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December 10, 2005

Senses of Cinema End of the Year 'Favorite Film Things' Compilation: 2005


Since I will not be attending the annual Spanish Cinema Now program at Walter Reade this year, it's time to close out my 2005 Journal with my Senses of Cinema submission for their annual World Poll of 'Favorite Film Things' for the year.

My Top Ten for 2005 (in preferential order):

La Blessure (Nicolas Klotz, 2004)
Three Times (Hou Hsiao Hsien, 2005)
Caché (Michael Haneke, 2005)
The Sun (Aleksandr Sokurov, 2005)
Regular Lovers (Philippe Garrel. 2005)
The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (Cristi Puiu, 2005)
Me and You and Everyone We Know (Miranda July, 2005)
L'Intrus (Claire Denis, 2004)
A Tale of Cinema (Hong Sang-soo, 2005)
A Trip to the Louvre (Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, 2004)

Honorable mentions:

State of Fear (Pamela Yates, 2005)
The Wayward Cloud (Tsai Ming-liang, 2005)
Seoul Train (Jim Butterworth and Aaron Lubarsky, 2004)
The Squid and the Whale (Noah Baumbach, 2005)
L'Enfant (Jean Pierre and Luc Dardenne, 2005)

Posted by acquarello on Dec 10, 2005 | | Comments (23) | Filed under 2005

November 20, 2005

Radical Juxtaposition: The Films of Yvonne Rainer

rainer_juxtaposition.gifAfter recently seeing Yvonne Rainer's Film About a Woman Who... for a second time, I still found that all the words I could muster for this dense, overlapping, fractured, and impenetrable, but somehow idiosyncratically transfixing film was something of a stream of consciousness outline, jotting down passing observations with the idea that, by encapsulating them into discrete packets of information, I could continue to re-arrange them like puzzle pieces towards forming a more cohesive overarching picture. This intrinsic difficulty in trying to assign words to a particularly multilayered and experiential work that is also infused with impenetrably autobiographical elements is also evident in Shelley Green's analysis for the film in Radical Juxtaposition: The Films of Yvonne Rainer. Composed of individual essays for each of Rainer feature length films, from Lives of Performers to Privilege (the book was published in 1994 and does not include MURDER and murder from 1996), the coherence of the essays similarly reflect the trajectory of Rainer's films, as they evolved from more abstract, mixed media performance pieces towards a more central narrative-driven, multi-themed expositions. But perhaps the key to understanding Rainer's work is that there isn't always a key: an underlying modus operandi that pervades much of the avant-garde movement that is reflected in her comment, "Incongruity can transform the banal into the fantastic. Two images – familiar in ambience but incongruent in time – when juxtaposed, create a third reality".

One aspect of Rainer's filmmaking that does appear consistently within her films is to capture the nature of performance, from Lives of Performers which visually and thematically represents the filmmaker's transition from dance to film, to her later, more expositional works. At the core of these performances is to present the intrinsic nature of social behavior, one that seeks to suppress human fears and desires in order to lead an socially idealized life of eternal performance. It is within this context that Jack's interminable (and indecipherable) monologues throughout The Man Who Envied Women can be seen as a kind of social filibuster, an impenetrable wall of verbal performance - an assumed persona - that serves to distract from the underlying hollowness of the speaker.

It is interesting to note that Green also underscores the recurring theme of decapitation in The Man Who Envied Women, both literally, in a New York Times article of beheaded peasants in South America, and metaphorically, in Jack's empty verbal prestidigitations. In the subsequent film Privilege, the author uses the term "unhooked" to describe the physiological and emotional changes that the retired dancer, Jenny experiences with menopause: the idea of liberation from body and from biological processes, as well as psychologically, from the social competition of desirability. However, these themes empirically define a similar phenomenon: the extension of Rainer's central theme of performance (or conversely, one's psychological, biological, intellectual, or emotional liberation from the act of performance). It is this integral theme that also characterizes the actions of the unnamed heroine in Film About a Woman Who..., a sentimental ambivalence and indecision towards her lover and social role that Rainer manifests through a fragmented deconstructive celluloid world that, similar to the heroine's reality, is a reflective figment of her own imagination.

Posted by acquarello on Nov 20, 2005 | | Filed under 2005, Film Related Reading

November 15, 2005

The Hunt, 1959

thehunt.gifFavorably recalling the experimental narrative strategies of Alain Robbe-Grillet, Erik Lochen's remarkably light and agile, yet ingeniously constructed and elegantly realized film, The Hunt similarly plays on the author's recurring themes of memory, atemporality, and psychological reality. Prefiguring Alain Resnais' collaborative film with Robbe-Grillet, Last Year at Marienbad (the film was made in the same year as Resnais' collaborative film with another nouvelle roman author, Marguerite Duras, Hiroshima mon amour), the film opens with a shot of a covered body on a gurney being loaded into the coroner's van accompanied by an off-screen narrator's explanation of what appears to have been a shooting accident during a hunting trip. The fourth wall is broken, and the film proceeds in flashback as the narrator begins to interrogate each hunter on the circumstances surrounding the incident - a beautiful woman named Guri (Benedikte Liseth), her husband Bjørn (Rolf Søder), and her spurned (or perhaps, current) lover, Bjørn's best friend, Knut (Tor Stokk) - filling in the details of their complicated shared history in alternating narrative turns, the reality of the nature of their shared intimacy tempered by individual perception (or perhaps, by a sense of guilt or complicity in the tragedy) and fractured by the altered perspective that invariably comes with each change of speaker. The inscrutable trio's informal testimonies begin to organically diverge, veer off in stream-of-consciousness tangents, be willfully suppressed, entangled in fanciful imagination, or become occluded in the haze of imperfect memory and subsumed desire, collapsing the planes of memory and imagination to a singularity where truth becomes malleable, and reality itself becomes as ephemeral as a waking dream.

Posted by acquarello on Nov 15, 2005 | | Comments (4) | Filed under 2005, Norwegian Cinema

Raid on the Bergen Express, 1928

bergenexpress.gifAlthough annotated with a running time of 98 minutes, the print for Uwe Jens Krafft's Raid on the Bergen Express that was screened for the program turned out to be a British cut of the film that clocked in at slightly less than one hour. With that reservation noted, it is difficult to assess the effectiveness of the film in its current form. Ostensibly a hybrid of sorts between romantic comedy and action/caper film as two young men - a recently (albeit probationally) promoted newspaper advertising manager named Tom and a humorless, by-the-book officer named Lund - vie for the affections of Gerd, the daughter of the general manager for the national railroad, the film starts auspiciously with a long distance ski jump contest between Tom and Lund, a head-to-head competition that portents their romantic rivalry over Gerd. Unfortunately, the seamless choreography of this sequence is subsequently broken by what appeared to be gaping plot holes, with Tom inexplicably recruiting his friends for a plot to raid the Bergen Express on April 1st. Is his motivation to take revenge on Gerd's father who placed his promotion on contingency? Or perhaps it is to outwit Lund by staging a daring raid under his watch? Although the film does provide a resolution to these questions, the tidy denouement does little to reconcile the ethical quagmire that the actions in the film represent, an absurdity that would likely have been tempered if the missing sequences somehow deployed humor in order to justify the seemingly extreme measures concocted by the hero in order to win a girl's heart.

Posted by acquarello on Nov 15, 2005 | | Comments (2) | Filed under 2005, Norwegian Cinema

The Growth of the Soil, 1921

growth_soil.gifTwo of the earliest surviving silent films in the Norwegian Film Archives were included in the program, the first of which is Gunnar Sommerfeldt's epic ode to rugged individualism and self-reliance, The Growth of the Soil, based on the Nobel Prize-winning novel by internationally renowned native author, Knut Pedersen Hamsun. Tracing the pioneering adventures of Isak (Amund Rydland), a man seemingly without a past who came upon a clearing in the woods of a "No Man's Land", far away from traces of civilization and decided to claim the area as his own, Isak's life becomes a contemporary parable for the birth of civilization, marrying an "unwanted" woman from a distant village named Inger (Karen Thalbitzer), endlessly toiling on their self-created frontier utopia, forging an enduring friendship with the district sheriff and his assistant after paying a state-ordered visit to the property in order to settle ownership, and becoming the reluctant founding father of a burgeoning town after the government decides to build a telegraph station within his property in order to connect two neighboring cities. Retaining the neo-romantic tone of Hamsun’s novel, the film is infused with a certain element of mysticism, fantasy, and suspension of disbelief, creating an oddly stilted atmosphere and logical incongruence that is at once realistic, yet otherworldly, intimate yet impersonal (a dichotomy that is perhaps best encapsulated in Inger sending Isak away on errands throughout the film, only to return in complete surprise to find that she had given birth to a child, apparently unaware of any of her pregnancies).

Posted by acquarello on Nov 15, 2005 | | Filed under 2005, Norwegian Cinema

November 14, 2005

The Wayward Girl, 1959

waywardgirl.gifOne of the clear highlights of the Norwegian cinema series for me was Liv Ullmann's personal appearance for the introduction of her film debut as lead actress in what would prove to be the final film by Norway's first female director, Edith Carlmar, The Wayward Girl. Admitting that she initially found it odd that program director Richard Peña had chosen this somewhat (then) scandalous, low budget independent production by the husband and wife production team of Otto and Edith Carlmar, Ullmann subsequently realized that it would be an exciting opportunity to re-visit the film some 47 years later to see, not only to see how much she had changed since then (as she noted, the film was made five years before she met Ingmar Bergman and changed the course of her professional and personal life), but also how much society had changed since that time, when members of her own fairly religious family tried to keep the film from getting distributed after they had caught wind that she had appeared nude in some scenes. (Ms. Ullmann does, however, note that her grandmother was quite supportive throughout the entire ordeal and proud of the film and that, in fact, she had invited all of the residents in the wing of her nursing home to the screening after which, she jokingly adds, they never spoke to her again.)

Ullmann's anecdotes of the notoriously parsimonious Carlmars were also refreshingly candid, engaging, humorous, and delightful, such as her first contact with the Carlmars to express interest in the role (after having just finished a stage production in the title role of Anne Frank in a provincial theater company) upon which she was granted an interview with the provision that she pay for her own airplane fare in case they decide not to cast her (later on, she was also told that she was to provide her own wardrobe as part of her salary). Fondly remembering that the first question ever posed to her by the Carlmars was to ask if she was a virgin (which, she reasoned that if she had told the truth, that they would not even entertain the idea of her playing the part of the wayward girl), she promptly responded that she was not, which, although she realized immediately that they did not believe her, she self-effacingly jests that that they must have been swayed by her acting. Ullmann shares another anecdote in her character's befriending of a sheep in the film that, as she recalls, died in real-life (as it does in the film). Looking to economize, the Carlmars then served the sheep as part of the wrap-up party. As Ullmann would eloquently conclude, her acting may not have been the most polished (a remark that says more about her own exacting nature when it comes to her craft than in the detection of any perceptible weakness in her characterization of Gerd), but it remains, for her, certainly the most honest of her performances that she would ever commit to film, made by a young artist who wanted to prove her skill, mettle, and passion for the craft, both to the world and to herself.

As it turns out, The Wayward Girl is something of a minor gem - a film that, not only pushes the artistic bounds of filming sexual liberation given the morality of the times, but also captures the dichotomy of the exuberance and freedom of youth and the subconscious realization of the eventual need to conform to societal expectations that comes with growing up. At the heart of the film is a pair of runaway young lovers, Gerd (Ullmann), the illegitimate child of a perennially absent, self-absorbed mother, and Anders, a university student from an upstanding middle-class family, who sneak away into an abandoned cabin in the woods to lead a Garden of Eden existence of love, complete abandon, and self-reliance. Rather than rendering a simple cautionary tale of reckless young love, Carlmar creates a thoughtful and provocative portrait on the process of maturation and awakening to social constraints and moral responsibility that ultimately serve to extinguish the light of youth.

Posted by acquarello on Nov 14, 2005 | | Filed under 2005, Norwegian Cinema

Kissed by Winter, 2005

kissedbywinter.gifIn the review for Sara Johnsen's understated and intelligently realized debut feature Kissed by Winter, Mode Steinkjer writes, "The last part of the film's key moments are accompanied by Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah sung by Jeff Buckley in his version that is both beautiful and atmospheric. For me the song works to elevate the drama because the connection is unconsciously linked to Buckey's own fate". This insightful association does, indeed, reside at the core of the film, as the emotional trajectories of three families converge within the arc of an unexpected - though perhaps, not entirely unforeseen - tragedy and its ensuing repercussions in a small, provincial town in Norway: a country doctor, Victoria (Anika Hallin), who recently separated from her husband (Göran Ragnerstam) and the painful memories of her life in Oslo in order to start over, a snow plough driver, Kaj (Kristoffer Joner) who painstakingly built a dream home for his wife only to be abandoned by her, and a stern and devout Iranian immigrant couple, (Michalis Koutsogiannakis and Mina Azarian) whose troubled, missing son Darjosh (Jade Francis Haj) was found dead on the side of a snow embankment without shoes and curiously marked by a series of puncture wounds on the soles of his feet. Unfolding as a seeming whodunit mystery, the film is, instead, a muted, yet incisive portrait of the underlying grief, guilt, pain, and internalized, misdirected trauma felt by the characters as they struggle to come to terms with their own insensitivity (or more appropriately, obliviousness) and sense of moral culpability in the tragedy of a young man's death. Filmmaker Johnsen demonstrates a natural ability to convey the gentle humor of, and quiet affection for, her endearing, but emotionally isolated characters, a compassion that is exquisitely captured in the remarkably rendered performance by Swedish actress Anika Hallin (who remarked during the Q&A that her acting career had, up to this point, been mostly playing the role of law enforcement officials in crime dramas).

Posted by acquarello on Nov 14, 2005 | | Filed under 2005, Norwegian Cinema

Nine Lives, 1957

ninelives.gifNorwegian cinema is integrally rooted in the presentation of landscape as character, and this integration is particularly evident in Arne Skouen's Nine Lives. Told in extended flashback, the story is based on the real-life experience of resistance fighter Jan Baalsrud who became the sole survivor of a sabotage mission to blow up a German war boat anchored in then-occupied Norwegian territory, only to be betrayed at their reconnaissance point when their contact, a shoemaker named Hansen, is replaced by another shoemaker named Hansen who is sympathetic to the Fascist government of Vidkun Quisling. Forced to navigate his way through the mountains alone in order to cross the border into Sweden for safety and medical treatment for his injured leg (after sustaining a gunshot wound in the foot), Baalsrud inevitably stumbled into the kindness of strangers and other pockets of resistance fighters and sympathetic villagers willing to help him despite personal risk to ensure his safe crossing. Skouen's combination of spare dialogue with extended shots of Baalsrud and his guides navigating through the dangerous and inhospitable terrain (and unpredictable weather) of the mountains creates a taut and dramatic portrait of one person's perseverance and enduring spirit in the face of overwhelming adversity and seemingly inescapable death, a juxtaposition of man and unconquerable nature that also characterizes the atmosphere of the nation's wartime occupation.

Posted by acquarello on Nov 14, 2005 | | Comments (3) | Filed under 2005, Norwegian Cinema

Too Much Norway, 2005

toomuchnorway.gifThe first film on tap for A Luminous Century: Celebrating Norwegian Cinema was Rune Denstag and Sivge Endresen's Too Much Norway, a film that, as a Norwegian American audience member appropriately pointed out, was a film "made for Norwegians, not for export." Indeed, there are no indications of a National Geographic travelogue at work in Denstag and Endresen's humorous and meditative essay: no picture postcard shots of the tundra, Lapps in costume, or national landmarks, but rather, (literally) launches from a certain familiarity and insight into the national history into a tongue-in-cheek reflection of the country's nascent history since the dissolution of the union between Sweden and Norway in 1905. Told from the fictional perspective of an aging astronaut (played by artist and writer Odd Borretzen) who has lived throughout much of the country's independent history, the film is an alternately self-effacing, whimsical, cheerful, and thoughtful portrait of a small, but wealthy and well-educated European country striving to make its mark on the world stage (through pioneering expeditions into - and subsequent annexations of territory within - the South Pole and excellence in Olympic games) while still struggling to define what it means to be Norwegian (an opening collage of multi-ethnic Norwegians dispels the myth of the country as a monoethnic society). In essence, it is this pervading spirit of self-reliance that would seem to define Norway's history through its first century as an independent nation, not only from its separation from Sweden, but also recently, in its rejection of joining the European common market: a determination to retain its own sense of culture and national identity in an age of increasing globalization and interchangeable economic unions.

Posted by acquarello on Nov 14, 2005 | | Filed under 2005, Norwegian Cinema

October 10, 2005

Caché, 2005

cache.gifMichael Haneke's latest offering, Caché brilliantly converges towards early Harun Farocki themes of surveillance and terrorism though images while retaining his own recurring themes on the abstraction of videoimage representation (as in The Seventh Continent), the desensitization of images (as in Benny’s Video), and the breakdown of (social) order as a consequence of failed communication (as in Code Inconnu) to create a challenging and provocative examination of guilt, complacency, and reckoning. From the opening stationary image of a quiet suburban neighborhood that begins to display video tracking marks, revealing the surveillance nature of the recorded image (as Georges (Daniel Auteuil) and Anne (Juliette Binoche) study the anonymously recorded tape of the front of their house for clues on its origin), Haneke presents a literal self-projection of the characters' actions (and implicitly, our own) that serves as a mirror to examine human conscience and collective responsibility. Moreover, as the frequency and unsettling specificity of the mysterious video correspondence escalates to include child-like, crudely drawn images of seemingly intimate knowledge from incidents from Georges' childhood - in particular, his one-sided rivalry with his Algerian "almost" brother, Majid (Maurice Benichou) for his parents' attention - the tone soberingly shifts from sinister mystery and critical self-assessment (and national, as in the case of the massacre of Algerian residents by French authorities in 1961) to one of exposing the baseness of instinctual human behavior that manifests in destructive, inhuman acts of crippling paranoia, racism, misdirected blind aggression (as in the case of the couple's near collision with a cyclist on a one-way road, an episode that hauntingly recalls the catalytic encounter of Code Inconnu), and self-righteous retaliation. The film's penultimate sequence of Georges' surveillance-like, regressive dream into the pivotal episode that lies at the core of his childhood guilt, captured from a stationary, medium shot camera recalls the framing of the opening sequence (as well as prefigures the concluding sequence), establishing a connection between the two visually innocuous - but implicitly traumatic images: an omniscient view, not from a distant, God's eye perspective, but from an equally inescapable perspective of personal conscience.

Posted by acquarello on Oct 10, 2005 | | Filed under 2005, New York Film Festival

October 9, 2005

The Sun, 2005

sun.gifAleksandr Sokurov has always seemed to be particularly in his element with his dense and amorphous expositions of integrated, Eastern spirituality (A Humble Life, Dolce) and the commutation of collective history (Oriental Elegy, Russian Ark, so it comes as no suprise that the third installment of his historical tetralogy, The Sun - a film that incorporates both aspects of these recurring themes - is his most accomplished (to date) of the series. Rendering a painstainkingly detailed portrait, not of the biographical life of Hirohito (Issei Ogata), the (hu)man, but rather, of the culturally unquestioned institution of the divine Emperor of Japan, Sokurov’s vision eschews the conventional framework of illustrating the turmoil and decimation of the waning days of war in order to present a more challenging and illuminating portrait of a physically slight, pensive, and perhaps reluctant national ruler trapped in the eternal performance of traditional rituals and bound to the rigid social codes of his inherited role. From the opening sequence of the emperor impassively listening to his itinerary for the day over a private breakfast - including his exact hour for catching an afternoon nap - the film provides an image of the imprisoning rituals - and consuming weight - of assumed power. The selection of Richard Wagner's elegiac compositions (Wagner also composd the magnum opus operatic tetralogy, the Ring Cycle) seems especially suited to this twentieth century portait of götterdämmerung, chronicling the literal twilight of the sun god, as the defeated Japanese emperor transforms from deity to mere mortal after his official surrender to General Douglas MacArthur (Robert Dawson) and the American occupiers. However, even more than the actions of Hirohito himself, the film's incisive study of the cultural framework that underpins the source of the emperor's absolute power provides a particularly relevant context to Sokurov's expositions on the dynamics of power and (false) idolatry, most notably in the filmmaker's treatment of the mythification of a political leader that seems eerily resonant of contemporary American politics in which a destructive culture of unquestioned faith, intractable policies, isolationism, and evocation of divine rule serves to unwittingly precipitate the nation's own predestined failure and international marginalization.

Posted by acquarello on Oct 09, 2005 | | Comments (9) | Filed under 2005, New York Film Festival

October 8, 2005

Three Times, 2005

threetimes.gifAfter two films that admittedly left me uncertain over the direction of Hou Hsiao Hsien's cinema, it was particularly satisfying to see Hou incorporate his earlier (and specifically, more overtly political) films with his recent expositions into more distilled and highly elliptical mood pieces. Evoking Chantal Akerman's Toute une nuit in its essential distillation of singular, transformative episodes that define the formative substance of all romantic relationships, Three Times presents a series of vignettes, each chronicling a series of understated encounters between two lovers played by same actors Chang Chen and Shu Qi, as their destinies weave through the complex socio-political terrain throughout the last century of Taiwanese history. Set in a 1966 rural province, the first chapter A Time of Love recalls the nostalgic innocence of young love of Hou's earlier film Dust in the Wind as a young man spends the few remaining days of his civilian life at a billiard parlor before reporting for compulsory military service and falls for the parlor's attractive, new employee. Infused with a tonal romanticism of unarticulated longing that rivals the atmospheric texturality of a Wong kar-wai retro period piece, Hou's melodic rendition is imbued with a poetry of sensually charged gestures and understated intimacy.

The second chapter A Time for Freedom unfolds as a silent film variation of Flowers of Shanghai. Set at a brothel in 1911 during the Japanese occupation of Taiwan, the film follows the evolving relationship between a highly influential newspaper editor (and political activist) and a courtesan approaching the age of marriage who is prompted to re-evaluate her own future when her patron decides to intervene in the fate of one of the junior courtesans. Retaining the atmosphere of insularity that pervades Hou's earlier film, the episode similarly reflects Taiwan's increasing estrangement from mainland China at the turn of the century while presenting a social critique on the consuming national and sexual politics of the times.

The third chapter, a contemporary piece set in Taipei entitled A Time for Youth recreates the modern-day rootlessness of Goodbye South Goodbye (sans implicit humor) and Millennium Mambo as a young couple lead an aimless existence of club hopping, wordless intimacy, and escapist motorcycle rides through town. Replacing the stylized, melancholic romanticism of the earlier chapters with a dedramatized, alienated realism, Hou illustrates a sense of estrangement borne, not of external circumstances, but of a pervasive spiritual inertia. Expounding on similar themes of absent parents, broken communication, and missed connection that Hou explores in his previous film, Café Lumière, the film becomes an elegy, not for the nostalgia of a bygone era, but of lost opportunity in an age of liberation.

Posted by acquarello on Oct 08, 2005 | | Comments (4) | Filed under 2005, New York Film Festival

October 4, 2005

Secret History of the Dividing Line: A True Account in Nine Parts, 1999-2005

dividing.gifDavid Gatten's largely text-based impressionist work-in-progress omnibus, Secret History of the Dividing Line: A True Account in Nine Parts is, at once, a mind-numbing, transfixing, frustrating, poignant, and narcoleptic grand unified theory into the figurative separation between word and image, film and narrative, presence and absence, empire and colony, mortality and legacy. Weaving inexorably throughout Gatten's ambitiously conceived magnum opus are the themes of information tranference beyond a physical medium, the art of penmanship and mechanical printing, and the materiality of written language.

In the first installment, Secret History of the Dividing Line, the visibility of the physical line (as image) initially appears ordered: demarcating the on-screen textual chronology between year and cited history, as biographical text is presented on the life of William Byrd II of Westover, an eighteenth century colonist, author of the survey literature The History of the Dividing Line, A Journey to the Land of Eden that defined the border between North Carolina and Virginia (as well as a second publication that detailed the "secret history" of this demarcation), and one of the founding fathers of the state of Virginia who amassed one of the largest libraries - and perhaps the largest collection in the South - in the new land. The text is then abruptly truncated: the line between narrative and (film) image made palpably visible as magnified images of cement film splices create an equally alien, secondary landscape - like the constantly transforming text in the first half of the film - of pure abstraction.

In the second installment, The Great Art of Knowing, taken from the title of Athanasius Kircher's seventeenth century encyclopedia, the line becomes increasingly disrupted and fragmented, as biographical excerpts appear on Byrd's daughter, Evelyn, a pensive and beautiful socialite who was once presented before the king of England, reflecting the emotional violence of her separation from her one true love, a Catholic English gentleman named Charles Mordaunt at the hands of her overprotective, devoutly Protestant father, who forcibly sent her back to Virginia. This sense of turbulent rupture is also reflected in the "separation" of the collected books of the vast Byrd library through an auction that is undertaken by heirs of the Byrd estate in order to settle a family debt. As in the first installment, Gatten explores the interrelationship of text as conveyer of ideas and image object through connotative, visual manipulations of text, presenting the ill-fated affair between Evelyn and Mordaunt as a series of increasingly disordered, decontextualized, and fractured textual images that begin to lose coherence and approach the point of information saturation.

The third installment, Moxon's Mechanick Exercises, or, The Doctrine of Handy-Works Applied to the Art of Printing, represents a conceptual shift from the visibly defined demarcation between text and film image (through the anatomy of cement splices) to a more integrated abstraction between words and images, emptiness and physical spaces. Linked together by the texturality of forgotten objects and frayed (or physically manipulated) imprinted text images, the film represents a thematic collapsing of distinct objects that further erases the bounds between image (and text) from meaning, where recursive shifting of once seemingly separate entities become alternate presentations of a visible (and invisible) continuum - a decontextualized mood piece where absence and emptiness become increasingly tactile - an impression.

The fourth installment The Enjoyment of Reading, Lost and Found, is an even more dissociated film from the previous installment that further shifts the thematic focus of the abstract narrative from William Byrd II to his daughter, Evelyn, as entries from her personal diary and passages from her favorite books are projected onto the screen, reflecting her thoughtfulness, romanticism, fragility, profound longing, and ultimately despair for her lost love: the tragic resolution of her star-crossed affair often romanticized in the annals of history as a death from a broken heart. Innate in the fragmented passages is a sense of solitude and a poetic heart - exhausted and adrift - a wandering soul trapped within the walls of a stately, but oppressive man-made sanctuary. It is within this image of torment that color appears for the first time in the series - perhaps a metaphoric respite from the monochromatic ache of despair that suffuses the film - a visual (and spiritual) transcendence through the act of reading.

Posted by acquarello on Oct 04, 2005 | | Comments (3) | Filed under 2005, Views from the Avant-Garde

October 3, 2005

A Trip to the Louvre x 2, 2004

louvre.gifResonating in a similar vein as the organically meditative - though less ethereal - cultural elegies of Aleksandr Sokurov (specifically, Elegy of a Voyage and Russian Ark or a stylistically flattened early Alain Resnais art documentary (most notably, Van Gogh and Guernica), A Trip to the Louvre seems on the surface to be devoid of elements that bear the signature of a Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet film: the emotive (if not histrionic) voice-over of an off-screen narrator replaces the tempered, atonal, alienated speech of a Straub/Huillet protagonist; the baroque images of European classical art replace the spare mise-en-scène; the absence of implicit social radicalization in the context of the film. Nevertheless, upon closer inspection (and aided by visual repetition since the film is presented in two near identical parts, with modulations on the opening and concluding sequences - the latter, repurposed from their earlier film Ouvriers, paysan), the film inevitably resolves into more familiar Straub/Huillet terrain of converging sensual, emotional, and cerebral engagement and challenging the aesthetic notions (and interrelations) of beauty, truth, and realism.

