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December 29, 2008

Favorite Films of 2008


During the introduction for the screening of La Question humaine, Nicolas Klotz talked about the film in the context of a "trilogy of modern times" with La Blessure (my favorite film of 2005) and Paria - a means of taking a step back to examine the state of our humanity some one hundred years after the mechanization and technological advancement ushered by the Industrial Revolution. In a sense, Jia Zhang-ke's 24 City poses the same fundamental question at a time when the soul of the state-run factories - its community of displaced, obsolete workers - is being dismantled in the name of modernization, where structural steel and antiquated machinery are salvaged for scrap material destined to shape the landscape of a new China, while the workers who once inhabited their spaces are discarded. Like Klotz's film, 24 City is also searching for the traces of abandoned humanity within the murkiness (or rather, pollution) of history.

For Lucrecia Martel and Mamoru Oshii, the murkiness and disorientation prove to be symptoms of an intrinsic narcissism: one, reflecting a myopic conscience that has been enabled by racial and class privilege (The Headless Woman); the other, a corporate-driven collective amnesia that underlies the quest for eternal youth (The Sky Crawlers).

There is also an unexpected convergence in the idea of a repressed, unreconciled history in La Question humaine that relates to the theme of obsession and doomed love in Jacques Rivette's Ne touchez pas le hache in its perverse games of mannered seduction, and the dysfunction of Arnaud Desplechin's A Christmas Tale in its allegorical themes of prodigal son and messianic redemption. In turn, another coincidence appears in the idea of "blood rejection" that runs through Desplechin's film as well as actor and filmmaker Jacques Nolot's stark portrayal of an aging, HIV positive hustler searching for connection and his legacy in Before I Forget.

The tenuous nature of intimacy also connects the characters of the remaining three films on this year's list: from Kiyoshi Kurosawa's upended take on Yasujiro Ozu's dissolution of family in Tokyo Sonata, to the ambiguity of desire that shapes a young man's romantic life in Christophe Honoré's Love Songs, to the manufacturing of logic-driven relationships in an age of fast paced, depersonalized technology in Jean-Marc Moutout's The Feelings Factory.

My Favorite Films of 2008 (in preferential order):

La Question humaine / Heartbeat Detector (Nicolas Klotz, 2007)
24 City (Jia Zhang-ke, 2008)
The Headless Woman (Lucrecia Martel, 2008)
A Christmas Tale (Arnaud Desplechin, 2008)
Ne touchez pas le hache / The Duchess of Langeais (Jacques Rivette, 2007)
Tokyo Sonata (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2008)
Love Songs (Christophe Honoré, 2007)
Before I Forget (Jacques Nolot, 2007)
The Feelings Factory (Jean-Marc Moutout, 2008)
The Sky Crawlers (Mamoru Oshii, 2008)

Honorable Mentions (in alphabetical order):

Behave (Maria Ramos, 2006)
New York Lantern (Ernie Gehr, 2007)
Night and Day (Hong Sang-soo, 2008)
Rated-R (Dunia Ayaso and Félix Sabroso, 2008)
Sarabande (Nathaniel Dorsky, 2008)


America Is Waiting (Bruce Connor, 1982)
Diary of a Yunbogi Boy (Nagisa Oshima, 1965)
Douro, Faina Fluvial (Manoel de Oliveira, 1931)
Eros Plus Massacre (Yoshishige Yoshida, 1969)
Less Dead Than the Others (Frans Buyens and Lydia Chagoll, 1992)
Numéro Zéro (Jean Eustache, 1971/2003)
Occident (Cristian Mungiu, 2002)
The Power of Emotion (Alexander Kluge, 1983)
Raft of the Medusa (Karpo Godina, 1980)
Children of the Wind and Seasons of Children (Hiroshi Shimizu, 1937 & 1939)

Related write-up at The Auteurs' Notebook.

Posted by acquarello on Dec 29, 2008 | | Comments (3) | Filed under 2008

December 17, 2008

Casual Day, 2007

casual_day.gifSomething like a neutered cross between Dan Pita's bituminous satire on dysfunctional leadership, Orienteering, and Nicolas Klotz's exposition on corporate moral conscience (and amnesia) La Question humaine, Max Lemcke's Casual Day is a serviceable, if slight and pedestrian take on the inherent fallacy of team building exercises that serve only to reinforce institutionalized power structures and exploitive relationships. The idea of imbalanced, manipulative, and essentially artificial competition is implied in a prefacing conversation at a café (subsequently revealed to be at a bus terminal) between an emotionally insecure (and seemingly unhinged) young woman named Inés (Marta Etura) and her considerate friend, Marta (Estíbaliz Gabilondo) on her nagging suspicions over her new boyfriend, Ruy's (Javier Ríos) fidelity, comparing his romantic moves during his earlier flirtation with Marta over summer vacation to divine his level of commitment to their relationship. Boarding a charter bus for an overnight team building retreat in the country dubbed as "casual day" where neckties are shed by management and employees alike in a symbolic dismantling of the wall between them (or rather, the floor, given the company's hierarchical office building layout), the newly hired Ruy is visibly uncomfortable throughout the trip, dressed out of place in a suit and tie, and repeatedly approached by the company president - and Inés's father - José Antonio (Juan Diego) who offers periodic words of encouragement, not so subtly hinting that he is looking to groom him for a fast track management position on the presumption that he will marry his daughter. Meanwhile, the company psychologist (Alberto San Juan) has been reviewing questionnaires and believes he has spotted a weak link in one employee's candid responses, as well as an opportunity to put their training into practice by encouraging another employee to openly discuss a perceived slight with his supervisor, Cholo (Luis Tosar) over recognition for a successful project. Lacking the acerbic humor of Orienteering or integral passion of La Question humaine, Casual Day ultimately neither serves as a cautionary tale on personal integrity nor provides insight into the workings of soulless corporations, relying instead on well worn tropes to create an all-too-familiar glimpse of corrosive office politics.

Posted by acquarello on Dec 17, 2008 | | Filed under 2008, Spanish Cinema Now

December 16, 2008

Los Años Desnudos (The Naked Years: Rated-R), 2008

RatedR.gifThe liberalization of Spain in the aftermath of Franco's death provides the chaotic framework for Dunia Ayaso and Félix Sabroso caustic seriocomedy Rated-R, a deconstruction of the cine del destape (literally, "uncovered films") wave of risqué, low budget comedies that sought to push the envelope of social mores and dismantle taboos reinforced during Franco's repressive government (usually involving religion or sexuality) within the thinly veiled guise of creating film art. Shot from the perspective of three actresses discovered by a second-rate independent filmmaker and aspiring auteur named Manuel (Antonio de la Torre) - a struggling stage performer, Sandra (Candela Peña) who sees the advent of 'S-films' as a potential foot in the door towards a more legitimate career in the mainstream movie industry, a street savvy hustler, Lina (Goya Toledo) whose interest in the films lies in the easy money she earns using minimal skills to turn out interchangeable performances (often, not even memorizing her lines in favor of reciting random numbers, knowing that the dialogue will be dubbed anyway), and Eva (Mar Flores), a young woman who moved from the country in order to break free from an abusive home and start a new life in Madrid - Rated-R illustrates the ingrained patriarchal systems and cycles of exploitation that continue to exist beneath the euphoria of newfound freedom and self-expression. Reminiscent of Paul Thomas Anderson's Boogie Nights in its de-eroticized search for intimacy and connection and Pedro Almodóvar's All About My Mother in the idea of performance as a conduit for empowerment, the film is a provocative, if overripe portrait of a society at a moral crossroads, where liberation itself can be a form of repression in its naïvete and disorientation.

Posted by acquarello on Dec 16, 2008 | | Filed under 2008, Spanish Cinema Now

December 15, 2008

The Sixth Sense, 1929

sixth_sense.gifOn the surface, Filmoteca Española's classification of Nemesio M. Sobrevila and Eusebio Fernández Ardavĺn's romantic comedy The Sixth Sense as an avant-garde film seems like a tenuous designation, loosely supported by an episode in which abstract forms and flicker images momentarily appear in the cueing of a film reel. But The Sixth Sense also functions as a metafilm, a self-contained reality conjured by Professor Kamus (Ricardo Baroja) who, as the film begins, has just discovered a "sixth sense" in the camera's all seeing eye that enables him to see the objective truth. This everyday truth is reflected in the affection displayed by the gregarious Carlos (Enrique Durán) and his chorus girl fiancée Carmen (Antonia Fernández) during a picnic in the country with his perennially morose friend Léon (Eusebio Fernández Ardavín), and Léon's demure girlfriend Luisa (Gertrudis Pajares). In an attempt to change his friend's sullen disposition, Carlos persuades Léon to pay a visit to Kamus whose film therapy sessions have successfully liberated patients from their own repressed states - an experimental treatment that has proven effective for Kamus's own fanciful young assistant (Felipe Pérez) against his domineering mother. However, when Léon catches a glimpse of Carmen in a seemingly compromising position during dance hall rehearsals, the footage only serves to sow further doubt in his mind on the possibility of finding peace of mind, and threatens to derail his friend's happiness as well. While the inclusion of abstract elements found in avant-garde films do reinforce Sobrevila and Ardavĺn's penchant for unconventional imagery, the underlying nature of their experimentation is perhaps more accurately exemplified by the film's prescient themes of surveillance and subjective reality that prefigure Harun Farocki's cinema - exploring the nature of the film image and the camera as apparatus for the human eye in its disjunction between cognition and recognition, reality and truth.

Posted by acquarello on Dec 15, 2008 | | Filed under 2008, Spanish Cinema Now

The Sky Crawlers, 2008

sky_crawlers.gifDuring the videotaped introduction to the film, Mamoru Oshii commented that the societies of highly developed economies have fostered a certain state of arrested development where young people, accustomed to privilege, find little motivation to move on from their current situation. This sense of stasis, cultural amnesia, and immediacy also pervades the consciousness of the genetically engineered, perennially adolescent Kildren fighter pilots of Oshii's The Sky Crawlers. Based on the serial novel by Hiroshi Mori, the film is a brooding and densely philosophical exposition into the nature of love, war, memory, aging, and identity. The idea of eternal struggle is suggested in the opening dogfight between obscured, faceless (and apparently polyglot) combatants that plays out over an unfamiliar landscape, and carries through to the image of Kannami (Ryo Kase) descending from the sky in an undamaged plane after the aerial encounter. Transferred to another base in order to replace a pilot who had died under murky circumstances, Kannami immediately finds himself drawn to the squadron's enigmatic base commander, Kusanagi (Rinko Kikuchi), fueled in part by her own inscrutable history (one that includes a school-aged daughter who is nearing adolescence) and rumors of her affair with Kannami's predecessor. Settling into a familiar ritual of interminable dogfights, diner meals, trips to brothels, and company-sponsored public relations tours, Kannami is fascinated by the stories of an almost mythic arch rival with a characteristic black panther marking near the tail of his plane whose encounter leads to certain death, an idea that grows even more intriguing when Kusanagi reveals that their nemesis was once a squadron trainer known as the "Teacher" who turned his allegiance - and eternal youth - to became an adult pilot for the competing agency. As in Anne Fontaine's psychological drama How I Killed My Father, the metaphoric killing of the father in The Sky Crawlers also represents a passage into maturity, where identity and self-determination are formed by moving away from the shadows cast by one's predecessors. Concluding with the shot of Kusanagi's daughter searching the empty skies before walking away, the image becomes a paradoxical continuity of memory and its systematic erasure.

Posted by acquarello on Dec 15, 2008 | | Comments (2) | Filed under 2008, Mamoru Oshii

December 6, 2008

The Way You Wanted Me, 1944

way_wanted.gifIn a pivotal encounter in Teuvo Tulio's Song of the Scarlet Flower, a lovesick Olavi seeks solace in a brothel and instead finds himself confronting past transgressions when his abandoned lover Elli, now working as a prostitute, challenges him to follow through on his empty promises of marriage by arguing that, in her provocative dress and easy virtue, she embodies his ideal woman. Her mocking, desperate plea is similarly echoed by the star-crossed heroine of Tulio's subsequent film, The Way You Wanted Me. Like Kenji Mizoguchi's Life of Oharu, the film also incorporates an extended flashback to chronicle a fallen woman's plight in her delusive search for love and acceptance. And like Mizoguchi's film, The Way You Wanted Me opens to a scene of identification - in this case, the fallen woman, Maija (Marie-Louise Fock) emerges from the shadows of a dockyard into the harsh light of her humiliated station. Once a naïve, love-struck girl forsaken by her lover, Aarne (Ture Ara) in a moment of weakness, Maija would leave the insular island to work as a housemaid in the city, only to be seduced by her employer's son Erkki (Kunto Karapää), then forced to leave the household in order to avoid the scandal of a pregnancy. With few prospects for a decent job, Maija is reduced to working as a bar hostess to make ends meet, ever fending off the advances of disreputable clients, even as she continues to hold out hope for an enduring love that will redeem her from her fate. Curiously, inasmuch as Mizoguchi's film converges towards a spiritual transcendence in Oharu's retreat to monastic life, Tulio's film is imbued with a certain level of quasi-spirituality, where a cherished cross represents both existential burden and eternal love, and salvation lies in the symbolic act of communion. Within this framework, Maija's character hews closer to the titular heroine in Carl-Theodor Dreyer's Gertrud than Oharu in its sense of intractable, self-inflicted tragedy, where the idealization of the token gestures become the intranscendable barrier to the realization of love itself.

Posted by acquarello on Dec 06, 2008 | | Filed under 2008, Teuvo Tulio

Song of the Scarlet Flower, 1938

scarletflower.gifThe recurring imagery of turbulent waters in Teuvo Tulio's films reflect a kinship with early Norwegian (and more broadly, Scandinavian) cinema in the use of rugged landscape as a metaphor for the paradoxical nature of the human condition. In Tulio's Song of the Scarlet Flower, a daredevil log ride through the swift currents of a river becomes a metaphoric crossing of the Rubicon for handsome and rakish drifter, Olavi (Kaarlo Oksanen). The brash, coddled son of a well-to-do landowner, Olavi's youth had been spent sowing, then promptly abandoning his proverbial wild oats throughout the countryside: from his first love, Annikki (Mirjam Kuosmanen) who is quickly cast aside when she rejects his sexual advances, to a girl at the fair, Elli (Nora Mäkinen) who, too, is spurned when his parents disapprove of his half-hearted intention to marry her (after being caught together in the servants' quarters), to a dark haired peasant girl (Birgit Nuotio) who is left behind when the lumberjacks leave the village at end of the logging season, to the fair haired Pihlajanterttu (Maire Ranius) whose seduction is vulgarly punctuated with his pre-emptive declaration that she surrender her love to only one other man - her chosen husband - after him. However, the tables are soon turned when the disinherited Olavi, now working as an itinerant lumberjack, falls for the daughter of a prosperous farmer, Kyllikki (Rakel Linnanheimo) against the wishes of her father, and is forced to prove his mettle in order to win her love and, in the process, confront the real and imagined ghosts of his disreputable past. Representing his earliest extant film, Song of the Scarlet Flower reveals Tulio's penchant for kitschy melodrama that converges towards Kenji Mizoguchi's preoccupations in its healthy (albeit heavy handed) dose of social criticism and empowerment. Like Mizoguchi, the marginalized role of women in society also becomes a recurring theme in Tulio's cinema, and in Song of the Scarlet Flower, the glaring dichotomy between the fates of the "fallen" women of Olavi's past and his own redemption serves to reinforce the disparity. It is interesting to note that Olavi's final encounter with his former lovers is marked by Annikki's unexpected visit to his new home as he awaits the birth of his child: in a way, coming to a figurative full circle that reflects an illusive return to innocence.

Posted by acquarello on Dec 06, 2008 | | Filed under 2008, Teuvo Tulio

November 24, 2008

Fiction, 2006

fiction.gifIn an early episode in Cesc Gay's thoughtful and slow brewing film, Fiction, married, thirty-something, Barcelona-based filmmaker, Alex (Eduard Fernández), having retreated to the cabin of his globetrotting friend, Santi (Javier Cámara) in the scenic country in order to work on the screenplay for his next film, watches a video from Santi's recent cowboy adventure with dinner companions, Sílvia (Àgata Roca) and Monica (Montse Germán). In a way, the image of a calf's birth in the video also foreshadows the figurative birth of Alex and Monica's romantic awakening. Trying to work out his writer's block by immersing himself in Santi's idyllic environment (and perhaps, tapping into his bohemian impulses second-hand), Alex soon realizes that even his usually carefree friend has been re-evaluating his own aimless life in the face of mortality, prompted by Sílvia's recent health scare. Unable to find motivation in his self-imposed exile to finish his work, Alex decides to return home early, and agrees to join Santi and the others on a final camping trip to the Pyrenees in a show of solidarity for their ailing friend before heading back to the city. However, when Alex and Monica become hopelessly lost after hiking on the wrong mountain on their way back to the base of the trail, the two find themselves drawn even further together by their shared misadventure. Something of a cross between Alain Tanner's Jonah Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000 and Wong Kar-wai's In the Mood for Love, Fiction weaves through the uneasy terrain of idealism and desire in its understated portrait of connection and missed opportunity. Similar to the unmotivated, 39 year old protagonist of his latest film, Alex, too, faces a daunting blank page, vacillating between the commercial demands of his profession and integrity of his creative vision, youthful liberation and middle-aged inhibition. Closing to the shot of the unrequited lovers parting to their separate ways on the side of a mountain, the image reflects both the intranscendable distance of their mutual separation and the unresolved nature of their intimacy. And like his unfinished script, their brief encounter, too, remains an unwritten fiction charged with imagined possibility and resigned regret.

Fiction screens on 12/22 at 2:00 p.m. and 12/23 at 8:15 p.m. as part of Spanish Cinema Now.

Posted by acquarello on Nov 24, 2008 | | Filed under 2008, Spanish Cinema Now

Pudor, 2007

pudor.gifBased on the novel by Peruvian author Santiago Roncagliolo, David Ulloa and Tristán Ulloa's Pudor, is prefaced with a tongue-in-cheek anecdote on the etymology of the eponymous title. Derived from the Latin word pudoris for honesty, modesty and reserve, a slight variation in spelling to putoris alters its definition to a stench. The idea that a subtle shift in text can drastically alter connotation and lead to new, unintended meanings also shapes the fragile relationships with family, lovers, and friends in the film as well. This fragility is foreshadowed in the opening sequence of young Sergio (Marcos Ruiz) waiting in the geriatric wing of a hospital for what would turn out to be his grandmother's death watch. Left unattended by his older sister (who dismisses him for being adopted), Sergio sneaks into his grandmother's hospital room, fiddles with the controls of her life support equipment, and unwittingly hastens her death. Seemingly abandoned by his sister, mother, and now his grandmother at the hospital, Sergio finds communion in the company of ghosts. In a sense, Sergio's family has also become ghosts. His mother Julia (Elvira Minguez), overwhelmed with too many responsibilities in the absence of her distracted, workaholic husband, has retreated into her own private hell, perversely finding validation in erotic messages that have been left around her environment. His father Alfredo (Nancho Novo), unable to find the right moment to discuss his own health crisis with his family, begins to find a kindred spirit (or rather, an alter-ego) in his headstrong, outspoken secretary, Gloria (Carolina Román). Sergio's older sister, Marisa (Natalia Rodriguez) is too consumed by her own struggles with body image and sexuality to provide guidance, resorting instead to telling nightmarish bedtime stories that only serve to further confuse his sense of reality. And even his newly widowed, elderly grandfather (Celso Bugallo) proves to be a fickle companion when he begins to wander the streets in search of an invalid woman. Similar to Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Tokyo Sonata, the nuclear family in Pudor is also on the verge of fission, where the ritual of family dinner serves to reinforce a hollow structure that has already crumbled under the weight of everyday distractions and personal insecurities. Ironically, as in Kurosawa's film, an accident also brings the family together towards a separate peace, where re-connection is found in a leap of faith and the naïve courage to confront one's own phantoms.

