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December 24, 2006

Senses of Cinema End of the Year 'Favorite Film Things' Compilation: 2006


If there is a consistent thread in my selections for this year's Senses of Cinema: 2006 World Poll, it is that these films in one or another define the complexity of human memory, whether alienating in its inescapable persistence, inerasable in its architectural concreteness, frustrating in its grawing consciousness, haunting in its recursive irresolution, and quietly tragic in its sad, consuming delusion.

My Favorite Films for 2006 (in preferential order):

Paprika (Satoshi Kon, 2006)
Días de campo (Days in the Country, Raoul Ruiz, 2004)
Coeurs (Private Fears in Public Places, Alain Resnais, 2006)
Iklimer (Climates, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, 2006)
Inland Empire (David Lynch, 2006)
Woman on the Beach (Hong Sang-soo, 2006)
Syndromes and a Century (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2006)
L'Enfer (Danis Tanovic, 2005)
Honor de Cavallería (Quixotic, Albert Serra, 2006)
Batalla en el cielo (Battle in Heaven, Carlos Reygadas, 2005)

Honorable Mentions (in alphabetical order):

Bamako (Abderrahmane Sissako, 2006)
Belle Toujours (Manoel de Oliveira, 2006)
Camden 28 (Anthony Giacchino, 2006)
Iraq in Fragments (James Longley, 2006)
Kinetta (Yorgos Lanthimos, 2005)
Pan's Labyrinth (Guillermo del Toro, 2006)
Saratan (Ernest Abdyjaparov, 2005)
United 93 (Paul Greengrass, 2006)
Unser täglich Brot (Our Daily Bread, Nikolaus Geyrhalter, 2005)
When the Levees Broke (Spike Lee, 2006)

Posted by acquarello on Dec 24, 2006 | | Comments (2) | Filed under 2006

December 17, 2006

Carnival Sunday, 1945

carnival_sunday.gifPart Alfred Hitchcock styled mysterious intrigue and part 1930s inspired romantic comedy, Edgar Neville's Carnival Sunday is a taut, irresistibly refined, and well crafted whodunit thriller. Set in the surreal atmosphere of the advent of Carnival Sunday, the beginning of the three day celebration that culminates with the Mardi Gras festivities (and ushers the beginning of Lent with Ash Wednesday), the film opens with an obtrusive tenant and night watchman's discovery of the body of a murdered pawn broker that had been haphazardly concealed in her unlocked apartment. Reporting the murder to the local police constable who seems resistant to conducting a prompt examination of the crime scene to search for clues for fear of curtailing his holiday plans (and rationalizing that the social insignificance of the crime lends itself to a soon forgotten resolution, irrespective of the perpetrator's capture), the constable cedes the investigation to his inexperienced, but highly motivated junior officer, Matías (Fernando Fernán Gómez) who believes that the answer to the identity of the murderer may be found within the sheaf of promissory notes discovered within the secret compartment of the victim's bureau. But when Matías makes a quick arrest after a local tonic peddler is discovered attempting to retrieve a lost item in the pawn broker's apartment, the peddler's devoted daughter, a clock seller named Nieves (Conchita Montes) decides to launch her own independent investigation, aided by her affable and well-intentioned friend, a costume merchant and town gossip named Julia (and aided in part by Julia's access to an assortment of disguises) to root out the real killer. Creating an environment that is both ominous and carnivalesque, and sustaining the film's tension and suspense through the efficiency of narrative, Neville not only demonstrates a precision for storytelling, but also provides an incisive glimpse of the endemic social and economic disparity and instability that defined contemporary life during the transitional, early days of postwar Spain and the entrenchment of fascism.

Posted by acquarello on Dec 17, 2006 | | Filed under 2006, Spanish Cinema Now

La Dama Boba (Lady Nitwit), 2006

dama_boba.gifIn a well-appointed villa in seventeenth century Spain, a wealthy, widowed noblewoman, Otavia (Verónica Forqué) vows to marry off her two beautiful, but problematic daughters: Nise (Macarena Gómez), whose dark, smoldering beauty is equally matched by the ferocity of her intellect and penchant for uncompromising, philosophical debates with the finest intellectuals of the day, and Finea (Silvia Abascal), the sweet and fair, but (seemingly) dimwitted sibling whose marital prospects, despite having been made all the more attractive by the endowment of a generous dowry, have been tempered by her exasperating bubble-headedness and naïve gullibility. With Nise amorously pursued by a roguish and penniless, but well-respected poet and cavalier named Laurencio (José Coronado) and Finea courted by the vain and self-absorbed Liseo (Roberto Sanmartín) at the instigation of his parents, Otavia's hopes to find appropriate suitors for her difficult daughters seems to be within her grasp, until the fickle Laurencio disrupts the fated course of arranged love by turning his attentions instead on Finea in the hopes of acquiring a small fortune through her dowry. Adapted from the titular comedy by Spanish playwright Lope de Vega, Manuel Iborra's La Dama Boba evokes the lightness, burlesque humor, and effervescent tone of William Shakespeare's comedies (most notably, The Taming of the Shrew and Twelfth Night) to create a sincere and incisive exposition on the nature of identity and the transformative power of love. However, inevitably, like Shakespeare's escapist comedies, La Dama Boba similarly suffers from a certain degree of archaicness, blunt absurdity, and caricature that, like Finea's lapses of common sense, renders the memory of the film equally fleeting and transposable.

Posted by acquarello on Dec 17, 2006 | | Filed under 2006, Spanish Cinema Now

Honor de Cavallería, 2006

quixotic.gifAlbert Serra's understated first feature, Honor de Cavallería loosely channels the melancholic wanderlust of such contemporary, dedramatized road films as Marc Recha's Days of August and Lisandro Alonso's Los Muertos to create an organic, rigorous, and often frustrating, but indelible and penetrating chronicle of the interiority and profound alienation of picaresque adventure. A de-romanticization of knighthood, chivalry, and heroic myth - and in particular, the ambiguity and delusive rationalization of the "noble quest" that propelled the Crusades - Serra's vision of the iconic Don Quixote de La Mancha (as personified by Lluís Carbo) eschews the abstraction of a loveable dreamer, eccentric protagonist, and tragic hero and hopeless romantic of the Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra novel for the corporeality (and terrestriality) of a Samuel Beckett-inspired, moribund, existential antihero, transforming the self-destructive co-dependency of Waiting for Godot's directionless traveling companions, Vladimir and Estragon, into a chronicle of the dislocated, atemporal journey of a fragmented, helpless, and willful aging horseman unaware of the absurdity of his situation and an obliging, devoted friend, Sancho Panza (Lluís Serrat) who enables his unattainable, pathetic delusion. Filmed using natural lighting in long takes, often in medium and long shot, the film is composed of decentralized, hyperrealist, quotidian sequences reminiscent of Ermanno Olmi's The Tree of Wooden Clogs that underscore the idle passage of time and the vacuity of their noble, but elusive gesture - resting in the shade, surveying the landscape, collective laurels for a wreath, clearing paths, bathing in a lake, and engaging in reinforcing (and regurgitative) hilltop pronouncements on the righteousness of their lonely crusade. So bracing in its vulnerability and dislocation, and achingly transitory in its tactile, crepuscular imagery, Honor de Cavallería subverts the evoked (and unrequited) ideals of the eponymous hero to create a somber, aimless, and provocative meditation on longing, spiritual desolation, impotence, and collective delusion.

Posted by acquarello on Dec 17, 2006 | | Comments (2) | Filed under 2006, Spanish Cinema Now

Tirante el Blanco (The Maidens' Conspiracy), 2006

maidens_conspiracy.gifBased on the popular, baroque, fifteenth century chevalier story Tirante el Blanco, the seminal Catalan novel that Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra cites as a profound influence on the realization of Don Quixote de La Mancha, Vicente Aranda's The Maidens' Conspiracy is a lavish, risqué, and skillfully composed, but superficial and unsatisfying medieval adventure that combines the ambitious scope of epic, battlefield encounters with the intimacy and situational satire of sexual politics. Centering on the often comical (mis)adventures of a handsome, brave, and dutiful knight from humble origins named Tirante el Blanco (Caspar Zafer) who seeks to curry increasing favor from the benevolent, ailing Byzantine king (Giancarlo Gianini), initially through his assumed role as military strategist to defend the kingdom and stave off the inevitable incursion into Constantinople by the Turks, then subsequently, through his brazen seduction of the royal family's only surviving child, the young, fanciful, and impressionable princess, Carmesina (Esther Nubiola), the film quickly devolves from grand, heroic tale to lowbrow, bedroom farce. As Carmesina is alternately counseled, manipulated, ordered, and bedeviled by a seemingly endless assortment of intrusive and interfering court handmaidens and servants - a stern and repressed widow (Victoria Abril), the Viuda Reposada (The Rested Widow), a hopeless romantic (Leonor Watling) named Placer De Mi Vida (Pleasure of My Life), a trusted confidante named Estefanía (Ingrid Rubio) who has fallen for Tirante's roguish lieutenant Diafebus (Charlie Cox), a dutiful servant named Eliseo (Rebecca Cobos), and a royal page named Hipólito (Sid Mitchell) whose youth and sensitivity has attracted the attention of the neglected queen (Jane Asher) - and the dynamics of the Imperial Court is further complicated by her parents' attempts to ensure peace and sovereignty in the kingdom from the Grand Turk's (Rafael Amargo) insatiable lust for conquest, what unfolds is an effervescent, but confused, vacuous, and ultimately forgettable (and idiosyncratically cobbled) pastiche that is equal parts romantic ode, bawdy comedy of errors, and graphic illustration of the brutality (and inhumanity) of religious war.

Posted by acquarello on Dec 17, 2006 | | Comments (5) | Filed under 2006, Spanish Cinema Now

December 3, 2006

Our Films, Their Films by Satyajit Ray

ray_ourfilms.gifOur Films, Their Films is a collection of perceptive, contemplative, and illuminating critical essays and personal memoirs by seminal filmmaker, composer, artist, author, intellectual, and cinephile, Satyajit Ray. Arranged into the two titular sections, Ray's terse, candid, and often thematically overlapping expositions on Indian and international cinema reveal, not only profound engagement with, and sensitivity to, indigenous sensibilities in his own evolving creative (and learning) process, but also a cultivated, yet accessible approach towards the aesthetic appreciation of all forms of art - a cultural and analytical proficiency that is revealed through the modality and pervasive use of unorthodox forms of representation (often, music-based) that shape the logical arguments of his film criticism. This instinctual, cross-pollinated methodology is prefigured in Ray's assertion at the book's introduction that Orson Welles' film, Lady from Shanghai was the first atonal film in the history of cinema - a music-based characterization that is also evident in his praise of Charlie Chaplin's sophisticated, yet seemingly effortless choreography in the tramp films. Throughout the book, Ray often ascribes Chaplin's silent films with a certain Mozartian quality of lightness and deceptive facility that underpins a more complex arrangement, a delicate achievement that is epitomized in his admiration for The Gold Rush:

If one thinks of Mozart and The Magic Flute and the knockabout foolery of Papageno merging into the sublimity of Sarastro, it is because the comparison is a valid one. Here is the same distilled simplicity, the same purity of style, the same impeccable craftsmanship. And the slightest tinge of disappointment at the happy ending - the sudden veering towards a bright key after the subtle chromaticism of all that has gone before - isn't that rather like the cheery epilogue of Don Giovanni?

A similar sensibility may also be seen in his essay A Tribute to John Ford, in Ray's assessment of Ford's signature style and aesthetic imprint:

A hallmark is never easy to describe, but the nearest description of Ford's would be a combination of strength and simplicity. The nearest equivalent I can think of is a musical one: middle-period Beethoven. The same boldness of contour, the simplicity and memorability of line, the sense of architecture, even the same outbursts of boisterousness, and the same action-packed finales.

In the essay, Some Italian Films I Have Seen, Ray's creative philosophy towards naturalism and social realism is revealed, not only through his continued fondness for Vittorio de Sica's films (and in particular, Bicycle Thieves, whose fated discovery at a London screening propelled Ray to pursue his dream of adapting Pather Panchali to the screen), but also in his resistance to the formalism of Luchino Visconti's early, quasi-neorealist film, La Terra Trema, an aesthetic that, in some respects, anticipates the overt stylization and visual grotesquerie that would pervade the filmmaker's later works:

As it stands, La Terra Trema is a great bore, a colossal aesthetic blunder and a monumental confusion of styles. The grim naturalism of its locale is in constant conflict with the behavior of its human beings - deliberate and stylized to the point of ballet. Visconti's meticulous composition within the frame heightens this feeling of artificiality. Moreover, in an effort to achieve a slow rhythm he holds his shots till long after they have ceased to perform their expressive functions, and boredom results from the cumulation of a hundred such 'blank' moments when the audience is obliged to contemplate on the abstract qualities of images which were, however, not primarily intended for such contemplation. A slow pace is not in itself a bad thing. It is, in fact, as legitimate to films as it is to music or ballet or any other art that exists in time. But it needs a Bach to write a Sarabande that needs a Casals to do justice to it. The long, slow passages in the epics of Dreyer and Eisenstein are sustained only partially by their purely visual qualities, rich and rewarding though they are; it is the emotional conviction of these sequences, achieved through precision of interpretation, of acting integrated to the director's total stylistic approach, that is finally responsible for their strength, their artistic 'rightness'.

Another particularly incisive criticism is Ray's broader observation of Roberto Rossellini's recurring tendency towards an inability to sustain a certain degree of discipline through the course of a film - the occasional outcropping of false notes in an otherwise well crafted (and perhaps, even sublime) film - that, I would agree, is a valid assessment of Rossellini's more instinctual, and less formally methodical approach to filmmaking in general, evident in even his most cherished (and paradoxically, imperfectly "perfect") works. Of Rossellini's groundbreaking, postwar film, Ray argues:

Admittedly, Open City derives some of its power from the anarchic social condition in which it was made. But it seems certain that the jagged contours of its narrative, its slapdash continuity, are due less to the lack of apparatus than to Rossellini's inherent incapacity for sustained constructive thinking. Perhaps his talent is best displayed in the short stories of Paisa, and the forty-minute Miracle. His formal indiscipline becomes a definite handicap to a film like Open City which has otherwise a well constructed plot within the conventions of melodrama. The children in Open City behave in a disconcertingly adult fashion, and the best histrionic moments in the film occur when seasoned professionals like Anna Magnani and Aldo Fabrizi take the stage.

Nevertheless, despite a deep admiration for several key works of international cinema, Ray offers a cautionary analysis on the pitfalls of blindly imitating decontextualized, foreign aesthetic conventions (particularly, with respect to imitating Hollywood films) in the creation of an indigenous cinema: a sentiment that is reflected in the essay's parting comment:

The present blind worship of technique emphasizes the poverty of genuine inspiration among our directors. For a popular medium, the best kind of inspiration should derive from life and have its roots in it. No amount of technical polish can make up for artificiality of theme and dishonesty of treatment. The Indian filmmaker must turn to life, to reality. De Sica, and not De Mille, should be his ideal.

Given his profound understanding for the cultural imperative of a native cinema, it is, therefore, not surprising that Ray's critical inquiry on the evolution and state of contemporary Indian cinema is similarly probing and impassioned, whether through an evaluation of the cultural value of idiosyncratic, masala compositions of the requisite musical numbers in a Bollywood production in the humorous, but perceptive and appreciative essay, Those Songs, to an analytical examination of the (then) emerging parallel cinema through commentary on films such as Shyam Benegal's Ankur and Mani Kaul's Duvidha. In the end, what is reinforced in Ray's thoughtful expositions on cultivating an indigenous cinema is the underlying idea that such indelible, timeless, and relevant images are borne of a desire to capture a cultural authenticity and not solely to engage in innately competitive, abstract demonstrations of technical innovation: "What our cinema needs above everything else is a style, an idiom, a sort of iconography of cinema, which would be uniquely and recognizably Indian."

This entry is part of the Film Criticism blog-a-thon, hosted at No More Marriages!. Please visit the site for a list of all participants.

Posted by acquarello on Dec 03, 2006 | | Comments (11) | Filed under 2006, Film Related Reading

October 22, 2006

Split Screen: Belgian Cinema and Cultural Identity by Philip Mosley

split_screen.gifIn Split Screen: Belgian Cinema and Cultural Identity, author Philip Mosley makes a salient and illuminating re-evaluation of a bifurcated Belgian cinema, not only through the reality of a federal state characterized by a decentralized government and regional autonomy, but also irreparably marked by occupation and war, and divided by a cultural heterogeneity that has led to an inherently "split screen" national cinema. Mosley traces the evolution of Belgian cinema from the nascency of the medium itself in order to illustrate the integrality of the country's contributions to the development of the technology, citing the independent works of two native magic lantern pioneers: Etienne-Jules Robertson from Liège who developed the Fantascope which integrated a sliding carriage that enabled the projection of a rapid succession of images to simulate motion, and Joseph Plateau from Brussels whose experimental research on the psycho-optical principle of persistence of vision - the eye's momentary retention of an image after the object is no longer visible - led to his development of the phenakistiscope, a device that simulated motion through the rotation of a series of slightly varying images on a disk (a technology that artists such as Jean-Baptiste Madou would subsequently integrate to create animation). Furthermore, with the country's proximity to France coupled with the mediation of shared language, the Belgian film industry would develop rapidly from the advent of the Lumière films in 1895 through the cross-pollination of technological advancements, film production, and even artists (such as Jacques Feyder, Charles Spaak, Jean Servais, and Eve Francis) between the two countries. Ironically, silent film proved to be an ideally suited medium in transcending the country's linguistic barriers, a liberation from the limitations of regionality and biculturalism that would enable significant advancement in the development of the film industry and that, however, would prove to be short lived with the advent of the First World War.

An integral aspect in the evolution of Belgian cinema that continues to provide a relevant voice and profound influence in contemporary cinema is in the arena of documentary filmmaking. Ironically, this aesthetic for capturing the quotidian may be traced back from a more nebulous outgrowth of colonialism and propaganda, as missionaries gravitated towards the universal language of film images as a tool for religious conversion, and in the postwar era of austerity and resource shortages, as an incentive towards national unity and reinforcement of exerted control over the Belgian Congo (a region that proved even more valuable with the advent of the atomic age for its uranium mines). This ethnographic aesthetic may be seen, not only in the films of pioneering documentarians Charles Dekeukelaire and Henri Storck, but also in the tone poems of Thierry Knauff, the cultural investigations of Thierry Michel, the meditative, essay films of Boris Lehman, and the wordless, migratory landscape films of Chantal Akerman. Moreover, the convergence of native documentary filmmaking towards experimental rather than conventional cinema can be seen in the works of filmmakers such as Storck, Lehman, Knauff, and Akerman, a reflection of what Mosley describes as the inherently artisanal (and consequently, more intimate) nature of Belgian national cinema.

Similarly, this aesthetic towards capturing the essence of reality - a creative philosophy that is in integrally rooted in Flemish art - is also manifested in the evolution of social realism in Belgian cinema, particularly in the Wallonia region where a creative (as well as ideological) movement with predominant socio-political themes was propelled by a combination of incisive, pioneering documentaries, the introduction of incentive funding (as a means of re-invigorating the decimated film industry), and subsequently, the influence of British Free Cinema that spurred the advent of an indigenous Fugitive Cinema. Ironically, inasmuch as financial backers (often regional administrators and local industries) sought to project a more positive national image of postwar recovery, industrial progress, and immigrant assimilation through commissioned and subsidized filmmaking, what resulted from these panoramic surveys often proved to be less than ideal social portraits. Of particular note is Paul Meyer's seminal film, From the Branches Drops the Withered Blossom on the lives of immigrant workers and their families in the coal mining town of Borinage (Storck would earlier document the appalling living conditions in the same region in Misère au Borinage). Originally commissioned by Ministry of Public Instruction as a means of illustrating the well-adjusted integration of Italian immigrant families into Belgian society, Meyer, who had already run afoul with authorities over his earlier, controversial short film, Klinkaart - a film that uncannily anticipates Bresson's cinema, depicting the exploitation and assault of a young female brick worker - would be forced into insoluble debt when the ministry withdrew funding for making an uncompromising film that revealed the underlying reality of the abject working, domestic, and social conditions faced by the immigrants. Within this context, it is perhaps not surprising that Wallonian filmmakers (and seeming heir to Meyer's sociopolitical cinema), Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne would subsequently revisit the issue of immigrant assimilation (this time, within the relevant, contemporary framework of racism and illegal immigration) in their first feature film, La Promesse.

It is interesting to note that throughout the evolution of Belgian cinema, the reality captured on film is not only rooted in the physical, but also in the interiority of the imagination. In illustrating the (eccentric) interpenetration between states of consciousness and psychological irreconcilability, the aesthetics of magical realism have become an indigenous aspect of Belgian cinema, as reflected in the films of André Delvaux (most notably, in The Man Who Had His Hair Cut Short and Rendez-vous a Bray), Roland Verhavert, Ivo Michiels, and Rik Kuypers' expressionistic Seagulls Are Dying in the Harbor, and Jaco van Dormael (in particular, Toto, the Hero), as well as in the provocative and sophisticated animated films of Raoul Servais. Inevitably, what emerges from this fused state of bifurcated realities is not only the integration of the aesthetic legacy and sense of innovation and wonder achieved by the optical illusions of the precursory magic lanterns, but also a metaphorical social reflection rooted in the mundane reality of a complex native identity engendered by the country's fractured identity and biculturalism.

Posted by acquarello on Oct 22, 2006 | | Comments (2) | Filed under 2006, Film Related Reading

October 18, 2006

Pan's Labyrinth, 2006

panslabyrinth.gifDuring the Q&A for Pan's Labyrinth, Guillermo del Toro commented that he conceived the image of Pale Man, a child-eating creature who could only see by raising his hands up to his face (as if paradoxically covering his eyes), as an allusion to the perverted image of stigmata - an affliction often associated with enlightened grace and saint-like piety - an acerbic, tongue-in-cheek commentary on the destructiveness, corruption, and myopia of institutional authority that the Church (and Fascism) represents. The evocation proves particularly relevant within the context of the incestuous alliance between the Nationalists and the Catholic Church during the Spanish Civil War that installed, and subsequently enabled, the repressive regime of General Franco. Set in 1944, the year that the annals of history have officially annotated as the year that the Republicans were defeated, thus marking the end of the civil war, reality proves less than neatly conclusive as the insurgency rages on (and would continue for nearly two decades), the resistance fighters fortifying their strongholds in the mountains with the covert aid of sympathetic villagers. It is against this turbulent, isolated environment of unresolved battles and nebulous allegiances that a ruthless officer named Captain Vidal (Sergi López) has been sent to establish an outpost and stamp out the mountain insurgency campaign - a strange, remote, and verdant rural region that a young girl named Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) also reluctantly enters when Vidal sends for his new wife, Ofelia's mother Carmen (Ariadna Gil) from the city so that his anticipated son and heir may be born in the house of his father. From the introductory images of Ofelia preciously holding her fairytale books and her curious sighting of a wasp-like insect that she believes is an actual fairy, Ofelia's inevitable confrontation between the harsh reality of adolescence and the escapist fantasy of childhood seems inextricably connected. Shuttered in an old, gloomy, and mysteriously creaking house with an adjoining derelict garden labyrinth, and left to her own devices after her mother becomes bedridden with complications from the baby's imminent birth (except for the attention given by the housekeeper, Mercedes (Maribel Verdú)), the neglected Ofelia embarks on a heroic quest at the behest of the inscrutable, mythical fawn, Pan (Doug Jones) in order to prove herself as the reincarnated princess of the labyrinth, and consequently, fulfill her destiny of immortality. Evoking the early, metaphor-laden cinema of Victor Erice in manifesting a child's fear and uncertainty through the gothic figurations of the imagination - not only in the overt parallel of the metamorphosed, humanized monster of Spirit of the Beehive, but also in the mythification of an absent father in El Sur (note the fetishized pocket watch that Valdez retains as a souvenir of the moment of his father's death) - Pan's Labyrinth is an intelligently rendered, provocative, and incisive cautionary tale on barbarism, repression, narcissism, rigid ideology, blind obedience, and inhumanity.