Adapted from the biography of Paul Cézanne by Aix-en-Provence poet and admirer Joachim Gasquet, the film presents a series of paintings from the Louvre shot in long takes from a stationary camera as an off-screen female narrator (Julia Kolta) assumes an impassioned first-person observation and criticism of the artworks in a distancing (gender inconguent) voice performance as Cézanne. A painting is shown in its tableaux-like physical tactileness, but appears before the viewer as an image reproduction: the mutation from object (and inorganic performer) to image occurring between the apparatus of the camera and the human eye. A highlighted detail, often a seemingly trivial subscene from a richly detailed and complex work such as Veronese's The Marriage at Cana, is shot through the proportionality of the overarching image such that the contextual aspect is preserved within the totality of the visible camera - and canvas - frame, but appears microcosmically autonomous from it. Eschewing works that seek the idealization - and therefore, negation of the human essence - of the physical body through formalized gestures, embellishment, and impossible symmetry, Cézanne delights in the realism of voluptuous forms, textures, and incidental serendipity that elevate the quotidian to the sublime, the transfiguration of image reproduction to humanist work of art, the perfection of the imperfect.

Posted by acquarello on Oct 03, 2005 | | Comments (4) | Filed under 2005, Views from the Avant-Garde

October 2, 2005

The Ball at Anjo House, 1947

anjo.gifFilmed during American postwar occupation, The Ball at Anjo House is a curiously atypical Japanese film that hews eerily closer to the privileged, dysfunctional families and moral abandon of The Magnificent Ambersons or a Douglas Sirk melodrama than a Shochiku middle-class shomin-geki: the proud family patriarch, Tadahiko (Osamu Takizawa) who continues to harbor the illusion that his name will be sufficient to secure credit and save the family mansion from foreclosure; the aimless, playboy son, Masahiko (Masayuki Mori) who seduces a maid with empty promises of marriage and instead, latches on to Yoko (Keiko Tsushima), the daughter of the blackmarketeer, Shinkawa (Masao Shimizu) to whom his father is financially indebted; the prudish daughter Akiko (Yumeko Aizome) who once spurned the affections of the handsome family chauffeur for an ultimately (and scandalously) failed marriage to a socially prominent man; the pragmatic, devoted daughter (Setsuko Hara) who accepts the family's change in fortune and is inspired by the idea of forging a new beginning (and, perhaps, away from the intractable social codes that bind their class). Filmmaker Kozaburo Yoshimura's portrait of the privileged class, scripted by Kaneto Shindo, is highly formalized and stilted, but nevertheless, presents a provocative portrait of the inevitable democratization of class structure - and, more importantly, the chaotic upending of social order - in postwar Japan (as symbolically encapsulated in the physical toppling of the ancestral samurai family armour that is prominently displayed in the main entrance of the estate). Perhaps the most incisive sequence in the film is revealed in the sublime father and daughter tango that concludes the film - a change in sentiment (and literal pace) that hints at an image of struggling to keep in-step with the uncertain, disorienting, and foundation-less realities of contemporary, postwar society.

Posted by acquarello on Oct 02, 2005 | | Comments (3) | Filed under 2005, Shochiku at 110

Army, 1944

army.gifKeisuke Kinoshita's wartime film, Army is anything but the rousing call to arms and reinforcement of patriotism that the authorities had envisioned the film would be. Known for his Ofuna-flavored shomin-geki "women's pictures", Kinoshita subverts the official themes of duty, allegiance to the emperor, and national glory. Contrasting the emotional (and philosophical) rigidity of the family patriarchs through several generations as they try to instill the virtues of service and duty as career officers against the exquisitely haunting final sequence of an extended tracking shot of the mother, played by the great actress and frequent Mizoguchi heroine (and erstwhile muse) Kinuyo Tanaka, running alongside her son as the new military recruits march through the streets in a send-off parade before being deployed to the battlefront, the lingering image of the price of war becomes imprinted, not in the father's stern and uncompromising life lessons but in the complexity of emotions revealed through a mother's anxious, tearful farewell.

Posted by acquarello on Oct 02, 2005 | | Comments (3) | Filed under 2005, Shochiku at 110

Ornamental Hairpin, 1941

ornamental.gifOne of my favorite sequences in any film is the remarkably fluid lateral dolly shot through the financially ruined Furusawa household that opens Kenji Mizoguchi's Sisters of the Gion, so it is particularly satisfying to see Hiroshi Shimizu further refining this technique in the seemingly effortless, long take, outdoor tracking shot of a pair of weekend vacationers from Tokyo (a conversation about the pleasure of having the powder removed from their faces suggest that they are geisha) descending onto a hot spring resort that cuts into a lateral dolly shot through the rooms occupied by the longer-term residents of a resort inn. This visual convergence in Ornamental Hairpin serves as an impeccable foreshadowing of the narrative intersection between the two groups as one of the young women from the weekend revelers, Emi (Kinuyo Tanaka) inadvertently loses her ornamental hairpin in the spring waters and is "found" by a soldier in recuperation from a war injury (Chishu Ryu) who cuts his foot on the object. Attempting to downplay the incident, the soldier calls the episode as almost "poetic", a sentiment that the professor (Tatsuo Saito) then misconstrues as the soldier's implicit romanticism for the owner of the hairpin - "a poetic illusion" that now seems within grasp when Emi decides to come in person in order to retrieve her property and personally apologize for the mishap. Filmed during the uncertainty of the Pacific War, Shimizu's seemingly escapist, insular tale, based on a Masuji Ibuse short story, nevertheless reveals a crepuscular, allegorical meaning in the juxtaposition of the residents' romanticism towards the owner of the ornamental hairpin, and the final shot of Emi in mid-step ascending the staircase - a state of limbo, isolation, and fugue - a reluctant return to reality and dissipation of the poetic illusion.

Posted by acquarello on Oct 02, 2005 | | Comments (8) | Filed under 2005, Hiroshi Shimizu, Shochiku at 110

September 30, 2005

Something Like Happiness, 2005

something_happiness.gifNear the halfway mark of the first week at the festival, Bohdan Slama's exquisitely rendered Something Like Happiness provides a good-natured, refreshing, leisurely paced, and satisfying palate cleanser: a slice-of-life serio-comedy on devotion, friendship, family, and missed connection. At the heart of the film is the scruffy bohemian, a perennial "sweet guy" named Tonik (Pavel Liska) who lives with his aunt in a derelict house on a scrap of land overlooking a sprawling industrial complex in which they are two of the few remaining holdouts in a proposed factory expansion project (long after other residents, including his own parents, have moved into residential apartments with all modern conveniences). Secretly carrying a torch for his childhood best friend, a beautiful store clerk named Monika (Tatiana Vilhelmová), his prospects for winning her heart prove ever fading when, at the start of the film, her dashing and affable boyfriend immigrates to America and subsequently sends her a ticket to join him after he secures a steady job for both of them. However, when the Tonik and Monika become unexpected custodians to a pair of young boys after their mother is institutionalized, her decision to defer her trip until her release from the hospital provides the shy Tonik with a glimmer of hope for their long awaited romantic union. Like the character Tonik, the film is also gentle and unassuming, but ultimately haunting and endearing portrait of compassion, unrequited longing, and human dignity.

Posted by acquarello on Sep 30, 2005 | | Comments (4) | Filed under 2005, New York Film Festival

Capote, 2005

capote.gifDuring the Q&A for the film, actor Philip Seymour Hoffman commented that the inspiration behind his remarkable transformation into the character of novelist Truman Capote came from the idea of someone who needed the other person much more than the other needed him, but concealed this lopsided dependence in such a manner that the other believes the reverse. This posture provides an insightful glimpse, not only into the controversial relationship between Truman and Perry (Clifton Collins, Jr.) one of the killers of the Clutter family whose senseless murder served as the basis for his non-fiction novel In Cold Blood, but also in his self-consumption and eccentricity. From the opening sequence recreating the discovery of the bodies in the Klutter family in their Kansas farmhouse that cuts into the image of Capote transfixedly reading the article on the murder from his New York City apartment (figuratively holding the open ended resolution of their deaths in his hands), filmmaker Bennett Miller creates a sense of interconnected fatedness in this chance "encounter", a compulsion that would propel him to visit Kansas with his childhood friend (and implicit beard) Nell Harper Lee (Catherine Keener). While I disagree with Bennett's characterization of Truman as a narcissist but rather, as an insecure outsider whose abandonment as a child led him to perpetually seek attention, the film achieves resonance into Capote's true character (and ties into the theme of fate) in a scene in which Truman describes Perry as coming from the same house, an image of himself who left through the back door, while he left through the front.

Posted by acquarello on Sep 30, 2005 | | Filed under 2005, New York Film Festival

September 29, 2005

The Lights of Asakusa, 1937

asakusa.gifA well-crafted riff on Yasujiro Shimazu's familiar shomin-geki films, this time transplanted to a group of Western opera stage actors working in the bustling theater and entertainment district of Asakusa in old downtown Tokyo, The Lights of Asakusa is a charming and elegantly realized ensemble slice-of-life serio-comedy. Centering on the acting troupe's attempts to harbor a virginal young chorus girl from the lecherous advances of one of the theater's most powerful patrons - and abetted in no small part by the troupe director's wife and principal actress Marie (played by the legendary screen and stage performer, and frequent Ozu and Naruse actress, Haruko Sugimura) - the plot provides a simple backdrop for the ecletic personalities of the film's cast of characters: a struggling painter who derives inspiration from European art, a veteran actor who contemplates retirement after being jeered onstage, a lonely arcade worker who longs to escape the tawdry lights of the district, a well-intentioned actor (Ken Uehara) whose off-stage samaritan deeds and insistence on fairness and righteousness rival the heroics of his on-stage persona, an older, world wise chorus girl who takes it upon herself to protect her young co-worker's honor. Eschewing plot in favor of richly textured characters, the film is a thoughtful and affectionate portrait of camaraderie, pragmatism, and human decency.

Posted by acquarello on Sep 29, 2005 | | Filed under 2005, Shochiku at 110, Yasujiro Shimazu

A Star Athlete, 1937

star_athlete.gifHiroshi Shimizu's government-pressured, militarism-era film A Star Athlete is a breezy, refreshingly lighthearted, and subtly subversive slice-of-life comedy that centers on an all-day student march in formation and armed combat drills through the rural countryside for military training exercises. Shimizu demonstrates his deceptively facile adeptness and virtuoso camerawork through a series of extraordinarily choreographed plan sequence shots: a track-and-field race around the campus track between the school's start athlete Seki (Shuji Sano) and his constantly spurring - and sparring - team mate (Chishu Ryu); an extended dolly sequence of the students' march as bemused villagers and flirtatious, love-struck young women alternately respectfully step aside, playfully trail, obliviously obstruct, and amorously chase the dashing students in uniform; a mock battlefield charge assault through muddy fields as a guilt-ridden motley crew of travelers on the road scramble to flee from the students in a mistaken belief of being chased in retribution for their petty transgressions during their brief stay in the village.

Posted by acquarello on Sep 29, 2005 | | Comments (2) | Filed under 2005, Hiroshi Shimizu, Shochiku at 110

I Am, 2005

i_am.gifDorota Kedzierzawska continues to demonstrate her strength in directing young actors (particularly evident in the performance of the lead actor, Piotr Jagielski) that she had earlier illustrated in The Crows with her latest film I Am. Recalling Ken Loach's Kes or Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Nobody Knows in its modern day, pseudo-Dickensian tale of instinctual survival shot from a child's perspective, the film is a familiar story of a neglected, troubled child's fugue, retreat into a makeshift world of his own imagined creation, and inevitable return to the "outside" world, I Am renders a less metaphoric journey for parental connection in a similarly suffused and foreboding vein of Andrei Zvyagintsev's Return). However, while Kedzierzawska's execution is impeccable and remarkably adept, the film, nevertheless, retains an oddly sterile conventionality to its manner of storytelling, an impression that is further reinforced by composer Michael Nyman's swelling and overwrought (if not patently manipulative) soundtrack that suffuses each dramatic scene with an inconguent, near-mythic sense of tragedy.

Posted by acquarello on Sep 29, 2005 | | Filed under 2005, New York Film Festival

September 28, 2005

Every Night's Dreams, 1933

nights_dream.gifMikio Naruse's elegantly distilled early silent film Every Night's Dreams provides an archetype for the filmmaker's recurring themes: pragmatic, determined women who tenaciously hold onto their failing relationships, weak men who lead a life of increasing dependence on the women they mistreat, life stations that grow baser as characters paradoxically strive to improve their situation. Structured in the framework of a melodrama, the story chronicles the life of a popular bar hostess and single mother named Omitsu (Sumiko Kurishima) as she struggles to rebuild her fractured family after her chronically unemployed husband (Tatsuo Saito) unexpectedly returns. Stylistically, Naruse incorporates a series of innovative camerawork: temporal cross-cutting, elliptical montage, and recurring shots of disembodied framing (most notably, in a night time sequence of running legs) the serve, not only to provide a compact precision - and therefore, emotional tension - to the film's pervasive atmosphere of entrapment and existential stasis, but also to reflect the characters' sense of disorientation and economic instability.

Posted by acquarello on Sep 28, 2005 | | Comments (6) | Filed under 2005, Shochiku at 110

Woman of the Mist, 1936

woman_mist.gifIn the essay Woman of the Mist and Gosho and the 1930s from the book Reframing Japanese Cinema: Authorship, Genre, History, Arthur Nolletti examines the complex narrative and visual strategies employed by Gosho that culminate in what would become one of his most accomplished works. Perhaps the most indicative of this style is his use of irony and subverted expectation. As the film begins, Bunkichi (Takeshi Sakamoto), an affable ne'er-do-well who married late (after sowing quite a few wild oats in his own youth) is approached by members of the community to head a collection drive for a commemorative lantern, a level of responsibility for which his wife Okiyo teasingly calls into question his suitability. Bunkichi further proves his irresponsibility when his widowed sister Otoku asks him to speak her son Seiichi in order to advise him to concentrate on his studies (instead of frittering his time reading novels) and instead, takes the young man out for a night of drinking. However, when Seiichi becomes involved in an even more serious - and potentially life-altering - predicament, Bunkichi takes him under his wing and assumes responsibility to mitigate the consequences of the young man's indiscretion. Gosho's richly textured home drama is a refined and seemingly effortless examination of duty, sacrifice, and maturity. The film's curious title, a reference to the out-of-favor geisha turned Ginza bar hostess Terue, provides an evocative and haunting metaphor for human transience.

Posted by acquarello on Sep 28, 2005 | | Comments (3) | Filed under 2005, Heinosuke Gosho, Shochiku at 110

September 27, 2005

Our Neighbor Miss Yae, 1934

missyae.gifFrom the seemingly effortless opening tracking shot through a middle-class neighborhood that terminates to a shot of two young men practicing baseball pitches in the backyard of their suburban home (and accidentally breaking the window of a neighbor's home), Yasujiro Shimazu illustrates his remarkable agility with the medium in the sublime shomin-geki (home drama), Our Neighbor Miss Yae. Ostensibly chronicling the story of a budding affection for the girl next door, Yaeko (Yumeko Aizome), the film is also a complexly (but gracefully) choreographed portrait of contemporary 1930s Japan, as the two households broach an array of traditional and modern social realities from divorce and extramarital affairs, to a young woman's sexual forthrightness, independence, and virginity. Shimazu's elegant command of narrative and camera is bolstered by the equally strong, natural performances of the actors (most notably, the great character actress, Chouko Iida), resulting in a remarkably fluid and delightfully satisfying slice-of-life portrait of prewar Japan.

Posted by acquarello on Sep 27, 2005 | | Filed under 2005, Shochiku at 110, Yasujiro Shimazu

The Neighbor's Wife and Mine, 1931

neighborswife.gifHeinosuke Gosho's The Neighbor's Wife and Mine is a breezy and efferverscent slice-of-life comedy on a harried - and easily distracted - freelance writer (Atsushi Watanabe) whose deadline for a commission work to write a play for a theater company in Tokyo is quickly approaching. Scouting for a suitable retreat where he can complete his draft, the playwright comes upon a house for rent in a quiet, rural enclave and decides to move in with his young family. However, the seemingly idyllic town soon proves to be a source of its own distractions, from mice scrurrying in the attic, to stray cats foraging in the garden, to the children waking in the middle of the night to demand their parents' attention. The final straw comes when a jazz band begins to rehearse at a neighboring house, prompting the playwright to pay a visit to the lady of the household, a Western-dressed moga (modern girl) who invites him to their jam session. The first all-talkie motion picture made in Japan, the film effectively showcases the strength of the technology, from evocative sound effects, to subtle inflections in dialogue, to the fully formed presentation of unconventional, cutting-edge music: a fitting and ebullient celebration and warm embrance of modern ways, creativity, and an open mind.

Posted by acquarello on Sep 27, 2005 | | Comments (1) | Filed under 2005, Heinosuke Gosho, Shochiku at 110

Bubble, 2005

bubble.gifThe title of the film provides a glimpse into the fragility of the hollow, empty life led by the main character: a middle-aged airbrush operator at an Ohio doll factory named Martha (Debbie Doebereiner) who takes cares for her invalid father, shuttles her car-less, twentysomething best friend and fellow factory worker Kyle (Dustin James Ashley) to his second job in neighboring West Virginia, and spends her evenings sewing doll clothes. It is a predictable routine that is soon perturbated when the company foreman hires a second airbrush operator named Rose (Misty Dawn Wilkins) to ramp-up production for a large order, a nebulous, young single mother with a penchant for stealing. Shot with a cast of non-professional actors, Steven Soderbergh's low budget indie film Bubble has the signature look - and rides the familiar clichés - of an independent film set in rural America: pot-smoking, high school drop-out blue collar workers, dysfunctional family lives (burdensome and unemployed parents, volatile ex-boyfriends, a steady diet of fast food), and distended sequences of dead time. Skirting the narrative and muted emotional arc of monotonic ritual, betrayal, and senseless violence, the characters' lives - like the film itself - are reflected in the dolls of their creation: fractured, colorless, inanimate, and underformed.

Posted by acquarello on Sep 27, 2005 | | Filed under 2005, New York Film Festival

September 26, 2005

Avenge But One of My Two Eyes, 2005

avenge.gifFilms about the effects of Israeli occupation on the Palestianian population are always bound to be inflammatory and subject to often unfair, prejudicial criticism of justifying terrorism, and this ugliness unfortunately surfaced from a particularly hostile member of the audience at the Q&A with filmmaker Avi Mograbi for his penetrating documentary Avenge But One of My Two Eyes. At the heart of Mograbi's organic essay is the juxtaposition of two events. The first is the ancient history of the mass suicide of the zealots at Masada during the Jewish Revolt as a final act of defiance against an inevitable Roman capture. The second is the Biblical text of the emasculated, blinded, and captured Nazirite Samson standing between the main pillars of the temple who implored God to find the strength to "avenge but one of my two eyes" (a phrase that, coincidentally, is also used in a rallying song by the minority militant, right-wing settlers), collapsing the temple - which brought his own death - in such a way that he killed more Philistines with his final act of suicidal retribution than during his lifetime. While the film does not inherently correlate the defiant act of the Masada with the modern-day act of suicide bombing, it was the juxtaposition of these two ideas that clearly vexed a few people. However, rather than directly commenting on the suicide bombing as a consequence of the occupation, the film instead explores the psychology behind the egregious act, laying bare the underlying callous indifference, insensitivity, racism, and uncertainty that the occupation has caused in the conduct of everyday life for the Palestinians: an ambulance carrying a seriously ill woman is physically blockaded by two armor tanks and repeatedly ordered to go home, refusing any pleas from the anxious husband and her family with the terse response "I don’t care. Go home!" broadcasted through a megaphone; a group of farmers who must cross a checkpoint in order to harvest their olives are refused permission to enter because of military exercises and denied information for a set time that they can return in order to be admitted entry; a group of young schoolchildren returning from school are refused passage through the checkpoint gates under "military orders" that the soldiers refuse to present. Mograbi’s vérité-styled filmmaking effectively captures the turbulence, humiliation, and uncertainty of occupation, presenting a thoughtful and incisive call to action for the return of humanity in increasingly entrenched and inhuman times.

Posted by acquarello on Sep 26, 2005 | | Filed under 2005, New York Film Festival

L'Enfant, 2005

enfant.gifThere is a palpable spirit of Robert Bresson (most notably Pickpocket and L'Argent) and Fyodor Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment at work in Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s L'Enfant, so it comes as no surprise that during the subsequent Q&A, the brothers remarked that one of the images that they had wanted to capture in the film was how the fallen hero, a petty thief and new father Bruno (Jérémie Régnier), learns to "see the woman facing him". This woman (Déborah François), appropriately named Sonia, is a Dostoevsky archetypal chracter: devoted, suffering, taken for granted. As in the Dardenne's earlier film, The Son, the "child" of the film is also a figurative embodiment of redemption that is defined by more than one character: the newborn son Jimmy who is sold by his father on a whim, the immature Bruno, a flightly and rootless young man who sees his son as a disposable accessory, the band of young boys recruited by Bruno to perpetrate the petty crimes for a share of the profits. In this respect, the repeated shots of Bruno aggressively pushing the pram through the streets (and subsequently, in a situational permutation of him pushing a scooter) becomes a refiguration of Raskolnikov's dream: an image of burden, reluctant responsibility, and duty.

Posted by acquarello on Sep 26, 2005 | | Filed under 2005, New York Film Festival

September 25, 2005

The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, 2005

lazarescu.gifSomething of a hybrid between the sardonic humor of a talkative Otar Iosseliani or Béla Tarr and the vérité-like, social realism of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, Cristi Puiu's The Death of Mr. Lazarescu is a thoughtful and incisive slice-of-life comedy on the impersonalization (and desensitization) of institutional health care. Exploring similar issues of entrenched bureaucracy as Moussa Bathily's Le Certificat d'indigence that serve to impede the proper dispensation of proper medical care (and, more importantly, lose sight of the face of humanity behind human suffering), the film unfolds as an absurd subversion of Leo Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Ilych in which the isolative process of dying becomes occluded in the pettiness, moralizing, helplessness, and coincidental distractions that invariably occupy everyday life as the lonely widower and retired engineer, Larazescu, is scuttled from one hospital to another throughout the evening after suffering from a bout of migraine and nausea. As in Tolstoy's novella, the process of death does not alter the process of living, but rather, becomes only a momentary distraction in an eternal - and seemingly interminable - human comedy.

Posted by acquarello on Sep 25, 2005 | | Comments (4) | Filed under 2005, New York Film Festival

Regular Lovers, 2005

regularlovers.gifRegular Lovers is a quintessential Philippe Garrel film. Part self-exorcism of the failed idealism of the May 68 counter-culture revolution that inevitably burned out in a haze of recreational drug use, sexual liberation, and the inertia of bohemianism, and part elegy on love found in the wreckage of a heartbreaking aftermath that, too, becomes inevitably lost, the film follows the plight of a young poet and draft dodger, François, as he devolves from impassioned idealist and revolutionary, to hopeless romantic (who once - perhaps, half-heartedly - offered to put aside his art and find a wage-earning vocation in order to provide a more stable life for his new lover, Lilie), and eventually, to adrift bohemian and parasitic houseguest. The film's final sequence - an evocation of the romanticism of revolution - is a fitting double entendre that recalls an earlier extended dream sequence of the French Revolution, as the latent potency of the dross opium becomes a metaphor, not only for the crystalized potential for upheaval and (self)destruction that continues to sublimate within the souls of a consumed and demoralized May 68 generation, but also, in its stabilized, incombustible form, represents the consumed residue of a transitory and ephemeral moment of bliss and paradise lost.

Posted by acquarello on Sep 25, 2005 | | Comments (16) | Filed under 2005, New York Film Festival

August 27, 2005

Chasing the Truth: The Films of Mrinal Sen

chasing_sen.gifIn the book Chasing the Truth: The Films of Mrinal Sen, author John W. Hood provides an insightful examination of the sociopolitical and cultural conditions that have shaped filmmaker Mrinal Sen's personal and creative ideology. Born into a middle-class Bengali family in Faridpur in 1923, Hood provides a contextual frame of reference to the independence movement in this rural area as a "hotbed of the stream of the Independence Movement that was non-Gandhian in that it was characteristically violent." Sen's father, a nationalist and politically active lawyer, had the reputation throughout his career of defending fellow nationalists whose allegiance to insurgent organizations made it impossible for them to receive a fair trial under the very colonial government that they had sought to overthrow. It is, therefore, not surprising that Sen's politicization not only came at an early age, but would also deeply define his character (and that of his cinema) as well: a lifelong commitment to social causes that would be further galvanized with his involvement in the activism of the political left during his university days at the Scottish Church College in Calcutta. As Hood would later comment:

Mrinal Sen will always be regarded as a champion of lame ducks and underdogs. The Bengali poor - that vast majority of anonymity - perform a major role in many of his films, but never as heroes, only as victims. It will be remembered, of course, that Sen regards the notion of 'the noble poor' to be a perverse rationalization in favor of the status quo, and so in none of his films does he seek to idealize the masses in any way, portraying them rather in their material poverty, their ignorance, and most significantly, their powerlessness.

Hood also suggests that Sen's films are integrally rooted in the culture of Calcutta, citing that the city - often associated with nefarious Western connotations of decay, chaos, and misery (in particular, through the conjured images of the Black Hole of Calcutta in which British soldiers were imprisoned in a dungeon in 1756, Winston Churchill's missive during his stay in the region in which he comments "I shall always be glad to have seen it - namely that it will be unnecessary for me ever to see it again", and in the works of Mother Theresa in which the city has become inextricably associated with images of abject poverty) - instead provides a constant source of intellectual, philosophical, political, and social stimulation for the filmmaker through its natural state of constant flux and re-invention.

Sen's screen essay [Calcutta: My El Dorado] is sufficient to regard Calcutta itself as harbouring contradiction: wealth and poverty, splendour and squalor, pre-industrial and post-industrial economy, artistry and scholarship and disorder and ignorance, vibrant optimism and morbid pessimism. The really significant paradox is Calcutta's constant decay and its constant regeneration. The flood comes, the city survives, the floodwaters recede, the city, rejuvenated, springs back to life. No sooner to the police scatter the huts of the pavement dwellers than they are built again...For Chaitanya to cherish the man who dies every day, he must also be born every day.

It is this awareness of perpetual transformation that not only provides the creative stimulus for Sen's filmmaking, but also becomes an integral part of his narrative philosophy:

'Death' might seem surprising as a metaphor for the constant flow of the stream of history, being so obviously a mark of finality. In Indian thinking, however, death is one side of a coin in which birth is the other...While Mrinal Sen is a rationalist and by no means a religious Hindu, he does belong to a culture which readily accepts the notion of time as cyclic. An end of something is always the beginning of something else; hence, 'death', can be a useful metaphor for change and movement in the ebb and flow of history.

In essence, this cycle of renewal has also contributed to a characteristic, thematic open-endedness in Sen's films, from the literal and metaphoric dawning of a new day after the family experiences an economic and interpersonal crisis following the disappearance of their sole wage-earner, their unmarried (and callously exploited) daughter Chinu in Ek Din Pratidin, to the unreconciled departure of the photographer from the decaying mansion in Khandahar after a brief connection with the beautiful Jamini whose devotion to her ailing mother has bound her to a life of isolation and enabling illusion, and also the existential crossroads between civilization and autonomous existence of Genesis as a figurative Garden of Eden is destroyed by jealousy, rivalry, and greed.

