeed.
The same night there was a sort of end-of-the-festival-party where journalists, hang-arounds and directors came. Puiu was there as well and I went over to him and told him how much I liked Aurora. I said that I really liked the way he emptied the film of narrative to an extent where an image or a sequence could mean anything because it wasn’t guided by a director’s apparent intentions of by any sort of intentionally guided flow of emotions. What I felt about a part of the film might diverge radically from what the next man felt about the same part and the torturous repetition along with the lack of narrative guiding made things apparent in the images that I hadn’t seen in any other film. I somehow had to complete the images on my own, which was a powerful experience.
Puiu was really intrigued by my take on the film and – in total contrast to his Q&A persona – his face lit up and he genuinely thanked me for my understanding of the film and what I had remarked upon was exactly what he had tried to achieve. Then began a couple of hours of discussion about film and the world. Here are some of his main points:
- The director must ask about something instead of showing something he thinks he knows. Because he knows nothing. By establishing a narrative he patents a truth about something and he has no mandate to do that, because it is a truth that doesn’t exist.
- The ideal is to reduce the narrative and the action as much as all possible without leaving the strata of the audience and stumbling into the realms of experimental cinema (latter-day Godard or whatever). That type of cinema is wonderful, but it doesn’t activate the audience into participation in the same way. The thing is to reduce the narrative as much as possible without abandoning the realm of the ‘narrative fiction film’. In response to this I said that the great thing about Aurora is that each member of the audience is as responsible for completing the film and investing meaning in it as the director himself is.

Lasse Winther said...

[Part 2 of 2]
- I said that in this way it was reminiscent of films like Through the Olive Trees. Then we agreed that Kiarostami was indeed the master. I said that Aurora also (obviously) reminded me of La maman et la putain and Puiu said that Eustache’s film was indeed his own all-time favorite. I also mentioned Jeanne Dielman and he told me that he hadn’t seen it, but that many people indeed used it as a point of comparison when discussing Aurora.
- Puiu said that the film is about communication and about the illusion that human beings are able to understand each other. But in truth one person has no idea what the other person means when that person for instance says “love”. This is what films must show.
- I asked him how he felt about the fact that this film would only be seen by very few people, especially after the somewhat successful Mr. Lazarescu. He said he was totally fine with that because the film should be judged in the times to come and burn very slowly. Only then will he himself be able to see whether he has moved on to the right track or whether he needs to find a new and third way of making films.
- I told him that Lazarescu – in the view he advocated – was representative of a cinema that instantiates narratives and ‘patents’ truths, in this case about the Romanian health care and elderly people in his country. He totally agreed and totally denounced Lazarescu. He completely disregarded the film and said that he was done with that type of cinema and that it was exactly that kind of film he was battling against. In his mind Lazarescu is not a ‘real’ film like Aurora is. His films must not state that they possess a knowledge about any truths whatsoever.
- Another major point was that he really hated historical films because to him, one cannot state anything about history, because it will always inevitably be a lie fabricated by the deceitful memory. That is why he e.g. hates Haneke’s Caché because it proposes to know all kinds of things about history and about the influence of French colonial history on the bourgeoisie of today. According to Puiu one would never be able to make just a remotely accurate film based on History or memories, so one shouldn’t try that at all to begin with.
- Based on all of the above I said to him “But then you kind of disregard 99% of all cinema”. He paused for some seconds, shrugged his shoulders and said “Yeah”.
- Puiu is also majorly opposed to having dialogue carry a scene or an entire film which is why he also completely disregards Porumboiu’s Police, Adjective. Dialogue is ultra-subjective both on part of the character and writer and therefore it is uncommunicative and the opposite of audience-engaging. It is, however, somewhat inevitable and his next film will be about the dilemma of dialogue (looking forward!).
- Then there were the more sort of obvious points: Films shouldn’t focus on narrative/action and character because it will end up being a parasite of literature. A sort of emulation of an ontologically different art form. What’s at stake in the art of cinema is something entirely different than the exposition of narratives and characters.
- He also said that the art of cinema doesn’t exist because it is able to condense or plagiate e.g. literature, it exists because humans have a basic and instinctive need for the art of cinema. If they hadn’t it wouldn’t exist. In the human soul there is a unique need for something that only cinema can fulfill.

That was pretty much it (albeit in brief) and he was pretty much the most uncompromising and interesting artist I’ve ever talked to. Of course it somehow complemented my experience - and heightened my esteem of - Aurora. But I can positively say that even before I talked to the director, the film was one of the most shocking, unique, intriguing, harrowing, rewarding, beautiful and insightful experiences I’ve had in a movie theatre.

Sam C. Mac said...

Thanks for all that, Lasse. As someone who has also been living with "Aurora" and trying to determine exactly how much it means to me (and exactly *what* it means to me), it's nice to have such a thorough explanation from the director himself, especially since the Q+A at NYFF was likewise very opaque and difficult.

And thanks, Michael, for the great coverage of the festival. I've enjoyed reading your always-intelligent considerations of each of these films. It's a level of critical thought I don't really find anywhere else.

Michael J. Anderson said...

Yes, let me add to Sam's thanks, Lasse. Your transcription is very much appreciated. And of course, thank you as well Sam for your very kind words.

Michael J. Anderson said...

A quick note: I have revised my Aurora paragraph (10/16/10) to provide a better sense of this major work's achievement.

Lasse Winther said...

Now, that's more like it.
I just remembered another aspect of Aurora that I talked with Puiu about, which I find very interesting, namely the subjective/personalised camera. The camera acts as if it was a person/a POV with a subjective consciousness etc. Most strikingly in the scene where Viorel kills the woman upstairs in her apartment. He follows her upstairs, but the camera stays downstairs while all the action unfolds off-screen so the viewer doesn't see, but only hears, what's going on. The camera, though, takes somewhat of a stance towards Viorel's crime. The moment he knocks out the woman we hear her fall to the floor and as she hits the floor, the camera - placed downstairs just below - sort of ducks or makes a surprised/terrified movement like a real person would on such a horrible sound cue. The camera, thus, takes a stance towards the character's actions which is interesting because Puiu himself - both in the guise of director and of the main character Viorel - somewhat refuses to do so and instead remains completely neutral to what unfolds on the screen.
The personalised (is there a more acurate term for it?) camera is also interesting in relation to the voyeur-theme that you, Michael, touch upon in your review.
It is also interesting in the way it somehow contradicts Puiu's own aversion towards subjectivity in general (as outlined in my summary above), thereby establishing a divide and a distinction between the filmmaker himself and the camera that records his 'vision'.