Posted by acquarello on Oct 18, 2006 | | Comments (5) | Filed under 2006, New York Film Festival

October 17, 2006

Insiang, 1976

insiang.gifTo some extent, author and national hero José Rizal's Spanish colonial-era novels Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo paved the way for a certain propensity towards melodrama and tortuous, epic narratives that continue to shape and define the aesthetics of Philippine indigenous cinema. So, while there is the temptation to characterize Lino Brocka's cinema through facile comparison with the works of contemporary filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder through the commonality of incorporated elements of melodrama and kitsch - as well as in the symbolic brutality of the slums that is encapsulated in the opening sequence of Insiang that prefigures a key, metaphoric slaughterhouse sequence in Fassbinder's subsequent film, In a Year of 13 Moons - there is also a stark divergence in Brocka's more classical aesthetic of gritty, social realism and subversive politicization that eschews the overt stylization and formalism intrinsic in Fassbinder's critical, yet introspective cinema. In hindsight, the character introduction establishing sequences of Insiang already articulates Brocka's overarching theme on the dehumanization of poverty: from the image of the opportunistic Dado (Ruel Vernal) at work at his part-time job eviscerating pigs as a slaughterhouse matadero, to a shot of Dado's older lover, the carping and miserly Tonya (impeccably played by legendary Filipino cinema character actress Mona Lisa) selling produce at an open market (a metaphoric image on the commodification of human interaction), to the first words spoken by Tonya to her attractive daughter Insiang (Hilda Koronel) at their overcrowded home in the slums of Tondo to run an errand and buy sugar for the household (an implicit commentary on the absence of sweetness in their everyday lives), to Tonya's scandalous eviction of her sister-in-law (Mely Mallari) who, along with her grown children and extended family, had moved from the province in search of better life and job opportunities in the city of Manila (a familiar illusion of a better life that continues to spur migration from the rural provinces to the overcrowded city of Manila, as seen recently in Ditsi Carolino's staggeringly intimate documentary, Life on the Tracks), and now find themselves homeless, unemployed, and literally cast out without even the shirts on their back (as Tonya demands that the clothes that she had given to the toddlers as gifts be returned) in order to make room for Dado. Inevitably, when Dado, in turn, sets his sights on the visibly indifferent Insiang, both mother and daughter become locked in a vicious, consuming, and emotional power struggle for their very survival. Inevitably, inasmuch as the title implies character identification and individuality, Brocka's harrowing, indelible, and unsentimental canvas is, instead, an encompassing sociopolitical national landscape of rootlessness, suppression, and moral bankruptcy that define the nature of endemic poverty. It is this uncompromising spirit that ultimately evokes the specter of Rizal's seminal novels (and his martyrdom) in Brocka's inspired film, an impassioned call to revolution and solidarity on the collective psyche of a marginalized and dispossessed people.

Posted by acquarello on Oct 17, 2006 | | Comments (2) | Filed under 2006, New York Film Festival

Marie Antoinette, 2006

marie_antoinette.gifBased on Antonia Fraser's Marie Antoinette: The Journey, Sofia Coppola's irreverent, sumptuously stylized, and audaciously freeform, if decidedly uneven adaptation of Fraser's re-evaluative biography casts the controversial monarch in a more human, accessible, and contemporary light - not as an arrogant, out of touch queen who, as proof of the height of her insensitivity over the bread shortage in Paris, was quoted (inaccurately) as saying, "let them eat cake", but as an immature, lonely, out of place, and misunderstood young woman, Marie Antoinette (Kirsten Dunst), an adolescent literally stripped of her national roots and sent away from her native land of Austria to be married off in a symbolic diplomatic merger to the dauphin, Louis Auguste (Jason Schwartzman), and who, barely past her teenage years, was prematurely thrust into the forefront of complicated (and convoluted) eighteenth century domestic and international politics (as the American colonies began their struggle for independence against the British) following the unexpected death of King Louis XV (Rip Torn) from smallpox and the subsequent succession of her shy and introverted husband, crowned Louis XVI, to the throne. Ironically, the transformation of Marie Antoinette from vulnerable Versailles outsider to insulated, (over)indulgent, privileged insider also proves to be the point of divergence for the film, from an idiosyncratically anachronistic, but insightful and thematically attuned exposition on loneliness and alienation, as well as the absurdity of the comedy of manners and soul-crushing rigidity of ceremonial protocol (as personified by the unflappable Comtesse de Noailles (Judy Davis) who ensured that the rules of court etiquette were strictly enforced) that government every aspect of social behavior, to the more conventional (and consequently, less compelling) portrait of privileged excess, aimlessness, and decadence. Consequently, what emerges from Coppola's manic direction is not only the incisively anachronistic and contemporary reflection on the insularity of privilege, but also the contravening mixed message of oblivious insensibility and fashionable ennui, where the vacuity of the iconic images subvert - and inevitably upstage - the very ideals of a transformative revolution.

Posted by acquarello on Oct 17, 2006 | | Comments (4) | Filed under 2006, New York Film Festival

October 16, 2006

Climates, 2006

climates.gifNuri Bilge Ceylan elegantly channels the spirit and self-reflexivity of Atom Egoyan's Calendar and Roberto Rossellini's seminal Voyage in Italy (that in turn, paved the way for Michelangelo Antonioni's psychological landscape films) to create an equally sublime, serenely composed, and understatedly bittersweet chronicle of the dissolution of a relationship through the austerity and desolation of the landscape in his latest film Climates. As the film begins, a middle-aged university instructor and doctoral candidate named Isa (Nuri Bilge Ceylan), en route to a summer holiday in the idyllic Aegean coast with his younger lover, a television art director named Bahar (Ebru Ceylan), deliberatively shoots a series of photographs of ancient ruins for possible use in a class lecture, oblivious to his traveling companion's noticeable discomfort and tedium over his latest distractive side trip (a figurative myopia that would subsequently be manifested in Bahar's reckless, symbolic act of blindness during a motorcycle ride), her sense of profound desolation and estrangement momentarily betrayed by the eruption of tears that also escape the self-absorbed Isa's regard. The metaphoric image of the troubled couple standing amidst architectural ruins serves as an insightful prefiguration of their seemingly inevitable separation, a distance that was made all the more insurmountable by Isa's act of infidelity with his former lover, Serap (Nazan Kesal) during one of Bahar's recent, on location shooting trips away from Istanbul. In hindsight, Isa's unfinished thesis also reveals his self-inflicted pattern of irresolution, emotional cruelty (a sadistic streak that is also revealed through his act of forced intimacy with a resistant Serap) , and inability to commit, an emotional paralysis that has perhaps even sublimated into a physical affliction (through a chronic, stiff neck running gag that recalls the pollution-induced malady of Tsai Ming-liang's The River). Charting the indefinable trajectory of Isa's restlessness, alienation, and melancholy through the climatic and geographic changes that reflect the interiority of Isa's unrequited - and indefinable - longing, Climates exquisitely (and indelibly) maps a spare, elegiac, and achingly intimate meditation on the ephemeral seasons of the human heart.

Posted by acquarello on Oct 16, 2006 | | Comments (4) | Filed under 2006, New York Film Festival

Poison Friends, 2006

poison_friends.gifCapturing the point of intersection between the conformity of adolescence and the independence that comes with maturity, Emmanuel Bourdieu's Poison Friends is an intelligent and insightful, if oddly sterile and empirically rendered chronicle of academic life as seen through the perspective of a loose knit group of university-aged students at the transformative stage when they begin to break free from their mutualist - and inherent dysfunctional - alliances and the comfort zone of social circles and strike out on their own, metamorphosing from group identification to individual identity. The chaotic and seemingly dislocated opening sequence incisively sets the tone for the film as new student, a budding thespian named Alexandre (Alexandre Steiger), unintentionally draws unwanted attention to himself when he arrives late to class with his luggage in tow, creating such a distraction as he struggles to make his way up the stairs towards the back of the lecture hall that the professor singles him out for public castigation. It is an embarrassing episode that is soon mitigated by the sympathetic attention of a charismatic student named André Morney (Thibault Vinçon), the kind of rabid intellectual and perennial student with grandiose ideas on the sanctity and incorruptibility of art (even as he expresses open contempt for those who seek an outlet for creative expression) who has created his own insular dominion within the hallowed walls of the university (a sense of entitled territoriality that is also reinforced by his encroachment into Alexandre's room to store his books). Soon, André becomes a figurative puppeteer of his own Grand Guignol, lording over the movements and decisions of his personally assembled cast of characters - Alexandre, Eloi Duhaut (Malik Zidi), the son of a famous (and recently scandal-plagued) novelist (Dominique Blanc), an aspiring writer named Thomas Blanchard, André's lover Marguerite (Natacha Régnier), and even his faculty advisor and mentor Mortier (Jacques Bonnaffé) - seduced by his bravado, fierce intelligence, and uncompromising ideology on artistic creation, until his academic complacency, coupled with Eloi's increasing attraction to Marguerite and Alexandre's cultivated passion for the dramatic arts, threatens to wrest control over his elaborate, hermetic construction. Ironically, Bourdieu's clinical and rigidly cerebral approach to the tale of the young friends' intellectual coming of age itself serves as an appropriate reflection for André's nebulous psychology and unresolved fate, illustrating not only the traumatic collision between the uncompromising, black and white world of youth and the realization of grey area, real-world compromises of adulthood, but also the inevitable estrangement that comes with the outgrowing of one's hero or mentor, when the illusion of Pygmalion is broken and the venerated idol becomes all too human.

Posted by acquarello on Oct 16, 2006 | | Comments (2) | Filed under 2006, New York Film Festival

October 13, 2006

Our Daily Bread, 2006

daily_bread.gifEvoking the aesthetics of Harun Farocki's antiseptic images of production crossed with Chantal Akerman's structuralist ruminations on organic landscape, Nikolaus Geyrhalter's Our Daily Bread is a bracing, surreal, sobering, and strangely transfixing exposition into the dehumanized technologies and industrially engendered process efficiencies intrinsic in the mass commerce of industrial-scale food production. Composed of a series of incisive and intelligently edited medium to long take shots and devoid of contextual information, illuminating interviews, or expository narration, the film crystallizes on the collective implication of the indelible - if perversely sublime - images of food production: a stream of newly hatched chicks are sifted from the eggshells and transferred onto crates through a high speed conveyer belt sorter in a process that resembles the propulsion of a tennis ball machine; the quick and "humane" slaughter of livestock is nevertheless made all the more discomforting by the precise and systematic process of exsanguination, skinning, and butchering; an idyllic image of a sunflower field is subverted by the appearance of a crop duster plane and supplanted by the subsequent image of the charred, withered plants harvested en masse by a tractor; a large and seemingly formidable tree shakes violently under the grasp of a clawed tractor designed to draw nuts from its branches for faster collection by an automated sweeper; a group of migrant workers hand pick vegetables for placement onto their manual roll carts at a collapsible greenhouse. What is particularly admirable about Geyrhalther's critical and observant exposition into the curious dystopia of agricultural production and commerce is the parity and unpolemical representation of his gaze, a matter-of-factness that is perhaps best encapsulated by the film's titular allusion to The Lord's Prayer, a reminder of the sacredness, gratitude, and quotidian grace of survival.

Posted by acquarello on Oct 13, 2006 | | Comments (1) | Filed under 2006, New York Film Festival

The Host, 2006

host.gifScreened at slightly more than the halfway mark of the festival, Bong Joon-ho's The Host offers a particularly refreshing pause in the mind bending aftermath of the Inland Empire, a smart, offbeat, and competent horror film that effortlessly weaves the ingredients of a well-crafted monster thriller with an incisive, cautionary tale on environmental responsibility and cultural arrogance. At the core of the film's untenable nightmare is a lone grieving family's defiance to seek and exact revenge on the monster, a seemingly indestructible, made-made mollusk-like giant creature borne of genetic (and perhaps viral) mutations that begins to terrorize revelers at a park on the steps of the ubiquitous Han River. But beyond the film's less than subtle jab at the (pointedly American) arrogance and abuse of authority that lead to the environmental disaster, the film is also a wry commentary on the culture of conformity and unquestioning deference to authority, as the survivors and first-hand witnesses to the monster's rampage are relegated to the role of quarantined victims, forcibly isolated from the general population for decontamination, subjected to inhuman diagnostic experimental procedures in the name of exploratory science, and systematically deprived of civil liberties and basic human rights under the amorphous rubric of national security. Deploying convenient, unsubstantiated (and insubstantiable) quack theories and misinformation through the media in order to exploit the victims' disorientation and cultural submissiveness to obfuscate the true nature of the threat, and in the process, transforming the monster's already real menace into an almost mythical bogeyman responsible for all of the indefinable plagues that afflict contemporary society, The Host serves as a trenchant and provocative satire on the dysfunctional geopolitics of anti-terrorism.

Posted by acquarello on Oct 13, 2006 | | Filed under 2006, New York Film Festival

Inland Empire, 2006

inland_empire.gifOne of the recurring ideas that resurfaces from the Q&A with David Lynch after the screening of Inland Empire was the sense of liberation that high definition digital video afforded him, and this democratization of the medium can certainly be seen in the film's mind-bending, sprawling, opaque, hallucinatory, sinuous, and harrowing exploration of identity, performance, déjà vu, reality, intertextuality, surveillance, jealousy, betrayal, and fatedness. Indeed, inasmuch as the film can be accurately classified as indecipherable twaddle, it is also a description that defies reductive dismissal. Ever teetering between uncompromising inspiration and overindulgent madness, Inland Empire, as the title suggests, is a journey of interiority - not only of the way sectors of the cognitive brain can be arbitrary probed to recall seemingly random temporal and psychological regions of dreams and memories, but also in the way that the mind then subsequently maps the terrain of these disparate logic puzzle pieces in an attempt to reintegrate the information into some semblance of resolution, to make sense of our own indecipherable subconscious: a hysterical woman fixated on the static pixellations of her television; an eccentric sitcom featuring a rabbit-headed family; a privileged actress named Nikki (in a bold and uncompromising performance by Laura Dern), who is married to a powerful man has learned that she has just been cast in the role of a lifetime; the resurrection of a cursed screenplay that once led to the death of the two lead actors (and whose fate may be again be tempted when a well-known lothario named Devon (Justin Theroux) is cast as the male lead); a woman named Sue (also played by Dern, perhaps in the role of the film character) attempting to outrun her demons. But because of its entrenched irresolvability, Inland Empire, like Claire Denis' L'Intrus (albeit not as thematically distilled and compact), is the kind of film that becomes more intimate and intuitively - albeit abstractly - coherent with (temporal) distance and osmotic assimilation - when the arbitrariness of the seeming non-sequiturs, tangential encounters, oneiric repetitions, parallel images, conflated (and interpenetrating) realms of reality, and self-reflexive humor dissolve into the less concrete, impressionistic contours within the permeable fabric of human memory.

Posted by acquarello on Oct 13, 2006 | | Comments (16) | Filed under 2006, New York Film Festival

October 11, 2006

Falling, 2006

falling.gifSomething of a muted hybrid between a thirty-something version of the existential crossroads between the freedom of academic emancipation and the responsibilities of adulthood captured by Jae-eun Jeong in Take Care of My Cat crossed with Alain Tanner's perceptive portrait of the May 68 generation in the aftermath of the failed cultural revolution in Jonah Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000, Falling is an admirable, understated, and introspective (and, perhaps, even redemptive in light of Barbara Albert's insubstantive and maddeningly divergent preceding film Free Radicals) self-reflexive exposition on the inevitable temperance of idealism, relevance, and integrity that comes with maturity, disappointment, and the realization of real world compromises. Chronicling the journey and solemn reunion of a group of former schoolmates and best friends, now independent women in their mid thirties who have returned to their hometown in rural Austria to mourn the death of a favorite, idealistic teacher and lifelong, uncompromising May 68 radical who instilled in the once impressionable young women a sense of activism, critical thinking, and social responsibility (and who, for some of the women, also signified an erstwhile lover): a modestly successful voice dubbing actress who lives in Germany, a pregnant bohemian resigned to the reality of bringing up her child as a single parent after her lover is deported, a career office worker who after years of struggle has finally established herself as a serious businesswoman in the corporate world, an ex-convict on continued monitored supervision who has minimal contact with her adolescent daughter, and a reticent, enigmatic woman who has remained in the small town long after the others set out to find their fortunes in the big cities. Confronted with the sobering realization of their own mortality, disappointment, and unrealized dreams as they leave the carefree days of youth behind and begin to approach the critical, life altering choices and peremptory responsibilities of marriage, career, children, and even moral direction that come with being of age, the film is a thoughtful, elegiac, and sensitively rendered zeitgeist portrait of passage, regret, community, friendship, and survival.

Posted by acquarello on Oct 11, 2006 | | Filed under 2006, New York Film Festival

October 10, 2006

Syndromes and a Century, 2006

syndromes.gifIn Syndromes and a Century, Apichatpong Weerasethakul revisits the bifurcated structure of his earlier feature films, Blissfully Yours and Tropical Malady as well as the fragmented, dissociative visual and aural images of his experimental short, The Relentless Fury of the Pounding Waves to create a languid, lyrical, organic, and contemplative exposition on the malleability and impermanence of a person's sense of place, a reality defined by a conflation of past and present, located both in the concreteness of geography and the ephemerality of memory. A chronicle of the parallel lives and quotidian encounters of a pair of physicians (presumably based on the filmmaker's parents) as well as an enterprising dentist named Dr. Ple (Arkanae Cherkam) who moonlights as a traditional ballad singer - ambiguously unfolding in either contemporaneity or temporal ellipsis - a female country doctor named Dr. Toey (Nantarat Sawaddikul) and a male city doctor and recently discharged military veteran named Dr. Nohng (Jaruchai Iamaram), the film is also an illustration of the recursiveness and atemporality of human behavior that not only reflects the intrinsic (and intuitive) repetition in the performance of mundane rituals, but also underscores the interconnectedness of a collective consciousness enabled by the accretive cycle of spiritual reincarnation: the performance of a staff psychological evaluation and physical examination prior to assignment to a hospital ward, the interactive complications of diagnosing and treating insular (and old-fashioned) monks, the integration of traditional and modern medicine in patient treatment, the intoxication of new love, the ache of longing, the inevitability of separation. Presented through a series of allusive, often complementary images - a visual theme that is figuratively reinforced in the transfixing image of the occluding eclipse that is subsequently repeated in the industrial image of smoke suction through the flue of a hospital exhaust system undergoing renovation, as well as literally through the film's penultimate sequences shot from the basement of a hospital where prosthetic limbs are fabricated and stored (the physical complementation of a disabled patient) - the film is an evocative and impressionistic meditation on the persistence - and indefinable elusiveness - of human memory.

Posted by acquarello on Oct 10, 2006 | | Filed under 2006, New York Film Festival

Paprika, 2006

paprika.gifBased on the futuristic novel by seminal science fiction author Yasutaka Tsutsui, Paprika is a bold, provocative, mind-bending, and fiercely intelligent exposition into the nature of terrorism, the demystification of the subconscious, and the psychology of fetishism and objectification. A rash of thefts involving a developmental prototype dreamcatcher device, code named DC Mini, the brainchild of an affable, if overindulgent prodigy named Dr. Tokita that is currently under testing at a Tokyo psychiatric research headed by a reserved and methodical scientist named Dr. Atsuko Chiba, sets the stage for the film's delirious collision between reality and dreams, as Akiko enters the treacherous mindfield of the conjured alternate reality through her superhero, a literal "dream woman" alter ego named Paprika. Searching for the dream's architect (and therefore, the thief), only to realize that the dreams have cross-pollinated, assimilated, and transformed with the dreams of other victims and perpetrators - as well as those originating from the subconscious of other investigating psychiatric detectives, including a real-life police inspector named Konakawa who initially sought the institute's help in resolving his own anxiety over an unsolved homicide investigation - the team soon realizes that their quest is also a race against time as the rapidly fusing dreams spiral uncontrollably into a collective delusion that threatens to supplant the "real" reality with its fantastic and nightmarish incarnation. It is interesting to note that in manifesting the public's collective delusion through the phantasmagoric assembly of assorted netsuke figurines, oversized transformers, porcelain greeting cats, wind-up toys, and synchronized bobbing dolls images conjured by the victims, Satoshi Kon presents an implicit correlation between psychological terrorism and the distractive diversion of innocence. Inevitably, it is this ephemeral quest for a return to lost innocence through the delusive panacea of regressive insularity that reveals the film's especially incisive and relevant cautionary tale on the destructive repercussions of conformity, imposed ideals, and collective delusion.

Posted by acquarello on Oct 10, 2006 | | Comments (2) | Filed under 2006, New York Film Festival

Coeurs, 2006

coeurs.gifThere is an early survey of the interiors of a vacant Bercy apartment at the opening sequence of Coeurs that immediately evokes early Alain Resnais in the recurring theme of architectural memory, as the camera pans to the majestic domed ceiling of a converted building, artificially bisected by a superfluous wall constructed for the sole purpose of inflating the advertised unit as a three room apartment. However, while the introductory evocation is revealed within the seemingly mundane context of apartment hunting, the ensuing conversation between the client Nicole (Laura Morante) and her real estate agent Thierry (André Dussollier) on the impracticality of shared access to the subdivided room's lone window foreshadows the film's overarching structure as the recurring thread of shared spaces between the film's unfulfilled characters - Thierry and his hopeless romantic sister Gaëlle (Isabelle Carré), Thierry and his pious office partner Charlotte (Sabine Azéma), Nicole and her layabout fiancé Dan (Lambert Wilson), the bartender Lionel (Pierre Arditi) and his cantankerous invalid father Arthur (Claude Rich) - reveal the complexity of the interconnected relational dynamics that bind them to their loneliness, emotional stasis, and unrequited longing. Based on Private Fears in Public Places by British playwright Alan Aykbourn (whose play Intimate Exchanges also serves as the basis for Resnais' earlier film Smoking/No Smoking), Coeurs is perhaps Resnais' most satisfyingly cerebral film since Mon Oncle d'Amerique (a correlation that is further reinforced by the schematic crane shots of interior spaces that recalls the maze-like behavioral observations of Mon Oncle d'Amerique). A sublime, elegant, and reassuring convergence in the aesthetic evolution of Resnais' cinema from the experimental structures of his early films to the conscious formalism of his later work, Coeurs is a thoughtful and melancholic exposition on the interconnectedness of memory, isolation, and loneliness - the unarticulated vulnerability behind the constructed artifice - liminally revealed through the awkward formality and passing glances of near encounters and existential coincidences that map the indefinable and enigmatic trajectories of the human heart.