Posted by acquarello on Aug 27, 2005 | | Comments (24) | Filed under 2005, Film Related Reading

June 20, 2005

The Boys of Baraka, 2005

baraka.gifOn a typical summer night in inner city Baltimore, a children's game of cops and robbers shootout plays against the morbid backdrop - undoubtedly in familiar imitation - of a real-life police arrest of a teenager on a neighborhood street. A single statistic posted on black screen provides a sobering context to the children's "art imitating life", role-playing games: that 76% of all African American males in Baltimore city schools do not graduate from high school. A dedicated middle-school school counselor and program recruiter named Mavis Jackson seeks to remedy this grim statistic by assembling some of the city's greatest "at risk" boys into a school auditorium in order to confront the reality of their situation, explaining that that by the age of 18, as an African American young man in Baltimore, their futures can take on three paths: an orange jumpsuit and a pair of Department of Corrections "bracelets", a black suit and a brown wooden box, or a black cap and gown and a diploma that can also serve to open up opportunities for them. Handing out an information package and application form for a two-year boarding school in Laikipia, Kenya called The Baraka School, Jackson encourages the children to give serious consideration to the educational opportunity, citing that graduation in The Baraka School offers them entry into the city's most competitive schools where most then go on to graduate high school. An introverted, musically inclined (and emotionally closed) boy named Devon who lives with his doting grandmother (and away from his financially unstable, drug-addicted mother) dreams of becoming a preacher. An argumentative boy with a natural aptitude for mathematics named Montrey aspires for a career in science. An academically struggling student named Richard and his thoughtful younger brother Romesh are encouraged by their supportive, strong-willed mother to undertake the journey, realizing that it is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for them to change the direction of their future (Asked what would happen if only one of her sons had been accepted into the program, she immediately answers that one would become a king, the other, a killer). Far from the distraction of their desperate surroundings and impersonal institution of the public school system, the boys begin to academically (and emotionally) thrive in the challenges of their new environment, returning home for summer vacation with a newfound sense of maturity, deliberativeness, and character. However, when heightened terrorist concerns and global politics intervene and threaten the future of The Baraka School program at a critical stage in the boys' development, their learned life lessons are soon put to the test. Following the real-time progress of the Baraka boys throughout their formative years (since their recruitment to the school in 2002), filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady capture the depth of intimacy, conflict, poverty, and desolation experienced, not only by the children, but also by their well-intentioned families and guardians who realize the weight of their children's demoralizing environment but feel powerless and financially unable to easily change their circumstances - a sentiment articulated by a concerned father who debates the issue of safety to a program official after hearing the heightened security warnings for the school by commenting that his son has a greater chance of being killed on his own neighborhood street in Baltimore than he does by becoming a victim of a terrorist attack in Africa. In presenting an equally bittersweet, tragic, and affirming portrait of the boys' bifurcated trajectories since their Baraka School experience, the film presents a haunting and complex portrait of poverty, marginalization, and disenfranchisement that defies socially expedient trivializations of human worth, ability, perseverance, and destiny.

*Screened at AFI Silverdocs 2005. The film will premiere in NYC at the HRWIFF on June 23, 2005.

Posted by acquarello on Jun 20, 2005 | | Comments (13) | Filed under 2005, Human Rights Watch

June 18, 2005

The Education of Shelby Knox, 2005

education.jpgIn an incisive encounter in The Education of Shelby Knox, (then) high-school student Shelby from Lubbock - a devout, abstinent, southern Baptist, child of conservative Republicans, and fierce advocate for comprehensive sex education in the classroom as a means of curtailing teenage pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, stemming off widespread health misinformation, and promoting important life (and life-saving) skills - turns to her charismatic, spiky-haired youth pastor, Ed Ainsworth for advice in a moment of spiritual crisis. Recognizing the inherent failure of the George W. Bush-backed, faith-based initiative, "abstinence only" program that teaches only marital relations and fails to address the concerns of - and effectively excludes - the gay population who cannot marry, young Shelby (an amusingly typical, hyper-romantic teenager who still envisions the man of her dreams in grandiose, operatic gestures as someone who could play the role of the Phantom to her Christine in The Phantom of the Opera) has become an unlikely ally in the school's gay student movement towards equal rights and representation. Struggling to reconcile her religious beliefs with social reality and her innate compassion for the marginalized, she muses that "God could not have made all these people just so He could send them to Hell." Nodding with the (apparent) gesture of an understanding heart, Ainsworth then embarks on a bafflingly open-ended (if not condescending), veiled allusion to Shelby's "questionable" faith by remarking that Christians have had a traditionally long history of intolerance and that, when he listens to her articulate her inner turmoil, what he is hearing from her is "tolerance" (and yes, the audience let out a collective sigh upon hearing this comment). Remarkably capturing Shelby's infectious effervescence, fearlessness, sense of egalitarian justice, and unwavering integrity of faith, filmmakers Marion Lipschutz and Rose Rosenblatt have created a whimsical, yet potent, inspiring, and affirming portrait of the true meaning of moral activism and spiritual service.

The film will premiere on PBS' P.O.V. series on June 21, 2005.

Posted by acquarello on Jun 18, 2005 | | Filed under 2005, Human Rights Watch

June 17, 2005

State of Fear, 2005

state_fear.gifOne of the festival highpoints (and certainly one of my personal favorites) from this year's slate of films from the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival is filmmakers Pamela Yates, Paco de Onís and Peter Kinoy's exhaustive (and inspired) documentary, State of Fear: a sobering, trenchant, and disturbingly relevant dissection of Peru's contemporary history through the socio-political framework of a protracted (and seemingly interminable) decades-long war on terror that had contributed to a demoralized culture of tolerated erosion of human rights, systematic military abuse, mass killings, torture, and fear-mongering political opportunism. The film traces the rise and fall of an underground, insurgent Maoist organization known as Shining Path that, under the direction of radical intellectual, Abimael Guzmán, seized on the desperate poverty and marginalization of the Andean indigenous people (living predominantly in rural areas) as an ideological rallying cry for social revolution and began to mobilize the peasants into a terror campaign with a strategy of violent revolution and scorched earth policy in order to (coercively) convert the rural countryside to their cause towards the greater path of encircling - and eventually capturing - the city of Lima. Unable to effectively identify Shining Path operatives - the faceless, anonymous enemy embedded from within the grassroots level - and weed out the real terrorists from ordinary civilians, the government empowered the military with broad, unchallenged authority to take any necessary action (at the expense of civil liberties) in order to stem the tide of domestic terrorism. In an incisive (and deeply unsettling) interview, a tribal elder recalls the incalculable devastation inflicted by the crisis on her people as Shining Path radicals first attempted to forcibly conscript some of the villagers, including children, to their bloody cause (and execute those who opposed them) then, after the group's departure, were visited by the military who subsequently armed and recruited them into forming a civilian militia empowered to gather intelligence, torture, and execute terrorists, resulting in a gruesome and devastating (and unreined) tribal infighting that would nearly exterminate the entire village. Nevertheless, despite suffering through years of rural atrocities, domestic terrorism continued relatively unabated until Guzmán decided to accelerate the revolution and bring the war to Lima by initiating a campaign of random bombings throughout the city. It is within this atmosphere of desperation and chaos - a constant "state of fear" - that political outsider Alberto Fujimori ran a successful presidential campaign under the platform of waging a strong-armed war against terrorism. To this end, Fujimori suspended the national congress under a heightened - and indeterminate - state of emergency and concentrated power to the presidency. A Truth Commission member appropriately comments, "We traded our liberty for security." Perhaps the most incisive and insidious aspect of Peru's recent history lies in Fujimori's calculated ability to maintain his continued grip on the centralized and corrupted power of the presidency even after Guzmán's arrest by continuing to raise the specter of an unspecific terrorist threat despite the effective decapitation - and subsequent disintegration - of the Shining Path movement. Alternately harrowing, engaging, illuminating, and inciting, State of Fear is not only remarkable account of opportunism, inhumanity, and corruption, but also a cathartic, hopeful tale of humility and enlightened transformation (as in the case of privileged, upper middle-class Lima-based lawyer and Truth Commission member, Beatriz Alva-Hart who emotionally breaks down upon the conclusion of the testimony hearings and expresses her profound apologies to all the victims for not realizing earlier the extent of the atrocities occurring within her own country).

Posted by acquarello on Jun 17, 2005 | | Filed under 2005, Human Rights Watch

June 16, 2005

Occupation: Dreamland, 2005

dreamland.gifDuring the spring of 2004, as the Iraqi city of Falluja slowly metamorphosed from secondary, wartime infrastructure target to the emerging epicenter of an escalating (and increasingly emboldened) Iraqi insurgency, soldiers from a squadron of the U.S. Army's 82nd Airborne Division stationed in the volatile city struggle to adjust to their amorphous, undefined, and intrinsically irreconcilable roles as law enforcers, occupiers, and goodwill ambassadors in a foreign land. For a few hours each week, the young soldiers are directed by their superior officers to go out into the streets in full body armor for mandatory, pre-scheduled "public relations" where they canvas as many streets as possible in order to psychologically reinforce their presence and visibility in the city, initiate contact with the townspeople (usually through an interpreter) in an often fruitless attempt to gain their trust and gather information, and, with alarming frequency, play reflexive games of survival as militants seize the opportunity to take pot shots and launch last-minute offensives in their direction. The dangerous, frustrating, and often surreal encounters experienced by the soldiers underscore the seeming futility of their reluctant role as a peacekeeping (rather than combat) force in the openly hostile, war-ravaged town. Unfamiliar with the language and local customs, the soldiers' relationship with the town has become palpably acrimonious (especially following the death of a fellow soldier from their squadron): distrustful glances from the Iraqis are often retaliated with verbal hostility and profanity (in English) by the disrespected soldiers; a soldier is reproached by several village men at a public square for committing a cultural faux pas a few days earlier by publicly detaining (and later releasing) an unaccompanied Iraqi woman to headquarters for routine interrogation; another soldier attempts to engage the townspeople in friendly conversation, but then hurriedly truncates the uncomfortable dialogue after receiving a blunt earful of how bad the standard of life really has become for the average Iraqi civilian since the invasion. Returning to the barracks, the soldiers receive little respite from their ambivalent roles and conflicted sense of duty as superior officers conduct periodic "pep talk" debriefings in order to encourage their re-enlistment and continued service, often raising the specter of their troubled youth, reinforcing their insecurity over their level of maturity and responsibility (and accomplishment) and preparedness for civilian life, or appealing to their economic reality with the promise of a college education and a life-long career. Filmmakers Garrett Scott and Ian Olds were embedded with the soldiers for the duration of the filming of Occupation: Dreamland, and the result is immediately apparent in the sense of intimacy, conflict, disorientation, and pervasive sense of danger and uncertainty captured by the film. Far from a concrete, immediately identifiable characterizations of good and evil, victim and transgressor, what is revealed in these irreconcilable quotidian images is a complex cross-cultural, postwar portrait of human desolation and moral ambiguity that festers within the vacuum of compassion, communication, social order, and authority.

Posted by acquarello on Jun 16, 2005 | | Filed under 2005, Human Rights Watch

June 15, 2005

Seoul Train, 2005

seoul.gifA smuggled video footage of a communal market in North Korea provides a profoundly sobering context to the grave, protracted, man-made humanitarian crisis caused by the government's systematic diversion of international food aid to party loyalists at the expense of ordinary citizens (often from the rural provinces) as children scour the mud for occasional morsels of food (mostly grain biproducts). Despite the Chinese government's knowledge that North Korean defectors will face torture and certain death if captured, the government has instituted a policy of forcibly repatriating North Koreans found within their sovereignty, irrespective of formal appeals for asylum. For these desperate people, the only hope for survival lies in making a dangerous cross-country journey into China undetected with the goal of reaching a third country (often Mongolia) by any means necessary, aided along the way by a loose alliance of well-intentioned ordinary citizens operating in a multinational, underground railroad system between the northern border of North Korea and China. Composed of several breathtaking (and heart-rending) actual footage along their flight to freedom and interviews from several covert operatives - including an outspoken humanitarian named Chun Ki-won (dubbed by human rights activists as the "Schindler of Asia") - as they plot their escape, rehearse their strategy for formally seeking asylum, initiate contact with their host families (often South Korean relatives), and finally attempt, often in vain, their one chance at freedom (as in the case of the MoFA Seven who delivered a formal, written plea to the Chinese government for asylum and were immediately arrested and deported), Seoul Train is an intensely visceral, illuminating, and deeply moving document of inspired activism against a seemingly unconquerable tide of moral apathy, bureaucratic inertia, and inhuman politics.

For more information on the film and the issues presented in the film, please visit

Posted by acquarello on Jun 15, 2005 | | Filed under 2005, Human Rights Watch

Mardi Gras: Made in China, 2005

mardi_gras.gifDuring the Q&A for the film, filmmaker David Redmon explained that the initial concept for Mardi Gras: Made in China revolved around the idea of exploring the interconnection between pop culture, ritual, and globalization. To this end, the idea of tracing the origin of a disposable commodity - Mardi Gras beads - seemed ideally suited in linking the economies and social cultures of the U.S. and China. Contrasting the inebriated chaos of revelers at the Mardi Gras parade in the French Quarters of New Orleans for which the beads represent a figurative (if transitory) capital - and therefore, power - that can be traded for pleasure (women exposing themselves in exchange for the trinkets) with an insightful profile of the child workers earning the equivalent of ten cents an hour (mostly adolescent girls who, as the owner explains, are more obedient and manageable) at China's largest bead manufacturing factory, the film presents a sobering portrait of crass consumerism (as appropiately articulated by a truck driver on holiday who dismisses the plight of the Chinese workers by shouting the idiotic mantra "Don't know and don't care. Beads for boobs!"). Conducting a series of interviews with a group of girls living in the communal dormitories on factory grounds, what emerges is a familiar pattern of rural poverty, undereducation, and familial obligation to provide financial support. In the end, what is revealed between the two seemingly disparate cultures is the commonality of human commodification and exploitation, and the delusive ephemerality of material happiness.

Posted by acquarello on Jun 15, 2005 | | Filed under 2005, Human Rights Watch

June 14, 2005

Omagh, 2004

omagh.gifShot in vérité-styled camerawork and natural lighting, Omagh is a hauntingly powerful, illuminating, and uncompromisingly rendered account of the August 15, 1998 car bombing of a high-traffic market square in the peacefully integrated Northern Ireland community that massacred 29 civilians and injured over 200 others. Shot from the perspective of Michael Gallagher and his family, an automobile repair shop owner who lost his son and business partner, Aidan, the film is a taut and indicting account of the surviving families' frustrated quest for truth and justice for the atrocity. Engineered by radical separatist groups (most notably the breakway faction calling itself "Real" IRA) at the height of delicate, politically sensitive negotiations between Sinn Fein and the British government as a desperate means to undermine the Good Friday Peace Accords, what emerges from filmmaker Pete Travis' scathing, but sensitively realized portrait is a disturbing tale of ordinary people repeatedly entangled - first, in a protracted war for sovereignty and subsequently in a high-stakes game of diplomacy - in a compromised (and perhaps, irreparably doomed) investigation mired by national security intelligence failures, bureaucratic incompetence, and, most insidiously, a systematic pattern of stonewalling from all levels of public authority in the sacrificial name of national and political expediency to protect government informants and covert operatives within the radical organizations from exposure, prevent the collapse of the brokered cease fire, and continued push to move the peace process forward. In the end, what emerges from the families' commitment to the memory of their lost loved ones is the resilient voice of human solidarity that refuses to be silenced, victimized, or reduced to political pawns.

Posted by acquarello on Jun 14, 2005 | | Filed under 2005, Human Rights Watch

Una de dos, 2004

una_de_dos.gifUna de dos is set against the rural backdrop of Argentina in 2002 as a protracted recession and a government-instituted, desperate measure austerity plan to rescue the national economy from insolvency through the devaluation of its currency and announced default on its foreign debt has led to widespread rioting and worker strikes in the cities that has effectively crippled the country's economic backbone. A low-level mob courier trafficking in counterfeit currency, Martin, is directed to discontinue operations and maintain a low profile until contacted. Inevitably, Martin's return home to the rural province that is seemingly removed from the chaos and socio-political instability of the urban areas (an abandoned train platform and overlooking tracks reinforces this appearance of isolation) illustrates the far-reaching repercussions of the economic crisis as neighborhood shop owners are forced to turn away friends and family by refusing to operate on credit, workers struggle to devise ways to subsidize their wage shortfall (often in vain), local businesses are shuttered indefinitely (in an incisive sequence of the three young women strolling through the empty market streets that is seemingly only inhabited by stray dogs (a scenario that recalls the running motif of Béla Tarr's Damnation), and a sense of moral desolation has taken root, manifesting in increased acts of recklessness (implied in Pilar's story of her abducted, hitchhiking cousin) and chemical dependency. Following in the vein of contemporary Argentinean cinema in which the narrative is subtly explored through minute observations of the quotidian, Alejo Hernán Taube creates a competent and insightful portrait of sentimental inertia borne of economic uncertainty. Unfortunately, the film strays from its focus through the inclusion of tangential sex scenes that are neither motivated by money (which would have reinforced the idea of human commodification) nor by emotional desperation (which would have served as a broader comment on the demoralized social psyche), creating disposable episodes that serve only to showcase the physical appeal of the handsome lead actor, and diluting the film's more potent images of aimless, instinctual survival.

Posted by acquarello on Jun 14, 2005 | | Filed under 2005, Human Rights Watch

June 12, 2005

Wall, 2004

wall.gifFavorably recalling the rigorous imagery, desolation, and despiritualized landscapes of Chantal Akerman (most notably, in the opening sequences of the U.S.-Mexican border wall and off-camera interviews of From the Other Side), Wall is an evocatively shot, visually understated, and meditatively paced exposition on the social, political, economic, and psychological repercussions of the Israeli government's long-term funding of a work-in-progress, multi-phase construction project to erect a high-security separation wall between Israeli and Palestinian communities as a part of an envisioned first-line defense against terrorist infiltration. From the opening long shot sequence of the slow assembly of massive concrete barriers that bisect - and ultimately obstruct - the view of the horizon, filmmaker Simone Bitton creates a powerful metaphor for the defiance of nature through the creation of self-isolating, man-made barriers. Interweaving hyperextended sequences of the oppressive, formidable wall with interviews of people from both communities as they articulate the worthlessness, superficiality, and social insensitivity of the artificial obstruction as a deterrent tool for national security (and perhaps, overt disenfranchisement), Bitton creates a compelling portrait of the inutility of politically instituted, delusive panaceas in the absence of true communication and the brokering of a just peace: an Iraqi-native migrant laborer is grateful for the work provided by the massive construction project in the economically depressed region even as he longs to return to his homeland and rebuild his life (and country) after the fall of Saddam Hussein, a Palestinian farmer expresses his concern that the placement of the wall is only the start of a strategic plan to annex his land under the premise of upholding security, an Israeli father wistfully comments on the children's instilled fear of playing outdoors and offers his home to the leaders of both nations as a neutral ground for launching peace talks, a Jewish man whose elders survived the imprisonment of concentration camps underscores the irony of the country's decision to imprison itself.

Perhaps the most reflective of this cross-cultural sentiment of helplessness and inutility towards the wall is encapsulated in the sentiment of an Israeli community leader who had moved to the open spaces of the country only to find that he was forbidden to cross the border and visit his Palestinian neighbors. In 2000, seizing on the national headline news of an Arab boy who had drowned while saving two Israeli boys on the beach in order to initiate a goodwill gesture between the two communities, he soon found his olive branch efforts stalled by bureaucracy before being effectively cancelled by the advent of the second intifada. Addressing the neighboring city's mayor and his colleagues, he expresses his continued dedication towards meeting them and working towards the realization of an Arab-Israeli reconciliation wthin his lifetime.

Posted by acquarello on Jun 12, 2005 | | Comments (2) | Filed under 2005, Human Rights Watch

Still Life, 2004

Shot in the occupied territories (in particular, East Jerusalem and the southern Gaza strip), and composed of a series of landscape shots of unidentifiable rubble and twisted rebar from razed Palestinian homes, bulldozed agricultural fields, and separation walls against a repetitive, dispassionate speaker articulating a series of open-ended questions on the meaning of the images (Who's responsible? Would you live here? Who's paying for this?...), Still Life is compact, incendiary, and effective exposition on the cycle of tragedy, violence, and disenfranchisement caused by the occupation. Inasmuch as the filmmaker's near monotonic delivery of provocative questions had the overall effect of creating auditory abstraction from the power of the disturbing visuals (an overlaid sequence of typed questions set against the cacophany of tearing, friction, and rupture would have better served to concentrate the viewer's focus on the images), I greatly admired Cynthia Mandansky's patience, strength, and courage of conviction in addressing all the (sometimes loaded) questions raised during the Q&A despite some overt hostility (and soapbox grandstanding) from a few members of the audience who strongly disagreed with her point of view (mostly in a similar finger-pointing vein of laying blame and demands to show "both sides" of the story that has been lobbed at other filmmakers confronting this issue from a counterpoint perspective). Articulating a similar comment that I had attempted to convey in an article on Peace, Propaganda, and the Promised Land to demystify the notion that a documentary should present a balanced and impartial account of its subject (particularly in situations were readily accessible media coverage of the issues has revealed a systematic pattern of journalistic bias and dispoportionality), Madansky makes a compelling argument for the role of the filmmaker to provoke and challenge coventional wisdom, status quo, social perception, and accepted reality.

Posted by acquarello on Jun 12, 2005 | | Filed under 2005, Human Rights Watch

The Liberace of Baghdad, 2004

liberace.gifCharming, humorous, and endearing, it is easy to see why BBC journalist Sean McAllister decided to chronicle the life of flamboyant, irrepressibly outspoken, and widely popular entertainer (and notoriously unapologetic womanizer) Samir Peter who, in his heyday, was once dubbed the Liberace of Baghdad, and who, since the Iraqi War, now bides his time playing the piano in the near empty lounge of a heavily fortified hotel housing Western workers (mostly journalists and privately contracted security forces) stationed in the region as he waits for the approval of his visa in order to immigrate to the United States and join his two daughters and estranged wife. Filmed over an eighth month period in the power vacuum of a post-Sadaam Hussein Iraq under the increasingly volatile and escalating climate of frontier lawlessness, terrrorism, armed resistance, and kidnapping of foreign workers, The Liberace of Baghdad is an insightful first-hand portrait of the conflicted and demoralizing climate of everyday life in postwar Iraq as the ideals of liberation and freedom become increasingly obscured in the psychological prison of social insecurity. However, despite Peter's unparalleled ability to provide a compelling, provocative, engaging, and intimate account of the erosive toll of occupation and insurgency on ordinary civilians, I cannot help but question the integrity of the filmmaker who, either through colossal naïvete or sheer recklessness, seemed to willingly (and deliberately) continue to put his publicly high-profile subject in harm's way in order to get "the story", even after discovering first-hand in several close-call episodes the brutality of the retaliation by insurgents on those whom they perceive to be collaborating with Westerners (most notably, a neighbor's assassination in front of her child for her employment with a Western contractor, and in Peter's U.S. immigrant daughter and her family who have returned to Iraq to visit her remaining siblings.) Beyond the filmmaker's inept camerawork (including a nausea-inducing extended sequence of repeated quick pans capturing Peter's conversation with his daughter) and tangential, egocentric diversions away from his subject (including a remarkably unoriginal interstitial shot of him filming himself in a mirror), it is this moral conduct that ultimate undermines the integrity of the film as McAllister seems to have lost sight of the fact that by possessing a British passport, he is allowed to leave at anytime (and in fact, does) while the people whom he has filmed must live with the consequences of - and risk retribution or perhaps even death for - his exploitive, self-aggrandizing exposé.

Posted by acquarello on Jun 12, 2005 | | Comments (2) | Filed under 2005, Human Rights Watch

June 1, 2005

Living Rights, 2004

living.gifA compendium of self-contained multicultural stories featuring ethnically, economically, and existentially diverse children, each at the cusp of a pivotal turning point in their young lives, Living Rights examines the contemporary relevance - and often divergence - between the humanitarian statement crafted by 1989 United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child that sought to define and uphold the fundamental living rights of children, and the reality of the lives of these children whom the charter seeks to protect. Article 29, which espouses the "development of the child's personality, talents and mental and physical abilities to their fullest potential", provides the ideological framework for the film's first case study: a 16-year-old boy named Yoshi, diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome (a form of autism in which the person possesses normal intelligence, but has cognitive difficulty in interpreting non-verbal communication or understanding non-literal syntax) who has been placed into a special school for the mentally disabled. Juxtaposing Yoshi's candid, confessional-styled, direct address to the camera on why he should be allowed to transfer to a traditional high school with quotidian episodes culled from his personal life, the film (and Yoshi) makes an insightful and compelling argument on inclusion and otherness, and in the process, challenges - and more importantly, inculcates - society's own preconceived ideas of what it truly means to be "normal": his frustrating experiences at school in which he complains of his lack of intellectual challenge (Yoshi has been placed in a class in which some of his classmates exhibit more severe forms of mental disability) and of being over-praised for performing the most mundane tasks; his bouts of melancholia that reveal his low self-esteem (being teased by other children, his feelings of exclusion, his self-consciousness over his imperfections); his articulateness and creativity (particularly in drawing and painting) in expressing his ideas.

An equally compelling second case study involves a 14-year-old Maasai girl named Toti who, at the age of 11, had run away from home after her father promised her in marriage to a wealthy, older tribesman in exchange for a herd of cattle that their growing family needs in order to sustain their livelihood. Now living in a boarding school for runaway children who also fled their villages under similar circumstances of conscience, Toti is eager to reconnect with her family, especially her twin sister who was married off as the tribesman's fourth wife in her place. Filmmaker Duco Tellegen's inspired selection of featuring identical twins provides an incisive dynamic into the ideological gulf that now separates the two sisters. On the one hand is her sister's traditionally-minded arguments on the social role of women, familial (and tribal) obligation, and the meaning of enrichment (most notably, in questioning Toti's motivation for going to school, arguing that one day, she will inherit property once her husband dies, serving as proof that one does not need an education to become wealthy). On the other hand is Toti's own determination to continue with her education in the hopes that she can return to the Maasais and help bring about fundamental, humanitarian cultural change to her native community by being able to effectively communicate (and argue) with tribal elders - especially her own father - against deeply entrenched, inhumane customs (most notably, on the continued practices of female circumcision and arranged child marriages). Contrasting Toti's own seemingly limitless future with her sister's resigned, but contented fate, Toti's story is a thoughtful and inspiring account of cultural pride and human enlightenment - a profound transformation enabled by mutual respect, education, open-mindedness, and the singular courage to question.

The third case study centers on an eleven-year-old girl from Chernobyl named Lena who, in the aftermath of the large-scale, uncontained nuclear accident, was forced to leave her hometown for health and safety reasons after the radiation levels were found to be dangerously high for continued residential occupancy. Separated from her biological mother, she is cared for by her doting aunt, Galah who, despite financial hardship, is able to provide a decent life for her even as continues to be plagued by health problems. One day, a health worker informs Galah that an Italian couple who had once sponsored Lena during a recent international medical visit has expressed their desire to adopt her, and Galah becomes privately torn with wanting Lena to have access to the best health care to treat her condition and an opportunity for a better life, and her own desire to continue to nurture the emotional bond that has developed between them. Rather than imposing her own will on Lena, Galah sets aside her own personal dilemma and steps back from Lena's decision-making process in order to allow her to make up her own mind. Given the inherent limitation of Lena's refusal to discuss matters relating to her personal experience during the Chernobyl disaster as well as her resulting prolonged illness on camera, it is not surprising that the segment is the most clinical, distanced, and emotionally estranged installment of the film. However, while Lena's reticence has unwittingly re-adjusted the thematic focus of the segment from the young girl to her caretaker Gala, what emerges is still the film's underlying core of a child's fundamental - and inalienable - human rights: the right to live in a safe environment, the right to health care, and perhaps most importantly, the right to determine one's own destiny.

