Thursday, September 27, 2007

The Pillow Book

As you may have noticed, in our last few entries we've departed from the more measured, "objective" approach I took in my essays on Arrested Development (2003-07) and Artists and Models (1955) in favor of immediate, opinionated commentary. Partly it was because of the film festival and because Heather has a completely different writing style from mine (it's not a competition!), but I would argue that the internet, by its very nature, lends itself better to reviews than criticism. CineAction, which comes out with a new issue only three times a year, has no presence on the internet at all, and while I still depend on Cinema-Scope to keep me informed, their website is merely a supplement to the print edition: it's updated quarterly, like the magazine, rather than weekly. (1)

To use a crude metaphor, the difference between a blog and a journal like CineAction is the difference between video and film. Like film, which has to be sent to a lab to be developed, print media is slow and cumbersome; but with a blog, I just had to hit 'Publish Post' and now any one with an internet connection can read this. If cinema is a long shot (Angelopoulos, Mizoguchi, Tarr), the essence of video is narcissism. (2) In other words, while an academic like David Bordwell or Robin Wood views things from a distance, reviewers are generally too caught up in the now to maintain any historical perspective, which no doubt accounts for the hysterical over-praise of certain films: I'm sure Sideways (2004) looks pretty good next to whatever else was playing at the multiplex that week, but next to an Albert Brooks or Buster Keaton, its timidity and mediocrity are inescapable.

Peter Greenaway began experimenting with video editing in the 80's with A TV Dante: The Inferno - Cantos I-VIII (1989), a ninety-minute video piece for British television co-directed by Tom Phillips, but it wasn't until a few years later that the technology developed allowing Greenaway to utilize the same techniques in film. A TV Dante is a major work, but his subsequent feature, Prospero's Books (1991), while often stunning, is so over-loaded that it never really engaged me either time I saw it: we get one striking image, then another and then another, and I couldn't remember any of them seven seconds later. Forget Memento (2000) (3), this is what it must be like to have short-term memory loss. (Heather, who's seen it four times--for school, not for fun--said it started to grow on her, but you'd have to ask her about that.)

The Pillow Book (1996) represents his most sophisticated application of the editing techniques he developed in the earlier films, once again layering multiple images on top of one another (unlike most filmmakers, who only edit horizontally, Greenaway edits vertically as well), but this time, a picture in a picture--one of the techniques Greenaway uses most often--serves to connect the characters with their past. When Jerome/Ewan McGregor paints his name on Nagiko/Vivian Wu, contained within the present moment is Nagiko's past: a birthday ritual in which her father/Ken Ogata would paint his name on the back of her neck. Later, when Jerome commits suicide, a guesture he's about to make is anticipated in a smaller frame at the bottom of the screen (needless to say, we instinctively read the larger image as more important), which reflects his feeling of disorientation.

The film was made the year before England returned Hong Kong to China, and while this is never mentioned in the film, I'd be very surprised if Greenaway didn't have this historic milestone in mind while making it: apart from the opening and closing sequences in Japan, almost the entire film takes place in Hong Kong, and even more than costume dramas like The Draughtsman's Contract (1982) and The Baby of Mâcon (1993), this is a film about history. The narrative moves between three different time frames and three different writers: tenth century Japan, when Sei Shonagon wrote her Pillow Book; post-war Japan, where Nagiko discovers her father is being blackmailed by his publisher/Yoshi Oida; and Hong Kong in the 90's, when Nagiko writes her own pillow book and plots revenge against the publisher.

In contrast with the other two periods, the scenes of Nagiko's childhood are photographed in black-and-white, which underlines the characters' connection to their past, and by extention, a dysfunctional patriarchy. (Although most of Japan was firebombed during the war, the decor and costuming in these scenes are deliberately old school.) The father's agreement with the publisher--namely, sex in exchange for publication--means that the entire family is dependent on his whims. He chooses for Nagiko a husband/Ken Mitsuichi whose passion for archery has obvious phallic associations. The husband is deeply threatened by Nagiko's interest in reading, much in the same way Spica/Michael Gambon was threatened by Michael/Alan Howard in The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (1989). When the husband burns her books in a rage, it's both destructive, severing Nagiko from her past and from history, but also liberating. She runs away to Hong Kong and supports herself with a number of odd jobs before she's discovered as a runway model.

Nagiko's career as a model is worth commenting on because the relationship between the model and a piece of clothing is much the same as the relationship between a piece of paper and what's written on it. It's a natural profession for some one whose fetish is having a man write on her skin. Her search for the perfect caligrapher-lover is a search to find a substitute for her father (early on, we see Nagiko attempt to perform the birthday ritual on herself using a Chinese typewriter and some lotion). Jerome's bisexuality is significant as he constructs himself as both the object and the subject, confounding binary gender roles. He writes on Nagiko and pushes her to write on him, later suggesting she try to have her poetry published. However, the only way for her to get into publication is to offer the publisher Jerome as a barter item; in more ways than one, the publishing world simply isn't interested in female writers.

