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December 15, 2005

Nathalie Granger, 1972

nathalie_granger.gifIt would seem logical to characterize Marguerite Duras' organic, elliptical anti-melodrama Nathalie Granger as a precursor of sorts to the implosive isolation and domestic violence of Chantal Akerman's Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. Both films depict a silent ritualism to the performance of domestic chores through stationary shots and disembodied framing, and intimated acts of violence that surface within the perturbation of these rituals (in Duras' film, the stoking of a bonfire in the backyard and the tearing of contractual papers that are then thrown into the burning fireplace correlate to Jeanne Dielman's disorientation after accidentally burning potatoes on the stovetop). An early sequence of a radio news broadcast playing in the background that chronicles the manhunt for a pair of escaped convicts similarly establishes a sense of disquiet and foreboding in the quotidian ritual, as the two women, Isabelle Granger (Lucia Bosé) and an unnamed (and perhaps representationally identified) "other woman" (Jeanne Moreau) clear the breakfast table, wash dishes, and replace the dinnerware into the cupboards in silence. However, a subsequent telephone call to local authorities - an inquiry into the immigration status of their unexpectedly deported housekeeper - suggests that, unlike Jeanne Dielman who performs her tasks with a seemingly catatonic disarticulation from reality, their actions are borne of ennui, a self-created distraction to fill the empty hours of their domestic prison (note the repeated image of the window bars that overlook the street, a theme that is also aurally represented by the recurring sound of the radio broadcast on the escaped prisoners as well as the variations of a set of rudimentary notes played on a piano). Meanwhile, another domestic crisis plays out in the background as Isabelle petitions to get her young daughter Nathalie (Valerie Mascolo), already on the verge of expulsion for a pattern of misbehavior in school, admitted into another school in the resolute (if not over-magnified) belief that her daughter's entire life prospect would somehow be irrevocably "finished" if she cannot gain admission and continue with her piano lessons. A final dynamic is added in the comical appearance of an ineffective door-to-door washing machine salesman (Gérard Depardieu) who misconstrues the women's bored indifference as an open invitation to continue to insinuate himself into their company. In creating a tone of languid texturality, Nathalie Granger can also be seen a prefiguration to the cinema of Claire Denis, a visual convergence that is particularly evident in the tracking shot of Isabelle's reflection in a pond that is reversed (and figuratively wiped away) in the subsequent match cut to Nathalie's playmate, Laurence (Nathalie Bourgeois) trawling plankton as the rowboat slowly drifts away from the camera. This countervalent intertextuality of entropy and inertia, melody and dissonance, physical presence and mirror image (a metaphoric device that is also incorporated in Duras' subsequent film, India Song) inevitably define the idiosyncratic affectation of the women in the Granger household - the internalized psychological warfare and violent revolution between identity and erasure.

Posted by acquarello on Dec 15, 2005 | | Comments (6) | Filed under 2005, Marguerite Duras

December 11, 2005

Days of '36, 1972

"Going back to Metaxas, the two parties [right-wing and center] had enthroned him despite his being a real fascist, following in the tracks of earlier previous dictators. He did not make any effort to dissimulate his positions, and he had no scruples declaring that under his guidance, Greece would never face the risk of another autocracy. The King (joining forces with Metaxas and the British) wanted stability at any price, even if this meant opening the door to a dictator. ...What I was looking for was a certain climate. A reign of terror." -- Theo Angelopoulos (Unveiling the Patterns of Power: The Days of '36 interview with Ulrich Gregor)