Pudor screens on 12/11 at 7:00 p.m. and 12/17 at 1:30 p.m. as part of Spanish Cinema Now.

Posted by acquarello on Nov 24, 2008 | | Filed under 2008, Spanish Cinema Now

November 2, 2008

Disintegration in Frames by Pavle Levi

disintegration_levi.gifPavle Levi's insightful and well-argued book, Disintegration in Frames: Aesthetics and Ideology in the Yugoslav and Post-Yugoslav Cinema examines the evolution of the national Yugoslav and regional post-Yugoslav cinema within its shifting political and cultural landscape - initially, in the context of individual expression under the repressive government of Josip Broz Tito, then subsequently, as a reflection of ideologically motivated historical revisionism that sought to reinforce the myth of deep seated ethnic conflict and selective representation as a means of defining national identity through the artificial creation - and consequently, justified persecution - of the other. Rather than a natural regression towards pre-existing ethnic factionalism and decentralization resulting from Tito's death in 1980, Levi proposes that the factionalism itself is the artificial construction (rather than the notion of a Yugoslav federation that was only bound together by Tito's strong arm leadership) - created as a means of cultivating regional autonomy, solidarity, and empowerment in the political vacuum of post-Tito Yugoslavia.

In the chapter, The Black Wave and Marxist Revisionism, Levi frames the emergence of the new Yugoslav film (also called the Black Wave) in the 1960s within the cultural context of rejecting the social realist aesthetic that characterized the country's postwar cinema. Integrally connected to the evolution of the Soviet cultural doctrine of Zhdanovism from the 1930s, this aesthetic rejection reflects the country's broader sentiment of striving to achieve greater autonomy from the Soviet Union. Represented by such diverse filmmakers as Dusan Makavejev, Bostjan Hladnik, Aleksandar Petrovic, Zivojin Pavlovic, Ante Babaja, Vatroslav Mimimca, Kokan Rakonjac, Krsto Papic, Matjaz Klopcic, Bato Cengic, and Zelimir Zelnik, the movement not only becomes a critical assessment of the nebulous, artificial nature of the "realism" embodied by these early partisan films, but also proposes, as Levi argues, the idea of subjective realism as a filmmaker's individualist expression against restrictive cultural policies (leading to an idiosyncratically subjective, "psychological" aesthetic that is embodied in Hladnik's Dance in the Rain and Klopcic's Paper Planes):

In no small measure, this critical dimension was, in fact, a quality generated out of a desire to assert the autonomy of the subjective truth and of the independent authorial vision (even if, as was often the case, the filmmaker chose to produce 'ambiguous images,' to speak in open metaphors'). It was born, inevitably as it were, out of that 'valuable characteristic of the new Yugoslav film,' recognized by film theorist Dusan Stojanovic, in the fact that 'on the philosophical, ideological, and stylistic planes, it [the New Fiilm] offers a possibility - which in practice it realizes on a daily basis - to replace one collective mythology with endless individual mythologies'.

Within this idea of subjective, independent authorship, Levi further examines the cult of personality inherent in Dusan Makavejev's third film, Innocence Unprotected. Reworking footage from the eponymously titled first Serbian "talkie" by strongman and acrobat Dragoljub Aleksic with documentary footage featuring Aleksic's daredevil stunts, Makajevev captures the illusive nature of representation that speaks directly to the mythology of proletariat hero, Tito.

With the 'Hymn to Aleksic', composed in the spirit of Yugoslav Partisan songs and repeatedly played throughout the film, the sense of the acrobat's bravura being mythologized in a manner reminiscent of the methods used by the Yugoslav socialist cultural establishment is given its final touch. As such, the film seems to ask, how can these acts still be experienced as liberating? How can they still symbolize unbound human freedom?

Levi examines the national uncertainty and inertia left in the wake of Tito's death in the chapter, Aesthetics of Nationalist Pleasure, citing Emir Kusturica's When Father Was Away on Business as a metaphor for a country figuratively sleepwalking (as embodied by the young boy Malik) in the absence of the father (who, in the film, has been sent a work camp after being denounced by relatives):

When Father Was Away on Business is ultimately an emotionally charged lesson on political maturation: on the necessity of Yugoslavs dismantling and leaving behind the myth of the omnipotent Tito (who, not unlike Mesa, widely enjoyed the status of a loving patriarch, of a powerful and at times strict protector, but not a tyrant).

Nevertheless, despite the apparent nationalist perspective of post-Tito Yugoslavia in When Father Was Away on Business, Levi argues that Kusturica's cinema evolved towards a more ethnocentric stance that culminated in Underground, creating a paradoxical elegy for the dissolution of a Yugoslav national identity even as it reinforces ethnic stereotypes and cultural division. To this end, Levi cites the inclusion of two distinct documentary footages, implicitly linked by the use of same German song accompaniment, "Lili Marlene": one capturing the terrible aftermath of German bombing in Belgrade, Serbia during World War II, the other showing Germans marching into Maribor, Slovenia and Zagreb, Croatia amid cheering crowds:

The 'message' embedded within this sequence could not possibly have been missed by 'domestic' audiences - whether in Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, or Bosnia. Its primary function is to cinematically empower the discourse on 'Serb victimhood' - one of the pillars of Serb nationalist resentment ever since the late 1980s - while discrediting other Yugoslav nations... For, in the context of the 1990s breakup of Yugoslavia along ethnic lines - in the immediate aftermath of the conflict in Croatia with the war in Bosnia still raging - Underground's documentary 'reminder' about the ordinary, everyday Croats greeting the Nazis could hardly be seen as having any other effect but that of suggesting, as Stanko Cerovic notes, 'a continuum of Croat fascism from World War Two to the present day' and, by extension, a continuum of the Serb national victimhood.

The idea of an indefinable enemy as an ethno-nationalistic justification for war has led to what Levi calls the abstract representation of "ethnic enemy as acousmetre" in post-Yugoslav cinema, an aesthetic that is reflected in Srdjan Dragojevic's Pretty Village, Pretty Flame through the metaphor of an abandoned tunnel once dubbed as the "Tunnel of Brotherhood and Unity" that Serb fighters find themselves trapped in - hearing (but never seeing) the voices of the enemy above them. To contrast Dragojevic's use of acousmetre while retaining an essentially ethno-nationalistic stance, Levi also considers its visually analogous role in the final sequence of Muhamed Hadzimehmedovic's Bosian television feature, After the Battle, where a sniper is unable to determine the ethnicity of his target, having earlier witnessed the Muslim fighter assemble a makeshift cross to mark the grave of his Serb companion (who had also deserted):

What the viewer witnesses in this scene is the alignment of the sniper's perspective - visually conveyed by means of the cinematic point of view structure - with the gaze of ethnic hatred directed at the 'other'. And, as the sniper's puzzlement with what he sees suggests, the object of his hatred is first of all a fantasized other - an idea, a notion mapped across the empirical reality, 'superimposed' over the actual individuals existing in it.

Posted by acquarello on Nov 02, 2008 | | Comments (7) | Filed under 2008, Film Related Reading

October 20, 2008

Serbis, 2008

serbis.gifSet in the overcrowded, noise-polluted, bustling city of Angeles, the former location of the U.S. military-operated Clark Air Force Base, the characters in Brillante Mendoza's kinetic and vertiginous Serbis are, in a sense, integrally connected to fortunes of the city's postwar history as an entertainment district for the nearby air base. Once owning a chain of movie houses, the proud, Pineda family matriarch, Nanay Flor (Gina Pareño) is now struggling to keep her last remaining movie house afloat by featuring all day, second-run adult films, aided by her daughter Nayda (Jaclyn Jose), her son-in-law, Lando (Julio Diaz) who runs a small cafeteria near the street entrance, and her nephews Ronald (Kristofer King), the projectionist, and Alan (Coco Martin), the building superintendent. But soon, it becomes apparent that the Pineda family is too distracted with the circumstances in their own lives to properly attend to the business of the failing theater. Consumed by a protracted trial that she had initiated against her husband for bigamy in the hopes that a guilty verdict would clear the way for a proper divorce and vindicate her name in society, Nanay Flor occupies her time with courthouse visits and meetings with her attorney. Faced with impending fatherhood, Alan is being pressured into marriage by his girlfriend, Merly (Mercedes Cabral). And even the dependable Nayda finds herself increasingly attracted to the introverted Ronald. Revolving around the titular theme of service - from the city's past history of entertaining locally stationed American servicemen (an idea that is reinforced in the appearance of biracial characters in the film), to the Pineda family's continued dedication to the movie house despite personal conflicts and petty jealousies, to young men hustling gay patrons in its dark aisles - Mendoza parallels the plight of the Pineda family with the dilapidated movie theater. Framed against recurring images of interconnected, labyrinthine stairs, the juxtaposition reflects the constant struggle between old world values and harsh economic reality, dignity and survival, culture and commercialism.

Posted by acquarello on Oct 20, 2008 | | Filed under 2008, New York Film Festival

October 19, 2008

Bullet in the Head, 2008

bullet_head.gifIn a way, Bullet in the Head continues to push the level of alienation created in Jaime Rosales's earlier films, The Hours of the Day (shot from the perspective of a serial killer) and Solitary Fragments (shot from the parallel perspectives of a terrorist attack survivor and members of an estranged family), this time, to maddening - and arguably dislocated - effect. During the Q&A for the film, Rosales indicated that he wanted to create a new film language in order to reflect the need for new ways of communication on the still unresolved, decades old Basque issue. In hindsight, Rosales's strategy seems woefully incongruous to his near wordless approach to the film. Ostensibly based on the real-life, deadly chance encounter between ETA members and unarmed Spanish police officers near the Franco-Spanish border, Rosales exclusively uses generic, ambient street sounds in lieu of conversations (with the exception of a brief, verbal exchange between the terrorists and the police officers on a cafeteria parking lot) effectively negates the idea of fostering dialogue on domestic terrorism, creating instead a murky and underformed correlation between silent witness and moral complicity.

Posted by acquarello on Oct 19, 2008 | | Filed under 2008, New York Film Festival

Tulpan, 2008

tulpan.gifSimilar to Kazakh filmmaker Serik Aprimov's perestroika comedy, The Last Stop, Sergey Dvortsevoy's Tulpan is also a chronicle of a young man's readjustment to a civilian life in the bucolic steppes after an adventure-filled military service that brought him to the far reaches of the former Soviet Republic. Longing for a nomadic life in the plains of the Hunger Steppe, Asa (Askat Kuchinchirekov) has traded in his life as a sailor (where he had sketched out his pastoral dream on the back of his uniform collar) to live with his sister Samal (Samal Eslyamova) and work as an apprentice for her husband, an experienced shepherd named Ondas (Ondasyn Besikasov), in exchange for receiving his own sheep to tend after he finds a wife to marry. To this end, Asa has his heart set on a young woman named Tulpan, and enlists Ondas and his best friend, truck driver Boni (Tulepbergen Baisakalov) to act as intermediaries for his introduction, trying to impress Tulpan's parents with stories of epic battles with a giant octopus and decorative (if not at all practical) gifts from his seafaring days. However, when Tulpan unexpectedly rejects his marriage proposal on a whim, and Ondas becomes reluctant to give him his own sheep after a rash of stillbirths in his already dwindling flock, Asa becomes even more determined to strike out on his own and pursue his elusive destiny. Dvortsevoy's idiosyncratic fusion of ethnographic documentary with understated comedy creates a lyrical realism that reflects the paradoxical beauty of the harsh, desolate landscape. As in Aprimov's seminal film, Dvortsevoy captures the human comedy intrinsic in the characters' defiance of their fates, finding quotidian grace in the simple act of survival and natural community.

Posted by acquarello on Oct 19, 2008 | | Filed under 2008, New York Film Festival

October 17, 2008

Let It Rain, 2008

let_rain.gifThe insidious nature of racism and marginalization that underpins the discourse in It's Hard Being Loved by Jerks also surfaces in Let It Rain, Agnès Jaoui's third (and lightest) ensemble collaboration with screenwriter and actor, Jean-Pierre Bacri. Having scheduled a visit to her childhood home in order to help her sister, Florence (Pascale Arbillot) sort out their late mother's affairs, career oriented, Agathe Villanova (Jaoui), agrees to participate in a documentary profiling successful women that is being co-directed by a family acquaintance, Karim (Jamel Debbouze) and his mentor, Michel Ronsard (Bacri) a respected, if past his prime filmmaker. But soon, the shooting of the film becomes secondary to the unraveling controlled chaos in their lives. The son of Florence and Agathe's housekeeper, Mimouna (Mimouna Hadji) who was brought to France as a teenager by their parents during Algeria's decolonization, Karim resents his mother's subservience to the Villanova family, continuing to live with them in an adjoining, rundown shack while having to take on additional jobs in order to compensate for their inability to pay her wages. Florence, bored by her life in the country and stifled by her husband's (Guillaume De Tonquedec) neediness, embarks on an affair with the equally neurotic and insecure Michel. Agathe, eyeing a run for public office, compromises her principles by moving to town in order to take advantage of a gender-based quota that will guarantee her spot in the electoral ballot. And even the reliable Karim, juggling a marriage, independent filmmaking, and a day job as a hotel manager (appropriately named Hôtel le Terminus), soon finds his life complicated by his friendship with an attractive co-worker, Aurélie (Florence Loiret-Caille). At the heart of Jaoui's humorous and insightful observation is the implicit, often subverted power struggles that exists in all relationships: entrenched racism and classism that reinforce archaic values of hierarchical, inherited privilege, favoritisms that engender arbitrary exclusion and victimization, and traditional gender roles that suppress identity by masking the appearance of weakness. Concluding with the sequential shot of the characters seeking refuge from the rain, the image becomes a figurative return to nature and rejection of the mask, finding community in the acknowledgment of their mutual vulnerability.

Posted by acquarello on Oct 17, 2008 | | Filed under 2008, New York Film Festival

October 16, 2008

It's Hard Being Loved by Jerks, 2008

jerks.gifThe murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh by an Islamic extremist in 2004, followed by the publishing of twelve satirical cartoons depicting the prophet Mohammed that was commissioned for the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, provides the incendiary framework for Daniel Leconte's provocative documentary, It's Hard Being Loved by Jerks. Chronicling the 2007 civil trial of the French weekly Charlie Hebdo and its editor Philippe Val for reprinting the now infamous Jyllands-Posten cartoons (along with an additional series of similarly themed cartoons) for the February 9, 2006 edition, the film is an incisive examination of the complex, often conflicting issues of free speech, self-censorship, secularism, and assimilation. On one side of the argument is the broad stroke, caricatured depiction of a minority community that not only tenuously associates the terrorist acts committed by a subculture of Islamic extremists with the wider, mainstream Muslim culture (who often bear the retaliatory brunt of these acts in society), but also resurrects the specter of colonialism in their continued treatment as marginalized, derided second-class French citizens: a sentiment that is reflected in prosecutor (and Jacques Chirac's counsel), Francis Spizner's terse comment, "We are no longer the Indigenes of the Republic!" On the other side is the idea that exercising political correctness by innoculating a specific religious community from being a target of satire is, itself, an act of racism: an implication of difference and self-consciousness that runs counter to the ideals of tolerance and inclusion (as Val's defense attorney, Richard Malka, humorously argues by displaying equally irreverent cartoons satirizing Catholic church controversies that were previously published in Charlie Hebdo, causing members of the prosecuting team to break out in laughter) and, more importantly, detracts from the real social problem of global terrorism. Interweaving footage shot during the course of the trial (or, more appropriately, the media circus surrounding it as people alternately vie for attention to promote their agendas, however tangential) and interviews with participants from the case (including prominent defense witnesses such as filmmaker Claude Lanzmann, philosopher Elisabeth Badinter, Iranian political refugee, Professor Mehdi Mozzafari, and exiled Algerian journalist, Mohamed Sifaoui), Leconte emulates the dialectic structure of a trial to convey a sense of social dialogue - contributing to an evolving public discourse that, like the blasphemous cartoons, paradoxically upholds the ideals of civilized society.

Posted by acquarello on Oct 16, 2008 | | Filed under 2008, New York Film Festival

October 15, 2008

Chouga, 2008

chouga.gifA transposition of Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina to the modern day city of Almaty, Darezhan Omirbaev's Chouga revisits the urban alienation of Killer to create a spare and charming, if diluted exposition on the role of fate, materialism, and moral bankruptcy in post-Soviet society. The idea of an economic-driven natural selection is foretold in an early episode in the film, as a shy film student from the steppes, Tiburon (played by Jasulan Asauov, the fragile boy in Omirbaev's earlier film, Kardiogramma), waits to present a small bouquet of flowers to Altynai (Ainour Sapargali) at a campus lounge, only to be upstaged by the appearance of the self-confident Ablai (Aidos Sagatov) bearing an ever larger bouquet in tow to present for her birthday, before whisking her away to a party in his sports car. Meanwhile, Altynai's father, now seemingly assured of his daughter's impending engagement to the wealthy Ablai, turns his attention to his unraveling domestic life, inviting his younger sister Chouga (Alnur Turgambayeva), the wife of an influential politician, for a visit from the capital city of Astana in the hopes that she will help to patch things over with his wife after a martial indiscretion. However, Chouga's appearance in their lives soon proves to be disruptive, dislodging Altynai as the newfound object of Ablai's fickle affection, succumbing to their mutual attraction, and with it, an aimless life of separation and exile from her family. Omirbaev's distilled aesthetic - oneiric sequences that equally allude to internal conflict and creative impulse, disembodied framing of hands and feet that evoke Robert Bresson's cinema, and elliptical, de-dramatized action - proves especially suited in reflecting the sterility of the city's cultural transformation through the image of lavish, but idiosyncratically forbidding spaces represented by the cosmopolitan world of opera houses and luxury passenger trains (in one insightful shot, the apparent sameness of Ablai and Chouga's residence is differentiated only by the sight of the Eiffel Tower in the background). Juxtaposed against Tiburon's recurring idyllic dream, the image suggests a figurative return to nature, and implicitly, to an essential identity.

Posted by acquarello on Oct 15, 2008 | | Filed under 2008, New York Film Festival

October 13, 2008

A Christmas Tale, 2008

tale_christmas.gifReturning to the recurring themes of parental alienation and surrogacy of La Vie des morts, Playing "In the Company of Men", and Kings and Queen, A Christmas Tale is a quintessential Arnaud Desplechin film in its ingenious, heady collision of disparate, often contradictory, yet integrally interconnected forms. On one level is the intersection of savior and prodigal son that Henri (Mathieu Amalric) paradoxically embodies: once conceived by his parents Junon (Catherine Deneuve) and Abel (Jean-Paul Roussillon) as a potential - but ultimately incompatible - donor for their terminally ill eldest child, Joseph, and now a neurotic, financially unstable drifter returning home for Christmas after a five year separation, having invested in a failed theater to win the affection of his emotionally distant elder sister, Elizabeth (Anne Consigny) (and who, in turn, would settle the bankruptcy on his behalf with the provision that he is now banished from the family). Inherent in the idea of the messiah is also the theme of Jewish versus Catholic faith that runs through the film, both cultures ingrained with the assumption of guilt and responsibility that also represents Henri's inability to save his dying brother, and the commonality of ancestral origin and history that binds the religions together, not unlike the unintended legacy of rejection and rivalry that Joseph's death represents for the succeeding generations of the family (note the implication of sibling rivalry in Abel's name). Indeed, the ideal marriage between Sylvia (Chiara Mastroianni) and Ivan (Melvil Poupaud), Junon and Abel's youngest son, also becomes an unexpected source of re-evaluation when a cousin's devotion proves to be more than familial. Another is the idea of blood rejection, reflected both literally in the type of leukemia that would take Joseph's young life and the blood disorder that now afflicts Junon, and figuratively in Junon and Elizabeth's severity towards Henri. Similarly, this familial rejection also serves as a broader implication of the film's Roubaix setting, a city with a thriving community of colonial repatriates and people of North African descent, contextually alluding to the often unreconciled relationship and tenuous assimilation between French society and immigrants (and their descendents) from its former colonies. Bookended with images from Elizabeth's childhood puppet show, the film draws implicit association with the idea of human comedy as manipulated construction, theater of the absurd, and representation of sublimated desire.