After she has her revenge on the publisher, Nagiko sets fire to her posessions. In a voice-over, she muses "The first fire took me out of Japan. The second brought me back"--and by extention, brought her back to the past. The closing sequences in Japan are again photographed in black and white, and again the decor is old school, but now Nagiko has achieved something like empowerment. We see her surrounded only by other women with Jerome's baby and tattooed all over. Last night I saw David Cronenberg's Eastern Promises (2007) and in both films the symbolism is exactly the same: the tattoo, because it is permanent, represents the past, a secret code explaining a person's life story, and the child represents the future.

Superimposing a woman who lived at the beginning of the last millenium over one living at the end of it, The Pillow Book suggests something of a millennial statement, and as a film about what it means to be a woman at the end of the twentieth century, it's the closest thing in Greenaway's oeuvre to a feminist statement. It's also one of his most formally accomplished, using video editing techniques that often encourage amnesia (I would argue music vidoes and blogorrhea are at least equivilent if not inter-related) to underline the characters' connection to their past and to history. In other words, it's a movie that engages us both vertically and horizontally.

1. After reading this, Heather said she felt slighted, as if she were dragging me down. That's not what I meant at all; I simply meant to say that the pace of the internet isn't well suited to the kind of criticism found in journals like CineAction. Besides, all of my previous posts are significantly shorter than an academic paper would be, and the shift I mentioned was already evident in my essay against French-Canadian cinema. More to the point, what I liked most about Heather's entry on Inland Empire is how personal and immediate it is, and I deliberately wrote this essay in the second person, rather than an objective third person, in imitation of her writing style.
2. Rosalind Krauss, "The Aesthetics of Narcissism," Video Culture (Gibbs Smith, 1987), p. 179-191.
3. Pun intended.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Inland Empire - It's Easier than Learning your ABC's

I felt I should comment on something that Michael mentioned about my last/first post here at Rancho Notorious. He disliked my implication that our co-blogging was somehow a competition, and I, the implied loser. This of course, was unconscious on my part, but there it is. So, for many reasons relating to this incident, I am going to talk today about Inland Empire, the latest David Lynch monster. Which I liked a whole lot. I won’t be looking at it in its almost three hour entirety, since I spent most of that time tensely upright in the theatre, and I definitely don’t remember all of it.

But the sections that affected me most, while seemingly having nothing to do with what I set out to discuss here, were surprisingly personal for me. These were the scenes involving the ‘white trash girl’ characters, who are later depicted blatantly as prostitutes. They affected me deeply almost every time they were onscreen, for different reasons each time, but created an overarching theme that I am still kind of lost in thinking about. I almost couldn’t believe that David Lynch was hitting on all of this.

Anyway, the first scene in which they appear out of the grimy darkness, they ask Laura Dern’s character if she will look at them, and tell them if she’s known them. This line is repeated throughout the film by different characters, but always female. This premise of the scene, as the girls go on to discuss a man they’ve all slept with (presumably the man Dern just cheated on her nutso husband with), reads kinda like a bad government health agency ad. (ie: you’re sleeping with everyone your partner has…) But the tone is so off (so Lynch, if I may, without knowing his whole body of work), and disconcerting.

The entire scene has the feeling of rape. It’s difficult to justify that statement, having no experience of rape. But we are brought uncomfortably close to these women’s sexual experience which is obviously submissive and objectified. All these women are is their sexuality. They have no dimension, and no desire to be anything more. So creepy. And definitely a comment on misogyny, and objectification, but more deeply a sensitive understanding of the master/slave mentality underpinning this experience.

The next scene of interest is probably my ‘favourite’ of the film, if such a statement can be made of such a tense, grotesque, uncomfortable experience. In this sequence, the same horde of ‘white trash,’ (and please pardon my light use of such offensive terms) create a formation in the dimly lit hotel-looking room and dance to Little Eva’s ‘Locomotion,’

It was funny, in an uncomfortable sort of way, but more so deeply upsetting for me. Of course haunted by that Lynch darkness and dirtiness, the scene had me re-evaluating my formative years, and the gross amount of television I consumed. This ‘innocent’ song choice lays bare the fact that long before Britney Spears, people were making a business of packaging dangerously ‘trashy’ ideologies beneath an innocent façade (that is so transparent it drives me crazy) and throwing it at sweet little girls who just like to dance. “You’ve got to swing your hips now.” “My little baby sister can do it with me.” I loved that song when I was a little girl. The scene ends abruptly at “Jump up,” leaving the audience jarred.

