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Ancillary Film Notes

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

April 13, 2005

Aldous Huxley: The Gravity of Light, 1996


On a television interview conducted near the twilight of his life, Aldous Huxley articulated his belief that the fullness of human potentiality can be achieved within one's lifetime - that the realization of an ideal eternal cognition can be accelerated through a cultivation of reason and virtue - in effect, that transcendence is within human grasp. From this seductive and intriguing introductory framework, Oliver Hockenhull relates a seemingly tangential personal anecdote on the synchronicity on having been born on the same day that the Russians launched Sputnik 2 from the Baikonur Cosmodrome with a dog named Laika onboard in order to prove that animals could, indeed, survive in the vacuum of space. Nevertheless, these two disparate trains of thought inevitably cohere and interweave within the film's idiosyncratic, yet fascinating convergence of personal history, cultural biography, and philosophical exposition into the complex, often delusive role of technology and applied science towards humanity's quest to transcend the bounds of human limitation and approach ever closer the limits of infinity - a mortal transfiguration to an existential ideal.

For Huxley, this state of technologically induced transcendence came, not only in the form of creative abstraction in the submissive, dystopian bliss in the absence of free will depicted in his novel Brave New World, but also personally, in the author's controversial, late career interest in parapsychology and psychotropic drug experimentation - revealing his underlying interest in exploring the process and continuity of human consciousness in the absence of the body. It is this disengagement and autonomy of incorporeal information from the physical that is similarly reflect in a soliloquy performed by Hockenhull's alterego, an actor named David Odhiambo who bears little physical resemblance to the filmmaker (an incongruence that is further underscored by the use of a female narrator's voice in the sequence), on the evolution of the digital age which represents the existence and transfer of informational data without the medium of human consciousness, essentially creating a simulation of the human cognitive process - an artificial being - that, as the alterego comments, has "distinct memory but no resemblances".

This idea of the commutation of human legacy without physical transference is also reflected in the filmmaker's tantalizing, tongue-in-cheek anecdote on his family's potential genealogical commonality with the Huxley family through their intersecting geographic lineage of prominent landowners in feudal England. However, as the filmmaker subsequently discovers, the aristocratic surnames were appropriated by many of the serfs themselves in their quest to improve their prestige and social standing as they seek out their fortune. A subsequent anecdote recounting his brother's telephone call to a woman who also bears the same surname reveals another incidence of transference of identity as she explains that her husband's forefathers had apparently taken on their former landowner's last name after their emancipation from slavery. In both cases, the transcendence of the ancestral family name - a phenomenon that is intrinsically associated with the human processes of procreation and conscious desire - occurs without the exchange and recombination of genetic imprint. As in the alterego's exposition on the development of artificial intelligence, the continuity of human history occurs in the absence of a biological element, without the physical body...devoid of "resemblances".

Tracing Huxley's philosophy that applied science and spirituality are integrally correlated in humanity's process of self-enlightenment, Hockenhull includes an excerpt from the television interview in which the author provides a thoughtful account of his crisis of conscience during the 1930s from which he emerged with a new-found clarity for the possibility of immanent transcendence. However, within this context of changing the course of one's destiny through conscious and active self-engagement, the notion of potentiality begins to intersect (or more appropriately, collide) with the practical dichotomy of an allegorical Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle: a realization that the simple act of observing alters the other characteristics of that which is observed - in essence, that myopic engagement in temporal reality detracts humanity from the cultivation of unrealized potential - and consequently, estranges it further from the ideal of transcendence. It is this existential paradox that perhaps best illustrates the genius, enigma, and irony of the unconventional, yet deeply philosophical author and modern thinker: the ability to see beyond the limits of physical vision towards the unimaginable promise and resolute faith of achieving true human transcendence.

Posted by acquarello on Apr 13, 2005 | | Comments (3) | Filed under 2005, Ancillary Film Notes

