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January 9, 2010

Favorite Films of 2009

After a semi-accidental unmasking at a NYFF panel in 2008, it seems natural that Benoît Jacquot's Villa Amalia would be the first film I had seen in 2009 that would resonate with me, a film as much about abandoning identity as it is about finding one’s place in the aftermath. In a sense, the films on this year's list also revolve around the theme of identity, whether reconstructed through the imperfect prism of personal and cultural history (The White Ribbon, Independencia, The Beaches of Agnès, and Broken Embraces), or constantly redefined by the roles and spaces (and junctures) that they inhabit (In Comparison, Ghost Town, Everyone Else, Sense of Architecture, and 35 Shots of Rum).

Favorite Films (in preferential order):

The White Ribbon (Michael Haneke, 2009)
In Comparison (Harun Farocki, 2009)
Independencia (Raya Martin, 2009)
35 Shots of Rum (Claire Denis, 2008)
Villa Amalia (Benoît Jacquot, 2009)
Ghost Town (Zhao Dayong, 2009)
Everyone Else (Maren Ade, 2009
Sense of Architecture (Heinz Emigholz, 2005-2009)
Broken Embraces (Pedro Almodóvar, 2009)
The Beaches of Agnès (Agnès Varda, 2008)

Honorable Mentions (in alphabetical order):

Bellamy (Claude Chabrol, 2009)
Eccentricities of a Blond Hair Girl (Manoel de Oliveira, 2009)
Liverpool (Lisandro Alonso, 2009)
Police, Adjective (Corneliu Porumboiu, 2009)
Wild Grass (Alain Resnais, 2009)

Close Contenders:

The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow, 2008)
Un Lac (Philippe Grandrieux, 2008)
Ne Change Rien (Pedro Costa, 2009)
Revanche (Götz Spielmann, 2008)
Sacred Places (Jean-Marie Téno, 2009)

New Discoveries:

Seventeen (Joel DeMott and Jeff Kreines, 1983)
Torero (Carlos Velo, 1956)
Death on a Full Moon Day (Prasanna Vithanage, 1997)
Paria (Nicolas Klotz, 2000)
On the Passage of a Few Persons Through a Rather Brief Unity of Time (Guy Debord, 1959)

Part of Senses of Cinema 2009 World Poll.

Posted by acquarello on Jan 09, 2010 | | Comments (5) | Filed under 2009

December 28, 2009

Marguerite Duras (French Film Directors) by Renate Günther

duras_gunther.gifIn Marguerite Duras, author Renate Günther examines Marguerite Duras's films from the perspective of interweaving politics and memory that runs through her body of work. Born in Gia-Dinh in French Indochina (now Vietnam), the only daughter of emigrant teachers Emile and Marie Donnadieu who moved to the colonies in search of a better life, Duras's early life would be marked by the intersection of the personal and political - first, as a member of the working class who better identified with the indigenes than with other colonialists in their exclusion from bourgeois colonial society (especially after the family fell into poverty following her father's death), and subsequently as a young woman in occupied France who became involved with the resistance and the plight of Jewish people in World War II. Indeed, even her adopted pen name of Duras, assumed from a childhood village where the Donnadieu family had resettled after her father's illness, reveals an element of autobiographic fictionalization that characterizes her work:

Although Duras transformed her experience into art, she did not do so by simply telling the 'story of her life', as she did not believe that the chaos of memory could or should be subjugated to the contrived order of a linear and logically structured novelistic or filmic narrative. Instead she isolated significant moments in her life and condensed them, in fictionalized form, into the recurring scenarios that run through the texts of her films. This repetition with variations of the same core material is one of the hallmarks of Duras's work, as she creates clusters of references through which texts and films mirror and transform one another.

A familiar instance of this process of fictional condensation and repetition is embodied by the recurring iconic character, Anne-Marie Stretter who appears in Duras's novels La Ravissement de Lol V. Stein, Le Vice-consul, and L'Amant, and also in her film, India Song. Inspired by Elisabeth Streidter, the wealthy, strikingly beautiful Swiss wife of a provincial administrator whose daughters were close to Duras's age (as well as the unrequited object of desire of a young man who committed suicide), Stretter not only represented the socioeconomic ideal of the colonial bourgeoisie that the Donnadieus were excluded from, but also Duras's ambivalent relationship with her mother, whose attention and devotion were largely lavished on her eldest brother, Pierre, at the expense of the younger children.

However, rather than creating fictionalized versions of autobiographical episodes, Duras emphasizes the disjunction through dissociation, desynchronization, and non-linearity, creating the aesthetic of voix off in which off-screen voices are used in lieu of synchronized sound to accompany the visual track and maintain separation between image and sound:

Duras's filmic technique, then, illustrates her view that cinema is not a transparent reflection of the world, but a highly complex construct which should be presented as such. But the gap between voice and image does more than merely show the artificial nature of cinema. It also creates an unsettling feeling of dislocation within the spectator's own sense of identity which, for the duration of the film, loses its usual cohesion and unity. Duras's films demonstrate that the notion of a stable coherent self or 'subject' is, in fact, an illusion which, in Western patriarchal cultures at least, has been used by dominant social groups to reinforce their position of power over those who have been defined as 'the object', 'the other'.

As with the fictional incarnation of Stretter, the composite autobiographical episodes from Duras's childhood would similarly form the recurring image of the beggar woman whose fictionalized biography is recounted in India Song and Son nom de Venise dan Calcutta désert: a desperate Vietnamese woman, near death, who had handed her equally gravely ill child over to Duras's mother (Duras ended up caring for the child who died a few days later), and an emaciated, screaming beggar woman known as "la folle de Vinhlong" who, for Duras, symbolized the fear of mental illness (and implicitly, the sense of helplessness) that she harbored throughout her life. But more importantly, the beggar woman also represents a stateless and disenfranchisement that expound on Duras's recurring themes of class and division, as illustrated in her transposition as a drifter in Le Camion and more loosely, by the unseen, immigrant sanitation workers who sweep the pre-dawn streets of Paris in Les Mains négatives:

The theme of racist oppression and exclusion in Le Camion is also reflected in the film's location, since the lorry's journey takes us through a region inhabited entirely by immigrants, including a large Portuguese community. As Duras explained, the latter used to live in caravans near the railway station at Plaisir, but were evicted and rehoused in the grandes ensembles, the blocks of flats which we occasionally see in the film. Exiled from their native country and subsequently excluded from mainstream French society, the immigrants are condemned to live in this desolate landscape, evoked in the text by the woman's repeated vision of 'la fin du monde', 'the end of the world'.

Indeed, inasmuch as Duras's films all contain a political dimension, Le Camion is perhaps the most overtly personal response to a political autobiography - her own estrangement from the PCF (Parti Communiste Français) - featuring a truck driver whose hardline membership in the PCF unconsciously perpetuates the artificial divisions inherent in a monolithic identity:

This denunciation of political power in Le Camion begins with Duras's vehement criticism of the PCF which can be traced back to her resignation and subsequent expulsion from the party in 1950, after her seven-year experience as a fervent activist. The sense of loss she experienced following this episode was exacerbated by the fact that for her the PCF had become a substitute family, creating a strong personal identification in addition to her political commitment.

Similarly, Nathalie Granger also represents a personal and political convergence, this time, within the context of the post 1968 French feminist movement, the publishing of the solidarity petition in Le Nouvel observateur in 1971 to protest outdated abortion laws from the 1920s, and the 1972 mass demonstrations in Paris against the trivialization of rape in the French judicial system. Citing the duality intrinsic in the women's insular environment, suggesting both imprisonment and utopia, repression and violence (reinforced through the broadcast news of escaped convicts that accompany the extended shots of domestic chores), Günther provides an insightful and exhaustive deconstruction of the film's structure and its process of illustrating, diagnosing, and finally refiguring the mechanics of social class and gender roles.

The notion of gender as performance is clearly relevant to Nathalie Granger, as Depardieu's slightly exaggerated gestures and facial expressions constantly remind us not only that he is an actor, but also that the male figure he represents is acting out the role of the salesman as part of this gendered spectacle. The sharp contrast, furthermore, between the man's initially confident performance and his subsequent vulnerability in front of the women also foregrounds this discrepancy between his spurious masculinity and the fundamental humanity he shares with Isabelle and her friend. It is evident, then, that the women's implicit violence is not directed at the man personally, but rather at a society that imposes such a rigid prescription of gendered behavior on a multitude of different individuals.

...At the end of the film then, Duras transcends the barriers of both gender and class by creating a relationship of mutual understanding between a working-class man and two middle-class women. The oppositional categories of the Symbolic order become irrelevant, as the man reconnects with his 'femininity', just as the women's anger and violence are an expression of their 'masculinity'.

Posted by acquarello on Dec 28, 2009 | | Filed under 2009, Film Related Reading

December 16, 2009

Los Condenados, 2009

condenados.gifThe delineation between reality and mythology, ideal and application also provides the catalyst for Isaki Lacuesta's first fiction film, Los Condenados (The Condemned). The rupture is prefigured in the opening image of a gaunt, Argentinean expatriate, Martín (Daniel Fanego) undergoing a CT scan at a Spanish hospital, the implication of cancer suggesting a hidden, indefinable turmoil that continues to haunt the consciousness. For Martín, the sickness resurfaces in a message from longtime friend and former guerilla fighter, Raúl (Arturo Goetz), inviting him to an excavation of mass graves under the ruse of a university-sponsored archaeological dig in the remote countryside to search for the desaparecidos, in particular, a comrade named Ezequiel who went missing after being kidnapped by the state some thirty years earlier during the "dirty war". With Ezequiel's widow, Andrea (Leonor Manso) and mother, Luisa (Juana Hidalgo) in tow, Raúl has also enlisted the aid of Vicky (María Fiorentino), a dissident who, like Martín, had been held captive in a network of undisclosed jungle prisons. Idolized by the younger generation, especially Vicky's son Pablo (Nazareno Casero), Martín's complacency and distraction proves a stark contrast to his reputation as elusive rebel leader and ideological godfather - a friction that forces them to re-evaluate their own imperfect memories over their mutual, buried past. In its elliptical, organic structure and images of the jungle as a metaphor for interiority, Los Condenados suggests kinship with Lisandro Alonso's Los Muertos and Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. Moreover, inasmuch as Vargas's homecoming reframes the intrigue of his past into the banal in Los Muertos, Martín's journey also represents a demythification. Curiously, it is this dismantling of the heroic myth that also resolves the mystery of the disappearances, confronting the romanticism of failed revolution and, in the process, reconciling the hidden spaces between history and memory.

Posted by acquarello on Dec 16, 2009 | | Filed under 2009, Spanish Cinema Now

December 15, 2009

Torero, 1956

torero.gifRefining the theme of documented reality and reconstructed history introduced in his earlier film, Moroccan Romance, Carlos Velo's reflective and ecstatic Torero is equally an autobiography on charismatic Mexican bullfighter, Luis Procuna, and an unvarnished examination of bullfighting culture. Presented as an extended interior monologue as an anxious Procuna prepares to return to the ring after a prolonged absence caused by injury, as well as the unexpected death of cerebral, renowned Spanish bullfighter and admired contemporary, Manolete, the film seamlessly interweaves past and present, archival footage and re-enactment. Chronicling Procuna's rise from abject poverty (underscoring the correlation between bullfighting and escapism that also runs through Llorenç Soler's 52 Sundays), makeshift training, inauspicious debut, and personal and professional milestones, Velo incisively captures the ambivalent, often contradictory nature of the collective spectacle, where the relationship between the bullfighter and the audience proves to be as fickle and mercurial as the bulls themselves. Velo illustrates this ephemerality through two near real-time sequences that figuratively bookend Procuna's career - first, as a third-billed performer who emerges from the shadows after injuries cut short the main attraction, then subsequently, as a famous bullfighter nearing the end of his career who is goaded into returning to the ring, only to be jeered when his performance proves to be cautious. Juxtaposed against images of Procuna's humble aspirations - his childhood home, his mother's memorial, his loving family - Velo presents as thoughtful allegory for the fragile, often arbitrary delineation between humanity and mythology, where transcendence, like truth, lies in the inconstant eye of the beholder.

Posted by acquarello on Dec 15, 2009 | | Filed under 2009, Carlos Velo, Spanish Cinema Now

December 14, 2009

Almadrabas, 1934

Carlos Velo and Fernando G. Mantilla's quietly observed documentary, Almadrabas loosely prefigures Agnès Varda's La Pointe courte in capturing the rhythm and rituals of a small fishing village. Ostensibly titled after the Moorish word describing the structure of nets, the film follows the product cycle of canned tuna - from the fishermen who go out to sea to trawl the ocean, to the fishmongers who clean and dress the fish for curing and sale, to the cannery workers who cook, season, and package them in tins for export. As the title suggests, Almadrabas also illustrates the interconnectedness of the village, both as a close knit community and as workers contributing to the town's primary industry. In a way, Velo and Mantilla's idiosyncratic use of amplified ambient sounds, most notably in the cadence of water droplets and the undifferentiated white noise of machinery, anticipates Ritwik Ghatak's use of allusive sounds as a reflection of internal states. However, rather than imposing a psychological framework, Velo and Mantilla allude to an integrally sociopolitical context in their juxtaposition of village life and commerce, figuratively aligning the circumstances of the villagers with those of the hapless fish captured in their highly efficient nets, destined to feed the insatiable appetites of an anonymous, consumer-driven global economy.

Posted by acquarello on Dec 14, 2009 | | Filed under 2009, Carlos Velo, Spanish Cinema Now

Moroccan Romance, 1939

moroccan.gifFilmed during the Spanish Civil War, Carlos Velo and Enrique Domínguez Rodiño's Moroccan Romance (Romancero marroquí) bears the imprint of Robert Flaherty's ethnographic documentaries in its distilled (if manipulated) images of a distant, exotic - and exoticized - culture. Part colonialist travelogue on aspects of life in contemporary Morocco (and implicitly, the benefits of imposed western culture on the native population in such areas as medicine and the local economy) and part recruitment propaganda extolling the virtues of a franquista revolution, the film reflects what author Marsha Kinder describes as the idiosyncrasies of Spanish documentary in its malleable fusion of real and constructed history. Composed of seemingly disparate segments - a panorama of Morrocan customs, a human interest story on a Moroccan farmer, Aalima, who volunteers to serve in Franco's army, a youth march in Spain - the film's fractured construction invariably reflects its complicated production history, specifically, Carlos Velo's precarious role as a leftist republican covertly working on a commissioned project that promotes a nationalist agenda. Forced to flee the protectorate before the editing of the film to avoid exposure (Velo would eventually live in exile in Mexico), Velo nevertheless asserts his unmistakable aesthetic in the spare compositions and textured landscapes that capture the quotidian, even as jingoistic sermons on colonialist unity, romanticized images of war, and a sobering epilogue depicting youth military exercises that trivialize warfare as a series of role-playing exercises undercut the film's essential, humanist tone.

Posted by acquarello on Dec 14, 2009 | | Filed under 2009, Carlos Velo, Spanish Cinema Now

November 21, 2009

The Overcoat, 1952

overcoat.gifIn an early sequence in Alberto Lattuada's The Overcoat, the mayor (Giulio Stival) relishes the idea of history having to be rewritten as a result of an archaeologist's discovery of ancient artifacts that had been unearthed during the groundbreaking of his commissioned, large-scale urbanization project. Designed to transform the landscape of the town's main square - one that strategically obstructs the view to the impoverished, outlying suburbs - in time for a dignitary's official visit, the project receives overwhelming support from the council despite its steep price tag in the belief that the investment would elevate the city's status on a national level. This idea of exploitive economics and window dressing as a means of gaining respect and dignity also foreshadows the plight of lowly office clerk, De Carmine (Renato Rascel whose reluctant purchase of a handsomely styled, fur-trimmed overcoat from the local tailor (having been unable to convince him to repair his well worn, but still functional overcoat) unexpectedly gains him entry into the rarefied world of high society. Retaining Nikolai Gogol's idiosyncratic fusion of social commentary, wry humor, and gothic tale, Lattuada, nevertheless, diverges from the dreamlike narrative of Gogol's short story, and instead, frames De Carmine's bumbling encounters as a realistic, if satirical, exposition on the arbitrary and superficial nature of privilege and exclusion. Transplanting Gogol's cautionary tale from nineteenth century St. Petersburg to contemporary Italy, Lattuada creates an incisive allegory for the underlying reality of postwar reconstruction and its inequitable human cost under the illusion of collective rebuilding, cultural development, and social progress.

Posted by acquarello on Nov 21, 2009 | | Filed under 2009, Alberto Lattuada, Ancillary Film Notes

November 2, 2009

A Lake, 2008

un_lac.gifWith a Russian cast, minimal French dialogue, and geographically ambiguous setting, Philippe Grandrieux's A Lake (Un Lac), like his multilingual preceding film, La Vie nouvelle, expounds on the notion of a borderless cinema - one that not only dismantles the man-made frontiers between nations and cultures, but also the boundaries between image and sound, material and light, logic and instinct. And like the indeterminate chronology of La Vie nouvelle, A Lake also takes place in a hermetic environment that seems equally primordial and post-apocalyptic, where human interaction is reduced to its essence: a knowing glance, a comforting touch, a frenzied exertion, an anguished cry.