The last scene that really shook me was –well, really, all of these sequences of these girls as whores on the streets of LA. In particular, though, Laura Dern’s lines: “I’m a whore. I’m afraid. Where am I?” The first line delivered with a sobering pain, and the rest twisted into a mocking laughter. I was fighting tears. Full of empathy for the character, and full of pity for myself, and scared as hell for no good reason. Wow. Laura Dern is so great in this film. But I was also reeling from the fact that David Lynch, being both a man and a filmmaker (which is the most basic recipe for misogyny), could articulate something so complex and accurate about women, and their sexuality, and self-image. Especially after seeing Mulholland Drive, which I enjoyed, and it was interesting, but holy crap, why are we seeing those girls make out so damn much (slash at all)? (Michael, I await your retort)

I couldn’t stop thinking about it for days (Inland Empire). It bothered me profoundly that such a dark film had such a personal effect on me. It still does.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Helvetica & Hello

Well, I'm just one in a long tradition of girls to step into her boyfriends blog and take on co-ownership. I wont try to compete with Michael's perceptive and articulate comments on film, past or present, but hopefully my presence here will promote some kind of dialogue that might interest someone other than us!

On that note, I'll start by discussing a film I saw last night that was too low brow for Michael to accompany me to. It's called Helvetica, and it's about Helvetica. So if you are interested in typeface you'll be interested, otherwise you mightn't waste your time. There were some great interviews with some hilariously snobby people. (They were to typography what Michael is to film.) (Passionate, I meant.)

All in all, I couldn’t help but think that the film was a filmic embodiment of what Helvetica is itself, at least as one of the interviewees defined it. Basically a vessel, without its own inherent meaning, designed to carry content. So, I guess that works. But I have an issue with that, which is (a less vehement) parallel to the reason why Michael wouldn’t see the film in the first place. It was a fairly typical documentary, with (really great) interviews, and lots of footage of Helvetica in our lives and streets. But it did nothing creative with the topic, which is incredibly rich. It was exactly what you expected, and the content was great. But the filmmakers made their film in Helvetica font – it did nothing to colour our perception of the content, it simply displayed it for us.

Also, I was expecting some cool graphic stuff, for a film made by people who are presumably passionate about design.

The friend I saw Helvetica with is a designer, and her complaint is that the content was too commercial. I don’t have her background, so I cant fully appreciate her stance, but I would have to say that I liked that it was commercial-oriented. The film was about how the font has snuck insidiously into our cultural awareness. It’s just there. Like air, as one designer noted. You have to breathe, so you use Helvetica. And unfortunately, most of visual communication and design is sunk into marketing, so that’s the appropriate place for this film to have positioned itself, I thought. Although they did spend an awful lot of time in that American Apparel store.

Still, I’d have to say I liked the film a whole lot. It gave me lots of time to think about Helvetica, and typeface in general, and snotty, middle class European designers, and the best part is that it made me laugh at least half of the time. The designers they chose to interview probably were really huge designers, if you know anything about design (I don’t), but they were funny, and fun to watch. The openings credits were the best – an old printer setting the word Helvetica by hand, and grunting unconsciously as he does his work. It was not extremely original, but pretty, and interesting, and funny. Kind of sums up the film in general, so maybe just disregard everything else you just read.

Monday, September 17, 2007

27th Atlantic Film Festival

As I said in my introduction to this blog, given the fact that I live out in the sticks, there isn't much opportunity for me to talk about new films. But once a year, the Atlantic film festival rolls into town and, while they won't be showing the new films by Olivier Assayas, Abel Ferrara or Gus Van Sant that I've heard so much about coming out of Cannes, this year's line-up is relatively promising (last year was a nightmare). It's also the first time in three years that I'll be paying for tickets rather than working the festival as a volunteer, but even if I was, the lesson of previous years is to limit myself only to the films that I absolutely must see based on the director's previous work and/or festival buzz coming out of Sundance, Berlin, Rotterdam et al (this late in the year I'm not making any discoveries, and certainly not at this festival). My only regret is that I won't be able to see Lady Chatterly because it's playing at the same time as The Man From London.