days36.gifOstensibly centered on the real-life incident in 1936 of a parliamentary official held hostage at gunpoint by a prisoner in isolated confinement during a seemingly routine jailhouse visit, Days of '36 is a probing, incisive, and critical examination of the synchronicity of several events during the early days of the Metaxas rule that, when collectively examined, would provide an ominous foreshadowing of the atmosphere of injustice, secrecy, abuse, thuggery, and intimidation that would define the zeitgeist of prewar Greece and, inferentially, expose the underlying cultural infrastructure that enabled the country's tumultuous political evolution that would eventually lead to the then-ruling military junta of the colonels. Angelopoulos follows in a similar elliptical chronology and distanced observation infused with unobtrusive, cinema vérité-styled camerawork (most notably in the film’s recurring use of overhead cameras in interior spaces) introduced in his first feature Reconstruction to create a re-enacted, but atmospherically (and psychologically) faithful chronicle of the times: the assassination of a union leader during a public appearance, the nebulous relationship between the captive official and the prisoner (note a guard’s uncorroborated observation of the two laughing that suggests an arrangement between the two, perhaps in the prisoner's erstwhile capacity as party informant), the attempted escape by several convicts during a riot in the prison grounds, the government's deployment of trained assassins posing undercover as mob hitmen to end the standoff. Through the systematic silencing of the opposition and political agitators, the covert suppression of scandal, and heavy-handed government enforcement of social order, Angelopoulos exposes the underlying vulnerability and resulting paranoia endemic in the Metaxas government - a political ascension forged through the tenuous alliance of the right-wing, monarchists, and centrists as a means of neutralizing the influence of the left-wing and communist party - that would set an inevitable precedent for the entrenched factionalism and instability that would pave the way to civil war and the ensuing turbulent history of postwar autocratic governments.

Posted by acquarello on Dec 11, 2005 | | Comments (2) | Filed under 2005

December 4, 2005

Letter from Siberia, 1957

letter_siberia.gifOne of the highlights of the 2004 New York Video Festival was Jacqueline Goss' disarmingly whimsical and tongue-in-cheek, yet witty and incisive ethnographic video essay, How to Fix the World - an animated reenactment based on the cognitive studies of psychologist Alexander R. Luria that preceded the Soviet government's mandate to promote Western education and literacy (and consequently, communist party allegiance) throughout the rural villages of Uzbekistan. Having recently revisited one of Chris Marker's earliest films, Letter from Siberia, it is not difficult to imagine the spirit of iconic film essayist imbuing every frame of Goss' charming film. On one hand, both essays assume the point of view of a distanced - and somewhat bemused - cultural outsider who objectively chronicles quotidian observations of an indigenous culture at the crossroads of profound and irreversible transformation - a historical record of a way of a life that will soon cease to exist - a reality that is (or will soon be) no longer real. On the other hand, the narrator also serves as a reflexive witness and facile commentator on the cultural repercussions of imposed assimilation, modernization, and Westernization on an Asiatic people during the Soviet government's cross-country campaign towards collectivization and political centralization. However, while Goss' film is rooted in the underlying interrelation between social psychology and cognition (in particular, logical deduction and problem-solving methods) that often lead to cultural misunderstanding, Marker's perspective proves to be more amorphous and open-ended.

This stream-of-consciousness approach is perhaps best exemplified by a sequence in the film in which the camera pans from an industrial dredging site to a line of trees as the narrator changes narrative course to the Siberian taiga by commenting that a hiker cannot attempt to traverse the forest in a straight line without invariably getting lost. In a sense, the film, too, necessarily diverges even as it retains continuity from its visible line of sight as adjacent, juxtaposing images reveal the intrinsic bifurcations that open up to other points of departure - to other uncharted frontiers of exploration. Rather than focusing the complexity of observations towards a point of convergence within an overarching logical argument, the validation of the argument itself becomes secondary to the documentation of ethnographic observation. In this respect, Marker's film proves to be groundbreaking because it diverges from the conventional cinematic approach of using montage to direct arguments towards the validation of postulate theory. Instead, Marker uses montage to underscore the contradictions and, therefore, negate the existence of a simple and encapsulable overarching theory that can neatly define the essence of a societal culture and history.