In A Lake, the figurative Garden of Eden is a barren, winter forest shrouded in mist where a lumberjack, Alexi (Dmitry Kubasov) lives in a remote cabin near a lake. Prone to increasingly frequent bouts of epilepsy, Alexi's trips to the woods are as much a necessary ritual for survival as it is a rugged communion with nature, often ending up burrowed by convulsions into the snow until the seizure passes and he is able to walk home. There are other members in the household - a blind mother, Liv (Simona Huelsemann), a returning father, Christian (Vitaly Kishchenko), a younger brother, Johannes (Artur Semay) - but they all remain in the periphery, drifting in an out of his searching gaze, and only his sister and soul mate, Hege (Natalie Rehorova) can penetrate his frustration and despair over a body that continues to betray him. It is a lonely, if reassuring and predictable existence until a stranger, Jurgen (Alexei Solonchev) comes into their lives and, like the felled trees in the forest, momentarily, but irreparably, disturbs their fragile paradise.

Loosely reminiscent of Aleksandr Sokurov's Mother and Son in its invocation of Caspar David Friedrich's gothic landscapes to convey a sense of profound isolation, intimacy, and longing, A Lake, nevertheless, remains very much a Grandrieux film, bearing his singular imagery of synaptic, perturbating camerawork, defocused framing, and liminal compositions that transform everyday movements and rhythms into a frisson of textured, abstract impulses that feed the senses. Eschewing the moral ambiguity and transgressive nature of his earlier films, A Lake also represents an aesthetic shift in Grandrieux's cinema towards the idea of nature as integral character: a transition that is implied in Alexi's recitation of a passage about the unity of the soul between man and beast, as well as his lack of dominion over the ephemeral forces of nature. It is this image of humanity receding into the environment that ultimately creates the visceral poetry of A Lake, capturing the body as landscape in all its gestures and paroxysms, contours and spaces, violence and ecstasy.
First posted on AFI Fest Daily News, 10/01/09.

Posted by acquarello on Nov 02, 2009 | | Comments (3) | Filed under 2009, Ancillary Film Notes, Philippe Grandrieux

October 18, 2009

Broken Embraces, 2009

broken_embraces.gifIngeniously constructed as parallel metafilms - one, Ray X's (Rubén Ochandiano) behind the scenes documentary that illustrates the intersection (and disjunction) between reality and fiction; the other, Mateo's (Lluís Homar) reconstruction of a doomed film project made 14 years earlier that reflects the role of the filmmaker as archaeologist and conjurer - Pedro Almodóvar's wry, multivalent, and voluptuous Broken Embraces is also a poignant rumination on grief, guilt, and loss. The theme of duality is prefigured in Mateo's adoption of the name Harry Caine, his screenwriter alterego, after a tragic accident that left him blind, as well as office secretary, Lena's adoption of the pseudonym Severine (in a playful nod to Luis Buñuel's Belle de jour) when she moonlights as a call girl to help pay for the mounting expenses incurred by her father's terminal illness.

This assumption of persona is also implied in an early episode of Lena trying out assorted costumes that emulate iconic images of Hollywood actresses as part of her screen test for Mateo's film project, Girls and Suitcases (a reflexive reworking of Almodóvar's earlier film, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown), simultaneously evoking Blake Edwards's Breakfast at Tiffany's in Lena's literal and figurative prostitution to her employer turned lover, Ernesto (José Luis Gómez) that is as motivated by financial necessity as it is by gratitude, as well as Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo in Mateo's attempt to conform Lena to the image of his creative vision and desire. It is interesting to note that the idea of projected desire is also revisited in the episodes of Ernesto spying on Lena through his son's unsynced documentary footage with the help of a neutral lip reader - an image that not only finds affinity with Chantal Akerman's recurring theme of "who speaks for the woman", but also converges into a sublime double projection when Lena enters the room and repeats her on-camera declaration in person, in essence, supplanting the image with the real. It is this transformation that perhaps best captures the haunting closing image of a reinvigorated Mateo against a magnified, recovered footage from the accident - revealing, not only a longing to suspend time and reconfigure the past, but also, in casting his own shadow against the projected image, an invocation.

Posted by acquarello on Oct 18, 2009 | | Comments (6) | Filed under 2009, New York Film Festival

Bluebeard, 2009

bluebeard.gifOstensibly an adaptation of Charles Perrault's baroque fairytale, Bluebeard is also a distilled and densely layered exposition on Catherine Breillat's recurring preoccupation with socioeconomic and sexual politics. Structured as a tale within a tale, the film alternates between past and present, childhood and adolescence, fiction and reality. On one level is bright, cherubic Catherine (Marilou Lopes-Benites) who sneaks away into the attic with her older, more gullible sister, Marie-Anne (Lola Giovannetti) to read Perrault's fairytale. On another level is the realization of the fairytale itself: the plight of dowry-less, virginal Marie-Catherine (Lola Créton) who is compelled to marry the reclusive nobleman, Bluebeard (Dominique Thomas) in order to lift her mother (Isabelle Lapouge) and older sister, Anne (Daphne Baïwir) from a life of poverty following the accidental death of her father. By interchanging Catherine and Marie-Catherine during a pivotal staircase shot, Breillat draws an implicit parallel between the real and fictional younger sisters. At the core of the intersected stories is the idea of role reversal: Catherine, who relishes her ability to terrify her older sister with her all-too-animated readings of Bluebeard; and Marie-Catherine, who not only brings financial security to her family, but also asserts influence over her world-weary, murderous husband with her disarming innocence. Combined with elements of reflexive construction - specifically, the mismatched cuts of Marie-Catherine ascending the tower staircase that emphasize a looped editing used to achieve the illusion of verticality - Breillat creates a droll and incisive metaphor for the nature of empowerment.

Posted by acquarello on Oct 18, 2009 | | Filed under 2009, New York Film Festival

October 17, 2009

White Material, 2009

whitematerial.gifA textured panorama of modern day Africa's dynamic and volatile cross-cultural landscape, Claire Denis's White Material is an abstract and elemental, if oddly sterile rumination on colonial legacy and socioeconomic stagnation. Unfolding in episodic flashbacks as second-generation coffee plantation owner, Maria Vial (Isabelle Huppert) scrambles to make her way back home after a forced evacuation of European settlers in light of an escalating civil war, the film structurally interweaves the parallel lives of the Vial family, a band of roving child soldiers scouring the countryside for "white material" trophies from fleeing settlers, and a charismatic military officer turned rebel leader known as the Boxer (Isaach De Bankolé) who has gone into hiding to recover from injuries sustained during a recent skirmish. With the family patriarch, Henri (Michel Subor) removed from day to day operations, her estranged husband, André (Christopher Lambert) seeking protection from the corrupt, warlord-like mayor (William Nadylam) by secretly agreeing to sign over the deed to the plantation, and her immature son, Manuel (Nicolas Duvauchelle) unwilling to take on responsibility for the family business, Maria is left alone to manage the upcoming harvest, negotiating with former employees and impoverished villagers in an attempt to bring the coffee to market. But as agents of the civil war circle ever closer towards the near deserted plantation, Maria's illusive quest soon becomes a journey into the heart of darkness. By decentralizing the conflict to an indeterminate country even as she incorporates real-life elements from contemporary African history (most notably, in the Boxer character who is based on assassinated Burkina Faso president, Thomas Sankara, and the induction of child soldiers in the civil wars of Angola and Sierra Leone), Denis incisively dissociates the issue of African stagnation from reductive presumptions of long-standing tribal (and implicitly localized) conflict, reframing it instead within the broader context of racial, economic, educational, and class division. It is perhaps this sense of universality that ultimately defines the form of Denis's uncharacteristically raw and unfocused film, reflecting, like the unprocessed coffee beans, an immediacy that transcends simple economic reality and instead converges towards murkier implications of globalism and cultural survival.

Posted by acquarello on Oct 17, 2009 | | Comments (3) | Filed under 2009, New York Film Festival

Mother, 2009

mother.gifInasmuch as Life During Wartime explores the limits of forgiveness, Bong Joon-ho's Mother poses a sinister corollary in its tale of a parent's unwavering devotion to her child. The price exacted is prefigured in the opening shot of the impassive, titular mother (Kim Hye-Ja) wandering through the countryside with arms flailing to the rhythm of an imaginary dance. The sole provider and caretaker of Do-joon (Bin Won), her dimwitted, accident-prone adult son, she anxiously watches over him from across the window of her herb shop as he invariably gets himself into precarious situations. Sideswiped by a speeding car one day when he leans out into the street, Do-joon is goaded into chasing the occupants into a golf course to retaliate, even as he seems to have forgotten the reason for the pursuit. A trip to the police station leads to more confusion when the driver decides to file a complaint for vandalizing his car, and Do-joon is forced to pay for repairs when he is unable to remember who had caused the damage. Soon, Do-joon's pattern of short-term memory loss strikes a more somber tone when a schoolgirl is found murdered on the roof of a hillside building, and all clues seem to lead back to him. Suggesting a loose reconstitution of Bong's earlier film Memories of Murder in the pursuit of a handicapped suspect, Mother similarly subverts the crime fiction genre in its implication of national history in aberrant psychology. It is also in this context of repressed memories that Mother transcends the genre in its potent social commentary on the illusion of cultural amnesia as a way forward from traumatic, unreconciled history.

Posted by acquarello on Oct 17, 2009 | | Comments (5) | Filed under 2009, New York Film Festival

October 15, 2009

Around a Small Mountain (36 Views of Saint-Loup Peak), 2009

around_mountain.gifIn a scene that occurs midway through Jacques Rivette's 36 Views of Saint-Loup Peak, former circus performer turned textile designer, Kate (Jane Birkin) returns to Paris with a batch of fabrics that she has dyed during a visit to her family's provincial circus and tries to match the color of the swatches to a Pantone chart, discovering that the hues had turned out differently from how they appeared when she had inspected them under the circus lights. The idea of the circus as facilitating a different way of seeing is a theme that surfaces throughout the film, creating a broader analogy for the stage as an intersection between real life and performance. It is this sense of novelty that would also draw globe-trotting Italian businessman, Vittorio (Sergio Castellitto) into the world of a dying circus, prompted by Kate's invitation to see the show as a token of gratitude for fixing her stranded car. Returning after years of forced separation in order to mourn the loss of her father (who, in turn, was responsible for her exile) with her sister, Barbara (Vimala Pons) and niece, Clémence (Julie-Marie Parmentier), Kate is reluctant to step into the ring again, having once been involved in a tragic accident that would claim the life of her lover. But as Vittorio becomes as increasingly seduced by the elusive Kate as he is by resident clown, Marlo's (Jacques Bonnaffé) infinite variations on the opening skit for each show, he begins to immerse himself further into the everyday chaos of the circus in the belief that the ring represents the key to finding closure. Composed of self-contained episodes that underscore the construction and artifice implicit in a performance, 36 Views of Saint-Loup Peak is a whimsical and bittersweet allegory for the stage as a place of adventure, mystery, and wonder. Alternating sequences between the performers and their performances that allude to their interchangeability, Rivette creates a poignant metaphor for life as human comedy and ever-changing spectacle.

Posted by acquarello on Oct 15, 2009 | | Filed under 2009, New York Film Festival

October 13, 2009

Life During Wartime, 2009

life_wartime.gifDuring the Q&A, cinematographer Edward Lachman commented that the more aesthetic look to Life During Wartime with respect to Todd Solondz's earlier work was a result of Solondz's direction that the film convey a degree of unnaturalness and plasticity. On the surface, this image of conscious construction seems inconsistent with the sense of organic continuity achieved by revisiting characters (albeit transfigured) from Solondz's earlier film, Happiness: a narrative progression existing outside the frame that is suggested in the in medias res opening sequence with neurotic couple, Allen (Michael K. Williams) and Joy (Shirley Henderson) celebrating their anniversary at a restaurant before having their romantic dinner scuttled when the waitress recognizes Allen's voice as that of her obscene phone caller. As in Happiness, Life During Wartime is also interconnected by the three sisters' unrequited search for happiness: Trish (Allison Janney) the divorced mother just returning to the dating scene after her ex-husband, Bill (Ciarán Hinds) was imprisoned for pedophilia; writer Helen (Ally Sheedy) whose persona ever teeters between mercurial artist and narcissistic celebrity; and fragile Joy who, still haunted by her jilted lover, Andy's (Paul Reubens) suicide, decides to run away to Miami to re-evaluate her marriage. At the core of Solondz's perversely wry satire is the nature - and limits - of forgiveness in its various incarnations, from crime and punishment, to moral transgression, to weakness and despair. Framed against the image of pervasive artificiality, Solondz creates an eccentric metaphor for longing as a manifestation of impossible construction, where only the prospect of redemption, not happiness, lies within our grasp.

Posted by acquarello on Oct 13, 2009 | | Filed under 2009, New York Film Festival

The White Ribbon, 2009

white_ribbon.gifSet in an unidentified Protestant village in northern Germany during the early part of the twentieth century, Michael Haneke's luminous and atmospheric The White Ribbon is a crystallization of his recurring preoccupations with the ambiguity of truth, class division, surveillance, and the violence of repression. Prefacing the story with the acknowledgment that his memory of the past may be flawed, the narrator - the village schoolteacher (Christian Friedel) - recounts the strange events that happened to their community in the preceding years before the war, tracing the initial occurrence to a widowed doctor (Rainer Bock) who sustained serious injuries after falling from his horse near his home. A more ominous, unrelated tragedy would soon overshadow the mysterious circumstances behind the doctor's fall: the death of a peasant woman who fell through the rotted floor of a mill owned by the baron (Ulrich Tukur) and his wife (Ursina Lardi). Wary of public opinion over his own culpability for the accident, the baron begins to distance himself further from the community, briefly emerging to host a harvest festival for his tenant farmers that only serves to reinforce their mutual disdain when a drunken guest exacts revenge by uprooting the baroness's vegetable garden. Distracted by his own romantic pursuit of the baron's governess, Eva (Leonie Benesch), the schoolmaster initially remains indifferent to the mysteries surrounding the village, until another incident derails his own prospects for happiness. Part deconstructed mystery and part clinical observation, Haneke's combination of crisp black and white and neutral framing insightfully reflects the spectrum of social division - wealth, age, gender, education, spirituality, moral conscience - that equally serve as historical précis for prewar Germany and contemporary allegory for religious extremism (an analogy that is implied in the image of parishioners in church as the schoolmaster conveys the news of Archduke Franz Ferdinand's assassination).

Posted by acquarello on Oct 13, 2009 | | Filed under 2009, New York Film Festival

October 10, 2009

Everyone Else, 2009

everyone_else.gifThe title of Maren Ade's quietly observed film is subtly conveyed in passing, a desire expressed by uninhibited rock publicist, Gitti (Birgit Minichmayr) to her architect boyfriend, Chris (Lars Eidinger) that their relationship will not be reduced to the banal paradigm of being like "everyone else". But romanticism soon collides with reality for the couple during a holiday to Sardinia. This rupture crystallizes in an episode in which Chris (Lars Eidinger) gives a tour of his mother's sitting room to dinner guests, Hans (Hans-Jochen Wagner) and his wife Sana (Nicole Marischka) despite Gitti's reluctance - an eclectically furnished room with a painted tree branch, personal mementos, whimsical curios, and a passé record collection that prompts Sana to remark that the room is filed with longing. It is a comment that would also embody the nature of Chris and Gitti's relationship and its gradual unraveling. Increasingly insecure over professional setbacks, the reserved Chris is reluctant to involve Gitti in his affairs, avoiding disclosure that he had lost a prestigious design contest by claiming that the selection had still not been announced. Reuniting with old friend and fellow architect (and implicit rival) Hans, Chris and Gitti begin to reevaluate their relationship within the paradigm of Hans and Sana's seemingly parsed, well-defined roles within their own relationship and, in the process, begin to lose their own identities. Ade insightfully uses flat compositions and medium shots to de-dramatize the action, creating a neutral framing that reflects the fluid dynamics intrinsic in the formation and dissolution of all relationships. Framed in the context of the mother's sitting room, their struggle is also an unarticulated longing expressed through ridiculous, imperfect displays of personality and validation.

Posted by acquarello on Oct 10, 2009 | | Comments (3) | Filed under 2009, New York Film Festival

Min Yè, 2009

MinYe.gifDuring the Q&A for the film, Souleymane Cissé and lead actress Sokona Gakou remarked that with only one remaining movie theater in the country, just being able to make a film in Mali is something of a small miracle. It is a responsibility to Malian and African culture that is not lost in Min Yè, a vivid panorama of contemporary middle-class life in Mali that eschews all too familiar images of stagnation, illiteracy, and poverty that often serve as scapegoats for enabling archaic customs. In Min Yè, the polygamist is not an uneducated villager but a Westernized filmmaker, Issa (Assane Kouyaté), whose third wife, Mimi (Gakou) is a doctor and high-profile health minister. Accustomed to a certain degree of empowerment and independence from her husband (deciding to stay in her own house instead of moving into his household), Mimi carries on a not-too-subtle affair with the married Abba (Alou Sissoko), a fishmonger who sends her a tell-tale case of fish after each encounter as a token of his affection. Confronted by Issa with his suspicions of infidelity after he finds Abba in the courtyard, Mimi decides to file for divorce, a move that soon brings on a new set of complications, as relatives plead for reconciliation to avoid the shame, Issa's second wife increasingly resents the attention paid to Mimi, and Abba's wife begins to grow suspicious of Mimi's role in her husband's life. Cissé subtly, but incisively explores the question of polygamy through its corrosive repercussions - from abrogated custodial rights of women to their children, to the hypocrisy of adultery laws that enforce a one-sided marriage fidelity, to societal pressures that foster a status quo, even among the powerful, educated leaders and professionals who are in a position to enable social change.