Friday, September 14th

The Walker (Paul Schrader, USA/UK)
Here is a film so bad I couldn't believe my eyes, or maybe I just didn't want to. Surely Schrader, who wrote the scripts for Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver (1976) and The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) knew that the more the characters explained the plot to us the more difficult it became to follow; surely the man who made Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985) knew it was pedestrian as filmmaking; surely the man who coaxed such great performances out of Greg Kinnear and Willem Dafoe in Auto Focus (2002) knew that the dialogue wasn't funny when it wanted to be (although everyone on screen seems to find Carter Page/Woody Harrelson a laugh riot, the audience I saw the film with had no trouble maintaining their composure--maybe it worked on the page but it doesn't transfer), and surely there was enough money in the budget for re-shoots. After an entire reel where literally nothing happens, a dead body turns up almost on que to set in motion a blackmailing melodrama that, as they say, goes all the way to the vice-president (who may or may not even appear in the film--the movie's not big on introductions), but if this story has any contemporary resonance, it must have sailed right over my head. And do I need to tell you that the protagonist's artist boyfriend/Moritz Bleibtreu (from The Elementary Particles, one of the worst movies I saw at last year's festival) specializes in kinky, pseudo-Mapplethorpe black-and-white stills meant to suggest Abu Garib?

Saturday, September 15th

Zoo (Robinson Devor, USA)
Although its stance can't be called "pro-bestiality" (if it doesn't kill you, it'll make you a social outcast), the filmmakers seem to have no moral objection to people having sex with horses; the argument that animals can't give consent is countered with a talk radio host who wonders, if the animal didn't consent, how did any of this happen in the first place? Working in the mode of an Errol Morris (with wall-to-wall narration in place of the ol' interrotron), the film consists almost entirely of Zoos relating their life stories over semi-abstract recreations, so the image of a news helicopter descending on the farm where it all happened is made to seem as allegorical as the locusts in Days of Heaven (1978), signalling the end. Indeed, one of the Zoos interviewed in the film describes the group as a kind of utopian, classless society where farm hands and engineers for Boeing could come together and just be themselves. I don't think one can ever understand why some men are drawn to having sex with horses, although one hypothesis we hear is that the man/horse dichotomy is a man-made construct, and that animals don't categorize. In other words, bestiality is a form of transgression that breaks down walls, connecting Zoos with other Zoos (via the internet), and men with nature. Whether one finds this silly or wrong-headed or both, it doesn't make the experience of this film any less fascinating as a glimpse into a subculture I'd much rather not go anywhere near. Recommended.

Sunday, September 16th

Nightwatching (Peter Greenaway, UK/Netherlands)
Greenaway is one of the greatest filmmakers in the world, or at least he used to be. His last film to have any kind of critical or commercial impact was The Pillow Book (1996), more than a decade ago. His 8 1/2 Women (1999) wasn't well recieved when it premiered at Cannes, and even a partisan such as myself found it to be an almost deliberately minor work by this most ambitious and idiosyncratic of filmmakers; he followed it with Tulse Luper Suitcases (2003), his multimedia magnum opus centered on a seven hour feature film, shot on digital video, which hasn't been released in North America. Greenaway's latest film, about the Dutch painter Rembrandt/Martin Freeman, which seems intended as his commercial comeback, is nothing short of a disaster. Here is the best-looking film I've seen in years, shot on 4K HD video (after the screening, Greenaway's most provocative statement was that the 35mm print we had just seen looked rather drab compared to seeing it projected digitally), yet it didn't engage me on any level. Greenaway's other films, like The Draughtsman's Contract (1982) and The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (1989), are above all masterpieces of tone, but this film just sits there on the screen; scene after scene falls flat, and it drags on for an interminable two and quarter hours. Greenaway and his cinematographer, Reinier van Brummelen, have done an excellent job of reproducing the look of Rembrandt's work, but to what end? Here is a film that knows exactly what it wants to look like, but has no concept of how it wants us to feel. What an appalling waste of a film.