Posted by acquarello on Jun 01, 2005 | | Filed under 2005, Human Rights Watch

May 31, 2005

Compadre, 2004

compadre.gifAt the 2003 Human Rights Watch International Film Festival, I had the privilege of seeing an unassuming, underseen film shot in cinéma vérité style by Ditsi Carolino entitled Life on the Tracks (a film that quickly made my short list of favorite films for the year) on a family from the province who had come to the metropolitan city of Manila in order to seek a better life, only to end up living as squatters on derelict shantytowns built alongside the railroad tracks. In watching Mikael Wiström's equally penetrating, indelible, and deeply affecting portrait of inseparable familial (and fraternal) bonds against a demoralizing existence of crushing poverty, the moment of epiphany - the thematic parallel between the lives of the Renomeron family in the Philippine slum and the Barrientos family in a Peruvian slum - occurs in a scene when the Barrientos patriarch, Daniel, now working as a motorcycle cab driver, expresses his sadness and frustration to his western-born, filmmaking compadre over his continued (perceived) menial social status since their initial encounter decades earlier: a self-effacing moment that serves to underscore the delusive, illusory nature of Eddie's dream to own a tricycle pedicab as the ephemeral panacea to achieving financial solvency in the Carolino film.

Thirty years earlier, in 1974, Swedish photojournalist Wiström traveled to Peru to chronicle the lives of the poor and disenfranchised who eked out a meager living by scavenging through garbage dumps and, during the course of filming, befriended a genial, ruggedly handsome, polio-stricken indigenous young man named Daniel Barrientos who had approached him with a ghastly, almost surreal tale of his daughter's near death when she was attacked by hungry wild boars. Although economic conditions have since modestly improved for the Barrientos family through the now middle-aged Daniel's self-employment and his devoted wife Nati's work as a maid and nanny - a resourcefulness that has been able to provide food, clothing, shelter, and a modest education for their children - the idea of a "normal life" still largely remains an illusion. His younger daughter, Judith's conflicted sentiment over a failing romantic relationship with a gainfully employed disc jockey provides an illuminating, emotional truth that lies at the core of this illusive search: allowing him to devotedly provide for her even as she remains unwilling to make a commitment, she dreams of leading a financially independent life away from him, but considers herself above accepting certain occupations, remarking that she finds the idea of wearing a nanny's uniform in public, as her mother does, mortifying. Her married sister (and Wiström's goddaughter), Sandra, works in the family's pottery business and is less self-conscious (and selective) in her quest for financial relief, but feels - along with her husband - that the gateway to true economic opportunity and a better life lies elsewhere, beyond the bounds (and deeply entrenched class structures) of their homeland and into the neighboring country of Brazil, where they can, perhaps eventually, make their way towards Argentina. With Daniel and his children figuratively standing at their own personal crossroads, he decides to take them on a soul-searching journey to return to his ancestral roots by visiting his indigenous village in the remote Andes mountains - a region that he had once vowed in his childhood to never return - and where his relatives continue their struggle to survive, abandoned by the rest of the Spanish-speaking country, living in inhumane conditions and abject poverty. Filmed with unflinching intimacy, Compadre is a profoundly humbling (and innately sobering) ethnographic portrait of the widespread poverty, displacement, and marginalization faced by indigenous people in contemporary society as they struggle to assimilate - often as second-class citizens - into the adopted culture and society of their native country. Capturing a fusion of reverent, wide-eyed observation of the human condition with the filmmaker's own emotionally conflicted sentiment of overwhelming social futility, the film metaphorically (and exquisitely) converges with its own introductory images of the cloud-capped Andes mountains - figuratively bringing the Barrientos family full circle to the meaning and legacy of their cultural heritage - and in the process, traces their collective transcendence through a renewed sense of identity, moral center, and paradise lost.

Posted by acquarello on May 31, 2005 | | Comments (1) | Filed under 2005, Human Rights Watch

May 29, 2005

No More Tears Sister: Anatomy of Hope and Betrayal, 2004

tears_sister.gifOn an unassuming afternoon in September 1989, Dr. Rajani Thiranagama, a 35 year-old physician, medical university professor, and human rights activist, was riding home on her bicycle after having finished grading the final examinations from her Anatomy class when she was gunned down on an anonymous street in her native city of Jaffna by unknown (or at least, publicly undisclosed) assailants. Over fifteen years later, the still-unsolved murder continues to reveal the trauma and underlying senseless tragedy of her assassination on her family - her two young daughters, her estranged husband, her parents, her younger sisters - and especially, her older sister, Nirmala, who blames herself for initiating Rajani into the ethnic struggle that would ultimately claim her life. Virtually inseparable during their privileged, upper middle-class, westernized Christian childhood, Nirmala and Rajani's seemingly disparate ideological trajectories - Nirmala in the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) movement and Rajani in the Marxist movement of the 1970s - would converge towards their homeland's post-colonial struggle for national identity as the Tamil minority (who were perceived to have been favored by the British and subsequently, were systematically marginalized under the government of the newly formed country) and Singhalese majority engaged in a bitter and protracted civil war in Sri Lanka. Nirmala, then a member of the Tamil tigers fighting for an independent state, had repeatedly sought assistance from her sister to secretly treat the wounds of injured guerillas - an act that, from the LTTE's perspective, can be construed as a validation of her allegiance to the organization. However, Rajani's political motivation would not be so easily defined. Championing instead the cause of the silent, innocent victims of the devastating, multi-pronged conflict among nationalists, Tamil separatists, Marxists (People's Liberation Army), government forces, and even Indian peace-keeping forces, Rajani defied the role of partisan revolutionary and instead, focused her energies on creating some semblance of normalcy and rebuilding a future for the people of Jaffra by helping to re-open the region's bomb-damaged university and forming the University Teachers for Human Rights (UTHR) who sought to chronicle the human rights violations perpetrated on the people of Jaffra irrespective of factional responsibility. Even Rajana's husband Dayapala acknowledges his own (then) limited view of the significance of his wife's activities during this period, commenting to Nirmala that his concept of political activism had been of armed struggle and not humanitarianism, commenting "We didn't consider human rights as politics." However, as Rajana became more outspoken and internationally recognized in her group's efforts to document the atrocities, culminating in the publication of the manuscript, The Broken Palmyra, insurgents began to view her activities as undermining their cause - a perception that is widely believed to have contributed to her death. Through filmmaker Helene Klodawsky's evocatively interwoven composition of nostalgically rendered re-enactments, archival footage, spiritual hymn performances, and dislocated personal interviews, No More Tears Sister: Anatomy of Hope and Betrayal transcends the immediate political specificity of the Tamil conflict in Sri Lanka to create a broader portrait of the human toll of colonialism, civil war, and ethnic conflict that contribute to a population of victims. Contrasting Rajani's ill-fated plight in returning to her native land in order to work towards breaking the cycle of violence with the guilt and demoralized melancholia of her exiled family, what emerges is a tragic, cautionary tale of idealism without action, nationalism without inclusion, and revolution without conscience.

Posted by acquarello on May 29, 2005 | | Comments (9) | Filed under 2005, Human Rights Watch

May 26, 2005

Justice, 2004

justice.gifIn the subtly insightful opening sequence of the film, a disabled parking attendant is brought before a judge in a Rio de Janeiro criminal courtroom for a preliminary hearing stemming from a police arrest on a burglary charge. The defendant begins to provide an explanation for the circumstances of how he came to be at a particular location when the police, having chased a group of burglars into the street and subsequently lost their trail in the vicinity (perhaps after the defendant interfered - whether intentionally or not - in their pursuit of the suspects), instead decided to apprehend him for the home invasion despite being visibly confined to a wheelchair. In the midst of struggling to explain his side of the story, the judge truncates the accused man's long-winded, rambling informal testimony and begins to rephrase the defendant's responses into a terser, clinical, and more compact (and also less descriptive and comprehensibly nuanced) dictation to the court reporter for entry into the official trial documents. The judge's insinuated dilution of the semantic context of the defendant's elaborate response - his appropriation of the role of speaker on behalf of the defendant in order to expedite the fact-finding process and proceed to trial - reflects the inherent, (albeit, perhaps unconscious) pattern of silencing the poor and undereducated in the dispensation of social justice. In a subsequent court proceeding, a young, impoverished bake shop assistant and expectant father named Carlos Eduardo is charged with the repeat offense of car theft (after borrowing a stolen automobile from an acquaintance - a known drug dealer - and accidentally crashing the vehicle into a lamppost) and expresses his concern over who will provide for his family if he is denied bail before his trial. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Maria Ramos' approach is her ability to capture the underlying socio-economic landscape that emerges from her refusal to paint a broad stroke, caricatured portrait of the upholders of justice as insensitive, self-serving mouthpieces for monolithic institutions: a genial judge and law professor engages his class in a thoughtful discussion on the difficulty of determining criminal intent when the act is taken outside of its context; a prosecuting attorney assigned to the trial of an orphaned boy accused of being an accessory to drug trafficking takes a curiously laid-back and unaggressive approach to the defendant's cross-examination, perhaps to keep from exacerbating the boy's punishment sentence if he were to be found guilty; a sympathetic and dedicated defense attorney carefully crafts her strategy in such a way as to minimize the implication of her client's admitted transgressions while emphasizing his socially beneficial capacity (and suitability) for reform. Favorably recalling the direct cinema of Frederick Wiseman and Raymond Depardon, Justice is similarly filmed with an absence of expository narration and leading (and implicitly biased) interviews, using the subjects' own quotidian experiences and vernacular to chronicle the travails of the underprivileged as they attempt to navigate through a daunting and impersonal justice system. Paradoxically deriving poignancy and intimacy through the objective distance of a stationary, unobtrusive camera, Ramos' figurative act of fading into the background becomes, in itself, a defiant act of self-erasure that parallels the marginalization of her characters: validating the unheard voices of the underprivileged by allowing them to articulate in their own faltering, heartfelt words - unmodulated by societal filters - the elusiveness of true justice.

Posted by acquarello on May 26, 2005 | | Filed under 2005, Human Rights Watch

May 24, 2005

Videoletters, 2005

videoletters.gifIn one of several, equally heart-rending and inspiring segments in Videoletters entitled Vlada and Ivica, Vlada and his father Zoran, a Serbian, finishes recording his videotaped message and begins to reflect pensively on their family's inevitable estrangement from the intended videoletter recipient, Vlada's childhood friend Ivica and his father Zeljko Krilcici, a colleague and long-time friend from Croatia with whom they had lost contact during the turmoil of the civil war that culminated in the break-up of Yugoslavia. Years earlier, Zoran had written a guilt-racked, soul-baring letter to Zeljko expressing his profound apology, sorrow, and shame for his country's military action in Croatia during the war - a letter that Zeljko had never responded to. In a wistful attempt at levity, Zoran admits his reluctance to attempt contact with the Krilcici family after all that has happened: "Now we can still say: 'We have friends in Zagreb.' But if you pick up the phone, you run the risk of having to admit: 'I don't have friends in Zagreb anymore.' Now I can still avoid the truth, saying 'We don't see each other but we are still friends." But Zeljko has a simpler (and non ethnically motivated) explanation for his silence towards his old friend's heartfelt missive, remarking that Zoran was not responsibility for the war and did not have any reason to apologize at all. Nevertheless, a deeper - and more poignant - underlying reason soon surfaces behind Zeljko's (and the family's) absence of communication: the knowledge of Zoran's post-retirement activity in workers unions and eventually, in national politics. Fearing that opponents will exploit their friendship for political fodder in order to attack Zoran's patriotism (or worse, accuse him of treason), Zeljko has consciously avoided pursuing contact with him. The long overdue moment of the revelation, enabled through a combination of modern technology and old-fashioned determination, is revealed in Zeljko's characteristically straightforward videoletter postscript, offering Zoran and his family, not only a sense of closure from their reluctant fate, but also a renewed optimism for humanity in the face of seeming hopelessness, rage, distrust, and exile: "We do not think that you're guilty or that all Serbs are guilty. You are good people, good family...We still love you, there are no problems."

Conceived for broadcast on the ten-year anniversary of the Dayton Peace Accords throughout the now-independent countries of the former republic of Yugoslavia, the underlying premise of the project is deceptively simple: a person from one war-town Balkan nation records a videotaped message to be hand delivered by filmmakers Katarina Rejger and Eric van den Broek to their personally selected, intended recipient in another war-town nation and who, in turn, will record a response to be sent back to the originator. Composed of a series of self-contained, half-hour episodes depicting intimate, emotionally candid first-hand testaments of ordinary people - often childhood friends, co-workers, neighbors, and even passing acquaintances whose relationships were rended by war (such as the unexpectedly uplifting segment, Mujesira and Joviša, in which a former interned prisoner attempts to establish contact with a camp guard in order to enlist his aid in finding the remains of her children who were killed during the ethnic cleansing of her village) - as they recount their personal experiences during the war and express their sincere hopes for reciprocated contact, the film is a thoughtful, impassioned, and profoundly affirming portrait of communication, reconciliation, and closure in the aftermath of the Balkan Wars. In the end, the recurring shots of the filmmakers' numerous road trips throughout the former Yugoslavia - emerging from dark tunnels, traversing difficult and often impassable terrain, and recording the irreconcilability of landscape between intact cities and abandoned village ruins - converges to reinforce the metaphoric image of the Balkan region as a fractured, human mosaic of complex, tragic history, multi-faceted identity, and intrinsic, unerasable beauty.

Posted by acquarello on May 24, 2005 | | Filed under 2005, Human Rights Watch

May 8, 2005

Harun Farocki: Working on the Sight-Lines, edited by Thomas Elsaesser

farocki_sightlines.gifIn the introductory chapter, Harun Farocki: Filmmaker, Artist, Media Theorist, Thomas Elsaesser underscores the idea that the singularity of Farocki's cinema resides, not in the power (or juxtaposition) of images, but in the residual impact of the afterimages that is revealed through a careful editing design, noting that for the filmmaker, the power of cinema is "visible in an absence (the missing image)". In essence, Farocki derives his distinctive vision from the meticulous, observational study of images: a visually critical process that Elsaesser explains transforms Farocki's role of filmmaker to that of "a theorist, making him a special kind of witness, a close-reader of 'images', and an exegete-exorcist of their ghostly 'afterimages'". In this respect, Farocki's role can be seen, not as that of documentarian (this is especially true in his latter work where he has exclusively worked with existing, found footage), but rather, as that of an archeologist who sets out to discover a range of information and causal interconnections from a single artifact, a creative philosophy that is reflected in Farocki's comment, "It is not a matter of what is in a picture, but rather, of what lies behind. Nonetheless, one shows a picture as proof of something which cannot be proven by a picture". As Elsaesser further expounds, "events, accidents, and disasters can be turned over to see what lies behind them and to inspect the recto of the verso: except that even this 'image' belongs to a previous age, when a picture was something you could touch with your fingers and pass from hand to hand. Now it is a matter of recognizing the invisible within the visible, or of detecting the code by which the visible is programmed." It is this systematic methodology of characterizing the history behind the image that is reflected in Farocki's comment, "You don't have to look for new images that have never been seen, but you have to work on existing images in a way that makes them new. There are various paths. Mine is to look for the buried sense, and to clear away the rubble lying on top of the images", and is embodied in the identification of Auschwitz some 40 years later in the archived Allied reconnaissance photographs of adjacent high collateral targets in Images of the World and the Inscription of War, as well as the playful "discovery" of a factory worker tugging her colleague's skirt in Workers Leaving the Factory.

Elsaesser further notes that former film critic and scholar Farocki belongs to the May 68 counterculture generation of artists and intellectuals who sought to effect political change through social revolution and who, rather than suppress or radically alter his vision after the collapse of revolution, instead transformed his disappointment and redirected his energies towards the creation of a more critical and intrinsically political modernist cinema. The resulting symbiosis of avant-garde aesthetics and socio-political activism is also broached in a subsequent introductory essay on Farocki's films by Jonathan Rosenbaum, The Road Not Taken: Films by Harun Farocki in which he ruminates on Farocki's relative obscurity (and delayed appreciation) in the US: "I would venture that this is because they belong to an intellectual and artistic tradition in Europe that has never taken hold on these shores - an approach to filmmaking that regards formal and political concerns as intimately intertwined and interdependent."

This manifestation of a kind of subsumed radicalism is especially evident in the film Before Your Eyes - Vietnam in which a fictional doomed love story is set against the turbulent conflict of the Vietnam War (a love and war scenario that recalls Alain Resnais' Hiroshima mon amour but proves to be a much more overtly political film than its predecessor). In the film, not only does Farocki explore the issue of terrorism and domestic resistance (as Gillo Pontecorvo's seminal docufiction film, The Battle of Algiers, similarly captures), but also directly examines the media (or image) politics (and war) that is concurrently fought by all sides of the armed conflict as part of the overall strategy of modern warfare. Elsaesser provides a thoughtful encapsulation of this distinction between terrorism and insurgency in Before Your Eyes - Vietnam:

As a media war, as well as a liberation struggle, it challenged the meaning of territory, by creating the 'terrorist' alongside the 'guerilla': where the latter hides in the bush, vanishes in the undergrowth, camouflages himself into invisibility, the former has to make a pact with the visibility and the spectacle. In order to be effective, the terrorist has to be visible, but in order to be 'visible' among so many images, his actions have to exceed the order of representations, while nonetheless engaging 'the enemy' on the territory of representation. Political actions attain credibility and the 'truth of the image' it seems, by passing through the process of intense specularization, with the contradictory effect that in order to become recognizable as political, events have to be staged as spectacle.

As the protagonist, Anna, appropriately comments in the film (and is cited in Christa Blümlinger's essay, Slowly Forming a Thought While Working on Images), the manipulation of the media for public sentiment is akin to "competing for the greater atrocity" as anti-war protesters parading images of Vietnamese soldiers brutalized by the American military are alternated with images of civilians brutalized by communist partisans. However, with the media saturation of graphic images that inevitably lead to public desensitization, Farocki's task is then to convey the idea of the images without presenting the grotesqueness of the images, a separation that is exemplified in the filmmaker's notorious (but effective) act of stubbing out a cigarette on his forearm in order to illustrate the relative effects of napalm on humans in Inextinguishable Fire, a strategy of distancing - but not Brechtian alienation - that, as Blümlinger notes, seeks "to reveal the disjunction between the camera and the eye, between the subject and apparatus."

In the Thomas Elsaesser interview, Making the World Superfluous: An Interview with Harun Farocki, Elsaesser comments that as a writer for Filmkritik, Farocki had written appreciations for filmmakers as diverse as Jean-Luc Godard and Robert Bresson that stylistically, seem to be irreconcible, to which he responds, "But Bert[old] Brecht and Thomas Mann were also antagonists, and nonetheless, one can be an admirer of both as happens to be the case with me. Bresson, to put it briefly, makes his images rhyme, of which I am a great admirer, even though this is not at all my own project".

In a subsequent exchange, Elsaesser brings up the inevitable limitation of foreign translation in the multiplicity and specificity of meaning in the German word 'Aufklärung'. Farocki cites the Hans Jonas book, Phenomenon of Life which proposes that, "everything in philosophy has a metaphor related to the eyes, to vision and so forth, and that in religion, things always relate to the ear. In many languages, at least in many European languages, God is audible and philosophy is visible...So in this sense, it's very essential that the German word 'Aufklärung' is a bit different from the English word 'enlightenment', and such things are essential for a film, but they were not the starting point of the film."

In the Rembert Hüser interview, A Conversation with Harun Farocki, Hüser notes that Farocki's film, I Thought I Was Seeing Convicts, composed of surveillance footage from the high security prison in Corcoran, California was a line taken from the Roberto Rossellini film, Europa 51, during a scene in which Ingrid Bergman works in a factory for a day and finds the experience akin to being confined in a prison. Hüser suggests that the title is perhaps an expression of humanization for the prisoners as "real people" instead of depersonalized images captured in the surveillance videos in a constant state of strict regimentation and conformity, unable to act freely according to their nature without severe - if not fatal - consequences. Farocki expounds on this overarching humanism with the comment:

In Rossellini's film, a comprehensive world view comes into being. This world view may not hold, but the film has great meaning for me because it emphasizes an attitude of not wanting to acquiesce to a system of injustice.

Posted by acquarello on May 08, 2005 | | Comments (5) | Filed under 2005, Film Related Reading

May 1, 2005

Keita, The Heritage of the Griot, 1995

keita.gifOne day, in the rural village of Wagadu, a slumbering griot (traditional tale-teller) named Djéliba is visited by the spirit of an ancient hunter and oracle as he recounts in his dreams the legend of a tribesman on the dawn of civilization who rose up and proclaimed himself king of Mandé with the neutral consent of his village, assuming the name Konaté after their collective response, "konaté" ("No one hates you"), to his declaration of self-empowerment. Awakening with a sense of inexorable destiny and divine purpose, Djéliba decides to undertake a long journey into the city in order to begin the indoctrination of the king's descendant, a young boy named Mabo Keita who, upon his initial encounter, is sitting on the front porch of his home reading the sterile and impersonal explanation of humanity's evolution provided by Darwin's Theory. Providing Mabo with a tantalizing glimpse of his ancestral history as a descendant, not that of apes, but of an ancient king named Sundjata, the son of Konaté and his second wife, an outcast hunchback who possesses mystical powers of natural transformation (nyama) named Sogolon, Mabo is immediately taken with the griot's fanciful and exotic story that provides the contextual background for the origin of his name that, as Djéliba cautiously explains, would take nearly a lifetime to tell in its entirety. Soon, as Mabo becomes increasingly obsessed with the ancient tale on the meaning of his ancestral name, he begins to forgo his studies, daydream, and skip classes, creating a conflict within the Keita household between his traditionally-minded father who encourages Djéliba's cultural initiation through oral history and his progressive-minded mother who believes that Mabo's successful future rests on his ability to master a Western education. Interweaving episodes of the thirteenth century poem, The Sundjata Epic into the contemporary, cautionary tale of cultural marginalization in the face of increasing Westernization in Burkina Faso, Keita, The Heritage of the Griot is an evocative, elegantly conceived, and understatedly insightful articulation of the dilemma confronting many African countries at the turn of the century as they struggle to reconcile the influences of their post-colonial past and their pre-colonial history in their (inevitable) social mobilization towards industrialization, technological progress, and modernization. Filmmaker Dani Kouyaté elegantly (and ingeniously) structures the film to reflect the overarching theme on the virtues of an ethnocentric education as a means of preserving cultural heritage in an age of impersonalized globalization (note the film's reference to Mabo's traditional studies as a lifelong quest to know the meaning of his name, in essence, his identity). It is this innate search for reconciliation and preservation of indigenous history that is reflected in Mabo's enlightened quest to know the origin of his name - the need for cultural integration as a means of cultivating and preserving native identity in a national climate of inevitable change, redefinition, and transformation.

Posted by acquarello on May 01, 2005 | | Filed under 2005, New York African Film Festival

April 30, 2005

Story of a Beautiful Country, 2004

beautifulcountry.gifDuring the post-screening Q&A of Story of a Beautiful Country, filmmaker Khalo Matabane stated that his inspiration for his self-described road movie indirectly came from the daily television broadcasts of the Truth and Reconciliation Hearings, observing that many of the witnesses to the struggle - the human testimonies that not only chronicled national history under apartheid, but also ushered the emergence of a new South Africa - were predominantly given by women. Evoking the familiar African expression, "Truth is a woman", Matabane then sought to capture the complexity of his native country by interviewing a socially, culturally, intellectually, and economically diverse cross-section of South Africans, mostly women, through a multi-city journey using a familiar, South African mode of transportation: the minibus (that, as the filmmaker subsequently explains, was selected primarily because the vehicle provided a large, panoramic rear window with which to appropriately frame the majestic, native landscape). It is, therefore, perhaps not surprising that film recalls the transcendent nomadism, intimacy, and cultural insight of the women passengers (and divorced, middle-class driver) in Abbas Kiarostami's Ten.

Presenting a series of interviews (and performances) from a varied demographic of ordinary citizens, sight-seers, professionals, artists, and students, and interwoven through a radio talk show broadcast that intermittently conducts and engages discussion on opinion polls that attempt to gauge the state of racial relations within the nation, the film serves as an insightful, contemplative, and impassioned open invitation to cross-cultural dialogue on contemporary social issues in South Africa: a militant Boer farmer eager to reclaim the government to a whites-only rule; a young woman who questions the reality of true reconciliation in such a short period of time; an interracial couple who ponders the idea of starting a family; an ethnically multiracial young woman who proudly identifies herself using the socially discouraged, apartheid-era term "colored" to describe her mixed race heritage; a young, Afrikaaner woman who derives energy and inspiration from her newfound access to the nation's diverse cultures; a silent, middle-aged woman who visits the grave of her son (a victim of post-apartheid racial violence by right-wing extremists); a privileged young woman of native African descent who (not surprisingly) foresees a bright future for the new South Africa even as she acknowledges that Johannesburg still remains largely segregated because of continued economic disparity. In expressing his gravitation in the final editing of the film towards episodes in which the interviewees exhibited moments of silence, incoherence, or prolonged deliberativeness in their responses, Matabane reflects, not only the inherently personal, indefinable process of reconciliation and closure, but also the ephemeral, inarticulable beauty of his beloved homeland.

Posted by acquarello on Apr 30, 2005 | | Filed under 2005, New York African Film Festival

Born into Struggle, 2004

bornintostruggle.gifPart first-hand historical testament on South African anti-apartheid movement and part essay confessional (or perhaps even emotional exorcism) on the filmmaker and activist, Rehad Desai's absence during the formative years of his own son's life, Born into Struggle is an intimate and provocative examination of the personal legacy and intangible familial toll caused by the patriarch, Barney Desai's political activism and consuming obsession towards the struggle for freedom in his beloved homeland. A leading figure in the South African Coloured People's Congress during the 1960s (and subsequent leader in the Pan-Africanist Congress in the 1990s), Barney Desai would continue his campaign for equal justice even while in exile in England, working as an advocate for minority clients who found themselves running afoul with the police (most notably, during the labor strikes of the 1970s) and documenting the torture and death of West Cape activist and Muslim elder Imam Haron while under police detention in 1969 through the publication of the book, The Killing of the Imam: South African Tyranny Defied by Courage and Faith. However, Barney Desai's exacting and tireless dedication would have repercussions on the Desai family: a daughter conceals her childhood molestation by a family friend from her parents for fear that her father's already demoralized emotional state following his exile would sink him further into depression (a subconscious suppression that would lead to an abusive relationship in her adult life); an older son has completely estranged himself from his family and politics, rejecting his father's academic intellectualism by refraining from obtaining a college education against his father's advice; a younger son redirects his rage and sense of emotional abandonment through escalating drug addiction and the harassment and brutalization of other ethnic and religious minorities. In contrast to the affirming portrait of familial solidarity and commitment to the national struggle presented in A South African Love Story: Walter and Albertine Sisulu, what emerges in Rehad Desai's sincere and articulate exposition is a portrait of conflicted emotion, haunted memory, and residual estrangement. In this respect, the Desai children's sentiment towards their father's conscious estrangement from his family in the final months of his life during the formation of the transitional post-apartheid government recalls the lingering ambivalence of Miklòs Gimes and his mother, Lucy in the personal documentary, Mutter, in which the patriarch's image as a national hero becomes equally difficult to reconcile with his own personal failings as a husband and father (Barney Desai's wife similarly alludes to the possibility of his extramarital affairs during his many trips away from home). In the end, what emerges in Born into Struggle is not only a fascinating tale of one family's decades long, multinational campaign for equal rights, but more importantly, a provocative and insightful portrait of personal reconciliation and the intangible, human cost of freedom.