Posted by acquarello on Oct 10, 2009 | | Filed under 2009, New York Film Festival

October 8, 2009

Hadewijch, 2009

Hadewijch.gifBruno Dumont's Hadewijch departs from his familiar aesthetic of landscapes as abstract manifestations of internal states to create a spare and intimate, yet equally provocative exploration of absolute faith, martyrdom, and God's silence. From the opening shot of an ascetic postulant, Céline (Julie Sokolowski) making her way across the woods to visit a Pietà at a nearby church, Dumont channels Robert Bresson's cinema, suggesting an updated version of the frail country priest in Diary of a Country Priest walking to his new parish. Sent back to live in the "real world" after disobeying the Mother Superior's entreaties that she end her self-imposed mortification, Céline's reality proves to be far from the terrestrial grounding that the nuns had in mind, returning to a comfortable, if aimless bourgeois life as the daughter of a cabinet minister. Befriending a young man from the banlieue, Yassine (Yassine Salim), Céline becomes increasingly drawn to his older brother, an imam named Nassir (Karl Sarafdis) whose theological discussions on the Koran mirror her own unrequited quest - a connection that would lead her further into spiritual darkness. In its portrait of disaffected youth in the aftermath of traumatic history, Hadewijch converges towards The Devil, Probably, where revolution is borne of uncertainty and displaced passion. However, inasmuch as Dumont invokes the spirit of Bresson throughout the film, the concluding shot of Céline by the river proves to be a subversion of the iconic sequence from Mouchette, achieving transcendence, not from immolation, but from salvation.

Posted by acquarello on Oct 08, 2009 | | Filed under 2009, New York Film Festival

Ne Change Rien, 2009

NeChangeRien.gifLike his earlier documentary, Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie? on seminal filmmakers Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet at work on Sicilia!, Pedro Costa's Ne Change Rien plays on the idea of répétition as the act of rehearsal and iteration to capture the ephemeral nature of the creative process. Shot in black and white, Costa's chiaroscuro and neutral framing compositions create distinctive textures from a monochromatic palette that illustrate the spectrum of Jeanne Balibar's diverse performances. For the prelude song, Torture, a down-directional spotlight illuminates Balibar on a dark stage, framing her slight figure in a cone of light that echoes the song's sentiment of emotional captivity. In a studio rehearsal for Cinéma, Balibar and guitarist Rodolphe Burger are framed in an extended, stationary medium shot as they explore variations on the refrain, "peine perdue" before deciding to slow down the delivery of the second instance as a way to "emphasize the silence", reinforcing the nuances achieved in the seeming sameness of the repeating line. Another side of Balibar emerges in the rehearsals for the opéra bouffe La Périchole by Jacques Offenbach - appropriately framing her in profile to reflect her multi-faceted artistry - as an off-screen voice coach emphasizes the precision intrinsic in the pronunciation and intonation of the piece. For These Days, Costa shoots the live performance with a shallow depth of field, resulting in a sharply focused Balibar against a blurred, almost ghostly cast of musicians that take on a metaphysical dimension in its stark contrast between the tactile and the ethereal. Concluding with the isolated spotlighting of Balibar and Berger during the studio recording of Ton Diable, the image becomes a metaphor for the deconstruction of the creative process, the synthesis of distinctive, individual voices into crescendoed, sublimated polyphony.

Posted by acquarello on Oct 08, 2009 | | Filed under 2009, New York Film Festival

October 7, 2009

Henri-Georges Clouzot's Inferno, 2009

inferno.gifA reconstruction of Henri-Georges Clouzot's aborted film project, Inferno assembled from found (or more accurately, negotiated) footage, interviews with film crew and on-set observers, and script reading by actors Jacques Gamblin and Bérénice Bejo in the roles of Odette and Marcel, Serge Bromberg and Ruxandra Medrea's Henri-Georges Clouzot's Inferno loosely recalls José Luis Guerín's cinema in exploring the intersection between fiction and non-fiction, reality and memory. Re-contextualizing the reality of the captured footage with first-hand accounts of the film shoot, Bromberg and Medrea similarly illustrate the amorphous bounds between the real image and its projection. In one sequence, a shot of lead actor Serge Reggiani running across a bridge, appearing visibly distressed after witnessing his wife, Odette (Romy Schneider) water skiing with lothario Martineau (Jean-Claude Bercq) is framed against interviews revealing his escalating animosity with the ever-demanding Clouzot that led to the filmmaker's perverse attempts to reassert his authority by imposing multiple takes of the physically grueling scene on an already ailing Reggiani. In another scene, comments on Clouzot's anxiety and insomnia that contributed to Clouzot's heart attack that would ultimately derail the project is juxtaposed against found footage of the director taking extended close-up shots of sexy, twenty-something actresses Schneider and Dany Carrel in bathing suits for a provocative dream sequence, wryly suggesting a more visceral reason for fifty-something Clouzot's distress. By incorporating Clouzot's shot technical experiments featuring Schneider that were to be used as a basis for dream sequences - but were not intended to be seen in their entirety in the final cut - Bromberg and Medrea cleverly introduce another dimension of "truth" between film image and memory that, like the deconstructed found film in Guerín's Tren de sombras, reflect on the role of cinema as conjurer of images, revealing lost phantoms that exist only in the frames between the visible.

Posted by acquarello on Oct 07, 2009 | | Filed under 2009, New York Film Festival

Sweet Rush, 2009

sweetrush.gifPart coming of age story set in the aftermath of the Warsaw Uprising, and part personal testament by lead actress Krystyna Janda on her husband, Edward Klosinski's battle with cancer during filming, Andrzej Wajda's poignant, if disarticulated Sweet Rush, on the surface, suggests kinship with the metacinema of Abbas Kiarostami in exploring the interpenetration between art and life. This ambiguity is suggested in the film's opening sequence, as Janda awakens gasping for breath in a sparely furnished room before expressing her recounting her husband's diagnosis, reluctance to embark on a new project, and disbelief that he would succumb to his illness. However, inasmuch as the scene suggests a shift from dream to reality, it also underscores its construction - Janda's acting in the staged awakening and delivery of the subsequent monologue. The juncture between reality and fiction is also reflected in the image of a film crew setting up a scene that transitions to the sequence of a country doctor (Jan Englert) diagnosing his wife Marta's (Janda) terminal illness. Still mourning the loss of her sons and distanced from her overworked husband, Marta begins to turn her attention to a handsome young man, Bogus (Pawel Szajda), briefly finding a renewed sense of purpose in her life in the midst of disillusionment and uncertainty. At the core of Wajda's interweaving stories of grief and loss is the nature of performance. Juxtaposing Janda's real-life ordeal with the tragic denouement of the fiction film, Wajda transforms a seemingly conventional, period romance into an intimate and contemporary tale of enduring love and, in the process, elevates the grace of everyday struggle into the realm of art.

Posted by acquarello on Oct 07, 2009 | | Filed under 2009, New York Film Festival

October 6, 2009

Independencia, 2009

independencia.gifThe idea that history is written by the conquerors and not the vanquished shapes the consciousness of Raya Martin's distilled and meticulously crafted film, Independencia, a highly formalized reconstruction (and reclamation) of a lost, unwritten history: one communicated in the language of an indigenous people but framed in the conventional, accepted syntax of "official" (and implicitly, Western) history. The second installment of an envisioned trilogy on the history of a dominated Philippines, Independencia succinctly bridges the end of Spanish colonization at the turn of the nineteenth century with the advent of American occupation in the opening shot of Filipinos in an already subjugated state (dressed in traditional Spanish attire in lieu of native clothing) at an unidentified village who are thrown into chaos by the sound of distant bombing. A mother (Tetchie Agbayani) and her dutiful son (Sid Lucero) flee to the forest, holing up in an abandoned hut in an attempt to outlast the advancing invaders, subsequently joined by a young woman (Alessandra de Rossi) who had been raped by American soldiers and left to die in the wilderness. However, as time wears on and the invaders continue to encroach ever deeper into the heart of the forest (ingeniously reflected through the overtly artificial, painted backdrop of trees that become progressively deforested during the course of the film), the displaced natives - which now includes a young boy (Mika Aguilos) - retreat further and further towards the mountains, finally reaching the edge of the shore. Martin incisively explores the intersection between national history and cinema history to illustrate the idea of a mediated gaze that defines the other through distanced, imprecise, subjective codes that ingrain a sense of hierarchy. Visually, Martin reflects this process of cultural imperialism in the images of supplanted native identity that bookend the film: from the opening shot of Filipinos in figuratively handed down Spanish clothing (that also alludes to the reinforcing of dominant cultures implicit in the act of international charity), to the ominous tincture of color suffusing the horizon against a Mount Fuji-esque scenic landscape (reminiscent of scroll work) that augurs the arrival of the Japanese.

Posted by acquarello on Oct 06, 2009 | | Comments (4) | Filed under 2009, New York Film Festival

Ghost Town, 2009

ghosttown.gifComposed of three chapters - Voices, Recollections, and Innocence - Zhao Dayong's Ghost Town is a textured, graceful, and indelible panorama of the "other" China, a sobering account of threadbare lives lived in the shadows cast by China's modern day economic miracle and its founding architect, Chairman Mao Zedong, whose imposing statue graces Zhiziluo village's deserted and overgrown town square. Isolated in the mountains of Yunnan Province near the Burmese border, abandoned by Western missionaries after a government purge during the Cultural Revolution, and repeatedly passed over for state-financed development projects since the 1980s, Zhiziluo's few remaining villagers have become figurative ghosts wandering through a rarefied, uncertain landscape in a state of perpetual limbo, searching for transcendence.

In Voices, the ethnic minority Christian community of Lisu and Nu villagers struggle to preserve their faith in the face of emigration, an aging congregation, and cultural despiritualization. But far from a dying culture on the cusp of erasure, what emerges in Voices is a vibrant and devout extended community, reaffirming their faith by returning to their beloved church in an annual pilgrimage to Zhiziluo for a midnight mass to celebrate Christmas with other parishioners.

In Recollections the face of emigration is embodied by a young couple: one, contemplating moving to the city in search of a better life, the other, increasingly pressured into entering a financially beneficial, arranged marriage (and whose fate is mirrored in the parallel story of a returning Christian pilgrim who has brought her new baby for her first visit to her hometown since being sold into marriage). The dissolution of love is also reflected in the wistful observations of a divorced, alcoholic drifter who pines for his estranged family, even as he continues to alienate himself from their lives with his chronic drinking.

On the other side of village depopulation is the fate on those left behind, the subject of the film's third chapter, Innocence. Abandoned by his family (who, like most working-aged men and women, moved to the city to seek out job opportunities), a twelve year-old boy named Ah Long scavenges for food in the wilderness and tries to retain some semblance of a normal adolescence with his matinee idol pinups, loud music, and wrestling with his playmates. Biding his empty hours participating in a traditional Lisu exorcism ritual, then subsequently attending mass, Ah Long's seemingly incongruous pastime intrinsically reveals what modern China has abandoned in the pursuit of modernization and economic growth: community, family, cultural heritage, and spirituality.
First posted on The Auteurs Notebook, 10/03/09.

Posted by acquarello on Oct 06, 2009 | | Filed under 2009, New York Film Festival

October 2, 2009

Police, Adjective, 2009

police_adjective.gifThe disjunction between moral and bureaucratic law, meaning and intent shapes the discourse of Corneliu Porumboiu's meticulously observed, if clinical and muted procedural film, Police, Adjective. Assigned to conduct surveillance on a typical, middle-class teenager named Alex (Alexandru Sabadac) who is suspected of dealing drugs, junior detective and newlywed, Cristi (Dragos Bucur) spends his days trailing his young suspect through his daily routine - going to school, meeting friends, walking home, receiving visitors - before returning to the precinct each evening to write detailed reports on the suspect's (in)activities for the day, often wrapping up his observations by expressing his skepticism over the necessity to continue the suspect's pursuit. But his supervisor, Angelache (Vlad Ivanov) believes that he has found probable cause among Cristi's daily reports, citing an occasion when Alex was spotted smoking hashish with friends near a playground. For Angelache, the simple act of passing around the hashish to his friends constitutes "distribution" and becomes more determined to make an arrest, pitting him against a reluctant Cristi on the role of law enforcement in society. Porumboiu reflects this sense of moral rupture through the film's overarching structure, contrasting Cristi's near-wordless, real-time surveillance sequences with his nightly composition of one-page reports that underscore the impreciseness of language (an ambiguity that also surfaces during a conversation with his wife, Anca [Irina Saulescu] over the lyrics to a song that she repeatedly listens to over dinner). Framed against Cristi's didactic, extended meeting with Angelache near the end of the film, Cristi's crisis of conscience serves as a provocative, modern day reflection of innate humanity that is being systematically erased in the soulless pursuit of civilized society.

Posted by acquarello on Oct 02, 2009 | | Comments (2) | Filed under 2009, New York Film Festival

October 1, 2009

Vincere, 2009

vincere.gifLess a biography on the early life of Fascist leader Benito Mussolini than a dissection into creating (and sustaining) a cult of personality, Marco Bellocchio's Vincere is a textured, operatic, and incisive historical fiction based on the fate of Mussolini's secret first wife, Ida Dalser (Giovanna Mezzogiorno) who, along with their son, Benito Albino, were erased from Mussolini's official record as he sought to consolidate power and build a totalitarian state. From the early sequence of a flashback within a flashback as Ida watches a defiant Mussolini (Filippo Timi) challenge Socialist party officials by invoking God's wrath, triggering a memory of their first encounter, Bellocchio introduces the idea of altered chronology that also foreshadows her struggle for legitimacy and validation as the true wife of Mussolini in the face of systematic whitewashing. Having once sold all of her belongings in order to fund Mussolini's ambition to create a rival political newspaper Il Popolo d'Italia after his split with the Socialist periodical, Avanti!, Ida's symbolic gesture of surrendering her fate to the hands of her lover would soon take on an even more ominous dimension when he marries his mistress, Rachele - the mother of his illegitimate daughter - in order to sanitize his public image as a traditional family man (and consequently win the support of the Catholic church). Interweaving archival footage with historical re-enactment and fictional adaptation, Bellocchio insightfully structures the film to reflect a pattern of reconstituted history that enabled the usurpation of power and political suppression, not through a display of force, but through the control of information.

Posted by acquarello on Oct 01, 2009 | | Filed under 2009, New York Film Festival

Kanikosen, 2009

kanikosen.gifIn its incarnation as a 21st century, recession-era satire on worker exploitation and the intersection between globalism and geopolitics, Sabu's Kanikosen is an atmospheric, if diluted adaptation of Takiji Kobayashi's Shōwa-era leftist novel. Set aboard an Imperial Navy-escorted (and implicitly, sanctioned), crab canning ship operating near (and often, over) the Russian-controlled Sea of Okhotsk, the film paints a grotesque and wryly comical portrait of inhumane working conditions, classism, and poverty that would sow the seeds of revolution. At the core of Kanikosen's particular melding of polemic and gallows humor is the inclusion of recurring, outdated references that underscore the sense of fiction and staging beneath the film's stylized construction and cultural anachronism: oversized gears reminiscent of Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times (a 1936 film that would have chronologically succeeded the film's interwar, 1920s setting) that reflect the role of the worker as interchangeable cogs in the machinery of industrial production; the specter of Soviet socialism that threatens the fabric of the Japanese free market economy collides with the modern day reality of a post-communist, capitalist Russia; the ubiquitous presence of the Imperial Navy - dissolved since the end of the Pacific War - that reinforces the cycle of exploitation between workers and businesses (through their representative management). Polarized to the point of caricature but without the impassioned execution of agitprop, and evading correlation between the economic expansion of an Industrial Revolution created in the midst of increasing totalitarianism with the realities of an Asian tiger-fueled new global economy, Kanikosen ultimately struggles to offer more than well crafted imagery, paradoxically creating an estranged and complacent call to arms.

Posted by acquarello on Oct 01, 2009 | | Filed under 2009, New York Film Festival

September 30, 2009

Eccentricities of a Blond Hair Girl, 2009

eccentricities.gifInasmuch as Eccentricities of a Blond Hair Girl returns to Manoel de Oliveira's recurring theme of doomed love, the film also embodies Oliveira's preoccupation with subjectivity and modes of representation. On one level is the adaptation of Eça de Queiroz's literary work into a screenplay, retaining a degree of formalism and dramatic structure associated with classical text. On another level is narrative subjectivity, where the story is told as a first-hand (and therefore, implicitly "true") account by Macário (Ricardo Trêpa) to a fellow traveler (Leonor Silveira), but, as a retelling of a past - and traumatic - event, has been shaped by the filters of personal memory. Another is the disjunction between image and reality, as embodied by the elusive object of Macário's desire, Luísa (Catarina Wallenstein), a charming, enigmatic young woman who captures his attention one day from a neighboring window in his office. Facing disinheritance from his uncle and benefactor, Tio Francisco (Diogo Dória) after announcing his plans to marry Luísa, Macário decides to forge his own path and agrees to take on an extended assignment in Cape Verde in the hopes of raising enough money to start a new life with his beloved. However, when Macário becomes unwittingly implicated in his business acquaintance's messy private affairs, his destiny seems once again determined by honor and obligation. With a slender running time of 64 minutes, Eccentricities of a Blond Hair Girl is a compact, richly textured illustration of Oliveira's multivalent approach to storytelling - distilling human desire into its unexpected, essential incarnations to create not only a timeless story of longing and unrequited love, but also a relevant, modern day cautionary tale on materialism and excess.