Posted by acquarello on Oct 10, 2006 | | Comments (9) | Filed under 2006, New York Film Festival

October 9, 2006

Volver, 2006

volver.gifVolver ingeniously opens to the title sequence illustrating a familiar All Souls Day ritual in a rural village in La Mancha, a solemn occasion when families visit the gravesites of their loved ones in a day of caretaking, remembrance, and homecoming, as sisters Sole (Lola Dueñas) and Raimunda (Penélope Cruz), along with Raimunda's adolescent daughter Paula (Yohana Cobo, who coincidentally appeared in Carlos Saura's The Seventh Day, a film that also chronicles the repercussions of unraveling buried secrets in a small town), tend to the graves of their parents before paying a visit to their dotty aunt (Chus Lampreave), an ailing elderly woman who continues to live alone in the family home (under the watchful eye of a concerned neighbor named Augustina (Blanca Portillo)), even as the trauma of her beloved sister, Irene's (Carmen Maura) death has confined her to the memories of an eternal past present. This commemorative ritual that implicitly acknowledges the coexistence of the living with the dead provides an incisive prefiguration to the unforeseen complications befall the sisters after their return from La Mancha, as Raimunda's unemployed husband (Antonio de la Torre)'s transgressive impulses threaten to wreck their already tenuous relationship, and Sole returns home to find that the ghost of their mother had stowed away in the trunk of her car. Pedro Almodóvar's incomparable eye for detail and delightfully subversive dark humor suits his recurring paean to the strength, resilience, communality, nurturing, intuitiveness, and ennobled beauty of women especially well, from the neorealist-inspired working class clothing worn by Raimunda that nevertheless, exuded irrepressible sensuality (evoking the wardrobe of iconic actress Sophia Loren), to the image of Anna Magnani made immortal by late night television rebroadcasts, and especially to the metaphoric image of the Manchegan windmills that literally harness the collective energy of the elusive, enduring - and perhaps even a bit maddening - winds that blow across the rural landscape of this enigmatic town of secretive, superstitious, surviving women that visually reinforces the film's theme of return and eternal cycles.

Posted by acquarello on Oct 09, 2006 | | Comments (13) | Filed under 2006, New York Film Festival

October 4, 2006

Offside, 2006

offside.gif In March, 2006, after the Iranian team's victory in a World Cup qualifier match over Japan, seven people were trampled to death and dozens of others injured after soldiers forcibly attempted to divert the large exiting crowd from a military helicopter that had landed near the main gate and blocked it. Only six of the victims would be publicly identified in the local papers, leading to popular speculation that the seventh victim may have been a girl dressed up as a boy in order to sneak into the game, where women are traditionally banned from entering sports stadiums. This tragic incident, along with Jafar Panahi's own personal experience with attempting to bring his own daughter to a sports stadium for a soccer match during a previous World Cup competition, provides the thoughtful, incisive, and provocative subtext to Offside, Panahi's most lighthearted, humorous, and accessible, yet still perceptive and relevant social inquiry into the arbitrary interpretation of laws and (often outmoded) traditional customs that define the paradox of modern day Iranian culture. The introductory juxtaposition of the elderly man searching in vain for his errant granddaughter in an attempt to thwart her plans of sneaking into the stadium and averting a (perceived) communal scandal, and a group of boys on a bus offering assistance on how to escape detection to an anxious girl transparently disguised as boy in an oversized shirt, hat with overhanging ear flaps, and face painted with the national colors, illustrates the spectrum of public attitude towards the seemingly innocuous inclusion of women in such public events, and more implicitly, sheds an uncomfortable spotlight into the pricklier context of cultural re-evaluation towards broader social equality. With the less successful (or just plain unlucky) impersonators unceremoniously rounded "offside" into a makeshift holding pen that has been set up on the elevated, outside perimeter of the stadium - and conveniently, next to a window opening so that the soldiers can continue to watch the game uninterrupted from the sidelines - where the girls will be segregated from the crowd until the arrival of a van for an escorted trip to the police station to be booked on vice charges, the ideological (if not symbolic) battle towards equal rights is brought to the figurative front lines, as the girls argue with the often accommodating, but equally bemused soldiers who are torn between sympathy and reluctant duty in an attempt to persuade their captors into setting them free from their unjust detention. Structured in the framework of a situational comedy, the film's deceptive facileness proves to be its most irresistibly potent weapon in a brewing (and perhaps, inevitable) ideological revolution, upending the laws of inequitable social convention into a rote reflection of its own incomprehensible - and untenable - contemporary absurdity.

Posted by acquarello on Oct 04, 2006 | | Comments (1) | Filed under 2006, New York Film Festival

October 3, 2006

Belle Toujours, 2006

belle_toujours.gifOstensibly an homage to the principal creators of Belle de Jour, filmmaker Luis Buñuel and screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière, Belle Toujours is, nevertheless, a quintessential Manoel de Oliveira film: formalist, dramaturgic, contemplative, and discursive. Continuing where Buñuel's film left off 38 years earlier, after the sadistic scoundrel Henri Husson (Michel Piccoli) would whisper an undisclosed secret to Séverine's invalid, devoted husband, Pierre (Jean Sorel) that would move him to tears, the tables seem to have turned in the opening sequence of Belle Toujours as it is now Husson who, riveted to his seat, is found openly weeping at a symphony. This evocative juxtaposition between Pierre's involuntary betrayal of erupted emotion in Belle de Jour and Husson's reflexive reaction to an artfully orchestrated performance integrally illustrates the point of departure between Buñuel and Oliveira, even as the two episodes converge on the same elusive image of Séverine Serizy: one, more in tune with the visceral representations of human behavior in all its absurdity, the other, with the intellectual characterizations behind them. Indeed, inasmuch as the idea of Séverine's elusiveness dominates both films, Oliveira's Séverine, now played by the equally iconic actress Bulle Ogier instead of Catherine Deneuve (in a transparent role switch that recalls Buñuel's That Obscure Object of Desire) is essentially an adaptation rather than a re-casting of the original - a more cerebral (re)incarnation of the bourgeois housewife turned prostitute of Belle de jour - a widow whose erotic fantasies have been diffused by age and faithful devotion to her late husband, even as her temperament remains fearless, uncompromising, and defiant. Moreover, the lonely hearts cocktail bar frequented by a pair of underworked prostitutes can also be seen as a reconfiguration of Madame Anais's clandestine brothel - a thematic association that is visually reinforced by a nude oil painting that is displayed in both establishments - transforming the theme of sexual surrogacy that pervades Buñuel's film to the figurative psychotheraphy (enabled in part by a sympathetic, probing bartender) and introspection of Oliveira's film, where the local bar has become the contemporary venue for unburdening the problems of failed intimacy and connection in the modern world (most notably, in Husson's recurring trips to the bar after a series of missed - or more appropriately, thwarted - encounters with Séverine). It is within this framework of passage and transformation that the climactic confrontation between Husson and Séverine can be seen, not as a nostalgic elegy, but as an affirmation of a life-long passion, curiosity, iconoclasm, and irreverence, where the insightful, tongue-in-cheek mind games of Buñuel have been transformed into an altogether different kind of psychological deconstruction, one that faithfully - and exquisitely - resonates within Oliveira's own recurring expositions on aging, vitality, self-reflexivity, and memory.

Posted by acquarello on Oct 03, 2006 | | Comments (2) | Filed under 2006, New York Film Festival

October 2, 2006

Gardens in Autumn, 2006

gardens_autumn.gif Otar Iosseliani's understated and reassuringly familiar abstract comedies are incisive, universal expositions on human absurdity, the complications of modern life, and the seasonality of fortune, so it is particularly satisfying to see the unremarkable (anti)hero of his latest film, Gardens of Autumn break through this corruptive and dysfunctional cycle of power, materialism, and social mobility to find some measure of happiness. The film's opening sequence provides a wry and irreverent glimpse into Iosseliani's acerbic satire on social behavior, as a handful of customers browse through a limited product selection at a coffin maker workshop, staking their claim on their preferred unfinished caskets in relative civility until several potential buyers begin competing for custody over a particular, one-size-fits-all "custom" model. The absurd juxtaposition of insatiable consumerism even in the face of mortality provides an insightful preface to the film's subverted expectation, as possession and privilege become intertwined with the mundane reality of inevitable death. In Gardens in Autumn, the unlikely hero is Vincent (Séverin Blanchet), a sad-eyed, rumpled, middle-aged cabinet minister with an attractive, shopaholic mistress, a distracted, coddling mother (in the hilarious casting of Michel Piccoli in drag), a string of jilted lovers (and almost as many adopted, commemorative exotic animals), and a meaningless, time-wasting bureaucratic job. Once an influential political appointee with seemingly important ceremonial (albeit nebulous) responsibilities (an early episode of a goodwill diplomatic visit with an African dignitary over the hunting of wild game, and a subsequent ribbon-cutting duty on a farm inauguration suggest an agriculture and wildlife post), Vincent's comfortable life is upended (even literally, as he resorts to standing on his head to in an attempt to regain his composure after the traumatic ordeal) when a widespread scandal and public protest leads to a change in the political winds, and with it, his forced resignation from office and ouster from the well-appointed, government furnished estate that he has called home for years. Returning to the shuttered family apartment in the working class neighborhood of his youth only to find his home overrun by squatters, Vincent soon finds refuge in the company of old friends (including a street artist played by Ioselliani) and former lovers as he settles into a carefree, bohemian life, drifting through a series of makeshift shelters alongside his eccentric - and often inebriated - companions and strange bedfellows. Iosseliani's familiar aesthetic of medium shots, muted humor, near wordless scenarios, and endearing, representational characterizations proves especially suited to the film's timeless, modern fable of a person's fall from grace, transforming the humiliation of the vanquished into the humble victory of the everyday hero, reinvigorated and impassioned by the quotidian pleasures found in the often overlooked minutiae of quiet self-liberation.

Posted by acquarello on Oct 02, 2006 | | Comments (3) | Filed under 2006, New York Film Festival

October 1, 2006

Days of August, 2006

days_august.gifMarc Recha channels the spirit of Lisandro Alonso's primitivistic, metaphoric journey of interiority in Los Muertos (a derivation made all the more transparent by an extended river exploration sequence) to a visually sublime, but soporific and tediously unoriginal effect in Days of August. Ostensibly a personal chronicle of a writer, Marc (Marc Recha) who embarks on a road trip with his fraternal twin David (David Recha) in order to reinvigorate his creative energy for an unfinished project and retrace the journey of an influential, but inscrutable and almost mythical journalist and acquaintance named Ramon Barnils who spent the final years of his life wandering the desolate, largely untouched Spanish countryside where traces of the long won - and eventually lost - Revolution can still be seen in the scarred walls and abandoned ruins, the brothers' unstructured and aimless road trip also becomes an examination of how a person can lose his identity by walking in someone else's shoes in the vastness of an impersonal, eternal landscape (an existential theme that also evokes a pastoral rendition of Hiroshi Teshigahara's Man Without a Map), dissolving into the atmosphere of disconnected atemporality. Chronicling the brothers' encounters with a series of equally unengaging drifters along the way, similarly played in a blurred truth and fiction manner by real-life characters who recount their own personal stories (recalling the interpenetration between documentary and fiction of Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Mysterious Objects at Noon) - a hitchhiker who once lived in New York as a flamenco dancer, a forest ranger who lives from abandoned house to abandoned house playing his trumpet, a waitress who once left an over-possessive lover - Days of August ultimately collapses from the elliptical vacuity and insubstantialness of its glossy, self-important travelogue images.

Posted by acquarello on Oct 01, 2006 | | Filed under 2006, New York Film Festival

Bamako, 2006

bamako.gifFrom the opening image of the first witness called to testify in Bamako, the village griot - a tribal ancient and tale teller who passes on his culture's collective history from generation to generation through the orality of ancient chants - who, paradoxically, is unable to communicate his testimony (and, in broader implication, the testimony of his people) in his own native country of Mali because of logistical difficulties with translating his indigenous language to French, the country's official language for governmental and bureaucratic affairs, Abderrahmane Sissako unveils his critical, impassioned, caustic, and uncompromising approach to examining the repercussions of globalization and subsidized trade on the developing nations of post-colonial Africa. Framed against the backdrop of quotidian life in a Bamako village as couples marry and separate, cloth dyers attend to their business, the unemployed spend their idle time waiting for something to happen (or immersing in speculative studies in the hopes of gaining future employment opportunity), and local villagers alternately look on at the proceedings with equal bemusement, apathy, and tedium, Sissako launches an allegorical, provocative, and bracing indictment against the World Bank, the G8, and the International Monetary Fund for transgressions against the African continent that have led to systematic underdevelopment, insoluble debt, cultural marginalization, and continued reliance on international charity. Like the incongruous juxtaposition between the lives of the villagers and the intrusive tribunal, the disparity between the issues presented by the self-appointed arbiters of justice and the society that they represent is also a tenuous balance that confronts the very notion of indigenous cultural solvency at the beginning of the 21st century, as the sub-Saharan nations stagnate between economic development and exploitation, bureaucratic efficiency and corruption, modernization and cultural extinction, global interdependence and neediness. This dilemma is inferentially encapsulated in the film within a film Western sequence (with a cameo by actor Danny Glover who co-executive produced the film) that incisively channels the spirit of Nigerien film pioneer, Moustapha Alassane's Le Retour d'un Aventurier, the first native African film ever made that, ironically, depicted all the conventions of a Hollywood Western plot (albeit with African cowboys chasing zebras instead of wild horses). In evoking the specter of Alassane's seminal, but intrinsically derivative film, Sissako traces the inequitable history of western subservience and imitation to the figurative beginning, a sobering imputation that the socio-economic problems of post-colonial Africa are not only the residual legacy of economic imperialism and unfair trade, but also culturally self-inflicted in the naïve imitation of an unattainable western ideal.

Posted by acquarello on Oct 01, 2006 | | Comments (4) | Filed under 2006, Abderrahmane Sissako, New York Film Festival

September 30, 2006

The Go Master, 2006

go_master.gifIn distilling the life of one of the greatest (if not the greatest) Go players in history, Wu Qingyuan (Chen Chan) - an ethnic Chinese who immigrated to Japan (where he is referred to by the Japanese reading of his name, Go Seigen) in order to continue his pursuit of the game through officially sponsored tournaments into a few essential moments in the now nonagenarian's lifelong search for enlightenment - it is interesting to see Tian Zhuangzhuang's cinema converge towards the aesthetics of Hou Hsiao-hsien. Presenting a series of essential, elliptical, and seemingly alienated, self-encapsulated episodes that characterize, not only the shape of history (and in particular, the protracted conflict between China and Japan as a result of the conflict for sovereignty over Taiwan, the occupation of Manchuria, the Pacific War, and the rise of Communism), but also the psychological isolation imposed by the uncertainty of world events and further complicated by the problems of assimilation into a monoethnic adopted culture, The Go Master is more impressionistic than biographical, allusive than anecdotal (although certain particularly illuminating episodes that reveal Wu's phenomenal concentration and character are recreated, such as an infamous match for the title of Go Master in which Wu was so engrossed in the game the he was completely oblivious of his opponent, Kitani Minoru's infirmity from a nosebleed and subsequent collapse; his marriage to a Japanese woman, Nakahara Kazuko; his brief association with the controversial Buddhist sect, Jiu Kyou; and the symptomatic after-effects of nerve damage sustained from a pedestrian accident that cut short Wu's dominance over the game). By framing Wu's own words excerpted from his autobiography as written quotation chapter markers - a visual aesthetic reminiscent of the interstitial pillow word structures of Hou's A City of Sadness - Tian elegantly and understatedly illustrates the thematic context of humanity as impotent witnesses to forces beyond their control, a humble, yet remarkable life lived in the periphery of turbulent human history, ennobled, not by victories, but by the everyday struggle and integrity of the perpetual quest.

Posted by acquarello on Sep 30, 2006 | | Comments (3) | Filed under 2006, New York Film Festival

September 29, 2006

Woman on the Beach, 2006

woman_beach.gifAfter observing Hong Sang-soo's previous three films bucolically retreating within a predictable safety zone of recurring preoccupations and reflexive encounters illustrated through linear narratives in somewhat uncharacteristic fashion following what had been his most structurally experimental film to date, Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, it is refreshing to see Hong crystallize his now familiar flat structured, mirroring triangulations on the ephemeral nature of human desire with Woman on the Beach. Opening to the seemingly innocuous, but incisive image of film director, Kim Joong-rae (Kim Seung-woo) unrelentingly goading his reluctant friend (and more importantly, car owner), Won Chang-wook (Kim Tae-woo) into taking a road trip to a quiet, off-season seaside resort in Shinduri Beach (and who, in turn, agrees to accompany him under the provision that his girlfriend, an international traveler and composer named Kim Moon-sook (Ko Hyeon-geong) also come along for the impromptu getaway), in order to stimulate his creativity after struggling with writer's block on a long overdue script, Hong implicitly reveals not only the selfishness and insecurity, but also the resigned acquiescence that shape and define Joong-rae and Chang-wook's character. Alternately distracted from his work by sheer procrastination and indiscipline, as well as squandering his time by vying for the affections of the seemingly receptive Moon-sook, Joong-rae is an inscrutable paradox: seemingly thriving in his self-inflicted distraction by perversely deriving inspiration from the intoxicating chaos of romantic pursuit, yet already mourning the inevitable disappointment of the conquest, when the bliss of anonymous encounter and transitory connection with a new lover soon give way to the insecurity, paralysis, and mundane reality of emotionally investing in a fledgling, potential relationship. Chronicling Joong-rae's dysfunctional creative process through the unresolved wreckage of his messy, unraveling, and patternistically recurring romantic entanglements - a theme that coalesces in Joong-rae's diagrammatic explication of his theory on the interpenetration between memory and dimensional knowledge - Hong transcends his now familiar portraitures of flawed, self-indulgent men, obliging, but elusive women, and failed intimacy by endowing his characters with the possibility of self-revelation even in the midst of human frailty, allowing them to find their way to break free from their self-inflicted, ensnaring sand dunes towards the liberating landscape of personal closure.

Posted by acquarello on Sep 29, 2006 | | Comments (2) | Filed under 2006, New York Film Festival

September 28, 2006

The Queen, 2006

queen.gifThe Queen transforms the morbid spectacle surrounding Diana's tragic death in the summer of 1997 into a trenchant, elegant, and compelling exposition into the nefarious role of the media as both creator (and self-generator) of news and manipulator of public sentiment. By juxtaposing Diana's death within the framework of Tony Blair's recent election to the office of prime minister under the Labor Party platform of initiating a wide-range of sweeping reform ever to be instituted in the country after decades of Tory government (with visibly lackluster results), filmmaker Stephen Frears and screenwriter Peter Morgan contextualize the atmosphere as a symptom of a broader social angst - a synchronicity that intrinsically transformed a family's private grief into a disoriented public's search for leadership and direction in a time of crisis. It is within this context of media complicity that Frear's strategy to incorporate substantial scenes of archival footage, coupled with a distanced, almost anecdotal reenactment of the infamous paparazzi chase on the streets of Paris that led to the tragic accident, proves especially incisive in illustrating the media's ensuing, self-perpetuated escalation of the episode into a blunt, sensationalistic, and incendiary public referendum to re-evaluate the relevance of the monarchy towards the end of the twentieth century. What is perhaps most commendable about the film is the remarkable integrity intrinsic in the cast and crew's complex and dimensional portrayal of the royal family - and in particular, Queen Elizabeth II (in a pitch-perfect performance by Helen Mirren) - as well intentioned, sensitive, but humanly flawed and woefully paralyzed by the rigid insularity and protocols of its venerated institution: caught in the tide of a self-fueled media circus, baffled by the public idealization of "the people's princess" who had privately challenged the very institution that she implicitly agreed to serve, and driven into a stoic silence in keeping with the dignity of the crown, but at odds with the increasing (and perhaps unjustifiable) public sentiment to lionize her. It is interesting to note that in serving as the unofficial mediator between the queen and the grieving public, Frears illustrates the conservatization of Tony Blair, a nascent glimpse of his increasing departure from the ideals of radical reform and towards the inertia and morass of politics as usual (an ideological realignment that seems particularly stark within the context of post 9/11 global politics).

Posted by acquarello on Sep 28, 2006 | | Filed under 2006, New York Film Festival

Mafioso, 1962

mafioso.gifAlberto Lattuada irreverently - and uproariously - explores the nurtured regionalisms, preconceptions, and ethnic stereotypes between the more progressive, industrialized north and more conservative, old world traditions of southern Italy - and in particular, Sicily - that continue to pervade and shape the social attitudes between the two divergent cultures of contemporary Italian society in his underseen comic masterpiece, Mafioso. Told from the perspective of a well-intentioned, if perhaps too obliging and gullible Antonio Badalamenti (played impeccably by the great comic actor Alberto Sordi), an automobile assembly factory foreman and efficiency expert who moved from his beloved village in rural Sicily to seek his fortune in the north, the film throws caution to the wind with its delirious fusion of pitch black satire, gangster film parody, and comedy of manners, as the proud native son decides to bring his young, fair haired (and inescapably northern), visibly bemused family to his beloved ancestral home and into the crosshairs of an equally bemused and unsuspecting rustic town still lorded over in hushed tones by a reclusive godfather and town benefactor named Don Vincenzo (Ugo Attanasio) whose vast influence seems to ripple even to the distant shores of Trenton, New Jersey. Arriving giddily at the town square and into the surreal view of a funeral service from the window of a taxicab - an apparent gunshot victim for defying the will of (and consequently falling out favor with) Don Vincenzo - Antonio's homecoming soon becomes as riddled with as many complications as the pock-marked, tell-tale bullet holed walls that line the town when his wife's modern manners and unfamiliarity with local customs reduce the normally animated household into retreated silence and polite evasion, and Don Vincenzo decides to call in a personal favor in return for enabling Antonio's success on the mainland. Still as incisive and relevant forty years since its initial release, Mafioso continues to provoke and entertain in equal measures by casting its critical eye into the Sicilian code of honor to create an audacious, sharp-witted, and perversely funny satire on honor-bound duty and hypocritical tradition.

Posted by acquarello on Sep 28, 2006 | | Filed under 2006, Alberto Lattuada, New York Film Festival

September 25, 2006

Views from the Avant-Garde: Saul Levine

Note to Pati, 1969

Something of an aesthetic convergence between the diaristic autobiographies and quotidian images of Jonas Mekas (as illustrated in his Diaries, Notes and Sketches chronicles) and the hand crafted dissonance and material violence of Stan Brakhage, Note to Pati presents a seemingly typical winter scene - the day after a snow storm as a suburban neighborhood digs out from under the accumulation and children make the most of an unexpected day off from school by playing in their winter wonderland. Saul Levine's images are diffused, faded, and ephemeral, made all the more dissociating by Levine's disorienting rapid cut editing, restless and twitching camerawork, and destabilized, quick pan sequences - an evocation of a transitory and wide-eyed innocence.

Note to Coleen, 1974

An encounter with a sidewalk portrait artist serves as the inspiration for Levine's Note to Coleen, a whimsical, playful, and frenetic composition on duality and mirror images. Levine creates a curious sense of musicality through the intrinsic rhythm of the silent images. Presenting a rhythmic juxtaposition of quickly intercut, near subliminal replicating images capturing the posed subject (often of a seated woman) and the corresponding likeness captured by work-in-process sketch portrait, and edited through the visible vestigial materiality of the physical mechanical film splices (a recurring aesthetic in Levine's cinema), the alternating images become an animated stasis, a stimulus of peripheral curiosity, a reflection of the iterative observation intrinsic in the process of creation.

New Left Note, 1968-1982

saul_levine.gifSaul Levine incisively distills the whirlwind of domestic protest, social revolution, and increasing public disillusionment over a protracted, bloody, and inextricable Vietnam War that defined the atmosphere of late 60s American culture in his magnum opus, New Left Note, a film inspired in part by his tenure as editor for - and complemented the ideals of - the progressive Students for a Democratic Society publication, New Left Notes. Levine juxtaposes seemingly irresolvable images of inertia and action, isolation and solidarity that reinforce his penchant for aesthetic hyperactivity - rapid intercutting, disorienting quick pans, and looping, reinforcing imagery - with sequences composed of visually longer takes and more stable, implicitly voyeuristic gaze that subvert the stasis of the images (and made all the more jarring in their discontinuity through the visibility of cement splices): initially, of an impromptu, distanciated metafilm (a soundless, low-resolution recording of Richard Nixon televised broadcast speech), then subsequently, an intimate, occasionally unfocused, and borderline transgressive image of the off-screen filmmaker and a resting young woman in varying stages of physical intimacy while traveling on a bus (perhaps returning from a protest march on Washington DC). In contrast to the adrenalized saturation of his autobiographical sketch, Note to ... films, Levine's images in New Left Notes reflect a more deliberate (and deliberative) approach to filmmaking as a tool for social change - a visceral chronicle of creative expression and cultural consciousness.

