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November 2008 Archives

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