April 4, 2005

Peace, Propaganda and the Promised Land, 2004

peace.gifOn June 5, 1967, Israel launched a pre-emptive war against Syria, Jordan and Egypt in a six-day war that culminated with the country's seizure of the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem, leading to the Israeli government's continued, illegitimate military occupation in violation of the 1967 UN Security Council Resolution 242 that ordered its immediate withdrawal from the occupied territories. This often overlooked (or, more appropriately, conveniently sidestepped) historical fact provides the basis for filmmakers Sut Jhally and Bathsheba Ratzkoff's articulate, impassioned, and incisive exposition on the irresponsible, inequitable, and often incestuous role of the American media in enabling the perpetuation of the Arab-Israeli conflict and the marginalization of the Palestinians in their native, occupied land. Citing the global backlash following the media coverage of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 as a watershed incident that lead to the government's re-architecture of its modern day public relations policy, the film breaks down the underlying, implemented tenets of The Hasbara Project, an aggressive, comprehensive, and proactive public relations initiative that sought to cast a favorable light (or at least, less detrimental media spin) on the government's controversial occupation policies, calling for the sustained cultivation of interpersonal relationships with media professionals and influential newsmakers, the early dissemination of news capsule press releases to foreign bureau offices in order to have an on-hand, convenient, ready-made response and included viewpoint in the accounting of the day's significant events, and even the publication of prescribed vernacular and reporting guidelines that not only sanitize the tone, but more importantly, help to implicitly shape the lexicon - and consequently, the underlying sympathetic attachment - of the news articles. The effect of this altered nuance of language is illustrated in the government's (and media parroted) euphemistic reference to the illegally occupied settlement (or colony) of Gilo in East Jerusalem as a Jewish neighborhood on the outskirts of Israel proper - the characterization of "neighborhood" evoking a wholesome, cross-cultural familiarity while simultaneously avoiding the issue of its legitimacy of existence in the occupied territory. This perspective bias is especially evident in the presentation of side-by-side reports on the death of six Palestinian children in two separate incidents by the BBC and CNN: the BBC pointing out that the Israeli military had mined a public street used by children to walk to school, while CNN removes the mundane (and humanizing) context surrounding the children's actions and attributes their deaths to a seeming freak accident caused by one of the children kicking an inferentially errant, unexploded tank shell - in essence, blaming the victim and absolving the perpetrator in the court of public opinion. Another manifestation of this altered nuance is in the characterization of cause and effect in the reporting of news by the American media, usually attributing the act of aggression to the Palestinians, and the defensive position to the Israelis - an assignment of blame that not only trivializes the multifaceted, cyclical nature of the conflict into discrete, complementary acts of attack and retaliation, but also loses sight of the fundamental, overarching specter of the Six Day War that had initially sparked the region's modern day instability and escalating violence. It is this illusory claim of self-defense that is further exploited in the wake of the September 11 attacks, as the Israeli government began to perceptionally redefine the occupation and subsequent heavy-handed military action in the occupied territories as another ongoing facet in a protracted war on terrorism, a politically expedient, ideological alignment that conveniently circumvents the internationally pricklier questions of usurped sovereignty, inequitable justice, ethnic cleansing, and human rights violations. By deconstructing and analyzing the informational structure by which the U.S. media has contributed to the systematic oppression of an indigenous people, Peace, Propaganda and the Promised Land: U.S. Media and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict offers an intelligently constructed, compelling, and thoughtfully bracing alternative perspective to the seemingly incomprehensible cycle of violence of the Middle East. Rather than a presenting a vitriolic diatribe on the transgressions of occupation and a compromised media, the film serves as a sincere and constructive open invitation to an inclusive, cross-cultural dialogue on the complex issues and deeply rooted human emotions that have contributed to the elusiveness of a lasting and just peace.

Posted by acquarello on Apr 04, 2005 | | Comments (3) | Filed under 2005, Ancillary Film Notes

March 16, 2005

About Baghdad, 2004

baghdad.gifIn an episode near the conclusion of the film, the expatriate poet and writer Sinan Antoon, having been allowed entry into the military secured Shaheed Monument - an architecturally impressive outdoor memorial commissioned by Saddam Hussein to honor the fallen Iraqi martyrs of the Iran-Iraq War (in a macabre, self-aggrandizing gesture to commemorate the 700,000 soldiers that the despot had willfully sent to their deaths by invading Iran in 1980) - solemnly surveys the Vietnam Memorial-like list of casualties inscribed on the wall and becomes visibly upset by the sight of intermittently spaced, printed sheets of paper taped over some of the inscriptions. A subsequent terse exchange with his military escort provides a context for the nature of the affront: the placards denoting reserved parking space assignments for the troops stationed in the monument complex sacrilegiously - and ignorantly - taped over the names of the dead soldiers. The seemingly disrespectful and chagrining (if not inadvertently arrogant) display of diplomatic faux pas reflects a deeply rooted national wound that continues to haunt and demoralize the Iraqi people's psyche in post Saddam Hussein Iraq: a systematic trivialization (and erasure) of the rich cultural history of their beloved, ancestral land of ancient Mesopotamia - the cradle of civilization - in the wake of imperialist foreign intervention (first, by the British who captured Baghdad during World War I and subsequently exerted influence over the direction of the nation's governance, then subsequently, by the Americans during the invasions of Iraq in First and Second Gulf War), the reign of autocratic tyranny under Hussein (who not only appropriated - and desecrated - the country's national resources and treasures, but also perverted the meaning of historicity with his own attempts at self-immortalization by installing publicly inescapable commemorative portraits, billboards, and statues throughout the country), and the inevitable collateral destruction of war (most palpably, in the bombing of academic institutions that serve as repositories for art, cultural artifacts, and historical documents including the Academy of Fine Arts and the College of Arts buildings and library at the University Baghdad). Composed of interviews of ordinary citizens, walking tours through the war-ravaged streets, first-hand testimonies by political prisoners tortured under the Hussein regime, conversations with intellectuals, and observational commentaries by the outspoken Antoon, and assembled into a collage of visual styles that structurally evoke the colorfully (and elaborately) interwoven, vibrant hues of ancient tapestry, About Baghdad is an illuminating, impassioned, and provocative exposition on the complex issues and profound emotional conflict surrounding the American occupation of Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein. Capturing a pervasive sense of despair, frustration, anger, resentment, and melancholia that lay beneath the tumultuous and embittering national history of usurped and foreign imposed law, inhumanity (whether through Hussein's arbitrary administration of torture or internationally imposed sanctions that have crippled the country's health care system), and unrequited desire for self-governance, the film serves as a thoughtful, sincere, and articulate human plea for tolerance, respect, cultural preservation, and self-determination.