Moreover, the juxtaposition between the unnamed narrator (a prefiguration of the fictional globetrotter, Sandor Krasna in Sans Soleil) and the vanishing culture of the Siberian nomads becomes a intriguing study of the phenomenon of collective consciousness as a continuum (a theme that would also pervade Aleksandr Sokurov's cinema): an organic transference of memory, ideas, and collective cultural history without a physical medium of exchange (a fictional photojournalist, an extinct way of life, a projected film). It is in this examination of the ephemeral nature of information exchange that ultimately elevates Letter from Siberia from exoticized (albeit idiosyncratic) travelogue to seminal exposition on the study of human consciousness, an audience transcendence from passive, curious spectator to integral lifeline within the interconnected fabric of all human history.

Posted by acquarello on Dec 04, 2005 | | Filed under 2005, Chris Marker

November 28, 2005

Public Lighting, 2004

public_lighting.gif Mike Hoolboom continues to refine the tonally complex, multi-chapter, mixed media compositions of his 2003 video essay, Imitations of Life with his latest - and equally ambitious and inspired - offering, Public Lighting. In the prologue, a restless young writer muses that, "every wound gives off its own light, and some of these wounds are words" and subsequently, takes on the idea of collecting these transitory thoughts of intimate and personal (albeit, non-autobiographical) experiences as light sources to create an illuminating collage of "personalities" - a public lighting - that, when taken together, invariably define the nature of human interaction.

The first installment is composed of primarily black and white shots of familiar streets, city sidewalks, and neighborhood haunts as a male voice recounts his memories of the moments of breakup with lovers and friends, and nostalgic, often embarrassing episodes of missed connection. Images of transience are presented in altered time - trains traversing railroad tracks, swimmers in a pool, automobiles alternately driving by in slow motion and Koyaanisqatsi hyperkinetics - drifting through a Wong Kar-wai-like warped space-time continuum that reveals the underlying atemporality of rejection, longing, and regret.

The second installment is an impressionistic portrait of composer Philip Glass, told through a repeated and complementary series of antique photographs and subterranean images - train stations and commuter tunnels - that visually reflect the harmonic repetition and reverberation innate in Glass' compositions. Replacing dialogue and voice-over narration with subtitled commentary, Hoolboom differentiates between identification (as in the association of image to sound or idea to text) and identity (the repetitive tonality that makes a Glass composition immediately identifiable): a theme encapsulated in the observation, "It is not the melody people listen to but its persistence".

The third installment is the most iconic and immediately (and notoriously) identifiable, Hey Madonna, a collage of images, film excerpts from the pop star's documentary/exposé Truth or Dare, and the music video for Vogue - a life lived in seeming perpetuity (and perhaps intentionally) before the camera. But beyond the superficiality and narcissism in the eternal quest of the limelight, Hoolboom (superim)poses an existential question, "Is being photographed the only way to cheat death?" as the estranged interactions in the life of an HIV positive patient contacting former lovers, told through overlaid text, confront the audience (and consequently, expose the artifice) with more fundamental issues of mortality and legacy, as well the anonymous and humiliating, yet self-enlightening spectacle of terminal illness and the process of death.

The theme of interrelation between camera and personality carries through to the remaining installments of the film. In the fourth installment entitled Tradition, a woman of Chinese ancestry meticulously captures every family gathering on video, remarking that, "I take pictures, not to remember, but to record my forgetting". Rather than perpetuating the cult of personality (as in the previous installment), the camera serves as a means of reinforcing identity, existence, and sense of place in a society where integration and assimilation of Western ideals are synonymous with cultural self-erasure.

The fifth installment represents the most somber, estranged, and austere portrait in its exposition of the camera as testament of human history. Told from the perspective of a silent, introspective photographer named Hiro who serves as an unobtrusive chronicler of night-time cityscapes juxtaposed against images of war-ravaged towns (including the ruins of post-atomic bombing Hiroshima), Hoolboom similarly evokes the theme of a culturally endemic collective amnesia (in the inclusion of a fluff commercial spot) explored by Chris Marker's Level Five and in the haunted memory of the present that pervades Alain Resnais' early feature films. Devoid of dialogue, subtitles, overlaid texts - in essence, all words - the sequence becomes a reflection of humanity as an eternal, impotent, mute witness to barbarism and man-made tragedy.

