Wednesday, December 11, 2013

New Film: Stray Dogs & 12 Years a Slave

Following the Berlin and Cannes premieres of Wong Kar-wai's The Grandmaster (2013) and Jia Zhang-ke's A Touch of Sin (2013) respectively, films that in both instances conceivably merit the title of best in competition, Venice witnessed the debut of a third, prodigious masterpiece of the Sinophone cinema that looks to be the unequivocal equal of the first two, and again a leading pick for the best of its fest. Tsai Ming-liang's Stray Dogs (Jiao you, 2013), from a Tung Cheng-yu, Song Peng-fei and Tsai screenplay, matches The Grandmaster's overriding temporal obsession and A Touch of Sin's encyclopedic inscriptions of space with its own exceptionally rigorous study of physical presence, of the spatialized experience of time that is no less the (story-based) cinema's fundamental subject and substance. Or, to put it another way, Stray Dogs is all about the occupation of spaces, whether it is lightly surreal urban architecture that provides the film with its indelible, post-deluge setting - Tsai expressly personifies these places - or the exceptionally marginal edge of the capitalist economy where the film's protagonists live their unendingly difficult lives.

Tsai sets the template immediately, providing, in the first of the film's exquisite (and exquisitely slow) sequence-shots - Tsai's visual constructions find the director at the absolute peak of his powers - a formally re-focused emphasis on patient observation, on a multi-sensory exploration of the decomposing mise-en-scène, which will lend the sudden kick of a sleeping child something approaching narrative significance. Both Tsai's obliquely staged, elegantly lit landscapes of a rain-sodden and wind-swept Taiwan, and his unshaven close-ups of patriarch Lee (Lee Kang-sheng) ironically serving as human advertising for new housing, unfold over a matter of minutes rather than the seconds that they would cover more conventional art-house fare. Invested with phenomenological force thus, Tsai creates a marginally narrative cinema, however lacking in dramatic action and verbal exposition for the most part, which draws more on the visual arts, ultimately, than it does on literary and theatrical (read: temporal) media. In fact, in the film's final set-piece, Tsai evacuates his long-take imagery first of human presence, and consequently, of ambient sound, leaving only a monochromatic mural in the rear-distance as his visual field becomes little more than filmed visual art.

The Taiwanese master's profoundly painterly idiom spreads across a series of discrete set-pieces that slowly disclose the film's human subjects: single-father Lee, his two children (Lee Yi-cheng and Lee Yi-chieh) and the unidentified mother or motherly figures (Yang Kuei-mei, Lu Yi-ching and Chen Shiang-chyi; all three have collaborated with director previously) who move into and out of their orbit. Stray Dogs centers on the family's meager, mundane existence, depicting their daily struggle to satisfy even their most basic needs, from the shelter they find in a grim single-room space to the grimy public lavatory where they brush their teeth and wash their feet - in the trickle that escapes from the bathroom plumbing. Tsai fills his film with the quotidian, with the ways in which the Lee family subsides and spends their days on the most distant margins of the Taiwanese economy, be it again in the work to which the semi-homeless Lee is subjected, or the childhood fantasies that the young heroine pursues in the film's gorgeously lensed supermarket, a vast space of reflective surfaces and painstakingly curated displays. Stray Dogs similarly concerns itself with biological necessity, with the acts of eating, sleeping and even urinating (all of which the films' actors do in full view of the spectator).

As befits this subject, which is to say as is appropriate for characters who struggle to maintain without any hope of economic advancement or personal progress, Stray Dogs proves a comparatively static experience, for most of its two-hour plus running time at least. This will change, at least momentarily, following the film's most memorable (and certainly discussed) set-piece, Lee's violent, inebriated, psychoanalytically ripe fondling and consumption of his daughter's toy cabbage head - a cousin as it were to The Wayward Cloud's (2005) even more shocking watermelon. Following this outpouring of abject despair, Tsai will momentarily break from the everyday, as the film's focal patriarch, in a passage reminiscent and worthy of Kenji Mizoguchi - a key source for Tsai's compositional strategies - leads his children to the water's edge in the midst of precipitous nocturnal downpour. Melodrama, in other words, will make a brief but impactful cameo.