Posted by acquarello on Oct 13, 2008 | | Filed under 2008, New York Film Festival

October 10, 2008

Tokyo Sonata, 2008

tokyo_sonata.gifAfter a retreat to the atmospheric and spectral Loft and Retribution that reinforce Kiyoshi Kurosawa's reputation as a horror filmmaker, Tokyo Sonata continues in the vein of his idiosyncratically personal (and arguably, more interesting), yet equally unsettling films that began with Bright Future. As the film begins, the family patriarch, middle-aged senior administrative manager, Ryuhei (Teruyuki Kagawa) has been notified that the company has outsourced his job to China (where his salary would pay for three language-fluent office workers) and, without portable skills that could be applied to another department, will be immediately laid off from work. Reluctant to tell his family for fear of undermining his authority, Ryuhei continues the pretext of leaving for work with his briefcase each morning, spending his days alternately lining up at a job placement office and a charity lunch service on the park. Meanwhile, his stay-at-home wife, Megumi (Kyoko Koizumi), has begun to feel trapped in her unappreciated role of keeping the household together, her newly obtained driver's license symbolizing her liberated, if guilty step away from the familiar routines of domestic life (a search for identity implied by her intended use of the license as a form of identification). Their university-aged son, Takashi (Yu Koyanagi) is similarly adrift in his part-time job distributing flyers on the streets, and sees a provision for foreigners enlisting in the U.S. military as a means of asserting his independence. Younger son, Kenji (Kai Inowaki), having been caught passing a manga book in the classroom, stages his own minor rebellion: exposing the teacher's own penchant for reading erotic themed manga on the train, and subsequently, taking piano lessons against his father's objection. Inspired by the four-movement structure of a sonata, Tokyo Sonata is a humorous and incisive modernist (and globalist) evocation of the shomin-geki salaryman picture popularized by Yasujiro Ozu, chronicling the increasingly divergent lives of the Sasaki family who, like the families in Ozu's cinema are on the verge of disintegration. However, while both filmmakers reflect the inevitability of this dissolution, Kurosawa paradoxically sees the rupture as a necessary trauma towards rebuilding - a sense of renewal that is reflected in the parting image of the family leaving the stage, figuratively stepping away from the performance to forge their own path in the uncertain darkness.

Posted by acquarello on Oct 10, 2008 | | Comments (2) | Filed under 2008, New York Film Festival

The Headless Woman, 2008

headless.gifIn retrospect, the swooning, haunted enigma of Lucrecia Martel's The Headless Woman is revealed in the metaphoric image of a landscaper digging around in frustration along the perimeter of a garden bed, trying to make room for ornamental trees that the owner, Verónica (María Onetto) had purchased during a recent trip to the nursery. The backyard had once been the site of a water structure (perhaps a pool or fountain) that had since been buried, and the ground is no longer suitable for planting, salvageable only by creating the appearance of planted trees by placing them in large earthen pots along the periphery, to be hidden behind more ornamental shrubs. Like the hidden, seemingly trivial abandoned garden object, a concealment also subtly - but palpably - alters the surface of the landscape in The Headless Woman. Hurrying to a rendezvous with her lover (and family friend), Juan Manuel (Daniel Genoud) in another town, a distracted Verónica, reaching for her cell phone, collides with something on the road - the outline of a dog's carcass visible on the far edge of the frame - and continues on for a few yards before stopping to compose herself and driving away. But as Verónica returns to the familiar rituals of her daily life - a busy dental practice, a never-ending landscaping project, a supportive, but equally distracted husband named Marcos (César Bordón), a sickly, coddled daughter - the fissures in her empty, privileged existence of cultivated gardens and choreographed white lies begin to surface, manifesting in her increasing apprehension that she has accidentally killed somebody on that desolate road. Martel further hones the visual economy and organic (yet meticulously structured), fractal narrative of her earlier films to create an Antonioniesque portrait of ennui and bourgeois dysfunction (in one insightful sequence, the housekeeper offers to dress a game animal that had been shot by Marcos during a recent hunt, repeating the idea of killing and interceded cleaning). Moreover, Martel's recurring themes of classism and privilege are elegantly brought to the forefront in The Headless Woman, reflected explicitly in the disposability of a potter's missing errand boy (who becomes immediately replaceable when his younger brother takes over his job), and implicitly in an impoverished town's profound disconnection from the nearby, more affluent city (in one episode, Verónica ventures into the missing boy's neighborhood and the residents are unable to provide directions on how to get out of the slums, illustrating the social - and institutional - reality of their inability to escape their poverty and marginalization).

Posted by acquarello on Oct 10, 2008 | | Filed under 2008, New York Film Festival

October 9, 2008

Four Nights with Anna, 2008

fournights.gifRecalling Krzysztof Kieslowski's A Short Film About Love and Patrice Laconte's Monsieur Hire in its dark, brooding tale of voyeurism, unrequited obsession, and ache of desire, Jerzy Skolimowski's Four Nights with Anna may be seen as a modern day evolution of the cinema of moral concern, where the traumas (and transgressions) of history are intertwined within the moral fabric of contemporary life. Composed of temporally ambiguous, interweaving episodes from past and present (or perhaps, future), the film is shot from the perspective of Leon Okrasa (Artur Steranko), an attendant who works in the dank, grimy crematorium of the local hospital, alternately spending his time struggling to retain his employment after a patient accuses him of theft, caring for his ailing, elderly grandmother (Barbara Kołodziejska) (often crushing medication into a more palatable form in order to help her sleep), and watching a nurse, Anna (Kinga Preis) through the window of her room in the nurses' dormitory. But the object of his desire would still prove to be too distant, and soon, Okrasa begins to break into Anna's apartment at night through an opening in the window to be closer to her, washing her dishes, sewing loose buttons, covering her with a blanket, and leaving tokens of affection for her, embarking on a familiar, if disturbing routine to fill the void in his life. Skolimowski shoots primarily in cold tones, contrasting palettes, and darkness that reflect the myopia and moral ambiguity that underlies Okrasa's obsession. Using a fragmented, asequential structure that reflects the characters' fractured lives, Skolimowski illustrates the impossibility of reconciliation and closure in the wake of unreconciled trauma and complicit silence.

Posted by acquarello on Oct 09, 2008 | | Filed under 2008, New York Film Festival

October 8, 2008

Night and Day, 2008

night_day.gifIn a way, Night and Day continues the narrative bifurcation of Hong San-soo's earlier work while converging towards Luis Buñuel's late period films in conflating reality with sublimated desire. A married, middle-aged painter, Sun-nam (Kim Youngho), having impulsively run off to Paris in order to avoid a confrontation with police following a pot smoking incident, lands at a flop house run by Korean expatriate, Mr. Jang (Kee Joobong) who arranges to introduce him to École des Beaux Arts student, Hyunju (Seo Minjeong) and her roommate, Yu-geong (Park Eunhye). Disoriented by the unfamiliarity of a new city and lacking the motivation (and wherewithal) to reignite his foundering art, Sun-nam fritters his time away wandering the streets, running into a former girlfriend, Ming-sun (Kim Youjin) who tries to re-connect with him by bringing up episodes from their past. Seemingly bound by a sense of newfound morality culled from a Bible that he has begun to read and carries around town in a plastic bag, Sun-nam strives to remain faithful to his distant wife, but soon finds his faith waning, falling under the spell of the city. While evoking the perceptiveness of an Eric Rohmer comedy, Night and Day also suggests a loose kinship with Chantal Akerman's identically titled (and, not coincidentally, most Rohmerian) film, creating an interchangeable pattern of nights and days as a metaphor for dislocation, romantic uncertainty, and malleable identity: an ambiguity that is perhaps best reflected in Sun-nam's awkward encounters with a North Korean student, where the competition not only reflects a national consciousness over who is Korean, but is also a reminder of his glaring incongruity in a community of young people.

Posted by acquarello on Oct 08, 2008 | | Filed under 2008, New York Film Festival

October 7, 2008

Lola Montès, 1955

LolaMontes.gifThe tawdry, carnivalesque atmosphere of the traveling Mammoth Circus provides the ideal framework for Max Ophüls's resplendent Lola Montès, serving as both a pungent deconstruction of the cult of celebrity and a demystification of an elusive woman. Revisiting scandalous episodes from her life through a series of kitschy, seemingly incongruous reenactments involving constructed stage props, facile acrobatics, tableaux vivantes, and clown routines, former dancer and tabloid personality Lola Montès (Martine Carol) alternates between past and present, reality and myth, reconstructed memory and fictionalized performance, prompted at each salacious biographical juncture by a brash and goading ringmaster (Peter Ustinov). The flashback to the mutual end of a love affair with Hungarian composer Franz Liszt (Will Quadflieg) illustrates a fickleness and vanity that would lead to her numerous failed relationships with distinguished men (pragmatically towing along, on each rendezvous, her own coachman and personal attendant in order to retain a method of transportation after the inevitable break-up). Her return to England following her father's death in India, escorted by her mother (Lise Delamare) and her mother's young lover, Lieutenant James (Ivan Desny) exposes a reckless streak, leading to an impulsive, failed marriage to the volatile James (although ironically described by the ringmaster as a happy one) in an attempt to escape her mother's efforts to marry her off to a wealthy, much older man. Her early career as a chorus girl suggests a mediocrity for dancing that is compensated by a talent for courting attention, culminating in a scandal on the Riviera when she publicly upbraids her lover - the orchestra conductor - after discovering that he was married. A doomed affair with Bavarian king and arts patron, Ludwig I (Anton Walbrook), reveals an unexpected generosity and uncompromising, idealized romanticism. Creating an intrinsically bifurcated gaze by juxtaposing sumptuous images within a gaudy staging, Ophüls poses the question of audience complicity in cultivating the public appetite for celebrity, a moral ambiguity that is reflected in the shattering, parting shot of patrons queuing for a chance to kiss Montès's hand between the bars of a cage - collapsing the illusion of separation between reality and spectacle.

Posted by acquarello on Oct 07, 2008 | | Filed under 2008, New York Film Festival

Views from the Avant-Garde: Short Notes (2008)

novel_city.gifNovel City, 2008 (Leslie Thornton) - While Leslie Thornton's 1983 film Adynata posed questions of exoticism and alterity in its cultural examination of China, Novel City represents a different, yet equally jarring notion of otherness - one borne of China's rapid industrialization, economic transformation, and cultural amnesia at the turn of the century. Interweaving excerpts from Adynata with modern day shots of China from Jin Jiang Hotel - the site of Mao Zedong and Richard Nizon's meeting in 1987 - Thornton creates a sense of alienation and displacement through the paradoxical sameness of mimicking, familiar images: ubiquitous Jumbotron advertisements, a Chinese opera singer dressed in a Western tailored suit, a promotional photograph of Barack Obama.

Horizontal Boundaries, 2008 (Pat O'Neill) - Composed of overlapping and bisected frames to create composite, dynamic, often accelerated images of California landscape, the film suggests convergence with Michael Snow's WVLNT, creating an oppositional visual image that is equally natural in its presentation of nature and unnatural in its superposition of disparate landscapes, where the idea of a permanent, static landscape is subverted by diurnal movement and human interaction.

Posted by acquarello on Oct 07, 2008 | | Filed under 2008, Views from the Avant-Garde

America Is Waiting, 1982

america_waiting.gifAssembled from found film culled from propaganda reels, public service announcements, and movie westerns and set against a percussive, industrial soundtrack by David Byrne and Brian Eno, Bruce Connor's America Is Waiting is a terse, but potent statement on the Reagan-era reactionary culture of moral righteousness, military aggression, and Cold War paranoia. Juxtaposing images depicting circa 1950 Americana that exemplify idealized notions of innocence, benevolence, rugged individualism, and glorified violence that define the national psyche - a child playing with a realistic toy rocket launcher, and identification with a hero riding a white horse who uses his gun to exact justice - Connor subverts the implicit morality of these conflated images in the closing shot of a lamb violent suckling in an open meadow: reflecting both society's role as naïve consumers and complicit perpetuators of cultural (and sociopolitical) dysfunction.

Posted by acquarello on Oct 07, 2008 | | Filed under 2008, Views from the Avant-Garde

New York Lantern, 2008

ny_lantern.gifOne of the highlights from the Views of the Avant-Garde program was veteran experimental filmmaker, Ernie Gehr's New York Lantern, a painterly, intuitive, and unexpectedly political three-part composition (as demarcated by three distinct musical scores) assembled from black and white and color tinted vintage photographs taken around New York City at the turn of the century. Opening to the interlacing images of livery drivers, women buying produce at a farmer's market, and laborers riding on a ferry, the first part culminates with a photograph of people looking out from a guard railed platform towards the island of Manhattan (perhaps immigrants on the passenger deck of a ship bound for Ellis Island) that underscores the embodied idea(l) of the city as a beacon for hope, inclusion, and opportunity. The second part reflects the city's vitality in its faster paced interlacing images that depict the population density of crowded residential apartments, bustling streets, forbidding high rise buildings, and omnipresent clock towers that reinforce a constant awareness of time, and consequently, its economic implications. The third part returns to the visual themes of the first part in its portrait of working class life, concluding with the repeated, indelible of image of immigrants looking out towards the city's downtown harbor - implicitly casting their longing gaze on the financial district and the future site of the World Trade Center - the haunting juxtaposition now suggests estrangement rather assimilation, separated by intranscendable waters of privilege, isolation, and exclusion.

Posted by acquarello on Oct 07, 2008 | | Filed under 2008, Views from the Avant-Garde

Nathaniel Dorsky: Winter and Sarabande (2008)

sarabande.gifBookending with representations of twilight - an opening shot of light transmitted through a foregrounding grating, and a closing shot of the sun setting below a line of trees - Nathaniel Dorsky's Winter and Sarabande convey forms of progression: a movement from dawn to dusk, shadow to light, grey tones to color, emptiness to space. Composed of quotidian images shot primarily through meshes, screens, structural occlusions, glass, and translucent objects, the films represent an indirect gaze, creating a rhythm in the absence of repetition through variations in shot length and image editing. While Winter suggests a more temporal progression in its evocation of seasons and a paradoxical juxtaposition of coldness and verdant growth (created by San Francisco's rainy, chilled winters), Sarabande represents an visual progression in its collage of found, implicitly disrupted (or causational) images: reflections on mirrored surfaces, cast shadows, light diffraction through obstructed or porous surfaces. Illustrating a penchant for natural geometries (a shot of brightly colored red objects create a kaleidoscope effect with its refracted image through prismatic glass before shifting to reveal a Christmas tree shop window display), mirroring patterns, and changes of state (a rupture is created by a static shot of leaves that is subsequently connected to the image of foliage shaking with the wind and laden by raindrops), Dorsky's films reinforce both the ephemeral and mediated nature of image-making, where the observer's gaze is neither passive nor sublimated, but exists in a constant tension between equally artificially constructed representations of reality - a friction that is encapsulated in Sarabande in the reflected shot of a child in a stroller from a glass door that foreshadows a collision between dual representative images when the reflection is broken by the mother opening the door, consequently changing the reflected angle until the recorded image is ruptured and supplanted by the appearance of "real" child through the threshold of (the camera frame's) visibility.

Posted by acquarello on Oct 07, 2008 | | Comments (2) | Filed under 2008, Views from the Avant-Garde

September 28, 2008

24 City, 2008

24city.gifIn its portrait of a culture on the verge of erasure with the advent of redevelopment and gentrification, Jia Zhang-ke's 24 City shares kinship with José Luis Guerín's En Construcción, reflecting the idea of a city built from the rubble of abandoned, forgotten histories. Interweaving first person and composite, fictional interviews with workers, friends, and children in Chengdu whose livelihood had revolved around the state-owned factories and who now face an uncertain future with the dismantling of the industrial complex built around Factory 420, a former top secret aircraft parts manufacturing plant that had been realigned for closure as the country transitions from planned to market economy, Jia returns to the themes of social disparity enabled by a dual economic system (most notably, in Unknown Pleasures) and the dissolution of the traditional family caused by shifting social policy (in particular, the displacement caused by job relocations designed to encourage industrial development in southwest China). In 24 City, the characters are paradoxically connected by a sense of estrangement and disconnection. A retired factory worker visits his ailing mentor and foreman only to retreat in silence, unable to sustain a conversation because of his mentor's declining physical and mental health. A middle-aged worker riding a bus remembers the hardships caused by mass layoffs in the state-run factories, and her tearful, once in a lifetime reunion with her grandparents in the country after moving to Chengdu for work, expressing her gratefulness for being able to bring her mother to live with her in the city for the final months of her life. A retired pensioner (played by actress Lu Liping) tells the story of losing her son during a forced evacuation of the high security industrial complex, and her unexpected role reversal from her nephews' benefactor during the height of Factory 420's production, to charity recipient after its closure. An unmarried, middle-aged woman nicknamed by coworkers as "Little Bird" for her resemblance to actress Joan Chen (collapsing the bounds between reality and fiction by having the actress play the character) recounts her reluctant decision to leave her family home in Shanghai because of overcrowded living conditions (also alluding to the era before the institution of the "one child" policy), and now feels equally isolated in Chengdu without the support of her surrogate family of coworkers. But perhaps the most direct correlation to En Construcción lies in the story of twenty-something fashion consultant, Su Na (Zhao Tao) who, like the young couple in Guerín's film, observe the construction of the luxury apartment building from a condemned vantage point, figuratively reflecting their status as outsiders within the revitalized city. In this sense, Jia illustrates the trauma of country's fundamental change in economic policy as a reflection of moral consciousness, where the ingrained frugality of finding utility in even the most worn down of archaic tools has been replaced by a myopic commerce of exploitation and disposability.

Posted by acquarello on Sep 28, 2008 | | Filed under 2008, New York Film Festival

August 9, 2008

Manoel de Oliveira by Randal Johnson

oliveira_johnson.gifIn Manoel de Oliveira, Randal Johnson's comprehensive and informative critical evaluation of the Portuguese filmmaker's body of work for the Contemporary Film Directors series, Johnson insightfully points out that the first 43 years of Oliveira's film career coincides with the repressive, right wing regime of António de Oliveira Salazar and Estado Novo, an era of severe censorship and authoritarian government that would lead Oliveira to complete only two feature films between 1931 and 1963. This cultural intersection provides the integral framework for deconstructing Oliveira's idiosyncratic and deeply personal cinema: an aesthetic that was equally forged by creative ideas on the essence of film form as it was by a humanist impulse and uncompromising moral - though not moralistic - stance. This convergence is illustrated from his earliest film, Douro, Faina Fluvial, a chronicle of life along the Douro River inspired by Walter Ruttman's experimental Berlin: Symphony of a Great City. Filmed during the transition between silent and sound, Douro, Faina Fluvial introduces the recurring themes of self-reflexivity and cinematic hybridity - the incorporation of fictional elements in a documentary - that continues to surface throughout Oliveira's cinema.