In some ways, the final installment, Amy, serves as both an antithesis and a corollary to the limelight-seeking exhibitionism of the third chapter, as a young woman reveals her feelings of violation after being photographed in the nude by a fashion photographer during her adolescence. Presented as a series of formally modeled photographs and told in voice-over commentary by an actress in a recording studio, Hoolboom underscores the theme of objectification as the young woman's memories of self-consciousness at being intimately photographed by a virtual stranger is further reinforced by substituting the voice of the model - in essence, silencing her articulation of her own thoughts - in order to create an aesthetic ideal for the video camera. In this instance, the loss of innocence comes, not from a physical violation, but from the conditionally learned consciousness of being filmed and the realization of performance.

Posted by acquarello on Nov 28, 2005 | | Filed under 2005, Mike Hoolboom

November 7, 2005

How I Got Into an Argument... (My Sex Life), 1996

argument.gifArnaud Desplechin's films may be anarchic and free-formed, but they are never without a sense of internal logic and intelligent construction. This liberating sense of organic structure is particularly evident in the opening sequence of How I Got Into an Argument... (My Sex Life): a napping assistant professor and seemingly perennial doctoral candidate, Paul Dedalus (Mathieu Amalric), awakened by a ray of light streaming through the window and the sound of remodeling of an adjacent faculty office that is being prepared for the arrival of the new department head of epistemology, emerges from a haze of drowsiness and construction dust to witness the dramatic (and literal) unmasking of a shiny new placard that reveals the name of a former graduate school colleague and estranged friend Frédéric Rabier (Michel Vuillermoz). This sequence proves to be a terse encapsulation of the nearly three hours of painstakingly observed human comedy that unfolds as the film chronicles the trajectory of Paul's emotional and existential awakening after (perhaps temporarily) breaking up with his long-term girlfriend Esther (Emmanuelle Devos), listening to his cousin Bob's (Thibault de Montalembert) nitpicking of his lover Patricia's (Chiara Mastroianni) idiosyncrasies, and flirting with an unsustainable affair involving the charming, but mercurial Valérie (Jeanne Balibar), the live-in lover of his over-analytical, but unmotivated friend Jean-Jacques (Denis Podalydès). Still nursing an unreconciled wound over an ill-fated love affair with the enigmatic Sylvia (Marianne Denicourt), who has since moved on - and moved in - with his colleague and friend Nathan (Emmanuel Salinger), Paul's obsession metastasizes in the form of his self-perceived rivalry - and fixation over unraveling the cause of the rupture - with his erstwhile friend, colleague, and co-author Frédéric. At the core of Paul's neurotic preoccupation is the underlying egocentrism of human nature that attempts to define the puzzle of all relationships through the pre-formed contours of our own cognition and need for validation. It is this pensive insecurity and melancholic romanticism that inevitably makes Desplechin's films (and in particular, this one) so attractive and endearing: the realization of our own pathological need to believe that somehow, in that however brief moment of connection, we have indelibly touched the life of another - that object of desire or kindred spirit - and consequently disrupted the eternal order of things and irreparably altered the very structure of its soul.

Posted by acquarello on Nov 07, 2005 | | Filed under 2005, Arnaud Desplechin

November 2, 2005

Uttara, 2000

uttara.gifOstensibly an allegorical, cautionary tale on religious fundamentalism, Uttara is also a bracing and incisive examination of the provincialism, anachronism, moral and social quandary, and inherent contradictions that continue to shape contemporary Indian culture. Composed of seemingly unrelated narrative threads - a pair of bored, train crossing signal operators, Nemal (Tapas Pal) and Balaram (Shankar Chakraborty), who bide their time honing their wrestling skills, a Christian missionary (R.I. Asad) who dispenses food at a rural village ravaged by poverty in exchange for converting desperate (and undernourished) souls, an ancient parade of ceremonial masks conducted by dwarves, and a band of Hindu zealots cutting a swath of intimidation and chaos across the landscape as they drive through the countryside in an off-road utility vehicle - the paths fatefully intersect through the titular heroine, Uttara (Jaya Seal), a peasant woman from a distant village who is foisted in marriage to the reluctant Balaram by his dotty, but well intentioned aunt.

