Monday, March 31, 2014

February/March In Review: The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Missing Picture, Non-Stop & Kinoshita Keisuke

At the end of January, I wrote of the relief that comes with the new year, with no longer having to submit oneself to the responsibilities of list-making and being able, finally, to find some balance between the old and the new. In the past two months, my viewing has tilted even further toward the old, thanks in particular to two new scholarly projects that came to dominate much of my film-viewing time. Before I get to the more substantial (and official) of the two in this piece's final paragraph, let me review those noteworthy new releases that I have not yet discussed on this platform, beginning with a major-work that I have done my best to avoid speaking about until now.

The film in question, as the post's opening two screen-grabs indicate, is none other than Wes Anderson's The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), the most dioramic of the mid-career Gen-X master's career, and one of his stronger perhaps (though not quite to the level of his 2012 career peak Moonrise Kingdom, or to 2007's unjustly undervalued The Darjeeling Limited). What The Grand Budapest Hotel shares with the latter work in particular is a discursive focalization through the medium of cinema itself, or more precisely in the case of The Grand Budapest Hotel, film history. We see this in the economy of aspect ratios that preserve the film's three time periods; in the irises and tracking shots that call attention to its fundamental materiality; and of course in the Ruritanian romances, Alpine mountain films, and its star-studded partial namesake that all contribute to the picture's narrative content. Anderson's latest is also a work again of the diorama, of the kunstmuseum and the miniature, captured in tilt-shift photography (as my viewing companion and this website's co-author has pointed out). The Grand Budapest Hotel finds its greatest pleasures thus, in its accumulations - be it those of the narrative or of its Grand Hotel-caliber casting - and its manifold details, in sum, its mise-en-scène. It would be tempting to describe the film in terms likewise of the confectionery that has played a large role in its marketing, and in many respects it does feel this way, were it not also for the film's comically gratuitous cartoon violence - The Grand Budapest Hotel is the closest of Anderson's films to 2009's Fantastic Mr. Fox - and its more and less oblique references to mid-century fascism. Anderson indeed contributes another key film to his generation-defining body-of-work.

Staging its own meticulously crafted dioramas with sculpted clay figurines, Rithy Panh's The Missing Picture (2013) produces a new form of political essay film that seeks to recreate the filmmaker's personal recollections of life under the murderous Khmer Rouge using the aforementioned inanimate objects - and those few newsreels and relevant propaganda films that survive the period. The genius of Panh's latest testimonial resides in this very novelty, in its figuration of the Marxist regime's intentional and systematic process of dehumanization in a form that essentially eliminates the human form from its reproductions. What results is the titular "missing picture," the heretofore largely undocumented nightmare reality that the Khmer Rouge endeavored to create for its bourgeois and capitalistic enemies, in the image of its profoundly flawed political theory (which disastrously combined Rousseau and Marx). In his dioramic spaces (mostly) and the occasional surviving film clip, Panh's picture equally offers a fond glimpse into Cambodia's lost, pre-Democratic Kampuchea past, into the modern Phnom Penh that would be ravaged by Pol Pot and his ideological faction. A work of powerful, even undeniable truth, The Missing Picture is one of twenty-fourteen's finest commercial premieres to date.

The biggest surprise of the past two months belonged to Jaume Collet-Serra for his of-the-moment actioner, Non-Stop (2014). The Catalan-born Collet-Serra seems to understand something that most others do not, namely that we spend much of our time communicating with others through our phones - rather than in the face-to-face conversations that has traditionally provided the medium with its mode of interpersonal exchange. Collet-Serra responds to the representational problematic involved in this new means of communicative discourse by projecting Liam Neeson's narratively central texts on screen, in a manner similar to the method utilized in Netflix hit House of Cards (another mainstay in my past two months of viewing). Consequently, Collet-Serra creates a plastic image that is at once transparent onto the fictional world that he expressively brings into being, and is, at the same time, readable as a flat surface containing a series of significant data points. Non-Stop does not simply engage, however, with our new forms for mediating the world, but instead also interrogates the outstanding, though rarely discussed question of public safety in the long post-9/11 era. Specifically, Collet-Serra's film, from a John W. Richardson and Christopher Roach story, brings to fictional light the superficial measures enacted by the United States government to insure air safety in the period following the terrorist attack. Non-Stop, in other words, is a film rich in ideas about the world we inhabit - and how we have come to engage it.

Finally, as I have noted above, I spent much of the past two months viewing older films, with those of Japanese master Kinoshita Keisuke (1912-1988) representing the large majority. Indeed, as part of a project that I recently drafted for a non-English-language film journal - given my, shall we say, baroque writing style, you all should feel great pity for my translator - I watched or re-watched fifteen of the filmmaker's features, with the majority coming from the wartime and Occupation-era phases of the writer-director's career. Most of my critical insights on the generally under-appreciated Kinoshita and his marvelous body-of-work belong to my future essay, of course, so let me instead list those works that I would number among my favorites of the director's (and/or his most formally notable, in the case of some of the later films in particular): the propagandistic The Living Magoroku (1943); personal favorite-among-the-favorites, The Girl I Loved (1946); Phoenix (1947); from a Kurosawa Akira script, The Portrait (1948); Here's to the Young Lady (1949); The Wedding Ring (1950); Carmen Comes Home (1951), Japan's masterful first color feature; A Japanese Tragedy (1953); Twenty-four Eyes (1954); and the (pictured) scroll-painting-inspired The River Fuefuki (1960). A near-exact contemporary of Kurosawa, the exceedingly 'Japanese' Kinoshita might just be a more generically adventurous Ozu to his compatriot's second-generation Mizoguchi. At the very least, Kinoshita belongs in any remembrance of Japan's post-World War II 'golden age.'

The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Missing Picture and Non-Stop are all currently in commercial release in North America, while the ten Kinoshita films listed above are available to be streamed on Hulu Plus.

1 comment:

Zach Murphy said...

Loved The Grand Budapest Hotel. I didn't enjoy it as much as Moonrise Kingdom, but the more I think about it - the more it's on the rise. Definitely need to see it again.