However, this idea of cinematic hybridity diverges from the now familiar improvisations that Jean Rouch would incorporate in his ethnographic documentaries (as well as Robert Flaherty and Johan van der Keuken) in that Oliveira emphasizes their resulting disjunction rather than their convergence - a consciousness of the artifice of performance and staging that is further developed in his subsequent film, Acto da Primavera where the staging of the Passion play in the provincial town of Curalha essentially becomes a twice-removed "reality" by having the townspeople reenacting their own performances to create what Johnson describes as a "re-presentation of a representation", occupying dual roles as participants in the documentary and actors in the filmed play (a hybridity between documentary and fiction that is also employed in Day of Despair, an evocation - and invocation - of Doomed Love author, Camilo Castelo Branco). Johnson further illustrates that this paradigm of dual representation is prefigured in the short documentary, The Painter and the City on the urban aquarelles of local Porto artist, António Cruz, suggesting that reality and truth are mutually exclusive entities, each defining its own relationship to the film image:

In this case, it is a matter of the relationship between pictorial and cinematic representation as, for example, the film cuts from a painting of an urban landscape to a filmic image of the same landscape or makes a painted train 'come alive' by cutting to a 'real' train coming out of a station. The truth is that they are both representations; what differs is the mode or mechanism of representation.

Moreover, the cross-cutting images of Christ's agony with the sound of jet fighters and images of the Vietnam conflict and apocalyptic mushroom clouds in Acto da Primavera also reinforces the elements of political allegory that weaves through Oliveira's cinema, from his first feature film, Aniki-Bóbó in its critical representation of authority that alludes to Salazar's authoritarian government, to Abraham's Valley in its dissolution of romantic myth set against an isolated, repressive society, to No or the Vain Glory of Command on the price exacted by colonialism and empire building.

Indeed, the disappearance of King Sebastian during a crusade in northern Africa is a subject that Oliveira continues to draw on as an allegory for contemporary history, both directly - in Sebastian's disappearance during the disastrous battle of Alcácer-Kebir in No or the Vain Glory of Command, and in The Fifth Empire on his quest for the "consummation of the Empire of Christ in earth" (under the influence of Jesuit priest António Vieira who, in turn, is the subject of Oliveira's Word and Utopia) - and also indirectly, such as A Talking Picture, where the history of 1578 Alcácer-Kebir exposes the continuing modern day tensions between the Christian and Muslim cultures that led to the tragedy of 9/11. In a sense, Oliveira's films reflect a national soul in its allusions to the mythologization of King Sebastian - embodying the beginning of the decline of an empire (Sebastian's disappearance effectively crippled a period of Portuguese exploration that had been ushered by Vasco da Gama and enabled Spain's domination), and the hope of a messianic figure who can restore its greatness.

The elusiveness of a consummated ideal also connects the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation funded The Past and the Present (ushering what writer Luís de Pina calls the second phase of Portuguese Cinema Novo), Benilde or the Virgin Mary, Doomed Love, and Francisca to form the seminal Tetralogy of Frustrated Love, both thematically, in their portraits of unrequited love set against deeply moralistic, repressive societies, and, as Johnson observes, aesthetically, in illustrating formal traits:

...that begin to articulate his concept of cinematic language: the use of sequence shots and tableaux vivants, a theatrical mise-en-scène, an economical use of camera movement, an emphasis on spoken language, a sustained exploration of the relationship between literature, theater, and the cinema, a certain literalness of adaptation, a specific mode of representation by his actors, and a high degree of self-reflexivity.

Johnson further proposes that the tales of unfulfilled love in Tetralogy of Frustrated Love are critically linked to Oliveira's subsequent expositions on history and empire in No or the Vain Glory of Command through Le Soulier de satin, which "represents the culmination of Oliveira's exploration of the relationship between film and theater" that began with Acto da Primavera.

In essence, these formal exercises reflect broader themes of time, memory, mortality, history, and legacy that not only reflect on the process of aging and passage (in films such as Voyage to the Beginning of the World, Porto of My Childhood and I'm Going Home), but also articulates the integral question on the human journey itself, a preoccupation that Oliveira poetically expresses during his appearance in Wim Wenders's Lisbon Story:

God exists. He created the universe... We want to imitate God and that's why there are artists. Artists want to re-create the world as if they were small gods. They constantly think and rethink about history, about life, about things that are happening in the world, or that we think happened because we believe that they did. After all, we believe in memory, because everything has happened ...but who can guarantee that what we imagine to have happened actually happened? Whom should we ask?

...The world according to this supposition is an illusion. The only true thing is memory, but memory is an invention... In the cinema, the camera can fix a moment, but that moment has already passed, and the image is a phantasm of that moment; we are no longer certain that the moment ever existed outside of the film. Or is the film a guarantee of the existence of the moment? I don't know. The more I think about it, the less I know. We live in permanent doubt. Nevertheless, our feet are on the ground, we eat, and we enjoy life.

Posted by acquarello on Aug 09, 2008 | | Comments (5) | Filed under 2008, Film Related Reading

July 24, 2008

Idle Running, 1999

running.gifWith its rough hewn sequences of temps morts, odd length cuts, idiosyncratic characters, and sedate humor, Janez Burger's debut feature, Idle Running unfolds like a Jim Jarmusch film, an upended road movie of sorts chronicling a young man's proverbial journey (albeit in baby steps) towards self-discovery. As the film begins, perpetual university student and resident slacker, Dizzy (Jan Cvitkovic), offers up his own homegrown philosophy on the merits of remaining within life's sidelines, resisting artificial motion that could only result in zero displacement. Having comfortably settled in his dorm room over the last ten years, Dizzy wakes up to the sight of his newly assigned roommate, Marko (Janez Rus), a bookish freshman from the country, and immediately bristles at having to adjust his appropriated space by clearing a shelf to accommodate Marko's belongings. But even as Dizzy continues to live in complete denial of his roommate's existence by hosting late night card games and drinking parties, Marko would begin to assert his presence, first subtly, by assembling a remote control for Dizzy's handed down television set, then overtly, by bringing his pregnant girlfriend, Ana (Mojca Fatur) to stay with them. With his relationship with his girlfriend Marina (Natasa Burger) already strained by his inability to make a commitment and take on responsibility - often borrowing money to take her out on a date - Marko and Ana's relationship provides him with an unexpected glimpse into the road not taken, and with it, the possibility of life beyond the campus. Like Jarmusch's Stranger than Paradise, Idle Running captures the intrinsic humor and pathos in the essential quest for a mundane ideal. Paralleling Dizzy's opening comments with a friend's closing anecdote of a recent saga involving the convoluted process of inflating what would turn out to be a miniature basketball, Burger creates a wry analogy for life as an interminable cycle of Sisyphean struggles that can only lead to wasted energy and deflated expectation.

Posted by acquarello on Jul 24, 2008 | | Filed under 2008, Slovenian Cinema

Beneath Her Window, 2003

window.gifAnother pleasant surprise from the Slovenian cinema series was Metod Pevec's lovely, slow brewing Beneath Her Window, a film vaguely reminiscent of Krzysztof Kieslowski's cinema (especially A Short Film About Love) in its interconnecting themes of obsession, missed connection, voyeurism, and chance, but played with the muted, idiosyncratic humor of a French romantic comedy. As in Kieslowski's films, the notion that subtle shifts in the alignment of fate lead to radically altered destinies also sets the tone for Beneath Her Window, an idea that is reinforced in the recurring episodes of Dusa (Polona Juh) ritualistically updating her astrological chart each morning and phoning her adviser to divine its meaning. Trained as a dancer, but making ends meet as a ballroom dance instructor, and stuck in a dead-end relationship with her married veterinarian, Boris (Robert Prebil), Dusa's life seems predictable even in its marginally controlled chaos. But Mars has now come into alignment, and change is bound to happen. Soon, her mother Vanda (Marijana Brecelj) breaks the news that her estranged father is returning home after abandoning the family on a spiritual quest to India, only to find out that officials have detained him, and now, only his pet king cobra will be released into their custody. Items have been disturbed inside the apartment - a clogged sink that now drains freely, a torn off ornament that has been reattached near the front door - reinforcing Dusa's suspicions that she is being stalked. Meanwhile, an amateur filmmaker named Jasha (Sasa Tabakovic) and his grandfather (Zlatko Sugman) have been working on an ornithological documentary on native birds, hoping to catch a sighting of a rare black moorhen believed to have made a nest with a white sparrow, unable to reproduce because of their speciological incompatibility, but immortalized in the romantic mythology of its enduring fidelity to its lost mate. In a sense, Dusa, too, is a lost sparrow, circling the wilderness, waiting to come home - a metaphor that is reflected in the juxtaposition of Jasha's blurred video footage of an apparent sighting of a moorhen in flight with the subsequent image of Dusa and Jasha walking back with his grandfather after the missed shot, the anxious, searching camera finally reaching its static equilibrium in the intimacy of their silent, passing glance.

Posted by acquarello on Jul 24, 2008 | | Filed under 2008, Slovenian Cinema

July 23, 2008

Paper Planes, 1967

paper_planes.gifDuring his introduction to the screening of Bostjan Hladnik's seminal film Dance in the Rain, Slovenian film scholar Joseph Valencic remarked that its modernist structure would serve as a blueprint for Slovenian filmmaking over the course of the next two decades, and this paradigm is clearly reflected in Matjaz Klopcic's inspired, yet maddeningly (and deliberately) opaque Paper Planes, a fractured tale of longing and modern love set against the vacuous, glossy, picture perfect world of commercial advertising. The disjunction between appearance and reality is foretold in the film's opening sequence, capturing the tense moments before an apparent assassination: a mysterious stranger intently pursuing a man and woman out for a leisurely stroll around town. The episode turns out to be a false construction, a commercial for a high-end tailoring company - the fateful encounter ending, not with a gunshot, but solicited advice on how to dress well. This sense of subverted expectation would also set the tone for the film, as the photographer, Marko (Polde Bibic), sorting through the outtakes of their location footage, spots a beautiful young woman, Vera (Snezana Niksic) looking into the store window, and immediately falls in love with her. Seeing her again by chance, first, at a restaurant, then subsequently, at an art museum, Marko is quick to seize the opportunity to come face to face with the object of his desire, an attraction that proves less than mutual when Vera politely rebuffs his advances. However, their story doesn't end with the rejection. The reality shifts, and in a subsequent episode, Marko and Vera have become inseparable, isolated from the rest of the world in a blanket of snow, seemingly absorbed in each other's identity. But is she only a figuration of his unrequited longing, a projection of his idealized image? Part Last Year at Marienbad styled permutations of reality, and part polemic on the vanity and exploitation of consumerism, Paper Planes is also a thoughtful exposition on the enigma of human desire. Using the artifice of the advertising industry as a metaphor for the creation (and realization) of desire, Paper Planes confronts the illusive nature of images, where intimacy is distilled to semblances of connection, and bliss is found in the delusion of flimsy, manufactured fairytales.

Posted by acquarello on Jul 23, 2008 | | Filed under 2008, Slovenian Cinema

Vesna, 1953

vesna.gifComposed as a lyrical comedy of errors, Frantisek Cáp's charming and whimsical Vesna chronicles the misadventures of handsome university student and glider pilot Samo (Franek Trefalt) and his mischievous friends Kristof (Jure Furlan) and Sandi (Janez Cuk) as they try to hatch a plan for passing their mathematics professor's (Stane Sever) final exam - that is, short of actually studying - by wooing his seemingly frumpy daughter. With their romantic and academic fates hinging on a coin toss, Samo's bad luck soon relegates him to the reluctant task of meeting "Vesna" (Metka Gabrijelcic) who, as it turns out, is an attractive young woman bearing little resemblance to the one his friends had spotted earlier with the professor. With his fortune now turned by a much welcomed case of mistaken identity, Samo and his friends quickly lose sight of their ulterior motive and are smitten by the lovely young woman, leaving Samo completely distracted from his studies with only days before the finals, and his friends scrambling to concoct their own schemes to win her heart. Representing only the sixth film to be made in Slovenia, Vesna would go on to become one of the country's most popular and beloved films of all time, widely regarded as capturing the essence of the Slovenian people in their gentility and easygoing manner, even during acts of mischief and adolescent rebellion. However, as Slovenian film scholar Joseph Valencic points out during the introduction for the film, the idea that the country's most quintessentially Slovenian film was actually directed by a Czech expatriate would also lead to its share of criticism, often painting the film as a nostalgic vision of Cáp's youth in Prague rather than an earnest attempt (albeit by an "outsider") to capture the spirit of the Slovenian people. In a way, Cáp's depiction is an idealization of youth itself, where romanticism and a sense of adventure converge to create a spirit of optimism and infinite possibility that, like the youthful idealism of Vesna, transcends all human borders.

Posted by acquarello on Jul 23, 2008 | | Filed under 2008, Slovenian Cinema

July 22, 2008

Valley of Peace, 1956

peace.gifOvertly influenced by René Clément's anti-war film Forbidden Games, France Stiglic's equally poignant and impassioned Valley of Peace captures the horrors of war as seen through the eyes of its most vulnerable victims - a young girl named Lotti (Evelyne Wohlfeiler) and a protective older boy, Marko (Tugo Stiglic). Taken into custody by German soldiers who are rounding up children orphaned by recent air raids for placement in foster homes, Lotti longs to go to the Valley of Peace that her late grandmother had often sung about, an idyllic place just beyond the trees and across a flowing river that remains untouched by war. Convinced that Lotti's description matched his uncle's farmhouse perfectly, Marko decides to run away with Lotti and, with little more than Lotti's doll in tow, make their way through the hinterlands where a buffer zone exists between the Germans who are still in the process of scouting the uncharted territory, and partisans who have fortified their positions along the foothills. Cornered by pursuing German soldiers, and frightened by the sight of low flying Allied planes on a reconnaissance mission, the children attempt to cross the river only to find themselves stranded in midstream by the deep waters, rescued by an American pilot, Jim who parachuted into safety after his plane was shot down (in a groundbreaking performance by African-American expatriate, John Kitzmiller who received the Award for Best Actor at the 1957 Cannes Film Festival). Determined to bring the children to the safety of the uncle's farm and seek assistance from the partisans hiding beyond the valley, Jim becomes a surrogate parent to the deeply traumatized children and, consequently, comes to embody all their pinned hopes for finding peace. As in Forbidden Games, Valley of Peace similarly wears its heart on its sleeve to create an unabashedly humanist moral tale on the folly of war and its toll on the innocent. Using the turning of the waterwheel as a metaphor for the children's return to normalcy, the image becomes one of inherent contradiction, signaling both a long-awaited homecoming and the impossibility of coming home.

Posted by acquarello on Jul 22, 2008 | | Comments (4) | Filed under 2008, Slovenian Cinema

Spare Parts, 2003

parts.gifLike Fyodor Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment, Damjan Kozole's Spare Parts is imbued with a metaphoric yellow haze, a contamination that has tainted the souls of those who move in the periphery of everyday inhumanity and despair. Opening with a seemingly mundane, bookending episode of a mentor meeting his assistant for the first time at a motocross racetrack, the dangerous, adrenaline-fueled setting serves as an appropriate backdrop for Rudi's (Aljosa Kovacic) initiation into the booming, risky enterprise of human trafficking, shuttling illegal immigrants from the Middle East, African subcontinent, and the "other" Europe across Slovenia and its border gateways into Italy and Austria at 1,000 euros per person. Riding alongside veteran trafficker, Ludvik (Peter Musevski), a somber widower who seems as equally resigned to the past as he is to imparting his knowledge on surviving the trade (and perhaps implicitly, its moral consequences), recounting fond memories of his glory days as a former motocross champion, as well as the logistics of transferring, camouflaging, and dropping off people at the border in a way that mitigates risk of detection for both parties. At times, the immigrants are detained soon after reaching the other side and are promptly returned to their native countries, only to try again when they have saved enough money for another trip. At other times, the travails of crossing into Europe is only a prelude to a more horrific journey, as these undocumented immigrants fall prey to other criminal enterprises and turned into prostitutes or reduced to organ harvested "spare parts". And still other times, they never reach the other side, succumbing to illness, accidental death, or simply unable to live with the guilt of the untold cost of their passage. Bracing in its unsentimentality and haunting in its implication, Spare Parts is a laudable addition to Slovenia's rich cultural history of social realist films. As in Crime and Punishment, Kozole reflects moral decay through the decay of the city - a man-made contamination of nature that is suggested in the opening image of a polluted, industrial landscape of nuclear power plants and billowing factories, and is also subsequently implied in the experimental, homemade elixir that Ludvik drinks to treat his cancer - a reflection of humanity's self-inflicted wound in the wake of rapidly transforming geopolitics and economic exploitation.

Posted by acquarello on Jul 22, 2008 | | Filed under 2008, Slovenian Cinema

Rooster's Breakfast, 2007

breakfast.gifDuring the introduction for the film, Marko Nabersnik mentioned that he had graduated from the New York Film Academy fourteen years earlier and, to some extent, the screening of his film in Lincoln Center was a culmination of that journey. In a way, that experience would also shape his well constructed, entertaining, and pleasant, if light and formulaic Rooster's Breakfast, a film that plays more within the realm of independent rather than indigenous cinema with its chronicle of life in a small town rife with eccentric characters, perennially drunken friends, a local mob boss, and a neighborhood sex bomb (who, not surprisingly, is the wife of aforementioned mob boss), and even includes a requisite love scene of the photogenic couple making... hay. The film is an amalgam of several interweaving stories surrounding a rural garage: the owner, a gregarious, aging mechanic, Gajas (Vlado Novak) who continues to indulge in his heyday (or is it, hay day?) stories as a lauded model worker who often saved the production day and got the girl, his young apprentice, Djuro (Primoz Bezjak), an orphan and recently laid-off junior mechanic who has traveled to the bucolic town to start a new life, low rent party entertainer, Roki (Davor Janjic) who introduces Gajas to the soulful music of Severina (in a cameo by Croatian pop star Severina Vuckovic), perennial customer and strip club owner, Lepec (Dario Varga) and his wife Bronja (Pia Zemljic) whose cars always seem to be in need of body repair, and a trio of layabouts including university professor and henpecked husband, Zobar (Matija Rozman) who converge in Gajas's repair shop after hours to play cards and drink their sorrows (and the night) away. Ever hovering between romantic comedy and thriller, the persistent tonal ambiguity impedes the film from reaching its figurative climax, even in the wake of a profoundly life-changing (if expected) denouement, making the sun-drenched, picture perfect ending seem all the more cynical and naïve.