Posted by acquarello on Mar 16, 2005 | | Comments (3) | Filed under 2005, Ancillary Film Notes

March 9, 2005

The Letter: An American Town and the 'Somali Invasion', 2003

letter.gifIn December 1992, the US-proposed Operation: Restore Hope sought to secure Somalia's food supply from warring factions through the deployment of security forces in conjunction with the ongoing UN humanitarian campaign to control the widespread crisis of the man-made famine - a volatile situation that soon became increasingly encumbered with the greater problem of controlling civil violence throughout the unstable country. Subsequently, in June 1993, a team of Pakistani UN soldiers were massacred during routine inspections, an ambush that was believed to have been engineered by one of the country's most powerful warlords, General Mohamed Farah Aidid. The tragedy inevitably led to the Battle of Mogadishu - the violent conflict depicted in Black Hawk Down - as the military sought to apprehend the elusive Aidid. Ten years later, the obfuscated - and increasingly mired - humanitarian crisis would seemingly converge in the traditionally Franco-American New England town of Lewiston, Maine: a community that continues to mourn a fallen son from the fateful battle with a commemorative placard on a state highway and whose wounds were recently re-opened not only by the Ridley Scott film, but further exacerbated by the uncertainty of life in immediate post 9/11 America as a large influx of Muslim-faith Somali immigrants began to settle in the town coincidentally after the terror attacks in what the media dubbed as the "Somali Invasion" of Lewiston. With the city still recovering from the downturn in the economy (caused in part by the manufacturing slowdown in the local mills and the nationwide recession), and the potential of another 1000 Somalis imminently relocating into the area (effectively doubling the ethnic Somali population), the mayor, Laurier T. Raymond Jr. penned a brusque open letter to the Somali elders urging them to use their influence within the extended ethnic community to discourage their families, friends, and native countrymen from similarly moving into Lewiston and further taxing the city's increasingly burdened resources. Emboldened by Raymond's controversial public appeal - and implicitly, the contingent of Lewiston residents who support a similar, intolerant (if not overtly racist) view - hate groups such as the World Church of the Creator began to descend on the town in order to further their own agenda, culminating in a planned rally on January 11 (a date perhaps selected for its fear-mongering evocation of 9/11). Growing increasingly weary of the simplistic, caricatured media portrayal of Lewiston as a haven for xenophobic, unenlightened bigots, members of the community decided to stage their own unity march despite the unapologetic (and perhaps, willful) announced absence of the mayor from the heavily media-scrutinized event (citing pre-arranged vacation plans) in a sincere and defiant gesture of humanity and plea for tolerance. Filmmaker Ziad Hamzeh's articulate and incisive documentary, The Letter, is a thoughtful examination of the interplay between entrenched sociology and overarching cultural and historical dynamics that inexorably converge and perpetuate the legacy of hate and exclusion. Contrasting the overly rehearsed diatribes and instinctive, underformed, stereotypical arguments of the detractors against the impassioned voices of a rended town struggling to move forward in the aftermath of uncertainty and profound cultural change, the film serves as a provocative cautionary tale on intolerance, scapegoating, and myopic vision, and a compelling portrait of the human imperative for empathy and solidarity.

Posted by acquarello on Mar 09, 2005 | | Comments (5) | Filed under 2005, Ancillary Film Notes

March 5, 2005

Building Heaven, Remembering Earth: Confessions of a Fallen Architect, 1999


Oliver Hockenhull's voluptuous, textural, and thematically (and experientially) dense essay film is an intricately constructed, stream-of-consciousness meditation on architecture, memory, immortality, and transcendence. Evoking the sprawling, trans-continental journals of the faceless, globe-trotting (metaphoric) time traveler and ethnographic filmmaker Sandor Krasna in Chris Marker's Sans soleil, Building Heaven, Remembering Earth: Confessions of a Fallen Architect is similarly infused with a certain wide-eyed curiosity and sense of adventure, thoughtfulness, and self-effacing humor.

From the film's introductory anecdote on the first book of architecture, a ten-volume documentation of buildings, machines, and timepieces, Hockenhull presents an implicit interconnection between architecture and time, both serving as materialized representations of projection, shadows, and geometric space. The analogy is subsequently developed in the filmmaker's exposition on the Pantheon in Rome as he reflects on the ancient structure's innate symmetry through negative projection for which the apparent structural complement - and therefore, its spatial negation - occurs at an intersection on an imaginary axis that is defined by infinity. The realization of imaginary intersections and approaching theoretical limits similarly provides the underlying concept for the Aquatic Pavilion in Neeltje Jans, Holland, an example of media architecture in which undulating, nodal mesh forms characterize the functional construct of the numerical data: the ideal form generated by a human-less, synthetic vision of empirical limits and discrete interpolations.

Hockenhull further correlates the process of architectural construction as an innately human quest for immortality - a mortal bridge to the divine (note the thematic correlation to György's underlying futile search for the harmonies of the gods in Béla Tarr's Werckmeister Harmonies) - a rapture. It is this ephemeral state of artificially induced transcendence that is thematically threaded to the juxtaposition of images between a heroin addict and the somber, forbidden architecture of New Metropolis, an asymmetric and aesthetically nondescript behemoth commercial space projecting ominously from the industrial landscape of an Amsterdam harbor town, both representing a depersonalization of the individual: the erasure of the human element (which, in turn, expounds on the idea of architecture as a means of achieving closeness to gods).

In correlating the confluence of structure and time, Hockenhull characterizes architecture as commemorations of history. From a statue immortalizing the commander of the Dresden raid (a personally traumatic episode for Hockenhull's father that the filmmaker revisits in the short film Mother, Father, Son) to an examination of the works of artist and architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel, Hockenhull illustrates the inevitable bifurcation between the conceptually ideal - the "glowing painting of a reconciled world" - and the ravaged artifacts of human history (most notably, in the bullet-ridden pillars of the New Watch Building and the variegated rubble used to line the perimeter of a summer house in postwar, suburban Berlin). It is this corruption and decay of the ideal that is encapsulated in the utilitarian history of the Prince Albrecht Palais, a stately residence later transformed as a headquarters for intelligence gathering and dissemination of propaganda by the Nazis.

