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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