The Big Stick/An Old Reel, 1967-1973

On the surface, the introductory images of The Big Stick/An Old Reel seems uncharacteristic of a Saul Levine film, a whimsical, manipulated found film featuring a beat cop in seeming pursuit of Charlie Chaplin's iconic tramp character, edited in matching continuity cuts such that the excerpted sequence unfolds in a seemingly infinite comic choreography of encounter and evasion, luckless fugitive and outwitted officer. Juxtaposed against (and at times, superimposed over) transitory images of real-life footage of a mass arrest and loading of prisoners into transport wagons for booking at police headquarters (the predictable repercussion for an act of protest or civil disobedience), serves as a subtle, but equally potent and critical complement to the overt politicization of New Left Note, a wry exposition on the duality of contemporary American society, not only with respect to the country's polarization between passivity and activism - as well as an ingrained social stratification between privilege and exclusion - but also on the interminable vicious circle represented by the protracted and interminable conflict of the Vietnam War, a sobering commentary of the intrinsic farce reflected in the caricature of the faceless authority's self-righteous and heavy-handed approach to dissent, opposition, and alterity.

Note to Poli, 1982-83

Continuing in the vein of the transgressive intimacy captured in New Left Note, Note to Poli in some ways anticipates Stephen Dwoskin's expositions on fragility, ephemerality, and voyeurism (and in particular, in the transitory, almost dreamlike images Outside in). A daylight coupling seques to the seemingly disconnected image of a smoke-infused empty kitchen, perhaps invisibly connected by an unseen post-coitum ritual and time-occupying self-abstraction of a slowly inhaled cigarette, a visual study of emptiness and substance, stillness and turbulence, concentration and dissipation.

The Saul Levine: Notes from the Underground program screens at the NYFF: Views from the Avant-Garde sidebar on October 7, 2006 at 3:30 p.m.

Posted by acquarello on Sep 25, 2006 | | Filed under 2006, Views from the Avant-Garde

September 20, 2006

Views from the Avant-Garde: Paolo Gioli

Images Disturbed by an Intense Parasite (Immagini disturbate da un intenso parassita), 1970

Paolo Gioli's frenetic, delirious, and curiously transfixing magnum opus Images Disturbed by an Intense Parasite is an invigorating, confounding, and ultimately mind-blowing visual study in redefining the bounds of human cognitive saturation - a complex, multilayered juxtaposition of bifurcating and intersecting aural and visual stimuli presented through groundbreaking multi-channel compositions, highly textured collages, interlocking frames, and studies in relative motion. Tracing the evolution of images (and music) through increasingly complex compositions and set against the manipulated, found film backdrop of objects in seeming perpetual motion (footage of athletic and racing events predominate the immersive landscape), the idiosyncratic reference to a titular parasite perhaps refers to the insidious and viral nature of the interpenetration of images that occur within the sub-frames and compartmentalized channels of the film, as seemingly bounded images begin to transect and dissolve their frames and invade adjacent spaces, consequently transforming - and eventually supplanting - the integral structure of the overarching composition. Prefiguring the themes of permeability and mutability that Gioli would subsequently explore in The Perforated Operator, the malleable images absorb, assimilate, converge, and replicate in an increasingly accelerated, ritualized process of seeming parthenogenesis to the point of unsustainable hypersaturation - a figurative point of cognitive critical mass when the density of the mind's registered images transforms from information to abstraction.

Traumatograph (Traumatografo), 1973

gioli.gifThe jarringly incongruent promenade from Mussorgsky's sprightly Pictures at an Art Exhibition provides an ingenious, tongue-in-cheek foil to Traumatograph's somber and grotesque introductory images: the decontextualized, worn photographs of beheaded men placed alongside a barbed wire-lined trench (perhaps victims of war), classical woodcut illustrations depicting disembodied corpses and surreal, postmortem encounters, excerpts culled from the official investigations of violent accidents (or perhaps cold-blooded execution). The radical juxtaposition of the opening sequence ever teetering between playful inquisitiveness and morbid obsession proves especially inspired within the context of Gioli's recurring penchant for visually experimenting with mirrored and replicated imagery. A looped, manipulated footage of a man falling out of his car and onto the ground - often shown in diffusion, slow motion, negative inversion, and superimposition - suggests not only an ethereality (perhaps, of a spirit rising from the body at the moment of death), but more broadly, captures the indefinable intersections and metaphoric passages that shape and define our own mortality. Gioli's fluidity of manipulated motion (most notably, in the figurative image of a shrinking - or perhaps, regressing - child, and reversed superimpositions that appear as self-engaged activity) and aesthetic for mirroring imagery suggest a creative symbiosis with - and perhaps a spiritual godfathering of - Materialist filmmaking, prefiguring the balletic choreography and film rhythm of Martin Arnold (in such films as Alone. Life Wastes Andy Hardy) and the metaphysical convergences of Peter Tscherkassky (particularly, The Cinemascope Trilogy).

The Perforated Operator (L'operatore perforato), 1979

An errant sprocket perforation located within the frame of a found film transfer serves as a creative springboard for Gioli's hypnotic, free-associative exposition into the relativity of images that is intrinsic in the cognitive act of seeing. A thematic corollary of sorts to the malleability and interpenetrability of forms and geometries of Robert Breer's cinema (in particular, the Form Phases series), The Perforated Operator is also an abstract study of the contextual duality of images: existing as art object or peripheral noise, object or void, inclusion or omission, creation or destruction. Visually exploring the meaning of the arbitrary bounds that define what is visible in the film frame (an aesthetic theme that also pervades Gioli's earlier film, Images Disturbed by an Intense Parasite) - and therefore, by extension, what is film art? - the ubiquitous rectangular pattern transforms from a director's visual blocking cue, to a projection screen, to a playing card prop for a sleight of hand parlor trick, to a microscope glass specimen with which to observer organic phenomena, to a layered, multi-channel film-within-a film. Culminating with the manipulated images of a transformed human eye (a theme that prefigures his subsequent film, Quando l'occhio trema), Gioli's vision transcends the self-reflexive landscape of a metafilm (and with it, the repercussion of the filmmaker's gaze), and converges towards the broader, indefinable contours on the transformative power of images.

Quando l'occhio trema, 1989

An homage to Luis Buñuel - an in particular, his early Surrealist films - in the evocation of the eye slitting scene in Un Chien Andalou (albeit in a far more palatable, less cringe-inducing manner), Gioli eschews Buñuel's metaphoric incitement to revolution to open one's eyes to visionary possibilities, and instead, presents a whimsical illustration of the apparatus of the human eye. Juxtaposing manipulated found film (most notably, from L'Age d'or) with the frenetic (and occasionally, manually animated) rapid eye movement in the act of constant scanning, surveillance, and observation, Quando l'occhio trema presents the human eye as the instrumental origin for the cognition of images - the eye as universe, as infinitely celestial, as the center of the ecliptic - the fundamental receptor by which images are registered, subsumed, processed, interpreted, and transformed by human consciousness. In contrast to Buñuel's transgressive act towards the liberation of images, Gioli's film fades to black with the closing of the frenetic eye, perhaps a reminder that even in the midst of violent revolution, there remains a sacredness towards reverie and imagination in the creation of art.

Filmarilyn, 1992

My entry into Paolo Gioli's sublime cinema was through the infectiously exuberant, ingeniously constructed, and irresistibly seductive Filmarilyn, an elegant and mesmerizing film that remains one of my favorite experimental works. Composed of still images from several photographs of the actress and pop icon Marilyn Monroe that have been manually transferred to film frame by frame, and animated through intermediate gradations within a series of successive, rapid fire montage visual "chapters", Gioli resurrects the vitality, captivating charm, and exuded sensuality of the voluptuous, iconic Hollywood superstar through the sequencing of the manipulated images - modulated object framing, subtle displacement, photographic blow-ups or visual recessions that simulate dimensionality and varying depths of focus - into a bold, risqué, and tantalizing "new" film starring the late actress. A brilliantly inspired riff on classic flipbook animation, Filmarilyn similarly harnesses the underlying idiosyncrasy of the visual process intrinsic in human memory: the mind's ability to momentarily retain the image even after the object has been removed, filling the space between with the afterimage that, in Gioli's eccentric and masterful figurative reincarnation, whimsically - and delightfully - demystifies the indefinable substance of the afterlife, illustrating an immortality rendered in the interstices.

The Paolo Gioli program screens at the NYFF: Views from the Avant-Garde sidebar on October 8, 2006 at 3:30 p.m.

Posted by acquarello on Sep 20, 2006 | | Comments (3) | Filed under 2006, Paolo Gioli, Views from the Avant-Garde

July 6, 2006

Seventh Heaven, 1997

7thheaven.gifA delicately rendered, slice-of-life relational drama played out as psychological mystery, Seventh Heaven incisively opens to an unfocused shot of Mathilde (Sandrine Kiberlain) standing near the glass doors of a department store until her visage gradually comes into focus - and with it - her abstracted gaze as she compulsively steals a scale model car from a nearby toy bin. This interrelated shift in balance - between space and object, foreground and background, the visible and invisible - inevitably foreshadows the emotional dynamics between Mathilde and her husband Nico (Vincent Lindon) as well. Having (seemingly) coped with the death of her father at a young age, Mathilde had been leading a fairly mundane life of privilege, leisure, and contented - if sexually unfulfilled - marriage, until succumbing to a recent compulsion for toy theft and a spate of inexplicable fainting spells - a psychological break that may be tied to the traumatic anniversary of her father's death. Pursued by an intriguing and mysterious psychoanalyst (François Berléand) who takes interest in her case after finding her detained in the security office of a department store for shoplifting, she immediately connects with the perceptive stranger who initiates a conversation, not only to offer redecorating advice in order to realign the feng shui of the couple's apartment to be more conducive for romance, but also to probe the circumstances behind her father's death in the hypothesis that a reconciliation with her suppressed past will permanently silence her self-destructive compulsion. But as Mathilde gradually emerges from the darkness of her psychological captivity with renewed confidence and passion for life, Nico begins to succumb to jealous obsession and self-doubt over his wife's profound transformation. Eschewing deeply embedded psychoanalysis for facile explications of Mathilde's compulsion, Jacquot presents an intelligent and compelling argument for psychotherapy, not as a panacea for modern relationships, but as a facilitator for communication and objective arbiter of the power dynamics intrinsic in the inevitable evolution of every romantic relationship. In this respect, perhaps the most compelling sequence in the film is in the sound of the couple's continued conversation against the black screen of rolling end credits - an evocation of fragile intimacy and reconciliation through the continuation of mundane ritual within the implicit renewal of exposed vulnerability, unconditional acceptance, and articulated desire.

Posted by acquarello on Jul 06, 2006 | | Filed under 2006, Benoît Jacquot Retrospective

Princess Marie, 2004

princessmarie.gifBenoît Jacquot's thematic penchant for performance, historicity, and probing the creative mind converges impeccably in the epic biopic Princess Marie on the remarkable life of Princess Marie Bonaparte - the libertine, progressive thinking, seemingly anachronistic great grand-niece of Napoleon and Princess of Greece and Denmark - and her close association with Sigmund Freud and his daughter Anna in the groundbreaking field of psychoanalysis during the historically transformative (and increasingly turbulent) period between the two world wars. A graphic illustration of the female sexual anatomy during the opening scene sets the film's wryly offbeat and taboo-breaking tone, as the forthright Marie (Catherine Deneuve), in consultation with a specialist over a scheduled surgical procedure to cure her frigidity, makes a candid request for the surgeon to explain the details of the operation, not through discreet euphemisms and allusions, but using the actual scientific terms and processes entailed in the gynecological procedure. However, when medical surgery fails to cure her frigidity, Marie soon decides to leave her family and embark on an indeterminate trip to Vienna at the office of renowned psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud (Heinz Bennent) in an attempt to secure, at any cost, his services for an aggressive schedule of two analysis sessions per day in the belief that the answer to her malady resides in the subconscious. Flattered and affronted in equal measures by the boldness of her presumptuous proposition, Freud is nevertheless intrigued by the idea of collaborating - at such a late stage in his professional career - on a research project to explore the nature of female desire. Chronicling the evolution of their relationship from patient, to advocate, to colleague, and even subsequently, to protector and benefactor, as Marie uses her personal fortune and international, aristocratic cachet to secure exit visas for the entire Freud household (secured, in part, by supportive testimony from Freud admirer, Benito Mussollini) after the ailing Sigmund - an atheist of Jewish ancestry - becomes increasingly subjected to harassment and intimidation by the Nazis following the German occupation of Austria, the film is an elegantly rendered fusion of scientific theory and practical application, personal expression and social custom, intimate biography and geopolitical history. However, far from a staid history lesson on the cultural zeitgeist of wartime Europe, Princess Marie is also an effervescent, tongue-in-cheek evocation of the very principles of psychoanalysis itself. Casting Deneuve's real-life son Christian Vadim in the role of young Marie's (played by Marie Christine Friedrich) rogue seducer Léoni, and Heinz Bennet's real-life daughter Anne in the role of Freud's daughter, Anna (whom Freud had psychoanalyzed during his research despite the murky ethical implications entailed in such an act), Jacquot playfully (and infectiously) upends the textbook cases of incestuous and taboo relationships that have become the reductive, hackneyed root cause of all psychoanalytical trauma in the diagnosis of twentieth century neurosis.

Posted by acquarello on Jul 06, 2006 | | Comments (2) | Filed under 2006, Benoît Jacquot Retrospective

July 4, 2006

Benoît Jacquot: Documentary Films, Part 2

The second series of documentaries presented at the Benoît Jacquot retrospective - Nombres et neurons, Jacques Lacan's Psychoanalysis Part One, La Mort du jeune aviateur anglais, and Ecrire - may be loosely categorized as films that examine the thought process indigenously from within the idiosyncratic perspective of the creative mind. Within this framework, Jacquot's unobtrusive, "transparent" approach to filmmaking proves especially suited in capturing the unique and infinitely fascinating personalities of the respective subjects of his films - mathematicians, scientists, psychoanalysts, and writers - allowing them to emerge, not as objects of momentary curiosity, but as impassioned visionaries seeking, in their own irrepressible ways, to reconcile the world around them with the idealized images of their imagination.

Nombres et Neurones, 1990

A filmed conversation between mathematician Alain Connet and neurobiologist Jean-Pierre Changeux on the nature of applied mathematics provides the framework for Benoît Jacquot's examination into the rapid-fire process of logical thought and philosophical argument in Nombres et Neurones. At the heart of the irresolvable argument is the idea (as articulated by Connet) that applied mathematics is not an abstract concept but rather, a reduction of derived formulas and equations that, when juxtaposed against physical reality, invariably verifies the behavior of (conceptually) tangible, real-life phenomena - in essence, that mathematics self-converges towards only equations and solutions that analytically describe natural phenomena that, in turn, serve to validate its own existence. In order to illustrate this point, Connet cites the anecdote of a man who proposes to guess a mystery word that has been agreed upon by a group simply by asking a series of questions. Selecting the word "cloud" after an unusually extended series of questions, the man discovers that the group had secretly arranged not to preselect a word before the question and answer session and instead, had just agreed on a pattern of answers to the questions. Through the episode, the argument presents that even if a solution is not known beforehand (i.e. not based on "reality"), the analytical process will still invariably converge towards a solution that is based on reality. However, in defining the discipline of applied mathematics as a kind of self-editing mechanism that instinctively discards impossible equations - analytical resolutions not rooted in reality - a converse argument for human interference also becomes valid: that in generating theoretical equations that are not immediately rooted in problems derived from reality, there is also the risk of conforming reality to the limitations of provable theory.

Jacques Lacan's Psychoanalysis Part One, 1974

lacan.gifIn contrast to the exhilarating philosophical arguments presented in Nombres et Neurones, the intriguing concept behind psychoanalyst and theorist Jacques Lacan's one-man lecture show fails to crystallize into any accessible or illuminating form in the oddly sterile documentary, Jacques Lacan's Psychoanalysis Part One. Fractured, dry, and monotonic in his manner of speech and constantly looking down to read from his reference notes that he keeps in front of him as if conducting a class lecture (he rarely, if ever, looks into the camera), the quintessentially eccentric Lacan manages to dodge, circumnavigate, or otherwise evade every question presented to him by deploying tangential semantics and unrelated theoretical concepts (then expounding on them) that invariably stray ever further from the nature of the question. Inevitably, what results from Lacan's murky, long-winded, and fragmented expositions is a kind of maddening, obfuscated, syntactic free association responses to the questions presented that paint a curiously unresolved portrait of the iconoclastic Lacan as seemingly ever teetering between dotty intellectual and charlatan, abstracted genius and raving lunatic.

La Mort du jeune aviateur anglais, 1993

duras_aviator.gifThe friendship between Jacquot and novelist and filmmaker Marguerite Duras results in a sublime and palpably intimate organic conversation on the nature of evocation, history, memory, transference, and artistic creation in La Mort du jeune aviateur anglais. A wartime anecdote recounted by Duras - a story that would subsequently serve as the basis for her latest novel Ecrire - provides an appropriately poignant, somber, and thoughtful introduction to the Duras and Jacquot's incisive and illuminating dialogue: a young English aviator - an orphan - who had been shot down during the war and crash landed in a forest in Trouville was adopted in death by the town and given a proper burial and annual commemoration. The gesture would move Duras profoundly, a story that, as she subsequently muses, perhaps resonates with the trauma of her own brother's death at a young age, or perhaps with the romantic idea of lost youth. From this seemingly innocuous episode, Duras embarks on a thoughtful meditation on the frailty of the human condition, her meticulously detailed, proposed manner of filming the site of the aviator's grave (which Jacquot faithfully recreates on film), the ephemeral process of remembering, the isolation of memory, and the happenstance of inspiration.

Ecrire, 1993

Serving as an anchoring film of sorts to the equally fascinating and indelible, anecdotal side story of La Mort du jeune aviateur anglais, the double-entendred, titular Ecrire of the film is not a contextual reference to Duras' latest novel, but rather, to the indefinable method - and madness - of writing. Speaking candidly, and often humorously, about her own idiosyncratic rituals and complete immersion into her own personally attuned creative environment for the indeterminate duration of the process, from the necessity of profound isolation (inhabiting a psychological nadir that she illustrates with an amusing anecdote of her one-time obsession with the frenzied trajectory of a dying fly's final moments in the house during the height of her own self-imposed exile to finish writing the novel), to a kind of arbitrary, alienated resonance with characters from finished works drawn from her own imagination (Duras admits her continued affinity with the Vice Consul's inconsolable grief in India Song even as she feels disconnected from the equally haunted memories of Anne Marie Stretter and Lola Valérie Stein), to the almost superstitious introversion involved in social conversations that may broach unwritten ideas and undeveloped concepts in order to avoid contaminating the purity of the written word before the moment of its inception on the blank page of a manuscript. But beyond the casual documentation of an artist's craft, what inevitably elevates the film is Duras' own thoughtful and enlightened ruminations on an artist's visceral imperative to create - not as an expurgation of the soul or a validation of ego - but as a morally integral, existential duty to contribute to the collective culture of humanity.

Posted by acquarello on Jul 04, 2006 | | Filed under 2006, Benoît Jacquot Retrospective

July 3, 2006

Benoît Jacquot: Documentary Films, Part 1

A theme that emerges from the first four documentary films presented at the Benoît Jacquot retrospective at the Walter Reade - Merce Cunningham and Co., Alfred Deller: Portrait of a Voice, Louis René de Fôrets, and Elvire-Jouvet 40 - is the filmmaker's recurring preoccupation with documenting the artistic process. For Jacquot, intrinsic in this process of documentation is not solely the artist's consciousness of real-time in the repetition of performance or attention to the authenticity of recreating the essence of the source of inspiration, but also to attempt to capture a certain open-endedness - an unresolved ambiguity - that perhaps suggests the elusiveness of the ideal performance. In this respect, Jacquot's aesthetic can be seen, not as attempts to record the culmination of the subject's craft, but the mundane, almost ritualistic process and indefinable alchemy of creativity, where the nature of art is not an achieved ideal, but rather, a pure representation of the quotidian in all its idiosyncratic imperfections and chance coincidences - a transfiguration of the self - a transcendence through erasure.

Merce Cunningham and Co., 1982

cunningham.gifComposed of real-time dance company rehearsals and one-on-one interviews with avant-garde dancer turned choreographer and Martha Graham disciple, Merce Cunningham, Merce Cunningham and Co. is a reverent portrait of an aging artist who, even in the twilight of his career as a performer, remains a passionate and innovative force in modern dance. Perhaps best known for his collaborative work and partnership with seminal experimental music composer John Cage, what is revealed in Cunningham's grueling and elaborate, but illuminating rehearsals is an artist acutely in tune with each dancer's internal sense of rhythm and space - an intuitive perception of the human body's integral "musicality" where the individuality of motion is akin to uniqueness of an instrument's voice. Within this framework, the dynamics of Cunningham's avant-garde choreography can be seen, not as the movement of bodies in relation to one another, but rather, as the art of bodies moving within the kinetic spheres of their own natural state - where perturbations from a dancer's native frequency define a kind of quantum physics paradigm for the dynamic molecular interaction of organic bodies within their spheres of influence.

Alfred Deller: Portrait of a Voice, 1976

deller.gifOne of my favorite films in the Jacquot retrospective, Alfred Deller: Portrait of a Voice is a fascinating portrait of renowned English contra-tenor, Alfred Deller, an incomparable artist who ushered the modern day renaissance of the medieval-era contra-tenor, a high male vocal range often associated with the falsetti and castrati that, with the advent of Romanticism (as Deller postulates), fell increasingly out of favor, and was gradually replaced by the creation of a more emotionally "expressive" female contralto that better suited the nineteenth century artistic movement. Intercutting a series of interviews and performances by Deller and his vocal chamber group, the Deller Consort, Jacquot's camera is probing, yet unobtrusive, allowing Deller's intelligence, charisma, and talent to articulate the uniqueness of the role of the contra-tenor in medieval music - a role that best captured the compositional intent of the human voice as a musical instrument in its uninflected clarity and enunciated grammatical rhythm. In essence, rather than using the voice to interpret the music, the role of the contra-tenor was to articulate the music exactly - without embellishment, without the introduction of personality - a faithful "reproduction" of the music that sublimates the individuality of the artist - the performance - for the creation of the art itself. As in Merce Cunningham and Co., Jacquot presents a thoughtful and persuasive illustration of the artist as an instrument of art.

Louis René des Fôrets, 1988

In Louis René des Fôrets, Jacquot transforms a rare interview with reclusive and intensely private postwar novelist, Resistance fighter, poet, and anti-war activist Louis René des Fôrets (author of Les Mendiants, Le Bavard, and the experimental autobiography Ostinato) into a broader meditation on familiar themes that resonate throughout the author's body of work: the creative process, silence, memory, and the trauma of history. Perhaps the most illuminating conversations with interviewer Jean-Benoit Puetsch in the film occur during des Fôrets' description of the silence that pervades his work as subconscious (or perhaps, intentional) acts of cognitive auto-destruction as a result of personal trauma, where the thought is intercepted and erased before the act of articulation, resulting in conscious, alienated silence. Juxtaposed against des Fôrets' admission that he had earlier burned manuscripts of works that he had found personally unsatisfying, what emerges is a portrait of an artist who, despite personal success, continues to struggle with self-doubt and the consciousness of imperfection. Within the context of des Fôrets' revelation, his recurring preoccupation with the cognitive process of auto-destruction can also be seen as an autobiographical reflection of an artist's profound humility in his systematic distillation and self-erasure of an "author's imprint" during the process of creation, leaving only the inconcrete traces of impression and memory as the art itself.