Traveling eastward to Asia, Hockenhull then forgoes the inherent politicization of 20th century European history and returns to the more abstract theme of transcendence through architecture, remarking after a Sergei Eisenstein retrospective in Istanbul of the role of cinema as "time and aspiration of memory", and further concluding that architecture and memory are integrally correlated by the nature of their "pure constructions". This idea of continuity through memory and architecture - the intertwining of the mortal and the immortal, life and death - is perhaps best represented in the Indian city of Kashi, known as the city of light - a cremation grounds where nature and structures represent, not only ancient relics of the past, but also a continuity and an afterlife. In essence, the architecture serves as a place of ceremony and ritual: the human imperative to define the amorphous nature of God and consequently, find a path to transcendence. It is this complex interconnection of functionality and meaning that is inevitably embodied by the egg-shaped stone that punctuates the film, an eternal, indefinable object that curiously encapsulates the genesis, mortality, human imprint, and metaphysical enigma of a greater, and unfathomably more complex, immortal design.

Update: The film is available on DVD through Customflix. (04-09-05)

Posted by acquarello on Mar 05, 2005 | | Comments (4) | Filed under 2005, Ancillary Film Notes

February 13, 2005

The Story of a Cheat, 1936

cheat.gifFrom the casual and personably familiar (and inferentially self-confident) running commentary of the film's introductory behind-the-scenes footage of the cast and crew, Sacha Guitry sets the infectiously picaresque and disarming tone of The Story of a Cheat. An interstitial silhouette of Guitry's profile provides the clever transition from real-life auteur to fictional character as the bespectacled, middle-aged, self-confessed "Cheat" pens his memoirs at an outdoor table of a bistro that overlooks his former residence - a Parisian townhouse that he would later admit he had won and subsequently lost through the fickle fortune of the cards. Proceeding in flashback as he recounts his youth in the provincial town of Pingolas, the Cheat reveals the unforeseeable and paradoxical set of circumstances that had spared him from accidental death - and unintentionally extolled the virtues of vice - after having earlier stolen change from the cash register in his parents' grocery store and was consequently forbidden by his father to be served freshly picked mushrooms during dinner as punishment, a side dish that inadvertently turned out to have proved lethal for the rest of the family. Orphaned at the age of twelve and divested of his inheritance by calculating, antipathetic relatives who are only too eager to be rid of him, the young Cheat (Serge Grave) soon sets out to find his own fortune, working his way up from as a bellboy to doorman to elevator operator for a series of luxury hotels throughout France before settling in Monaco after the war, striving to lead an honest life by working in the casinos of Monte Carlo as a croupier until a seemingly fated encounter with an enigmatic woman with soulful eyes named Henriette (Jacqueline Delubac) invariably tempts him to return to his old, incorrigible ways. Composed entirely without dialogue and instead, propelled through anecdotal, first-person narration, the film is a droll, infectiously effervescent, and charming satire on greed, opportunism, chance, and destiny. Guitry's briskly paced, reflexive tone is further reflected in the recursive nature of the film, most notably in the Cheat's repeated encounters with his former lovers and also his military comrade Serge (Roger Duchesne), creating a deceptively lyrical, yet insightful and observant commentary on the irrepressibility of human nature.

Posted by acquarello on Feb 13, 2005 | | Filed under 2005, Ancillary Film Notes

Life as a Fatal Sexually Transmitted Disease, 2000

life_fatal.gifIn early 12th century France, a horse thief is captured in the outskirts of a peasant village and brought to the attention of a passing monk in order to receive absolution before being hanged for his crime. Momentarily released from his binding in order to pray, the thief seizes the opportunity to flee from the village before being quickly apprehended and returned to the waiting priest, who then informs the townspeople that he cannot give absolution to someone who is not ready for death. Instead, the monk offers to take the prisoner into his counsel at the monastery and agrees to bring him back for his punishment when he is able to accept his fate. One day, the prisoner returns to the village and solemnly approaches the clearing that leads to the gallows before a seemingly anachronistic on-set mishap reveals that the opening sequence had been a film-within-a-film excerpt from a work in progress on the early life of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux and his epic theological conflict with theologian Pierre Abélard (a conflict that eventually led to Abélard's condemnation under Pope Innocent II). The nebulous, inexact context of Saint Bernard's reassuring words to the condemned man reveals the underlying essential mystery of Krzysztof Zanussi's pensive and articulate film, Life as a Fatal Sexually Transmitted Disease, as the divorced and childless Dr. Tomasz Berg (Zbigniew Zapasiewicz) - the film's standby physician - is forced to come to terms with his own mortality after discovering that he is suffering from an advanced stage of cancer. The film presents a thoughtful contemporary allegory for a culture that is striving to reconnect with its traditional spirituality (and along with the soul searching, the inevitable self-examination that accompanies the process as people struggle to reconcile with its continued relevance in a modern, technology-driven, and increasingly alienated society) after years of systematic religious marginalization under communism. Morevoer, by chronicling Dr. Berg's personal journey of enlightenment, closure, and transcendence, Zanussi reflects the spiritual conflict embodied by Abélard and St. Bernard's inextricable theological conundrum: an irresolvable universal quest to find balance between reason and faith, humanity and spirituality, mortality and eternal life.