In the extended (concluding) flashback that follows, the Lee's reemerge within an ultra-modern domestic interior that was devastated by the act-of-god that has occurred before the film's narrative begins. Here, in this once comfort-filled setting, there is at least some sense of the upper middle-class experiences and modern conveniences that the family has heretofore lacked, whether it is the homework that the children work on in the presence of their mother (presumably) or the illuminated leather chair in which Lee relaxes. The flood-decimated flat, however, discloses the fundamental sickness that inflects this bourgeois family - a thematic motif that is confirmed in one of the film's rare moments of exposition, and which the viewer is led to speculate may be connected to the male lead's apparent alcoholism. This displaced emotional devastation will come to the fore, moreover, in the film's staggering thirteen minute-plus static penultimate camera set-up, a scene, which in its divergent gazes and multi-planar staging, calls to mind the interpersonal alienation of the director's outstanding Vive l'Amour (1994). Indeed, in the emotional terrain it explores, its predilection for narrative experimentation, its implicit political discourse and even in its occasional recourse to the surreal, the very great Stray Dogs will keep the same modernist faith as the aforesaid late twentieth-century masterpiece.

If in spirit Stray Dogs belongs most to modernism's (twentieth) century, Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave (2013) finds its inspiration in the nineteenth, and not simply by virtue of its slave-era subject. Based on freeman Solomon Northup's published 1853 account of his kidnapping and subsequent decade-plus as a slave in the Antebellum South, McQueen's third theatrical feature reverberates, as Tativille contributor Lisa K. Broad has smartly observed, with the tropes of nineteenth century melodrama. 12 Years a Slave indeed hinges on that most Hugoesque of concerns - here it is worth remembering that Northup wrote his memoirs in the very specific discursive context of the mid-nineteenth century - namely, a concealed identity that provides the key to the hero's future happiness (and in this particular case, his freedom). The (legally sanctioned) breakdown of the family and the moral compromises foisted upon Lupita Nyong'o's Patsey, which is to say two of the greater sins perpetrated by an ostensibly religious, thoroughly wicked public, only deepen the emotional impact of McQueen's period melodrama.

Of course, 12 Years a Slave is also a movie of its moment, of an increased interest in the abhorrent institution of Trans-Atlantic slavery, in the midst of the Obama presidency, that in the past year has beget the uniformly rich Lincoln (2012), Django Unchained (2012) and Chris Eska's indie The Retrieval (2013). 12 Years a Slave adds an extreme sense of visceral pain - aided by ear-splitting sound-cues - and a searing sense of injustice to this latest American feature-film cycle, as well as a carefully observed lyricism and sensitivity toward duration of which McQueen makes discerning use (as for instance in the film's extraordinary long-take lynching scene). Though not ultimately among this writer's choices for the year's best, 12 Years a Slave nonetheless would make a perfectly respectable choice for 'Best Picture' - much as Lincoln or the superior, if less-than-safe Django Unchained would have one year ago. While in recent years Oscar seems to have perfected the selection of films that would quickly enter the annals of its most uninspired favorites, 12 Years a Slave in the end may be too much (and too obvious a film) for the middle-brow body to ignore.


Time Waster said...

One thing I keep coming back to on 12 Years a Slave is how it only shows the slave experience from that of a captured freeman as opposed to a captured African. I think the film does a good job at showing how a person can have their identity slowly chipped away in a society that doesn't notice but I think it's worth noting that the tragedy is of Northup having white culture taken from him when nearly all slaves suffered the loss of their African culture.

Do you think this matters? I just can't help but wonder if this unintentionally reinforces the stereotype of "slavery was bad but we got through it, and they are better off here than in the jungle".

Michael J. Anderson said...

Time Waster,

Thanks for the comment.

I would only say that 'culture' in this context is fairly complicated. To begin with, it is my understading that most slaves in Northup's time were the children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and so on of slaves, making it somewhat incorrect to say that they experienced a lost of their African culture. Many, if not most slaves were already a number of generations removed from their African homeland - and as such participated in a rich slave culture (which of course descended from African culture). Moreover, it is worth pointing that many African-born slaves were themselves already slaves in Africa - so it is not quite right to say that they suffered a loss of their African culture in being transported to North America.

I guess I say all of that to argue that no, it doesn't really matter - particularly if we can agree that the art of cinema is big enough for many stories, many contexts, even many perspectives, dare I say.