Elvire-Jouvet 40, 1986

elvirejouvet.gifComposed of a series of re-enactments based on influential stage actor Louis Jouvet's transcribed lectures at the National Conservatory of Dramatic Arts in Paris during World War II and Joviet's manuscript, Molière et la comédie classique, Elvire-Jouvet 40 chronicles Jouvet's (Philippe Clévenot) demanding (if not emotionally brutal), yet enlightening class rehearsals for Molière's Dom Juan, and in particular, a pivotal scene involving the reappearance of Dom Juan's spurned lover, an emotionally transformed Elvire to warn him of impending danger. In playing the role of Elvire, Jouvet's student Claudia (Maria de Madeiros) attempts to apprehend the essence of Elvire's character through exhaustive repetitions that, rather than increasing her confidence in her performance, instead brings her into a state of constant uncertainty and self-doubt. At the heart of Jouvet's abrasive and seemingly divergent method of instruction is the fundamental idea that the nature of performance does not lie in an actor's ability to conform the role through a personally accessible range of convenient, ready-made affectation, but rather, to sublimate the self entirely within the character - to perform a selfless act of empathetic self-erasure. In establishing the notion of transparent, "direct" performance, Elvire-Jouvet 40 thematically converges with Jacquot's earlier documentaries Merce Cunningham and Co. and Alfred Deller: Portrait of a Voice in presenting the philosophical ideal of the role of the artist, not as the center of creation, but as the integral medium of pure aesthetic transmission.

Posted by acquarello on Jul 03, 2006 | | Filed under 2006, Benoît Jacquot Retrospective

June 16, 2006

Road to Guantanamo, 2006

guantanamo.gifSomething of an aesthetic hybrid between an impassioned cinéma vérité and the bracing docu-fiction of Peter Watkins, Road to Guantanamo is a provocative, confrontational, and impeccably crafted, if oddly sterile and incongruously stylized re-enactment of the plight of the Tipton Three, a group of working class, British Muslim young men on holiday from the West Midlands who, having traveled from the U.K. to Pakistan and Afghanistan on October, 2001 for an impending wedding and a cross-country road trip to their ancestral homeland, found themselves caught in the crossfire during the outbreak of the war in Afghanistan to root out Osama bin Laden and dismantle the Taliban power structure that harbored him. Inadvertently detained in Afghanistan due to illness, the friends soon found themselves hopelessly strayed from the popular big city destinations, staying instead at a rural border village to recuperate during the untimely start of the military incursion into Afghanistan as the Allied Forces launched a large scale campaign to round up potential Taliban partisans and Al-Qaeda militants for transportation to the covert, extraterritorial detention facilities of Guantanamo on the southern tip of Cuba for intelligence gathering. Forced to evacuate when the village is subjected to heavy bombardment by advancing Allied troops, the friends, along with the displaced villagers, are unwittingly deposited along a stretch of open field for safety, and into the waiting hands of the Northern Alliance where the seemingly suspect coincidence of the young men's ethnicity, religion, age, citizenship, and circumstance singles them out as fitting the characteristic profile of radical extremists recruited by Al-Qaeda, and sends them on a brutal and unimaginably harrowing course to the limbo of indefinite Guantanamo detention as they are skirted away without trial for further deprogramming and interrogation. Interweaving archival footage, testimonial transcripts, and re-enactments of the young men's nightmarish plight, filmmakers Michael Winterbottom and Mat Whitecross explore similar issues of civil rights abuses, racial profiling, and political exploitation as Alison Maclean and Tobias Perse's sobering, incisive, and excoriating documentary Persons of Interest on the U.S. government's systematic human rights violation and flagrant disregard for the rubric of the Geneva Convention that calls for the civilized treatment of suspected enemy combatants in the wake of an amorphous, post 9/11 "war on terror" global witch hunt, and where the judicial principle of "innocent until proven guilty" has been repeatedly flouted and undermined by the government in its spectral evocation - and apocalyptic, false immediacy - of a looming, undefined security threat. Inevitably, it is the testimonies of the Tipton Three - and not the desensitizing, hyperstylized images of re-enacted, interminable (and often transgressive) brutality - that lucidly articulate the film's unabashedly critical and impassioned denouncement of the U.S. government's culture of systematic arrogance of power in its unconscionable rationalization of indefinite detention, torture, and inhumane interrogation as legitimate weapons in the waging of a delusive, interminable, and self-perpetuating terror war.

Posted by acquarello on Jun 16, 2006 | | Comments (2) | Filed under 2006, Human Rights Watch

June 13, 2006

Source, 2006

source.gifAn animated cartoon featuring rough drawn, under-detailed Playmobil-like characters driving away from their idyllic suburban homes and into a gas station to fill up their tanks for the morning commute to work sets the droll, idiosyncratic tone for the pointed social commentary, yet tongue-in-cheek humor of filmmakers Martin Marecek and Martin Skalsky charming, offbeat, witty, and incisive documentary, Source, as the long cartoon gas pump line ultimately connects to a real-life shot of an oil pump at a derelict, oil soaked open field in Baku, Azerbaijan, the site of the country's first oil well. Hailed as both the future and salvation of the country, the oil industry dominates much of the country's economy as well as its consciousness, even if the windfall of profits rarely, if ever, trickle down to the everyday workers who labor in unsafe conditions at the poorly maintained oil fields, nor to the nearby villagers who live in an environment of elevated radiation levels, polluted air, toxic fields, and contaminated waters. Targeted by international conglomerates for supply and development (most notably, BP), the funding and profits often end up exclusively in the hands of corrupt politicians embedded at all levels of government. A human rights activist acerbically comments on the extent of the graft through the U.S. government's inequitable treatment of the two contemporary, fraud-laden elections from the former Soviet republics, Azerbaijan and Georgia, where the U.S. quickly validated the election of Ilham Aliyev (son of the former president Heidar Aliev), even as it joined the oppositional chorus citing massive voting fraud in the election of Eduard Shevardnadze - the chance for democracy in action stifled in Azerbaijan by the presence of oil and the need for predictable - if endemically corrupt - political stability. Composed of a series of irreverently edited interviews featuring an eclectic cast of characters - impassioned human rights activists, bumbling oil company spokesmen (in particular, the running gag of a bemused oil executive whose interview keeps getting interrupted by telephone calls on a direct government line that never seem to go through), talking head politicians, exploited workers, dispossessed landowners whose property deeds have been confiscated and modified by the government to accommodate the pipeline construction (including a displaced village elder and self-described poet whose farmland has been bisected by a pipeline that now runs through the center of his field), abandoned women who have been set up in primitive condition camps while their husbands leave to work in faraway old fields, and a souvenir shop sales clerk who shows off their most popular tourist tchotchkes (where politically themed matryoshka dolls of the Aliev "dynasty" sell alongside the Osama Bin Laden terrorist nesting dolls) - and laced with incisive black humor (in particular, a hilarious cartoon re-enactment of the filmmakers' flight from local authorities and hiding of the incriminating videotape up a tree before being arrested and subsequently released through diplomatic intervention), the film is an infectiously engaging, yet astute and relevant exposition into the exploitive politics of resource economy.

For more information, please visit the film's website.

Posted by acquarello on Jun 13, 2006 | | Filed under 2006, Human Rights Watch

Black Gold, 2006

blackgold.gifA bold, impassioned, no-holds-barred look at the profoundly deleterious effects of artificial price setting by commodities trading in western financial markets (most notably New York and London) and the inherent inequity of the World Trade Organization's policies on the livelihood of impoverished farmers in developing countries, Black Gold traces the lucrative coffee trail to its humble origins in Ethiopia at the plateaus of Yirgacheffe where a genial, dedicated businessman and tireless fair trade advocate, Tadesse Meskele visits one of the many small farms that make up the Oromia Coffee Farmers Cooperative Union whose interests he represents at international markets, corporate sales, and trade shows. Citing the World Trade Organization's unjust practice of continuing to allow government farm subsidies in determining trade policies that economically favor the agricultural products of nations engaging in these subsidies - thereby undervaluing the true cost of the products and imposing a great disadvantage on developing nations from competing fairly in the world market - Meske serves as a guide to the sobering reality of increasingly abject conditions and constant threat of famine faced by these farming communities, as infrastructures for clean, potable water, medical facilities (including financially strapped, volunteer crisis centers forced to turn away "moderately" malnourished children in order to maintain enough provisions to treat the severely malnourished), and plans for opening schools remain on perpetual hold as the villagers are unable to raise enough money to sustain even the most basic quality of life projects in their community, even as Ethiopian coffee is still highly regarded as one of the finest coffees in the world, and coffee itself has become a popular staple on the commodities exchange and a booming global industry. Contrasting the image of desperate farmers receding ever deeper into poverty - or worse, turning away from coffee farming towards the more lucrative market of narcotic plants - as the paper-based commodities exchange price remains artificially low (an imposed, non market-based price system used by international suppliers of most major coffee companies to undercut the purchase price of coffee offered to farmers) against the images of curious, but ultimately superficial barista competitions, connoisseur taste tests (where the flavor of Ethiopian coffee is invariably singled out by the judges), and Seattle coffee tours that trace the genesis of Starbucks, filmmakers Nick Francis and Marc Francis presents an audacious, trenchant, and unapologetic examination of corporate exploitation, economic imperialism, and the myth of globalism.

For more information, please visit the film's website. Additionally, Tadesse Meskele indicated during the Q&A that the Oromia cooperative's coffees can be purchased through Massachusetts-based, fair trade coffee roasters Dean's Beans.

Posted by acquarello on Jun 13, 2006 | | Comments (3) | Filed under 2006, Human Rights Watch

June 12, 2006

Iraq in Fragments, 2006

iraq_fragments.gifComposed of three self-contained chapters that integrally represent the figurative image of the country divided, not only by ethnic and religious sectarianism, but also by the further destabilization of an undefined and politically - and culturally - intrusive occupation, James Longley's Iraq in Fragments exquisitely fuses the aesthetics of Godfrey Reggio in the artful presentation of decontextualized, self-expressive landscape (most notably, in the accelerated, time lapse interstitial sequences between regions) with the immediacy of objective, indigenous documentary. Opening in the working class district in Baghdad where young Mohammad, an apprentice mechanic struggling with his studies and his conflicted emotions over his heavy-handed, but compassionate and well-intentioned boss and mentor (and surrogate father figure) who ridicules his poor performance at school, even as he encourages him to stop working in order to concentrate on his schoolwork, the first chapter tersely encapsulates the complicated reality of postwar Baghdad, as children must increasingly compromise their education, childhood, and ultimately their future for economic survival. The second chapter takes place in southern Iraq during the Shia'd Uprising, as seen through the eyes of a young Shiite cleric and disciple of Moqtada Sadr's Shiite Revolutionary as the faithful perform their atonement ritual on a public street and the Islamic militia subsequently sets off on a (sometimes brutal) campaign to return the region to the strictures of Islamic law and purge the contamination of occupation and secularism. Vacillating between images of law enforcement and vigilantism, enlightened spirituality and intolerance, the chapter incisively articulates the delicate balance between maintaining social order and repression inherent in a theocracy. The third chapter is shot from the lush, agrarian region of a northern Kurdish village, as two childhood friends are inevitably separated, not by war or ideology, but by cultural tradition of familial duty as Suleiman must abandon school in order to work for a brick factory and tend to the family farm for his aging father. Concluding with Suleiman's acceptance of his humble destiny, the chapter evokes Mohammad's earlier articulated hopefulness for a better life for his family and his community, bringing to full circle the complex image of a diverse country still burning in the wreckage of an imposed war and ensuing violence, fragilely - and eloquently - held together by the dreams of children.

For more information, please visit the film's website.

Posted by acquarello on Jun 12, 2006 | | Filed under 2006, Human Rights Watch

Camden 28, 2006

camden.gifA penetrating, affirming, and bracing examination of what the late Supreme Court Justice William Brennan would deem as "one of the great trials of the twentieth century", filmmaker Anthony Giacchino's Camden 28 broaches on similar issues of Bernadine Mellis' The Forest for the Trees in the government - and specifically, the FBI's - systematic abuse of power in its practice of surveillance, infiltration, intimidation, and discreditation of activist organizations as a means of curbing dissent against current national policy. Composed of interviews with members of the original prosecuted Camden 28, reenactments, archival material, and excerpts from trial transcripts, what emerges is a profoundly disturbing account of the government's deliberate (and insidious) attempts to sabotage the activities of (with the goal of bringing down and dismantling) the Catholic Left - a loose alliance of Catholic priests, blue collar workers, housewives, conscientious objectors, families of fallen soldiers, and other ordinary citizens opposed to the Vietnam War who, as the tide of popular opinion was beginning to turn against the Vietnam War, engaged in a series of high visibility "actions" (such as public burning of draft cards and vandalism of draft board records for 1A-classified, first line recruits) to protest the draft throughout the northeast and mid central United States. At the heart of the issue is the Camden 28's surveillance of a federal building that housed the draft documents for the district as a potential candidate for a break-in (for what the members would subsequently describe as a surgical strike against the draft mechanism by dismantling the cross-referencing system used to file the draft papers) which, given the impenetrable security of the building, would likely have resulted in aborted plans, had it not been for the aid of a perhaps all too knowledgeable handyman who seemed to have convenient workarounds and the proper tools to gain entry into the secure building, and who, on the evening of the break-in, was nowhere to be found. Later revealed to be an FBI informant who naïvely sought to protect his friends from committing a crime believing that the government would intervene and prevent the break-in, he instead found himself manipulated by agents who furnished him with tools and information to carry out the break-in for the specific purpose of arresting the group and striking a blow to the Catholic Left movement. Opening with the almost comical testimony of Father Michael Doyle who, at the very onset, admitted that he had, indeed, broken into the draft board office that fateful evening, the defense then sought to exonerate the Camden 28 through the process of jury nullification, presenting a series of moral arguments against the injustice of the very war itself: from the two priests (and brothers) who evoked their profound spiritual, moral, and vocational duty to stop the suffering and bloodshed, to the statistics of the disproportionality of lower income young men from the impoverished neighborhoods of Camden being drafted to war, to a mother who had lost one son in Vietnam and now stood to lose her other son for his participation in trying to stop the senseless (and seemingly interminable) war that killed his brother. Culminating with the Camden 28's reunion at the site of their original courtroom trial, the film serves as a trenchant reminder of moral conviction in the face of strong-arm politics, institutional intimidation, and social stigma.

For more information, please visit the film's website.

Posted by acquarello on Jun 12, 2006 | | Comments (3) | Filed under 2006, Human Rights Watch

Total Denial, 2006

total_denial.gifA fascinating chronicle of the landmark tort case brought against Unocal on behalf of fifteen displaced Burmese villagers who were raped, beaten, enslaved, tortured, and even killed by the Burmese army in service to Unocal for the construction and security of the Yadana pipeline linking southern Burma to Thailand, Total Denial is a dense, intimate, and often overwhelming exposition on the insidious, blind-eye approach of large corporations - and in particular, the oil companies Total and Unocal - towards conducting business within the countries of corrupt, repressive, and illegitimate regimes with known histories of human rights violations. Guided by human rights activist, Ka Hsaw Wa, a native Karen (Burma's largest ethnic minority) who cut his activist teeth with the violently suppressed student demonstrations for democracy in 1988 (for which he was arrested and tortured) who has been gathering the testimonies and documenting the plight of the displaced villagers as they hid in the jungles between Burma and Thailand, the film exposes the interrelated political and economic machinations that knowingly enable the perpetuation of human rights violations with relative impunity. Following the ignominious trail of corrupt symbiosis - from Unocal's creation of a series of shell companies that obfuscate their involvement (and the extent of their involvement) in these unethical practices, to government intervention in the legal action (former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage campaigned to sway the court into dismissing the lawsuit without going to trial), to the Burmese army's long history of dealing with independence movements of ethnic minorities through brutality and genocide, to a kind of myopic, powder keg diplomacy that favors silence and willful ignorance in order to achieve short term national goals than in confronting the reality of human rights abuses and global dynamics in order to forge a long term solution - and juxtaposed against the haunting testimonies of the face obscured, Burmese "John Doe" litigants as they recount their traumas of repeated village burning, intimidation, extortion, forced labor, and violations suffered at the hands of Burmese army in an attempt to clear and depopulate the area around the construction site and logistics infrastructure, filmmaker Milena Kaneva presents a probing, illuminating, and incisive exposition into the everyday reality of the incestuous alliance of politics and big business economics.

For more information, please visit the film's website.

Posted by acquarello on Jun 12, 2006 | | Comments (2) | Filed under 2006, Human Rights Watch

The Forest for the Trees, 2006

forest_trees.gifQuis custiodet ipsos custiodes? - "Who guards the guardians?" - muses famed civil rights attorney, Dennis Cunnigham during an informal breakfast interview with his daughter, filmmaker Bernadine Mellis. A self-confessed dropout during the early 1960s whose passion for civil rights crystallized during a train ride home after the 1963 March on Washington that galvanized the Civil Rights movement, Cunningham has spent his entire career defending civil rights of all people against the abuse of authority and overreaching government, from the brothers of Attica who staged a revolt in 1971 for inhumane prison conditions, to the Black Panthers whose influential Chicago leader, Fred Hampton was killed by the Chicago police during a targeted raid instigated by the FBI. On the final stages of trial preparation for a long and hard fought court date on a civil lawsuit brought by the late environmental activist Judi Bari and fellow activist Darryl Cherney against the FBI twelve years earlier, the case represents the disturbing tactic and dirty politics of government's involvement in undermining radical organizations, subversives, and resistance movements (arbitrarily) deemed a threat to their central authority and national order. At the center of the civil action is the still unsolved car bombing of Earth First organizers Judi Bari and Darryl Cherney during a period of delicate negotiations with the logging industry to end the protracted (non-violent) protest over deforestation of the redwoods and work towards an agreement on responsible logging and resource renewal. Cursorily and conveniently characterized at the instigation of the FBI as an eco-terrorism plot gone awry - with the perpetrators seemingly hoisted by their own petard - at the onset of the crime scene investigation, Bari and Cherney would be immediately arrested at the hospital while still in intensive care and the news of their foiled plot expediently broadcasted for public consumption (and ridicule) despite Bari's own revelations of received death threats and intimidation at the scene of the explosion. With the charges subsequently dropped due to lack of evidence, Bari would then pursue a civil case against the FBI for their role in impeding the bombing investigation with knowingly false conclusions to forensic evidence (a "hidden in plain sight" bomb which had been mounted in the underbody of the car, and box of "matching" nails found in the trunk of the car that were neither from the same origin nor even the same type of nails) with the deliberate intent of discrediting the bombing victims and the Earth First movement. Chronicling the day to day activities of Cunningham and the Bari legal team as they prepare for the start of the trial, review depositions and testimonies, discuss strategy for closing arguments, and wait for the jury verdict, The Forest for the Trees provides an provocative, impassioned, and sobering perspective of the long, often frustrating uphill road to justice against government misconduct and abuse of power, and a reverent homage to the dedicated, principled few who, in guarding the rights of the persecuted, serve as the ever vigilant sentinels for the rights of all.

For more information, please visit the film's website.

Posted by acquarello on Jun 12, 2006 | | Filed under 2006, Human Rights Watch

May 4, 2006

The Woman Alone, 2004

woman_alone.gifDuring the Q&A for The Woman Alone, Brahim Fritah explained that his original shooting strategy of concealing the subject, Akosse Legba's face by filming only fragments of her body along with the empty rooms of her (former) employer/owner's luxury apartment and images from her impoverished village in Togo, was designed after Legba had requested anonymity for her (perceived) shame and humiliation from her ordeal (a strategy similarly implemented by Tsai Ming-liang in the documentary, My New Friends). The strategy turns out not only to be artful, but also a particularly inspired one, as Legba's horrific first-hand testimony of subhuman treatment is reflected in the fractured shots, disembodied voice, and impressionistic photographs that acutely - and poignantly - articulate her captivity and systematic dehumanization at the hands of seemingly well-intentioned benefactors. A victim of modern slavery in France, Legba was brought into the country on a false passport by a French Togolese couple offering a chance for a better life abroad, only to be forced into a life of unpaid servitude. Denied any kind of autonomy even within the household, Legba was repeatedly abused by the couple until a near fatal beating finally compels neighbors to summon the police for help and inevitably sets her on the path to freedom. Concluding with the close-up shot of a photographic section that gradually pulls back to reveal the entire photograph of Legba, with her integrated movement finally captured through the continuity of her image on recorded video, the sequence becomes an indelible, metaphoric reconstitution of Legba's fractured and lost identity - a restoration of wholeness - in the face of dehumanization, exploitation, and inhumanity.

Posted by acquarello on May 04, 2006 | | Comments (3) | Filed under 2006, New York African Film Festival

My Lost House, 2001

lost_house.gifShot from the austere interiors of a disused housing project that has been scheduled for demolition on the outskirts of Paris, Kamal El Mahouti, returns to the "home"of his youth in My Lost House where, in 1970, at the age of six, his family had immigrated from Morocco to France and lived at the housing project for the next twenty years. Juxtaposing the cold, oppressive, graffiti-riddled hallways and crumbling, derelict walls against the filmmaker's collage of thoughtful, affectionate, and fond memories, photographs, and personal anecdotes from his childhood - his family's first celebration of Christmas (after nagging his non-Christian parents to celebrate the holiday like his European friends did), his traditional rite of passage by participating in the sacrifice of a goat (all from the confines of the tiny bathroom in their apartment), his family's unforgettable, non-stop, cross-country, "eight people crammed into a compact car" road trip for a Moroccan vacation - El Mahouti's lingering, yet clinical gaze is a complex and bittersweet human history of opportunity and disenfranchisement, social openness and exclusion, assimilation and cultural erasure.

Posted by acquarello on May 04, 2006 | | Filed under 2006, New York African Film Festival

Toi, Waguih, 2005

toi_waguih.gifComposed of a series of informal conversations between screenwriter Namir Abdel Messeeh and his reticent, introspective father, Waguih, a reformed Communist and former political prisoner during the early years of the Egyptian Republic, Toi, Waguih evokes Chantal Akerman's recurring theme of parental silence - a silence of personal history borne of unarticulated trauma (in the case of Akerman's mother, the Holocaust) that has resulted in their own children's sense of disconnected culture and uprooted heritage. Unfolding in fractured conversations, extended silence, and quotidian images (most notably, Waguih's retirement party where his colleagues equally comment on his reticence and fierce intelligence), Toi, Waguih is a poignant, all-too-familiar story of diaspora: a rupture in the continuity of ancestral memory, a first-generation cultural estrangement between traditional and assimilated culture, a silence of collective history.

Posted by acquarello on May 04, 2006 | | Filed under 2006, New York African Film Festival

Noura's Summer, 2005

noura.gifContinuing in the muted, expositional vein of Amal on the marginalization of women, Pascal Tessaud's The Summer of Noura is an examination of the outmoded, often conflicting traditions that perpetuate a generational culture clash between old world tradition and new world modernity, an ingrained culture that continues to perceive women, not as independent people, but as properties of their families (and subsequently, their husbands), even as they lead self-sustaining lives so that they can provide financial support to the family. At the center of the story is recent high school graduate, Noura, the youngest child of a Moroccan immigrant family who leads an outwardly contemporary life of cell phones, co-ed schools, and mixed socials - her parents expressing their genuine pride in her academic accomplishment even as they clandestinely make preparations for her arranged marriage without her consent during a planned, upcoming summer vacation to their native country. Discovering his parents' ulterior motive for the homecoming trip, she attempts to contact her best friend in vain, before succumbing to profound despair. As in recent films that correlate alienation with technology through the iconic image of the cell phone (most notably, Jeong Jae-eun's Take Care of My Cat and Jia Zhangke's The World), Noura's Summer illustrates the paradox of cultural isolation in an age of progressive societies and globalization.