Posted by acquarello on Feb 13, 2005 | | Filed under 2005, Ancillary Film Notes

February 4, 2005

Debt, 1999

debt.gifA pair of decapitated, naked male corpses are recovered from the bottom of a frigid, isolated lake as a team of police officers processes the crime scene in the hopes of recovering their heads in order to aid in the identification of the victims. Observing the idiosyncratically violent and methodical nature of the crime, the lead detective immediately notes the cursory similarity of the murders to the signature method of execution by foreign gangsters operating within the country - a gruesome reality that can only lead to the probable motive of an apparent turf war that, in turn, could only serve to hinder progress in the apprehension of the perpetrators. The film then proceeds in flashback to reveal implicit themes of new beginning, economic opportunism, and upward mobility: initially, through a shot of a young entrepreneur named Adam (Robert Gonera) overseeing the site preparation of his plot of land for construction (and is further reinforced through the news of his impending fatherhood), and subsequently, through the image of his business partner Stefan (Jacek Borcuch) scaling an indoor rock climbing training wall, envisioning himself within the exotic destinations of his mountain climbing magazines. Armed with a carefully detailed business proposal for an exclusive agreement to distribute competitively priced scooters for an Italian manufacturing company, the partners soon find their plans thrown into upheaval when a seemingly secured bank loan is rescinded for insufficient collateral only days before their scheduled international meeting. With little hope of securing another loan in time for the meeting, Stefan's recently reunited friend Gerard (Andrzej Chyra), offers to act as a go-between for his business associates in exchange for an undetermined percentage of the company profits. However, when Gerard returns with a dubious and financially-prohibitive proposal (undoubtedly engineered through syndicate connections), the partners soon find that they are unable to simply walk away from their persistent and ruthless intermediary. Spare, austere, and elegantly realized, Debt evokes the systematic dehumanization of Darezhan Omirbaev's Killer in the depiction of opportunism, moral bankruptcy, and exploitation endemic within former Soviet bloc countries as people compete for survival in the anarchy and freedom of a new economy. Filmmaker Krzysztof Krauze captures the bleak and interminably cold landscapes of post-communist Eastern Europe that is similarly reflected in the cinema of Béla Tarr and Sharunas Bartas, creating a trenchant and provocative metaphor for the profundity of human desolation in the face of corrupted and broken idealism.

Posted by acquarello on Feb 04, 2005 | | Filed under 2005, Ancillary Film Notes

February 2, 2005

Séance, 2000

seance.gifAn unidentified widow (Hikari Ishida) sits in the kitchen of the Sato home bearing a keepsake from her late husband in the desperate hope that her psychic medium, Junko (Jun Fubuki) can somehow connect her to him and help resolve her own conflicted emotions on the prospect of marrying another man. Soft-spoken, deliberative, and perhaps intentionally vague in her seemingly enlightened queries, Junko's role is that of a surrogate psychotherapist, echoing her client's ambivalent sentiment through inverted responses and patient, introspective silence. Nevertheless, Junko's paranormal vocation seems to have been borne more out of listlessness and an attempt at social re-engagement than financial necessity as she impulsively tells her devoted husband, a sound engineer named Sato (Kôji Yakusho) one evening that she is ready to return to work. A subsequent, cursory episode alludes to the reason for her self-imposed exile as Sato searches for a child's beverage training mug, reinforcing the theme of a lost child that has deeply marked - and continues to haunt - their marriage. Meanwhile, in another part of town, the police are baffled by the case of a nebulous and predatory stranger who has abducted a young girl at a playground under the ruse of her mother's illness. Working with a university professor (Ittoku Kishibe) in order to create a psychological profile of the perpetrator, the professor, in turn, convinces the lead detective (Kitarou) to enlist Junko's assistance, providing her with the child's handkerchief in order to aid in the search. A loose adaptation of the novel by Mark McShane, Séance on a Wet Afternoon, Séance is a taut, atmospheric, and meticulously constructed psychological study of surrogate guilt, emotional co-dependency, personal conscience, and vanity. Kiyoshi Kurosawa continues to experiment with the distillation, aesthetic infusion, and integral structure of gothic elements into a non-horror genre narrative (most recently, in the sociological drama, Bright Future) while retaining the psychological tension, profound alienation, and metaphysical otherworldliness that have come to define his cinema (and is particularly evident in the Tarkovsky-like barren landscapes of Charisma) in order to create a thoughtful and provocative exposition on transference, spiritual desolation, and sentimental inertia.

Posted by acquarello on Feb 02, 2005 | | Comments (3) | Filed under 2005, Ancillary Film Notes

January 28, 2005

Marathon, 2002

marathon.gifThere is an early moment of recognition in Marathon when the heroine of the film, Gretchen (Sara Paul), scans one of the crossword puzzle clues (from a handful of puzzles that she has taken with her on the train) and traces the words "Lamb's pen name", a perennial New York Times crossword entry (Elia) that I somehow managed to keep forgetting during my own obsession with completing these maddening puzzles: Mondays were easy, Fridays were invariably a challenge, and by Sunday, the glyphs would always leave me completely stumped. Perhaps it was this personal identification with the (albeit trivial) past that I found most incisive and truthful about this unassuming but acutely observed film by Iranian expatriate filmmaker, Amir Naderi. At the heart of the film is a chronicle of Gretchen's traditional one-day "marathon" to push the bounds of her endurance and challenge her personal best (a record of 77) - to complete as many compiled crossword puzzles as she can within the span of 24 hours - drawing on the ambient noise of the city to sharpen her focus and acuity. Marathon invites favorable comparison with Chantal Akerman's News from Home in the framing of structural symmetry (particularly subway stations and track infrastructure), anonymous population, and constant bustle of machinery, transportation, and people. Moreover, the voicemail messages from Gretchen's mother (Rebecca Nelson) offering equal measures of support and cautionary advice similarly recall the measured, sentimental estrangement of the mother's recited letters in News from Home: a child's self-imposed isolation that seems reluctant, but necessary, in the process of independence and personal identity (a message conveys her mother's own history of past marathon accomplishments). It is interesting to note that News from Home was also filmed by a then-New York City transplant Akerman, and the detailed observation of the minutiae of the adoptive city by both diasporic filmmakers seem integrally correlated to the process of cultural assimilation. It is this intrinsic particularity that ultimately reveals the underlying truth of the film, not as a trite allegory on deriving creativity from chaos, but as a thoughtful and sincere expression of wonder, distraction, trepidation, and curiosity at an inscrutable and ephemeral soul of a brave new world.