Posted by acquarello on Jul 22, 2008 | | Comments (2) | Filed under 2008, Slovenian Cinema

July 21, 2008

Raft of the Medusa, 1980

medusa.gifOne of the highlights from the Slovenian Cinema program is Karpo Godina's insightful dark comedy, Raft of the Medusa, a film that captures the infectious energy, irreverence, and idealism of the assorted avant-garde isms that defined the art movements of the 1920s. Told from the perspective of a pair of rural teachers, Kristina (Olga Kacijan) and Ljiljana (Vladislava Milosavljevic) struggling to single-handedly run the school after the headmaster's extended absence, their thirst for adventure is foretold in the film's surreal opening sequence, as Ljiljana meets a nebulous character, later revealed to be her brother (Predrag Panic) at a hotel to take a series of erotic art photographs that will be used for the dual purpose of marketing business equipment and setting up discreet rendezvous with interested suitors. Visited by her brother's newfound friends from Belgrade, a band of traveling artists led by Micić (Boris Komnenic) who has set out to promote zenithism - his own homegrown movement that combines dadaist performance with Marxist agitation - Ljiljana is soon seduced by the call of Art and, together with her friend and colleague Kristina, decide to abandon the school and join Micić's call to cultural revolution. Delivering equal doses of vaudeville, performance art, burlesque, and propaganda to a bemused, but often captivated audience, the itinerant performers make their way through the newly formed, united "Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes", until rivalries, romantic entanglements, and political instability gradually take their toll. Evocatively titled after the grisly account of the shipwrecked French frigate Medusa whose survivors, floating on a raft, resorted to cannibalism and throwing the weak and the injured overboard as a means of conserving provisions, the film is also a potent deconstruction on the failure of the movement, where the ideal of art as a medium for provocation and social change is lost in the infighting, myopia, and self-absorption of its anointed messiahs. Concluding with the newsreel-like coda featuring blind schoolchildren - an aesthetic divergence from the formalism of the rest of the film - Godina not only reinforces his roots in documentary filmmaking, but also alludes to the discarded souls of the Medusa, recovered in the aftermath of tragedy and disillusionment, the dislocation of an inextinguishable fire.

Posted by acquarello on Jul 21, 2008 | | Filed under 2008, Slovenian Cinema

Dance in the Rain, 1961

dance_rain.gifConsidered to be among the best Slovenian films ever made (that, according to author and Slovenian film and culture scholar Joseph Valencic, often ranks first in national film polls), maverick filmmaker Bostjan Hladnik's dense and atmospheric Dance in the Rain finds greater kinship with the experimental narrative, fragmentation, and interiorization of Erik Lochen's The Hunt than with the advent of the French new wave (an association often cited for having worked as an assistant to Claude Chabrol), where anxieties and desires are revealed in the strangeness of projected mental landscapes. A portrait of a disintegrating relationship between the mercurial Peter (Miha Baloh) a struggling, indecisive painter, and his insecure older lover, a stage actress named Marusa (Dusa Pockaj), their increasing sense of desolation is reflected through a repeating series of familiar, yet increasingly alienating places of encounter: Peter's unkempt room at a derelict boarding house where neighbors often spy through unpatched holes in the door; the silhouette of an elusive woman from a window, a bar where Peter and Marusa meet for a drink, and where Marusa's devoted co-worker (Ali Raner) has starting visiting in an attempt to win over her affection, a restaurant where Peter shows his cruelty towards Marusa in order to drive her away. Hladnik's use of interweaving dream sequences and exaggerated sounds to convey heightened emotional states serve to increasingly blur the bounds between reality and fantasy, where patterns of recurrence reflect not only the inescapable truth that exists beneath the characters' strained conversations and consuming introspection, but also prescribes the corrosive cycle of their doomed love.

Posted by acquarello on Jul 21, 2008 | | Filed under 2008, Slovenian Cinema

June 26, 2008

Sari Soldiers, 2008

sari_soldiers.gifThe national unrest and confusion following the massacre of King Birendra and the Nepalese royal family by his son, Crown Prince Dipendra in 2001, and the subsequent dissolution of parliament by the ascended king, Gyanendra in response to an escalating Maoist insurgency, set the tone for Julie Bridgham's compelling and incisive portrait of a broad spectrum of women who collectively embody the country's cross-cultural struggle for peace, justice, freedom, representation, and accountability. In Kathmandu, a poor, uneducated, middle-aged woman from the province named Devi lives in self-imposed exile from her village after speaking out publicly against the rape and execution of her teenaged niece by royal army soldiers and, in the process, also becomes a victim when her daughter is taken away by soldiers in retaliation for her outspoken criticism. Having worked with representatives from international organizations such as human rights lawyer, Mandira to document the atrocities committed by the government in their campaign to root out Maoist insurgents from their strongholds in the countryside, Devi's traumatic experience only galvanizes her resolve in exposing the truth at all cost.

However, the face of the royal army is also changing in response to the Maoists' large number of women recruits, a transformation towards a more disciplined, regimented (and implicitly, more humane) one that Officer Rajani represents, as motivated equally by a desire for peace as she is to commemorating her brother who died fighting the decade-long insurgency. For a Maoist insurgent commander who assumed the pseudonym Kranti ("Revolution"), true humanity lies in dismantling the socially entrenched caste system, and the deep-rooted discrimination, arbitrary privilege, and oppression that it engenders. Nevertheless, despite the egalitarian values espoused by the Maoists, their ideological radicalism still proves to be a source of friction within the villages that they seek to convert, often using strong-arm tactics to recruit people into their campaign, and resorting to intimidation, brutality, and even assassinations against those who refuse to take up their cause. In one community, village elder and monarchist, Krishna defies the insurgents and stages her own rebellion to successfully drive away the Maoist agitators. In contrast, for nursing student turned activist Ram Kumari, the only way to move the country forward beyond the cycle of violence is by joining the daily, street level demonstrations organized by the pro-democracy movement. Interweaving the stories of these women into an intimate cultural mosaic of national struggle, Sari Soldiers is also an indelible image of national and personal transformation, the renewed hope of a figurative rebirth that Devi's husband eloquently expresses in their mutual grief: the idea that people are born twice, once when they enter the world, and again when they make a difference in it.

Posted by acquarello on Jun 26, 2008 | | Comments (1) | Filed under 2008, Human Rights Watch

China's Stolen Children, 2007

china_stolen.gifA thoughtful and remarkably comprehensive examination of modern day human trafficking, Jezza Neumann's China's Stolen Children opens to a portrait of Detective Zhu, an overworked, former police officer who left his post in order to dedicate his time trying to find some of the 70,000 children who are abducted each year. With a predominantly poor clientele from remote villages, and a dispiriting child recovery rate of one in 20, Zhu's caseload is equally overwhelming and heartbreaking. One of Zhu's clients is a young couple from Kunming, migrant worker Chen Lung and his wife Chen Li who, years earlier, hid from the authorities in the farm of Chen Li's mother to have their son, Chen Jie, unable to pay the fine for conceiving without a birth permit. Having only recently paid off their son's compounding birth penalty fee after five years, their lives seemed destined for better times until Chen Jie is kidnapped from a farmer's market while his grandmother sold vegetables nearby. Chen Jie's story proves to be an all too familiar one for Zhu, as young boys, usually between the ages of five and six years old (an age considered to be optimal for fetching the best prices on the black market, where the children would require less care and attention than an infant, but would not be old enough to remember their way home) are abducted from rural villages and transported to larger, affluent cities where they are registered by new families. The bureaucracy involved in applying for a birth permit (which requires a marriage certificate and which, in turn, enforces the marrying age at 20 for women and 22 for men) has also led to unmarried couples like Way Ling and her boyfriend into seeking the assistance of traffickers like Wang Li in order to help place their children into good homes. Having given birth to a daughter, Wang Li reassures them of the good potential for selling girls as well, a thriving market created by rampant gender selection that has left a shortage of marriage-aged women. With an eye towards their sons' future prospects, families have also begun investing in girls as a means of ensuring that their sons will have a wife when he is ready for marriage. At the core of Neumann's bracing and unforgettable documentary is an unprecedented - though perhaps, not unforeseen - social catastrophe caused by the confluence of China's "one child" birth control policy, its cultural preference for sons (who can provide for his parents in their old age, unlike a daughter who will marry and help care for her husband's parents), and rapid modernization that has led to deep socioeconomic division between rural areas and industrialized cities. Framed within the context of China's aggressive development, the harrowing stories of lost children and exploitation reflect a society disoriented by its dramatic transformation, precariously struggling between tradition and ideology, where humanity is reduced to a marketable commodity.

Posted by acquarello on Jun 26, 2008 | | Filed under 2008, Human Rights Watch

June 24, 2008

Project Kashmir, 2008

project_kashmir.gifThe specter of the Partition of Bengal in 1947 continues to haunt the modern day consciousness of a divided Kashmir in Senain Kheshgi and Geeta Patel's provocative and acutely observed Project Kashmir. Propelled by the idea of capturing the Kashmir conflict from a Hindu and Muslim perspective, Southeast Asian-American friends Kheshgi and Patel attempt to navigate the murky waters of occupation and a deeply factionalized insurgency - often fueled by extremists - that define the volatile dynamics of everyday life in Kashmir. Guided on their journey by a Muslim newspaper journalist, Muzamil Jaleel (who immediately cautions them against taking anyone's perspective as truth, including his own), his friend and colleague, Aarti Tikoo Singh, a displaced Pandit Hindu now living in Jammu, and human rights activist, Khurram Parvez, who lost his leg in a car bombing, the filmmakers witness first hand the incalculable toll of the corrosive 60 year war: the almost ritualistic, random detention of local villagers at a detention facility each morning to root out possible insurgents, the profound distrust not only between the majority Muslim population and the Indian military who administer the region, but also within the population itself, the ruins of a destroyed Hindu temple and abandoned Pandit village after the intimidation and forced expulsion of the Pandit minority a decade earlier from the Kashmiri Valley. But as the filmmakers begin to struggle with the human tendency to gravitate towards the familiarity of their own culture, Patel becomes increasingly conscious of her identity as an Indian and Hindu woman in a Muslim society, and Kheshgi, the daughter of parents who lived through the trauma of the Partition, finds kinship with the struggle to end the occupation. In hindsight, the filmmakers' unorthodox contact with an anonymous guide who offers his candid, protective advice solely by telephone provides an insightful glimpse into the necessary first steps towards breaking the impasse, a bridging of broken bonds through communication and gestures of humanity that is poignantly captured during Singh's emotional return to her decimated childhood home where she is eagerly invited to tea by a persistent villager, who responds to the question of his immediate recognition of his former neighbor by remarking, "the scent of Kashmiri is the scent of one."

Posted by acquarello on Jun 24, 2008 | | Comments (6) | Filed under 2008, Human Rights Watch

Behave, 2006

behave.gifContinuing in the vein of Justice, Maria Ramos's examination of the Brazilian justice system, Behave is an equally potent and sobering social inquiry into the state's juvenile re-socialization program. Working within the limitations of protecting the identity of the young offenders' identities, the film is predominantly shot facing Judge Luciana Fiala, a conscientious juvenile court justice who struggles to strike the right balance between humanity and reinforcing punishment in dispensing sentences (which often represents confinement at dirty and overcrowded juvenile detention centers where few resources are available to foster their rehabilitation) to the often poor and uneducated offenders who are brought before her. Enlisting non-actors from favelas to stand-in for the underaged offenders in re-enacted countershots (who often share similar experiences with these institutions) and repeat their given responses to the judge, the stories invariably converge towards underlying motivations of despair, gullibility, boredom, and ignorance: a first-time offender describes following the orders of his older friends to hold a gun during a robbery (perhaps knowing that, if apprehended, their sentences would be harsher), prompting the judge to ask the trite and true question of whether or not he would also jump off a bridge if asked; a young mother, desperate for money, is caught stealing a tourist's camera and now frets over being separated from her child if she is sent to detention; a girl brought in for shoplifting tries to manipulate her mother's already frayed emotions by suggesting that she would prefer detention over accepting the judge's offer of leniency and returning home on probation, prompting the surprised judge to remark that she has been spoiled too much; a boy who admits to the fatal stabbing of his father in his sleep tells of the family's continual abuse when his father would come home drunk, a sad reality corroborated by his mother, even as she expresses conflicted emotion over the lost income that his death represents; a boy found dealing a small amount of drugs supplied by a local gang is given partial probation to go home on the weekends with a stern recommendation to his mother that the family move away from the slums in order to avoid retaliation for the confiscated drugs - a well-meaning advice that proves impossible given the family's already meager finances. As in Raymond Depardon's "justice" films (especially Tenth District Court: Moments of Trial) Ramos's unobtrusive, yet lucid camera confronts the nature of our own complicit humor in observing the lives of the underprivilege and their intimidating experiences within an impersonal justice system, where rhetorical remarks by educated jurists are met with earnest, if confused attempts by undereducated offenders to respectfully answer the questions, and unfamiliarity with their constitutional rights during the judicial process leads to unnecessary bureaucracy and unforeseen consequences - a reality acutely illustrated by the bittersweet closing episode of a young father who, unaware of what parole meant, sneaked out of the detention center as he was being processed for release, and is forced to stand again before the judge after being re-arrested for his escape attempt.

Posted by acquarello on Jun 24, 2008 | | Filed under 2008, Human Rights Watch

Youth Producing Change, 2007

youth_change.gifThoughtful and impassioned, Youth Producing Change is a diverse and intimate reflection into some of the issues and ideas that inspire young people worldwide into taking action. The two collaborative films from Africa, Women Empowerment from South Africa and A Maid Is Not A Slave from Senegal, draw from the traditional culture of African tale-telling to convey their progressive themes. In Women Empowerment, Lithiko Mthobeli creates a panoramic ode to the resilience of women that was inspired by his single mother, concluding the film with the reverent chorus of "You strike a woman, you strike a rock", an African proverb popularized during the apartheid struggle. Meanwhile, A Maid Is Not A Slave evokes the country's rich film history in its Ousmane Sembène-like moral tale (especially Black Girl) on the exploitation of domestic workers. Cultural legacy also provides the heart and soul of Islands of the People, a portrait of the aboriginal Haida tribe in Canada, whose language (and consequently, culture), spoken by only a handful of people who are all in their 80s (including village elder and teacher, Nonnie Mary Swanson), is on the verge of extinction after forced integration and migration. Zane Scheuerlein's Monty Pythonesque The Hidden Cost of Cashmere from the U.S. and Slave Label from the U.K. both explore the impact of consumerism, from the environmental and economic toll of buying products from global markets, to the exploitation of factory workers in developing countries that is reflected in the affordability of consumer goods. In the U.S., Zachary Lennon-Simon's Playing with Other Tigers from Boston and Rene Dongo's The Countdown from New York find commonality in the aftermath of 9/11, as Lennon-Simon reflects on his lifelong friendship with Amir who, as a Muslim, lives with the constant harassment of being called a terrorist, and Dongo captures a performance by his friend, spoken word artist Sofia Snow, on the void left by the collapse of the twin towers and the hope that comes with rebuilding. Similarly, I Want My Parents Back from San Diego and The True Cost of Coal from Kentucky reflect grassroots issues: the misuse of broad Homeland Security powers designed to uproot terrorism as a means of targeting illegal immigration from Mexico, and the human and environmental exploitation associated with the lucrative coalmining industry that has left towns impoverished, waters contaminated, and landscapes altered, calling for a rejection of the coal to liquid initiatives that are being pushed by legislators under the nationalistic rhetoric of domestic energy development to curtail dependency on foreign oil.

Posted by acquarello on Jun 24, 2008 | | Filed under 2008, Human Rights Watch

April 23, 2008

Orienteering (Concurs), 1982

orienteering.gifSet in a company-sponsored orienteering contest - a false peril, team-building competition that pits administrative departments against each other in navigating their way out of a vast, public recreational park in the least amount of time by locating a prescribed series of trail markers using only the provisions and equipment provided to them at the start of the race - Dan Pita's Orienteering (Concurs) chronicles the adventures of a group of functionaries who, cajoled by their ever-obliging supervisor to enter in order to curry favor from their superiors, have reluctantly agreed to take part in the competition. From the onset, the group's ability to participate is already cast in doubt when the supervisor's wife feigns illness and immediately withdraws, leaving the rest of the team scrambling for a last minute substitute. Enlisting the aid of a young man (Claudiu Bleont) who, because of his small frame, fits the wife's track suit (and who, coincidentally, had just arrived to the park on a bicycle only moments before the team's bus), the team begins its journey through the woods, led by the imposing, if ill-equipped supervisor. But as the team invariably finds itself hopelessly lost, depleting their limited provisions, chasing personal distractions, squabbling over responsibility, and running in literal circles in the thick of the disorienting forest, frustration soon turns to distrust at the stranger whose resourcefulness is now viewed as a ruse in an elaborate sabotage. Funny, whimsical, and densely metaphoric, Orienteering is as equally potent as a wry allegory on the Ceauşescu regime under the thumb of Soviet-era communism as it is an acutely observed satire on the petty dynamics of office politics. Capturing the base instinct, incompetence, misdirection, and deflection of accountability innate in the false, surreal atmosphere of a contest, Pita exposes the myth of collaborative teamwork in the everyday conduct of intrinsically competitive - and self-preserving - sociopolitical institutions.

Posted by acquarello on Apr 23, 2008 | | Filed under 2008, Romanian Cinema

April 22, 2008

The Paper Will Be Blue, 2006

paper_blue.gifA droll and acerbic fictional corollary to Harun Farocki and Andrei Ujica's Videograms of a Revolution, Radu Muntean's The Paper Will Be Blue, like Cristi Puiu's The Death of Mr. Lazarescu and Cristian Mungiu's 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is an odyssey through the crumbling institutions and broken social systems of a country in the throes of precarious transformation. Set on the evening of Nicolae Ceauşescu's fall from power after going into hiding in the wake of widespread anti-government demonstrations, the film follows the overnight patrol of a militia unit headed by the diligent and fatherly Lt. Neagu (Adi Carauleanu) who has been dispatched to the suburbs to spot check vehicles on the main roads in order to prevent protestors from making their way to the cities. At first, the unit passes the hours uneventfully, using the roadblock as a ruse to chat up young women driving alone at night rather than as a deterrent to keep away agitators, until a group of protestors arrive at the checkpoint with the news that the television station is under siege. Overcome with patriotism and a sense of impending history, Neagu's young recruit, Costi (Paul Ipate) impulsive decides to abandon his post and join the troops in defending the television station from apparent terrorists, leaving Neagu and the rest of the unit to try to track down the errant recruit before the end of their shift in order to avoid harsher punishment (and perhaps cancel New Years Eve leave passes) from headquarters. From the jarring, chaotic opening image of a civilian and a militiaman being accidentally killed in a barrage of confused gunfire from an apparently mistaken command to shoot (after haplessly emerging from an armored car to smoke a cigarette), Muntean illustrates the integral role of communication in the events surrounding the Revolution of 1989. Framed against Costi's idealistic attempt to defend the television station as the symbolic last bastion of a collapsing, old order, the siege is emblematic of the critical struggle over the control of information itself, where modern day victory lies, not in the occupation of physical spaces, but in invisible - but powerful - airwaves.