Posted by acquarello on May 04, 2006 | | Filed under 2006, New York African Film Festival

Amal, 2005

amal.gifA frequently recurring theme in the NYAFF Shorts Program, Emerging Voices from the Maghreb - and perhaps, in the entire festival - is the history of culturally enabled marginalization of women in contemporary society, and this theme clearly resonates in Ali Benkirane's Amal, an understated portrait of a cheerful and precocious girl living in a farming village in the Moroccan countryside who, each morning, prods her drowsy, unmotivated brother out of bed so that they can walk to school together. A bright and conscientious student, she has already surpassed her parents' expectations by completing her intermediate school education and now dreams of becoming a doctor - a dream that her teacher nurtures by rewarding her with scientific books to study during summer vacation, with a promise that she return the favor by paying a surprise visit to his classroom after she has earned her diploma. However, when her parents decide that she is needed at home to help her mother manage the house and will no longer be returning to school, Amal finds a way to keep her dreams alive. Juxtaposing the idyllic pastoral images of rural Morocco with the crushing evaporation of Amal's childhood dreams, Benkirane creates a thoughtful exposition on social inequity and culturally fostered gender bias.

Posted by acquarello on May 04, 2006 | | Filed under 2006, New York African Film Festival

May 3, 2006

Delwende, 2005

delwende.gifS. Pierre Yameogo returns from last year's NYAFF mid-career retrospective with perhaps his most mature, immediately relevant, and socially confrontational film to date, a provocative moral tale on the barbaric (and largely misogynistic) tribal custom of scapegoating through witch denunciation and exile - often of the most weak, disempowered, and vulnerable members of the village - in times of hardship, natural disasters, death, and unexplained crisis. The film opens to a seemingly idyllic rural village in Burkina Faso where the elders' divine gratitude for the year's bountiful harvest is tempered by the somber image of freshly buried graves in the village graveyard, and a tribal elder gathering to discuss conducting a witch hunt in an attempt to find and eradicate the source of the epidemic that causes victims, mostly children, to suffer and inevitably die in contorted agony. Ostensibly motivated by his desire to save his daughter Pougbila (Claire Ilboudo) from the seeming scourge of the fatal malady (but perhaps, more likely, to conceal a grave transgression or to divest himself of all parental responsibilities to provide for her), a village elder named Diahrra (Célestin Zongo) dispatches an emissary to bring Pougbila's promised husband for a meeting in an attempt to expedite their marriage so that she may leave the village. But Diahrra's strong willed wife Napoko (Blandine Yaméogo) disagrees with such a rash and selfish decision, arguing that Pougbila's fragile emotional state after an unspoken trauma leaves her emotional unprepared for the life-altering responsibilities of an arranged marriage. In openly challenging Diahrra's patriarchal authority over Pougbila's future, Napoko leaves herself vulnerable to denunciation when a holy man is summoned to root out the evildoer from the village. In its fabular, affirming, and profoundly humanist approach towards critical self-examination, Delwende favorably evokes the films of Ousmane Sembene and Idrissa Ouedraogo in its incisive social expositions of outmoded customs that contribute to the cultural stagnation of post-colonial Africa.

Posted by acquarello on May 03, 2006 | | Comments (8) | Filed under 2006, New York African Film Festival

Hotel of Dreams, 2005

hotel_dreams.gifAs a poor, underprivileged Catholic boy growing up in Senegal, Jeannot fondly recalls his family's trips to the idyllic, coastal village of Popenguine where, on the day of the Pentecost, Senegalese Christians would descend en masse to the village on an annual pilgrimage to the site where the miracle of a Virgin Mary sighting had occurred - a childhood memory that would be tainted by a fateful encounter one year with a security guard who would turn him away from the grounds of a hotel as he tried to admire its luxurious splendor from afar. The episode would continue to haunt Jeannot even after leaving Senegal for a better life in Belgium at the age of eighteen, where he would, for the next 25 years, settle into a life of middle-class comfortability with his European wife and their daughter. Now recently divorced and their daughter now an independent, young woman, Jeannot has decided to leave his adoptive country and return to Popenguine to build his own hotel of dreams, an ambitious project that would not only pit him against European investors who have already carved out their own beachfront properties catering to exclusively European clientele, but also the distrustful local community who find Jeannot's introvertedness and transgressive self-reliance (particularly in his failure to consult with the village elders before starting the construction project) too alien to be immediately embraced into the community. At the heart of filmmaker Helle Toft Jensen lighthearted, yet probing, observant, and illuminating chronicle of Jeannot's professional - and personal - odyssey is the reality of an emigrant's cultural transformation, uprooting, and native estrangement that occur with his assimilation into an adopted culture (a recurring preoccupation that surfaces throughout Trinh T. Minh-ha's work). In the end, it is this erasure (and hybridity) of identity that would prove to be Jeannot's most formidable obstacle in his lifelong journey home: a personal struggle to re-assimilate into the culture of his native land.

Posted by acquarello on May 03, 2006 | | Comments (1) | Filed under 2006, New York African Film Festival

On Line Rendez-Vous, 2005

online.gifA short film on love in the age of internet, On Line Rendez-Vous chronicles the everyday rituals of a middle-aged couple, Franck and Myriam who continue to perform the empty rituals of their loveless marriage in resentful silence: passively trading barbs through uncivil personal messages scrawled on their bathroom mirror, spiking drinks at dinner time, demarcating their sleeping area of the bed with a stretch of rope, and flaunting their virtual infidelities in front of each other. Convinced that he has met the woman of his dreams, Franck arranges for a rendez-vous on Valentine's Day with unexpected - and inebriating - results. Adama Roamba presents a compact, yet effective and affectionate tale of an estranged couple at the crossroads of their relationship who search through all the proverbial corners of the world in order to find true love, only to find their way back to each other.

Posted by acquarello on May 03, 2006 | | Filed under 2006, New York African Film Festival

U-Carmen eKhayelitsha, 2005

U_Carmen.gifThe 13th New York African Film Festival's opening night selection is Mark Dornford-May and the Dimpho Di Kopane South African Film and Lyric Theatre Ensemble's gorgeous, sultry, bawdy, offbeat, and invigorating re-adaptation of Georges Bizet's iconic Sevillian gypsy opera Carmen set in a modern day cigarette factory in the South African industrial town of Khayelitsha, near Cape Town. Sung entirely in Xhosa, one of the eleven official languages of South African, the titular role of the luminous seductress Carmen (Pauline Malefane) is transformed into the beautiful, alluring, and confidently outspoken cigarette roller and member of the Gypsy cigarette company's all-ladies choir who catches the eye of a dashing, but insecure and weak-willed police sergeant named Jongi (Andile Tshoni) who abandons his socially (and morally) upstanding life in order to be with her, only to lose faith in their love and abandon her. The film remains faithful to the musical arrangement of the Bizet opera (with the exception of slightly abridged versions of the toreador's song, Votre toast je peu vous le render and Carmen's defiant silence during an interrogation, Tra-la-la...Attends un peu, Carmen) while infusing a unique African perspective to create a bold and infectiously bracing reinvention of Prosper Mérimée's timeless, tragic tale of seduction, jealousy, betrayal, star-crossed love, and moral ruin.

Posted by acquarello on May 03, 2006 | | Comments (5) | Filed under 2006, New York African Film Festival

May 2, 2006

Conversations on a Sunday Afternoon, 2005

conversations.gifKhalo Matabane expounds on the cross-cultural interrogations of post-apartheid society in his previous film, Story of a Beautiful Country with Conversations on a Sunday Afternoon, a thoughtful, insightful, and articulate melding of fiction and documentary on the changing landscape of new South African society as a result of continental (and international) immigration, refugeeism, and exile. Told from the perspective of an eccentric, aimless man biding his time at a local park reading Somali writer Nuruddin Farah's novel, Links who becomes inspired to write a story based on his chance encounter one day with a lonely, introverted Somali refugee named Fatima, the film examines the multifaceted nature of African diaspora, the meaning of South African identity, and the looming potential for social - and humanitarian - crisis caused by the large influx of new immigrants into the country: a woman from the former Yugoslavia recounts her heartbreaking decision to leave her homeland after years of seemingly unending, devastating Balkan Wars; an Asian woman who immigrated to the country during the years of oppressive military rule of a nascent South Korea encounters bigotry from both white and black communities; young women described their flight from their native country to escape female genital mutilation; a Catholic young woman describes her family's exile from Ethiopia for religious and political reasons as a child, and now feels as though she is a stranger in her own homeland; a British intellectual who immigrated to the country for a more sympathetic quality of life; a secret service agent (or perhaps, more appropriately, a hired thug) once employed by a now-deposed dictator who sees South Africa as a tabula rasa land of opportunity; a group of detained illegal immigrants awaiting deportation back to their impoverished countries express their purely economic motivations for wanting to stay in the country. In the end, what emerges from Matabane's elegantly rendered cultural tapestry is not only an indigenous phenomenon brought about by the free society of a new South Africa, but a broader, global paradigm for inevitable social transformation in the wake of migration, displacement, and multiculturalism.

Posted by acquarello on May 02, 2006 | | Filed under 2006, New York African Film Festival

All About Darfur, 2005

darfur.gifIncited by increasingly prophetic remarks from the international community that the Darfur crisis is reaching the level of genocide, Sudanese native and British immigrant Taghreed Elsanhouri returns to her beloved homeland to create the provocative, insightful, and illuminating documentary, All About Darfur. Consisting of a series of interviews with ordinary citizens, government officials, displaced, often unemployed villagers from other regions who have migrated northward towards more stable communities, academians, and human rights activists as they discuss their lives, hopes, dreams, and opinions on the nature of the conflict, what emerges is an indigenous crisis borne of ingrained, centuries old tribal factionalism that continue to exist in the western and southern regions of Sudan that has been exacerbated in recent years by a large-scale nomadic migration from neighboring, drought-stricken countries such as Chad. As Elsanhouri subsequently reinforces during the Q&A, the notion of Sudan as a country is, in itself, an artificial creation - an amalgam of disparate (and often opposing) tribes artificially bounded by colonial-era territorialism. In essence, Elsanhouri refutes the international consensus that the crisis of Darfur is reducible to simplified conclusions of ethnic cleaning, racial intolerance, government impotence, and tribal anarchy, but rather, a complex dynamic of tribal hierarchy and the unforeseen consequence of government-empowered militias whose allegiance to the government is superseded by their allegiance to their tribes (most notably, in the operations of the Janjaweed militia). It is this cultural insight that also fuels the sense of reluctance by the Sudanese population towards foreign intervention as a solution to the crisis (and particularly, intervention in a post Iraq War environment), a resignation to the idea that, like the former Yugoslavia, the notion of one united country is a colonially fabricated, vestigial myth that perhaps was not meant to be.

Posted by acquarello on May 02, 2006 | | Filed under 2006, New York African Film Festival

Little Senegal, 2001

little_senegal.gifAn aging museum curator named Alloune (Sotigui Kouyaté) conducts walking tours of a historical internment and transfer port in Goree Island used during the slave trade, a vocation that often makes him a first-hand witness to the tourists' emotionally wrenching experience. Haunted by recurring dreams of his ancestors, he becomes convinced that at the root of his unsettled conscience is their invocation for him to reconnect with the descendants of his tribal elders who were once taken from the village and sold into slavery in South Carolina. Embarking on a transcontinental journey that traces the route of a family sold into the slave trade from Senegal through a network of South Carolina plantations and eventually to their emancipation, Alloune's research brings him to Harlem and the shared apartment of his newly immigrated nephew, Hassan (Karim Traoré) and his roommate Karim (Roschdy Zem) in search of a tribal relative named Ida Robinson (Sharon Hope), the determined and fiercely independent owner of a newspaper and sundry store. But Alloune's idealized hopes for an ancestrally fated reunion is immediately quashed when Ida misconstrues Alloune's willingness to help her with her shop and her search for estranged, troubled granddaughter as an all-too-frequent overture by impoverished immigrants seeking to curry favor in order to get a job. Rachid Bouchareb creates a sophisticated, affectionate, and thoughtful examination of social prejudice, division, otherness, and community in Little Senegal. Anticipating the muted, offbeat slice-of-life stories of Eastern European cinema, Bouchareb elegantly interweaves incisive social commentary and compassionate human comedy to create an understated, yet indelible meditation on human interconnectedness.

Posted by acquarello on May 02, 2006 | | Comments (2) | Filed under 2006, New York African Film Festival

May 1, 2006

The Colonial Friend, 2004

colonial_friend.gifRachid Bouchareb's indelible and haunting short film The Colonial Friend is a muted, yet thoughtful and compelling true historical account of the 1944 massacre by the French army of indigenous African soldiers who sought to collect wages for their military service. Centered on a Cameroonian farmer, Abi, who, like many able-bodied indigenous men from colonized territories, leaves his family to heed the patriotic call for conscription into the French armed forces during the early 1940s as part of the nation's war campaign against the Germans, he serves with distinction during the war, fighting - and often dying - alongside French and colonized soldiers in the battlefield until he is captured and interned when France falls into the hands of the Germans. Eventually repatriated at the end of the war, Abi briefly returns to his family before rejoining his fellow Senegalese veterans to demand their unpaid wages at Camp de Thiaroye, a peaceful protest that soon turns deadly when the French army turns its armaments towards its own soldiers to force their evacuation from the military installation. Elegantly (and incisively) rendered in two-tone (black and red), pencil sketch animation, Bouchareb understatedly, but effectively presents a pervasive image of subtle, yet omnipresent division and differentiation that continues to surface despite the perpetuated myth of colonial assimilation and enlightened occupation.

Note: The Colonial Friend is viewable online from Tadrart Films.

Posted by acquarello on May 01, 2006 | | Comments (3) | Filed under 2006, New York African Film Festival

Quartier Mozart, 1992

quartier_mozart.gifJean-Pierre Bekolo channels the manic freeverse, urban culture, and confrontational humor of Spike Lee's early films in Quartier Mozart, an eccentric, socially incisive fable on a schoolgirl known as Queen of the 'Hood who, with the aid of the village witch, Maman Thekla, asks to experience life as a man in Yaounde's working class district of Mozart. Metamorphosed into a handsome, young man named My Guy, the metaphoric New Man emerges from a desolate field where he immediately catches the eye of Saturday, the virginal daughter of the police chief, Mad Dog. Accompanied by Maman Thekla, now transformed into a modern day folkloric comic figure, Panka who emasculates those who unwittingly shake his hand, he becomes My Guy's guide and protector to the social and sexual politics of the quarter: a self-made man who reinforces his stature by taking on a second wife, the subtle inculcation of Christianity into daily life, even as the people continue to practice traditional - often conflicting - customs, the marginalized role and maltreatment of women that sharply contrasts with their real roles as family nurturers and community builders (and, as in the case of Mad Dog's exiled first wife, literally feeds society when she sets up a vending stand near a high traffic street). As in Lee's films, Bekolo uses archetypal characters, informal fourth wall address, jaunty camerawork, and integral incorporation of pop music to illustrate the paradox of social and gender inequity and anachronism of contemporary life in post-colonial Cameroon.

Posted by acquarello on May 01, 2006 | | Filed under 2006, New York African Film Festival

April 23, 2006

Cinema Interval by Trinh T. Minh-ha

cinema_interval.gifAn intrinsic aspect of Trinh T. Minh-ha's cinema is her particularity of observation from a perspective that is neither of enlightened privilege nor indigenous intimacy, but rather, suspended between elements of objectivity and subjectivity, a gaze belonging to neither cultural insider nor curious outsider. By filming in this state of cultural hybridity, Trinh reassesses not only the form and structure of traditional ethnography, but also confronts the very philosophy and collective conscience behind this process of cultural documentation. Specifically, Trinh examines the traditional strategy of ethnographic filmmaking within the context of broader cultural relationships that segregate populations into social, political, and economic classes as defined by cultural dominance, history (and specifically, colonialism), and dissemination of information. In revealing the complex - and elusive - interrelation between the seemingly objective, pure documentation of "untouched" cultures and ideals of self-representation, and the human history that inevitably renders the impurity of that gaze, Trinh transects conventional documentary either/or perspectives of cultural sameness, and instead navigates through a symbiotic resonance of social marginalization and alterity. In the Cinema Interval chapter, Jumping into the Void, Trinh discusses the notion of hybridity with Bérénice Reynaud and the traces the evolution of this aesthetic perspective to her time spent living and teaching in Senegal and other West African countries as an anthropologist who, nonetheless, was aware of the dichotomy of her status as both a non-native and recognized cultural authority.

For me, there is no such thing as pure culture. Whether I deal with Africa or with Vietnam, my own culture, I would have to deal with the very hybridity of the culture itself...Hence, the necessity immediately to question my own position as outsider and as a 'hybrid insider' because, despite the differences, I recognize acutely the ethics and the experiences related to colonialism's aftermath, which I myself grew up with in Vietnam. If it was odd, as an insider, to read about oneself being offered up as a cultural entity by experts writing on Vietnamese culture, it was unsettling to look at oneself and others from the standpoint of an outside-insider in Senegal. The encounter with African cultures thus became a catalyst to think about questions of subjectivity and power relations.

Moreover, Trinh's films are not only formed by the inescapable perspective of cultural hybridity, but are also marked by the awareness that the very structure of (conventional) documentary filmmaking - the underlying roadmap by which these thematic expositions are developed - is, itself, a kind of cultural imperialism that guides (and perhaps, even steers) the direction of the author's logical arguments. In this respect, Trinh's elliptical, rhythmic, and intuitive cinema can be seen as a conscious (and conscientious) rejection of the linearization of explanatory language that is deployed by dominant cultures to contextualize - and conveniently encapsulate - information about marginalized cultures.

What is at stake is the problem of established power relationships. When this explanatory language becomes dominant, when it becomes so pervasive that the only way people can think about something is to think about it literally, then for me, that language also becomes dangerous, because its cultural centralization constitutes a form of impoverishment - the ways in which we think are reduced and homogenized - as it excludes or invalidates all other ways of communicating.

It is also interesting to note that in discussing the notion of hybridity within the myth of cultural assimilation and domination, Trinh broaches on the prevailing theme of Alain Resnais and Chris Marker's Les Statues meurent aussi, where the systematic process of displaying cultural artifacts in non-native museums for exhibition results in the decontextualization of these objects from their true purpose and utility to the point where they become removed from the living culture of the dominated society and simply become objects of curiosity: a figurative death that also serves as a broader metaphor for the fate of the colonized, indigenous societies from which the artifacts were appropriated.

This seems to be the case with a notion like 'hybridity', which has provided a strategic space for a range of new possibilities in identity struggles, but is being reappropriated in diverse milieus, such as the art milieu. Curators can continue to "collect cultures" from remote parts of the world, but rather than retrieving information and salvaging tradition, they now expertly stage and circulate the 'hybrid object'.

In the chapter Two Spirals, an interview with Linda Tyler, Sarah Williams, Toroa Pohatu, and Tessa Barringer, Trinh introduces the notion of film as a snapshot of a continuum - a crystallization of a moment and circumstance - an idea that Pohatu associates with the Maori belief that the past and future are happening in the present. Citing the example of teaching the philosophy of Jacques Derrida through the method of logical progression by also teaching the classical texts of Immanuel Kant and Martin Heidegger in order to illustrate the evolutionary development of Derrida's ideas, Trinh illustrates the pitfalls of such a linear approach that can lead to a neverending task of tracing back to the original text - an essentially pedantic distraction that inevitably stultifies the real process of critical thought and propagates the informational structure of hierarchical, dominant cultural authority.

Instead of going back to Kant and Heidegger, why not explore, for example, how Derrida's theories can meet Merce Cunningham's dances, or intersect with certain trends in contemporary performance arts? Why follow only the vertical and its hierarchies when the oblique and the horizontal in their multiplicities are no less relevant and no less fascinating for the quest of truth and knowledge? Why not first and foremost explore how any theory or writing speaks specifically to us - to our situated social and individual selves - from where we are, in our actualities, in our cultural differences, our circumstantial positionings and diversely mediated backgrounds?

In the interview Scent, Sound, and Cinema with Marie Zournazi, the inherent imperfectness and limitation of translation serves as an appropriate introduction for the intrinsic, non-verbal intuitiveness of Trinh's cinema. It is, therefore, not surprising that the specter of Marguerite Duras' India Song would enter into the discussion of Trinh's own film, A Tale of Love, both films evoking a profound resonance of loss, separation, rootlessness, and longing through cumulative (and assimilative) sensorial repetition rather than narrative explication. In this respect, India Song serves as a paradigm for the articulation of the postcolonial experience where elusive notions of home, nationality, and identity are expressed through equally ephemeral, non-narrative devices of textures, rhythms, and montage.

I feel a great affinity with Marguerite Duras' remark that after the premiere of her film India Song, she had the impression of being dispossessed, not only of a given area, a place, her habitat, but even of her identity...It is through the politics of denationalizing the refugee and the émigré, that a person-who-leaves becomes normalized, being systematically compelled to undergo the process of giving up their home, their country, their language, their proper name. In order to be accepted, one has to abandon one's unwanted self. In order to belong anew, one has to take the oath of loyalty, which entails disloyalty to one's home nation and identity.

Posted by acquarello on Apr 23, 2006 | | Filed under 2006, Film Related Reading

March 22, 2006

I Saw Ben Barka Get Killed, 2005

benbarka.gifCrafted as a cine-reportage restaging of the circumstances surrounding the 1965 abduction - and presumed assassination - of mathematics professor and exiled Moroccan opposition leader Mehdi Ben Barka (Simon Abkarian) on a Paris street, I Saw Ben Barka Get Killed is told from the point-of-view of petty criminal turned informant Georges Figon (Charles Berling) who, as the film begins, lies dead on the floor of a hotel room with a gun shot wound in the back in what the investigator would expediently classify as a suicide. But the reality of Figon's involvement with the still-unsolved disappearance would undoubtedly prove to be more complicated. Recruited by a nebulous band of politically connected thugs, Figon poses as an intermediary and aspiring producer bearing guaranteed financial backers for a proposed film on decolonization, a project that attracts the attention of the usually-cautious Barka who views renowned filmmaker Georges Franju's (Jean-Pierre Léaud) involvement in the project as a sign of its legitimacy, and envisions his own participation as an opportunity to rally the Third World movement during his planned appearance for the upcoming Tricontinental Conference in Cuba. Meanwhile, Figon has been burning both sides of the candle as the charismatic con-artist insinuates himself into the company of author and scenarist Marguerite Duras (Josiane Balasko) by appealing to her first-hand childhood experiences with the inequity of colonialism in French Indochina (as well as touting Barka's participation), and who, in turn, has expressed interest in bringing her good friend Franju into the project in an attempt to reinvigorate his career (and psyche) after suffering a nervous breakdown following the financial failure of his latest film. Filmmaker Serge Le Péron employs a clinical and objective tripartite structure of the film that, like the real-life incident, reflects the messy and tangled web of crossed alliances, double-dealing, deception, and betrayal that interweaves the scandal - a journalistic approach that ultimately suffers in its broadstroke rendering of underlying human stories (Franju's breakdown, Duras' anticolonial activism, or even Figon's chameleon-like social networking) in favor of a more comprehensive, if less insightful cultural snapshot of the volatile zeitgeist that ignited the political powder keg of the Ben Barka affair.