Posted by acquarello on Apr 30, 2005 | | Filed under 2005, New York African Film Festival

April 29, 2005

The Hero, 2004

hero.gifEach day, a decorated war veteran and landmine victim named Vitório, having been discharged from the military after the government issued troop demobilization orders at the end of the 30 year civil war, waits in the wings of an overcrowded, physical rehabilitation hospital to see if his petition for a prosthetic leg has finally been granted. Earning the sympathy of a staff physician, Vitório is placed at the head of the waiting list, outfitted with a new prosthesis, and expediently sent away with the qualification that this would be the only gesture that the doctor can offer to help him in his new life. With his newfound mobility (and freedom), Vitório leaves the hospital to return to civilian life after a 20-year forcible conscription, only to find that widespread unemployment, minimal government transition assistance, and his physical disability leave him with few opportunities to rebuild his life in the chaotic social climate of postwar Angola. Resorting to living in the streets, the disillusioned Vitório begins to spend his aimless evenings at a seedy bar where he meets a hostess named Judite who, several years earlier, had lost custody of her son. In another part of the city, a troubled adolescent boy named Manu, already prone to mischief and petty theft, is sent home along with the rest of his classmates after their teacher announces that the teacher's union has declared a strike and is suspending classes indefinitely. Involuntarily separated from his parents during the war, young Manu lives with his elderly grandmother who still cherishes the (perhaps elusive) hope that his father would one day return to them. In the meantime, Manu's teacher Joana, the privileged daughter of a Portuguese expatriate, attempts to provide some semblance of stability to Manu's tumultuous life by visiting his grandmother's home and encouraging Manu to study during the hiatus. Nevertheless, despite their attempts to instill a sense of discipline in the young boy, Manu continues to commit petty crimes in the hopes of securing enough money to embark on a cross-country trip to search for his missing father. Inevitably, the paths of Vitorio, Judite, and Manu would converge on an actual "other side of the tracks" in the city of Luanda and, in the process, reveal the tragedy of displacement and a lost generation rended by a protracted and devastating war. A thoughtful and compassionate exposition on the process of reconciliation and human resilience, The Hero incisively captures the travails of ordinary people as they struggle to find their place in the amorphous and rapidly transforming socio-economic landscape of a new Angola. From the opening sequence depicting Vitório's daily hospital ritual, filmmaker Zézé Gamboa introduces the film's recurring theme of replacement and surrogacy that is subsequently reflected in the characters' forging of makeshift families as a human imperative towards healing and closure. It is within this deeply humanist message of surrogacy, interdependence, and connection that Gamboa illustrates that true national recovery is achieved, not with the laying down of arms at the end of the conflict, but with the restoration of communality, human dignity, and inner peace.

Posted by acquarello on Apr 29, 2005 | | Filed under 2005, New York African Film Festival

Waiting for Valdez, 2002

valdez.gifIn an unnamed section of 1970s Johannesburg, a cheerful, inquisitive schoolboy named Sharky stares transfixedly at a billboard poster promoting the screening of the Burt Lancaster film, Valdez is Coming at a local theater. Living under the custody and supervision of his grandmother after his parents were forcibly uprooted and relocated to distant parts of Johannesburg during the implementation of apartheid segregation, young Sharky's childhood, nevertheless, retains a semblance of normalcy in spite of the political turmoil surrounding his country: an idyllic childhood filled with doting affection, playground misadventures, and curious bewilderment (in particular, from an eccentric relative whose ambition is to pass for a white person and, perhaps implicitly, avoid the mandated segregation). Unable to raise enough money to watch the film first-hand, he instead buys admission into the narrated installments of the story that his friends re-enact nightly around a bonfire. However, when his grandmother unexpectedly falls ill, Sharky ends up missing the end of the film. Filmmaker Dumisani Phakathi presents an understated and evocative quotidian portrait of life in 1970s apartheid-era segregation in Waiting for Valdez. Through the intrinsic correlation with Valdez is Coming - a film that, uncoincidentally, centers on a David and Goliath-styled retribution for a transgression that can never truly be set right - Phakathi presents Sharky's truncated story as an allegory for the broader national struggle sweeping South Africa as the turmoil and uncertainty of the times is revealed within the context of human history to merely serve as a delayed moment of inevitable reckoning.

Posted by acquarello on Apr 29, 2005 | | Comments (1) | Filed under 2005, New York African Film Festival

April 28, 2005

The Colonial Misunderstanding, 2004

colonial.gifIn an early episode of The Colonial Misunderstanding, a reverend from Cameroon who is working towards the restoration and proper attribution of a native Jamaican missionary, Joseph Merrick's historical importance in the Christianization of the country during the early half of the 1800s (a historical suppression that, in the light of colonialization in the latter half of the 1800s, instead became attributed to the British missionary, Alfred Saker) expounds on the fundamental difference between Merrick and Saker's approach to ministry, explaining that Merrick saw God within the souls of the native African as they were, and believed that his mission was to work from this level of intrinsic human commonality and elevate them through the Word of God, while Saker, in contrast, set western Christian ideals as the sole paradigm for successful conversion. Nevertheless, the legacy of either missionary's early groundwork towards the Christianization of West Africa would be destined to be further eroded and trivialized in the annals of (Western authored) history with the advent of the Industrial Revolution, as European countries sought to carve up the continent for exploitation of raw materials - and subsequently, forced, unpaid labor - under the guise of "educating the savages" (many of whom had already been converted to Christianity before the advent of the "enlightened mandate"). It is this intrinsic correlation between colonialists and missionaries that a second reverend would later (appropriately) conclude as the historical conversion of West Africa, not to the Word of God, but to "the Word of Otto von Bismarck".

Perhaps the most egregious and morally reprehensible example of this (and provides the inferential context to the film's title) is Germany's historical mistreatment and marginalization of the Herero people. Noting that native Africans did not possess the concept of private land ownership (believing that God owned all the land, and the people are only its guardians), the film illustrates the grave "misunderstanding" that resulted when Germans arrived in the region and sought to buy land from the local tribal chiefs who, in turn, misinterpreted the gesture by the Westerners as seeking permission to use the land (After all, as a commenter lightheartedly muses, how can the Europeans take the land back with them?). When the settlers then transferred ownership among other non-native settlers, the chief of the Herero tribe (and converted Christian), Samuel Maherero, led an uprising to drive the new (and from the indigenous people's perspective, tribally unnegotiated and, therefore, trespassing) German settlers out, an act that would consequently escalate to war and lead to the attempted genocide of the Herero people through military orders to exterminate all Herero men in retaliation for the uprising, as well as to shoot "above the heads of women and children" in order to drive them deep into the desert where they would face certain death through starvation and disease. Furthermore, the surviving Herero people would later be interned in forced work camps to serve as free labor to feed the industries of the Industrial Revolution. As the film appropriately concludes, this early example of German colonialist policy of tribal extermination and forced internment towards the Herero people would provide the brutal paradigm - and ominously foreshadow - the tragedy of the Holocaust. Tracing the complex, often painful and inhumane trajectory of colonialization under the thinly veiled guise of divine, Western intervention, filmmaker Jean-Marie Téno presents a fascinating, intelligently constructed, and (personally) illuminating exposition on the history, evolution, and residual consequences of colonialism in Africa. By contrasting the impressive, architectural infrastructure and soulless, modernized landscape of Wuppertall, Germany against the subhuman conditions and tinderbox construction of an African resettlement camp as refugees, nevertheless, take the initiative to build a makeshift church in order to have a place to conduct their daily worship, the film serves as a thoughtful and profoundly articulate portrait of colonialism's unreconciled, bifurcated legacy.

Posted by acquarello on Apr 28, 2005 | | Comments (4) | Filed under 2005, New York African Film Festival

April 27, 2005

Keepers of Memory, 2004

keepersmemory.gifA Tutsi herdsman and genocide survivor sits atop a pastoral outpost on the side of a hill in Bisesero, reflects on the loss of his family and friends during the 100 day massacre, wistfully looks out into the horizon, and comments, "This place used to be beautiful. Now the only beauty is the skeletons on the mountains". In a subsequent train of thought, he criticizes the continued re-appearance (and opportunism) of international journalists in the area since the end of the genocide to conduct interviews with survivors, only to go away and effect little change in their situation since 1994: "Can't you see we're dying?" It is a sentiment of profound desolation, resignation, unreconciled grief, and impotence that would echo through the testimonials of several survivors at each of six major sites of the 1994 Rwandan genocide who have, in their own individual ways, become keepers of the dead by memorializing the massacre sites and serving as first-hand witnesses to articulate the depth of tragedy. A middle-aged woman (and sole survivor of her family) who was shot by the Interahamwe (Hutu militia) in her own home recounts how she lay for days on the floor gravely wounded amidst the bodies of her family, unable to move and afraid to call out for fear that the gunmen would again return (as they had randomly done in the villages for several days to ensure that there were no survivors) and that, in her immobility and dire thirst, had resorted to drinking from a pool of blood that had collected near her in a (perceived) moment of weakness. Ten years later, she continues to regret her actions and feels forever destined to be haunted by her lost loved ones every time she takes a drink of water, eternally bound in the memory of their dying blood bond. Another woman who bears the physical scars from massive head wounds suffered during the massacre in her village expresses her strong objection to cover her with a head scarf as often suggested by well-intentioned people around her, arguing that her disfigurement serves as a constant, cautionary reminder to everyone on humankind's innate capacity for evil. At another site, a humble, religious man respectfully tends to a mass grave site and offers another explanation to the tragedy: "How can Christians kill other Christians? Surely they were possessed by Satan." At another site, a genial and reserved elderly woman on her way to church passes by a disused church that had been the site of another massacre and is being used to house the remains of genocide victims that still continue to be unearthed, and decides to pick some wild flowers to be placed among the skeletons, her countenance becoming increasingly impassioned and visibly distraught as she recounts her personal experience amidst the overwhelming quantity of skeletons neatly arranged before her, before apologizing to the off-screen interviewer (filmmaker Eric Kabera) for losing her composure. Keepers of Memory is a visceral, thoughtful, and deeply personal account of the human tragedy that continues to haunt its often forgotten, marginalized, and globally abandoned survivors. Contrasting the inarticulable, yet intimately heart-rending grief of the victims with the carefully wordsmithed, olive branch speeches from representatives of the international community eager to put its collective ignominious accountability behind (for callous and inhumanely reckless bureaucratic policies that exacerbated the tragedy) by acknowledging its failure to intervene, the film serves as a provocative and powerfully moving indictment of factionalism, moral complicity through abstention and inertia, and human indifference.

Posted by acquarello on Apr 27, 2005 | | Comments (5) | Filed under 2005, New York African Film Festival

Mother's Day, 2004

mothersday.gifAn idiosyncratically offbeat, indelibly unique, and narratively incapsulable fusion of social satire, nursery rhyme, musical fantasy, and interpretive dance, Mother's Day is based on an ancient Zimbabwean cautionary folktale of a young, impoverished family driven to famine by a lazy, selfish husband. When the mother, reduced to collecting insects for her children's dinner, refuses to allow her husband to partake in their meager meal until he can provide food for the table, the father leaves home and devises a means to exact revenge on his wife and, in the process, bring home his next meal. During the Q&A with filmmaker Tsitsi Dangarembga, a member of the audience had expressed trepidation over the film's plot with respect to how people - particularly Westerners - would receive such a barbaric depiction of Africans by Africans, commenting that the images, to some extent, seemed to prey on Western cultural stereotypes. (While I do not share the view that the film would necessarily reinforce racial stereotypes because of the obvious grotesqueness in the implementation and execution of the story, I can certainly understand this sense of apprehension.) Dangarembga responded that from her experience with previous international screenings, audiences who were familiar with the source of the ancient folktale have tended to find the innate humor in the absurdity of the story, while some members of the audience who were unfamiliar with the folktale expressed a similar ambivalence over the caricatured depiction. Rather than a specific view of a culture or a people, Dangarembga explained that she envisioned the film as a universal parable on greed and man's innate capacity for human cruelty. To this end, the primitive, atemporal empty landscape, stripped of identification, seems ideally suited to this eccentric, whimsical fable - demarcating, not the limits of the land, but the limits of the self and the limitlessness of human imagination.

Posted by acquarello on Apr 27, 2005 | | Filed under 2005, New York African Film Festival, Tsitsi Dangarembga

The Wound, 2004

wound.gifThe Wound (La Blessure) opens to an unhurried, long take, static shot of a man lying near motionless on the mattress on the floor of a cramped, dingy apartment, seemingly waiting for something to happen. The ringing of a telephone breaks the visual monotony of the frame as a man named Papi (Adama Doumbia) crosses in front of the camera to answer the call and upon hearing that his wife Blandine's plane has arrived at Charles de Gaulle Airport, leaves the apartment to meet her. Meanwhile, Blandine (Noëlla Mossaba) and several other non-native passengers have been detained by the police behind the locked doors of an undisclosed location within the back rooms of the airport for improper documentation. Pleading to no avail of their intention to file for asylum, the undocumented immigrants are held for hours at the holding facility, unable to contact their loved ones (and who, in turn, are cursorily driven away by officials claiming that there is no record of them having even arrived at the airport), withheld food, drink, and hygiene facilities, and subjected to humiliating strip searches, intrusive health examinations, and interrogations before being forcibly scuttled under the cloak of darkness into a crowded transportation van for placement into planes flying back to their native country. However, in the officers' barbaric haste to install the detainees surreptitiously into the van before the arrival of the airport travelers at the gate for boarding, Blandine's leg becomes trapped in the prematurely closed doors of the vehicle, aborting their attempts to load the passengers onto the plane for immediate deportation. Returned to their cramped holding facility, a representative from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on a routine spot-check of the airport observes the obvious mistreatment of the detainees and decides to intervene on their behalf, coaching them on the proper channels of contact to petition for asylum, insisting that Blandine be sent to a hospital for proper medical assistance, and filing a report to his superiors on the inhumane treatment of the asylum seekers that he has witnessed. The representative eventually succeeds in obtaining a last-minute faxed injunction to stop the deportation of the detainees (after receiving a blunt reproach from his supervisor not to continue to overstep his jurisdiction over the immigration office), and soon, Blandine and Papi are reunited. Nevertheless, the trauma of her detention continues to haunt Blandine in her new life as her optimism, geniality, and resolve give way to psychological inertia, estrangement, and enigmatic silence. Inviting favorable comparison to the overtly political, social realist films of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, The Wound is an understatedly affecting, acutely observed, and profoundly sobering portrait of oppression, dehumanization, and exclusion. By incorporating organic, extended plan-sequences and using repeated images of interminable waiting - from Blandine's detention, to her self-confinement at a derelict tenement, to Papi's real-time ride through the countryside in the back of day laborer truck - Nicolas Klotz reflects the inherent inadequacy (if not outright failure) of immigration and asylum laws, lax procedural structure, and government-tolerated, often racially motivated policies (and undocumented, obstructive common practices) that willfully hinder or impede the integration and assimilation of immigrants into their adoptive countries. Using the treatment of Blandine's wound while in French custody as a metaphor for the authorities' repeated turning of a blind eye to the obvious, visible social problem, the film serves as a harrowing and trenchant exposition on intolerance and systematic marginalization.

Posted by acquarello on Apr 27, 2005 | | Filed under 2005, New York African Film Festival

April 26, 2005

A South African Love Story - Walter and Albertine Sisulu, 2004

sisulu.gifIn an interview conducted near the conclusion of the film, A South African Love Story - Walter and Albertine Sisulu, a journalist describes Walter Sisulu's deliberately low-key, but profoundly influential role in the struggle to liberate South Africa from apartheid and successfully lay the groundwork for multi-racial elections in the country as that "not of the king, but the kingmaker". It is a terse and enlightened observation that incisively encapsulates Sisulu's fiercely intelligent, tenacious, and determined, yet humble, self-effacing, and disarmingly affable personality. The son of an interracial relationship who achieved a considerable measure of success in his professional life at a time when apartheid was still deeply entrenched, Sisulu became a formidable and enduring influence in the shaping of the African National Congress resistance movement during the 1930s and who, in the early 1940s, recruited and mentored a fiery, young (and then more militant) charismatic radical named Nelson Mandela and instilled in him a more deliberative and grounded approach to diplomacy and activism. However, Sisulu's leadership and commitment to the anti-apartheid movement would also be matched by his equally resilient and determined wife, Albertine, a nurse by vocation whose innate capacity to nurture and instill hope led to a parallel women's movement that led to the historic march in Pretoria that ultimately ushered a more globalized, humanitarian movement towards a more encompassing social equality. Affectionately tracing the evolution of Walter and Albertine Sisulu's remarkable - and inspirational - life together, from their unusual courtship (Albertine had initially rejected Walter's proposal with the unexpected news that she already had children, having adopted her siblings when her father died), to their supportive marriage of equals (the couple cultivated each other's self-education and personal growth through substantive, everyday discourses on such diverse subjects as politics, philosophy, and culture), to Walter's solitary confinement on Robben Island for his key role in the plotting of the Rivonia Uprising (in a political round-up and life sentencing of several high-ranking ANC leaders designed to suppress the movement), to Albertine and the children's continued political activism and government harassment after Walter's incarceration, to the commutation of Sisulu and Mandela's life sentences and subsequent dismantling of apartheid, and finally, to the successful implementation of the first post-apartheid, multi-racial elections in South Africa, filmmaker Toni Strasburg presents an intimate, illuminating, and ennobled portrait of self-sacrifice, commitment, and enduring love in the face of oppression, inhumanity, interminable separation, and national struggle.

Posted by acquarello on Apr 26, 2005 | | Comments (2) | Filed under 2005, New York African Film Festival

Black Sushi, 2003

blacksushi.gifA newly paroled Zulu man named Zama walks out of prison and into a waiting car driven by his best friend and former accomplice, Respect, who immediately recruits him as a hired muscle for a planned heist. Eager to rebuild his life and make a clean break from his criminal past, Zama walks away from his friend and into a sushi bar to inquire about a help wanted sign posted on the store window. Working in the backroom as the restaurant's dishwasher and janitor, Zama is intrigued by the sushi chef, Mi's skill and presentation and asks the skeptical proprietor to teach him his trade. However, when Mi expresses his skepticism on Zama's worthiness to become his apprentice, the disillusioned young man begins to fall back into his familiar, self-destructive routines. Whimsical and lighthearted, Black Sushi is a clever and engaging parable on perseverance, rehabilitation, and enlightenment. In the film's climactic episode, Zama peels the layers of gluten paste that have coated his hands at work, symbolically sloughing off the coarse, hardened skin that represents (and has bounded him to) his past, transforming them into delicate instruments necessary for his new found craft. It is in this image of transformation and tabula rasa that filmmaker Dean Blumberg allegorically reflects the image of new South Africa, a nation moving forward from its grievous history through atonement, creativity, hard work, open-mindedness, and cross-cultural respect.

Posted by acquarello on Apr 26, 2005 | | Comments (2) | Filed under 2005, New York African Film Festival

April 18, 2005

Forgiveness, 2004

"Having looked the beast of the past in the eyes, having asked and received forgiveness...let us shut the door on the past - not to forget it - but to allow it not to imprison us."

- Archbishop Desmond Tutu, South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission

forgiveness.gifA haggard, visibly distracted, and apprehensive middle-aged man and former police officer named Tertius Coetzee, carrying only a suitcase and an ample assortment of prescription medication that have been haphazardly accumulated in the passenger seat of his cluttered automobile, drives mechanically through the dusty, isolated roads that lead to the rural South African fishing village of Paternoster (literally, Our Father) and checks into a hotel on the outskirts of town. With the reluctant assistance of the local parish priest, Coetzee has asked to meet the equally apprehensive Grootboom family whose eldest (and perhaps, favorite) son, a university student and apartheid-era activist named Daniel had been tortured and killed ten years earlier by Coetzee and his colleagues during interrogation, concealing his execution by staging his death as a random carjacking. The elder Grootbooms politely accept the stranger's presence in their home and offer of condolences, reluctant to ask questions on the unimaginable horror surrounding the circumstances of Daniel's death and, in their awkward, suffering silence, perhaps tacitly encouraging Coetzee to promptly leave, unable to bear the sight of their son's killer and the memory of their unreconciled tragedy. But the Grootboom's children seem less tolerant of the seemingly troubled and penitent Coetzee's presence in their humble community - their youngest son Ernst physically attacks him without provocation and their daughter Sannie ventures out to place a covert call to Daniel's best friend, alerting him of Coetzee's arrival at Paternoster and planting the idea that he assemble his band of former radicals to ambush Coetzee in retaliation for her brother's death. Receiving instruction to keep Coetzee in town until Daniel's friends arrive the next day, Sannie decides to invite Coetzee into their home against the strong objection of her still grieving parents, ostensibly under the pretense of hearing the explicit details of her brother's suppressed history of militant resistance (an involvement that included perpetrating acts of sabotage) that inevitably lead to his death. However, when Coetzee's assassins fail to show up at the appointed hour, the Grootboom children soon find themselves orchestrating additional meetings between Coetzee and their parents under the ruse of working towards reconciliation and finding common ground in order to keep him from leaving town and escaping retribution. Set in the aftermath of the post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings, Ian Gabriel's film is an articulate, provocative, and haunting examination of the complex and integrally soul-searching nature of forgiveness: both from the perspective from those who seek it, and from those of whom it is asked. Featuring a strong lead cast, a poignant and compelling script, and emotionally engaging, multi-dimensional characters, Forgiveness is a compassionate, elegantly humanist, and intrinsically spiritual portrait of guilt, atonement, reconciliation, and personal closure.

Posted by acquarello on Apr 18, 2005 | | Filed under 2005, New York African Film Festival

Me and My White Pal, 2003

moietmonblanc.gifA graduate student from Burkina Faso named Mamadi, forced to find last-minute employment in order to cover his tuition and housing expenses after his educational grants fail to materialize at the local embassy, calls on a fellow countryman and distant cousin - a politically frustrated, self-exiled intellectual with a slew of unpracticed doctoral degrees hung on his wall - to help him obtain a job at his elder cousin's place of employment: the parking garage. Working in the uneventful tedium of the off-shift hours as a parking attendant, Mamadi occupies his time by working on his thesis, watching the surveillance cameras positioned throughout the facility through his auto-switching monitor, and chatting up personable, attractive young women, often in the presence of their lovers (alluding to stereotypes of African libido and expatriates who eagerly abandon their hometown sweethearts to embark on affairs with people outside of their race). One day, while watching an over-amorous couple from the surveillance monitor, Mamadi accidentally triggers the facility alarm. In the confusion, a pair of drug dealers who had been waiting inside the facility for a pre-arranged transaction is forced to abandon their plan, scurry their package into a dimly lit area for later retrieval, and nonchalantly drive off from the premises. Retrieving the curious package from its makeshift hiding place, the naïve Mamadi asks the assistance of his friend Franck to identify the contents and who, in turn, immediately realizes the nefarious (and undoubtedly fatal) implications of Mamadi's impulsive intervention. Now on the run from relentless (and ever-closing) thugs, Franck and Mamadi decide to hide out in Mamedi's native hometown, only to run into a different set of challenges in the bucolic paradise. Me and My White Pal is a wry, unassuming, and effervescent, but incisive and acutely observed satire on social stereotypes, implicit racism, and cultural perception. By presenting a cross-cultural perspective of what is means to be a foreigner - for both Mamadi in France and subsequently, Franck in Burkina Faso - Pierre Yameogo illustrates the folly of broad stroke, popular misconceptions of races and societies that contribute to an atmosphere of culturally fostered ignorance, propagation of cultural myths, and sense of isolating otherness: the unbridled riches of African expatriates living in (or returning from) the West (and by the same token, Westerners who visit the country), the rampancy of AIDS and famine in Africa, the superficial view of all foreigners as illegal aliens. Moreover, through Mamedi's frustrated efforts to study abroad so that he may return home and obtain a civil service position in order to effect change within his beloved country, Yameogo implicitly underscores the rampant corruption and propagandization of the international successes achieved by native scholars, intellectuals, and self-made expatriates endemic in many African countries that effectively serve to stifle progress and socio-economic change and reinforce the lopsided imbalance of power to a select, political elite.

Posted by acquarello on Apr 18, 2005 | | Filed under 2005, New York African Film Festival

April 13, 2005

Aldous Huxley: The Gravity of Light, 1996


On a television interview conducted near the twilight of his life, Aldous Huxley articulated his belief that the fullness of human potentiality can be achieved within one's lifetime - that the realization of an ideal eternal cognition can be accelerated through a cultivation of reason and virtue - in effect, that transcendence is within human grasp. From this seductive and intriguing introductory framework, Oliver Hockenhull relates a seemingly tangential personal anecdote on the synchronicity on having been born on the same day that the Russians launched Sputnik 2 from the Baikonur Cosmodrome with a dog named Laika onboard in order to prove that animals could, indeed, survive in the vacuum of space. Nevertheless, these two disparate trains of thought inevitably cohere and interweave within the film's idiosyncratic, yet fascinating convergence of personal history, cultural biography, and philosophical exposition into the complex, often delusive role of technology and applied science towards humanity's quest to transcend the bounds of human limitation and approach ever closer the limits of infinity - a mortal transfiguration to an existential ideal.

For Huxley, this state of technologically induced transcendence came, not only in the form of creative abstraction in the submissive, dystopian bliss in the absence of free will depicted in his novel Brave New World, but also personally, in the author's controversial, late career interest in parapsychology and psychotropic drug experimentation - revealing his underlying interest in exploring the process and continuity of human consciousness in the absence of the body. It is this disengagement and autonomy of incorporeal information from the physical that is similarly reflect in a soliloquy performed by Hockenhull's alterego, an actor named David Odhiambo who bears little physical resemblance to the filmmaker (an incongruence that is further underscored by the use of a female narrator's voice in the sequence), on the evolution of the digital age which represents the existence and transfer of informational data without the medium of human consciousness, essentially creating a simulation of the human cognitive process - an artificial being - that, as the alterego comments, has "distinct memory but no resemblances".

This idea of the commutation of human legacy without physical transference is also reflected in the filmmaker's tantalizing, tongue-in-cheek anecdote on his family's potential genealogical commonality with the Huxley family through their intersecting geographic lineage of prominent landowners in feudal England. However, as the filmmaker subsequently discovers, the aristocratic surnames were appropriated by many of the serfs themselves in their quest to improve their prestige and social standing as they seek out their fortune. A subsequent anecdote recounting his brother's telephone call to a woman who also bears the same surname reveals another incidence of transference of identity as she explains that her husband's forefathers had apparently taken on their former landowner's last name after their emancipation from slavery. In both cases, the transcendence of the ancestral family name - a phenomenon that is intrinsically associated with the human processes of procreation and conscious desire - occurs without the exchange and recombination of genetic imprint. As in the alterego's exposition on the development of artificial intelligence, the continuity of human history occurs in the absence of a biological element, without the physical body...devoid of "resemblances".

Tracing Huxley's philosophy that applied science and spirituality are integrally correlated in humanity's process of self-enlightenment, Hockenhull includes an excerpt from the television interview in which the author provides a thoughtful account of his crisis of conscience during the 1930s from which he emerged with a new-found clarity for the possibility of immanent transcendence. However, within this context of changing the course of one's destiny through conscious and active self-engagement, the notion of potentiality begins to intersect (or more appropriately, collide) with the practical dichotomy of an allegorical Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle: a realization that the simple act of observing alters the other characteristics of that which is observed - in essence, that myopic engagement in temporal reality detracts humanity from the cultivation of unrealized potential - and consequently, estranges it further from the ideal of transcendence. It is this existential paradox that perhaps best illustrates the genius, enigma, and irony of the unconventional, yet deeply philosophical author and modern thinker: the ability to see beyond the limits of physical vision towards the unimaginable promise and resolute faith of achieving true human transcendence.