Perhaps the most curious aspect of the film lies in the Felliniesque sequences of dwarves wearing pagan masks as they perform a ritual dance throughout the isolated village. Like Tsitsi Dangrembga's subsequent short film, Mother's Day (in which a group of dancers in the form of subterranean insects emerge to the surface in order carry a corpse back into their lair for a proper burial), the seemingly pantheistic ancient rite of passage evokes, not only a sense of duty to tribal customs, but also represents a closeness to the earth - an instinctual connection to roots - that has become increasingly sublimated in an environment of self-interest, vanity, aimlessness, and petty competition. It is this contrasted, parallel image of reverence for the cycle of nature that inevitably renders Buddhadeb Dasgupta's vision of modern-day India such a complex, provocative, and tragic one: a culture profoundly eroded by colonialism, impoverished by an ingrained sense of western dependency (a dependency that is now cultivated in missionary work and in delusive notions of osmotic Anglicization by migrating to America), disconnected from its heritage and indigenous history, subjugated by social hypocrisy, and terrorized by the inhumanity of blind extremism.

Posted by acquarello on Nov 02, 2005 | | Comments (1) | Filed under 2005

October 30, 2005

The Man Who Envied Women, 1985

envied.gifWords as a means of individual expression can be a potent form of seduction. But words strung together as interchangeable syntactic cues towards a coded, contemporary social language can also transform the intrinsic materiality of words into an irrelevant - and incoherent - empty abstraction. The identification of this threshold between langue (language) and parole (word) lies at the heart of avant-garde choreographer and performance artist turned filmmaker Yvonne Rainer's thematically dense and iconoclastic, yet uncompromising, articulate, and fiercely intelligent film, The Man Who Envied Women. Ostensibly chronicling the end of the relationship between an unseen struggling artist, Trisha (Trisha Brown) and her lover, a university professor named Jack Deller as she confronts the (perhaps even greater) trauma of finding an affordable loft space during the wave of gentrification sweeping several subsidized housing communities throughout Manhattan during the 1980s real estate boom, the film exposes the lazy, rampant misuse of isms in contemporary society - and in particular, in literati circles - as a means of demonstrating erudition without the substance of independent thought. Structuring Jack's everyday language as an indecipherable (and unresolved) stream of overused (if not clichéd), decontextualized, regurgitated en vogue philosophies that form the vernacular of pseudo-intellectualism, Rainer demystifies, not the art of the word, but rather, the art of intellectual obfuscation through words that ultimately serves, not to clarify the speaker's thoughts, but to distract from its hollow (or non-existent) underlying argument.

At one point in the film, Jack attempts to seduce one of his students by feigning to understand her feeling of trepidation, deploying the appropriate impressive quote from his arsenal of ready-made buzzwords: Luis Buñuel's comment that "It is possible to have the whole story of Oedipus playing in your head and still behave properly at the table." The Buñuel reference seems especially suited to Rainer's strategy of using two actors, William Raymond and Larry Loonin, interchangeably to play the role of wordsmith lothario, Jack Deller, reversing the gaze of The Obscure Object of Desire into a deconstruction of the equally inscrutable nature of masculine desire. Weaving through the streets of New York with a pair of headphones that seemingly serve as an antenna capable of decoding intimate conversations, Jack is an archetypal sensitive and attuned modern man (or a metrosexual in contemporary lexicon) complete with a cultivated interest in the arts and a home exercise gym. However, rather than possessing enlightenment into the female psyche, what emerges is a pattern of enabling excuses and carefully honed, sophisticated pick-up lines. By rationalizing that his devotion to his late wife had taught him to love all women, he projects the image, not of a grieving widower seeking to recapture the purity of a love lost, but rather, of an opportunist incapable of committing to a monogamous relationship and true intimacy, using language as a versatile tool for seduction.