Posted by acquarello on Mar 22, 2006 | | Filed under 2006, Rendez-vous with French Cinema

Housewarming, 2005

housewarming.gifDivorced single parent, successful attorney, sans-papiers advocate, and not-so-obscure object of desire Chantal Letellier (Carole Bouquet) has led a fairly manageable life of controlled chaos in her comfortable, if occasionally unhinged flat until one day when she seizes the opportunity of a vacated sublet upstairs maid's room to open up their living space and convert the second floor into an office area. Hiring the services of a Colombian architect (Marcial Di Fonzo Bo) brimming with lofty design ideas and ambitious concepts but with little preoccupation towards more pragmatic issues of logistics and schedule, Chantal's life is soon turned into upheaval when her apartment is thrown into a state of perpetual construction, demolition, and rework, and the apartment becomes a haven for a stream of immigrant workers with varying degrees of questionable job skills and even more dubious immigration work permits. Recalling the idiosyncratic humor of recent "fish out of water" comedies such as Les Petites Couleurs and Chouchou, the whimsical, pell-mell structure of Brigitte Roüan's Housewarming appropriately mirrors the film's motley cast of characters and infectious, freeverse narrative, melding together such oddball ingredients as courtroom dance sequences, social activism, hapless romantic comedy, and even Santería occultism to create an effervescent, good natured, refined, and patently goofy confection.

Posted by acquarello on Mar 22, 2006 | | Filed under 2006, Rendez-vous with French Cinema

March 21, 2006

Grey Souls, 2005

ames_grises.gifDuring the introductory remarks for Grey Souls, Yves Angelo commented that perhaps the most enduring lesson that had remained with author Philippe Claudel during his years spent working as a prison guard while writing his acclaimed novel was the idea that in such an environment, no one can be completely trusted. This sense of pervasive uncertainty also infuses the atmosphere in the filmmaker's realization of the dour, haunting and interminably bleak tale, as villagers struggle to carry on some semblance of a normal life in the austere winter of 1917 at a provincial border town, even as the Great War tragically unfolds within earshot of the town and all enlistment-aged men - except for factory workers and local authorities deemed essential services to the civilian population - are being sent off to the battlefield to reinforce the protracted war campaign: an idealistic schoolteacher, Lysia (Marina Hands) who has been recruited by the elementary school to replace a teacher who suffers a nervous breakdown during gas attack drills; a widower prosecutor, Destinat (Jean-Pierre Marielle) who finds a semblance of his late wife in Lysia and begins to pry into her affairs in an attempt to draw himself closer to her; a bombastic mayor (Michel Vuillermoz) who seems more eager in maintaining class order than social order; a frazzled police inspector Mierck (Denis Podalydès) trying to juggle the responsibilities of law enforcement and impending fatherhood. Structured through a series of elliptical flashbacks that obliquely trace the progress of an overarching murder investigation of the innkeeper's lovely young daughter, Belle (Joséphine Japy) found strangled near the riverbank that overlooks the reclusive prosecutor's estate, the film is also an acutely grim and unflinching view on the baseness of human behavior that is nurtured by the folly and madness of war. Shooting in somber hues that mirror the interiority of the characters, Angelo indelibly captures the ambiguity and desolation that inevitably surface within the periphery of the dispirited rituals and moral vacuum of human crisis.

Posted by acquarello on Mar 21, 2006 | | Filed under 2006, Rendez-vous with French Cinema

Le Petit Lieutenant, 2005

petit_lieutenant.gifPart police procedural and part character study of the camaraderie of detective work, Xavier Beauvois evokes the unsentimentality and objective, cinéma vérité-styled painstaking observation of Maurice Pialat - with similar conflicted results - in his latest film Le Petit Lieutenant. The titular rookie investigator is Antoine (Jalil Lespert), a prototypical provincial cop from Normandy eager to experience the adrenaline rush of metropolitan crime busting. Assigned under the tutelage of the well-respected, second-generation "supercop" Caroline Vaudieu (Nathalie Baye), Antoine becomes closely involved with the seemingly routine investigation into the death of a vagrant - later identified as a Polish migrant worker - found floating in the river after he recognizes the victim from an earlier encounter at the police station for public intoxication. As in Pialat's oeuvre, the success of the film ultimately resides in the strength of the performance of the actors, and Baye's role as Vaudieu is complexly rendered (she received Best Actress at the 2006 Césars) as a recovering alcoholic who has declined promotion into the higher ranks of law enforcement to instead return to the "real world" of field work after two years of sobriety - a nuanced performance that seems particularly in sharp contrast to the almost superficial characterization of Antoine as an immature, impetuous thrill seeker. Perhaps driven to drink by the unexpected death of her only child - who would have been Antoine's age had he survived - Vaudieu's relationship with the idealistic young detective is protective and intimate, yet necessarily distanced (a subtly evident demarcation between personal and professional life that is illustrated in her physical separation from her colleagues' after hour drinking parties, invariably leaving early after finishing a glass of soda water). Beauvois' approach is systematic, organic, episodic, and precise in execution, which lends itself to a certain degree of aesthetic clinicality and emotional disconnection, to create a competent, if coolly detached policier.

Posted by acquarello on Mar 21, 2006 | | Filed under 2006, Rendez-vous with French Cinema

March 20, 2006

Vers le sud, 2005

vers_sud.gifSet in 1970s Haiti under the post-colonial repressive regimes of François and Jean-Claude Duvalier, Vers le sud provides an incisive and provocative recontextualization of cultural imperialism as neocolonialism - specifically, in its economic manifestation - as Westerners, particularly middle-aged women, converge in an idyllic seaside resort where handsome, native young men from the slums of nearby Port-au-Prince vie for the favored company of the women in exchange for money and access to social privilege. From the opening sequence of a curious encounter between a polite and mannered man, Albert (Lys Ambroise) and an imploring, desperate woman, Cantet reflects the contextual ambiguity (and complexity) of social interrelationships within this seemingly hermetic paradise, as he awaits the arrival of the latest hotel guest, an attractive American divorcée named Brenda (Karen Young), and the native woman attempts to give Albert her attractive, young daughter to him to serve in some nebulous, unspecified capacity in an attempt to save her from the fate of many impoverished, pretty girls within the fear-riddled social climate of government-sanctioned, tonton macoutes thugs who operate with impunity throughout the city. This prefiguring dynamic of servility, myopic self-interest, ignorance, entitlement, and rejection provides the framework to the unraveling of Brenda's long-awaited idealized fantasy of returning to the resort as she attempts to recapture the euphoria of her sexual awakening with an undernourished and obliging then-15 year-old boy named Legba (Ménothy Cesar) who had once insinuated himself into her company for meals, and who she would, in turn, violate under the romantic delusion of reciprocated attraction. Now the constant companion of a handsome and imposing, if aloof and forbidding Ellen (Charlotte Rampling), the headmistress of an all-girl boarding school who spends her vacation trying to slough off the discontentment of her repressed and unfulfilling life, Legba soon becomes the unwitting pawn in a desperate, calculated tug-of-war between the two equally possessive, determined, and vulnerable women. Continuing in the sociological vein of his recent film Time Out, Vers le sud expounds on Cantet's recurring expositions on the masked - and masqueraded - unarticulated psychology of quotidian and social ritual. During the Q&A for the film, Cantet recounted his inability to shoot most of the scenes on location in Port-au-Prince due to the rampant lawlessness and random violence pervasive in the area (the resort sequences were filmed in the Dominican Republic). In a way, this pervasive anarchy can be seen as an evolution of the dysfunctional relationship between post-colonial African nations and western society, as commodification, territoriality, and favorable compensation reflect the everyday social dynamics of an implicit cultural and economic imperialism, where humanity and sense of community have been replaced by instinctual self-preservation and the volatile cocktail of impoverishment, privilege, and desire.

Posted by acquarello on Mar 20, 2006 | | Comments (2) | Filed under 2006, Rendez-vous with French Cinema

February 27, 2006

L'Enfer, 2005

enfer.gifDuring an oral dissertation that occurs near the denouement of L'Enfer, the youngest sister Anne (Marie Gillain) is randomly assigned the topic of Euripedes' Greek tragedy Medea, a mythological character who, betrayed by her husband Jason, exacted revenge by killing their children. The allegory of Medea would prove to be an insightful framework into the fractured, disparate lives of Anne's estranged family as well. Her volatile, married sister Sophie (Emmanuelle Béart) has become increasingly consumed with a crippling obsession over her husband's infidelity. Her introverted sister Céline (Karin Viard) continues to lead an emotionally closed life of self-devotion and predictable ritual by dutifully attending to their invalid, embittered mother (Carole Bouquet) in a secluded nursing home, even as she wrestles with her surfacing feelings for an enigmatic, handsome stranger named Sébastien (Guillaume Canet) who begins to court her undivided attention. Even Anne's seeming youthful idealism cannot mask a life-altering personal crisis as she struggles to make sense of her married lover (and professor) Frédéric's (Jacques Perrin) unexpected rejection after informing him of her pregnancy. Segueing into her literary exposition with the remark, "Today, tragedy is no longer possible," Anne's evocation of modern-day tragedy as the walking wounded tersely encapsulates the invisible, yet immediately palpable repercussions of the sisters' own deep rooted childhood trauma surrounding their father's (Miki Manojlovic) imprisonment (and subsequent death) and their mother's cold, retreated silence, as the siblings embody a figurative, sacrificial death at the hands of parents' tumultuous marriage, yet survive to bear the collective scars of their broken childhood into their unreconciled, adult lives. Invoking the spirit of Krzysztof Kieslowski through similar aesthetics of thematic color palettes (in the compositional representation of the sisters) and imagery (most notably, a drowning insect struggling to make its way out of a glass from Decalogue, and a shot of an elderly lady recycling bottles that recurs through all the films of the Three Colors trilogy) and realizing a scenario by Kieslowski and long-time collaborator Krzysztof Piesiewicz, Danis Tanovic further creates a Bergmanesque atmosphere of claustrophobia and Antonioni-inspired interior landscapes of profound desolation. Unfolding as fragments of an elliptical puzzle that, when reconstructed, precisely interconnect to reveal a portrait of revenge, self-absorption, and despair, L'Enfer is a thoughtful and articulate examination of the myopia and untold legacy of human cruelty and emotional warfare: a metaphoric representation of hell as a godless - and graceless - existential plane of inured suffering, silence, longing, and disconnection.

Posted by acquarello on Feb 27, 2006 | | Comments (3) | Filed under 2006, Rendez-vous with French Cinema

February 26, 2006

La Moustache, 2005

moustache.gifPopular novelist and first-time filmmaker Emmanuel Carrère takes a decidedly more affirming and compassionate adaptation of his twenty-year old dark, psychological novel on obsession, identity, and alienation for his debut feature, La Moustache. While getting ready for a dinner party with mutual friends, a comfortably settled, middle-aged married man and successful architect named Marc (Vincent Lindon) impulsively decides to surprise his wife Agnès (Emmanuelle Devos) by shaving off his well-worn moustache - a facial feature that he has sported through much of his adult life - for the occasion. However, when Marc subsequently realizes that neither Agnès nor their dinner hosts Serge (Mathieu Amalric) and Nadia (Macha Polikarpova) seem to notice the change in appearance, he begins to suspect that his wife has somehow involved his friends in the ruse, a wounded perception that Agnès tries to quell by insisting that he had never had a moustache. Frustrated by her intransigence to admit an apparent conspiracy in their seeming oblivion over such an obvious physical transformation, Marc attempts to catch Agnès in a lie by finding some trace of proof of his moustache's former existence - a family photograph, a double take reaction from his colleagues, or even the retrieval of errant hair trimmings from garbage cans set out on the curbside for pickup - to no avail. Soon, Marc's obsession to prove elaborate deception begins to place a strain on their relationship, as he begins to question the continuation of their life together after such a casual betrayal, even as he harbors increasing doubts over his own sanity and sense of identity. At the core of Carrère's surreal and nightmarish descent into madness, disconnection, and fugue is a thoughtful, lucid, and penetrating exposition into the inevitable transformation of all human relationships from visceral passion to emotional partnerships, when a relationship inevitably begins to evolve - and sometimes, drift apart - through the passage of time (and comfortable familiarity), and lovers no longer see things through the same blissful prism of lovestruck intoxication. It is this inevitable transformation that is metaphorically represented by Marc's existential crisis over his unnoticed, missing moustache - an illuminating personal and mutual journey beyond the superficial novelty of romantic love towards a deeper realization of true, shared intimacy.

Posted by acquarello on Feb 26, 2006 | | Filed under 2006, Rendez-vous with French Cinema

Gentille, 2005

gentille.gifThe whimsical and offbeat opening sequence of subverted expectation and role reversal provides a tongue-in-cheek glimpse into the eccentric humor and understatedly irony of screenwriter turned filmmaker Sophie Fillières latest film, Gentille, as an anxious Fontaine Leglou (Emmanuelle Devos), an anesthesiologist working the evening shift at a private psychiatric hospital, accosts an unwitting man on the street with a vehement rejection of any potential attempt at romantic pursuit in the mistaken belief that he had deliberately followed her from the train in order to chat her up. Chagrined by her impulsive act of presumptive aggression, Fontaine then invites the stranger for a drink to atone for her unprovoked brusqueness. Fontaine's reaction to the awkward, if amusingly disarming, encounter provides an insightful glimpse into her character that will inevitably set the tone for a delightful comedy of manners when her behavioral pattern of exceeding politeness, discretion, and opacity collides with her emotional ambivalence over a patient and fellow colleague, Philippe's (Lambert Wilson) not-too-subtle romantic overtures and a marriage proposal from her long-time, live-in lover Michel (Bruno Todeschini) towards an attenuated (and occasionally surreal) self-induced crisis of evasive indecision. Inviting favorable comparison to Noémie Lvovsky's deceptively lyrical, breezy, and idiosyncratic, yet sophisticated, incisive, and poignant comedies on the travails of romantic relationships (in films such as Les Sentiments), Gentille similarly captures the eccentricities of human behavior and the imaginative humor and sensual mystery that can be found in the quotidian. Chronicling Fontaine's humorous attempts at maintaining a semblance of normalcy despite surfacing - and increasingly distracting - romantic entanglements, Fillières insightfully navigates through the ever-complicated terrain of evolving relationships and the enigma of the human heart.

Posted by acquarello on Feb 26, 2006 | | Filed under 2006, Rendez-vous with French Cinema

February 24, 2006

Kekexili: Mountain Patrol, 2004

kekexili.gifIn an early episode in Kekexili: Mountain Patrol, retired army officer turned volunteer poacher tracking commander Ritai (Duobuji) explains to a Beijing reporter Ga Yu (Zhang Lei) that according to custom, a Tibetan native would point his knife inward when cutting his meal at the dinner table. It is a seemingly anecdotal comment on cultural particularity that also serves as a broader metaphor for the environmental and social climate of the Kekexili during the mid 1990s, a stretch of uninhabited land dubbed the last virgin wilderness in China, as natives increasingly redirected their meager livelihood towards the dangerous and ecologically destructive, yet more lucrative trade of poaching Tibetan antelopes to meet international demand for their woolen pelts. With the antelope population quickly plummeting from a million to nearly 10, 000 within the span of a few short years, and unable to enlist the aid of the government into declaring Kekexili a wildlife refuge (and therefore, deploying troops to secure the area) in order to protect the endangered animals, Ritai has assembled his own army of volunteers to patrol the mountain region in an attempt to intercede the trafficking of pelts, often leading to violent - and sometimes fatal - skirmishes with the ruthless, well-armed poachers. Embarking on long expeditions away from family, friends, and colleagues, each parting is tainted with the impassioned, bittersweet realization of tragic inevitability. Based on the Ga Yu's real-life chronicle of the volunteer militia's final expedition to track down a band of poachers responsible for the murder (and publicly symbolic humiliation) of a colleague, the film is an understated, yet tightly constructed and compelling portrait of moral imperative, sacrifice, and everyday heroism. Recalling the austerity and geographic isolation of Tian Zhuangzhuang's The Horse Thief, Lu Chuan similarly evokes a metaphoric image of alienation and spiritual desolation through panoramic shots of the majestic and unforgiving landscape (most notably, in the recurring shots of antelope carcasses and laid out animal pelts that reinforce the criticality of an unfettered mass extinction). It is in these curious images of despiritualized landscape that the film can be seen, not only through the filter of ecological responsibility, but also as a cautionary tale for the extinction of cultural identity within the unbridled frontier of globalism.

Posted by acquarello on Feb 24, 2006 | | Comments (4) | Filed under 2006, Film Comment Selects

February 21, 2006

Eli, Eli, Lema Sabachthani?, 2005

eli.gifShinji Aoyama returns to the desolate geographical and spiritual landscapes of Eureka to create a thoughtful and idiosyncratic - if patently offbeat and unclassifiable - concoction of doomsday angst, picaresque humor, synthesized cacophony, natural communion, and even redemption in Eli, Eli, Lema Sabachthani?. The film's allusive title, taken from the Aramaic transcription of Jesus' ninth hour utterance upon the cross ("My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?"), provides an insightful framework into the isolated lives of a rural hamlet's increasingly dwindling population after a flu-like, suicide-inducing virus causes a global epidemic called Lemming's Disease (presumably named after the popular misconception that lemming herds commit mass suicide by jumping off cliffs as a means of self-regulated population control). The film opens to a curious image in the not-so-distant future of the year 2015 as Mizui (Tadanobu Asano) and Asuhara (Masaya Nakahara) - donned in filtering face masks, goggles, and white coveralls and carrying sound recording equipment - seemingly emerge from the sea and make their way towards the shore where a deserted tent has been staked. Showing little reaction to the sight of dead bodies inside the tent, they instead turn their attention to the recording of the ambient sounds entombed with the occupants of the campsite. It is a wordless ritual that has come to define their daily life since retreating into the countryside on self-imposed exile after abandoning their former careers as world-renowned experimental musicians. However, when a scientist presents a controversial theory that the cure for the malady may lie in a patient's live exposure to the eccentric duo's music, their familiar ritual is disrupted by the unexpected appearance of a wealthy industrialist named Miyagi (Yasutaka Tsutsui) who, with the aid of a private detective (Masahiro Toda), has tracked down the reluctant saviors in order to plead for salvation of his afflicted granddaughter, Hana (Aoi Miyazaki), a dubious "treatment" that the musicians believe will actually trigger the suicidal impulse. Aoyama eschews conventional images of the apocalypse and instead presents a metaphoric image of antiseptic detachment and profound disconnection: apocalypse as the figurative end of humanity, a world without true human contact. It is this cautionary tale of humanity in the face of despair and instilled determination to survive that ultimately reconciles the film's seemingly dissociated, final image of snowfall - as Mizui's messianic experimental performance becomes an anthem for willful survival, so too does the snow represent a glimpse of silent grace in the midst of overwhelming darkness - a rage against the dying of the light.

Posted by acquarello on Feb 21, 2006 | | Comments (6) | Filed under 2006, Film Comment Selects

February 20, 2006

Kinetta, 2005

kinetta.gifSomething of a hybrid between Tsai Ming-liang's eccentric, temp morts snapshots of human idiosyncrasy crossed with the glacially paced visual abstraction of Sharunas Bartas (most notably, The Corridor and Few of Us) by way of Philippe Grandrieux's murky, destabilized, and defocused gaze (in particular, Sombre), Yorgos Lanthimos creates a languid, elliptically fractured, and maddeningly opaque, yet strangely transfixing and, on rare occasion, even sublime meditation on ennui, desolation, and ritual in Kinetta. Ostensibly structured as a metafilm (a premise that echoes Tsai's The River and The Wayward Cloud), the film follows the curious activities of a threadbare amateur film crew as they set out to re-enact episodes from recent murder cases for unspecified (and perhaps indeterminate) motives at a near empty, off-season seaside hotel: an emotionally troubled chambermaid who seems to be more consumed with deciphering the lives of the hotel guests by lingering in their vacated rooms and going through their toiletries and personal effects than in completing her tasks efficiently; a printing and photography reproduction shop worker who aspires to become a filmmaker even as he seems oblivious to practical notions of customer requirements and working deadlines; a plainclothes police officer who devotes more of his time transcribing the details of the murders for their re-enactment project than in the actual solving of the cases. Chronicling the film crew's oppressive silence, introversion, and awkward interaction, Lanthimos captures the unarticulated despair behind their morbid obsession to create an incisive (if frustrating) exposition on loneliness, longing, and the human search for transitory connection.

Posted by acquarello on Feb 20, 2006 | | Comments (4) | Filed under 2006, Film Comment Selects

Isolation, 2005

isolation.gifFor his debut feature, Isolation, filmmaker Billy O'Brien channels the spirit of Ridley Scott's Alien and David Cronenberg-styled organic metamorphosis to craft an old-fashioned, by-the-book science fiction thriller. On an isolated, rundown farm on the Irish countryside, a farmer named Dan (John Lynch) agrees to participate on a research project designed to increase bovine fertility and accelerate beef production on the recommendation of the town veterinarian, long-time friend and former lover, Orla (Essie Davis). But soon, despite extensive monitoring that seem to indicate a successful graft, the two begin to sense that the experiment has not gone completely according to plan, a nagging suspicion that is further reinforced when during a routine checkup, Orla is seemingly bitten by the unborn calf. Unable to contact Orla on the evening of the impending birth and unable to manage the task single-handedly, John summons a pair of runaway lovers squatting on the farm for help, a fateful connection that would unwittingly bind them to the mutated creature and the experimental farm. Although O'Brien demonstrates a keen eye for sustaining tension through shot composition and landscape to create a competent and atmospheric horror film, the film inevitably suffers from a derivative plot that lends itself to a certain degree of predictability and formulaic resolution.

Posted by acquarello on Feb 20, 2006 | | Comments (4) | Filed under 2006, Film Comment Selects

Workingman's Death, 2005

workingman.gifMichael Glawogger pulsing, ambitiously conceived global treatise on the drudgery, and often dehumanizing, rituals of manual labor at the beginning of 21st century - over a century after the birth of the Industrial Revolution - appropriately begins in the town of Donbass in the Ukraine, the coal mining town where, in 1935, Aleksei Grigorievich Stakhanov became the archetypal model of socialist worker efficiency and productivity that gave rise to the Stakhanovite movement throughout the Soviet bloc countries. With the mines now depleted or abandoned after the collapse of the Soviet Union, coal mining remains the primary source of income for many local residents. Working in unsafe conditions in unsecured, illegal mines, the miners articulate what would prove to be recurring sentiments in all the segments: a thankfulness for their ability to earn a living and survive under the direst of circumstances, a humble appreciation for the moments of grace that they have experienced, a determination to do honest work and not fall into the lure of easy money from criminal activity. At each instance, the previous segment serves as a prefiguration of the next installment through linking images - the physical act of mining is repeated in the shot of Indonesian workers chiseling crystallized sulfur from the side of a volcano and carrying them into supple, rickety baskets across the mountainous region and into the weigh station at foot of the hills (or fashioning free-formed sculptures for passing tourists); a sacrificial sheep that is slaughtered at the beginning of the sulfur mine sequence (in a superstitious ritual to pray for the safety of the laborers) is repeated in the open market square in a Nigerian port town where people earn their daily wages from the mass slaughter, dressing, butchering, and roasting of animals; the image of docked ships in the port town is connected to the image of derelict cargo ships lining the shores of a Pakistan salvage shipyard where migrant workers dismantle the ships for scrap metal; the neon glow of the oxy-acetylene cutting torches is mirrored in the shot of steelworkers forging and welding structural construction elements in a Chinese steel plant - to create a provocative and indelible exposition on the illusion of industrial progress and advanced technology that ultimately define the myth of modern civilization.