Posted by acquarello on Apr 13, 2005 | | Comments (3) | Filed under 2005, Ancillary Film Notes

April 4, 2005

Peace, Propaganda and the Promised Land, 2004

peace.gifOn June 5, 1967, Israel launched a pre-emptive war against Syria, Jordan and Egypt in a six-day war that culminated with the country's seizure of the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem, leading to the Israeli government's continued, illegitimate military occupation in violation of the 1967 UN Security Council Resolution 242 that ordered its immediate withdrawal from the occupied territories. This often overlooked (or, more appropriately, conveniently sidestepped) historical fact provides the basis for filmmakers Sut Jhally and Bathsheba Ratzkoff's articulate, impassioned, and incisive exposition on the irresponsible, inequitable, and often incestuous role of the American media in enabling the perpetuation of the Arab-Israeli conflict and the marginalization of the Palestinians in their native, occupied land. Citing the global backlash following the media coverage of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 as a watershed incident that lead to the government's re-architecture of its modern day public relations policy, the film breaks down the underlying, implemented tenets of The Hasbara Project, an aggressive, comprehensive, and proactive public relations initiative that sought to cast a favorable light (or at least, less detrimental media spin) on the government's controversial occupation policies, calling for the sustained cultivation of interpersonal relationships with media professionals and influential newsmakers, the early dissemination of news capsule press releases to foreign bureau offices in order to have an on-hand, convenient, ready-made response and included viewpoint in the accounting of the day's significant events, and even the publication of prescribed vernacular and reporting guidelines that not only sanitize the tone, but more importantly, help to implicitly shape the lexicon - and consequently, the underlying sympathetic attachment - of the news articles. The effect of this altered nuance of language is illustrated in the government's (and media parroted) euphemistic reference to the illegally occupied settlement (or colony) of Gilo in East Jerusalem as a Jewish neighborhood on the outskirts of Israel proper - the characterization of "neighborhood" evoking a wholesome, cross-cultural familiarity while simultaneously avoiding the issue of its legitimacy of existence in the occupied territory. This perspective bias is especially evident in the presentation of side-by-side reports on the death of six Palestinian children in two separate incidents by the BBC and CNN: the BBC pointing out that the Israeli military had mined a public street used by children to walk to school, while CNN removes the mundane (and humanizing) context surrounding the children's actions and attributes their deaths to a seeming freak accident caused by one of the children kicking an inferentially errant, unexploded tank shell - in essence, blaming the victim and absolving the perpetrator in the court of public opinion. Another manifestation of this altered nuance is in the characterization of cause and effect in the reporting of news by the American media, usually attributing the act of aggression to the Palestinians, and the defensive position to the Israelis - an assignment of blame that not only trivializes the multifaceted, cyclical nature of the conflict into discrete, complementary acts of attack and retaliation, but also loses sight of the fundamental, overarching specter of the Six Day War that had initially sparked the region's modern day instability and escalating violence. It is this illusory claim of self-defense that is further exploited in the wake of the September 11 attacks, as the Israeli government began to perceptionally redefine the occupation and subsequent heavy-handed military action in the occupied territories as another ongoing facet in a protracted war on terrorism, a politically expedient, ideological alignment that conveniently circumvents the internationally pricklier questions of usurped sovereignty, inequitable justice, ethnic cleansing, and human rights violations. By deconstructing and analyzing the informational structure by which the U.S. media has contributed to the systematic oppression of an indigenous people, Peace, Propaganda and the Promised Land: U.S. Media and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict offers an intelligently constructed, compelling, and thoughtfully bracing alternative perspective to the seemingly incomprehensible cycle of violence of the Middle East. Rather than a presenting a vitriolic diatribe on the transgressions of occupation and a compromised media, the film serves as a sincere and constructive open invitation to an inclusive, cross-cultural dialogue on the complex issues and deeply rooted human emotions that have contributed to the elusiveness of a lasting and just peace.

Posted by acquarello on Apr 04, 2005 | | Comments (3) | Filed under 2005, Ancillary Film Notes

March 30, 2005

The CinemaScope Trilogy, 1998-2002

Peter Tscherkassky's elegantly conceived, idiosyncratically transfixing, and neuron-saturating CinemaScope Trilogy is made without a camera - a series of films entirely realized in the dark room using techniques of contact printing and variable exposure to transfer found film into unexposed film stock, then manipulated and processed to create the final works. Serving as both an homage to film as cinema, as well as an experimental study on the physical materiality of the medium (a philosophy similarly echoed by Peter Kubelka during the lecture and screening of Truth and Poetry at the 2004 Views from the Avant-Garde), the films reflect an intrinsic ability to distill the essence of human observation, sensation, and even psychology into the assimilation - and fragmentation - of interplayed images, rhythms, impulses, associative cognition, and instinctual responses.


L'Arrivée, 1998. Constructed as a multi-layered study on the meaning of "arrival", the first layer is a point of reference on the implicit audience anticipation for the seemingly delayed start of the film, as the familiar, audible hissing and popping of a recorded soundtrack accompanies an extended white screen that intermittently (and teasingly) reveal the silhouette of linear film stock straying into and out of frame to create a playful and evocative interactive illustration of the process of engaged waiting. The second layer is an ingenious reference to the Lumière brothers' L'Arrivée d'un train à la Ciotat as a steam engine train slowly approaches the station, a selection that seems particularly appropriate, not because of their pioneering work in filmmaking, but because of their continued influence in defining the structural conventions of narrative film with their microcosmic encapsulations of the "real" world - a series of visual stories with a beginning (or setup condition), an action, and a resolution. In L'Arrivée, the "action" comes in the synthesized forms of image duplication, fracture, collision, and decontextualization that result in the unsteadied and imbalanced chaos of a virtual train wreck. For the final layer, Tscherkassky impishly follows the Lumière narrative code in the tongue-in-cheek, hyper-romantic image of a luminous Catherine Deneuve in period costume emerging from the train and into the arms of an (understandably) enraptured Omar Sharif, a sequence from Terence Young's film, Mayerling (1968).


Outer Space, 1999. The most complex and innately unnerving installment of the CinemaScope Trilogy, the film immediately creates an atmosphere of sinister foreboding in its liminal, transitory images of an amorphous night sky, heightened ambient sounds, and skewed, awkward angled framing of a modest home on an eerily tranquil rural street. Assembled from excerpts of found film from Sidney J. Furie's, The Entity (1988), Tscherkassky transforms the introductory images of a deserted, seemingly alien landscape into a startling, profoundly fractured (or as the filmmaker suggests in the end credits of L'Arrivée, "manufractured"), and increasingly haunted portrait of human desolation and descent into madness. In addition to creating apparent visual malleability and disjunctions of space and linear time through the manipulation, superimposition, and resequencing of images, what is perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the film is Tscherkassky's implemented strategy for reflecting the unnamed heroine's (Barbara Hershey) ambiguously real or imagined assault through the sensorially unrelenting stimuli created by an extended sequence of hyperkinetic, strobing flashes of intense light that seemingly explode and burn out before dissolving into unidentifiable abstraction, leaving in its wake the residual, irreconcilable fragments of a complete psychological rupture of the image and the self.


Dream Work, 2002. The film opens to the static shot of a pendulum-like, window shade pull against the sound of the ticking of a clock, a juxtaposition that seemingly reinforces a (waking) consciousness of time and physical presence, as a woman (Barbara Hershey) eventually enters the frame, slips off her shoes, brushes her hair, prepares for bedtime, and falls asleep. From this fleeting, introductory image of mundane ritual, the film then departs into unexpected and amorphous trajectories of dream state as residual imprints of memories and human interaction fragment, dislocate, replicate, and free associate within the subconscious - while simultaneously infused, reinterpreted, or transformed under the influence of fear, individual will, and desire. The most overtly sensual and tactile of the CinemaScope Trilogy (note that the images of disrobing serve as an apparent metaphor for the nakedness of the subconscious in dream state), the film is an appropriate homage to avant-garde artist, photographer, and filmmaker Man Ray whose early photographs not only represented the human body as a synthesis of malleable, abstract forms, but also pioneered the production of rayographs by placing three-dimensional objects in front of a photographic plate and exposing the composition to light in order to create an indirect, superimposed, composite image (a precursor to the film process implemented by Tscherkassky for the trilogy). Indeed, there is an inherent texturality and voluptuous to the film in the repeated sensorial cues of ticking clocks, personal grooming, massaging of limbs, and breathlessness and involuntary spasms of sexual arousal that are cinematically echoed in the sequence looping and frame stuttering of the physical film itself. It is this organic malleability of recollected images coupled with ritualistic repetitiveness that intrinsically illustrates the reiterative correlation between dream and reality in the film: a representation, not of a soul in conflict, but a mind in tenuous self-reconciliation.

Posted by acquarello on Mar 30, 2005 | | Comments (11) | Filed under 2005, The CinemaScope Trilogy

March 21, 2005

The Bridesmaid, 2004

bridesmaid.gifWhen the attractive widow Christine (Aurore Clément) asks her children for permission to offer a statue in their garden - a gift from their late father - as a housewarming present to her new beau Gérard Courtois (Bernard Le Coq), the eldest child, Philippe (Benoît Magimel) appears visibly disconcerted by the proposal, but nevertheless acquiesces for the sake of unanimity and subsequently insists on personally hand carrying the object to Gérard's home. However, it seems that the nature of his apprehension does not stem from a suppressed Oedipal rage or the traumatic idea of Gérard taking the place of his late father, but rather, from a curious attachment to the statue itself: an idealized image of classical beauty that would seem to have come to life in the soulful and enigmatic gaze of his sister's beautiful and alluring bridesmaid, Senta (Laura Smet). Living alone in the basement of a large, dilapidated country estate (and apart from her estranged stepmother and her lover who live two floors above) that she had inherited from her father, Senta's obscure personal history would seem to be as near-mythic as the Hellenic statue that she resembles: an Icelandic mother who died in childbirth, a reckless, disreputable past as an exotic dancer in New York City, an evil stepmother who has emotionally abandoned her to pursue a career as a tango dancer. Aroused by Senta's uninhibited desire and touched by her fragile vulnerability, Philippe is all too willing to embark on Senta's seemingly operatic (and fated) course of romantic destiny, and in the process, becomes increasingly entangled in her myopic - and delusive - quest for love and loyalty. Adapted from the novel by Ruth Rendell (whose novel La Ceremonie also provided the basis for the earlier Claude Chabrol film), The Bridesmaid exhibits a similarly deceptive and slow-building narrative crescendo as La Ceremonie and is bolstered by the fine performances of Benoît Magimel as the bumbling, eager to please lover and in particular, Laura Smet as the emotionally needy seductress. However, the film ultimately suffers from an almost caricatured - and incongruent - lighthearted direction which creates tonal inconsistency from the film's gradually unravelling mystery. Recalling the oppressively hermetic bohemianism of his earlier film Les Biches, the film serves as a competent, though superficial psychological examination of obsession, rootlessness, and co-dependency.

Posted by acquarello on Mar 21, 2005 | | Filed under 2005, Rendez-vous with French Cinema

When the Sea Rises..., 2004

sea_rises.gifEach day, a struggling touring comic named Irène (Yolande Moreau) checks out of a modest hotel, packs a large, aluminum gear case and a wooden chair into the trunk of her Peugeot, drives through long stretches of empty, rural roads along the northern towns straddling the Franco-Belgian border, sets up her minimal equipment on the stage of a small theatrical venue (often, local clubs, town auditoriums, nursing homes, and converted classrooms), selects a volunteer "chicken" from the audience who will act as her partner in crime for the comedy skit, performs her comedy routine before an animated crowd, checks into a convenient hotel in town, and calls her supportive husband and daughter to dispense and receive equal measures of advice, encouragement, and affection before turning in for the evening. It is a lonely and uneventful, but personally fulfilling routine that Irène knows all too well, buoyed by her brief, yet affectionate connection with her appreciative audience, the adrenaline rush of the performance, and the warmth and generosity of the townspeople she meets along the way, until one fateful day when Irène becomes stranded on a empty stretch of road and is assisted by a flighty, but genial parade float conductor named Dries (Wim Willaert). Marking the debut feature film of actress turned filmmaker Yolande Moreau, When the Sea Rises... is an irrepressibly eccentric, thoughtful, and infectiously whimsical comedy on loneliness and emotional synchronicity. Inspired by Moreau's own experiences as a traveling comic during the 1980s, the film affectionately captures the laid back, free-spirited, and interpersonal indigenous character of the northern border towns that, as the filmmaker comments, "do not take themselves too seriously". Following in the similar vein of idiosyncratic, bittersweet, muted kitsch comedies often associated with Swiss and Belgian cinema, and infused with the intimate insight of Moreau's first-hand experience and clear passion for the region and her craft, the film is a quietly observed portrait of the disconnected lives of traveling performers, and a humble and tender love letter to a surrogate community that had nurtured and supported her career before achieving fame and success.

Posted by acquarello on Mar 21, 2005 | | Filed under 2005, Rendez-vous with French Cinema

Me and My Sister, 2004

me_sister.gifIn an early episode of Me and My Sister, the younger sister Louise (Catherine Frot), having been picked up from the train station and driven home by her older sister, Martine (Isabelle Huppert), discovers her manuscript haphazardly tossed in the trunk of her sister's car as she retrieves her luggage, yet says nothing about the apparent slight to the culmination of her dedicated hard work. It is an episode that speaks volumes on the nature of the relationship of the siblings. Rejected by their alcoholic mother and forced to lead independent lives at an early age, the pragmatic and sensible Martine has consciously worked to shed her provinciality and cultivate an air of sophistication and bourgeois respectability in Paris while the fanciful and quirky Louise remained in Le Mans to lead a humble life as a beautician and aspiring writer. However, Martine's seemingly comfortable, lush life is also far from ideal. Trapped in a passionless marriage yet bound to the social comfortability afforded by her husband's success, Martine has become increasingly exacting and hardened to the people around her, and invariably, Louise's unpolished manners, idiosyncrasies, and interminably bubbly personality quickly begin to fray her carefully cultivated social decorum. Alexandra Leclère's film is a slight, yet charming, admirable, and effervescent comedy on manners, sibling rivalry, and the unbreakable bonds of family. By examining Louise and Martine's lives through the reflective prism of their interactions with each other, Leclère also creates an insightful social allegory for elitism, classism, denial of roots, and cosmopolitan arrogance.

Posted by acquarello on Mar 21, 2005 | | Filed under 2005, Rendez-vous with French Cinema

March 20, 2005

L'Intrus, 2004

intruder.gifL'Intrus opens to a shot of the Franco-Swiss border as a border guard performs a customs check and inspection of a random vehicle with the aid of a contraband-sniffing dog. The seemingly mundane image of frontier, wilderness, and deception provides a curiously appropriate introduction into the Claire Denis' impenetrably fractured, enigmatically allusive, otherworldy, and indelible metaphysical exposition into the mind of an emotionally severe, morally bankrupt, and profoundly isolated heart transplant patient named Louis (Michel Subor). Idiosyncratically unfolding in elliptical, often reverse chronology (with respect to the heart surgery) through the lugubriously fluid intertwining of Louis' alienated existence and deeply tormented subconscious, the film is a fragmented and maddeningly opaque daydream (or perhaps more appropriately, a haunted nightmare) of the price exacted by his disreputable past, estranged relationships, hedonism, and instinctual quest for survival: his inability to reconcile with his only son and his family; his sexually motivated, yet emotionally distant relationship with a materialistic pharmacist; his dubious, transcontinental past (a suppressed history that may have included murder). Perpetually followed by a beautiful, enigmatic sentinel (Katia Golubeva) - or conscience - who seems to have been instrumental in obtaining his new heart, what emerges is an indelible, elegiac, and poetically abstract dreamscape through the wondrous, alien terrain of unreconciled (and irreconcilable) personal history, unrequited longing, and haunted memory.

Transcribed notes from the Q&A with Claire Denis:

• Denis initially envisioned L'Intrus to be three distinct parts: northern hemisphere, limbo, and southern hemisphere. She then found out that Jean-Luc Godard had conceived of a three part structure to Notre Musique (Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise) at Cannes and consequently, collapsed the three parts into one fluid, hyperextended dream sequence to avoid incidental comparison (or implications of creative appropriation). She envisioned the southern hemisphere to be a kind of parallel (or existential) universe of the northern hemisphere, and therefore, images in the two hemispheres become mirrored converses of each other and together create a closed cyclicality to the film.

• Denis proposes that the only two instances of "real" people in the film are Louis and his estranged son (Grégoire Colin) (and by extension, his son's family). The other characters are manifestations of Louis' imagination, but like all mental constructions, are not purely fictional but rather, based on varying levels of an underlying reality: a "real" person whom Louis has encountered or interacted with sometime during his life.

• Denis describes the film as an adoption rather than an adaptation of Jean-Luc Nancy's novel L'Intrus which, in turn, was inspired by Nancy's own experience after undergoing a heart transplant operation. Denis was equally haunted and fascinated by the idea of a foreign body's "intrusion" into another body, and how that organ(ism) is rejected by its "new" body even as it needs it for survival and viability (Note: This metaphor can also be applied to the image of illegal immigrants crossing the border: a broader social commentary on the pervasive mistreatment (and marginalization) of migrant workers and immigrants in "civilized" countries). Also, intrinsic in this idea of transplantation and rejection is the paradoxical coexistence of life and death that a heart transplant patient's post-surgery life represents (Note: I had also thought that perhaps this coexistence extended to the merging and coalescing of life experiences as well within Louis' subconscious, who begins to daydream seemingly abstract, fragments of personal histories that are not always his own. This may also be an extension of the earlier note on the "variable" degrees of reality, although Denis doesn't mention this idea of "collective" memory/dream).

Posted by acquarello on Mar 20, 2005 | | Filed under 2005, Rendez-vous with French Cinema

Clean, 2004

clean.gifOlivier Assayas' latest film, Clean, is a sincere, well-intentioned, and technically proficient, but uncharacteristically trite and formulaic portrait of a drug-addicted, washed up celebrity and recent widow named Emily Wang (Maggie Cheung) who, having lost custody of her son Jay (James Dennis) to her Canadian in-laws, Albrecht (Nick Nolte) and Rosemary Hauser (Martha Henry) while serving a prison term in North America for drug possession, decides to return to France in order to forget her personal tragedy, embarking on a long, emotionally draining, uncertain, and lonely journey to rebuild her life in an attempt to earn the Hausers' respect and repair her estranged relationship with her abandoned son. It should be noted, however, that as in his earlier demonlover, Assayas displays an uncanny insight and well-researched, indigenous authenticity into, not only the creation of the subject art and its corresponding medium (in this case, music), but also the formative pulse of its supporting industry. During the Q&A, Assayas remarked that he had envisioned Cheung's character as a kind of updated insight into the true nature of the actress that, unlike her character in Irma Vep (which the filmmaker admittedly describes as a superficial characterization of an "outsider" Hong Kong actress in France), incorporates more of her intrinsic Western characteristics, having lived in England in her youth and attained a level of fluency in both English and French. The thoughtfulness of this vision is clearly evident in Cheung's complex, sensitively realized, and indelible portrait of fragility and resilience, vulnerability and determination, and uncertainty and sincerity.

Posted by acquarello on Mar 20, 2005 | | Comments (1) | Filed under 2005, Rendez-vous with French Cinema

Local Call, 2004

localcall.gifDuring the Q&A for Local Call, filmmaker Arthur Joffé expressed his great fondness and respect for the works of Nobel laureate author and playwright, Isaac Bashevis Singer, whom he credits as his primary screenwriting influence, and from the complex tragicomic, impassioned, affecting, and deeply humanist tone of the film, the affinity is easy to see. As the film begins, the neurotic, well-to-do, and (perhaps all-too) comfortably settled astrophysicist Félix Mandel (Sergio Castellitto), arranges to meet with his first love Wendy (Emily Morgan) during a working trip to London and returns home with her gift for his son, an overfamiliar gesture for which his wife Lucie (Isabelle Gélinas) responds with an order to clean out his wretchedly overfilled, disorganized home office. Leaving only a box filled with his late father's belongings for storage, including a cashmere overcoat that Félix had retrieved unaltered from the tailor for him on the day of his death, Félix decides to offer the overcoat to a homeless man who then promptly sells the article to a near-mythical, joy-riding, motorcycle daredevil known in the streets as Le Prince Noir for spare change. However, Félix soon discovers that dispossessing himself of his father's effects will not allow his father, Lucien (Michel Serrault) to rest in peace, as he begins to receive mysterious - and exorbitantly expensive - collect calls from Heaven reproaching him for dispensing of his overcoat so readily. Driven into near bankruptcy (and brink of insanity) by his father's rationally unsettling, yet intrinsically emotionally reassuring conversations, Félix resolves to recover his father's overcoat and complete the alteration that the tailor (László Szabó) had earlier refused to perform. It is important to note that the French title, Ne quittez pas! ("Don't hang up") is more thematically in keeping with spirit of the film. During the Q&A, Joffé also offers two additional anecdotes that greatly contribute to the appreciation of the film: the first is that the alteration that was asked to be performed - and adamantly rejected - by his personal tailor is based on a true incident in Joffé's father's life (both his father and the tailor were children of the Holocaust); the second is that Joffé had intended for a French actor to play the part of Félix, but soon found that cultural and spiritual issues - and social implications in French society - that underpin the story made the role uncomfortable, and none of the French actors whom Joffé had approached with the script accepted the part. Unable to cast locally, Joffé then turned to Sergio Castellitto, with whom he had previously collaborated on Alberto Express, in what turned out to be a stroke of pitch-perfect casting that delicately balances fragility, affection, humor, charm, sophistication, intelligence, turmoil, and spirituality into an intelligent and affirming, yet whimsical examination of cultural rootlessness, despiritualization, filial devotion, and the legacy of the diasporic experience.

Posted by acquarello on Mar 20, 2005 | | Comments (1) | Filed under 2005, Rendez-vous with French Cinema

March 16, 2005

About Baghdad, 2004

baghdad.gifIn an episode near the conclusion of the film, the expatriate poet and writer Sinan Antoon, having been allowed entry into the military secured Shaheed Monument - an architecturally impressive outdoor memorial commissioned by Saddam Hussein to honor the fallen Iraqi martyrs of the Iran-Iraq War (in a macabre, self-aggrandizing gesture to commemorate the 700,000 soldiers that the despot had willfully sent to their deaths by invading Iran in 1980) - solemnly surveys the Vietnam Memorial-like list of casualties inscribed on the wall and becomes visibly upset by the sight of intermittently spaced, printed sheets of paper taped over some of the inscriptions. A subsequent terse exchange with his military escort provides a context for the nature of the affront: the placards denoting reserved parking space assignments for the troops stationed in the monument complex sacrilegiously - and ignorantly - taped over the names of the dead soldiers. The seemingly disrespectful and chagrining (if not inadvertently arrogant) display of diplomatic faux pas reflects a deeply rooted national wound that continues to haunt and demoralize the Iraqi people's psyche in post Saddam Hussein Iraq: a systematic trivialization (and erasure) of the rich cultural history of their beloved, ancestral land of ancient Mesopotamia - the cradle of civilization - in the wake of imperialist foreign intervention (first, by the British who captured Baghdad during World War I and subsequently exerted influence over the direction of the nation's governance, then subsequently, by the Americans during the invasions of Iraq in First and Second Gulf War), the reign of autocratic tyranny under Hussein (who not only appropriated - and desecrated - the country's national resources and treasures, but also perverted the meaning of historicity with his own attempts at self-immortalization by installing publicly inescapable commemorative portraits, billboards, and statues throughout the country), and the inevitable collateral destruction of war (most palpably, in the bombing of academic institutions that serve as repositories for art, cultural artifacts, and historical documents including the Academy of Fine Arts and the College of Arts buildings and library at the University Baghdad). Composed of interviews of ordinary citizens, walking tours through the war-ravaged streets, first-hand testimonies by political prisoners tortured under the Hussein regime, conversations with intellectuals, and observational commentaries by the outspoken Antoon, and assembled into a collage of visual styles that structurally evoke the colorfully (and elaborately) interwoven, vibrant hues of ancient tapestry, About Baghdad is an illuminating, impassioned, and provocative exposition on the complex issues and profound emotional conflict surrounding the American occupation of Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein. Capturing a pervasive sense of despair, frustration, anger, resentment, and melancholia that lay beneath the tumultuous and embittering national history of usurped and foreign imposed law, inhumanity (whether through Hussein's arbitrary administration of torture or internationally imposed sanctions that have crippled the country's health care system), and unrequited desire for self-governance, the film serves as a thoughtful, sincere, and articulate human plea for tolerance, respect, cultural preservation, and self-determination.

Posted by acquarello on Mar 16, 2005 | | Comments (3) | Filed under 2005, Ancillary Film Notes

March 9, 2005

The Letter: An American Town and the 'Somali Invasion', 2003

letter.gifIn December 1992, the US-proposed Operation: Restore Hope sought to secure Somalia's food supply from warring factions through the deployment of security forces in conjunction with the ongoing UN humanitarian campaign to control the widespread crisis of the man-made famine - a volatile situation that soon became increasingly encumbered with the greater problem of controlling civil violence throughout the unstable country. Subsequently, in June 1993, a team of Pakistani UN soldiers were massacred during routine inspections, an ambush that was believed to have been engineered by one of the country's most powerful warlords, General Mohamed Farah Aidid. The tragedy inevitably led to the Battle of Mogadishu - the violent conflict depicted in Black Hawk Down - as the military sought to apprehend the elusive Aidid. Ten years later, the obfuscated - and increasingly mired - humanitarian crisis would seemingly converge in the traditionally Franco-American New England town of Lewiston, Maine: a community that continues to mourn a fallen son from the fateful battle with a commemorative placard on a state highway and whose wounds were recently re-opened not only by the Ridley Scott film, but further exacerbated by the uncertainty of life in immediate post 9/11 America as a large influx of Muslim-faith Somali immigrants began to settle in the town coincidentally after the terror attacks in what the media dubbed as the "Somali Invasion" of Lewiston. With the city still recovering from the downturn in the economy (caused in part by the manufacturing slowdown in the local mills and the nationwide recession), and the potential of another 1000 Somalis imminently relocating into the area (effectively doubling the ethnic Somali population), the mayor, Laurier T. Raymond Jr. penned a brusque open letter to the Somali elders urging them to use their influence within the extended ethnic community to discourage their families, friends, and native countrymen from similarly moving into Lewiston and further taxing the city's increasingly burdened resources. Emboldened by Raymond's controversial public appeal - and implicitly, the contingent of Lewiston residents who support a similar, intolerant (if not overtly racist) view - hate groups such as the World Church of the Creator began to descend on the town in order to further their own agenda, culminating in a planned rally on January 11 (a date perhaps selected for its fear-mongering evocation of 9/11). Growing increasingly weary of the simplistic, caricatured media portrayal of Lewiston as a haven for xenophobic, unenlightened bigots, members of the community decided to stage their own unity march despite the unapologetic (and perhaps, willful) announced absence of the mayor from the heavily media-scrutinized event (citing pre-arranged vacation plans) in a sincere and defiant gesture of humanity and plea for tolerance. Filmmaker Ziad Hamzeh's articulate and incisive documentary, The Letter, is a thoughtful examination of the interplay between entrenched sociology and overarching cultural and historical dynamics that inexorably converge and perpetuate the legacy of hate and exclusion. Contrasting the overly rehearsed diatribes and instinctive, underformed, stereotypical arguments of the detractors against the impassioned voices of a rended town struggling to move forward in the aftermath of uncertainty and profound cultural change, the film serves as a provocative cautionary tale on intolerance, scapegoating, and myopic vision, and a compelling portrait of the human imperative for empathy and solidarity.