Another manifestation occurs in the non-diegetic conversation between the filmmaker and a male friend over his discomfort during the screening of Jean Eustache's The Mother and the Whore, citing that Jean-Pierre Leaud's character is always acting in order to mask the fear over his own lack of direction and ambivalent identity (a terror that is further reinforced by a looping sequence from Roman Polanski's Repulsion projected in the background). Similarly, Jack's perpetual state of (verbal) performance is also an existential mask that is projected to conceal an absence of identity, independent thought, and self-knowledge. Juxtaposing Jack's confessional in front of a capacity-filled auditorium with film images depicting literal (such as the infamous eye-slitting scene of Luis Buñuel's Un Chien Andalou) and figurative (such as Phyllis' femme fatale confession to Walter in Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity) acts of eye opening, the film illustrates the implicit dichotomy between knowledge acquired through cultivated study and the true illumination of self-knowledge.

Posted by acquarello on Oct 30, 2005 | | Comments (2) | Filed under 2005, Yvonne Rainer

October 24, 2005

Berlin Alexanderplatz, 1980

alexanderplatz1.gif How does anyone begin to encapsulate the audacious, manic, insightful, resonant, humane, and allegorically loaded tone of the epic work - the quintessential "anarchy of the imagination" - that is Rainer Werner Fassbinder's adaptation of Alfred Döblin's thirteen chapter, Weimer Republic-era German Expressionist novel Berlin Alexanderplatz? Told from the perspective of an unemployed, hard-drinking, low-level pimp and convicted killer, Franz Biberkopf (Günter Lamprecht), the film begins with the ominous chapter title, The Punishment Begins as he is paroled from a correctional institution after serving four years for accidentally strangling his lover and prostitute Ida (Barbara Valentin) during a drunken rage over her decision to leave him. By the conclusion of the last chapter, it is inevitable that Franz would again be placed into some form of involuntary state institution, bringing the story, not to a narrative full circle (as indicated by the juxtaposition of end and beginning in the chapter title) but rather, to a coaligned point of precession within a receded and collapsing spiral as Franz, now an unemployable "half man" is again alone and without a devoted, self-sacrificing woman who will dutifully provide for him.

This dysfunctional cycle of systematic erosion also reflects the film's recurring theme of converging human economics where emotion and desire serve as real, transactional currency: from Franz's history of exploitive relationships with a succession of lover/prostitutes, to Reinhold (Gottfried John) alexanderplatz2.gif unloading his unwanted mistresses onto the obliging Franz (unwittingly carrying their own payoff bribes from Reinhold to their new lover/pimp - a pair of boots or a fur collar for a winter coat - as pre-arranged errands to set up their introductory encounter), to Eva's (Hanna Schygulla) "gift" of her protégée Mieze (Barbara Sukowa) to Franz after he is crippled during a burglary getaway automobile "accident". This pattern of commodified intimacy is also revealed in Franz's impulsive decision to offer money to a lonely widow one afternoon after a chance sexual encounter at her apartment while selling shoelaces door-to-door, his actions revealing his instinctual equation of affection with money. In this respect, the liberation of the (sexual) body (a theme explored through the post World War I photo-reportage of Denise Bellon in Chris Marker and Yannick Bellon's Remembrance of Things to Come) juxtaposed against Franz's increasingly lopsided economic and emotional dependence on the women in his life represents a broader national allegory for the Weimar Republic's ever-worsening national debt and hyperinflation (caused by payment obligations for war reparations), reflecting an irresolvable social equation - an inescapable, behaviorally entrenched bankruptcy - that cannot be set right. In essence, Franz's seemingly surreal black market world of stolen fruits, open door brothels, and handed down lovers is a reflection of the inconcrete (and ephemeral) basis that underlies the broader, national economy itself. Like Franz's retaliatory, sacrificed limb, it is an unsustainable economic cycle of national disarticulation.