Posted by acquarello on Feb 20, 2006 | | Filed under 2006, Film Comment Selects

Saratan, 2005

saratan.gifInviting favorable comparison to Serik Aprimov's Glastnost-era muted comedy The Last Stop (a film that ushered the Kazakh new wave), Kyrgyzstan filmmaker Ernest Abdyshaparov spins his own charming, infectious, and delightful pastoral tale on the doldrums of rural life in post Soviet-era central Asian republics in Saratan. Introducing an eclectic cast of characters - a town mayor who has perfected the art of time-wasting activities to keep up the inflated appearance of official importance (a marginal and largely titular bureaucratic position so completely dissociated from the affairs of the national government that, as his wife points out, he doesn't even attract bribery attempts), a once-irresponsible young man turned resident local mullah with a penchant for oversleeping through the prescribed hour for morning prayers, a lothario police officer who seems to make as many visits to wives left behind by husbands going off to work than to patrolling and investigating crime sites, a Jehovah's witness who has come upon the rural hamlet in search of potential converts, a reactionary who continues to try to instigate the inert population into social revolution and a return to the glory days of heavy-handed Soviet socialism, a little girl who keeps a watchful eye on her unemployed, hard-drinking father, and even a local village idiot who envisions himself as a traffic officer for the town's busiest intersection: the service window of the grocery stand - the town is soon set abuzz by the latest mystery of a sheep thief operating in the dead of night and the news that the richest man in town has purchased a stock of diesel fuel for speculative investment. Ending on an affirming note of survival, community, and humble hope, Saratan strikes the right balance of whimsical, self-effacing humor and incisive human comedy.

Posted by acquarello on Feb 20, 2006 | | Filed under 2006, Film Comment Selects

Days in the Country, 2004

days_country.gifContinuing his preoccupation with the interpenetration of time and memory, fiction and reality of Time Regained (that would be further explored in the subsequent film The Lost Domain), Days in the Country marks Raoul Ruiz's first Chilean feature film in thirty years. Perhaps inspired by the curious radio news broadcast of his own death, an aging gentleman, Don Federico (Mario Montilles) decides to retire to his country estate in order to put down on paper an unfinished novel that has consumed his thoughts for decades - the incompletion of which has been a long-running joke and recurring topic of conversation by the regulars at his habitual café. But returning to the solitude of the country proves to be an immersive, if not surreal, experience as characters from his unrealized novel begin to act out their roles in real life, and memories from his past - his devoted maid Paulita (Bélgica Castro), family friend and town physician Dr. Chandian (Francisco Reyes), and even an old neighbor who died from an accidental dog mauling - begin to resurface in the present (made all the more tortuous and fantastic by their physical resemblance to the regular cast of characters at the café). Ruiz's whimsical conflation of reality and imagination defies easy categorization or tidy resolution, but nevertheless, provides a witty, incisive, and ingeniously crafted meditation on mortality, regret, memory, and the iterative process of artistic creation.

Posted by acquarello on Feb 20, 2006 | | Comments (3) | Filed under 2006, Film Comment Selects

February 18, 2006

Shanghai Dreams, 2005

shanghaidreams.gifDuring the Cultural Revolution, Qinghong's parents took up Mao Zedong's call for a Third Line of Defense by relocating from Shanghai to work at factories on a rural outpost in the Guizhou Province. Years later, their ever-dimming hope of returning home has been re-channeled into the raising of their daughter, believing that their best prospects for their children's re-integration into the city lies in Qinghong (Gao Yuanyuan) obtaining a college education and maintaining their social separation from the provincial locals. But Qinghong's sentiments for her adoptive hometown is less entrenched, having become accustomed to the quiet rhythms of the bucolic town (a familiarity of ritual reflected in the recurring images of her morning exercises at school and her clandestine meetings with a local young man who works as a mill apprentice). Driven to near obsession to spare his children from repeating the disappointments and failures of his own frustrated life in exile and encouraged by recent political developments that seemingly point towards an opportunity for relocated workers to finally return home to Shanghai, Qinghong's father becomes increasingly intrusive in his daughter's budding romance and drives a wedge between the two in preparation for what he believes will be their impending departure, unwittingly setting the stage for the reluctant young couple's conflicted farewell. Using predominantly medium shots and incorporating recurring long shot landscape images to create a pervasive sense of distance and estrangement, Wang Xiaoshuai evokes the resigned nostalgia of uprooting and perpetual exile of Hou Hsiao-hsien's The Time to Live and the Time to Die and Jia Zhang-ke's attention for quotidian details that humorously encapsulate provincial youth culture (most notably, Platform) in Shanghai Dreams to create an understated, yet compelling and incisive tale of displacement, consuming obsession, and failed idealism.

Posted by acquarello on Feb 18, 2006 | | Comments (6) | Filed under 2006, Film Comment Selects

The Lost Domain, 2004

domain.gifRecalling the whimsical, organic transections between past and present, dream and reality, literature and real-life of Raoul Ruiz's earlier films Memory of Appearances and Time Regained, The Lost Domain is a more somber and pensive, yet still vibrant, impassioned, and intelligently constructed exposition on the process of maturation, the demystification of a childhood hero, and the inevitable loss of innocent wonder and fanciful imagination. As the film begins, a unseen narrator recounts a tale from his Chilean hometown of a ghost ship once moored near the shore whose presence only became an unprovable myth - the stuff of legends - after the villagers ceased to speak of its strange presence on the horizon and recount its fantastic tale. This introductory notion of tale-telling as the figurative lifeblood to existence and identity serves as the Pirandellian framework for Ruiz's tale of a boy from a rural town who is befriended by an abstracted French aviator and chronic storyteller, Antoine (François Cluzet) (and whose life curiously mirrors the wandering hero from Alain-Fournier's classic novel, Le Grand Meaulnes) after he makes an emergency landing in their community during a topographic surveying expedition. Weaving through past and present as the boy, Max becomes a kind of de facto tale-teller at various stages in life: first, as a young flight instructor (Grégoire Colin) training Antoine, now an obsolete pilot unable to navigate the controls of a modern airplane during World War II, then as a middle-aged country gentleman who harbors a young couple after breaking curfew to meet with him and find information on his grandfather, Antoine, who was declared missing in action after conducting a night-time reconnaissance operation during the war. At each juncture, the encounter becomes an understated elegy of time passed - a skeptical young man refusing to acknowledge his youthful gullibility, a middle-aged man who regrets his imposed estrangement from his boyhood hero during their last encounter, an old man acutely aware of his mortality and solitude.

Posted by acquarello on Feb 18, 2006 | | Comments (2) | Filed under 2006, Film Comment Selects

February 17, 2006

Battle in Heaven, 2005

battle_heaven.gifProvocative, explicit, horrifying, uncompromising, yet unmistakably humanist, Battle in Heaven is the film that Bruno Dumont should have made after L'Humanité. Instead, it is Carlos Reygadas who rekindles the spirit of Robert Bresson in his exposition on ritualism as a path to transcendence. For the film's protagonist, Marcos (Marcos Hernández), mundane ritual has come to define his entire existence. Working as a security guard at a military fort where his duties include being a part of the ceremonial cadre who raise and lower the national flag at dawn and dusk, the theme of repetitive ritual is also reflected in his wife's (Bertha Ruiz) sideline, hawking clocks at a subway station. Even his employment as a personal driver to a high ranking general involves a certain measure of predictability, often chauffeuring the general's daughter Ana (Anapola Mushkadiz) to her boyfriend's apartment or a clandestine brothel operating in an upscale neighborhood where she works as a part-time call girl. Intrinsic in Reygadas' dedramatized, incisive, and occasionally surreal imagery of Mexico's complex physical and metaphoric landscape - and in particular, in the dynamics of Marcos and Ana's unusual relationship - is the metamorphosis of sexuality and spirituality as modes of intimate and personal ritual. In Reygadas' bracing portrait of Mexico's profoundly fractured and polarized - and perhaps irredeemable - society, human connection occurs not through the opacity of the soul but through the characters' disembodied rituals that serve as communion for unarticulated desire. By correlating this seemingly fated and inescapable sense of irredeemability with Marcos' search for redemption following his complicity in perpetrating a grievous and tragic crime, his inner turmoil serves as a metaphor, not only for the casting of a fallen angel alluded in the title, but invokes the allegorical, epic struggle for the very soul of all lost, dispirited, and broken humanity.

Posted by acquarello on Feb 17, 2006 | | Comments (12) | Filed under 2006, Film Comment Selects

Stranded in Canton, 1974-2005

stranded.gifConsisting of several black and white home videos taken by William Eggleston around the city of Memphis in 1974 using a modified Sony Porta-pak handheld camera (and occasionally accompanied by Eggleston's interstitial voice-over narration that provides contextual or anecdotal point of reference to the episode), Stranded in Canton provides a glimpse into what Amy Taubin would describe in the subsequent Q&A as the view from the outside margins of Eggleston's photography - the periphery of an artist's gaze. Unfortunately, the subjects of the gaze are not particularly interesting - often vulgar, pompous, crass, intoxicated, incoherent, under the influence of psychotropic drugs, or perpetually hamming it up before the camera to attract attention - the resulting pastiche is perhaps only notable for the unremarkability of its lowbrow subjects, uninspired shot compositions, and almost grotesque imagery (an infrared translucency optically distorts much of the physical features in the film, particularly eyes and skin textures that appear to fluoresce) given the film's almost legendary status in certain creative circles. The title is taken from an over-the-top, dramatic impromptu monologue delivered in the film by a transvestite eccentric (whose indescribably bad impersonation borders on caricature), an articulation of exotic otherness and desire for transcendence away from the humdrum of a working-class Memphis bar. Nevertheless, while Stranded in Memphis may have been a more appropriate title, Eggleston's meandering and unstructured film is also too particular in its ensemble of quintessentially lowbrow subjects to serve as an ethnographic study of Memphis circa 1974. Suffice it to say, while Eggleston may be able to find beauty in the composition of mundane objects in his photographs, the translation to film results in a more anecdotal rather than revelatory insight towards the aesthetic deconstruction of Eggleston's gaze.

Posted by acquarello on Feb 17, 2006 | | Filed under 2006, Film Comment Selects

Everlasting Regret, 2005

everlasting.gifChronicling the life and romantic trajectory of a postwar beauty queen named Qiyao (Sammi Cheng) over the span of forty years, Stanley Kwan's epic period drama, Everlasting Regret is a film about unrealized ambition and missed opportunity in more ways than one. The film cuts broad, elliptical swaths across Chinese post-revolution history through Qiyao's childhood relationships and star-crossed love affairs with people who represented the social milieu of Shaghai during the conflicting, often traumatic period of transition caused by shifting and reprioritization of national policies instituted by the nascent government as it sought to consolidate and centralize power to Beijing, secure its borders, and ensure its longevity: a once-powerful nationalist officer (Jun Hu) who is forced to go into indefinite hiding - and subsequently, exile - when the Communists seize complete control over China, a photographer and loyal friend who moves from Shanghai to the province during the Cultural Revolution in order to accommodate the government's call to reinforce the workforce in the rural, state-run industries, a businessman (Daniel Wu) from a well-connected merchant family who finds his economic opportunities increasingly dwindling in the unstable, increasingly state-controlled economy of Shanghai, a young man (Jue Huang) trading in the blackmarket in order to secure a passport to leave the country. Revisiting the narrative structure presented in his earlier film Centre Stage on the short, tragic life of actress Ruan Ling-yu, Everlasting Regret places the themes of changing fortunes, elusiveness of happiness, and social entrapment within the overarching (and perhaps, overreaching) historical framework of political transformation. Unfolding as a tepid invocation of Wong Kar-wai melancholic romanticism crossed with Hou Hsiao-hsien elliptical historicity (particularly evident in the film's incorporation of period pop music to contextualize the era), Kwan's use of temporal ellipses has the paradoxical affect of creating an alienated portrait of an intimate personal and national history.

Posted by acquarello on Feb 17, 2006 | | Comments (5) | Filed under 2006, Film Comment Selects

January 16, 2006

Claire Denis by Judith Mayne

denis_mayne.gif Claire Denis' personal history as the oldest child of a colonial official stationed throughout outposts in French equatorial Africa is a biographical detail that is often only referenced within the context of her debut feature, Chocolat - a domestic situation that mirrored the filmmaker's young life (that, as author Judith Mayne accurately points out, often incorrectly trivializes the film as largely an autobiographical reconstruction of her memories of a colonial African childhood) - a seemingly anecdotal reference whose residual influence remains largely invisible and unexplored within critical analyses of her subsequent films. However, as Mayne argues in the Contemporary Film Directors series book, Claire Denis, this first-hand experience of living as a privileged European settler during the waning days of colonialism would continue to permeate throughout Denis' work. Specifically, Denis' upbringing was shaped by her parents' own acute awareness of the "perversity" of the inequitable relationship between their role as colonizers and the African natives (Denis describes her parents as adventure-seeking travelers rather than bureaucrats who staked their careers and fortunes on the continuity of colonial exploitation). Moreover, as a French-born colonist whose childhood was spent predominantly in Africa, Denis would experience early on, not only the ephemeral and indefinable notions of race, nationality, and identity, but also instilled a sentiment of perpetual transience that the author defines as the theme of "vagabondage" that would pervade Denis' work, an aesthetic tendency "to move around rather than towards" the subject of her gaze:

My father was a colonial functionary, so I knew that I was passing through. I didn't lose my country because I knew it never belonged to me. Nothing belonged to us...I belonged to a country - France - that I knew nothing about.

To this end, Mayne proposes that Denis' first three feature films, Chocolat, No Fear, No Die, and I Can't Sleep can be thematically correlated to her later films Beau Travail, Trouble Every Day, and Friday Night (the author similarly pairs Nenette and Boni with the ARTE telefilm episode U.S. Go Home, from Tous les Garçons et les filles de leur âge, as expositions on sibling intimacy) in their expositions on colonialism, immigration, and integration in order to illustrate a natural evolution that reflects Denis' own early life experience from colonist, to repatriate, to "assimilated" transplant in her native, yet foreign homeland (note the prefiguring themes of assimilation and transplantation in Denis' subsequent film, L'Intrus).

In Chocolat, the introductory sequence subverts the notion of race and identity in the images of a young white woman who turns out to be African juxtaposed against the image of a black father and son on the beach who turn out to be vacationing Americans. Inspired by the novel Une vie de boy by Cameroonian author Ferdinand Oyono, Chocolat eschews the romanticism and exoticization often associated with a nostalgia for an irretrievable colonial past. Instead, Denis provides a certain transparency of gaze through the heroine France that is at once native and estranged, knowing and curious - a suspended existential state that Mayne describes as the "desire to see coupled with the inevitable colonization of the look". Mayne subsequently parallels France's modern-day status as a displaced "native" with the legionnaires of Beau Travail who are, logistically, also without nationality - foreign soldiers without citizenship in the country they serve. In addition to the Herman Melville novel Billy Budd on which the film was based, Mayne also underscores the influence of Jean-Luc Godard's Le Petit soldat in the film, specifically, in actor Michel Subor reprising his role as Bruno Forestier from the Godard film, an ideological warrior in perpetual search for the next political agitation.

Like Chocolat, Denis' second feature No Fear, No Die is also inspired by literature, in this case, Franz Fanon's Black Skins, White Masks on the psychic toll of colonialism. Centered on two African immigrants who train cocks for a French club owner running illegal cockfighting tournaments, the sport becomes a metaphor for the colonial encounter in which native tradition is exoticized, removed from its cultural context, and exploited for profit by people in positions of power, and in the process of commodification, stripping the underlying art innate in the cultural sport. As Mayne incisively comments, Denis' films do not present a fetishized view of black people or African culture but rather, "because Denis' own desires as a filmmaker entail questions concerning race and racial boundaries, her work is inevitably seen in relationship to cultural anxieties about the relationship between black people and white people." Similarly, Trouble Every Day can also be seen through the prism of cultural anxieties, in this case, between sexuality and violence, and the underlying anxiety of foreignness introduced by migration and transplantation. Originally scripted as part of an envisioned triptych of films centered on the common theme of hotels with filmmakers Olivier Assayas (Irma Vep) and Atom Egoyan (unfilmed), the film revolves around the parallel premise of a sexual aberration that afflicts both Coré (Beatrice Dalle) and Shane (Vincent Gallo) (perhaps contracted through an implied past sexual relationship between the two while Shane and Coré's husband Léo performed scientific research at a Guyana facility). In this case, the sickness serves as a metaphor for the unknown and unreconciled legacy of colonialism, where the desire for profit (Shane's theft of Léo's clinical studies) results in the unleashing of a destructive and consuming epidemic.

Diverging from the literary basis of her earlier films, Denis' third film, I Can't Sleep is inspired by the real-life case of Thierry Paulin that, as Mayne points out, was sensationalized in the media by salaciously focusing on his private life as a gay mulatto, drag queen, and drug addict rather than the actual atrocity of the murders he committed:

How, then, could one make a film inspired by the Paulin case without indulging the racism and homophobia that were part and parcel of the coverage of his case? Denis' decision was to "evacuate" from the film any notion of "political correctness", that is, to refuse to engage with the question of what can or cannot be deemed an acceptable representation of race or sexuality. 'Political correctness', said Denis, 'is a corollary of racism'.

As a result, Denis structures the film through the tangentially intersecting lives of three cultural outsiders living in a state of literal and figurative transience in Paris - the drag queen Camille (Richard Courcet), his brother Théo (Alex Descas) who believes that returning to Martinique with his estranged wife (Beatrice Dalle) will set his life right again, and Lithuanian immigrant Daïga (Yekaterina Golubeva) who has traveled to the city to pursue an illusory acting career - in order to illustrate the inherent failure of assimilation as it manifests in the pervasive social and cultural otherness of language, race, and sexuality. Similarly, Friday Night can also be seen as a snapshot of a woman in a state of transition (she is literally trapped in her car by the gridlock caused by a transit strike) before the advent of assimilation (her transition from single life to a live-in relationship).

Lastly, a film inspired by Marcel Pagnol's La Femme du boulanger, Mayne cites a seemingly ordinary, yet insightful encounter between Boni (Grégoire Colin) and the baker's wife (Valéria Bruni-Tedeschi) on the effect of pheromones in Nenette and Boni as a fitting encapsulation for Denis' textural approach to cinema:

The woman is certainly visible in terms of the competing claims between the maternal and the sexual, but there is a definite movement beyond the dichotomy in this scene in which her discussion of 'invisible fluids' summarizes beautifully the film's occupation with flow - with water, with movement, with transformation.

Posted by acquarello on Jan 16, 2006 | | Comments (2) | Filed under 2006, Film Related Reading

January 1, 2006

Chris Marker: Memories of the Future by Catherine Lupton

marker_memories.gifI have always felt an indefinable kinship towards Chris Marker's films that were not particularly related to the overt intellectuality of his work or his espousal of left-leaning ideals. However, it was not until the first chapter in Catherine Lupton's book on the filmmaker, Chris Marker: Memories of the Future that this gravitation took on a certain clarity and provided a kind of Rosetta Stone to contextualize this resonance. On the surface, there was the sympathetic approach in his characteristic pursuit of self-effacing anonymity and seeming penchant to recede to the background innate in his assumption of a series of pseudonyms - Chris Villeneuve, Fritz Markassin, Sandor Krasna, Jacopo Berenzi, Chris.Marker, and Chris Marker - in lieu of attributing credit for his work under his birth name of Christian-François Bouche-Villeneuve, and his practice of using avatars (an owl, a cat) to represent his image rather than publishing a photograph or self-portrait for identification (except for the one Marker-approved shot of him behind a camera and looking into the apparatus as the photograph is taken). But beyond Marker's mono no aware sensitivity for one's sense of place, Lupton reveals an even more accessible dimension to the near mythical filmmaker's methodology.

Specifically, Lupton examines Marker's postwar literary work for Esprit, a journal founded by philosopher Emmanuel Mounier who was, as Lupton describes "the primary intellectual force behind personalism, a philosophical and social movement that developed in France during the 1930s as an effort to reconcile Catholicism with left-wing political ideals. Personalism focused on the nature and potential of the human person, conceived as an amalgam of material, social, and spiritual dimensions. It aimed to foster human development on all these fronts: through political change, interaction with other individuals in human-centered social communities, and inner spiritual conviction." Esprit assembled a formidable collective of postwar thinkers such as philosopher Paul Ricoeur, writer and literary critic Albert Béguin, publisher and poet Jean Cayrol, and film theorist André Bazin whose creative sphere extended beyond the progressive journal towards fostering an organic, free exchange of ideas through Round Table dialogues and led to his association, not only with Bazin, but with other socially attuned filmmakers such as Agnes Varda and Alain Resnais, as well as activist actors such as Simone Signoret and Yves Montand (the couple would each become the subject of two subsequent Marker films, Mémoires pour Simone and Loneliness of the Long Distance Singer). True to form, Marker discounts his contributions to his early collaborative short film essay with Alain Resnais, Les Statues meurent aussi, even as Resnais himself underscores his colleague's indelible imprint on the film, most notably, in composing the critical narrative for the colonialist imperative of mission civilisatrice that argues, as Lupton comments, "that statues die once they are entombed in museums, no longer looked at as part of a living culture".

Lupton also provides a comprehensive examination of Marker's decade of creating militant political films and counter-information newsreels, starting with the 1967 film Far from Vietnam, a period that also marks his involvement in the formation of the film collective, Société pour la Lancement des Oeuvres (SLON) (originally registered in Belgium in order to circumvent censorship restrictions, but was later re-established in France as Images, Son, Kinescope, Réalisation Audiovisuelle (ISKRA) in order to take advantage of French film subsidies) that sought to empower people to document the worker struggle through direct cinema. This politically charged decade would also document such zeitgeist, counter-culture international events as the anti-Vietnam War march on the Pentagon in The Sixth Face of the Pentagon (a segment that was initially filmed for Far from Vietnam) and domestic events such as the 1967 Lyon textile factory strikes in A Bientôt, j'espère: a worker protest that Marker would subsequently re-evaluate as the true prefiguration of revolution (and not May 1968) in A Grin Without a Cat. Similar to the interrelation between Far from Vietnam and The Sixth Face of the Pentagon, unused footage from A Bientôt, j'espère also provided a springboard for the subsequent film, A Grin Without a Cat. Examining the evolution and collapse of the New Left movement from a more distanced perspective of memory, nostalgia, and hindsight, the film appropriately represents an elegy for this phase of Marker's career, turning once again to the realm of personal filmmaking of such social and ethnographic films as Letter from Siberia, The Koumiko Mystery, and Le Joli mai with Sans soleil. Integrating the contextual re-evaluation that came with the personal history of A Grin Without a Cat into his recurring preoccupations of cultural legacy and collective consciousness, Sans soleil can be seen, not as a departure from his militant, film collective works, but as a logical evolution towards reconciling the failure of the social revolution with his own memory of its once seemingly unstoppable progression - an inherent dilemma posed by the Krasna's references to a Japanese friend named Hayao Yamaneko who has devised a synthesizer that converts film images to abstract visuals that belong to a created world called The Zone (named after Andrei Tarkovsky's Stalker). As Lupton comments:

There is a sense in which these characters represent two conflicting models of memory: Yamaneko the truism that memory is always a selective reinvention of the past to answer the needs of the present, and Krasna a residual faith in Proust's madeleine - the inconsequential experience that can restore a moment of the past in its entirety - despite his routine affirmations such as 'we rewrite memory much as history is rewritten'.

It is this sense of ambiguity that is also reflected in Lupton's comment in her analysis of Marker's thirteen episode series, The Owl's Legacy:

Two aspects of Greek culture have a particular resonance with Marker's ongoing concerns. One, already mentioned in passing, is the idea that for the ancient Greeks, all the different intellectual disciplines that sought to understand both the physical world and the realm of human experience were seen as an integrated continuum. Modern division between the sciences and the humanities, logos and mythos, theatre and life, as well as the either/or choices imposed by monotheistic religions, are antithetical to the Greek belief that all such modes of enquiry are profoundly interconnected, and to the Greek acceptance of ambiguity or uncertainty as a legitimate philosophical position.

In the end, it is again Marker's overarching sense of place and assumed role as rootless, humble universal traveler that defines his infinite curiosity to attempt to make sense of the totality of the world around him, a tireless passion to explore the interpenetration of all cumulative human phenomena - history, culture, memory - not to attempt to understand them, but to sincerely express the depth of what we as human beings cannot begin to understand.

Posted by acquarello on Jan 01, 2006 | | Comments (6) | Filed under 2006, Film Related Reading