Posted by acquarello on Sep 30, 2009 | | Comments (2) | Filed under 2009, New York Film Festival

Sweetgrass, 2009

sweetgrass.gifDuring the Q&A for Sweetgrass, Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor indicated that they had spent three years filming sheepherding through the Beartooth Mountains on what had initially been conceived as a family activity for the summer because of a desire to capture the last time that a pair of ranchers - hailing from the one remaining sheep farm within three adjacent counties in rural Montana - would drive their flock to public lands to graze: a cultural capstone that would end up being deferred for another two summer pastures before the owners finally sold the farm and resettle to a larger, more remote farm near the Canadian border. In hindsight, this sense of romanticism towards capturing a dying way of life shapes the rigorous, painstakingly observed, panoramic form of the film as well. Initially, the film suggests kinship with Nikolaus Geyhalter's Our Daily Bread in its wordless images of farming as mass production, as sheep are herded into the barn at the end of the day, lambs are re-distributed among a group of nursing ewes to maximize nutrition, and ranchers shear rows of sheep with lulling efficiency. However, the film eventually breaks away from the economy of the paradigm as ranch hands, Pat and John set off into the mountains with their flock of sheep for the summer, capturing instead the vastness of the difficult terrain, constant threat of wildlife, physical toll, and boredom that define their everyday lives. Ironically, in the filmmakers' objective to shoot the landscape, sheep, and people with equal parity, what is lost is the sense of diurnal rhythm intrinsic in their ritual, where the passage of time is obscured by an editing strategy that heavily favors daylight over night time shots - the three year excursion unfolding in three days (a blurring of time that contributes to confusing sequences over John's apparent meltdown during a call to his mother and subsequently, while rounding sheep, after having seemingly spent only a day in the wilderness) - revealed only through the growth of new wool on sheep making their way down the mountain at the end of summer.

Posted by acquarello on Sep 30, 2009 | | Filed under 2009, New York Film Festival

Les Herbes folles, 2009

herbes_folles.gifRevisiting the shifting perspective, stream of consciousness narrative of Providence, Alain Resnais's Les Herbes folles is a more whimsical variation on the themes of subjective reality and causality. An early image of wild grass poking through cracks in the concrete provides a paradigm for the film's seemingly organic tale of subverted expectation: a middle-aged man with time on his hands, Georges Palet (André Dussollier) recovers a wallet from a parking garage and immediately begins to devise scenarios on how he should approach the owner, a dentist named Marguerite Muir (Sabine Azéma) to return it. However, when his initial contact proves to be a terse, anticlimactic "thank you" telephone call in the middle of a family gathering - precipitated in part by his wife's (Anne Consigny) suggestion that he bring the wallet to the local police station to arrange the actual return instead of handling it personally - Georges decides to re-initiate contact with the indifferent Marguerite, intrigued by her more adventurous hobby as an aviatrix of restored World War II planes that, in some small way, rekindles childhood memories of his late father. Resnais' playful re-arrangement of Hollywood genres - romance, mystery, adventure (most notably, in reference to Paramount Studio's The Bridges of Toko-Ri) - results in a remarkably fluid, wry, and idiosyncratic exploration of chance, connection, and noble pursuit.

Posted by acquarello on Sep 30, 2009 | | Filed under 2009, New York Film Festival

June 28, 2009

Cinema of the Other Europe: The Industry and Artistry of East Central European Film by Dina Iordanova

other_europe.gifIn Cinema of the Other Europe: The Industry and Artistry of East Central European Film , Dina Iordanova proposes a reframing of Eastern European cinema (and by extension, film culture studies) away from conventional, western-centric paradigms that tend to evaluate post World War II cinema from the "other Europe" within the context of cold war politics and chauvinism. Intrinsic in Iordanova's thesis is the prevailing notion of a shared, distinctive Central European ethos that continued to gain momentum in 1970s cultural studies as a means of distancing the region from a Pan-Germanic evaluation of twentieth century history that provided the catalyst for two world wars and the division of Europe, as well what H. M. Hughes describes as a nostalgia for a democratic and more culturally diverse pre-1918 Habsburg Empire (note the embodiment of this sentiment in the image of a multi-ethnic paradise lost in Jerzy Kawalerowicz's Austeria that is also directly correlated with the experience of World War II in the fate of displaced Hassidic Jews on the outskirts of Poland). More importantly, the idea of differentiating Central Europe as a bridge between East and West was also a way of reasserting a regional identity that was separate from the complex dynamics of the Balkan region as well as the cultural cross-pollination of an imposed Soviet hegemony. In essence, the idea of a shared cultural identity provided a means of aligning (or rather, realigning) regional interests closer to the illusive ideals of a democratic West with the eventual objective of breaking with Russia (and with it, chauvinist attitudes that being "non-West" was analogous with backwardness and underdevelopment) and "returning" to Europe after the collapse of the Soviet Union (Ironically, it is Russian filmmaker Aleksandr Sokurov who would capture this sense of isolation from "old" Europe and return to a shared cultural history in Russian Ark) - what Iordanova describes as a "remapping" of Eastern European films into redefined national cinemas that reflected the cultural amnesia of a post-Soviet landscape (most notably, in the absorption of East German films into a broader category of German cinema that glosses over the distinctive qualities of DEFA studio productions, and also the reassignment of a collective Czechoslovakian cinema into separate Czech or Slovak film cultures).

The second part, Film and History, Ethics and Society examines the role of history in the shaping of national identity as reflected in Central European cinema, creating a sense of impotence against the tide of history that, in turn, manifest as forms of escapism, whether through the romanticization of heritage epics (such as Andrzej Wajda's Pan Tadeusz), elements of surrealism (such as Wojciech Has's The Saragossa Manuscript and Juraj Jakubisko's The Deserter and the Nomads), or magical realism (such as Jerzy Kawalerowicz's Mother Joan of the Angels and Pharaoh). In each case, the encounters with history are rooted in personal - rather than collective - memory:

The people of Central Europe look at history from a specific angle: they come from small countries which are usually powerless to make developmental decisions, yet need to react to whatever political shifts and advances occur (usually at the instigation of a neighboring great European power). So the stories told here are not so much those of people heroically influencing the course of history but of those who cannot do much more but stand by and witness events; they are stories of the vulnerable and the powerless, the small and the weak, the pawns and the underdogs. The actions of these protagonists are marked by the overpowering consciousness of their own limitations.

...The key concern of East Central European cinema is the interplay between historical and social processes and the personal experience of these processes. It is within this relationship, tilted towards the individual, where most identity issues and existential insecurities are played out. The never ending identity quest is often accompanied by an underlying frustration; there is an ongoing friction between objective historical events and their critical appropriation that limits the range of choices available to the individual. This is part of an eternally unresolved process of identification where all subjective moves are ultimately determined by the dialectical interplay with history.

Iordanova further examines the toll of "historical burden" through a survey of postwar trümmerfilms (films of the ruins) such as Wolfgang Staudte's The Murderers Are Among Us (East Germany), Géza von Radványi's Somewhere in Europe (Hungary), and Aleksandr Ford's Five Boys from Barska Street (Poland), as well as Andzej Wajda's war trilogy (A Generation, Kanal and Ashes and Diamonds), which are thematically connected by a sense of tragic inevitability as ordinary soldiers fighting on the losing side of the war. Conversely, Iordanova cites Andrej Munk's Eroica and its ne'er-do-well, accidental hero as a foil to the trümmerfilm paradigm, underscoring the arbitrariness of siding with history. Similarly, Miklós Jancsó's The Round Up and The Red and the White also reflect this dynamic in the ambiguous framing of partisans and collaborators, the victors and the vanquished.

In the chapter State Socialist Modernity: The Urban and the Rural, Iordanova argues that the conventional images of dour protagonists, mundane problems, and bleak industrial landscapes that characterize East Central European cinema are acts of subversion that would serve as fertile creative grounds for such seminal film movements as the Czechoslovakian New Wave and the Polish Cinema of Moral Concern:

Well aware of the excesses and dangers of totalitarianism, filmmakers saw the making of 'apolitical' films as a matter of priority. The films that they opted for would often be about disturbances of intimate relationships rather than heroic confrontations or class struggles; they would focus ordinary everyday life and thus, in the context of imposed excessive politicization of the personal domain, deliver a covert political statement.

Posted by acquarello on Jun 28, 2009 | | Comments (3) | Filed under 2009, Film Related Reading

June 11, 2009

Brave Men, 2008

bravemen.gifIn its tale of childhood friends who grow up to be on opposite sides of the law, Edoardo Winspeare's Brave Men is an all too familiar one. A prominent judge, Ignazio (Fabrizio Gifuni) returns to his hometown to bury his friend Fabio (Lamberto Probo) who died from a drug overdose, and, in an attempt to draw something constructive from the painful episode, joins a task force that is investigating local drug traffickers who helped feed his self-destructive habit. His immediate connection with the past is mutual friend, Lucia (Donatella Finocchiaro), an attractive, single mother whose seemingly strained relationship with her former lover, a local mobster named Infantino (Beppe Fiorello) makes her an obvious choice to mine for information. From the onset, Lucia proves to be far from the upstanding perfume salesperson she seems, using her nefarious connections to try to root out Fabio's supplier and intimidating rival gangs into forging an alliance with elusive crime boss, Carmine Zà (Giorgio Colangeli). But as the investigation converges towards Lucia's complicity in the escalating mob war, Ignazio is also forced to reconcile his own unrequited feelings towards her, only to lose his objectivity and sense of moral duty in the process. Actress Donatella Finocchiaro commented during the Q&A that the film strives to capture the drug war climate of the late 1980s Italy when low level criminals started forming alliances among themselves to consolidate their power as a means of challenging established organizations. However, far from insightful commentary into the psychology and mechanics of gangland power play, Brave Men devolves into facile characterizations, glossing over deeply rooted socioeconomic issues (alluded in the disparity between Ignazio's privileged upbringing and Lucia's poverty that would separate them) in favor of a conventional mood piece on loss, fear, and desire.

Posted by acquarello on Jun 11, 2009 | | Filed under 2009, Open Roads: New Italian Cinema

June 10, 2009

Animated Passions: The Films of Ursula Ferrara

ferrara_match.gifDuring the Q&A for the screening of Animated Passions: The Films of Ursula Ferrara, Ferrara commented that her body of work reflects the conventional progression of her formal art school training, graduating from monochrome to color, simple sketches to more complex forms. The theme of evolution and transformation is also integrally connected to the metaphorical image of natural evolution in her early pencil drawing films, Lucidi Folli (Lucid Insanity, 1986) and Past Future (Congiuntivo futuro, 1988) - a penchant for metamorphosis that Ferrara describes as a logical way to represent the subconscious creative process. Playful and singular, these early films reflect youthful exuberance and irreverence in their organic illustrations of recurring life cycles - love, work, leisure, sexuality, and reproduction (the image of an infant in Lucidi Folli and an egg in Past Future) - that unfold against the familiar rhythms of everyday life (as symbolized by the incorporation of contemporary pop music).

Asymmetrical Feel (Amore asimetrico, 1990) and As People (Come persone, 1995) reflect a newfound maturity, distance, and restlessness in Ferrara's work. Vacillating between disparate modern art forms, in particular, cubism and graphic arts, Ferrara abandons the simple, flat space, line drawings of her early films to create more voluptuous and geometric forms. It is interesting to note that in the use of a violin adaptation of Recuerdos de Alhambra (traditionally, a guitar piece) in As People in lieu of seemingly random pop music that had accompanied her early films, Ferrara incorporates a more deliberate, tensile dimension to her work in this period, supplanting the brashness of her earlier films with a more introspective tone.

Almost Nothing (Quasi niente, 1997) represents Ferrara's adoption of oil paints on film, marking a transition from black and white to color, and also from singular lines to filled spaces. The shift towards volume, gradation, and texture is also reflected in Five Rooms (Cinque stanze, 1999) and The Match (La partita, 2002), where dimensionality is created through isolated framing that compartmentalize movement within the context of larger, overarching spaces (a house floor plan in Five Rooms, and spectators and players in The Match). Ferrara further experiments with faceting and layered compositions in her collage approach to the most recent film in the program, News (2006). Intriguingly, Ferrara's mixed media approach to News is also an integration of old (paper) and new (cel), combining found object (newspaper clippings) with hand-painted illustrations that insightfully convey the complex issues behind terse, often sensationalized newspaper headlines.

Posted by acquarello on Jun 10, 2009 | | Filed under 2009, Open Roads: New Italian Cinema

June 8, 2009

The Sicilian Girl, 2009

SicilianGirl.gifMarco Amenta's potent, yet understated, tightly crafted first feature film, The Sicilian Girl is a fictionalized account loosely based on the life and journals of Rita Atria, the determined, 17 year old daughter of a slain mob boss whose death after her denunciation of the mafia would lead to her martyrdom as a symbol of the country's ongoing war with organized crime. Interweaving the detailed observation of a court procedural with the drama and intrigue of a genre crime film, the convergence of fiction and reality becomes a metaphor for the heroine's (also named Rita) metamorphosis from self-involved girl to social activist. Having once lived a seemingly idyllic life of privilege and respect as the coddled daughter of a well-connected, old world mafioso, Don Michele (Marcello Mazzarella), Rita's teenaged years would be consumed with the thought of avenging her father's death when he is gunned down in a public square at the orders of rival Don Salvo (Mario Pupella) during a power struggle to expand their reach into the drug trade. But when Rita's older brother (Carmelo Galati) is also slain when the all-too-connected Don Salvio is tipped off about his plans for retribution, Rita turns to a thoughtful, hard-nosed prosecutor (Gérard Jugnot) for help - a character based on magistrate Paolo Borsellino - lodging a full-scale indictment of Don Salvo's wide-reaching organization with the help of Rita's meticulously detailed, years-long surveillance diaries of their operations. Illustrating the ingrained culture of regional disparity, chauvinism, corruption, and disenfranchisement, Amenta underscores fundamental social issues between Roman central authority and the local Sicilian population that contribute to the deep-seated friction and enable the broad reach of the mafia and its own inviolable codes. Also worth noting is lead actress Veronica D'Agostino's compelling performance, navigating the complex trajectory of Rita's tragic life from headstrong daughter, to obsessed avenger, to passive victim, and finally, to altruistic crusader.

Posted by acquarello on Jun 08, 2009 | | Filed under 2009, Open Roads: New Italian Cinema

I Am Alive, 2008

sono_viva.gifVacillating between opaque social commentary on the inequity of conditional employment and idiosyncratic dark comedy, screenwriters Dino Gentili and Filippo Gentili's directorial debut, I Am Alive chronicles a day in the life of underemployed day laborer, Rocco (Massimo De Santis) who, faced with a stack of unpaid bills and mounting debt from his girlfriend's free-spending habits, agrees to take on an odd job from a disreputable businessman, Marco Resti (Giorgio Colangeli) to watch over his recently deceased daughter's body for the night in the empty family villa - having purportedly succumbed to a long illness earlier that day - while he makes arrangements for her funeral in the morning. At first, the film hews towards neorealism in Rocco's seeming redemption through work, evolving from desperate (and implicitly suicidal), unemployed worker to one determined to fulfill his obligatory vigil at all cost, making scattered home repairs to help pass the idle hours. However, the parade of eccentric visitors soon neuters the tone to something more akin to a comedy of errors - an unreliable co-worker, Gianni (Marcello Mazzarella) who leaves his post to go carousing, a playboy son, Adriano (Guido Caprino) who takes advantage of his father's absence to bring his friends home for a drug-fueled party, a former gardener, Vlad (Vlad Alexandru Toma) who has returned in order to force a resolution to the long-standing feud with his erstwhile employer - creating an uncohesive, all-encompassing slice-of-life portrait that, like its aimless protagonist, seems destined to sink in the gravity of self-inflicted, assumed roles, foundering without direction.

Posted by acquarello on Jun 08, 2009 | | Filed under 2009, Open Roads: New Italian Cinema

May 20, 2009

Nippon Modern: Japanese Cinema of the 1920s and 1930s by Mitsuyo Wada-Marciano

nippon_modern.gifIn Nippon Modern: Japanese Cinema of the 1920s and 1930s, Mitsuyo Wada-Marciano presents an insightful, multi-faceted analysis of Japan's interwar cinema within the context of Tokyo's rebuilding efforts in the aftermath of the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 (even as the process of industrialization had already been underway), in particular, the output of Shochiku Kamata Film Studio which, as the only studio in Tokyo remaining operational after the earthquake, continued to produce films during this transition period that embodied Japanese society's ambiguous relationship with modernization. To this end, Wada-Marciano examines the studio's prevailing representations of domestic and social spaces, the emerging middle-class, athletic competition, the modern girl (moga), nationalism, and ethnic identity that expressed the public's anxiety over Japan's rapid modernization, as well as the cultural transformation created by the country's international emergence ushered by the Meiji Restoration.

The chapter, The Creation of Modern Space analyzes the complex role of spaces as a reflection of social and cultural transition. In this respect, the father's alternating role as both authoritarian figure in his home and office subordinate willing to make a fool of himself for his boss's benefit in Yasujiro Ozu's I Was Born But... reflects what Wada-Marciano describes as the public's unresolved negotiation with the process of modernization. Wada-Marciano further explores the social dichotomy through the bifurcation of geographic space itself, in this case, Tokyo's post-earthquake, transitional landscape that embodies what sociologist Yoshimi Shun'ya classifies as kakyo kukan (hometown space) and mirai kukan (future space) urban spaces.

Citing the stories of the visiting provincial mother in Ozu's The Only Son, the bus driver's encounter with a Tokyo-bound country girl in Hiroshi Shimizu's Mr. Thank You, and an industrialist's decision to stay with his new rural family instead of returning to Tokyo (and his legitimate family) in Mikio Naruse's Wife! Be Like a Rose!, Wada-Marciano illustrates the idealization and nostalgia for a distant, irretrievable home evoked in these colliding images of tradition and modernity. Another manifestation of negotiated space is in the integrated setting of Yokohama harbor as a gateway to the outside world in such films as Yasujiro Shimazu's First Steps Ashore, Hiroshi Shimizu's Japanese Girls at the Harbor, and Mikio Naruse's Everynight Dreams to represent the alien other, whether through overt notions of foreignness as criminal element and economic marginalization, or ethnic and cultural assimilation (Wada-Marciano astutely points out that the characters Henry and Dora in Japanese Girls at the Harbor represent a mixed race - and by implication, culturally diluted - population, and were portrayed by Eurasian actors, Ureo Egawa and Yukiko Inoue).