Lust, Caution (Ang Lee, USA)
There's still a few I haven't seen--namely, The Wedding Banquet (1993), Eat Drink Man Woman (1994), Sense and Sensibility (1995) and Ride With the Devil (1999)--but so far the tally on Lee and screenwriter James Schamus is five good or very good films and no bad ones, but nothing I've really loved. Here as usual, they depart completely from their earlier films in terms of genre, period, tone and, for the first twenty minutes, style (after an awkward stretch of quasi-Wongian quick pans and fast edits, Lee finds his groove again in the more languid pacing of his other films, which is when the story started to engage me), this time serving up a post-World War 2 thriller whose most obvious precedent is Alfred Hitchcock's Notorious (1946). During the war, Wang Jiazhi/Wei Tang, joins a patriotic acting troupe in Hong Kong that puts on propaganda plays to raise money for the resistance on the mainland, less because she's politically motivated than to spend time with the dreamy leading man, Kuang Yu-Min/Wang Leehom. Putting their politics into action, the troupe conspires to murder a Japanese collaborator, Mr. Yee/Tony Leung, and Jiazhi is assigned to seduce him à la Alicia Huberman/Ingrid Bergman--at one point, Jiazhi even walks past a poster for Suspicion (1941). The plan goes awry, leading to a murder so clumsy and pathetic that I felt as though I'd wandered into a Larry Clark film; Lee's handling of this sequence is particularly masterful. Jiazhi returns to the mainland after the war, withdraws from politics and even takes Japanese lessons, but Yu-Min soon finds her and the mission resumes. In contrast to Alex/Claude Raines, the sympathetic Nazi of Hitchcock's film, Mr. Yee is a sadistic monster who's so suspicious that he beats and abuses Jiazhi because her tears and blood are the only things he can be certain are real. Given its debt to Hitchcock, it's hardly surprising the story plays at times like an illustration of Laura Mulvey's essay "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema"; in much the same sense that Scotty/Jimmy Stewart constructs Judy/Kim Novak as Madeline, here it's Yu-Min who transforms Jiazhi into Mrs. Mak, but when Mr. Yee abuses her, it's not to punish her for the deception but to strip away any artifice. I'm hesistant to say more, partly because I don't want to give away the story, but more because I'm not sure why Jiazhi makes the decision she does (the movie didn't end until almost one o'clock, and after the Greenaway I was exhausted): is it because she pities him, or is she motivated by revenge? This engaged me for almost all of its two-and-a-half hours, but I liked it far less than Lee's more character-driven films like The Ice Storm (1997), Hulk (2003) and Brokeback Mountain (2005). Is it a coincidence, given that Schamus is an American, that this film and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) are much more melodramatic and plotty? In a talk he gave Sunday afternoon, Greenaway said that in ninety-nine percent of films you can see the director following the text, and Lee was the filmmaker who immediately popped into my mind since all of his movies adapt novels or short stories. But seeing this film immediately after Nightwatching, one realizes that it's not just a matter of having three acts and a turn-around and all these other commercial elements; much more important is the way in which Lee is really in control of the tone of the piece--something Greenaway is not.

Monday, September 17th

Ensemble, c'est tout (Claude Berri, France)
It's remarkable how forgiving we are as moviegoers, how much we want to like a film. I'll give you an example: in contrast with the two leads--Camille Fauque/Audrey Tautou, an anorexic cleaning woman, and Franck/Guillaume Canet, a grumpy chef--who are resolutely ordinary, Franck's roommate, whose full name is Philibert Marquet de la Tubelière/Laurent Stocker, is a broadly concieved caricature who almost seems to belong to another film altogether. Yet, for much of the film, I was able to convince myself that Berri was making a meaningful distinction between the working class leads and their aristocratic pal. But when he proposed to his girlfriend, I found it hard to feel happy for them since they hadn't had a single onscreen conversation, let alone something so much as resembling a romantic obstacle--Sarah Paulson and David Hyde Pierce they aren't. There are some nicely observed moments (when Philibert comes home to find Franck asleep on the couch after a hard day's work, he gently removes his boots for him), although it's the broader stuff that got the biggest laughs from the audience I saw it with. I can't say I hated this, but there's so little standing between the two leads and a happy ending that one begins to long for the contrivances of an American romantic comedy. We're now at the mid-point of the Altantic Film Festival, which began on Thursday and wraps up Saturday, and I have yet to see anything that's really impressed me; I admired Robinson Devor's Zoo and Ang Lee's Lust, Caution, but so far no masterpieces. Is it my own fault for not trying hard enough? After all, there was a lot of applause when the film ended so if I didn't enjoy it more, it's not because the story lacks drama, but because I failed to appreciate the movie for what it is as opposed to what it isn't. Right?

Tuesday, September 18th

The Hottest State (Ethan Hawke, USA)
Generally I'm in favor of personal filmmaking, but in this film and Noah Baumbach's The Squid and the Whale (2005)--also starring Laura Linney as a divorced MILF--I reach a point where I really don't want to hear any more about the director's fucked-up childhood. As a child of divorce myself, you'd think I'd be more sympathetic, but maybe that's the problem: I'm not going to bore you with the details and I expect the same courtesy from others. Of course, I don't know for a fact that the story is autobiographical, but I do know that Hawke adapted the screenplay from his own novel and its protagonist, William/Mark Webber, is a struggling actor originally from Texas; it goes without saying that William's father is played by the director. Admittedly, Hawke does broach the larger issue of masculine gender identity; the film opens with William's father as a teenager coolly seducing his mother, and in flashbacks to William's childhood, his father tells him to never leave Texas in his heart. The decision to make Mark an actor, while obviously autobiographical, is never-the-less integral to what the film is about: without a father-figure in his life, William only knows how to relate to women through the movies. The Hottest State is Hawke's second feature as director after Chelsea Walls (2001); I didn't see that film, but on the evidence available here, Hawke is clearly a talented filmmaker. At times the film suggests an insipid mumblecore script made with a great deal more craft, energy and sexiness; in contrast to the anonymous world of Andrew Bujalski's Funny Ha Ha (2003) and Mutual Appreciation (2005), where Boston is made to seem interchangable with New York and both cities have a population of roughly six white twentysomethings, this film oscilates between Texas, New York, Connecticuit and Mexico, and each of those places is vividly captured, illustrating the difference a good set dresser can make. The film's biggest surprise is Catalina Sandino Moreno, who I had previously seen only in Maria Full of Grace (2004), and here plays a part as radically different from her role in that film as one could imagine: she prooves not only to be a wonderful actress but a star as well. There's a lot I liked about this film, but when it was over I felt a sense of relief rather than gratitude.