Posted by acquarello on Mar 09, 2005 | | Comments (5) | Filed under 2005, Ancillary Film Notes

March 5, 2005

Building Heaven, Remembering Earth: Confessions of a Fallen Architect, 1999


Oliver Hockenhull's voluptuous, textural, and thematically (and experientially) dense essay film is an intricately constructed, stream-of-consciousness meditation on architecture, memory, immortality, and transcendence. Evoking the sprawling, trans-continental journals of the faceless, globe-trotting (metaphoric) time traveler and ethnographic filmmaker Sandor Krasna in Chris Marker's Sans soleil, Building Heaven, Remembering Earth: Confessions of a Fallen Architect is similarly infused with a certain wide-eyed curiosity and sense of adventure, thoughtfulness, and self-effacing humor.

From the film's introductory anecdote on the first book of architecture, a ten-volume documentation of buildings, machines, and timepieces, Hockenhull presents an implicit interconnection between architecture and time, both serving as materialized representations of projection, shadows, and geometric space. The analogy is subsequently developed in the filmmaker's exposition on the Pantheon in Rome as he reflects on the ancient structure's innate symmetry through negative projection for which the apparent structural complement - and therefore, its spatial negation - occurs at an intersection on an imaginary axis that is defined by infinity. The realization of imaginary intersections and approaching theoretical limits similarly provides the underlying concept for the Aquatic Pavilion in Neeltje Jans, Holland, an example of media architecture in which undulating, nodal mesh forms characterize the functional construct of the numerical data: the ideal form generated by a human-less, synthetic vision of empirical limits and discrete interpolations.

Hockenhull further correlates the process of architectural construction as an innately human quest for immortality - a mortal bridge to the divine (note the thematic correlation to György's underlying futile search for the harmonies of the gods in Béla Tarr's Werckmeister Harmonies) - a rapture. It is this ephemeral state of artificially induced transcendence that is thematically threaded to the juxtaposition of images between a heroin addict and the somber, forbidden architecture of New Metropolis, an asymmetric and aesthetically nondescript behemoth commercial space projecting ominously from the industrial landscape of an Amsterdam harbor town, both representing a depersonalization of the individual: the erasure of the human element (which, in turn, expounds on the idea of architecture as a means of achieving closeness to gods).

In correlating the confluence of structure and time, Hockenhull characterizes architecture as commemorations of history. From a statue immortalizing the commander of the Dresden raid (a personally traumatic episode for Hockenhull's father that the filmmaker revisits in the short film Mother, Father, Son) to an examination of the works of artist and architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel, Hockenhull illustrates the inevitable bifurcation between the conceptually ideal - the "glowing painting of a reconciled world" - and the ravaged artifacts of human history (most notably, in the bullet-ridden pillars of the New Watch Building and the variegated rubble used to line the perimeter of a summer house in postwar, suburban Berlin). It is this corruption and decay of the ideal that is encapsulated in the utilitarian history of the Prince Albrecht Palais, a stately residence later transformed as a headquarters for intelligence gathering and dissemination of propaganda by the Nazis.

Traveling eastward to Asia, Hockenhull then forgoes the inherent politicization of 20th century European history and returns to the more abstract theme of transcendence through architecture, remarking after a Sergei Eisenstein retrospective in Istanbul of the role of cinema as "time and aspiration of memory", and further concluding that architecture and memory are integrally correlated by the nature of their "pure constructions". This idea of continuity through memory and architecture - the intertwining of the mortal and the immortal, life and death - is perhaps best represented in the Indian city of Kashi, known as the city of light - a cremation grounds where nature and structures represent, not only ancient relics of the past, but also a continuity and an afterlife. In essence, the architecture serves as a place of ceremony and ritual: the human imperative to define the amorphous nature of God and consequently, find a path to transcendence. It is this complex interconnection of functionality and meaning that is inevitably embodied by the egg-shaped stone that punctuates the film, an eternal, indefinable object that curiously encapsulates the genesis, mortality, human imprint, and metaphysical enigma of a greater, and unfathomably more complex, immortal design.

Update: The film is available on DVD through Customflix. (04-09-05)

Posted by acquarello on Mar 05, 2005 | | Comments (4) | Filed under 2005, Ancillary Film Notes

February 25, 2005

Kurt Kren Retrospective


I have been wrestling this week with my ambivalent reaction towards the recent Kurt Kren and Viennese Actionist Film near-complete retrospective at the Anthology Film Archives which I found to be both enervating and exhilarating in equal measures. In retrospect, this inability to reconcile with the artist's body of work seems to stem from Kren's markedly divergent, subjective approaches to filmmaking.

On one side of the argument is Kren's early structural studies that, like Peter Kubelka's metric films, create textural composition through subliminal imagery, visual repetition, and sensorial distillation, resulting in a film that is intrinsically rhythmic, sensual, and experientially pure. Among the most notable in the Early Works and Actions program are the evocatively foreboding, natural compositions of 3/60 Bäume in Herbst (a film that prefigures the stark desolation of Ernie Gehr's Precarious Garden), the morphing, "apparent" animation (achieved through editing and shot placement) geometric, graphic arts studies of 11/65 Bild Helga Philipp, and the anonymous despiritualization of urban spaces (and residents) in 5/62 Fenstergucker, Abfall, Etc.

However, on the other side of the argument is Kren's energized, pulsing, and highly stylized documentation of the Actionist movement that captures disturbingly graphic and often salacious images that straddle the fulcrum between libertine expression and provocative sensationalism, resulting in works that seem exploitive, pornographic, and even literally excremental (as in the Forms and Bodies program short, 16/67 20.September that presents a seemingly interminable looped sequence of a disembodied person relieving himself). It is within this collaborative realm of "artist filming artist" (and in the case of 16/67 20.September, an artist goading/inspiring/provoking another artist) that I find Kren's vision to be particularly amorphous, untenable, vile, and elusive, which seems to validate the personal observation that it is not Kren's technical skill or abstract compositions that I find obtuse, repulsive, or otherwise problemmatic in some of his fims but rather, the selection of certain (artistically nebulous) subjects within his work: a broader aversion to (or unreconciled disaffection for) the Actionist movement - or at least, in the overarching vision of Kren's featured artists that define the materialaktion (essentially, the performance art) - that the filmmaker captures on film.

The intriguing, underlying Actionist concept of materialaktion lies in the presentation - and observation - of the human body, not as an organic form, but as a plastic and deformable (and continuous) surface that exhibits specific and unique material properties when in action or subjected to dynamic motion. Of the two Actionists featured in Kren's films, Otto Mühl (filmed in color) and Günter Brus (filmed in black and white), Mühl's oeuvre - as represented in Kren's films - seems the most artistically bankrupt and irredeemable: elementally saturated, consciously outré, and baroque, his work recalls the atmospherically dense, bacchanalian kitsch of Kenneth Anger without the implicit, covert, sinister ritual. Through films such as 6/64 Mama und Papa, 9/64 O Tannenbaum, and 7/64 Leda mit dem Schwan, Mühl reveals a penchant for capturing the action of the body engaged in primitivistic (and implicitly sexual) behavior, using assorted tactile materials such as chicken eggs, clay, paint, wispy objects like flax and feathers, inflated rubber balloons, and flowers (inserted in human orifices) to depict the human body as artistic canvas or as linear props that define geometry through erogenous vertices (as in the otherwise forgettable 12/66 Cosinus Alpha).

In contrast to the voyeuristic intimacy of Mühl, Brus' work reveals a more estranged and abstract perspective, often incorporating correlative objects and mechanisms (in particular, bicycles) into the composition, but exist apart from the actions of the (human) body. The most indelible short film in the Brus materialaktion series is 10/65 Selbstverstümmelung, a haunting and innately disturbing expression of profound alienation as the artist, covered in a clay-like, deformable medium, performs grotesque acts of disfigurement and self-mutilation, revealing an even more intimate and profoundly unsettling presentation of a body in agony.

Nevertheless, the stylistic constant in what has proven to be a polarizing and aesthetically confounding experience is Kren's metric precision - an intuitive rhythm that pushes the liminal bounds of what is visible and, perhaps more relevantly, challenges the notion of what is filmable and artistically capturable. It is this intrinsic confrontation that is perhaps best reflected in the subtly hypnotic and abstractly dissociative microcosmic landscapes of 4/61 Mauern Positiv-Negativ, an observational study that illustrates patterns of metallurgical surface grain and scale through rapidly alternating positive and negative images, a perceptional material duality that effectively blurs the distinction between void and substance, presence and absence, the tactile and the impression.

Posted by acquarello on Feb 25, 2005 | | Filed under 2005, Kurt Kren Retrospective

February 22, 2005

36 Quai des Orfèvres, 2004

36quai.gifFrom the opening sequence of 36 Quai des Orfèvres that shows intercutting parallel sequences between a band of thugs who break into a bar and physically abuse the proprietress and a pair of vandals who pry off a street placard and subsequently emerge in the private room of a bar with other drunken, trigger-happy carousers, Olivier Marchal establishes the film's overarching moral ambiguity and blurred delineation between criminals and undercover police. Ostensibly a professional (and inferentially personal) competition between two seasoned law enforcement agency lead investigators Denis Klein (Gérard Depardieu) and Léo Vrinks (Daniel Auteuil) as they try to apprehend the perpetrators responsible for a string of boldly executed, daytime armored car robberies by any means possible in order to secure a promotion to commissioner, the rivalry soon escalates into a protracted, acrimonious, and increasingly reckless and unethical power struggle for professional validation, glory, and revenge. Drawing inspiration from the filmmaker's former career in law enforcement as well as a beloved national cinema legacy of atmospheric and highly stylized crime thrillers (that include such eminent filmmakers such as Louis Feuillade, Jean-Pierre Melville, and Henri-Georges Clouzot), 36 Quai des Orfèvres is an accomplished and entertaining film that is bolstered by the impeccable performances of a strong lead and supporting cast that, nevertheless, ultimately suffers from an overly contrived, conveniently structured, and tidy resolution (in particular, an extraneous, tangential subplot that could only have served to set up a set of conditions in place for the inevitable outcome).

Posted by acquarello on Feb 22, 2005 | | Comments (2) | Filed under 2005, Rendez-vous with French Cinema

February 21, 2005

Le Silence, 2004

silence.gifAn apprehensive Olivier (Mathieu Demy) inscrutably stands watch at an outpost on the side of a mountain, cursorily surveying the desolate topography with a pair of binoculars, waving to armed comrades situated on an adjacent clearing, checking the sight on his rifle...waiting for something to happen. The seemingly idyllic opening sequence of natural communion provides an insightful glimpse into the heart of the conflict as the chaos of shots fired and a faint rustling in the brush momentarily betrays his insecurity and allows a wild boar to escape into the wilderness. On holiday in his native village in Corsica, Olivier has returned with his fiancée (Natacha Régnier) to reconnect with his ancestral identity (perhaps resulting from an existential crisis brought on by his impending fatherhood), returning to the simpler life and camaraderie of the hunters who have continued to carry on the centuries-old tradition of his cultural heritage against the tide of inevitable depopulation (and vanishing way of life) in the dying village. Bound by the cultural code of self-reliance, rugged individualism, and independence, Olivier's moral allegiance is tested when he becomes an inadvertent witness to an act of cold-blooded murder. Orso Miret's sophomore feature is an elegantly shot and sincere, but thematically slight and ultimately superficial psychological portrait of guilt, conformity, and personal responsibility. Juxtaposing stylized, oneiric images that reveal Olivier's crisis of conscience against the naturalism of the region's harsh and unforgiving terrain (and further correlating the boar hunt as a social metaphor for natural law), Le Silence serves as a thoughtful exposition on instinctuality, character, and human resolve.

Posted by acquarello on Feb 21, 2005 | | Filed under 2005, Rendez-vous with French Cinema

Le Pont du Nord, 1982

pont_nord.gifIntegrating the filmmaker's familiar elements of whimsical, quixotic adventure (Celine and Julie Go Boating), integrated - but unresolved - conspiracy (Gang of Four, Secret Defense, and The Story of Marie and Julien), and liberated bohemianism (La Belle noiseuse, La Religeuse), Le Pont du Nord is an effervescent, ingeniously constructed, and infectiously affectionate paean to the city of Paris. From Baptiste's (Pascale Ogier) hopeful sentiment of arrival after encircling the statue of the Belfort lion in Denfert-Rochereau (a symbol of French Resistance against the Germans) that is reflected in Marie's (Bulle Ogier) literal awakening at a random intersection, Jacques Rivette juxtaposes the theme of rebirth against images of Paris in perpetual state of demolition and construction (a state of constant flux and transition that is similarly captured in Jean-Luc Godard's Two or Three Things I Know About Her) that mirrors Marie's own existential state after being released from prison and an unresolved past of radicalism. Rivette further uses the recurring image of spirals - the serpentine form of a sculptured dragon, the weaving of spider webs (that also reinforces the deceptive, "non-mystery" quality to the film), the characters' labyrinthine pursuit of the contents of a mysterious briefcase carried by Marie's former lover, Julien (Pierre Clémenti), the district map of Paris (that Marie observes to resemble a children's board game) - to illustrate, not only the inextricability of destiny, but also the inherent impossibility of starting over. Set against a shifting and increasingly alien cityscape that, nevertheless, embodies a deeply rooted, cumulative cultural history of resistance and revolution, the film dispels the myth of tabula rasa - a metaphor for a generation's defeated idealism following the May 68 protests - that seeks to propel modernization and progress through flight and ideological amnesia. Nevertheless, Rivette retains the lyrical tone amid the seeming weight of human tragedy through Le Pont du Nord's indelible film-within-a-film epilogue that, like the parting shot in Abbas Kiarostami's subsequent film A Taste of Cherry, serves as a thoughtful document of transience, an affirmation of mundane ritual, and a subtle appreciation of the here and now.

Posted by acquarello on Feb 21, 2005 | | Filed under 2005, Film Comment Selects

February 20, 2005

Deux, 2002

deux.gifA young woman named Magdalena (Isabelle Huppert) retrieves a postcard that had been cast into the wind by her biological mother (Bulle Ogier) from a seaside town in Portugal and discovers that she has a twin sister named Maria. From this seemingly introspective opening premise on identity, connection, and history, Deux diverges into unexpectedly abstract, non-intersecting trajectories that involve a schoolgirl attraction with a fellow classmate, a mother's wartime romance, a serial killer who leaves a tell-tale rose on the bodies of his victims, a lonely woman who adopts a fox as a household pet. Composed of asequential and dissociated vignettes, the film evokes the baroque tableaux of Sergei Paradjanov, the formalism of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and fractured surrealism of Luis Buñuel infused with quasi-religious iconography and Actionism of Otto Mühl (most notably, in the image of disemboweled figures such as ornamental cherubs). Werner Schroeter's latest film is an elegantly operatic, tactile, and voluptuous, but ultimately fractured, opaque, and impenetrable, creating a sensuous and visually dense but also idiosyncratically personal to the point of abstruseness.

Unfortunately, the highly anticipated conversation between critic Gary Indiana and Bulle Ogier turned out to be a rambling, disorganized, and incoherent near monologue by Mr. Indiana who seemed far more interested in usurping the spotlight to articulate his opinions on Deux and Werner Schroeter rather than actually interviewing with Ms. Ogier, opening with his expounded personal theory that the relationships between the estranged mother and twin daughters in Deux represented the relational dynamics between Schroeter's recently deceased mother, his late muse Magdalena Montezuma, and Schroeter which Ms. Ogier could only briefly respond in agreement (before Indiana then launched into a second theory on the meaning of the film). Fortunately, Ms. Ogier was able to provide some personal insight into her oeuvre, such as her continued work in stage and screen both in France and in Germany, which led to her association with Schroeter. Another was how her collaboration with Rainer Werner Fassbinder in The Third Generation led to the development of her character in Jacques Rivette's Le Pont du Nord as a loose sequel to the newly released, imprisoned former activist and revolutionary of the Fassbinder film.

Posted by acquarello on Feb 20, 2005 | | Comments (2) | Filed under 2005, Film Comment Selects

February 19, 2005

Los Muertos, 2004

losmuertos.gifLos Muertos opens to the visually atmospheric and strangely surreal image of an unpopulated tropical forest, tracking sinuously (and disorientingly) through the lush wilderness, momentary revealing the dead bodies of two young people splayed amid the obscuring brush, before returning to the idyllic shots of foliage that becomes unfocused and diffused, imbuing the image with a sense of organic, subconscious somnambulism. The film then takes on a more mundane and naturalistic tone with the shot of Argentino Vargas waking (perhaps from the haunted dream), assembling chairs at a workshop, and eating in silence, before an intervened confrontation reveals that the setting is a rural prison, and Vargas is serving the final days of his sentence for the murder of his siblings. Eventually released from prison, the taciturn Vargas sets out to honor a promise that he had earlier made to a fellow inmate and deliver a letter to the old man's daughter before embarking on his long, lonely journey home. Lisandro Alonso creates an evocatively atemporal and even otherworldly experience through the film's indigenous primitivism. Like the seeming mystery of the dead bodies in the jungle of the opening sequence, the film represents a subversion of expectation, most notably in Vargas' seemingly arrested memories of - and anticipated reunion with - the daughter he left behind (his purchase of candies and a fashionable blouse for her seems to indicate a young girl or teenager and only later does it become evident that she is already a grown woman). It is this process of supplanted expectation that is perhaps alluded to in the film's contextual reference to the titular dead: a laconic and unstructured presentation of images without narrative form, rather like cinematic ghosts, existing outside of time and physical space in the ephemeral, dense, and impenetrable medium of personal memory.

Posted by acquarello on Feb 19, 2005 | | Comments (6) | Filed under 2005, Film Comment Selects

Ma Mère, 2004

mamere.gifA somber and young man Pierre (Louis Garrel) sits inside a car listening impassively as his barely coherent, self-absorbed father (Philippe Duclos) coldly reveals his resigned resentment towards him as an accident of birth who had caused a premature end to his bohemian lifestyle and sexual experimentation with his wife Hélène (Isabelle Huppert). Brought to a secluded summer villa for a tenuous (and decidedly dysfunctional) family reunion with his seemingly delicate and emotionally opaque mother, Pierre is eager to express his complete devotion towards her in an attempt to prove allegiance to her against the emotional betrayal of his father's flaunted infidelities. However, when the father returns to France on "business" (a implicit euphemism for his visits to his mistress), Hélène's awkward intimacy with the tormented and inexperienced Pierre reveals an even more insidious side to her seeming impenetrability. Based on philosopher and author George Bataille's novel, Ma Mère is an insidious, amoral, depraved, and even darkly comical exposition on filial attraction, sexual initiation, and liberation. Although filmmaker Christophe Honoré presents some indelible and evocative images, most notably in the repeated crane shots of sand dunes that visually reflect Pierre's underlying sense of desolation, the pervasive bankruptcy and perverted search for intimacy and transcendence in the story is so alienated and bereft of hope that the film's recurring themes of religion, sexuality, fanaticism, and obsession becomes inextricably moribund and, like the characters' troubled lives, proves to be a transitory exercise in vacuous, empty ritual.

Posted by acquarello on Feb 19, 2005 | | Filed under 2005, Film Comment Selects

February 13, 2005

The Story of a Cheat, 1936

cheat.gifFrom the casual and personably familiar (and inferentially self-confident) running commentary of the film's introductory behind-the-scenes footage of the cast and crew, Sacha Guitry sets the infectiously picaresque and disarming tone of The Story of a Cheat. An interstitial silhouette of Guitry's profile provides the clever transition from real-life auteur to fictional character as the bespectacled, middle-aged, self-confessed "Cheat" pens his memoirs at an outdoor table of a bistro that overlooks his former residence - a Parisian townhouse that he would later admit he had won and subsequently lost through the fickle fortune of the cards. Proceeding in flashback as he recounts his youth in the provincial town of Pingolas, the Cheat reveals the unforeseeable and paradoxical set of circumstances that had spared him from accidental death - and unintentionally extolled the virtues of vice - after having earlier stolen change from the cash register in his parents' grocery store and was consequently forbidden by his father to be served freshly picked mushrooms during dinner as punishment, a side dish that inadvertently turned out to have proved lethal for the rest of the family. Orphaned at the age of twelve and divested of his inheritance by calculating, antipathetic relatives who are only too eager to be rid of him, the young Cheat (Serge Grave) soon sets out to find his own fortune, working his way up from as a bellboy to doorman to elevator operator for a series of luxury hotels throughout France before settling in Monaco after the war, striving to lead an honest life by working in the casinos of Monte Carlo as a croupier until a seemingly fated encounter with an enigmatic woman with soulful eyes named Henriette (Jacqueline Delubac) invariably tempts him to return to his old, incorrigible ways. Composed entirely without dialogue and instead, propelled through anecdotal, first-person narration, the film is a droll, infectiously effervescent, and charming satire on greed, opportunism, chance, and destiny. Guitry's briskly paced, reflexive tone is further reflected in the recursive nature of the film, most notably in the Cheat's repeated encounters with his former lovers and also his military comrade Serge (Roger Duchesne), creating a deceptively lyrical, yet insightful and observant commentary on the irrepressibility of human nature.

Posted by acquarello on Feb 13, 2005 | | Filed under 2005, Ancillary Film Notes

Life as a Fatal Sexually Transmitted Disease, 2000

life_fatal.gifIn early 12th century France, a horse thief is captured in the outskirts of a peasant village and brought to the attention of a passing monk in order to receive absolution before being hanged for his crime. Momentarily released from his binding in order to pray, the thief seizes the opportunity to flee from the village before being quickly apprehended and returned to the waiting priest, who then informs the townspeople that he cannot give absolution to someone who is not ready for death. Instead, the monk offers to take the prisoner into his counsel at the monastery and agrees to bring him back for his punishment when he is able to accept his fate. One day, the prisoner returns to the village and solemnly approaches the clearing that leads to the gallows before a seemingly anachronistic on-set mishap reveals that the opening sequence had been a film-within-a-film excerpt from a work in progress on the early life of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux and his epic theological conflict with theologian Pierre Abélard (a conflict that eventually led to Abélard's condemnation under Pope Innocent II). The nebulous, inexact context of Saint Bernard's reassuring words to the condemned man reveals the underlying essential mystery of Krzysztof Zanussi's pensive and articulate film, Life as a Fatal Sexually Transmitted Disease, as the divorced and childless Dr. Tomasz Berg (Zbigniew Zapasiewicz) - the film's standby physician - is forced to come to terms with his own mortality after discovering that he is suffering from an advanced stage of cancer. The film presents a thoughtful contemporary allegory for a culture that is striving to reconnect with its traditional spirituality (and along with the soul searching, the inevitable self-examination that accompanies the process as people struggle to reconcile with its continued relevance in a modern, technology-driven, and increasingly alienated society) after years of systematic religious marginalization under communism. Morevoer, by chronicling Dr. Berg's personal journey of enlightenment, closure, and transcendence, Zanussi reflects the spiritual conflict embodied by Abélard and St. Bernard's inextricable theological conundrum: an irresolvable universal quest to find balance between reason and faith, humanity and spirituality, mortality and eternal life.

Posted by acquarello on Feb 13, 2005 | | Filed under 2005, Ancillary Film Notes

February 4, 2005

Debt, 1999

debt.gifA pair of decapitated, naked male corpses are recovered from the bottom of a frigid, isolated lake as a team of police officers processes the crime scene in the hopes of recovering their heads in order to aid in the identification of the victims. Observing the idiosyncratically violent and methodical nature of the crime, the lead detective immediately notes the cursory similarity of the murders to the signature method of execution by foreign gangsters operating within the country - a gruesome reality that can only lead to the probable motive of an apparent turf war that, in turn, could only serve to hinder progress in the apprehension of the perpetrators. The film then proceeds in flashback to reveal implicit themes of new beginning, economic opportunism, and upward mobility: initially, through a shot of a young entrepreneur named Adam (Robert Gonera) overseeing the site preparation of his plot of land for construction (and is further reinforced through the news of his impending fatherhood), and subsequently, through the image of his business partner Stefan (Jacek Borcuch) scaling an indoor rock climbing training wall, envisioning himself within the exotic destinations of his mountain climbing magazines. Armed with a carefully detailed business proposal for an exclusive agreement to distribute competitively priced scooters for an Italian manufacturing company, the partners soon find their plans thrown into upheaval when a seemingly secured bank loan is rescinded for insufficient collateral only days before their scheduled international meeting. With little hope of securing another loan in time for the meeting, Stefan's recently reunited friend Gerard (Andrzej Chyra), offers to act as a go-between for his business associates in exchange for an undetermined percentage of the company profits. However, when Gerard returns with a dubious and financially-prohibitive proposal (undoubtedly engineered through syndicate connections), the partners soon find that they are unable to simply walk away from their persistent and ruthless intermediary. Spare, austere, and elegantly realized, Debt evokes the systematic dehumanization of Darezhan Omirbaev's Killer in the depiction of opportunism, moral bankruptcy, and exploitation endemic within former Soviet bloc countries as people compete for survival in the anarchy and freedom of a new economy. Filmmaker Krzysztof Krauze captures the bleak and interminably cold landscapes of post-communist Eastern Europe that is similarly reflected in the cinema of Béla Tarr and Sharunas Bartas, creating a trenchant and provocative metaphor for the profundity of human desolation in the face of corrupted and broken idealism.

Posted by acquarello on Feb 04, 2005 | | Filed under 2005, Ancillary Film Notes

February 2, 2005

Séance, 2000

seance.gifAn unidentified widow (Hikari Ishida) sits in the kitchen of the Sato home bearing a keepsake from her late husband in the desperate hope that her psychic medium, Junko (Jun Fubuki) can somehow connect her to him and help resolve her own conflicted emotions on the prospect of marrying another man. Soft-spoken, deliberative, and perhaps intentionally vague in her seemingly enlightened queries, Junko's role is that of a surrogate psychotherapist, echoing her client's ambivalent sentiment through inverted responses and patient, introspective silence. Nevertheless, Junko's paranormal vocation seems to have been borne more out of listlessness and an attempt at social re-engagement than financial necessity as she impulsively tells her devoted husband, a sound engineer named Sato (Kôji Yakusho) one evening that she is ready to return to work. A subsequent, cursory episode alludes to the reason for her self-imposed exile as Sato searches for a child's beverage training mug, reinforcing the theme of a lost child that has deeply marked - and continues to haunt - their marriage. Meanwhile, in another part of town, the police are baffled by the case of a nebulous and predatory stranger who has abducted a young girl at a playground under the ruse of her mother's illness. Working with a university professor (Ittoku Kishibe) in order to create a psychological profile of the perpetrator, the professor, in turn, convinces the lead detective (Kitarou) to enlist Junko's assistance, providing her with the child's handkerchief in order to aid in the search. A loose adaptation of the novel by Mark McShane, Séance on a Wet Afternoon, Séance is a taut, atmospheric, and meticulously constructed psychological study of surrogate guilt, emotional co-dependency, personal conscience, and vanity. Kiyoshi Kurosawa continues to experiment with the distillation, aesthetic infusion, and integral structure of gothic elements into a non-horror genre narrative (most recently, in the sociological drama, Bright Future) while retaining the psychological tension, profound alienation, and metaphysical otherworldliness that have come to define his cinema (and is particularly evident in the Tarkovsky-like barren landscapes of Charisma) in order to create a thoughtful and provocative exposition on transference, spiritual desolation, and sentimental inertia.