The negotiation between domestic and social spaces in I Was Born But... also leads to the broader examination of the urban white collar workers and the amorphously defined middle-class that constituted the predominant audience for these films and popularized the shoshimin eiga (middle-class) genre. In the chapter, Vernacular Meanings of Genre: The Middle-Class Film, Wada-Marciano expounds on the idea of hometown by highlighting the studio system's ancillary creation of an interconnected, virtual "extended family" in the recurring casting of the studio actors who would appear in various roles across several film productions. Wada-Marciano further provides a comprehensive discussion of I Was Born But... within the context of audience identification by analyzing the sons' rebellion through the prism of ambiguous social roles in the face of a new, emerging urban middle-class, where society has paradoxically embraced modern ideals of equal economic opportunity through hard work, even as it reinforces archaic models of hierarchy:

The middle-class genre film suggests the antinomy between Japanese modernity and rising nationalism in the 1930s, in the sense of a Japanese national subject's split between the call to modernize and the contradictory longings for the mythic cohesion of the past. The idea of 'the middle class' at the center of the genre worked to mitigate long-standing differences in social strata and in the particularities of Japan's interwar social transformation; the collective image of the middle-class served as a national identity for the modern subject. The middle class that emerged in interwar Japan referred less to a reconfigured labor force than to a new citizenry of a modern social transformation.

In Imaging Modern Girls in the Japanese Woman's Film, Wada-Marciano proposes that the image of the moga has been shaped by modernity and nationalism in the absence of assimilating Western liberalism - in essence, reinforcing the distinction between modernization and Westernization. This distinction is revealed in such moga themed films such as Ozu's Woman of Tokyo, where the perceived scandal is implied in the sister, Chikako's (Okada Yoshiko) involvement with a left-wing organization rather than created by a morally transgressive act, a politicization that could not be explicitly stated because of government censorship and an imposed ban of socially progressive, tendency films since the early 1930s:

In a further reading of Chikako's sacrifice, the film deploys another parallel in an act of whispering that occurs as the film reveals Chikako's moonlighting. The scandal is revealed to Harue by Kinoshita; first he states, 'Chikako seems to be working as a barmaid after her daytime job... The rumor involves not only that... '; then he whispers the rest to Harue, although the information is not shared with the audience. At this point we might imagine Chikako is involved in prostitution or something worse. More whispering occurs in a later sequence, when Harue reveals the rumor to Ryoichi. She says, 'What would you do if your sister was not who you think she is?' Then she whispers to Ryoichi, and again, the film conceals the information from the audience. Ryoichi replies, 'What are you talking about? It's too ridiculous!' Harue continues, 'That's not all. Your sister has disgracefully become a barmaid.' This information, as delivered, effectively undercuts the possibility that Chikako's suspected disgrace involves prostitution, but leads the audience towards another possibility - that of Chikako's involvement with a Communist political group. The film encourages such a political inference by embedding details of a hidden social progressive narrative, as in an earlier scene of the police officer's inquiry at Chikako's office and later in a headline announcing the arrest of a criminal organization.

The idea of Japanese modernity as a convergence of social discourse and national policy also forms the critical framework in the chapter, The Japanese Modern in Film Style, which distills the essential themes from the previous chapters into an analysis of Yasujiro Shimazu's Our Neighbor, Miss Yae within the varied contexts of modernist filmmaking (shooting the soon-to-be divorced, older sister Kyoko through old-fashioned, shinpa styled framing to emphasize the visual disjunction), urban spaces (images of the Ginza shopping district from a moving car that convey progression in its conflation of absolute and relative motion), athletics (after-school baseball practice), and nationalism (Yae-chan's family's relocation to Korea as part of Japan's expansionist campaign during the Fifteen Years' War).

Posted by acquarello on May 20, 2009 | | Comments (2) | Filed under 2009, Film Related Reading

May 7, 2009

Lock-Out, 1973

lockout.gifIn its tongue-in-cheek illustration of misguided revolutionaries, Antoni Padrós's Lock-Out suggests a rough hewn and metaphoric - if more impenetrable and decidedly uneven - precursor to Rainer Werner Fassbinder's The Third Generation, interweaving episodes of straightforward narrative, dream-like interludes, and political manifesto into an abstract portrait of resistance and marginalization. For former finance worker Walter and his motley group of friends, ground zero for revolution is appropriately found in a salvage yard, where they have set up camp to pursue their own version of Francoist ideals to live off the land - albeit through recycling scrap materials rather than farming. Dropping out of society to lead a bohemian existence, the freedom they had hoped to find in the discarded rubble continues to elude them, their lives complicated by an unexpected pregnancy, romantic rivalries, and boredom. However, when their tedium is broken one day by the unexplained appearance of a handsome stranger who silently watches over them and refuses to leave, the friends decide to abandon their paradise and return to their former lives. Commemorating their return to "civilization" with a celebration, the friends soon discover that their delirious rite of passage is akin to a death ritual. Alternating between commitment and indulgence, absurdity and inanity, Lock-Out is perhaps the most artisanal and demanding installment in the series, where all-too-organic editing decisions to leave in verbal gaffes, miscues, and giggle fits sharply contrast against highly formalized, Bergmanesque shots and swooning pans (in particular, the celebration sequence) that invite germinal comparison to the intoxicated dance in Béla Tarr's Sátántangó. In hindsight, the captured sense of grotesqueness and dysfunction behind Franco's conservative ideals is paradoxically lost in the noise, translating as cavalier observation rather than call to action.

Posted by acquarello on May 07, 2009 | | Filed under 2009, Clandestine Catalan Cinema Under Franco

May 6, 2009

Sexperiencias, 1968

sexperiencias.gifAlthough allusions to François Truffaut's Jules and Jim and Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless suggest José María Nunes's affection for French New Wave, Sexperiencias finds greater kinship with Nagisa Oshima's fractured, interconnected themes of sexual and social revolution. In a way, young hitchhiker, María (María Quadreny) is also a stand-in for accidental revolutionary, Motoki in The Man Who Left His Will on Film, a cipher who, in trying to capture the rhythms of everyday life (albeit through photography rather than filmmaking), is politicized by an atmosphere of unrest. Finding momentary connection with an outspoken activist, Antonio (Antonio Betancourt), María's life is upended when her lover is imprisoned for dissent. Restless and adrift, she embarks on an affair with a nurturing, middle-aged engraver, Carlos (Carlos Otero), only to find her newfound life of comfort and stability at odds with the chaos of the world around her. But while Oshima's melding of fact and fiction captures the spirit of an internal revolution, Nunes's revolution is a distant one - a reminder of an empowered other reality that can be turned inward to incite change - galvanized by geopolitical headlines that dominated the local newspapers of 1968: Prague Spring and the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, May 68 protest, the coup in Panama, the turning of the tide in the Vietnam War with Lyndon Johnson's decision not to seek re-election. Incorporating an incongruous soundtrack of nature sounds, assorted music, and ambient noise, Nunes creates a disorienting environment that is literally out of sync - the separation between image and sound implicitly reflecting the disconnection between the reality of Franco-era Spain and its projected image. Framed against the bookending reference to the U.N.'s adoption of the nonbinding Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1968, the question of enforcement becomes an ironic coda to the problem of inaction, where the struggle is not in the ability to speak, but in an unwillingness to listen.

Posted by acquarello on May 06, 2009 | | Filed under 2009, Clandestine Catalan Cinema Under Franco

May 5, 2009

Field for Men, 1973

field_men.gifOn the other side of the rural exodus captured in Llorenç Soler''s Long Journey to the Rage is Helena Lumbreras and Marià Lisa's multi-faceted polemic, Field for Men, an exposition on the inequitable systems of landownership and tenancy farming under Franco that perpetuate a cycle of exploitation, unproductivity, and indenture. Wryly prefaced as the fairytale of a bountiful kingdom that once drove away evil forces looking to seize the land, the story is an overt reference to regressive Falangist ideals of returning to the simplicity of an ennobled peasant life. Dismantling the notion of the Second Republic's 1931 agrarian reform as a simple land grab aimed at seizing generations-old farms (a myth instilled by Franco as justification for his own revolution), Lumbreras and Lisa instead frame the reform in the context of disproportionate private ownership in places like Andalusia, where nearly half of the arable land is owned by less than one percent of the population, leading to such widespread problems as collusive, low wages, mismanagement, and wasted productivity. But beyond the familiar left-leaning calls for solidarity and collectivism, what is perhaps the most compelling argument in the film is the problem of urban migration. Far from the popular notion of campesinos moving to the city for entertainment and leisure, Lumbreras and Lisa instead presciently examine the repercussions of an independent, dual economy system in Franco-era Spain - one driven by a robust (and state-friendly) capitalist system, the other, by a traditional rural economy - that has led to mutually exclusive workforces (and consequently, social classes) that could not be easily integrated with the dissolution of the other: creating a subculture of disenfranchisement and transformational struggle (themes that Jia Zhang-ke would also subsequently capture in his images of modernized China).

Posted by acquarello on May 05, 2009 | | Filed under 2009, Clandestine Catalan Cinema Under Franco

Long Journey to the Rage, 1969

journey_rage.gifSimilar to Llorenç Soler's previous film, 52 Sundays, Long Journey to the Rage is also a sobering portrait of poverty and marginalization. And like the bullfighting students of his earlier film, the people in Long Journey to the Rage are also anonymous immigrants who have abandoned a hardscrabble existence in the rural provinces in an illusive search of a better life in the city. Unable to find affordable housing, the immigrants pile into overcrowded, dilapidated apartments in rundown districts, paradoxically taking on menial jobs in a construction boom fueled by the transforming cityscape of a rapidly modernized Barcelona that systematically excludes them (a paradox that José Luis Guerín also revisits in his 2001 film, En Construcción). Soler's incisive sense of juxtaposition creates a remarkably complex and textural work from seemingly mundane images. At times, Soler contrasts rapid-fire images of luxury and conspicuous consumption - advertisements, fashion, high-rise apartment buildings, skyscrapers, fast cars (punctuated by the rhythmic precision of flamenco footwork) - against sobering accounts of exploitation and displacement that reflect the realities of economic polarization. At other times, Soler incorporates culturally iconic music to reinforce the cycle of hardship and desolation: the sound of fados as a family sleeps in a cramped apartment; Aretha Franlkin's Chain of Fools punctuating the morning commute to the city; a chorale that accompanies the image of homeless people sleeping on a vacant lot, presumably, new immigrants to the city, that cuts to the shot of the church baptism - both reflecting figurative rites of passage into a brave new world of constant struggle and ephemeral moments of grace.

Posted by acquarello on May 05, 2009 | | Filed under 2009, Clandestine Catalan Cinema Under Franco

52 Sundays, 1966

52_sundays.gifOn the surface, a film about bullfighting would seem an unlikely source of resistance. But Llorenç Soler's 52 Sundays is far from a flamboyant celebration of Franco-friendly displays of skill and aggression. Filmed from the perspective of aspiring toreros, often poor, undereducated teenagers from the country who get together on Sundays in makeshift schools on the outskirts of the city to train as bullfighters, 52 Sundays is instead a sublime and haunting portrait of marginalization. For Felipe, bullfighting offers a way to out of hazardous metalworking, provide respite for his parents, and an opportunity to escape the poverty of the slums. Rafael expresses youthful dreams of social mobility, flashy convertibles, and being able to afford the more high-end prostitutes in El Paralelo (along with altruistic whims of charity). Juan Manuel hopes to return to his village and embellish the town's modest statues of Jesus Christ and Virgin Mary, as well as build a ranch that will provide well-paying jobs for the community. Juxtaposing shots of the wide-eyed students in training with an actual bullfight, Soler implicitly parallels the fractured, parallel images of young bodies with the formidable presence of the bull in the ring. In a sense, their fates, too, are as intertwined by resilience and determination as it is by the inevitability of defeat - reflected, not as one clean, fatal stab, but after a prolonged struggle of debilitating strikes that lead to broken, exhausted surrender - death coming, not in the heat of battle, but in a crumpled coup de grâce, dragged from the fleeting glory of the arena back into the shadows of obscurity.

Posted by acquarello on May 05, 2009 | | Filed under 2009, Clandestine Catalan Cinema Under Franco

Happy Parallel, 1964

happy_paralelo.gifPart of the Morality and Society program in the Clandestí: Forbidden Catalan Cinema Under Franco series, Enric Ripoli i Freixes and Josep Maria Ramon's Happy Parallel emulates the familiar format of official Noticias Documentales newsreels - the only shot footages of "real life" permitted by Franco under a 1942 ban on non state-sponsored documentary filmmaking - to capture a decidedly more candid, unofficial view of the rhythm of life in El Paralelo, a once bustling entertainment district in Barcelona during the 1920s and 30s that had fallen into hard times after the war. Composed of quotidian street images that were shot over the course of a day, El Paralelo transforms from a seemingly nondescript, working class community by day (in the shots of residents opening windows and heading to work), to notorious red light district by night - the streets dotted with bars, burlesque shows, hourly motels, brothels, and drugstores. But rather than simply illustrating socioeconomic division in the parallel tale of two cities, Ripoli i Freixes and Ramon also reveal through the day to night progression of the images that the disparity is integrally connected to the underlying symptoms of the neighborhood's dramatic transformation - problems that have been swept under the rug by the regime in an attempt to project its image of conservative and moralistic ideals - poverty (dilapidated buildings), unemployment (a busy pool hall), stagnation, substance abuse, homelessness, and untreated mental illness. Closing with a montage of El Paralelo at daybreak as workers supplant vagrants and the streets are swept clean again, the images express the broader hope of revitalization and transformation through community and hard work.

Posted by acquarello on May 05, 2009 | | Filed under 2009, Clandestine Catalan Cinema Under Franco

April 27, 2009

Good Cats, 2008

good_cats.gifSomething like Jia Zhang-ke's portraits of contemporary China by way of Hou Hsiao-hsien's stationary long shots and sense of landscape, Good Cats returns to the hybrid fiction of Ying Liang's previous film, The Other Half to capture the dislocation and moral vacuum left in the wake of China's rapid economic development. Similar to The Other Half, Good Cats is also set in Ying's hometown of Zigong, and like his earlier film, a frontal shot of the main character being questioned by an unseen interviewer also serves as the opening sequence (in this case, by a fortune teller looking to glean information for his palm reading), reflecting the interrogative nature of Ying's gaze. However, inasmuch as Ying frames the estrangement in The Other Half from a native point of view, the sense of displacement in Good Cats is also a geographic one - embodied by underemployed 29 year old, Luo Liang who works as a driver for light bulb salesman turned real estate investor, Boss Peng (his provincial upbringing is suggested in an early episode in which his co-workers tease him for not being able to eat spicy Sichuan cuisine), and also the villagers protesting their eviction from a tract of land that Boss Peng has targeted for redevelopment (in a tacit agreement with corrupt village chief Zong). Living in a dilapidated, gas-leak prone apartment with his over-critical wife (who, along with her parents, hound him to go to night school in order to land a more prestigious and financially secure job), continuing to support his neighbor and former mentor, Liu Xiaopei who has fallen into hard times, and assisting with the murky dealings of his increasingly unstable employer, Luo Liang is a marginal bystander to the country's alienating transformation - a figurative impotence that is reinforced in his extended family's strong arm attempts to goad him into starting a family as a means of saving face within their ancestral community. Moreover, Luo Liang's disconnection from his intrusive extended family also exposes a sense of rootlessness that reveal a broader cultural malaise - a despritualization that is suggested in the surreal shot of Luo Liang and Boss Peng impounding the disarticulated head of a Buddha statue into the back of a pickup truck as collateral for an overdue loan (in an absurdist convergence of spirituality and economics that recalls the failed crucifix venture of Roy Andersson's Songs from the Second Floor). Framed in the context of Luo Liang staggering through a communal farm, his instinctual quest to return home becomes a potent image of marginalized struggle and uprooted ideology.

Posted by acquarello on Apr 27, 2009 | | Comments (2) | Filed under 2009, New Chinese Independent Cinema

April 23, 2009

The Other Half, 2006

other_half.gifIn its fractured, interpenetrating (or rather, colliding) realities, Ying Liang's The Other Half foreshadows Jia Zhang-ke's 24 City, capturing China's transforming industrial landscape through its alienated and displaced humanity. The opening frontal shot of job seeker, Xiaofei being interviewed by an off-camera recruiter establishes a sense of division - the unseen economic, social, educational, and gendered "other half" - that resurfaces throughout the film. Having landed the job as clerk for a law office, Xiaofei is now, too, on the other side of the camera (the supplanted image of Xiaofei with the people, often women, seeking consultation suggesting their interchangeable status), listening to potential clients as they seek advice for their grievances, whether a way out of a loveless or abusive marriage (or the financial repercussions of divorcing a wealthy husband), revenge for an extramarital affair, work-related problems, or even just to have someone listen to them (in one episode, a woman takes advantage of the firm's free consultation service to talk about her everyday struggles before a befuddled attorney).