Wednesday, September 19th

The Man From London (Béla Tarr, Hungary/France)
Another Tarr fanatic at the screening felt this was a minor work, and quickly apologized to a friend he'd recommended it to, but it almost goes without saying that minor film by Tarr is still far and away the best thing in the festival. I haven't read the Georges Simenon novel Tarr adapted the screenplay from with his usual collaborator, novelist László Krasznahorkai--or any Simenon novel, for that matter--but my feeling is that Tarr is consciously working against the grain of the novel, telling the story in a deliberately enigmatic way that leaves certain plot points and character motivations mysterious. The first shot in particular is a stunning stretch of non-narrative filmmaking, and the second, while it establishes quite a bit, is so elliptically handled that we don't grasp its full signifigance until well into the film. In other words, it's a film that's more about creating a mood and an ambience than plot or character. Tarr has been criticized for his decision to dub Tilda Swinton's dialogue into Hungarian, but given how highly constructed the sound mix is, this strikes me as perfectly appropriate. At one point, the camera looks down on a character from a second-floor window, yet despite the moving train only a few feet away, we can still hear the man's footsteps with absolute clarity. I haven't seen Tarr's early neo-realist features, though I glean from Jonathan Rosenbaum's essay, A Place in the Pantheon, that they're much more socially engaged than his subsequent work; his very first feature, Family Nest (1979), is about a young couple sharing a flat with the husband's parents, alluding to a housing shortage in Budapest at the time. Like Krzyzstof Kieslowski, Tarr only reached an international audience when he abandoned social issues for more abstract and metaphysical themes in Almanac of Fall (1984) and Damnation (1988), and the decision to shoot his last four features, and a five minute short for the omnibus film Visions of Europe (2004), in black-and-white feels like a self-conscious attempt to make them appear more timeless. It's been observed of Sátántangó (1994), which I still haven't seen, that post-communist Hungary is made to seem identical to life under communism; Tarr has justified this by saying that "human nature, and the police, are the same everywhere." Here, Tarr's distance from the contemporary world is even more deeply felt. It goes without saying that none of the characters carry cell phones, go to the cinema or build an avatar on Second Life, but it's not even clear whether the story is set in Hungary or England; when the protagonist, Maloin/Miroslav Krobot, buys a mink stole for his daughter, it's using British currency, but the architecture and ambience are virtually identical to Tarr's other films. So yes, this is a minor work next to Werckmeister Harmonies (2000), yet given what a rare achievement it is never-the-less, it would be ungrateful to dwell on it too much.

[ADDENDUM: In his blog, David Bordwell writes that Tarr "vehemently disagrees" with critics who say his early films--Family Nest, The Outsider (1981) and The Prefab People (1982)--are radically different from the five that followed. And when asked about influences, Tarr has stated that he gets his ideas from life, not from other films. On the first count, I obviously over-simplified things in my review in order to make my thesis: after all, Almanac of Fall refers to the same housing shortage as Family Nest, and for all its abstraction, Werckmeister Harmonies was inspired by the genocide in the former Yugoslavia. On the second count, however, I'm going to have to disagree. I don't know much about life in Hungary before or after communism, though in an interview on the New Yorker Films DVD of Platform (2000), Jia Zhang-ke talks about how during the time when he was growing up in China, there was literally no culture for him to experience: he would go home every evening, and his family would sit in silence until it was time for bed. Whether or not life in Hungary was the same I cannot say, though Tarr's films certainly make it seem that way. But even in such a cultural vacuum, there is no such thing as a pure, unspoiled essence of a person. We all learn by example--whether it's our parents, our friends or the cinema, what we see has an influence on how we behave. Therefore, I would argue that cinema is very much a part of life.]