Posted by acquarello on Jan 28, 2005 | | Comments (1) | Filed under 2005, Ancillary Film Notes

January 25, 2005

tx-transform, 1998

tx_transform.gifFilm is empirically defined as 24 frames per second. However, if the functional variables were to be transposed such that each frame instead represented 24 seconds of a fixed space (defined by the bounds of the frame) - the shift in perspective would capture a behaviorally dissimilar relational interval - a spatial "snapshot" that illustrates the visual continuum of time rather than a continuum of visible space (as in a photograph). From a fixed angle camera, the transposition would result in rotating objects that conflate into a flat map survey of the entire surface contour of the object (as in satellite mapping), dynamic motion that is revealed perpendicular to the line of sight as static objects disappear within the frame of the visible temporal "space", relative motion that seemingly elongates and compresses along the traversal axis. This referential transposition from distance-time (x-t) (or position-time) to time-distance (t-x) drives the technology behind the surreally fluid, ethereal, metamorphosing images captured in Virgil Widrich and Martin Reinhart's short film, tx-transform. Adapted from British mathematician and philosopher Bertrand Russell's "accessible reference" analogy on Albert Einstein's Theory of Relativity, the illustration posits that if two gunmen walked up to the two ends of a moving train and subsequently fired at the train conductor and the guard (located at the front and rear of the train respectively), a passenger riding in the railcar exactly located in the middle of the train would hear both shots at the same time, while a station master positioned between the two gunmen on the ground would hear the shooting of the guard first. Applying t-x transform at the moment of the assassinations, the resulting effect is one of organic, ghostly otherworldliness that reinforces the relativistic and amorphous relationship between space and time, revealing a curious, existential plasticity that seemingly captures an ephemeral instance that is imperceptible within a conventional, spatial frame: the moment of a soul's physical transcendence.

Posted by acquarello on Jan 25, 2005 | | Filed under 2005, Ancillary Film Notes

Copy Shop, 2001

copyshop.gifEach morning, a fastidious and unassuming copy shop owner named Alfred Kager (Johannes Silberschneider) wakes up in his empty apartment and begins to silently perform the empty, familiar rituals of his mundane existence: a brisk facial wash, a cursory survey of pedestrians in the street, a fleeting glimpse of the pretty flower girl (Elisabeth Ebner-Haid) around the corner, the unlocking of his one-man shop to open for business, the power up and paper loading of the photocopiers, the arrangement and operation of the machines for the interminable reproduction of materials. One day, while positioning a document onto the glass, Kager prematurely actuates the photocopier and instead, takes an image of the palm of his hand. The inadvertent reproduction sets off a bizarre series of eerily omniscient, automated photocopied printouts of his daily routine, with each copy seemingly triggering a physical self-reproduction, until the town becomes overrun by his own band of oblivious and baffled doppelgängers. Reminiscent of the infinitely recursive multiplicity of Maya Deren's Meshes of the Afternoon, Copy Shop is a wry and intelligently crafted exposition on being and identity. Expounding on the images of malleable reality that the filmmaker earlier explored in tx-transform and prefiguring the textured, physical manipulation of tactile objects (specifically, paper) that would subsequently be incorporated in Fast Film, Widrich's thoughtful application of mixed media composition (that integrates film, digital media, and paper) creates an incisive framework for the film's integrally philosophical (and artistic) themes of individuality and sameness, originality and duplication, handcrafting and mass production.

Posted by acquarello on Jan 25, 2005 | | Filed under 2005, Ancillary Film Notes

Fast Film, 2003

fast_film.gifExperimental filmmaker Peter Kubelka reinforces the idea that film is a tactile artistic medium that, like all forms of art, not only requires hands-on, physical construction and manipulation by the artist, but also serves as a tangible archive (or archaeological artifact) for communicating and articulating a constantly evolving cultural legacy within a specific timeframe of human history - a social contemporaneity that gives the created work its significance. As modern art serves as both a cumulative expression and a novel reinterpretation of existing art - which, by definition, extends even to the primitive, "found art" of ancient cave paintings - so, too, does the process of creating a film become an expression, integration, and reconstitution of existing and "found art" (and specificially for filmmaking, is an entire history of cinema) that came before it. Kubelka's philosophy is evidently not lost on fellow Austrian filmmaker, Virgil Widrich's intelligently conceived and infectiously inventive experimental short, Fast Film, a clever and delirious tongue-in-cheek homage to cinema through indelible images of film excerpts and personalities that have been transferred or projected onto folded, origami-like, or otherwise manipulated (pasted, punched, crumpled, frayed, or torn) paper. Presenting a simple (and intentionally formulaic) narrative through threaded conventional movie plotlines of romance, damsel in distress, suspense, and human drama - including requisite doses of action through train sequences and airplane dogfights - Widrich pushes the conceptual bounds of artistic integration of found footage by literally composing a film entirely from recycled "old" art and ingeniously transforms it into an a novel, idiosyncratically original, and evocatively expressive work that is simultaneously innovative and visually abstract, yet syntactically intuitive and reverently familiar.