Posted by acquarello on Apr 22, 2008 | | Filed under 2008, Romanian Cinema

The Return of the Banished, 1979

return_banished.gifRecalling Sergei Eisenstein's Ivan the Terrible in its atmospheric, if tempered historical epic on the bloody reign of sixteenth century Moldavian despot, Alexandru Lapusneanu, Malvina Ursianu's Return of the Banished is a trenchant allegory on the moral corruption and madness of absolute power. Unfolding though a series of flashbacks and flash forwards, the film opens to the image of Lapusneanu's eldest son and heir, Bogdan, and his mother, Doamna Ruxandra (Silvia Popovici) traveling across a mountain pass in a private horse-drawn carriage, separated from the family's entourage and Bogdan's younger siblings, asking her how to properly address his father (George Motoi) now that he has returned from exile and, once again, ascended to the throne as the rightful ruler of Moldavia. In hindsight, the chronological ambiguity created by the film's atemporal structure also reinforces the idea of recursive history. Once a pragmatic, magnanimous ruler eager to redefine social structure based on meritocracy rather than noble birth - a more egalitarian (and inferentially socialist) perspective that is reflected in his controversial decision to redistribute the property of a boyard who was executed for treason to his loyalists rather than allow the surviving relatives to inherit the generations-owned land - Lapusneanu soon becomes increasingly distrustful of the guarded boyards who, in turn, see the gesture as evidence of his flaunted authority and a prelude to a class war. Eager to centralize - and legitimize - his authority over Moldavia, Lapusneanu embarks on a series of strategic, pre-emptive campaigns against neighboring kingdoms and rebellious boyars to ensure his legacy, and in the process, falls deeper into the isolation and paranoia of his quest for historical immortality. In a sense, Lapusneanu's evolution from benevolent ruler to tyrant also becomes an allegory for Nicolae Ceauşescu's own political transformation, morphing from popular national leader willing to stand up against the power of the Soviet Union, to secretive, Stalinist head of state inspired by the claustrophobic governments of North Korea and Maoist China. Framed against Lapusneanu's assassination of his own installed boyers, the film becomes a sobering commentary on the social revolution coming full circle in the delusive pursuit of marking history.

Posted by acquarello on Apr 22, 2008 | | Filed under 2008, Romanian Cinema

April 21, 2008

Occident, 2002

occident.gifSomething of a cross between Julie Bertucelli's Since Otar Left and Bohdan Slama's Something Like Happiness in its wry and affectionate portrait of Eastern European diaspora after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cristian Mungiu's refined and ingeniously constructed first feature film, Occident also evokes the spirit of Krzysztof Kieslowski in its bittersweet, delicately interconnected tale of chance, coincidence, and longing. Similar to the three part structure of Nae Caranfil's Don't Lean Out the Window, the interlocking chapters of Occident chronicle the same unrequited tale, each gradually revealed through the peeled layers of the characters' own unfolded, often comical stories of miscommunication, failed connection, and lost opportunity: an underemployed man, Luci (Alexandru Papadopol) who tries to win back the affections of his girlfriend, Sorina (Anca-Ioana Androne) after being evicted from their apartment (and who, in turn, has since moved in with their passing Belgian samaritan, Jerome (Samuel Tastet) after Luci is unexpectedly hit on the head with a flying bottle); his frail aunt Leana (Eugenia Bosânceanu) who has decided to leave everything for him in her will in the absence of her estranged son in Germany; his friend Gica (Ioan Gyuri Pascu) who tries to reunite the couple through unorthodox means (often with hilarious consequences); his co-worker (and fellow product mascot), Mihaela (Tania Popa), recently left at the altar by her fiancé on their wedding day, who sees in Luci a kindred spirit in their mutually wounded hearts; Mihaela's father (Dorel Visan), a retiring police officer (and throwback to Securitate-styled surveillance tactics) who tries to feel useful by setting things right with his only child, searching for a suitable, foreign husband who will help her establish a new life elsewhere. Ever converging towards a flight away from the country (whether out of romantic impulse, career opportunity, or even adoption), Luci's quixotic quest becomes integrally connected to the ephemeral pursuit of a distant, idealized West itself, where destiny lies, not in the alignment of fate, but in its sad divergence.

Posted by acquarello on Apr 21, 2008 | | Filed under 2008, Romanian Cinema

Ryna, 2005

Ryna.gifIn a way, Ruxandra Zenide's debut film, Ryna suggests Claudia Llosa's Madeinusa in its allegorical tale of a young woman coming of age under a moral vacuum of isolation, lawlessness, and repressive authority. Set in a poor rural community along the Danube delta where the town's depressed economy is as tied to the commerce of fishing as it is to preying on the gullibility of others (a stagnation that is also implied in the grandfather's life savings of useless, communist-era currency), the film chronicles Ryna's (Doroteea Petre) process of maturation and self-awareness after a fateful encounter with a visiting French doctoral candidate, George (Matthieu Rozé) who has come to the region on an anthropological research study of the town's inhabitants in search of the origin of Latin. The only child of a tyrannical and increasingly desperate gas station and garage owner, Biri (Valentin Popescu), Ryna has obediently, if reluctantly, acquiesced to her father's whims, keeping her hair closed cropped and donning an oversized mechanics coveralls (but whose beauty, nevertheless, catches the eye of the passing researcher and the mailman (Theodor Delciu)), as well as sabotaging parked cars and inflating charges by diagnosing non-existent mechanical problems to unsuspecting stranded motorists. Facing the loss of their primary source of revenue when the town bypass road is completed to accommodate better interstate traffic, Biri has begun to ingratiate himself into the company of the town mayor in order to obtain a permit to relocate his business new the new road, a nefarious alliance that grows even more sinister when the mayor, still continuing to delay approval of the permit in order to extract additional favors from Biri, takes a romantic interest in young Ryna. Like Salvador, the passing stranger in Madeinusa, George becomes a catalyst for Ryna's awakening, representing the possibility of connection, liberation, and self-identity away from the oppressive captivity of the insular town - the link to a transcendent elsewhere.

Posted by acquarello on Apr 21, 2008 | | Filed under 2008, Romanian Cinema

April 20, 2008

Maria, 2003

Maria.gifChanneling the spirit of Italian neorealism in its bleak and unrelenting portrait of abject poverty, Peter Calin Netzer's Maria is a provocative and articulate social interrogation on the role of globalization, international charity, and the media on the socioeconomic polarization of the working class. Based on a true story (an sad truth that is reinforced in the film's postscript dedication to the real-life Maria who lived from 1962 to 1995), the film resurrects the specter of Ceauşescu's short-sighted natality policy in the opening shot of a pregnant Maria (Diana Dumbrava) picnicking with her six children (and underscored by her son's innocent reiteration of a neighbor's comparison to the family as breeding like rabbits), an idyllic afternoon that soon takes a somber turn when she starts to go into labor in the open field. Cutting to the shot of her husband Ion (Serban Ionescu), a balloon factory foreman listening to the news with his enterprising friend Milco (Horatiu Malaele) that the factory's new owners have rejected their counter-offer and instead, have decided to immediately disband the union and shut down operations (allotting each worker two boxes of balloons as compensation in lieu of reconciling the former owner's debt of unpaid back wages), the sense of inescapable misfortune and cruel fate is foretold in Ion's all too frequent bouts of drunkenness, violent rages, and reckless gambling following his unexpected unemployment (note the interrelated role of delusive games of chance and insurmountable debt that also pervades Djibril Diop Mambéty's Le Franc). Struggling to raise the family singlehandedly in the wake of Ion's increasing abuse and abandonment, she finds momentary solace in the company of her resourceful and good-hearted neighbor Maia (Luminita Gheorghiu), until a tragedy drives her deeper into isolation and despair. Far from a facile portrait of domestic abuse and marginalization, Maria proves to be a potent indictment of the dysfunctional, post-communist society itself - in its abandonment of humanist ideals in the pursuit of wealth, and even media responsibility in the tidy repackaging of human interest stories as entertainment (an exploitation that, in the wake of reality television, proves especially relevant). This sense of moral self-assessment is perhaps best encapsulated in the shot of Maria appraising her looks in front of a full-length mirror - an act that is ominously repeated by her daughter - that is also evoked in her transmitted, real-time television image from a video camera connection at a shop window: a sobering reflection of our complicity in the trivialization of human suffering as commodity and spectacle.

Posted by acquarello on Apr 20, 2008 | | Filed under 2008, Romanian Cinema

Don't Lean Out the Window, 1994

dont_lean.gifA thematic structure that continues to surface in several of the post 1989 Revolution films during the Shining Through a Long, Dark Night: Romanian Cinema, Then and Now series is the use of an intertwining, circular narrative as a metaphor for national self-reflection - and re-evaluation - in the aftermath of the Nicolae Ceauşescu regime and the collapse of the Soviet Union, and this aesthetic is reflected in the composition of Nae Caranfil's watershed film, Don't Lean Out the Window, a story in three parts showing the intersecting lives of young people in transition. The film presciently opens to the idyllic image soldiers conducting their field maneuvers on an open field near the side of the road, their mock drills briefly interrupted by the sight of a young woman looking out the window of a nearby passing train. In hindsight, this image crystallizes the sense of transience and coincidence that would briefly connect the lives of Cristina (Nathalie Bonnifay) a student nearing graduation, Dinu (George Alexandru), an itinerant stage actor (and erstwhile film star) separated from his wife, and Cristina's suitor, Horatiu (Marius Stanescu) a soldier serving the final days of his compulsory military service in the small town. Set in the waning days of communism, the sense of disorder and collapse of authority is established in the earliest shots of the first chapter, The Student, as a teacher's rote regurgitation on the state policy of natality plays out before an unruly classroom as students openly distribute birth control pills obtained from the black market. Alternately occupying her time sorting potatoes for transportation at a collective farm and preparing for her university admissions exams with the bookish Horatiu in a decommissioned train car at an abandoned rail yard, Cristina's life in the small town seems equally derailed until the dashing actor, Dinu approaches her with an enigmatic question over the authorship of some secret admirer letters, and with it, the possibility of life away from the insular town. Infused with a dry humor and situational absurdity that has also become characteristic of certain noteworthy, contemporary Eastern European cinema (most notably, Béla Tarr and compatriot Cristi Puiu), Don't Lean Out the Window is a well crafted, if occasionally caricatured portrait of a nation at a profound political and cultural crossroads, where the anonymous, if familiar structure of repression has begun to collapse under the anarchic weight of an uncertain, encroaching liberation and (re)emerging identity.

Posted by acquarello on Apr 20, 2008 | | Filed under 2008, Romanian Cinema

April 14, 2008

Numéro zéro, 1971/2003

numerozero.gifComposed as an uninterrupted conversation with Jean Eustache's sprightly, talkative, nearly blind, septuagenarian maternal grandmother, Odette Robert, Numéro Zéro prefigures the studies in narrative construction of Une Sale histoire in its illustration of performance and interpenetrating film reality. Inspired by their conversation during an afternoon stroll, the film reflects Eustache's assumed role as archivist, creating a two camera composite, unedited recording of Odette's memories of village life. Told with self-effacing humor and bracing candor, Odette weaves organically through the extraordinary density of her seemingly "ordinary" human experience, from the trauma of her mother's death from tuberculosis when she was seven years old, to her strained relationship with her demanding stepmother, Marie, to the austerity of life during the war, to her turbulent marriage to a skirt-chasing war veteran, to the deaths of her three young sons from childhood illnesses, to the care of her elderly, terminally ill father and stepmother during their final days, and lastly, to her arrival in Paris (at Eustache's invitation) to help take care of her great-grandson son, Boris. As in the Le Cochon and La Rosière de Pessac, Eustache captures, not only an overlooked, rapidly disappearing way of life, but also the continuity of a collective history itself, a passing between generations that is implied in the film's silent preface showing Boris accompanying Odette to a corner shop, before briefly walking away on another errand (similarly, in La Rosière de Pessac, the oldest living Rosière symbolically passes the torch to the next generation). Moreover, in maintaining the footage of clapperboard marks - often, interrupting Odette in mid thought to signal the necessity of a reel change - Eustache also creates a sense of intersecting reality, briefly disengaging Odette (and the spectator) from the reality of her vivid memories towards the parallel reality of her role as storyteller in Eustache's latest film (an awareness of the artifice of film construction that is further reinforced in a Dutch television representative's coincidental call to Eustache inquiring about purchasing rights to Santa Claus Has Blue Eyes). It is in this dual role as personal testament and performer that Numéro Zéro also becomes a metaphor for coming full circle, where life and film are integrally connected to the evolutionary cycle of chronicling complex, human history.

Posted by acquarello on Apr 14, 2008 | | Filed under 2008, Jean Eustache Retrospective

La Peine perdue de Jean Eustache, 1997

peineperdue.gifAngel Díez's reverent and elegiac rumination on the iconoclastic, deeply personal cinema of Jean Eustache, La Peine perdue de Jean Eustache (The Lost Sorrows of Jean Eustache) hews closer to essay film than straightforward documentary, a muted, brooding tone piece where loss, grief, and mourning are reflected in the images of empty spaces, fragmented figures, and extended silences. Shot in high contrast black and white that evokes the stark, rough hewn quality of The Mother and the Whore, Eustache's conflicted sense of inspiration and desolation is articulated in the delayed, enigmatic remark from his abandoned script La Peine perdu, dispassionately read by actor Jean-Pierre Léaud, that opens the film: "For the first time, I think I see things more clearly". Disenchanted by a cultural complacency that has led to a lack of engagement in "real politics", Eustache's aesthetic approach converges towards the idea of a marginal cinema, not from a production or economic perspective, but from an observational point of view - challenging the spectator into new ways of seeing - whether through the humor and nobility of quaint, local customs that define small village life in the forgotten, out of fashion, "other France", or the moral stagnation of a lost generation in the wake of a failed May 68 revolution, or the relationship between images and sound that define the nature of cinema itself.

Not surprisingly, Eustache considers his role in filmmaking to be that of archivist instead of author, a respect for the subject and sacredness of images that is especially reflected in his provincial documentaries, Le Cochon and La Rosière de Pessac (and indirectly, Numéro Zéro). On his decision to remake La Rosière de Pessac, Eustache argues that the annual celebration could have easily been remade many times over, noting that the local mayor revived the village festival in 1896, loosely coinciding with the creation of the earliest Lumière films. In this sense, the Rosière ceremony represents not only a chronicle of French history, but is also integrally connected to the evolution of cinema. Moreover, on Le Cochon, Jean-Michel Barjol reinforces the idea of a filmmaker's archivist role by respectfully disagreeing with Eustache's earlier comment that their individually shot footage would have produced a different film from the actual final collaboration, arguing that their independent efforts would have invariably converged towards a near identical film to the resulting collaborative one, arbitrated by the (re)assertion of reality into the shot images. Ironically, the archivist versus author debate is seemingly upended in a subsequent episode in which an image of Eustache is momentarily observed walking along the other side of a wall during the dressing sequence of Le Cochon, and becomes a fitting metaphor for Eustache's abbreviated legacy: the faint, fleeting image of a wandering spirit, and the indelible imprint left behind in its passing.

Posted by acquarello on Apr 14, 2008 | | Filed under 2008, Jean Eustache Retrospective

April 9, 2008

Une Sale histoire, 1977

dirtystory.gifComposed of two separate, near verbatim vignettes - alternately framed as a documentary, then as fiction film - Une Sale histoire is told from the perspective of a recovering peeping tom who tells his sordid tale of voyeuristic obsession before an intimate, predominantly female audience. In the first part, the spatial relation between the speaker, played by actor Michael Lonsdale, and the listener, played by film critic Jean Douchet - a distance that is reinforced by the latter's invitation to sit on a couch to tell his story - suggests the role of subject and interviewer (or perhaps, patient and analyst), as the glib, animated speaker recounts his accidental discovery of a cleverly concealed (and intentionally created) gap in the doorway of the ladies' room while using the public telephone of a local bistro, and the figurative Pandora's box that his newfound secret, erotic gateway unleashes in his quest to find the perfect woman whose physical appearance complemented the images created by his aroused fantasies. In the second part, the deliberation and exactness of the speaker, this time, played by the author of the story, Jean-Noël Picq, suggests a formal re-enactment of the earlier "interview" - the staging of a non-fiction fiction. Upending conventional roles by casting actor as storyteller (Lonsdale) and storyteller as actor (Picq), Jean Eustache creates a radical and intriguing exposition into the nature of narrative and performance itself, proposing that the boundaries of filmmaking do not exist between reality and fiction, but within layers and permutations of equally modulated fiction.

Posted by acquarello on Apr 09, 2008 | | Comments (5) | Filed under 2008, Jean Eustache Retrospective

April 8, 2008

Santa Claus Has Blue Eyes, 1966

santaclaus.gifDroll, charming, and picaresque, Jean Eustache's Santa Claus Has Blue Eyes chronicles the empty hours, petty capers, and amorous misadventures of Daniel (Jean-Pierre Léaud), an unmotivated (and consequently fired) erstwhile bricklayer and modern day dandy who, rather than admit to his blue collar roots, has concocted an elaborate tale of paternal conspiracy and social consciousness for his perennially cash-strapped circumstances and habitual unemployment. But with few prospects to win a girl's heart without going (and more pressingly, spending money) on a date, and the impending arrival of colder weather, Daniel and his equally fashionably underemployed friend Dumas (Gérard Zimmermann) arrive at the conclusion that the answer to their winter doldrums lies in saving enough money to buy a stylish, a la mode duffel coat for the new year. To this end, he decides to accept a job offer from a photographer (René Gilson) to work as a sidewalk Santa, soliciting people in the street to have their pictures taken with him for a fee. Donning full costume, the roguish young Santa freely chats up women on the street who eagerly stop to pose for a picture (and unwittingly, an opportunistic grope from the all too insinuating Father Christmas), and bewilder unsuspecting acquaintances as he catches them off guard with his seemingly omniscient personal knowledge. In disguise, Daniel soon finds paradoxical liberation in his newfound anonymity. In its lyrical and ribald treatment of idle (or more appropriately, stunted) youth, it's easy to see the rudiments of the posturing, self-absorbed loafer, Alexandre (also played by Leaud) of Eustache's magnum opus The Mother and the Whore taking shape in this brisk and delightful early collaboration. Ironically, devoid of the political context that pervades The Mother and the Whore, Santa Claus Has Blue Eyes becomes an even more incisive contemporary portrait of an adrift, postwar generation, where the aimless pursuit of the here and now reveals the giddy anxiety of lost identity.

Posted by acquarello on Apr 08, 2008 | | Filed under 2008, Jean Eustache Retrospective

April 6, 2008

Les Photos d'Alix, 1978

alix.gifOstensibly an informal guided commentary through personal photographs taken by Alix Cléo Roubaud for a young interviewer (Boris Eustache), Jean Eustache's Les Photos d'Alix ingeniously explores the nature of reality and perspective within the framework of documentary filmmaking. This sense of trompe l'oeil is prefigured in an early double exposed photograph of Alix's husband, novelist Jacques Roubaud taken from a London hotel room, explaining that the duality had been intentionally developed in order to simulate an elongated profile that more appropriately conforms to the traditional notion of a Hollywood style bed, a manipulation of image that is also illustrated in a subsequent photograph of an induced sunset created by selective masking. Eustache's approach to the film similarly expounds on Alix's photographic experimentation, juxtaposing the curious image of a smiling, shirtless man seemingly disembodied below the rib cage against Alix's comical, if askew anecdote on plying a friend with alcoholic beverages in order to look more relaxed as she takes his picture on a couch. In another humorous episode, Alix conveys the fond memories her father through what she describes as the most iconic image of him from her childhood, revealing a shot of a driver's ear and receded hairline taken from the back of a car, his face partially visible only through the reflection of the rearview mirror. Soon, the conversation grows even more puzzling, as the young man apparently fails to recognize himself in a photograph, Alix incongruously points out the admirable physicality of an unknown man who was accidentally captured on film, as a naked, overweight man stands on the side of the frame, and her revelry on the coincidence of having two former romantic interests converging in the same shot is seemingly reduced to the banal image of a pair of worn boots. As Alix's insights into her sources of inspiration and creative process become increasingly dissociated from the images, Eustache illustrates the point of rupture between the visual and aural, where filmed storytelling lies, not in the symmetry of information, but in its chance intersections and disjunctions.