Thursday, September 20th

Puffball (Nicolas Roeg, UK/Canada)
I don't think Roeg could ever make a boring or unwatchable film; there will always be a certain level of craft and intelligence in whatever he makes. The Witches (1989) is considered by many an impersonal commercial assignment, but it has a Surrealist edge that Tim Burton can't even approximate: the shape-shifting characters (not just the hero but the witches as well), and the way in which it transforms an ordinary kitchen into seemingly the most dangerous place on earth (at least for a mouse) recall for me the silent serials of Louis Feuillade. I haven't seen any of the films Roeg's made since then, which consist of two theatrical features, Cold Heaven (1991) and Two Deaths (1995), and three films for television--Heart of Darkness (1994), Full Body Massage (1995) and Samson and Delilah (1996)--but it's hard for me to believe they're as bad as their reputation suggests. And while Puffball, Roeg's first film in over a decade, isn't very good, it's not an embarrassment and I was never bored. The problem, as my girlfriend so eloquently put it, is that every time I started to like this something really stupid happened. Things pick up slightly towards the end, after the crazy old bitch/Rita Tushingham kicks the bucket, but we still have the heroine's idiot boyfriend/Oscar Pearce to deal with. There's one shot in particular that everyone who sees the film will remember: late in the film, the pregnant heroine, Liffey/Kelly Reilly, is in danger ("Trouble at the old mill?!") and the boyfriend comes to the rescue standing in the back of a pick-up truck like a modern-day Lone Ranger ("Hi-oh, Chevy Silverado!"). Surely Roeg knew this shot would get an unintentional laugh; one imagines Pearce on set trying to convince him that the shot will look really cool. It doesn't. The presence of Donald Sutherland in a meaningless supporting role, which also gets unintentional laughs, is obviously intended to remind us of Roeg's great supernatural thriller Don't Look Now (1973), but the characters in that film were, you know, not retarded. At one point, a doctor explains to Liffey and her boyfriend that Liffey's placenta is in the wrong place, blocking the baby's exit, to which the boyfriend responds: "What does that mean?" I'm not making this up.

Friday, September 21st

La France (Serge Bozon, France)
This strange, whimsical, surprising film is the first feature directed by Serge Bozon, a French actor who's appeared in Cédric Kahn's L'ennui (1998), Eugène Green's Le Pont des arts (2004) and several other films I haven't yet seen--though given what I know about Green, whose worked has been described as a cross between Bresson and Wes Anderson, I suspect his influence rubbed off on Bozon. During World War 1, Camille/Sylvie Testud recieves a letter from her husband saying she won't hear from him again, and impersonating a boy, she heads to the front to find him, along the way joining a division of French soldiers who dream of Atlantis and periodically break into song. The narrative has a rambling, episodic quality that makes the film feel somewhat a road movie, and the tone of the film is appropriately eclectic. An early sequence on the homefront with strong lesbian overtones suggests that the war has divided the country along gender lines into those not allowed to fight and those who must, which in turn brings out the masculine in women and the feminine in men. The austerity of Bozon's sounds and images (almost the entire film takes place outdoors), juxtaposed with the catchy tunes, reminds one of Aki Kaurismäki's The Man Without a Past (2002), which made such memorable use of Finnish rock stars Marko Haavisto & Poutahaukat, but without any of the sadsack stuff that's become Kaurismäki's bread and butter. If anything, Camille is a little like Mathilde/Audrey Tautou, the plucky heroine of Un long dimanche de fiançailles (2004), but without a trace of pixie-ishness. After a week of disappointment and bordem, it was nice to smile for a change.

Monday, September 3, 2007

An Anglophone's Case Against Québécois Cinema

In the current issue of Cineaste, there's an article by Matthew Hays, titled "Bon Cop, Bad Cop [2006] and Canada's Two Solitudes," about the (relative) commercial success of Québécois cinema on its home turf, that while impressively researched and thoroughly readable, strikes one as myopic in its overall emphasis on box office returns (it's impossible not to think of Pauline Kael). Hays seems to dismiss Bon Cop, Bad Cop at the top of the article as "fromage," but nevertheless concludes by writing:

"Those behind Bon Cop, Bad Cop concede a sequel has been discussed. Perhaps next time around some of that elusive success can seep across the Québec border into the ROC [rest of Canada]. And all of Canada, not just one province, can enjoy the kind of robust, invigorating, popular cinema that Québec enjoys."

For the record, I found Bon Cop, Bad Cop unspeakably depressing--far from "invigorating"--but then I'm the guy looking for symbolism in Arrested Development re-runs, and thus have an innate resistance to the idea that any film, let alone one so nasty and unpleasant, "could be fun if you just make sure not to take any of it very seriously" (yes, this sentence was published in a magazine named Cineaste, which calls itself "America's leading magazine on the art and politics of the cinema"). And while I quite enjoyed Philippe Falardeau's Congorama (2006)--the best Canadain movie I saw last year overall (of nine) (1); Hays doesn't mention it--judging by the article, Québécois cinema is "robust" only insofar as people are going to see it, regardless of quality. As an example of the kind of good news the Québec film industry recieves on a near-weekly basis, Hays cites the box office success of Nitro (2007), a transparent knock-off of The Fast and the Furious (2000) (2), which in its opening weekend out-performed Hollywood blockbusters like Live Free or Die Hard and Ratatouille (both 2007).