Posted by acquarello on Jan 25, 2005 | | Comments (3) | Filed under 2005, Ancillary Film Notes

January 13, 2005

The Corridor, 1995

corridor.gifIn a (relatively) climactic episode that occurs near the hour mark of The Corridor, the residents of a working-class tenement in the metropolitan city of Vilnius in Lithuania congregate on the passageway near the common kitchen to socialize with other tenants and, enlivened by the melancholic (often foreign) pop ballads on the radio (and perhaps fueled by a few too many alcoholic beverages), begin to dance aimlessly and uninhibitedly through the animated, dingy, crowded room. It is an image that recalls the delirious, extended sequence shot of the villagers' euphoric (or perhaps somnambulistic) tavern dance in Béla Tarr's contemporary film Sátántangó, an intoxicated display of revelry and reckless abandon that the cruel, troubled girl Estike watches through the window with inscrutable bemusement. Similar to Tarr, Bartas' cinematic view of post-communist Eastern Europe is one of soullessness, moral ambiguity, and profound desolation. Composed of long takes of indirect gazes and oppressively alienated temps morts (where an eclectic assembly of anonymous residents alternately stare out the window, smoke a cigarette, handle their rifle, voyeuristically peep, awkwardly flirt, become inebriated, and even mischievously set on fire laundry that has been hanging on a clothesline), the fragmented, collage-like portraits of the tenants are interstitially connected through the recurring image of the building's dimly lit hallways, a visual metaphor for a culture adrift and in transition - a conduit to an undefined destination. Like Tarr's seminal film, the deliberative and transfixing long takes of The Corridor similarly embody the emergence of a characteristically austere and languidly paced "cinema of waiting" in the wake of the dissolution of the Soviet bloc: a figurative reflection of the crippling inertia borne of spiritual bankruptcy and directional uncertainty after years of pervasive government interference. It is this existential limbo of failed, repressive Cold War policies and stalled socio-economic progress that is inevitably captured in the impassive faces of the silent, disconnected residents - a sense of confusion and entrapment amidst the new-found freedom derived from the indirect liberation of defeated abandonment - a demoralized collective psyche foundering in the obsolescence of an elusive and crumbled ideology.

Posted by acquarello on Jan 13, 2005 | | Comments (2) | Filed under 2005, Ancillary Film Notes, Sharunas Bartas

January 11, 2005

Few of Us, 1996

few_us.gifIn an intriguing long take static shot of the oppressively barren Siberian frontier, a converted tank (turned off-road passenger utility vehicle) traverses a rugged terrain that seemingly bisects a rural, indigenous village, disappears in a spray of displaced mud as it sinks partially out of frame into a trench, then momentarily re-emerges to continue on its plodding journey, only to become imperceptible from the horizon once again as it descends into a series of depressions on the gravel road. Watching this sequence (and film) again within the added context of having also seen Twentynine Palms, I couldn't help but think that Bruno Dumont must somehow have been influenced by this unstructured and glacially paced, yet lucidly pure, challenging, and entrancingly reductive film by Lithuanian filmmaker Sharunas Bartas, a feature that he developed from his earlier diploma film, Tolofaria on the nomadic, indigenous tribe.

On the surface is the casting of perennial Bartas actress, Yekaterina Golubeva, whose handsome, angular features and enigmatic opacity articulate ennui, despair, and longing in their most elemental form through her abstract, disconnected gaze. Navigating through the barren, alien terrain of the Sayan mountains where Tolofar nomads still lead a primitive, threadbare existence (after she seemingly falls from the sky, having been deposited by a helicopter onto the top of a rock quarry), the adrift young woman takes up shelter at a way station, isolated by language and culture from the daily rituals of the Tolofarians, until an act of violence causes her to leave the village and continue her wandering - figuratively disappearing into the landscape in an exquisite long take that matches the earlier shot of the converted tank laboriously making its way through the trenches of the inhospitable pass. It is this sense of interminable journey through a vast, unknown landscape, coupled by a reinforcing image of (apparent) visual dissolution from that landscape, that seems to particularly coincide with Dumont's expressed intent to create a kind of road movie that "erases" the characters in order to convey tone and sensation solely by the abstract filming of landscape (as he explained in the Q&A for Twentynine Palms). Moreover, Bartas incorporates an unanticipated (and even more shocking) secondary act of unprovoked violence in the film's final sequences, a deflection of narrative trajectory that is similarly incorporated (though with mixed results) in Dumont's film. However, what inevitably makes the maddeningly paced Few of Us, nevertheless, a strangely transfixing and indelible experience is the ethnographic realism that pervades its stark, rigorous imagery - its ability to trace an austere and moribund cultural history through impassive, weather-worn faces, perpetual transience, and silent ritual - to capture the image of lost souls that lay beneath the vacant, anonymous gaze, trapped in a vast wasteland of human desolation.

Posted by acquarello on Jan 11, 2005 | | Filed under 2005, Ancillary Film Notes, Sharunas Bartas

January 8, 2005

Sombre, 1998

sombre.gifWhile I'm not at all enraptured by the murky, elliptically fractured, and characteristically amoral transgressive cinema of Philippe Grandrieux, I also cannot help but be drawn to certain aspects of his filmmaking that I find undeniably sublime in the sensorial purity of their realization. One such moment occurs in an early episode in Grandrieux's debut feature film, Sombre: an eerily silent shot of Jean (Marc Barbé) looking away from the camera at a vacant lot (a recurring image of the back of his head that prefigures the psychological ambiguity and enigmatic motivation of Olivier in Jean Pierre and Luc Dardenne's The Son) juxtaposed against the crashing waves of a turbulent stream. The seemingly unstable, unfocused image drifts into and out of frame, intermittently revealing the outline of a female form lying violated and lifeless near his feet. Grandrieux's introduction to Jean is also ingeniously conceived - a disorienting tracking shot of a lone automobile on a dark, tortuous road set against the foreboding, ambient, mechanical drone of an engine that cuts to the sound of children screaming as they watch a puppet play at a guignol, where Jean, uncoincidentally, performs as a puppeteer. This introductory image of primal reaction, instinctive terror, manipulative control, and possession compactly (and evocatively) sets the tone for the film's thematically (and visually) dark tale of impossible love as the restless Jean carves a violent path of sexual encounters - and serial murder victims - until a virginal, stranded motorist named Claire (Elina Löwensohn) momentarily offers him a glimpse of the possibility of intimacy and complete love.