Posted by acquarello on Apr 06, 2008 | | Filed under 2008, Jean Eustache Retrospective

Hieronymous Bosch's Garden of Delights, 1980

bosch_garden.gifFilmed by Jean Eustache for the television program, Les Enthousiastes, Hieronymous Bosch's Garden of Delights presents a series of unstructured observations, free associations, and interpretations on the third panel of Bosch's well-known oil on wood triptych by Eustache's friend, Jean Frapat before a small captive audience. From the onset, Eustache creates a wry and playful ambiguity to Frapat's dry intellectualism and occasionally untenable rumination, juxtaposing Frapat's serious-minded struggle on the genesis of a vignette that shows a pig dressed in a nun's habit (suggesting that an anthropomorphic transformation must have taken place before the captured moment), with the implicit humor of the sacrilegious image itself, then cutting to the shot of a woman with an enigmatic expression who then places her hand against her head, perhaps shifting unconsciously out of boredom or subtly expressing her own skepticism over the guest speaker's tangential discourse. At times, Frapat's observations are insightful, noting the absence of expression at moments of death and humiliation, the attribution of animal and mechanical characteristics to the human form, and the Freudian symbolism implicit in repeated acts of stabbing and piercing that dominate the panel. On other occasions, his drawn conclusions seem too ambitious and insupportable (most notably, in Frapat's suggestion that the third triptych is replete with symbolic depictions of the seven human orifices - the six common to all humans, and the seventh, female - but cannot point out an instance of the seventh when challenged (perhaps, not surprisingly, by the same woman shown shifting her head near the beginning of the film), and instead, cuts the inquiry short by suggesting its vague ubiquity throughout the painting). It is interesting to note that while Frapat moves upward during his commentary from the amorous, habited pig in the lower corner, to the images of men fused with instruments, to the "ear cannon" that suggests the man-made nature of warfare, to the decimating conflagration the dominates the upper panel, Eustache films the panel in the opposite direction, incisively illustrating the cycle, not only of the grotesque dehumanization that comes with eternal damnation and the idea of humanity as self-perpetuating, tarnished mechanisms of abject life and death, but also of the interrogative - and provocative - nature of art itself.

Posted by acquarello on Apr 06, 2008 | | Filed under 2008, Jean Eustache Retrospective

April 5, 2008

Le Cochon, 1970

cochon.gifSomething of a germinal template for Raymond Depardon's Profils Paysans films on a dying way of life in rural (and largely forgotten) France, Jean Eustache and Jean-Michel Barjol's reverent, vital, and painstakingly observed ethnographic documentary Le Cochon chronicles a day in the life of peasant farmers in the mountainous region of the Massif Central. In hindsight, the central nature of the pig implied by the film's title introduces the element of subverted expectation that would continue to resurface throughout Eustache's body of work. In Le Cochon, the violence of the establishing sequences that record a communal, fattened pig's anxious capture, instinctive struggle, restraint, slaughter, and exsanguination gives way to the unexpected artisanal skill, attentive care, and graceful ritual of its dressing, butchering, food processing, and cooking. In a lingering, stationary shot, the stark whiteness of the dressed pig framed against a bed of straw - still emanating steam from its residual body temperature and the hot water applied during the cleaning - creates an ethereal image that suggests a metaphysical sublimation. In another sequence, a farmer's methodical recovery of the intestines to be used as sausage casing transforms into a seeming rustic ballet in the synchronous sweeping motion of his arms, initially, to obtain equally apportioned lengths, then subsequently, to displace a quantity of rinse water throughout the length of the casing. Later in the film, the delicate precision and innate craftsmanship of sausage making is reflected in the measured drawing and turning of the casing against the meat grinder. In a sense, by presenting these quotidian rituals without narration or intertitles, and relying solely on the words expressed by the farmers in their regional dialect and colloquialisms, the film, too, becomes a sublimation, rejecting the mediation of external translation towards an instinctual coherence of human toil, creativity, and celebration.

Posted by acquarello on Apr 05, 2008 | | Comments (4) | Filed under 2008, Jean Eustache Retrospective

March 12, 2008

Questions of Third Cinema edited by Jim Pines and Paul Willemen

thirdcinema.gifA collection of transcribed essays presented during the three-day conference organized by Jim Pines, Paul Willemen, and June Givanni as part of the 40th anniversary of the Edinburgh International Film Festival in 1986, Questions of Third Cinema examines the evolution, application, relevance, and continued challenges of Third Cinema in its manifestation, not only from the perspective of its critical origins in Latin America and its diverse incarnations in the native cinemas of African and Asian countries relegated to third world status, but also in its representations of the Other within the film (sub)culture of developed nations, acting in opposition to the imperialist, bourgeois ideals of a dominant 'first cinema' as well as the abstraction - and egoism - of a consciously cerebral 'second cinema'. A cinematic call to arms taken from Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino's seminal article, Towards a Third Cinema, Third Cinema's identification lies in its aesthetic of unfinished research that is deeply rooted within the reality and history of a dominated society, transcending class divisions to collectively express a culture's inherent problems of representation, translation, mediation, and intervention.

In this respect, Third Cinema functions, not only as a simple reflection of 'alternative history' from an abrogated culture, but also as a chronicle - and indictment - of this process of systematic erasure. In the essay, The Third Cinema Question: Notes and Reflections, Paul Willemen cites this prevailing sense of indigenous culture and intrinsic activism (especially from the perspective of a dysfunctional, hybridized culture caused by colonial imposition) that characterize the films of Nelson Pereira dos Santos, Ousmane Sembene, and Ritwik Ghatak as cornerstones of Third Cinema's cross-cultural imperative:

Each of them refused to oppose a simplistic notion of national identity or of cultural authenticity to the values of colonial or imperial predators. Instead, they started from a recognition of the many-layeredness of their own cultural-historical formations, with each layer being shaped by complex connections between intra- and inter-national forces and traditions. In this way, the three cited filmmakers exemplify a way of inhabiting one's culture which is neither myopically nationalist no evasively cosmopolitan. Their film work is not particularly exemplary in the sense of displaying stylistically innovative devices to be imitated by others who wish to avoid appearing outdated. On the contrary, it is their way of inhabiting their cultures, their grasp of the relations between the cultural and the social, which founded the search for a cinematic discourse able to convey their sense of a 'diagnostic understanding' (to borrow a happy phrase from Raymond Williams) of the situation in which they work and to which their work is primarily addressed.

In essence, if a dominated society is to remain relevant, its identity cannot solely be rooted in imitation, but rather, reconstituted as a confluence of both native and assimilated cultures that cannot be inhabited by a simple process of translation. This fundamental problem forms the essential question in Trinh T. Minh-ha's essay, Outside In Inside Out, examining the implicitly imposed limitations on native filmmakers that, by extrapolation, endows a certain omniscience - and consequently, omnipotence - on the part of Euro-American filmmakers to serve as figurative, anointed interpreters of other cultures. For Trinh, this paradigm not only reflects the imbalance of power between Insider and Outsider, but also implicitly reinforces mutually exclusive, binary modes of representation:

That a white person makes a film on the Goba of the Zambezi or on the Tasaday in the Philippine rain forest seems hardly surprising to anyone, but that a Third World member makes a film on other Third World peoples never fails to appear questionable to many ...The marriage is not consumable, for the pair is no longer 'outside-inside' (objective versus subjective), but something between 'inside-inside' (subjective in what is already designated as subjective) and 'outside-outside' (objective in what is already claimed as objective) ...Any attempts at blurring the dividing line between outsider and insider would justifiably provoke anxiety, if not anger. Territorial rights are not being respected here.

Homi K. Bhabha similarly examines the fallacy of cultural (mis)identification with the Other in the essay, The Commitment to Theory, suggesting instead that the goal of Third Cinema is to facilitate cultural negotiation rather than negation through the co-occupation of what the author defines as Third Space, the "split space of enunciation [that] may open the way to conceptualizing an international culture, based not on exoticism or multiculturalism of the diversity of cultures, but on the inscription and articulation of culture's hybridity".

Teshome H. Gabriel further explores the idea of Third Cinema as other history in the essay, Third Cinema as Guardian of Popular Memory: Towards a Third Aesthetics, illustrating its genesis in folkloric tradition, in essence, a medium for conveying history through popular - though not necessarily "official" - memory:

Another form of Third Cinema narrative - the autobiographical narrative - illustrates this point. Here I do not mean autobiography in its usual Western sense of a narrative by and about a single subject. Rather, I am speaking of a multi-generational and trans-individual autobiography where the collective subject is the focus. A critical scrutiny of this extended sense of autobiography (perhaps hetero-biography) is more of an expression of shared experience; it is a mark of solidarity with people's lives and struggles.

This symbiotic relationship between Third Cinema and its cultural rooting is also reflected in Charles Burnett's essay, Inner City Blues, who argues that the integrity of filmmaking can only be preserved through personal investment within - and by - the community rather than in the bankrolling (and artistic compromises) of commercial studios:

The commercial film is largely responsible for affecting how one views the world. It reduced the world to one dimension, rendering taboos to superstition, concentrated on the ugly, creating a passion for violence and reflecting racial stereotypes, instilling self-hate, creating confusion rather than offering clarity: to sum it up, it was demoralizing. It took years for commercial films to help condition society on how it should respond to reality. In the later films that strove for a reality, the element of redemption disappeared, and as a consequence, the need for a moral position was no longer relevant. There was no longer a crossroads for us to face and to offer meaning to our transgressions.

...Any other art form celebrates life, the beautiful, the ideal, and has a progressive effect, except American cinema - The situation is such that one is always asked to compromise one's integrity, and if the socially oriented film is finally made, its showing will generally be limited and the very ones that it is made for and about will probably never see it. To make filmmaking viable you need the support of the community; you have to become part of its agenda, an aspect of its survival.

The moral trauma and violence of cultural imperialism is eloquently articulated in Haile Gerima's impassioned essay, Triangular Cinema, Breaking Toys, and Dinknesh vs. Lucy. Contrasting the lavish construction of Hollywood films (and manufactured film stars) to the artisanal quality of Third World cinema, Gerima rejects the temptation to imitate the Hollywood model, citing Hegel's comment that "the most important act a child can engage in is the breaking of his/her toys" as a metaphor for the unattainable pursuit of false idols. Moreover, with the increasing international popularity of Third World cinema, Gerima insightfully cautions against its unwitting distortion as a cultural reinforcement of stereotypes and exotization.

While we should be pleased with the growing interest shown by the progressive, international community in our cinema movement, we need to be concerned with the distribution and exhibition aspects of our creative outputs. We need to restore dignity to and for our films, we have to fight against the free exhibition of our culture. We must receive economic as well as political return for our labor, as part and parcel of our struggle for legitimate cinema. This will prevent the tendency to relegate our culture to the world of the exotic...

In the coming years, Third World cinema has a two-pronged responsibility: 1) to be an active catalyst in instigating the revolutionary uplifting of the masses of Third World from the gutter to the level of equal partnership - the birthright of all human beings - and to struggle to bring about the total removal of the above- and below-the-line distinctions of existence; and 2) to be a catalyst, directly or indirectly, in demystifying the superiority of the developed countries. This demystification can only take place through the decoding of the deemed superiority of the West. This will create some form of parity that will contribute to a better climate and democratic existence for all human beings. In other words, our cultural contribution to the West will be to bring them a little bit down to the human orbit.

Posted by acquarello on Mar 12, 2008 | | Filed under 2008, Film Related Reading

March 4, 2008

Un Secret, 2007

secret.gifIn an early episode in the film, a bookish, teenaged François Grimbert (Quentin Dubuis) sits in a classroom intently watching the archival footage of the mass collection and burial of concentration camp victims during the Holocaust, before flying into an inconsolable rage over a student's racially insensitive comments. For François, the sobering images of emaciated, broken bodies not only raises the specter of his suppressed identity after his parents Anglicized their surname and had him baptized as a Catholic in the aftermath of their untold experience during the war, but also reminds him of his own physical frailty. The son of athletic parents, a ruggedly handsome gymnast and haberdasher named Maxime (Patrick Bruel) and his beautiful, fashion model wife, Tania (Cécile De France), François's self-consciousness over his own physicality has plagued him since childhood, even imagining that he had an athletic, alter-ego brother who could climb the ropes and execute perfectly controlled turns on the high bar that he could not perform for his demanding father. Even the idea of his parents humoring his fanciful whims for an imaginary brother would prove to be elusive, answered instead with almost desperate re-assertion of their singular existence. It is a gnawing sense of insecurity over his parents' evasive silence that would continue to consume him until one day when the family's longtime friend and neighbor, Louise (Julie Depardieu) decides to tell François the story of his parents' entangled destiny of unreconciled ghosts and memories in the shadows of occupied France. Adapted from the novel Memory (Secret) by Philippe Grimbert, Claude Miller's Un Secret is an articulate and well-rendered, if occasionally belabored portrait of guilt, transference, and survival. Framed within the context of the now grown François's (Mathieu Amalric) attempts to find his missing elderly father following the accidental death of the family dog, his search also becomes a metaphoric quest for identity and connection within the silence of a traumatic and dislocated history (a haunted persistence that also evokes integral, recurring themes in Chantal Akerman's cinema).

Posted by acquarello on Mar 04, 2008 | | Filed under 2008, Rendez-vous with French Cinema

Ain't Scared, 2007

aint_scared.gifDuring the Q&A for Ain't Scared (Regarde-moi), Audrey Estrougo remarked that one of her motivations for making the film was to create a more authentic portrait of les cités - the low income housing neighborhoods on the outskirts of the city - that had become an all too convenient political target for all the social ills of France by then right wing candidate, Nicolas Sarkozy during the presidential election, especially in the aftermath of the 2005 civil unrest. Within this context, it should come as no surprise that Estrougo finds certain kinship with the films of Spike Lee in capturing the sense of entrapment, poverty, despair, and frustration that lead to these eruptions of violence. Composed as a two-part chronicle (with epilogue) of a day in the life of residents at a housing project - initially, from the perspective of the young men, then subsequently, from the young women in the neighborhood - Estrougo proposes that violence and social inequality are not overtly issues of racism, but rather, a broader symptom of underprivilege and disenfranchisement. Indeed, Estrougo subverts this convenient generalization in the early establishing shot of Yannick (Paco Boublard) receiving money inside a parked car before trying to catch a glimpse of his ex-girlfriend, Melissa (Djena Tsimba), his friend Jo (Terry Nimajimbe), who has been training for his debut with a professional soccer league, and even in the image of a bare-chested Mouss (Oumar Diaw) practicing an assortment of romantic overtures in front of a mirror that would later prove to actually succeed in seducing his girlfriend, Daphné (Salomé Stévenin). In contrast, the plight of the women is harsher and more restrictive: a reality that is foreshadowed in the film's black screen opening sequence as two women scandalously argue over the stealing of a lover (later identified as Melissa's mother and her neighbor) that ends with the slamming of a door, that is subsequently mirrored in the escalating rivalry between Jo's girlfriend, Julie (Emilie de Preissac) and Mouss's younger sister, Fatima (Eye Haidara) that dominates the second half of the film. Paradoxically, it is through this sobering glimpse of petty territoriality and jealousy that Estrougo not only reinforces the idea of violence as an integral reflection of poverty, dispossession, and exclusion, but also offers a semblance of hope and solidarity.

Posted by acquarello on Mar 04, 2008 | | Filed under 2008, Rendez-vous with French Cinema

March 3, 2008

Love Songs, 2007

love_songs.gifChristophe Honoré's idiosyncratic concoction of irreverent humor, subverted expectation, romanticism, and affectionate homage falls elegantly and poignantly into place in Love Songs (Les Chansons d'amour): a lyrical, immediately engaging, yet substantive thirteen song musical presented in three chapters, each bearing a title from the three parts of Jacques Demy's The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Departure, Absence, and Return). The unexpected presentation of the film's opening credit sequence - citing only the surnames of the actors and production crew - sets the tone for Honoré's whimsical exploration of loss, incompleteness, and emotional fracture. Ostensibly a film on the amorous (mis)adventures of indecisive, twenty-something Parisian copy writer, Ismaël (Louis Garrel) who, as the film begins, has embarked on a ménage à trois with the reluctant consent of his devoted girlfriend, Julie (Ludivine Sangnier) and his co-worker Alice (Clotilde Hesme), the film similarly sweeps through the variegated arcs of Demy's quintessential film as it traces the complex emotional trajectory of loss, grief, survival, and healing following an unexpected tragedy. However, Honoré's rumination on lost love is far from a derivative reconstitution, but rather, a contemporary examination of the malleability - and interchangeability - of modern identity. Featuring original songs by collaborator and friend Alex Beaupain (whose experienced loss of a mutual friend served as the inspiration for the film's narrative) and a strong ensemble cast who perform the musical numbers in their own unadulterated voices - including Brigitte Roüan in the role of Julie's mother, Chiara Mastroianni as Julie's sister Jeanne, and Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet as the idealistic Breton student, Erwann - Love Songs delightfully (and unabashedly) expresses the poetry in the quotidian in all its intoxicating, dislocated presence and bittersweet, lingering memory.

Posted by acquarello on Mar 03, 2008 | | Filed under 2008, Rendez-vous with French Cinema

La Question humaine, 2007

question.gifIn an interstitial episode the occurs halfway through Nicolas Klotz's La Question humaine (Heartbeat Detector), a group of diners at a low rent café are racially profiled and rounded up by the police for a random check of identification papers, the first among them, Papi (Adama Doumbia), the African immigrant whose wife, Blandine (Noëlla Mossaba) was injured during deportation in Klotz's previous film, La Blessure. It is a jarring contrast from the world of indulgence, privilege, ivy league education, and corporate grooming that would define the characters in La Question humaine, the final installment in what Klotz would describe during the film's introductory remarks as the Trilogy of Modern Times (along with Paria and La Blessure), in tribute to Charles Chaplin: an interrogation of society's conscience - its humanity - at the beginning of the 21st century, a century after the Industrial Revolution. Adapted from the novel by Belgian author François Emmanuel, the film is set within the fictitious global conglomerate called SC Farb, a thinly veiled reference to the notorious, Nazi-era, German chemical company IG Farben whose dismantled and reacquired industries include the French multinational pharmaceutical corporation Aventis (which subsequently merged into the Sanofi-Aventis that is headquartered in Paris). Ostensibly centered on corporate psychologist and executive trainer, Simon Kessler's (Mathieu Amalric) attempts to perform a covert evaluation of the CEO, Mathias Jüst's (Michael Lonsdale) mental health at the request of a high-ranking executive, Karl Rose (Jean-Pierre Kalfon) following a series of erratic behaviors and questionable actions, the film chronicles Kessler's own moral awakening after gaining Jüst's trust by drawing on the memory of a company quartet that he had formed years earlier with Rose, his then-mistress Lynn Sanderson (Valérie Dréville), and former employee Arie Neumann (Lou Castel), and uncovers the closely guarded secrets that would bind the amateur musicians together in the buried knowledge of a shameful collective history. Framed as a mystery and corporate intrigue film, La Question humaine is a scathing and unflinching indictment of the societal toll of corporate economics, where efficiency, optimization, productivity, and profitability are used as evasive euphemisms for inhumanity, exploitation, and social genocide. Klotz uses cold tones, dark contrast palettes, and institutional spaces that figuratively mirror the grey souls of corporate white-washing and amnesia, where new generations (a sentiment acutely embodied in the incorporation of New Order music during a rave party attended by newly recruited employees) systematically collude to bury the transgressions of their forefathers in order to avoid confronting the past and consequently deflect their own personal accountability and sense of moral restitution.