While the article doesn't contain any information about Hays himself, including whether or not he's Québécois, his gloating over the moribund state of English-Canadian cinema (he makes the outrageous claim that Anglophone filmmakers are too wrapped up in self pity to appeal to broad national sentiments) seems indicative of an age-old rivalry between English and French Canada that does more to maintain the two solitudes than bring them together. What I find most dubious about the article is the underlying assumption that Canadian cinema should speak to a popular (provincial) Canadian audience rather than an international (cosmopolitan) auidence including Canadians. Peter Greenaway, the greatest of all British filmmakers (now based in Holland), likes to quote Gore Vidal's statement that only two hundred people in America read books: "You have to begin with that hard core of deeply engaged, deeply intrigued individuals." Not surprisingly, the best American directors, from Orson Welles to Nicholas Ray to Jim Jarmusch, tend to be more respected in Europe than at home; and while a friend of mine from China is just as crazy about the films of Jia Zhang-ke as I am, he's the exception rather than the rule (given Jia's long-take aesthetic, one imagines his work wouldn't fit comfortably in the mainstream anywhere on earth).

Among active Canadian directors, only five have international reputations, and while I wouldn't hesistate to say that David Cronenberg, Atom Egoyan and Guy Maddin are all world class filmmakers (that is, on par with the best of world cinema: Assayas, Haneke, Hou et al), and the one film I've seen by Michael Snow--Wavelength (1967), naturally (3)--is a masterpiece, Denys Arcand (whose work I don't know especially well) strikes me as a competent but unremarkable middlebrow entertainer. His Les Invasions barbares (2003) made me cry when I first encountered it at the Altantic film festival, in a packed theater that errupted into applause the second the film ended, but seeing it again the following summer while in Toronto, in a small second-run theater with only a handful of other people, I found it far less impressive. Compared with the other films that premiered at Cannes that year--including The Brown Bunny, Crimson Gold, Distant, Dogville, Elephant, Le Temps du loup and Young Adam, which only grow in resonance on second and third viewing--Arcand's clearly doesn't measure up.

If I had to pick my favorite Québécois film, it'd be an easy choice: Jean-Claude Lauzon's Léolo (1992) is one of those great films like The Night of the Hunter (1955) and Woman in the Dunes (1964) that seem to come completely out of left field and frighten away imitators. If one can spot the influence of other filmmakers on Lauzon's masterpiece, they're international rather than domestic (critics have cited Federico Fellini and François Truffaut) and so thoroughly assimilated that the film feels like the work of a director making his tenth feature rather than his second. (4) Less impressive though still worthy of mention are the first two features by the vastly underrated Denis Villenueve, Un 32 août sur terre (1998) and Maelström (2000), both loopy and unpredictable narratives about young women dealing with pregnancy. Ideally, Villeneuve should've found an international following and directed three more features by now; instead, what happened? Apparently nothing, apart from a two-minute short made with a cell phone. The Québec film industry, so good at marketing schlock to a domestic audience, seems incapable of either recognizing a major talent when they have one or selling them to an audience outside Québec. I rest my case again Québec's robust, invigorating, popular cinema.

1. The other seven were Monkey Warfare (which I might recommend for the performances by Don McKellar and Tracy Wright, even though the film falls apart completely in the final stretch), three I walked out on--Black Eyed Dog, Delivrez-moi, Tales of the Rat Fink--and three more I should've walked out on: The Journals of Knud Rasmussen, Snow Cake and Un dimanche à Kigali. After an acquaintance, to whom I recommended Congorama, reported back to me that it was just "arlight," I had to reconsider my enthusiasm for the film; I realized that I was probably overrating it because it was Canadian, and therefore went in with lowered expectations. I suspect if the film were made in France or Belgium, I wouldn't have been nearly as impressed.
2. I haven't seen Nitro, so I'm basing this statement on the advertising campaign.
3. Some critics have argued that if Snow had used a loft in Toronto or Montréal rather than New York, the film wouldn't have had nearly so large an impact.
4. Lauzon's first feature, Night Zoo (1987), while unsuccessful and far less interesting, is not an experience I'll ever forget--particularly, the film's final scene in which the hero and his father break into a Montréal zoo in the middle of the night to hunt elephants. After Léolo, Lauzon retired from filmmaking; he died five years later in a plane crash.