Posted by acquarello on Feb 02, 2005 | | Comments (3) | Filed under 2005, Ancillary Film Notes

January 28, 2005

Marathon, 2002

marathon.gifThere is an early moment of recognition in Marathon when the heroine of the film, Gretchen (Sara Paul), scans one of the crossword puzzle clues (from a handful of puzzles that she has taken with her on the train) and traces the words "Lamb's pen name", a perennial New York Times crossword entry (Elia) that I somehow managed to keep forgetting during my own obsession with completing these maddening puzzles: Mondays were easy, Fridays were invariably a challenge, and by Sunday, the glyphs would always leave me completely stumped. Perhaps it was this personal identification with the (albeit trivial) past that I found most incisive and truthful about this unassuming but acutely observed film by Iranian expatriate filmmaker, Amir Naderi. At the heart of the film is a chronicle of Gretchen's traditional one-day "marathon" to push the bounds of her endurance and challenge her personal best (a record of 77) - to complete as many compiled crossword puzzles as she can within the span of 24 hours - drawing on the ambient noise of the city to sharpen her focus and acuity. Marathon invites favorable comparison with Chantal Akerman's News from Home in the framing of structural symmetry (particularly subway stations and track infrastructure), anonymous population, and constant bustle of machinery, transportation, and people. Moreover, the voicemail messages from Gretchen's mother (Rebecca Nelson) offering equal measures of support and cautionary advice similarly recall the measured, sentimental estrangement of the mother's recited letters in News from Home: a child's self-imposed isolation that seems reluctant, but necessary, in the process of independence and personal identity (a message conveys her mother's own history of past marathon accomplishments). It is interesting to note that News from Home was also filmed by a then-New York City transplant Akerman, and the detailed observation of the minutiae of the adoptive city by both diasporic filmmakers seem integrally correlated to the process of cultural assimilation. It is this intrinsic particularity that ultimately reveals the underlying truth of the film, not as a trite allegory on deriving creativity from chaos, but as a thoughtful and sincere expression of wonder, distraction, trepidation, and curiosity at an inscrutable and ephemeral soul of a brave new world.

Posted by acquarello on Jan 28, 2005 | | Comments (1) | Filed under 2005, Ancillary Film Notes

January 25, 2005

tx-transform, 1998

tx_transform.gifFilm is empirically defined as 24 frames per second. However, if the functional variables were to be transposed such that each frame instead represented 24 seconds of a fixed space (defined by the bounds of the frame) - the shift in perspective would capture a behaviorally dissimilar relational interval - a spatial "snapshot" that illustrates the visual continuum of time rather than a continuum of visible space (as in a photograph). From a fixed angle camera, the transposition would result in rotating objects that conflate into a flat map survey of the entire surface contour of the object (as in satellite mapping), dynamic motion that is revealed perpendicular to the line of sight as static objects disappear within the frame of the visible temporal "space", relative motion that seemingly elongates and compresses along the traversal axis. This referential transposition from distance-time (x-t) (or position-time) to time-distance (t-x) drives the technology behind the surreally fluid, ethereal, metamorphosing images captured in Virgil Widrich and Martin Reinhart's short film, tx-transform. Adapted from British mathematician and philosopher Bertrand Russell's "accessible reference" analogy on Albert Einstein's Theory of Relativity, the illustration posits that if two gunmen walked up to the two ends of a moving train and subsequently fired at the train conductor and the guard (located at the front and rear of the train respectively), a passenger riding in the railcar exactly located in the middle of the train would hear both shots at the same time, while a station master positioned between the two gunmen on the ground would hear the shooting of the guard first. Applying t-x transform at the moment of the assassinations, the resulting effect is one of organic, ghostly otherworldliness that reinforces the relativistic and amorphous relationship between space and time, revealing a curious, existential plasticity that seemingly captures an ephemeral instance that is imperceptible within a conventional, spatial frame: the moment of a soul's physical transcendence.

Posted by acquarello on Jan 25, 2005 | | Filed under 2005, Ancillary Film Notes

Copy Shop, 2001

copyshop.gifEach morning, a fastidious and unassuming copy shop owner named Alfred Kager (Johannes Silberschneider) wakes up in his empty apartment and begins to silently perform the empty, familiar rituals of his mundane existence: a brisk facial wash, a cursory survey of pedestrians in the street, a fleeting glimpse of the pretty flower girl (Elisabeth Ebner-Haid) around the corner, the unlocking of his one-man shop to open for business, the power up and paper loading of the photocopiers, the arrangement and operation of the machines for the interminable reproduction of materials. One day, while positioning a document onto the glass, Kager prematurely actuates the photocopier and instead, takes an image of the palm of his hand. The inadvertent reproduction sets off a bizarre series of eerily omniscient, automated photocopied printouts of his daily routine, with each copy seemingly triggering a physical self-reproduction, until the town becomes overrun by his own band of oblivious and baffled doppelgängers. Reminiscent of the infinitely recursive multiplicity of Maya Deren's Meshes of the Afternoon, Copy Shop is a wry and intelligently crafted exposition on being and identity. Expounding on the images of malleable reality that the filmmaker earlier explored in tx-transform and prefiguring the textured, physical manipulation of tactile objects (specifically, paper) that would subsequently be incorporated in Fast Film, Widrich's thoughtful application of mixed media composition (that integrates film, digital media, and paper) creates an incisive framework for the film's integrally philosophical (and artistic) themes of individuality and sameness, originality and duplication, handcrafting and mass production.

Posted by acquarello on Jan 25, 2005 | | Filed under 2005, Ancillary Film Notes

Fast Film, 2003

fast_film.gifExperimental filmmaker Peter Kubelka reinforces the idea that film is a tactile artistic medium that, like all forms of art, not only requires hands-on, physical construction and manipulation by the artist, but also serves as a tangible archive (or archaeological artifact) for communicating and articulating a constantly evolving cultural legacy within a specific timeframe of human history - a social contemporaneity that gives the created work its significance. As modern art serves as both a cumulative expression and a novel reinterpretation of existing art - which, by definition, extends even to the primitive, "found art" of ancient cave paintings - so, too, does the process of creating a film become an expression, integration, and reconstitution of existing and "found art" (and specificially for filmmaking, is an entire history of cinema) that came before it. Kubelka's philosophy is evidently not lost on fellow Austrian filmmaker, Virgil Widrich's intelligently conceived and infectiously inventive experimental short, Fast Film, a clever and delirious tongue-in-cheek homage to cinema through indelible images of film excerpts and personalities that have been transferred or projected onto folded, origami-like, or otherwise manipulated (pasted, punched, crumpled, frayed, or torn) paper. Presenting a simple (and intentionally formulaic) narrative through threaded conventional movie plotlines of romance, damsel in distress, suspense, and human drama - including requisite doses of action through train sequences and airplane dogfights - Widrich pushes the conceptual bounds of artistic integration of found footage by literally composing a film entirely from recycled "old" art and ingeniously transforms it into an a novel, idiosyncratically original, and evocatively expressive work that is simultaneously innovative and visually abstract, yet syntactically intuitive and reverently familiar.

Posted by acquarello on Jan 25, 2005 | | Comments (3) | Filed under 2005, Ancillary Film Notes

January 18, 2005

The Man Who Loved Haugesund, 2004

haugesund.gifIn the early 1910s, a hardworking and ambitious textile traveling salesman of Polish Jew ancestry named Moritz Rabinowitz arrived at the insular, Norwegian herring export town of Haugesund and, touched by the townspeople's humble existence and diligent work ethic, decided to settle in the community. Establishing a clothing company near the town port (where sailors from neighboring ports were invariably bound to spot his eye-catching billboard painted on the side of the store building and pay a visit) that incorporated several forward-thinking innovations as mail order, print and mass advertising, quick turnaround, made-to-measure suits, and even an affordable couture line, Rabinowitz soon became one of the wealthiest and most prominent men in Norway (an opening anecdote notes that it was nearly impossible to find anyone in Haugesund who did not have, at one time, an old wooden hanger that bore the name M. Rabinowitz hanging in the closet). Nevertheless, Rabinowitz remained curiously an outsider to the city's social circles. Using his personal finances to conduct a seemingly one-man campaign in the 1930s against the looming danger of spreading Nazism and also to dispel the culturally fostered misconceptions about Jews that contributed to that threat, the outspoken entrepreneur soon became a targeted enemy of the Third Reich and was forced into hiding during the German invasion of Norway.

During the Q&A, filmmaker Jon Haukeland noted that in Norway, 50% of the Jews were lost during the war while in Denmark, nearly 100% were saved, a striking contrast that compelled him to examine the nature of this disparity. Composed of interviews by Rabinowitz's former employees and staff and set against photographs from his personal effects that were stored after his apprehension by the Germans, Haukeland and Tore Vollan's The Man Who Loved Haugesund is a profoundly disturbing examination of the deeply rooted racism that, not only contributed to the death of the personable and dedicated industrialist, but (and most tragically) continues to be endemic in Norwegian culture. Perhaps the most revelatory of this insidiously pervasive sentiment is the well-intentioned employees' own vaguely apologetic (and unconscionably vulgar) insinuation that Rabinowitz had contributed to his own death by continuing to conduct business in absentia through the telephone (which allowed the Nazis to tap his company's lines and determine his location) because of his inextricable love for his thriving business and tireless pursuit of money (implicitly alluding to the racist stereotype, an innuendo that is refuted by another employee who conjectures that he could not allow himself to leave his (married) daughter behind), and an employee's own irreconcilable words as she wistfully and sincerely states that even though the social elite essentially shunned her employer because of his race and unpopular activism, she and the other employees would have loved to have had the charismatic Rabinowitz as a guest in her home, even though none of them had ever apparently made the explicit effort to actually invite him.

Posted by acquarello on Jan 18, 2005 | | Filed under 2005, New York Jewish Film Festival

Permission to Remember, 2003

permission.gifShot on DV, Permission to Remember opens to a shot of a bustling Ukrainian market as a holocaust survivor and expatriate now living in Israel named Moishe begins to recount memories from his childhood, only to be interrupted by an aggressive woman who complains of the "foreigners" who are blocking her way into the market and refuses to step aside to allow them to continue filming, asserting that she is a Ukrainian and does not have to step aside for the foreigners. The episode provides an insightful glimpse into the entrenched prejudice and xenophobia that had contributed to the genocide of over 20,000 Jews in Moishe's native town of Lubmir during World War II (only 80 people survived at the end of the campaign). Incited by news that a (personally) unknown Ukrainian from Lubmir named Stephan Wermchuk has been bestowed the Righteous Among the Nations honor by Israel after having provided for safe passage (apparently, at the age of eight) to 50 Jews with his mother Maria to the Kruk underground resistance during the war (a noble national distinction that also provides for special treatment by the Israeli government such as immigration privileges, free housing, and a monthly stipend), Moishe and other Ukrainian Holocaust survivors embark on a campaign to research Wermchuk's controversial claim, returning to his native land to locate witnesses who can support Wermchuk's testimony and, perhaps indirectly, to confront painful boyhood memories of ostracism, desolation, impotence, and the unimaginable, senseless deaths he witnessed during his years in the Jewish ghetto that have continued to haunt him throughout his life. Documentarian Yael Kipper Zaretzky presents a complex portrait of the collective consciousness of a nation still attempting to reconcile with its complicity in the unconscionable tragedy, and a survivor's surrogate obsession for truth and accountability (and perhaps, implicit vengeance) in its traumatic aftermath and, in the process, creates a compelling exposition on the guilt of survival and the human importance of accurate historic documentation.

Posted by acquarello on Jan 18, 2005 | | Filed under 2005, New York Jewish Film Festival

The Mortal Storm, 1940

mortalstorm.gifDuring a dinner party to celebrate the occasion of Professor Roth's (Frank Morgan) 60th birthday, news of Adolf Hitler's ascension to the position of German chancellor at the Roth home is met with fervent excitement by his stepsons Otto (Robert Stack) and Erich (William T. Orr), and his daughter's suitor Fritz Marberg (Robert Young) who believe that the new leader holds the key to restore the lost greatness of the German nation, and with tempered ambivalence by Professor Roth - a euphemistically called "non-Aryan" intellectual - and his protégé, a veterinary student named Martin Breitner (James Stewart) who disagree with Hitler's policies of racial segregation, unilateralism, and warmongering. From this opening premise, Frank Borzage sets the poignant, defiant, and socially incisive tone for the inevitable tragedy and ruin that befall the Roth family as the remote Alpine town near the Austrian border becomes increasingly seduced by the sense of empowerment and solidarity provided by the Nazi movement...and with it, its oppressively (and destructively) isolationist, xenophobic, and militarist policies. Structured within the melodramatic framework of an ill-fated love affair between Martin and Professor Roth's daughter Freya (Margaret Sullavan), The Mortal Storm is an elegantly realized, penetrating, and chillingly prescient cautionary tale of socially accepted blind obedience, collective mentality, and narrow-minded self-righteousness: an indelible - and continually relevant - portrait of true compassion and human courage in the face of a prevailing, inhuman tide of intolerance and aggression.

Posted by acquarello on Jan 18, 2005 | | Filed under 2005, New York Jewish Film Festival

January 17, 2005

Nina's Tragedies, 2003

ninastragedies.gif On the day of his father's funeral, the curious and meddlesome adolescent Nadav (Aviv Elkabeth) peeps in through the window of the funeral home where the rabbi is making last minute preparations for the burial, a task that involves calling an unreliable, impatient repairman during a torrential rain in order to fix a chronically squeaky gurney wheel. Ordering the technician to remain throughout the services in an attempt to ensure the soundness of his repair work, the somber proceeds from the idiosyncratic point of view of the erratic wheel as it precariously wobbles out of stability and back into its familiar, irritating din. The seemingly surreal, deceptively lyrical opening sequence provides an elegantly conceived framework for filmmaker Savi Gabizon's elegantly modulated tragicomedy. Told from the perspective of young Nadav, the only child of separated parents, the film proceeds in a series of flashbacks as his religious father is asked by the school principal to read passages from his Navi's confiscated journal in order to determine if his son is merely engaging in innocuous, fanciful creative writing or involved in some perverse relationship with an older woman, his impossibly beautiful, recently widowed aunt Nina (Ayelet Zorer). During the post-screening Q&A, Gavizon cited Bertrand Blier as perhaps his greatest influence in becoming a filmmaker, a reference that seems particularly suitable within the context of the fanciful, almost absurdist mundane situations encountered by the characters in the film (which idiosyncratically includes a style obsessed, Jil Sander-clad, promiscuous mother, a reforming peeping tom, a haunted memory involving bedouin pants, and a seemingly nude ghost). Richly constructed, sincerely affirming, and elegantly realized, Nina's Tragedies presents a whimsical, yet incisive and intricately observed view of the cultural fusion innate in contemporary life in Tel Aviv through the ephemeral, universal mystery of adolescence.

Posted by acquarello on Jan 17, 2005 | | Filed under 2005, New York Jewish Film Festival

Tomorrow We Move, 2003

tomorrow.gifIn the film's droll, double entendred opening sequence, a breathless woman, Catherine (Aurore Clément), speaks off camera in dulcet, anxious tone as she provides a series of guiding, seemingly appetent directions against the image of a grand piano craned precariously overhead, culminating with a stray tear that falls from her cheek at the point of pleasant resolution. The introductory, tongue-in-cheek correlation between relocation and sexuality provides an appropriate context to the inconvenient domestic arrangement in the film as the nurturing, vivacious piano teacher has decided to move in with her only child, Charlotte (Sylvie Testud), an insulated (and introspective) pulp novelist of erotic fiction following the death of her husband only to realize that the apartment is too small for their needs and that the only practical solution is to move again. Recalling the effervescent lyricism of Window Shopping and the intrinsic humor of the domestic displacement comedies, Night and Day and A Couch in New York, and fused with the burlesque theatricality of late period Alain Resnais, Tomorrow We Move playfully encapsulates thoughtful, recurring themes within Chantal Akerman's oeuvre: displacement, perpetual migration, artistic isolation, cultural disconnection (in the triggering of indirect, sentimental memories by a fumigated apartment during Charlotte's apartment-hunting trip with the real estate agent Popernick (Jean-Pierre Marielle)), surrogacy, and the identification of the female speaker (in a poignant discovery of the grandmother's diary, a Polish Jew who had perished in Auschwitz). Juxtaposed against the underlying theme that the act of moving represents a figurative death of a relationship (whether through physical separation or change in life circumstances), the film serves as an understated, whimsical, and elegantly realized exposition on the sentiment of rootlessness and perpetual exile.

Posted by acquarello on Jan 17, 2005 | | Filed under 2005, New York Jewish Film Festival

January 13, 2005

The Corridor, 1995

corridor.gifIn a (relatively) climactic episode that occurs near the hour mark of The Corridor, the residents of a working-class tenement in the metropolitan city of Vilnius in Lithuania congregate on the passageway near the common kitchen to socialize with other tenants and, enlivened by the melancholic (often foreign) pop ballads on the radio (and perhaps fueled by a few too many alcoholic beverages), begin to dance aimlessly and uninhibitedly through the animated, dingy, crowded room. It is an image that recalls the delirious, extended sequence shot of the villagers' euphoric (or perhaps somnambulistic) tavern dance in Béla Tarr's contemporary film Sátántangó, an intoxicated display of revelry and reckless abandon that the cruel, troubled girl Estike watches through the window with inscrutable bemusement. Similar to Tarr, Bartas' cinematic view of post-communist Eastern Europe is one of soullessness, moral ambiguity, and profound desolation. Composed of long takes of indirect gazes and oppressively alienated temps morts (where an eclectic assembly of anonymous residents alternately stare out the window, smoke a cigarette, handle their rifle, voyeuristically peep, awkwardly flirt, become inebriated, and even mischievously set on fire laundry that has been hanging on a clothesline), the fragmented, collage-like portraits of the tenants are interstitially connected through the recurring image of the building's dimly lit hallways, a visual metaphor for a culture adrift and in transition - a conduit to an undefined destination. Like Tarr's seminal film, the deliberative and transfixing long takes of The Corridor similarly embody the emergence of a characteristically austere and languidly paced "cinema of waiting" in the wake of the dissolution of the Soviet bloc: a figurative reflection of the crippling inertia borne of spiritual bankruptcy and directional uncertainty after years of pervasive government interference. It is this existential limbo of failed, repressive Cold War policies and stalled socio-economic progress that is inevitably captured in the impassive faces of the silent, disconnected residents - a sense of confusion and entrapment amidst the new-found freedom derived from the indirect liberation of defeated abandonment - a demoralized collective psyche foundering in the obsolescence of an elusive and crumbled ideology.

Posted by acquarello on Jan 13, 2005 | | Comments (2) | Filed under 2005, Ancillary Film Notes, Sharunas Bartas

January 11, 2005

Few of Us, 1996

few_us.gifIn an intriguing long take static shot of the oppressively barren Siberian frontier, a converted tank (turned off-road passenger utility vehicle) traverses a rugged terrain that seemingly bisects a rural, indigenous village, disappears in a spray of displaced mud as it sinks partially out of frame into a trench, then momentarily re-emerges to continue on its plodding journey, only to become imperceptible from the horizon once again as it descends into a series of depressions on the gravel road. Watching this sequence (and film) again within the added context of having also seen Twentynine Palms, I couldn't help but think that Bruno Dumont must somehow have been influenced by this unstructured and glacially paced, yet lucidly pure, challenging, and entrancingly reductive film by Lithuanian filmmaker Sharunas Bartas, a feature that he developed from his earlier diploma film, Tolofaria on the nomadic, indigenous tribe.

On the surface is the casting of perennial Bartas actress, Yekaterina Golubeva, whose handsome, angular features and enigmatic opacity articulate ennui, despair, and longing in their most elemental form through her abstract, disconnected gaze. Navigating through the barren, alien terrain of the Sayan mountains where Tolofar nomads still lead a primitive, threadbare existence (after she seemingly falls from the sky, having been deposited by a helicopter onto the top of a rock quarry), the adrift young woman takes up shelter at a way station, isolated by language and culture from the daily rituals of the Tolofarians, until an act of violence causes her to leave the village and continue her wandering - figuratively disappearing into the landscape in an exquisite long take that matches the earlier shot of the converted tank laboriously making its way through the trenches of the inhospitable pass. It is this sense of interminable journey through a vast, unknown landscape, coupled by a reinforcing image of (apparent) visual dissolution from that landscape, that seems to particularly coincide with Dumont's expressed intent to create a kind of road movie that "erases" the characters in order to convey tone and sensation solely by the abstract filming of landscape (as he explained in the Q&A for Twentynine Palms). Moreover, Bartas incorporates an unanticipated (and even more shocking) secondary act of unprovoked violence in the film's final sequences, a deflection of narrative trajectory that is similarly incorporated (though with mixed results) in Dumont's film. However, what inevitably makes the maddeningly paced Few of Us, nevertheless, a strangely transfixing and indelible experience is the ethnographic realism that pervades its stark, rigorous imagery - its ability to trace an austere and moribund cultural history through impassive, weather-worn faces, perpetual transience, and silent ritual - to capture the image of lost souls that lay beneath the vacant, anonymous gaze, trapped in a vast wasteland of human desolation.

Posted by acquarello on Jan 11, 2005 | | Filed under 2005, Ancillary Film Notes, Sharunas Bartas

January 8, 2005

Sombre, 1998

sombre.gifWhile I'm not at all enraptured by the murky, elliptically fractured, and characteristically amoral transgressive cinema of Philippe Grandrieux, I also cannot help but be drawn to certain aspects of his filmmaking that I find undeniably sublime in the sensorial purity of their realization. One such moment occurs in an early episode in Grandrieux's debut feature film, Sombre: an eerily silent shot of Jean (Marc Barbé) looking away from the camera at a vacant lot (a recurring image of the back of his head that prefigures the psychological ambiguity and enigmatic motivation of Olivier in Jean Pierre and Luc Dardenne's The Son) juxtaposed against the crashing waves of a turbulent stream. The seemingly unstable, unfocused image drifts into and out of frame, intermittently revealing the outline of a female form lying violated and lifeless near his feet. Grandrieux's introduction to Jean is also ingeniously conceived - a disorienting tracking shot of a lone automobile on a dark, tortuous road set against the foreboding, ambient, mechanical drone of an engine that cuts to the sound of children screaming as they watch a puppet play at a guignol, where Jean, uncoincidentally, performs as a puppeteer. This introductory image of primal reaction, instinctive terror, manipulative control, and possession compactly (and evocatively) sets the tone for the film's thematically (and visually) dark tale of impossible love as the restless Jean carves a violent path of sexual encounters - and serial murder victims - until a virginal, stranded motorist named Claire (Elina Löwensohn) momentarily offers him a glimpse of the possibility of intimacy and complete love.

As convenient as it would be to be completely dismissive of Grandrieux's provocational cinema, there are certainly traces of visually abstract, but innately cohesive - and emotionally lucid - elements within his style that are difficult to find fault with, particularly in the implementation of complex, raw, and highly textural visual strategies that complement Jean's primal, aberrant psychology. Moreover, there is a discernible process of authorship at work in Sombre that betrays an overarching deliberativeness towards the film's construction, from echoes of Jon Jost's Last Chants for a Slow Dance (and Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo) that can be seen in Jean's aimless driving through desolate roads (often to cruise for prostitutes who will unwittingly become his future victims), to Grandrieux's exposition on the blurred delineation between passion and violence - and the psychological rapture that both acts achieve for the antihero - that would be similarly echoed in Claire Denis' subsequent experimental horror film, Trouble Every Day. It is this underlying intelligence that ultimately makes Grandrieux's film a worthwhile, though irresponsible and morally bankrupt experience.

Posted by acquarello on Jan 08, 2005 | | Comments (4) | Filed under 2005, Ancillary Film Notes, Philippe Grandrieux

La Vie nouvelle, 2002

vie_nouvelle.gifWhile Sombre embodies the categorization of quasi-allegorical gothic fairytale, La Vie nouvelle can be described as quasi-mythological in its underlying plot. Implementing a slow reveal from darkness to a jittery, contextually ambiguous image that similarly occurs in the opening sequence of Sombre (in this film, of anonymous women's faces staring out into space), the effect is one of abstract dissociation from a real, physical realm and into a subconscious one as a group of transients seemingly emerge from the ruins of a bombed-out, post-apocalyptic wasteland, including a disillusioned American expatriate named Seymour (Zachary Knighton) who willfully parts with his concerned, apprehensive comrades and re-emerges at a seedy nightclub where he is seduced and propositioned by Melania (Anna Mouglalis), a beautiful abducted woman forced to work by her captors as a prostitute at the club's adjoining private rooms (note Boyan's (Zsolt Nagy) allusive manipulation of Melania's movements at a rave party that evokes Jean's vocation as a puppeteer in Sombre). Beguiled by the enigmatic, captive woman and haunted by their brief, truncated encounter, Seymour becomes increasingly obsessed with her. Revisiting his earlier themes of possession and unrequited love, Grandrieux's cold and dour palette in Sombre has been replaced by warm (yet equally dark and somber) hues, and in particular, red, which reinforces the figurative symbolism of the nightclub as a mythological underworld. Grandrieux retains his penchant for sublimely composed, idiosyncratically experimental (yet intrinsically lucid) sequences, most notably in Seymour and Melania's fractured, temporally-altered dream-like nocturnal escape on a motorcycle, and Melania's seeming behavioral transformation from femme fatale to savage beast through negative projection of textural, high-contrast black and white imagery. Diffused tracking shots (often to the point of abstraction), unsteady angles, de-eroticized intimacy, and minimal dialogue pervade the film to create an accomplished and highly elliptical - albeit sordid, thematically ambiguous, and oftentimes bewildering - psychological portrait of primal behavior, violence, despair, and human longing.

Posted by acquarello on Jan 08, 2005 | | Filed under 2005, Ancillary Film Notes, Philippe Grandrieux

January 6, 2005

Take My Eyes, 2003

take_eyes.gifA harried woman seemingly on the verge of an emotional breakdown wakes her son, hurriedly packs their belongings and steals away in the middle of the night, arriving at the door of her sister Ana (Candela Peña) still unwittingly dressed in her house slippers. Pilar (Laia Marull) has finally decided to leave her abusive husband Antonio (Luis Tosar), a welcomed news that Ana is all too eager to accommodate by offering a place to stay, returning to the apartment in her place to retrieve forgotten items, and making a personal request to colleagues for her sister's job placement in the museum. However, Pilar's road towards independence is a difficult and uncertain one, complicated by her own lingering, passionate affection for her doting, well-intentioned husband, her son's repeated requests to see his father, her tradition-minded mother's (Rosa María Sardà) incessant reminders on the sanctity of marriage (and tacit "grin and bear it" apologia that the abuse is somehow a normal part of married life), and Antonio's sincere attempts to salvage his marriage by attending anger management counseling. Unable to completely sever her emotional bond with her husband, she offers him yet another chance and moves back home in the hopeful illusion that his commitment to therapy can quell – and ultimately silence – his violent impulses. Take My Eyes is an elegant and incisive social realist portrait of domestic violence and, in particular, its manifestation within an indigenous social culture of accepted masculine aggression (machismo). Bollaín's understated realization results in a taut, voluptuous, and intimate exposition on the nature and psychology of spousal abuse that is neither caricatured to the point of grotesque absurdity (the film concentrates more on the subtle evidences of long-term emotional abuse and implicit behavioral symptoms rather than present familiar narrative conventions of spousal battery under drunken rages) nor dimensionally simplistic in its portrayal of "good" and "evil" actions (and character personalities) to capture the complexity of the issue.

Posted by acquarello on Jan 06, 2005 | | Filed under 2005, Ancillary Film Notes