Posted by acquarello on Mar 03, 2008 | | Comments (13) | Filed under 2008, Rendez-vous with French Cinema

Let's Dance, 2007

dance.gifNoémie Lvovsky returns to the idiosyncratic, subtly modulated multigenerational human comedy of Les Sentiments with a more diluted, but still insightfully rendered examination of aging, identity, and the changing role between parent and child in Let's Dance (Fait que ça danse!). Lvovsky's affectionate portrait centers on the sprightly, Holocaust survivor Salomon Bellinsky (Jean-Pierre Marielle) who, as he nears his eightieth birthday, has been spending his days dodging funeral obligations of friends and fellow survivors, taking tap dancing lessons to emulate his favorite actor, Fred Astaire, arguing with insurance agents who are quick to reject his application on the sole basis of age, and paying cordial visits to his willfully independent, estranged wife Geneviève (Bulle Ogier) who has been reduced to increasing financial straits after struggling with the effects of Alzheimer's disease for years, attended to her devoted caregiver, Mootoosamy (Bakary Sangaré). Faced with the reality that his wife is now a virtual stranger in the final stages of her degenerative illness, and relegated to obligatory, quick checkup visits from his preoccupied daughter, Sarah (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi), Salomon turns to the personal ads to find companionship and meets the charming, if insecure Violette (Sabine Azéma), where soon, his own fears of an uncertain future begin to take their toll on his relationships with the people around him. As in Les Sentiments, Lvovsky frames the parallel lives among the disparate generations as emotional intersections that reveal the fundamental human desire to remain vital, useful, and relevant.

Posted by acquarello on Mar 03, 2008 | | Filed under 2008, Rendez-vous with French Cinema

February 26, 2008

All Is Forgiven, 2007

all_forgiven.gifOriginally produced by Humbert Balsan before his death in 2005, Mia Hansen-Løve's All Is Forgiven (Tout est pardonné) recalls the muted, slow brewing, slice of life implosions of Stefan Krohmer's Summer 04 and Valeska Grisebach's Longing, as well as the naturalistic, organic narrative and chance intersections of Barbara Albert's cinema to create a raw and distilled, yet intimate and insightfully rendered rumination on the nature of connection, longing, regret, and forgiveness. Composed of a series of elliptical, self-contained episodes of the quotidian that collectively reveal the fragments of a disintegrating relationship, the film is also a reflection of human memory in its lucid, essential reconstitution - and awareness - of (life)time passed: Annette's (Marie-Christine Friedrich) frequent castigation of Victor's (Paul Blain) excessive drinking, his frequent absences from family outings with their daughter Pamela (Victoire Rousseau) to meet a drug dealer, his increasing disenchantment with his life as an underemployed translator and frustrated poet in Vienna that would lead to their decision to uproot the family move back to Paris, a conversation between Victor and his sister, Martine (Carole Franck) that exposes the fissures in his passionate, but volatile relationship with his devoted and long-suffering partner, a chance encounter with a drug dealer's friend, Gisèle (Olivia Ross) during a party that would lead him to the abyss of heroin addiction, and ultimately, his separation from his family. Shot using hand-held DV cameras, Hansen-Løve's aesthetic juxtaposition of saturated light against vérité-styled images that convey a sense of raw immediacy creates an unexpected coherence between disparate images that evokes the spirit of German Romanticism in its expositions on the duality of nature. It is this poetic transfiguration of the banal that is implicitly revealed in Victor's letter to his absent daughter, now an adolescent (Constance Rousseau), a passage adapted from Romantic poet Joseph Freiherr von Eichendorff that articulates both the reassurance of eternal devotion and regret of missed opportunity.

Posted by acquarello on Feb 26, 2008 | | Filed under 2008, Rendez-vous with French Cinema

The Feelings Factory, 2008

feelings.gifFor successful, attractive, career-minded, thirty-something real estate attorney, Éloïse (Elsa Zylberstein), there is a certain efficiency and reassuring sense of retained control in the dynamics of speed dating that proves particularly appealing: seven pre-selected men, seven minute face-to-face meetings to form - and leave - an impression and exchange information that, at the end of each allotted time, allows each participant to start anew no matter how promising or disastrous the previous encounter proved to be, and, at the end of the evening, the flexibility to pursue or reject a subsequent relationship with any or all of the eligible bachelors or simply walk away. At first, the rapid fire pace of the encounters proves awkward, reducing the conversations to polite small talk, uncomfortable silences, reflexive regurgitations of one's curriculum vitae, or impromptu interrogations that attempt to dissect the failures of past relationships as a means of evaluating future compatibility. Nevertheless, Éloïse remains unfazed, sensing a potentially suitable complement in the handsome, self-assured trial lawyer, Jean-Luc (Bruno Putzulu), even as she finds a momentary, if reluctant connection with the insecure, neurotic André (Jacques Bonnaffé) amidst the din and haze of the evening's self-induced emotional rollercoaster. But the cracks in Éloïse's carefully controlled existence have already begun to surface, metastasizing in bouts fainting spells, unexplained physiological changes, and panic attacks that would soon send her to a series of medical specialists in search of proper diagnosis and treatment. Struggling with the physical and emotional toll of her increasingly complicated professional and personal life, Éloïse is forced to set aside her romantic ideals of finding perfect love in order to confront the mundane reality of her debilitating (and life-altering) illness. Expounding on his earlier film, Work Hard, Play Hard, Jean-Marc Moutout's The Feelings Factory (La Fabrique des sentiments) similarly captures the anxieties of urban existence, industrialization, modern identity, and disposability. At the core of Moutout's articulate and lucid contemporary portrait of love in an age of technological convenience (and anonymity) is Zylberstein's remarkable, subtly modulated performance - alternately struggling between pragmatism and quixotic romanticism - where the human heart, too, is a compromised, tradable commodity of instant gratification, weighed options, and accepted risk.

Posted by acquarello on Feb 26, 2008 | | Comments (1) | Filed under 2008, Rendez-vous with French Cinema

Shall We Kiss?, 2007

shall_kiss.gifThe possible implications of an innocent kiss hover like a dark cloud over the almost perfect evening out between an attractive, out-of-town textile designer, Émilie (Julie Gayet) and good Samaritan Gabriel (Michaël Cohen) in Emmanuel Mouret's refined and effervescent comedy of manners, Shall We Kiss? (Un baiser s'il vous plaît). Unfolding as a story within a story as Émilie attempts to explain her insistence against capping off their casual dinner date with an almost obligatory goodbye kiss that, with both parties involved in committed relationships and Émilie on the last day of her business trip before heading home the next morning, would seem an innocuous enough request, she recounts the emotionally prickly tale of another pair of erstwhile innocent kissers, Judith (Virginie Ledoyen) and Nicolas (Emmanuel Mouret) whose polite gestures and good intentions lead to unexpected catastrophe. At the heart of the story is the ever-analytical and pragmatic Judith, a laboratory researcher who has been happily married to pharmacist Claudio (Stefano Accorsi) for several years. Always eager to lend a sympathetic ear to her best friend Nicolas who has fallen into an inextricable romantic slump after having ended a long-term relationship with a mutual friend, Judith has become a close confidante to Nicolas's neurotic tales of self-defeating, frustrated intimacy - fearful of returning to the dating scene without appearing too desperate after having been celibate for so long, yet unable to summarily consummate the physical act and snap his dry spell by hiring a prostitute when she prevents him from kissing her as a prelude to their mechanical coupling. As a remedy to the impasse, Judith suggests that she serve as Nicolas's surrogate, rationalizing that their friendship would fill the semblance of emotional connection that he seeks to be able to consummate an act of intimacy. However, when Judith's selfless act of intervention proves to be less than resolved despite Nicolas's newfound relationship with a sexy fight attendant, Câline (Fréderique Bel), the two are forced to confront the Pandora's box of confused emotions and irrationality that their meaningless encounter has caused. Favorably evoking Woody Allen's witty, self-deprecating humor combined coupled with the clinical observations of human interaction (and dysfunction) inherent in Eric Rohmer's cinema, Shall We Kiss, nevertheless, bears the imprint of Mouret's characteristic, tightly woven construction - a subtle choreography of words, scenarios, elisions, and ambience that, in turn, reflect the ephemeral alchemy of human connection and desire.

Posted by acquarello on Feb 26, 2008 | | Filed under 2008, Rendez-vous with French Cinema

February 21, 2008

Before I Forget, 2007

before.gifIf there is a kindred spirit to Jacques Nolot's Before I Forget a stark and brooding portrait of aging, mortality, and loneliness, it is probably Ventura Pons's contemporary film, Barcelona (A Map), a rumination on architecture and empty spaces as a reflection of internalized, decaying emotional landscapes. This internal struggle is uncompromisingly laid bare in the film's opening sequence, as a restless and convulsive Pierre Pruez (Jacques Nolot), wracked with pain from his failing health and struggling with the side effects of his HIV medication, rises from his bed to vomit on the bathroom sink, before mechanically taking another tablet to quell his nausea. A ruggedly handsome, well-heeled former gigolo who once cruised the red light district of Pigalle with such notable figures as critic and philosopher Roland Barthes, Pierre, now aging, estranged from friends (usually fellow hustlers who navigated through the same social circles in their youth), and financially insecure after having separated from his benefactor, Toutoune (Albert Mainella) years earlier, approaches twilight of his life with a somber defiance, penning his memoirs in his self-created isolation. Forced into increasingly humiliating situations by his paid young lover, Marc (Bastien d'Asnières), repeatedly cut short at potential breakthrough moments by his inattentive psychiatrist (David Kessler) during their therapy sessions (only to be offered superficial advice as a remedy for his despair), disinherited by Toutoune's estate when his former benefactor dies intestate (his will having curiously disappeared in the days before his death), and learning of his pragmatic friend, Georges's (Jean Pommier) success in obtaining an inheritance for an ex-convict and escort, Bruno (Bruno Moneglia) after a benefactor's death, Pierre's life has been reduced to a series of transactions that provide a semblance of connection. In this respect, the film also evokes Robert Bresson's Une Femme deuce in the way companionship and intimacy are negotiated and commodified, where even grocery deliveries and lunch dates equally serve as excuses for fleeting intimacy as reflections of their implied role within the relationship (in one humorous encounter, Georges boasts of his bargain hunting abilities in procuring a young companion at half the price that Pierre pays Marc, and offers to arrange an introduction). Curiously, it is within this intersection of commodity and intimacy that Nolot similarly finds kinship with Pons's film, closing with the idiosyncratic image of the protagonist in drag that neither reflects a social perversion nor self-mortification, but rather, an act of reinvention, libertine defiance, and reasserted identity.

Posted by acquarello on Feb 21, 2008 | | Filed under 2008, Film Comment Selects

February 19, 2008

A Wonderful World, 2006

wonderful.gifA drunken vagrant, Juan Pérez's (Damián Alcázar) unexpected turn in fortune after sneaking into an office at the World Financial Center headquarters one cold and rainy evening sets the stage for Luis Estrada's A Wonderful World, a dense, darkly comic, and provocative, if mean-spirited sardonic fairytale on the politics of poverty, charity, globalization, and social reform. Scurrying out the window to avoid being seen, Pérez discovers that he has been locked out when the janitor secures the office after his cleaning rounds. Now stranded on the ledge on the eve of the finance minister Lascuraian's (Antonio Serrano) landmark speech to the international community declaring that there are no longer any poor people in Mexico, the sight of the disheveled Pérez raving incoherently on the front façade of the building immediately captures the attention of the opposition press, who believe that his boorish attempts to draw attention to himself are the desperate cries of a man brought to the end of his tether by poverty. Seeking to make headlines and impress his hard-nosed editor (Pedro Armendáriz Jr.), a young reporter (Carlos Arau) embellishes Pérez's passing comment and reframes his misadventure as the iconic image of the government's failed policies. But when Pérez becomes an overnight cause célèbre in the newspaper's call for social reform, he soon finds himself courted by Lascuraian's own political operatives who see his support as a means of discrediting the opposition. Juxtaposing saturated tones and soft lighting that create the appearance of vintage film with contemporary themes of exclusion, marginalization, and disposability ushered by the global economy, Estrada presents the intrinsic fallacy of globalization in its engendering of social polarization. However, inasmuch as Estrada's indictment of institutional power proves relevant and impassioned - political exploitation by both left and right wing factions, religious hypocrisy, geopolitical meddling, and entrenched bourgeois values - the film's tendencies toward stereotyping and caricature in its injections of humor (most egregiously, in the portrayal of the poor as grimy, lazy, and oversexed drunkards) ultimately serves to dilute the film's potency, obscuring more fundamental issues of class stratification and socioeconomic genocide with facile illustrations of an exaggerated national character.

Posted by acquarello on Feb 19, 2008 | | Filed under 2008, Film Comment Selects

Joy Division, 2007

joydivision.gifGrant Gee frames the documentary of seminal band Joy Division as a city symphony that mirrors Manchester's revitalization - a convergence of musicians and friends coming of age during the city's decline from its heights as the cornerstone of the Industrial Revolution, as equally marked by the rebellious angst of a vibrant punk music scene and the groundbreaking modernist fiction of writers such as William S. Burroughs and Franz Kafka, as they were by the constant flux of their grim environment under the repressive conservatism of the Tory party government headed by Margaret Thatcher (a figurative social institutionalization that, as Peter Hook suggests, was reflected in the area's wide-scale construction of high-density housing to replace war-era ruins, as well as dilapidated houses that fell to neglect with the economic downturn). For local artists, this environment of institutionalization and decay, mass production and commodification would shape the hard edged, ambient (and often, electronically tinged) industrial sound of Factory Records, a homegrown, independent record label founded by charismatic television personality Tony Wilson and Alan Erasmus, and by the creative team of record producer Martin Hannett and graphic artist Peter Saville, that intrinsically captured the pulse of the city's deprivation, chaos, and angst. Composed of archival and home video performance footage, written annotations from Ian Curtis's wife, Deborah, and assorted, talking head interviews with former band members (Bernard Sumner, Stephen Morris, and Peter Hook), Tony Wilson, Peter Saville, industry critics, as well as Curtis's then-mistress, Belgian journalist Annik Honoré, Gee's articulate and understated approach to charting the trajectory of the band and its troubled lead singer serves to demythologize Curtis's enigmatic persona - from the band's inauspicious origins as an imitative, controversy-courting punk band, to an early photo shoot with rock photographer Anton Corbijn that would provide the group's iconic images, to the critical and commercial success of their first album, Unknown Pleasures, to the stress of Curtis's separation from his young family caused by the demands of touring and international fame that would lead to his increasingly violent bouts of epileptic seizures. Gee's astute incorporation of overlapping images, layering, and stitching (especially between Curtis's subdued television performances and his more spastic, autonomic trances during live shows) creates a sense of continuum that paradoxically underscores the film's themes of transformation and passage, even as it presents Curtis's death as a momentary, tragic act of human frailty, crystallizing an ephemeral moment when music captured the emotional landscape of an anonymous and disposable city and rehabilitated its wounded soul.

Posted by acquarello on Feb 19, 2008 | | Comments (2) | Filed under 2008, Film Comment Selects

February 18, 2008

Wolfsbergen, 2007

Wolfsbergen.gifOn the surface, the stationary, extended long take of a desolate, tree-lined woods, the unhurried opening shot of Nanouk Leopold's Wolfsbergen (channelling a sublimated naturalism that recalls Andrei Tarkovsky's The Sacrifice and Carlos Reygadas's Silent Light), seems disconnected from the film's succeeding, fragmented images of the quotidian. In one episode, a middle-aged woman, Maria (Catherine ten Bruggencate) travels out of the country to have a cosmetic procedure secretly performed, and is unsettled by a letter read during her return flight. The clinical images of the cosmetic surgeon's examining room is subsequently reflected in the shot of a middle-aged man, Ernst (Jan Decleir) briefly resting in the examination chair of his dental office before the arrival of his next patient. In another episode, lovers Sabine (Tamar van den Dop) and Micha (Oscar van Wounsel) sit in familiar silence post coitus, before parting for the afternoon. Their silent, unaffected intimacy is similarly evoked in the image of an emotionally fragile violinist, Eva (Karina Smulders) who looks on as a former lover flirts openly with a fellow musician during rehearsal. In still another episode, a contrite adolescent girl, Haas (Merel van Houts) helps her mother pick up the shards of broken tableware that she has dropped on the floor. Soon, the connection between these isolated characters emerge - Maria and her husband Ernst, their daughters Sabine and Eva, Sabine's husband Onno (Fedja van Huêt) and lover Micha, Sabine and Onno's daughters Haas and Zilver (Carmen Lith) - reluctantly brought together by the family patriarch, Konraad (Piet Kamerman) after he declares his intention of committing suicide on the anniversary of his wife's death. Hewing towards Jaime Rosales's Solitary Fragments (released in the same year), Leopold similarly integrates episodic, fragmented narrative, compartmentalization, and obstructed shots (often framed through doorways or against occluding objects) as a visual reinforcement of the characters' estrangement and emotional fracture. However, while Solitary Fragments uses bifurcated narratives as a means of illustrating converging emotional states, the bifurcations in Wolfsbergen are symptomatic of their own internalized fissures (a dysfunction that is harrowingly reflected in Haas's unconscious act of self-mutilation during her parents' argument). It is this self-destruction and emotional starvation that is poignantly embodied in Konraad's chosen method of suicide - an abstinence of water - that, like Tsai Ming-liang's recurring images of water, reflects an elemental human need for connection and intimacy.

Posted by acquarello on Feb 18, 2008 | | Filed under 2008, Film Comment Selects

The Duchess of Langeais (Ne touchez pas le hache), 2007

Langeais.gifJacques Rivette returns to the rigorous formalism and claustrophobic interiors of La Religeuse to create a refined, bituminous, and cooly smoldering tale of seduction, obsession, and manners in The Duchess of Langeais. Remaining faithful to the spirit of Honoré de Balzac’s nineteenth century novel (the second installment featuring the adventures of a secret organization known as the Thirteen), the film, nevertheless retains the imprint of Rivette’s recurring preoccupations with the stage, performance, conspiracy, and malleable time. In The Duchess of Langeais, the tell-tale signal for the start of the performance is cleverly concealed behind the rakish military officer and Napoleonic war hero, Armand de Montriveau’s (Guillaume Depardieu) impatient tapping of his cane during mass at a remote Spanish cloister, sullenly registering his displeasure at not being able to catch a glimpse of Las Descalzas, the barefoot nuns of St. Theresa, during services. Having arrived at the desolate peninsula on the Mediterranean after sailing to the ends of the earth over the past five years in search of his lost love, a Parisian aristocrat named Antoinette de Langeais (Jeanne Balibar), Montriveau is quick to dispense with formalities and exploit his influence in order to obtain a meeting with the order's sole French initiate who, accompanied by a Spanish-speaking chaperone, seems willing to consent to Montriveau's request for an audience by claiming him as her brother (note the reinforcement of the theater image in the parting of curtains that separate the cloistered nuns from the outside world). However, when Antoinette exposes the ruse in order to escape Montriveau's desperate entreaties, he is forced to confront the ghosts of their unreconciled past as he hatches a plan to liberate her from her spiritual captivity and compel her to return to face their impossible destiny. In presenting Antoinette and Montriveau's courtship as a choreography of performance, mise-en-scène (especially in Antoinette's feigned illness during one appointment, adjusting the room's lighting and accoutrements that reinforce their encounters as exercises in role-playing), and timing (in Antoinette's insistence on punctuality that provides the irony - and denouement - for their uncoupling), Rivette creates a potent metaphor for performance as both a mask and a nakedness, where the impenetrability of the human heart is exposed through frustrated, arbitrary rituals and untenable desire.

Posted by acquarello on Feb 18, 2008 | | Filed under 2008, Film Comment Selects