But Xiaofei's notes also prove to be transcriptions of her own imperfect reality: living with an aimless, trouble-prone boyfriend, Deng Gang whose only motivation in life seem to be gambling and drinking with friends (even as he boasts of being rich and important someday), estranged from her father (Liu Huibin) who had left years earlier to find work in Xinjiang, and goaded by her well-intentioned mother (Chen Xigui) to use her good looks to find a more marriage prospect-worthy suitor. In this respect, the running joke on Xiaofei's resemblance to actress Zhang Ziyi not only serves as comic relief, but also reinforces her role as a surrogate identity - the anonymous face of a marginalized working class and its idealization. This intersection between personal and professional, private and public spheres is also suggested in Xiaofei's earlier disclosure that she had applied for the job opening based on the employment agency's recommendation that is subsequently paralleled in her mother's (Chen Xigui) matchmaking attempts to introduce her to a wealthy businessman (despite still being involved with Deng Gang) - both reflecting a position of disempowerment and acquiescence towards her own future. Similarly, the incisive juxtaposition of a benzene accident at a Zigong chemical factory (made ironic by earlier broadcasts of the industry's commitment to environmental responsibility) against a kitchen fire in a neighborhood mahjong parlor also creates a sense of chaos and dislocation, illustrating the role of impersonal industries as manufacturers of artificial, uprooted communities - the residential evacuation of nearby districts as a result of windswept toxic fumes (leaving them to camp out in cramped tunnels, literally tripping over people in order to move ahead), that is contrasted against images of patrons hauling buckets of water to stamp out the blaze. Culminating with a long shot of Xiaofei's friend circling in and out of view (in a shot that evokes the poetic bicycle sequence in Jia's Unknown Pleasures) to offer her a ride home, the framing of a nearly indistinguishable Xiaofei against a vast, empty landscape becomes a paradoxical metaphor for erasure and persistence.

Posted by acquarello on Apr 23, 2009 | | Filed under 2009, New Chinese Independent Cinema

April 19, 2009

Refiguring Spain: Cinema/Media/Representation edited by Marsha Kinder

Composed of three sections, Historical Recuperation, Sexual Reinscription, and Marketing Transfiguration: Money/Politics/Regionalism, Refiguring Spain: Cinema/Media/Representation is a collection of essays that examine the ways in which Spanish cinema has both defined and constructed a national identity in the latter half of the twentieth century under a transformative climate of repression, democratization, social liberation, and globalism.

refiguring_spain.gifIn the essay, Reading Hollywood in/and Spanish Cinema: From Trade Wars to Transculturation, Kathleen M. Vernon proposes that the inscription of Hollywood films in Spanish cinema - the use of excerpted scenes and placement of iconic American images in such films as Luis García Berlanga's Bienvenido, Mr. Marshall (that emulate Hollywood western and film noir aesthetics) and Victor Erice's Spirit of the Beehive (James Whale's Frankenstein), goes beyond simple pop culture reference and instead, conveys oppositional subtext that allude to the isolationism and xenophobia that marked Franco-era Spain, as well as the US government's enabling political climate against a shared Communist threat that reinforced the dysfunction. Vernon further examines the role of these inscriptions within Pedro Almodóvar's cinema that function, not only as tongue in cheek homage, but also reinforce the idea of illusive history as the country was undergoing a radical transformation to democracy (which culminated in the election of the socialist party, PSOE, that would remain in power until 1996). To this end, Vernon argues that What Have I Done to Deserve This? represents Almodóvar's most politically referential work, framing Bud Stamper's (Warren Beatty) dream of returning to a simpler life in Elia Kazan's Splendor in the Grass within the context of Franco's parochial policies:

Finally, in an ultimate irony, the character's flight from the city at the end of ¿Qué hecho yo? though it marks the apparent fulfillment of their shared dream, reenacts the conclusion of the founding film of Spanish neorealism, José Antonio Nieves Conde's Surcos (Furrows, 1950). Hailed as the 'first glance at reality in a cinema of paper-maché', for its treatment of the problem of the rural exodus to the cities, in the hands of Falangist Nieves Conde, it also served as a cautionary tale regarding the moral corruption and destruction of family structures that awaited new immigrants to the city.

...Far from the instance of the postmodern denial of history through pastiche, as in Fredric Jameson's account of the mode, through its juxtaposition in filmic intertexts, the ironic American pastoral Splendor with the Spanish cautionary tale Surcos, ¿Qué hecho yo? casts suspicion on the workings of the cinematic imaginary. The longing for return is revealed as a return to the past of Francoism, a past Almodóvar's films disavow even as they actively re-evaluate its hold over the present.

The idea of a post-Franco reframing of official history also serves as a basis for Marsha Kinder's examination of Spanish documentary filmmaking, Documenting the National and Its Subversion in a Democratic Spain. Tracing the origins of what Kinder characterizes as the distinctive "Spanish inflection" of contemporary documentaries, Kinder cites Luis Buñuel's Land Without Bread and Carlos Saura's Cuenca as early examples of subverted documentaries that sought to create historical record even as they underscore the inexactness and malleability of such representation. The complex nature of historical reconstruction is also illustrated in two Civil War-themed documentaries, Jaime Camino's La vieja memoria and Gonzalo Herralde's Raza, el espíritu de Franco, which, as Kinder proposes, "not only provide an archival record of popular memory, ...but they also perform a historical and ideological analysis of this material."

Kinder further examines two noteworthy, 1990s transition-era documentaries, José Luis Guerín's Innisfree and Víctor Erice's El sol de membrillo as examples of highly regionalized documentaries that, nevertheless, reflect the impossibility of mediated representation:

Erice's film is preoccupied with the serial performance of self-representation, which (no matter how narcissistic) must inevitably be historicized. The film demonstrates that no matter what subject you are documenting (on canvas or on celluloid, on paper or video), you are still representing yourself and your medium and bearing witness to the historical and cultural moment that shaped your subjectivity. Like Innisfree, both López's painting and Erice's filmmaking capture the traces of what is perceived and remembered.

Roland B. Tolentino's essay, Nations, Nationalisms, and Los últimos de Filipinas: An Imperialist Desire for Colonialist Nostalgia, in some ways, expounds on Kinder's thesis on cultural inscription - in particular, the systematic refiguring of cultural identity under Franco. By placing Antonio Román's film in the context of Franco's nationalist agenda, Tolentino proposes that the film's revisionism reflects Spain's campaign to rehabilitate its postwar isolation by invoking the shared colonial history of allied Europe, reframing the handover of the Philippines to the US as a geopolitical strategy rather than a defeat that marked the end of the Spanish empire. Moreover, by examining the integral role of religion in colonialism (in its moral rationalization of enlightened mandate) as reflected in the film, Tolentino presents an insightful parallel to Franco's regime, which drew support from the Catholic church.

The troop's isolation in the Philippines is analogous to the isolation of the Francoist regime from other nations. The value of defending the empire to death is the latent hegemonic nationalist call. In the construction of the national ego ideal, the film narrative glorifies the 'conversion of the historical massacre into a religious sacrifice, one that is focused on the 'fetishization of virility and sacrifice.' Catholic orthodoxy is entwined with militaristic adventurism.

It is interesting to note that while Tolentino discusses Spanish colonial influence through its increasingly marginalized role in contemporary Filipino culture (which has been increasingly supplanted by American imperialism), the ideology behind the colonialist nostalgia of Los últimos de Filipinas with respect to Spanish society - the film's intended audience - is only indirectly broached in the essay, alluded in a comment on Catalan speakers and Basque nationalists' (apparently) tempered response to the film. Indeed, inasmuch as cultural erasure reflects the legacy of colonialism, it also represents a motivation for Franco's social policy, where the assertion of regional identity is seen as a threat to national unity.

The role of regional identity in the national discourse is further explored in Jaume Martí-Olivella's Regendering Spain's Political Bodies: Nationality and Gender in the Films of Pilar Miró and Arantxa Lazcano. Examining the parallels between Pilar Miró's El pájaro de felicidad) and Arantxa Lazcano's Urte ilunak, Martí-Olivella proposes that both films redefine the notion of center and margin through their non-dominant, alternative points of view. This occupation of shared space is illustrated in the use of interchanging language in both films (enabled by the standardized use of subtitles in the original language), creating an environment where multilingual dialogue is part of the cultural norm:

What is the reality that these two films try to 'normalize'? It is the reality of a shared political space, Spain, that still resists being reimagined and thus represented as a plurinational, multicultural, and heteroglossic community... They underline a common goal to reimagine the different languages and cultures of Spain as an essential richness rather than a constant source of national struggle.

Posted by acquarello on Apr 19, 2009 | | Filed under 2009, Film Related Reading

April 16, 2009

Sex, Okra and Salted Butter, 2008

sex_okra.gifSimilar to Pierre Yameogo's Me and My White Pal, Mahamat-Saleh Haroun's crisp, lighthearted satire Sex, Gumbo and Salted Butter reflects on the challenges posed by dislocation, estrangement, and cultural assimilation. For old-fashioned family patriarch and Malian expatriate, Malik (Marius Yelolo), the belated culture shock of immigrating to Bordeaux comes when his attractive, much younger wife, Hortense (Mata Gabin) decides to run away with one of her patients - an oyster farmer (a not so subtle reference to her sexual awakening after a passionless marriage) named Jean-Paul (Manuel Blanc) and, in the process of enlisting his eldest son, Dani's (Dioucounda Koma) help to help find her, discovers that Dani has not been harboring his mother in his apartment, but rather, a gay lover. Meanwhile, having neglected his younger sons in pursuit of his wayward wife - in a hopeless display of romanticism that included surprising her at work and serenading her with a kora from her hospital window (followed by a swift ejection from the grounds by security) - the boys have begun to search for their own surrogate caretaker, first, in the genial, if repressed, widowed neighbor, Madame Myriam (Lorella Cravotta), and subsequently, in Dani's troubled friend, Amina (Aïssa Maïga). Resigned to a life of dodging questions from his ever-disapproving, busybody elders, and tolerable, if unconventional living arrangement with Amina, Malik finds a glimmer of hope for reconciliation with the arrival of Hortense's aunt, Tatie Afoué (Marie-Philomène Nga) from Africa, only to find that the headstrong Afoué has her own ideas about tradition. As in Yameogo's film, the comedy of errors in Sex, Gumbo and Salted Butter stems from misperceptions of identity - gender, familial, and racial roles that, rather than upholding culture, ends up distorting it in its rigidity and exclusion.

Posted by acquarello on Apr 16, 2009 | | Comments (5) | Filed under 2009, New York African Film Festival

April 15, 2009

Sacred Places, 2009

sacred_places.gifDuring the Q&A, Jean-Marie Téno remarked that he was inspired to shoot Sacred Places as a result of seeing dramatic changes to the format of the 2009 FESPACO film festival in Burkina Faso, where the practice of holding open-air simulcasts of featured films for public viewing around the festival grounds in Ouagadougou - often, their only means of seeing these native films on their first run - had been essentially discontinued, and the proliferation of marketing agreements had resulted in the wholesale inclusion of too many officially sponsored films that diluted the overall representation of African films and, more importantly, abandoned the spirit of the festival's founding principle to host a worldwide showcase for Pan-African cinema. For Téno, the displacement of native films to accommodate the interests of multinational corporate sponsors is a reminder that, with ever-encroaching globalism, African culture itself is at stake, and its salvation lies in creating novel, sustainable paradigms that reflect the realities of a developing economy. Examining the interrelation between globalism and cultural crisis from a grassroots level, Téno visits the working class district of St. Leon, a town that had been suggested by a local audience member as proof of the changing face of cinephilia that, in their limited access to big city venues and high-profile international festivals, has been largely ignored, even by native filmmakers. The first of these enterprising cultural warriors is Bouba, a cinephile and local businessman (granted, a tenuous label given that his business barely breaks even each month) who runs the humbly named Votre Ciné Club with a DVD player, a VCR, and modest television set, screening a different feature program each evening - complete with marquis-styled, home-made movie posters - to an appreciative crowd. For Bouba, the murky business model of using pirated DVDs is a necessary evil, explaining that his customers would prefer to see more African films but, at a retail cost of $25 for each home video - coupled with the limited popularity of the films abroad that makes them less desirable for piracy (and its significantly lower street price) - he is forced to compromise by programming more affordable Bollywood and martial arts films. Another is Jules César, a musical instrument craftsman who literally drums up support for the ciné club by announcing the evening's slate of films with his djembe. Preferring to continue making handcrafted instruments even as mass production becomes an increasingly popular alternative, he sees his role as a guardian of the griot tradition - a conduit between the ancient tale-tellers and modern ones (filmmakers). Paralleling the age of African cinema to the average lifespan of an African - 50 years - Téno presents a sobering assessment of a native film industry in crisis, struggling to communicate the story of - and communicate with - its people. It is this integral connection that is insightfully reflected in the portrait of an eccentric engineer turned public writer who posts literary passages and assorted musings on an outdoor chalkboard each day, a fleeting act of cultural reinforcement and assertion of identity in the face of erasure.

Posted by acquarello on Apr 15, 2009 | | Filed under 2009, New York African Film Festival

April 14, 2009

The Prodigal Son, 2008

prodigal_son.gifLike Katrina Browne's earnest and impassioned essay film, Traces of the Trade, South African filmmaker Kurt Orderson's The Prodigal Son is less a journey to find ancestral roots - albeit from the other side of the slave trade - than an invitation for an open dialogue on race and reconciliation. Having lived his youth in the waning days of apartheid in Cape Flats, a designated "Coloured Labour Preference Area" (a transplanted community in Cape Town that, a generation earlier, had been forcibly uprooted from a once integrated District Six that was being converted to a whites-only area during the government's implemented segregation in the late 1960s), Orderson embarks on a journey to trace the origins of his heritage beyond the adopted notions of home that the Cape Flats resettlement community represents. Researching the family lineage back to his great-grandfather, Joseph, a merchant sailor who had apparently jumped ship and decided to forge a new life in South Africa, Orderson soon discovers that his great-grandfather did not come directly from West Africa as the family commonly believed, but rather, from Barbados where, as a descendent of emancipated slaves who had been brought to the island to work in the sugar cane plantations, he had sought work in the transport ships in order to seek a better - if equally racially problematic - life away from the cycle of indentured service on the islands. But rather than finding long lost members of an extended family, Orderson's visit to the island instead leads to more ambiguity as his seemingly personal link to his ancestry - his surname - proves to have been an arbitrary identification by former slaves to convey their association with the plantations from which they were emancipated. At the core of Orderson's unresolved quest is an exploration of African diasporic identity, where national and cultural roots serve as convenient signifiers that sidestep engagement with broader issues of race and identification. This evasion is trenchantly illustrated during Orderson's conversation with a pair of older generation Barbadians - one of whom bristles at the comment that his race is African - implicitly revealing not only ingrained ideas about racial hierarchy (measured by degrees of separation from one's continental roots), but also the perception that identity is binary and exclusive, contributing to divisions that continue to undermine Africa's transcendence from a corrosive legacy of colonialism and exploitation.

Posted by acquarello on Apr 14, 2009 | | Filed under 2009, New York African Film Festival

The Fighting Spirit, 2007

fightingspirit.gifIn an episode in George Amponsah's insightful and compassionate documentary The Fighting Spirit, a boxing trainer from the Ghanian fishing village of Bukom, having arrived with his protégée to England for an international competition, marvels at the technological achievement behind the gleaming urban landscape, commenting that the problem of African stagnation does not stem from a lack of ingenuity to build such impressive structures, but rather, a collective failure to nurture a "culture of maintenance". It is a change in mindset that he also strives to instill among the young boxers in his gym who, like homegrown hero, world champion, and hall of fame inductee Azumah Nelson, see professional boxing as a means of improving the quality of their lives and giving back to the impoverished community. For 22 year old boxer George, the UK match represents the first step towards building name recognition and legitimacy as a contender in Europe with an eye towards the title fight circuit (and their high payouts) of US boxing championships, as well as his own maturity, enabling him to earn enough money to build a house so he can marry his girlfriend. Across the Atlantic, Joshua now occupies the role of unofficial ambassador and standard bearer for Ghanian boxing, having left friends and family back home for a modest life in New York City to train for a highly anticipated contender match that will pave the way for a title fight in Las Vegas. For thirty-something female boxer, Yarkor, international boxing represents her best shot at breaking free from traditional roles to forge her own identity and financial independence, but struggles to launch her career after running into red tape in obtaining a passport, where an age discrepancy could render her too old to compete. By capturing the everyday lives of the three boxers away from the ring, Amponsah frames their personal stories within the context of the community's broader struggle for dignity and survival, where losses provide opportunity for character-building and soul searching - a re-alignment of priorities that is reflected in George's reconciliation with his girlfriend after his ego-inflating trip abroad (and subsequently deflating homecoming) following his first professional fight.

Posted by acquarello on Apr 14, 2009 | | Comments (1) | Filed under 2009, New York African Film Festival

March 23, 2009

Russian Critics on the Cinema of Glasnost, edited by Michael Brashinsky and Andrew Horton

cinema_glasnost.gifRussian Critics on the Cinema of Glasnost, edited by Michael Brashinsky and Andrew Horton, is a book in two parts: the first, Films in a Shifting Landscape, is a series of essays analyzing the historical and cultural legacy that shaped three generations of Soviet film criticism; the second, Glasnost's Top Ten, is a compilation of articles by prominent Russian critics (collectively representing these generations) covering a selection of glasnost-era cinema - followed by editorial commentaries that interweave ideas developed in the first section - that, in their diverse arguments, reflect the sociopolitical turmoil as insightfully as (if not more articulately than) the films themselves. Noting the difference between Soviet film criticism and "traditional" film criticism in the absence of film art discussion, Brashinsky and Horton propose that the divergence is traceable from its origins in early nineteenth century Russian critical tradition (embodied by such literary figures as Alexander Pushkin and Vissarion Belinsky) that sought to transform society through cultural engagement: "To sketch it roughly: It occupies a middle distance between what in the United States is seen as pop journalistic film reviewing and highbrow theoretical academic analysis. Soviet criticism covers a much more spacious area, one that spreads far beyond film, art, and even culture onto life itself."

