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October 2005 Archives

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