With Franz's life and reality fractured, Fassbinder's addition of a thematically opaque, dream sequence montage provides a break in narrative tone as (perhaps intentionally) severe and wildly incongruent as the epilogue of F.W Murnau's Weimar-era film, The Last Laugh. Weaving through Fassbinder's voluptuous, expressionistic, stream of (sub)consciousness metaphoric imagery (something like a chronicle of Querelle foretold) of Kenneth Anger-like Bacchanalian ritual, transfiguration, erotic fantasy, curative masochism, and nuclear holocaust, the film converges towards a more conventional - and consequently, more absurd - alternate "happy ending". Set against an eclectic soundtrack of Kraftwerk's Radioactivity and the liebestod, Mild und leise, wie er lächelt from Richard Wagner's Tristan und Isolde - a sublime piece that articulates the transfiguration of love into rapture through the necessary process of death - the inspired design behind Fassbinder's jarring and idiosyncratic epilogue begins to cohere as an abstract elegy of twentieth century world history as seen through the inwardly focused lens of repercussive consequence resulting from Germany's political transformation from Weimar Republic to the Third Reich: the cold and rude awakening that signaled the death of the illusory dream of eternal halcyon days that once seemed possible with the end of the Great War to end all wars.

Posted by acquarello on Oct 24, 2005 | | Comments (9) | Filed under 2005

October 19, 2005

Still Life, 1997

still_life.gif The convergence of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet's A Trip to the Louvre and experimental filmmaker Mark LaPore's transfixing ethnography Kolkata at this year's View from the Avant-Garde provided the proper frame of mind to revisit Harun Farocki's meditation on the art of consumerism, Still Life, a film that on the surface seemed to be a corollary to his interior monologue, self-confessional in Between Two Wars: part conceptual apologia on the necessity for artistic compromise (Farocki had accepted commission work for print advertisement in order to finance the film), and part de-exoticism of the creative process and ritual of aesthetic (re)presentation that underlies all commercial production. From one perspective is Kolkata in which LaPore's stationary camera takes on the characteristics of pre-Renaissance art, creating a composition in which the subject remains fixed while the peripheral frame becomes the dynamic element (an aesthetic similarly employed by Amos Gitai) as objects transect, ornament, or otherwise distract from the foreground, creating complex, seemingly oxymoronic juxtapositions of youth and aging, poverty and opulence, decay and vitality that reflect the state of perpetual transformation in modern-day Calcutta. Similarly, the opening image of the precursor still life painting in Farocki's film contains its own richly textured, baroque, self-encapsulated constructed world where humans and inanimate objects compete on equal footing (or rather, canvas space) for the viewer's attention - each composition revealing an inherent duality (or even multiplicity) of meaning.

From a corollary perspective, the process of engaging the viewer towards decoding meaning by challenging conventional perspective and "ways of seeing" defines the nature of image presentation in A Trip to the Louvre where layers of sub-frames present a logical progression that spirals outward toward the resolution of overarching image. In Still Life, Farocki proposes that contemporary society has become attuned, not to see this structural complexity of image presentation, but rather, to the coding of associative images that converge towards a consumerist ideal. Therefore, in this context, a painting of an open market booth that juxtaposes a vendor selling assorted fruits vegetables in the foreground as two lovers steal a kiss in the background does not serve to convey a richness of ancillary, quotidian detail and sense of realism to the constructed image, but rather, to present a consumer-programmed associative link between inanimate objects and human beings where the consumption of goods (the marketed produce) provides a gateway to pleasure (the lovers' rendezvous). It is this ritualized pursuit of the precise moment of balance between visual composition and image-embedded coding that defines the heart of Farocki's exposition - a visual state in which the synthetic production of images the delineation between art and commercialization is blurred - an aesthetic point of convergence towards a singularity of manufactured illusion.