In the essay, Cinema Without Cinema, Mikhael Yampolsky further expounds on this tendency towards ideas over images by proposing that the evolution of Soviet cinema itself is essentially logocentric, an outgrowth of a film industry that is neither driven by commercial nor artistic value. It is interesting to note that while Yampolsky does not explicitly refer to propaganda in the notion of industrial film as a precursor to contemporary cinema, his argument that the technological lag between the Soviet film industry and its Western contemporaries has led to a certain heavy-handedness also supports the idea that contemporary cinema is still influenced by its propagandistic past. To this end, Yampolsky cites Roman Balayan's The Kiss in which the over-amplified sound of buzzing mosquitoes is used to convey summer heat, and Andrei Tarkovsky in his tendency to layer prose over already self-expressive imagery.

Alexander Timofeevsky's essay, The Last Romantics traces the evolution of Soviet filmmaking (and by extension, criticism) through generational paradigm shifts between the Joseph Stalin-era ritualization that engendered the creation of classicist, heroic images of messianic struggle (that, in turn, reinforced Stalin's cult of personality); to the sixtiesniks movement under Nikita Khrushchev's thaw that ushered a period of reform, cultural exchange outside the Soviet sphere of influence, and de-Stalinization; to a protracted stagnation under Leonid Brezhnev that resulted in a thematic movement towards the creation of self-utopias - as exemplified by Andrei Tarkovsky's Mirror and Vladimir Menshov's Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears - in the wake of an ideological impasse between individualism and collectivism. This cultural shift away from the state towards the individual is subsequently examined in Marina Drozdova's essay, Midseasonal Anarchists: Youth Consciousness and Youth Culture in the Cinema of Perestroika in which untraditional images - such as Georgy Gavrilov's documentary, Confession: The Chronicle of Alienation on drug addiction - help to redefine the notion of cinematic truth and identification.

For the second part of the book, the editors begin with a consideration of Tengiz Abuladze's Repentence, considered to be the first perestroika film, by opposing critics, Tatyana Khloplyankina and Igor Aleinikov. Khloplyankina's essay, On the Road that Leads to the Truth follows in the vein of Soviet film criticism's sociocultural role in the way generalized references to elements in the film are incorporated within an overarching philosophical argument, in this case, the allegorical subtext as an encounter with buried transgressions (especially under Stalin) and a dismantling of the Soviet social experiment. On the other hand, Aleinikov's essay, Between the Circus and the Zoo, is sarcastic and provocative, arguing that the film is too saturated with ideas to the point of dilution, and the symbolism too facile to be considered groundbreaking. In a sense, Aleinikov's strategy to open his essay with a false scene reflects the structure of his exposition as well, regarding the film as a missed opportunity in confronting the past:

After all, Repentance satisfies the current social order to a considerable extent, for the film is spectacular and politically sharp. Moreover, the movie reflects on the condition of that social order, the level of our present social consciousness, the erosion of criteria in this consciousness, which is so confused that it reminds one of the bright colors that, once mixed on an artist's palette, became a gray paste. It is necessary to distinguish those colors by separating the functions of art from those of journalism, political science, and politics.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Aleksandr Sokurov's The Days of Eclipse has generated a wide range of critical response among the featured glasnost-era films. Of particular note is Mikhail Yampolsky's brief, but illuminating deconstructive essay entitled The World as a Mirror for the Other World that proposes another layer to the film's dense, seemingly mystical iconography:

Disintegration of both time and causal relations is clearly connected with the symbol of the eclipse. This universal drama is exposed in advance; it penetrates the life of the leading character by mysterious and unintelligible omens. Every now and again, strange animals show up in the doctor's house, for no apparent reason. By mail, he receives a gigantic lobster, frozen in jelly (a hint as to his own case). Then his sister appears out of nowhere with a live hare in a shopping bag. Finally, a huge python sneaks into his room, supposedly an escapee from the neighbors. These animals symbolize constellations: cancer (lobster), hare, and serpent. A serpent directly relates to the idea of a cycle, revival and death, the symbol of the eclipse. It also belongs to the realm of shadows. A cancer is linked to the shadows of the dead and is considered a moon animal, as is the hare.

...The universal scale in The Days of Eclipse substantiates Sokurov's perspective. What seems weird, fantastic, and excessive to both characters and the audience may in fact be the key to existence in Sokurov's world, the core to those causal relations that are placed vertically (between the lines) instead of horizontally (in line).

Posted by acquarello on Mar 23, 2009 | | Comments (2) | Filed under 2009, Film Related Reading

March 15, 2009

Bellamy, 2009

bellamy.gifIn hindsight, the establishing shot of Claude Chabrol's Bellamy showing a relaxed Paul Bellamy (Gérard Depardieu) trying to solve a crossword puzzle while on vacation at a well appointed country estate in Nîmes - an apparent compromise in destination from his wife, Françoise's (Marie Bunel) suggestions to take a more exotic trip - serves as both hint and a ruse to the renowned police inspector's ever-analytical personality. Struggling to cope with the unexpected arrival of his troublesome, ne'er-do-well, younger brother Jacques (Clovis Cornillac) and visited by a stranger, Noël Gentil (Jacques Gamblin) who may have been involved in the unsolved disappearance of an industrialist named Emile Leullet, Bellamy is gradually pulled away from his seeming hibernation, seduced by the stranger's tale of double lives, insurance fraud, a beautiful, young mistress (Vahina Giocante), a grieving, persecuted wife (Marie Matheron), and face-altering cosmetic surgery that seem worlds apart from his comfortable, settled life. Similar to Chabrol's previous film, A Girl Cut in Two, the psychology of the pursuer not only shapes the narrative trajectory of the film, but also continually redefines his ambiguous motivation: an unmade bed opens up the possibility of an affair, a missing gun corroborates a theoretical pattern of self-destruction, an all-too-forthcoming suspect that suggests hidden, ulterior motives. Bookending with a shot of a motorist's violent death on a desolate beach, the image suggests both a tragic conclusion and the ingredients of a new mystery - a paradoxical reflection of Bellamy's own self-perpetuating puzzle quest.

Posted by acquarello on Mar 15, 2009 | | Filed under 2009, Rendez-vous with French Cinema

Eden Is West, 2009

eden_west.gifThe quixotic search for a better life in the West collides with the reality of immigration raids, exploitation, and poverty in Costa-Gavras's picaresque, if insubstantial and ultimately unremarkable film, Eden Is West. Embodying the prototypical image of the naïve, wide-eyed immigrant is Elias (Riccardo Scamarcio) who, as the film begins, has paid smugglers a substantial fee for the privilege of staking a spot in the overcrowded hull of a ship bound for the French coast. Fearing immediate deportation after a coast guard vessel announces its intention to board the ship for inspection, Elias and his friend (Odysseas Papaspiliopoulos) - alomg with a handful of other desperate voyagers - jump overboard and head toward the lights of a nearby shore, landing on the clothes-optional beach on the foothills of a luxury resort appropriately called Eden. However, even the seeming paradise of all-you-can-eat buffets and wealthy, attractive patrons (in particular, a German woman named Christina [Juliane Köhler] who embarks on an affair with the handsome Elias) still has its drawbacks - a clogged toilet that needs immediate clearing, the continued presence of police searching for illegal immigrants who may have reached the shore, a resort manager (Eric Caravaca) who uses his position of authority to proposition a subordinate - that would invariably send Elias away in search of greener pastures, spurred in part by the invitation of a traveling magician, Nick Nickelby (Ulrich Tukur) to visit him in his hometown of Paris. Part whimsical comedy that conveys an immigrant's sense of wonder and part social realism that illustrates the plight of undocumented workers, the idiosyncratic fusion results in a film that is neither satirical enough to expose underlying social absurdities nor illuminating in its cursory and generalized observations of complex issues.

Posted by acquarello on Mar 15, 2009 | | Filed under 2009, Rendez-vous with French Cinema

March 13, 2009

Villa Amalia, 2009

villa_amalia.gifAs in his previous film The Untouchable, Benoît Jacquot's sublime and brooding film Villa Amalia, an adaptation of Pascal Quignard's novel, also explores themes of identity and fugue. This ambiguity is suggested in the film's opening sequence, as a distracted Ann (Isabelle Huppert) - having just witnessed her long-time partner, Thomas (Xavier Beauvois) near the doorway of another woman's home one evening - fails to recognize her childhood friend, Georges (Jean-Hugues Anglade) in the street. In a sense, the juxtaposition of their shared childhood in Brittany (which, in turn, evokes the region's Celtic and French biculturality), and her delayed response to the calling of her birth name (having adopted the surname, Hidden - an Anglicization of Hidewitz - for her professional career as a concert pianist and composer that alludes to her estrangement from her Romanian Jewish father and his ethic roots) is also a reflection of Ann's ambiguity and figurative rejection of her identity. Withdrawing from colleagues, refusing to take on commissioned work, and deciding to sell her shared apartment and all of its contents - including her collection of pianos - Ann gradually begins to divest herself from the life she has known, paying a final visit to her estranged mother, saying goodbye to friends, and asking Georges to keep a remote house that he once inherited for her, before setting off on her own journey to the volcanic island of Ischia on the Italian coast. But the island also proves to have its own entanglements: an Italian woman (Maya Sansa), on the verge of a breakup with her boyfriend, finds kinship with Ann despite the language barrier, a divorced lover's adolescent daughter begins to spend more time with her than with her workaholic father, and a fragile, emotionally abandoned Georges who is facing his own mortality. Jacquot creates a sense of fracture through narrative ellipses, dislocation, truncated conversations, and extended silences (most notably, in Ann's visit to her mother who may be suffering from a degenerative memory disorder) that reinforce her increasing isolation. Set against the idyllic, but weatherworn abandoned hilltop cottage, Villa Amalia becomes an embodiment of Ann's self-imposed exile as well in its haunted history of love and loss, beauty and austerity, celebration and mourning.

Posted by acquarello on Mar 13, 2009 | | Comments (2) | Filed under 2009, Rendez-vous with French Cinema

With a Little Help from Myself, 2008

with_help.gifLike Pierre Schöller's Versailles, François Dupeyron's With a Little Help from Myself similarly presents a portrait of the marginalized in contemporary France, in this case, the plight of immigrants and the elderly. Shot in yellow hues characteristic of African cinema, as well as vibrant, chaotic milieus and canted angles that invite comparison - albeit to the film's detriment - to Spike Lee's seminal film Do the Right Thing (complete with an aggressive, urban soundtrack and repeated shots of people trying to find relief from the blistering summer heat), the film's silver lining is found in actress Félicité Wouassi's charming performance as the indomitable Sonia, a role that runs the gamut from aggrieved wife to self-sacrificing mother to sympathetic companion to seductive enchantress (during the Q&A, Wouassi had commented that her acting experience before the film had been primarily theatrical, and was cast by Dupeyron after appearing as Mrs. Miller in Roman Polanski's stage production of John Patrick Shanley's play, Doubt in Paris). Ironically, in attempting to create a simple tale of working class life, Dupeyron resorts to familiar stereotypes, resulting in an unwieldy, over-contrived structure that paradoxically converges more towards fable than social realism: a sex-crazed best friend, an abusive, gambling husband (Mamadou Dioumé) who suffers a fatal heart attack only a few hours before their daughter's wedding, crotchety employers (with an added dose of racism for good measure), a lonely elderly neighbor (Claude Rich) eager for some excitement in his life, a drug-dealing son (Ralph Amoussou) who is arrested on the day of the wedding, a pregnant teen-aged daughter (Elisabeth Oppong), a self-destructive younger son (Charles-Etienne N'Diaye), a handsome suitor (Jean-Jacques Ido).

Posted by acquarello on Mar 13, 2009 | | Filed under 2009, Rendez-vous with French Cinema

March 11, 2009

The Beaches of Agnès, 2008

beaches_agnes.gifA clear highlight in an already strong French cinema program this year is Agnès Varda's playful and understated, yet endlessly inventive The Beaches of Agnès. Part autobiographical survey from her childhood in wartime Europe to her lifelong activism (she self-effacingly admits that she missed the events of May 68 because she was living in California at the time, and instead got caught up in the Black Panther and anti-war movements), and part career retrospective of her body of work as photographer, New Wave filmmaker, documentarian, and artist, the film is also an incisive essay on the amorphous nature of memory and representation. This ambiguity is perhaps best illustrated in long-time friend and colleague, Chris Marker's tongue in cheek, pre-scripted Q&A session with Varda on her life and work, using a mediated appearance through his iconic cartoon avatar, Guillaume-en-Egypte - complete with a disembodied MacinTalk™ synthesized voice - to conduct an ironically "personal" interview with the filmmaker. For Varda, reflections on her debut film La Pointe-courte not only revisit historical intersections between real life (her teen-age years spent in the fishing village during the war) and fiction (alternating segments between the lovers and village life), but also reveal the fissures between past and present, as many of the villagers appearing in the film have since died (including a poignant episode involving a stand-in actor whose son, born after his death, would commemorate his legacy by accompanying a projection cart that is screening the film through town), their children now elderly, and the lead actor, Philippe Noiret, appearing in his first film, would succumb to cancer in 2006. Inasmuch as Varda remarks that the trajectory of her life may be traced through the physical and metaphoric geography of beaches - from family summer vacations in Calais on the coast of her native Belgium, to a life of exile in La Pointe Courte in Languedoc-Roussillon on the southeast coast of France, to Venice Beach in California where the family had settled after her husband, filmmaker Jacques Demy was invited to work in Hollywood - her legacy is also appropriately found in the transformation of the ephemeral to the physical: a convergence that is prefigured in the opening sequence of Varda experimenting with mirror angles that alternately recasts the film crew as both documenters and subjects in the film, and culminates with the ingenious shot of a prismatic tent composed of unspooled reels from Varda's commercially unsuccessful film The Creatures. The image - and implicitly, the past - once again becomes tangible and relevant, re-animated by the curious and impassioned eye of an ageless spirit.

Posted by acquarello on Mar 11, 2009 | | Filed under 2009, Rendez-vous with French Cinema

Change of Plans, 2009

change_plan.gifFrom the opening images of Change of Plans, Danièle Thompson illustrates the intersection between personal and public spaces, initially, in the title sequence shot of a flamenco class in which a distracted, rhythm-challenged attorney, Marie-Laurence (Karin Viard) tries to keep up with - and out of the way of - other people, and subsequently, a gynecologist, Mélanie (Marina Foïs) examining a patient before being interrupted by a phone call from her lover. Having learned from her stay-at-home husband, Piotr (Dany Boon) of an added guest - her recently jilted lover, Jean-Louis (Laurent Stocker) - Marie-Laurence impulsively decides to invite her dance instructor Manuela (Blanca Li) in order to maintain the balance of men and women at the table, despite not having prepared enough food for the added guests. With the building access code having been changed earlier in the day, Marie-Laurence's estranged father, Henri (Pierre Arditi) unexpectedly coming for a visit, traffic coming to a virtual standstill with the advent of a music festival street fair, and friends Mélanie and her oncologist husband Alain (Patrick Bruel) uncommitted about coming to the dinner party (Mélanie having decided to reveal her affair with a jockey and ask for a divorce that evening), the occasion invariably turns from carefully planned event to barely controlled chaos, with Marie-Laurence's younger sister, Juliette (Marina Hands) deciding to drop in for a visit with fellow actor, Erwann (Patrick Chesnais) in tow, and divorce attorney, Lucas (Christopher Thompson) dragging along his neurotic wife Sarah (Emmanuelle Seigner) on the pretext of the dinner in an attempt to woo Marie-Laurence into his practice with the tantalizing offer of assigned parking space. As in her earlier films, Thompson returns to her recurring theme of shared spaces as intersectional précis for the banalities and transformative junctures of everyday life. Less cohesive than Orchestra Seats, the organic, decentralized framework of Change of Plans becomes an implicit inversion on the myth of bourgeois complacency, where the notion of settled lives at forty-something collides with the reality of life-altering changes, mortality, new love, and self-discovery.

Posted by acquarello on Mar 11, 2009 | | Filed under 2009, Rendez-vous with French Cinema

March 9, 2009

Versailles, 2008

versailles.gifThe woods surrounding the Palace of Versailles serves as a real-life metaphor for the stark disparity between wealth and poverty, privilege and exclusion in Pierre Schöller's sobering and unsentimental tale of two cities, Versailles. At the heart of Schöller's social interrogation is the plight of a young homeless boy, Enzo (Max Baissette de Malglaive) who, as the film begins, is wandering through back streets and dark alleys with his mother Nina (Judith Chemla) in a seemingly familiar routine of searching for suitable places to pass the night. Approached one evening by patrolling social workers with an offer of a warm place to sleep, Nina and Enzo are soon scuttled to Versailles under the pretext of filling out requisite forms to help them obtain public assistance: a process that will invariably send the mother away for vocational training as part of the prescribed workforce re-introduction program, while the child is processed into the foster care system. Refusing to provide their real names for fear of being separated by the state, the two instead cross into the woods in an attempt to reach the train station, and stumbles into the makeshift home of Damien (Guillaume Depardieu). Finding a kindred spirit and unlikely protector for her son in the brooding recovering addict and ex-convict, Nina, leaves Enzo in Damien's care and, armed with a newspaper article on unemployment featuring business woman and social activist, Mme. Herchel (Brigitte Sy), forges to find her way back into "productive society". Schöller incisively illustrates the parallel, surrogate relationships formed among the marginalized - the poor, homeless, and elderly - that redefine the notion of family and community. By chronicling elliptical, transitory moments in the lives of people living under the shadows of a gleaming Versailles, Schöller not only reflects the transient nature of their threadbare existence, but also confronts the eroded revolutionary ideals of an inclusive, egalitarian society that these unregistered, shadow communities represent.