As convenient as it would be to be completely dismissive of Grandrieux's provocational cinema, there are certainly traces of visually abstract, but innately cohesive - and emotionally lucid - elements within his style that are difficult to find fault with, particularly in the implementation of complex, raw, and highly textural visual strategies that complement Jean's primal, aberrant psychology. Moreover, there is a discernible process of authorship at work in Sombre that betrays an overarching deliberativeness towards the film's construction, from echoes of Jon Jost's Last Chants for a Slow Dance (and Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo) that can be seen in Jean's aimless driving through desolate roads (often to cruise for prostitutes who will unwittingly become his future victims), to Grandrieux's exposition on the blurred delineation between passion and violence - and the psychological rapture that both acts achieve for the antihero - that would be similarly echoed in Claire Denis' subsequent experimental horror film, Trouble Every Day. It is this underlying intelligence that ultimately makes Grandrieux's film a worthwhile, though irresponsible and morally bankrupt experience.

Posted by acquarello on Jan 08, 2005 | | Comments (4) | Filed under 2005, Ancillary Film Notes, Philippe Grandrieux

La Vie nouvelle, 2002

vie_nouvelle.gifWhile Sombre embodies the categorization of quasi-allegorical gothic fairytale, La Vie nouvelle can be described as quasi-mythological in its underlying plot. Implementing a slow reveal from darkness to a jittery, contextually ambiguous image that similarly occurs in the opening sequence of Sombre (in this film, of anonymous women's faces staring out into space), the effect is one of abstract dissociation from a real, physical realm and into a subconscious one as a group of transients seemingly emerge from the ruins of a bombed-out, post-apocalyptic wasteland, including a disillusioned American expatriate named Seymour (Zachary Knighton) who willfully parts with his concerned, apprehensive comrades and re-emerges at a seedy nightclub where he is seduced and propositioned by Melania (Anna Mouglalis), a beautiful abducted woman forced to work by her captors as a prostitute at the club's adjoining private rooms (note Boyan's (Zsolt Nagy) allusive manipulation of Melania's movements at a rave party that evokes Jean's vocation as a puppeteer in Sombre). Beguiled by the enigmatic, captive woman and haunted by their brief, truncated encounter, Seymour becomes increasingly obsessed with her. Revisiting his earlier themes of possession and unrequited love, Grandrieux's cold and dour palette in Sombre has been replaced by warm (yet equally dark and somber) hues, and in particular, red, which reinforces the figurative symbolism of the nightclub as a mythological underworld. Grandrieux retains his penchant for sublimely composed, idiosyncratically experimental (yet intrinsically lucid) sequences, most notably in Seymour and Melania's fractured, temporally-altered dream-like nocturnal escape on a motorcycle, and Melania's seeming behavioral transformation from femme fatale to savage beast through negative projection of textural, high-contrast black and white imagery. Diffused tracking shots (often to the point of abstraction), unsteady angles, de-eroticized intimacy, and minimal dialogue pervade the film to create an accomplished and highly elliptical - albeit sordid, thematically ambiguous, and oftentimes bewildering - psychological portrait of primal behavior, violence, despair, and human longing.

Posted by acquarello on Jan 08, 2005 | | Filed under 2005, Ancillary Film Notes, Philippe Grandrieux

January 6, 2005

Take My Eyes, 2003

take_eyes.gifA harried woman seemingly on the verge of an emotional breakdown wakes her son, hurriedly packs their belongings and steals away in the middle of the night, arriving at the door of her sister Ana (Candela Peña) still unwittingly dressed in her house slippers. Pilar (Laia Marull) has finally decided to leave her abusive husband Antonio (Luis Tosar), a welcomed news that Ana is all too eager to accommodate by offering a place to stay, returning to the apartment in her place to retrieve forgotten items, and making a personal request to colleagues for her sister's job placement in the museum. However, Pilar's road towards independence is a difficult and uncertain one, complicated by her own lingering, passionate affection for her doting, well-intentioned husband, her son's repeated requests to see his father, her tradition-minded mother's (Rosa María Sardà) incessant reminders on the sanctity of marriage (and tacit "grin and bear it" apologia that the abuse is somehow a normal part of married life), and Antonio's sincere attempts to salvage his marriage by attending anger management counseling. Unable to completely sever her emotional bond with her husband, she offers him yet another chance and moves back home in the hopeful illusion that his commitment to therapy can quell – and ultimately silence – his violent impulses. Take My Eyes is an elegant and incisive social realist portrait of domestic violence and, in particular, its manifestation within an indigenous social culture of accepted masculine aggression (machismo). Bollaín's understated realization results in a taut, voluptuous, and intimate exposition on the nature and psychology of spousal abuse that is neither caricatured to the point of grotesque absurdity (the film concentrates more on the subtle evidences of long-term emotional abuse and implicit behavioral symptoms rather than present familiar narrative conventions of spousal battery under drunken rages) nor dimensionally simplistic in its portrayal of "good" and "evil" actions (and character personalities) to capture the complexity of the issue.

Posted by acquarello on Jan 06, 2005 | | Filed under 2005, Ancillary Film Notes