Posted by acquarello on Mar 09, 2009 | | Filed under 2009, Rendez-vous with French Cinema

The Girl from Monaco, 2008

girl_monaco.gifThe prevailing stereotype of Monaco as exotic, laid back resort destination and land of fairytale - perpetuated in part by the public's enduring affection for the principality's most famous transplant, Grace Kelly - provides the surreal atmosphere for conscientious, Parisian attorney and self-styled ladies man, Bertrand's (Fabrice Luchini) inopportune case of tropical fever in Anne Fontaine's wry and breezy, The Girl from Monaco. Hired to defend a local socialite, Édith Lassalle (Stephane Audran) who is accused of killing a known gigolo with reputed ties to the Russian mafia, Bertrand's attempt to embrace the town's more unstructured lifestyle is soon quashed by the appearance of personal bodyguard, Christophe (Roschdy Zem) who has been hired by Lassalle's son (Gilles Cohen) as a precaution against possible retaliation by the mob. But Christophe's intractable sense of duty to constantly secure his client's "perimeter" also proves to have its advantages, managing to send away the inconvenient Hélène (Jeanne Balibar) who has decided to leave her husband (and life) in Paris and impulsively follow Bertrand to Monaco in order to pursue a relationship, and introducing him to a former lover, sexy, singing weather girl and aspiring starlet, Audrey (Louise Bourgoin). But as Bertrand's continues to fall under the spell of the interminably perky siren (a swooning that crystallizes in his truncated attempt to follow Audrey into the sea for a swim that is visually connected to a subsequent shot of him falling into a swimming pool before Audrey's camera), he becomes increasingly conscious of his own faltering objectivity and enlists the task-oriented Christophe with helping him maintain focus on the high profile trial. Returning to the moral ambiguity and sexual politics of her earlier films - in particular, Dry Cleaning in its themes of dangerous attraction and latent sexual awakening - Fontaine's seemingly idiosyncratic juxtaposition of idyllic setting and psychological portrait astutely reflects Bertrand's increasingly out-of-control obsession that, framed within the context of Audrey's fascination with iconic princesses Grace and Diana, reinforces the dark side of the fairytale.

Posted by acquarello on Mar 09, 2009 | | Filed under 2009, Rendez-vous with French Cinema

March 3, 2009

Demon Lover Diary, 1980

demonlover_diary.gifInasmuch as Joel DeMott and Jeff Kreines collaborative documentary, Seventeen provides an intimate and compassionate portrait of teenaged life in middle America, DeMott's earlier film, Demon Lover Diary - a diary of Kreines's reluctant involvement with the shooting of a schlock horror film called Demon Lover in suburban Michigan - proves to be its antithesis in its grotesque and increasingly surreal first-hand account of a no-budget, DIY film production gone awry. Invited to work as a technical director and cameraman, Kreines' working relationship with the film's producers becomes strained from the onset when he unexpectedly arrives - complete with girlfriend DeMott and a production crew friend in tow - several days later than planned, and is berated by factory workers turned aspiring movie moguls, Don Jackson and his friend, Jerry on the added personal and professional toll that his late arrival has taken on their already tight shooting schedule (with Jerry alluding to having cut off his finger at work in order to collect insurance money to finance the film, and Don having apparently mortgaged his house and taken an indeterminate sick leave from his job in order to work on the film [and now risks being fired if he continues to extend his absence]). The logistics of the production also proves to be more complicated than Kreines had expected. Don's arranged accommodations for the shoot turns out to be a guest room in his parents' house, and because of Mrs. Johnson's religious convictions, DeMott and Kreines must not only pose as a married couple, but also refrain from discussing the actual content of the film in her presence. The working script is virtually non-existent, and consists solely of Don's personal journal outlining the story (with Kreines oddly left without access to the material). And despite dispensing with any trace of realism in their over-the-top gothic sets, piecemeal costumes, and amateurish performances, Don and Jerry insist on using real weapons borrowed from Ted Nugent's private collection in order to film a crucial scene (complete with product demonstrations from an eager Nugent himself) - a bizarre encounter that grows even more absurd when Kreines attempts to pin down his role in the production by approaching the producers with a contract. In its idiosyncratic combination of documentary and real-life human comedy, Demon Lover Diary may be seen as an integral link, not only in the development of the mockumentary genre, but also in the thematic development of films that transect the bounds between real-life and performance (particularly, in the construction of metafilms) - a convergence between truth and staging that is perhaps best illustrated in DeMott's attempts to goad her friend into arranging a romantic encounter with the film's lead actress during a production break.

Posted by acquarello on Mar 03, 2009 | | Filed under 2009, Film Comment Selects

March 2, 2009

Seventeen, 1983

seventeen.gifOne of the highlights from Film Comment Selects this year was the screening of Joel DeMott and Jeff Kreines's underseen cinéma vérité film, Seventeen, a reverent and candid cross-cultural portrait of working class high school students from Muncie, Indiana that was once deemed objectionable for broadcast on PBS (the film had been commissioned as part of a documentary series on middle America) for confronting such (still) relevant social issues as race relations, drug use, unplanned pregnancy, underaged drinking, and dying young. Loosely centered on a headstrong girl named Lynn and her circle of friends, the film opens to the shot of Lynn and her classmates half-heartedly following the teacher's baking instructions, instead, using the hour to socialize with friends. In a way, the cooking lesson serves as a metaphor for the students' casual preparation for their transition into adulthood as well, having been filmed over the course of a year (the span of time subtly framed between varsity season and the senior prom). In one episode, news of Lynn's flirtation with an African American student named John sends the campus gossip mill abuzz, inciting the burning of a cross in her parents' yard and repeated telephone harassment by a young woman who may be one of John's acquaintances. In another episode, fellow cooking student, Robert confirms to the teacher that he is father of a pregnant student's baby, despite having ended the relationship with the girl earlier, and is unjudgingly counseled by the well-intentioned teacher on parental responsibilities. In still another episode, an alcohol-fueled party at Lynn's house becomes a sobering reminder of mortality when a mutual friend is gravely injured after a car accident. DeMott and Kreines insightfully frame the students within the context of home economics and sociology classes that serve to reflect the teenagers' interpersonal relationships, further reinforcing the integral role of the school experience as both a microcosm of an individual's domestic and social environments, and a real-life civics lesson on the importance of contributing to society.

Posted by acquarello on Mar 02, 2009 | | Filed under 2009, Film Comment Selects

February 28, 2009

The Frontier of Dawn, 2008

frontier_dawn.gifPhilippe Garrel's atmospheric and luminous, if oddly cold and alienated The Frontier of Dawn represents an amalgam of the filmmaker's familiar themes: the haunting of a failed love affair, the helplessness of seeing a loved one self-destruct, the guilt (and isolation) of survival, the fear of fleeting happiness. In this respect, the film's crepuscular title represents a young photographer, François's (Louis Garrel) anxiety in the days before his marriage to pretty, well-to-do Ève (Clémentine Poidatz) and impending fatherhood - a reluctance to lead a life of resigned "bourgeois happiness" that a friend once suggested after having lead a carefree - and largely bohemian - existence. Having once embarked on a passionate, if volatile relationship with a well known, highly strung actress named Carole (Laura Smet) only to devolve into uncertainty, disenchantment, callousness, and ultimately, abandonment when she continues to spend time with her estranged husband (and hides their affair from him) despite swooning, mutual declarations of love, François seems ready to move on from the ghosts of the past, until one day when he is tormented by the sight of Carole's apparition in a mirror and is compelled to face their unreconciled destiny. Departing from the cultural specificity of his previous film, Regular Lovers, Garrel instead returns to the stark, hermetic environments of his earlier films - barren apartments and tightly framed interior spaces (particularly beds and dining tables), where even outdoor scenes are often devoid of other people) that reflect interiority. However, while the chamber framework serves to reinforce the visceral directness of earlier works such as Savage Innocence and I Can No Longer Hear the Guitar, the singularity in The Frontier of Dawn instead creates a detached, fabular atmosphere (a sense of otherworldliness that is also suggested by François's dream involving a house in the forest) that detracts from the implicit emotional intensity given the story's autofictional premise, resulting instead in a film with quintessential Garrelian elements that, like the film's alterego, seems content with sleepwalking through familiar haunts and gestures.

Posted by acquarello on Feb 28, 2009 | | Filed under 2009, Film Comment Selects

February 27, 2009

The Chaser, 2008

chaser.gifAlternating between taut horror film and absurd comedy, Na Hong-jin's The Chaser is an audacious, if over-contrived and diluted procedural thriller. Inviting comparison to Bong Joon-ho's Memories of Murder (much to the detriment of Na's film) in its spiraling investigation of a series of murders, The Chaser also suggests kinship with Kiyoshi Kurasawa's Cure in its portrayal of a blank-faced, disarming, everyman killer. Centering on a former police detective turned pimp, Joong-ho's (Kim Yun-seok) lone pursuit of a mysterious client (Ha Jung-woo) who has been linked to several missing call girls after the disappearance of another young woman in the same neighborhood, the film shifts abruptly from intrigue to a morbid rendition of Keystone Kops when the client, Young-min is hauled away to a local precinct and immediately confesses to the murder of several area prostitutes. Convinced that Young-min had kidnapped the women and is confessing to more sensational crimes in an attempt to confuse the case, Joong-ho unwittingly delays the investigation when the suspect suggests that his latest victim, single mother Min-jin (Seo Yeong-hie) may still be alive. With the situation further complicated by heavy media coverage in the case involving the mayor and a man protesting stalled sewage projects, the police are eager to put the public relations fiasco behind them, until officials, fearing even greater backlash from an apparent case of police cover-up, threaten to quash the interrogation even before an official investigation can be launched. Na's odd combination of intricate plot (one that seemingly also implicates the church and relies on repeated incompetence and failure of technology) and facile caricatures (a money hungry pimp, a bumbling police squad, an impotent suspect) creates an underlying imbalance that contributes to the film's manic tone which, given the film's gruesome denouement, comes across as either half-baked or mean-spirited.

Posted by acquarello on Feb 27, 2009 | | Filed under 2009, Film Comment Selects

A Woman in Berlin, 2008

woman_berlin.gifBased on the autobiographical novel by a German international correspondent who published her wartime journal under the pseudonym Anonyma, Max Färberböck's A Woman in Berlin presents a raw and sobering account of the waning days of World War II as the Russian army seized control of a town in war torn Berlin and, consequently, lorded over the decimated population of women, children, and elderly men left behind. Shot from the perspective of the unnamed heroine (Nina Hoss), the film chronicles her journey from victim to survivor, as encamped troops, prevented by their superiors from advancing their campaign to Reichstag, channel their weariness and displaced aggression by systematically raping and terrorizing the women of the town. But rather than facile characterizations of good and evil, the idea of victim and perpetrator in the film also proves to be malleable. In an early scene, the residents, having sought refuge in a cellar for protection against the Russians searching for their next victim, implores the Russian-speaking heroine to approach the soldiers in order to plead for the release of a captured young woman who, in turn, then flees to the safety of the locked room, leaving her savior to endure her intended fate. Later in the film, a young Russian soldier details the killing of children in his village by German soldiers, and the heroine reluctantly translates his testimony, repeatedly asking if he had actually witnessed the massacre. In still another episode, a Russian nurse named Masha (Aleksandra Kulikova) tries to dispel the notion of her superior's affection towards the heroine by revealing that the wife of Major Rybkin (Yevgeni Sidikhin), the commanding officer who had once refused to intervene and stop the violence, had been killed by the Germans. However, inasmuch as the film illustrates the grey area between survival and exploitation, transgression and moral conscience, the complexity of human behavior is also reduced to predictable caricatures - the proud, old world resident (Irm Hermann) all too eager to curry favor from their captors, the sullen, lovestruck nurse reduced to icy glares and adolescent tantrums to register displeasure at her rival, the smarmy lothario (Roman Gribkov) who uses his privileged position to his advantage, the craven young German soldier (Sebastian Urzendowsky) who wallows incessantly in self pity over the humiliation his girlfriend endures to shelter him, yet does nothing to protect her - resulting in a well intentioned, if superficial exposition on the untold victims of war.

Posted by acquarello on Feb 27, 2009 | | Filed under 2009, Film Comment Selects

February 25, 2009

The Third Generation, 1979

third_generation.gifAn early cursory comment that capitalists invented terrorism as a means of selling security (that, in turn, will safeguard their own survival) provides the trenchant context for Rainer Werner Fassbinder's delirious and provocative satire, The Third Generation. Alluding to the emergence of a new generation of terrorists who, unlike their predecessors, lack a coherent agenda for their radicalism, the film may also be seen from the perspective of the generation of Germans born after the war whose lives were lived in relative privilege from their forefathers, having been raised during the reconstruction and the expansion (and globalization) of the German economy and dissociated from the stigma and austerity resulting from the war. This analogy is further reinforced in the early shots of a television broadcast featuring excerpts from Robert Bresson's The Devil Probably - a film that captures the sentiment of disaffected youth (representing a generation after May 68) - being recorded by Susanne Gast (Hanna Schygulla) for her supervisor, industrialist Peter Lurz (Eddie Constantine). Using the referential, secret passphrase "Die welt als wille und vorstellung" (after Arthur Schopenhauer's four volume treatise) after Lurz's arrival, Susanne sets an ambiguous covert plot into motion, alerting ringleader, August (Volker Spengler), Susanne's composer husband Edgar (Udo Kier), schoolteacher Hilda (Bulle Ogier), friend Petra (Margit Carstensen) and her husband Hans (Jürgen Draeger), and subsequently, even recruiting recently discharged soldier and explosives expert, Franz (Günther Kaufmann) who has arrived at the apartment to reunite with his drug-addicted lover, Ilsa (Y Sa Lo). Part deconstruction on the aftermath of the Baader-Meinhoff affair, part criticism of bourgeois alienation (and complacency), and part exposition on celebrity and media addiction (note the saturation of ambient sound, presumably from a constantly running television that crystallizes in the shot of Ilsa with arm outstretch against a foreshortened radio antenna that seemingly displaces a heroin needle as the instrument of her overdose), The Third Generation reflects Fassbinder's singular melding of manic ingenuity with contemporarily relevant social commentary, where the incisive observations serve not only as a reflection of a country's troubled past and uncertain present, but also foretells the corrosive, self-serving dynamics that will define the geopolitical climate of the future.

Posted by acquarello on Feb 25, 2009 | | Filed under 2009, Film Comment Selects

The Tiger's Tail, 2006

tiger.gifThe fable of catching a tiger by the tail only to be bitten back serves as a wry allegory for the modern day booming economy of Ireland, dubbed the Celtic tiger, in John Boorman's The Tiger's Tail. A contemporary retelling of Mark Twain's The Prince and the Pauper, Boorman establishes the profound social disparity created in the wake of the country's rapid economic development in the opening shot of well-respected property developer, Liam O'Leary (Brendan Gleeson) trying to navigate his way through a traffic jam on a bustling Dublin street, where shiny new automobiles become sitting targets for squeegee men and street hawkers (often bearing newspapers that reflect equally grim social statistics), and the reliance on new technology collides with old world realities of grazing sheep inopportunely planting themselves in the middle of the road to rest. (In one episode, Liam's reliance on his cell phone to communicate with his attractive trophy wife, Jane [Kim Cattrall] precludes him from noticing that he has been driving alongside her in the next lane.) Believing that he has crossed paths with his doppelgänger among the panhandlers on the road, Liam's life becomes increasingly complicated when the sighting turns out not to be a harbinger of his own death, but the surfacing of a double out to steal his identity and assume his privileged life. At the core of Boorman's sincere and commendable, if well worn cautionary tale on materialism, spiritual bankruptcy, and urban alienation is the idea of a modern, amnesic, and soulless society built on the hollow foundations and buried transgressions of the past: a forgotten and unreconciled history that is not only reflected in the relational dynamic between Liam and the people around him (most notably, in the degenerative memory loss suffered by Liam's elderly mother, his sister Oona's (Sinéad Cusack) long harbored secret, and a childhood friend's instability stemming from the trauma of abuse), but also in the cutthroat, often underhanded way he conducts business that reflect the exploitation and inhumanity of corporate politics.

Posted by acquarello on Feb 25, 2009 | | Filed under 2009, Film Comment Selects

Paradise, 2009

paradise.gifSomething like an unconstructed take on Peter Mettler's epic essay film, Gambling, Gods and LSD, Michael Almereyda's Paradise similarly assembles a series of fragmentary, cross-cultural, quotidian images taken from the filmmaker's video diaries that reflect on fundamental human questions of life, existential purpose, and transcendence. In an early episode in the film, a man passing through a bleak winter landscape impulsively stops on the side of a road in order to photograph cattle grazing in a pasture, risking injury to capture an ephemeral moment of austere beauty. In another episode, the tables are turned, and nature intrudes on civilization in the shot of pigeons perched on a child who has been feeding the birds at a cobblestone town square. In Los Angeles, a group of revelers wend their way through dark, labyrinthine streets of in search of an optimal spot to view fireworks. In a rural town, rambunctious children strike the embers on a charred tree near a barbecue pit, trying to hasten the roasting of a pig. Converging towards Jacques Rivette and Manoel de Oliveira's recurring theme, Almereyda also examines the nature of the stage and spectacle in a shot of a tented, outdoor concert that becomes the site of a secondary "performance" in the silhouette of dogs playfully responding to the attention of unseen bystanders behind the screen (a shot that loosely evokes the shot of curious onlookers milling around a Roman-era excavation site in José Luis Guerín's En Construcción). Less cohesive and visually arresting than Gambling, Gods and LSD, Paradise repeatedly resorts to familiar tropes of children at play to reflect essential ideas of innocence and paradise lost, paradoxically framing moments of enlightenment as trite, self-conscious observations.

Posted by acquarello on Feb 25, 2009 | | Filed under 2009, Film Comment Selects