Posted by acquarello on Oct 19, 2005 | | Comments (4) | Filed under 2005, Harun Farocki

September 19, 2005

Throw Away Your Books, Rally in the Streets, 1971

throwaway.gif It comes as no surprise that the three filmmakers mentioned near the end of Shuji Terayama's patently offbeat, garish, unclassifiable, and audacious youth culture film, Throw Away Your Books, Rally in the Streets are Roman Polanski, Nagisa Oshima, and Michelangelo Antonioni. Modulating between a psychological study on alienation and disenfranchisement, and a rallying cry for activism and sociopolitical revolution for the late 1960s counter-cultural generation, Terayama's delirious montage of fragmented, asequential, and imbalanced images reflect the internal chaos and uncertainty of an impoverished - and appropriately nameless - young man and his equally dysfunctional family: an unemployed, peeping tom father, a con artist grandmother, and a sister whose affection for her pet rabbit has turned to bestial obsession. Evoking Polanski's penchant for the horror of isolation and surfacing violence in the mundane, Oshima's cultural indictment of postwar recovery Japan, and Antonioni's moral desolation and ennui, the film's fractured narrative is interwoven through a series of psychedelic, angst-ridden musical sequences and cited passages, serving as a metaphor for the anarchy, aimlessness, and impotent rage of the marginalized - an impassioned and idiosyncratic approach to independent production filmmaking that thematically (and visually) prefigures the kinetic, hyperstylized films of Fruit Chan. Terayama's insightful use of bookending sequences presenting the anti-hero's monologue - first in character as he struggles to validate his identity through delusive examples of self-empowerment, then subsequently as the actor ruminating on the inherent illusion and constructed reality of the filmmaking process - reveal, not simply an anthem for lost, aimless youth in a modern, impersonal world, but rather, a recursive meta-statement on the fabric of human enterprise as transient, escapist, elusive, and insignificant.

Posted by acquarello on Sep 19, 2005 | | Filed under 2005

September 15, 2005

Faat Kiné, 2000

faatkine.gifIn an early episode in the film, Kiné's mother, affectionately called Mammy (Mame Ndoumbé) descends the staircase in slow, measured steps to greet her jubilant granddaughter, Aby (Mariama Balde), who has hurried home with the welcomed news that she has successfully passed her baccalaureate examinations and is now on her way to pursue her university studies. Cutting an imposing figure with her lanky frame, severe countenance, and rigid posture, this introductory image of the family matriarch proves to be an incisive and fitting personification of the socioeconomic malaise plaguing post-colonial African society. Projecting a cold and exacting persona, the underlying reality of Mammy's seemingly proud posture is far from a cultivated bourgeois arrogance but rather, the result of a different kind of man-made affliction: a debilitating scarring resulting from severe burns sustained years earlier when she has physically shielded her then-teenaged, unwed daughter Kiné from her husband's brutality - and attempted honor killing - after revealing a pregnancy that led to her subsequent expulsion from school within weeks of graduation (at the galling behest of the professor who impregnated her). This image of maternal self-sacrifice, archaic (but socially enabled) codes of conduct, and cultural hypocrisy is also figuratively embodied in the indomitable Kiné, too, sacrificed her own dreams for the sake of her children, working her way from gas pump jockey to service station owner in order to single-handedly provide for them. As in the Jean-Marie Téno’s expositions (most notably, in Chef! and Africa, I Will Fleece You on post-colonial West Africa, Ousmane Sembene portrait of contemporary Senegal explores both indigenously entrenched and Western-inherited cultural affectations that contribute to the exploitive, corrupt, and self-defeating cycle: polygamists who flout the reality of modern day economics by proudly invoking the outmoded tradition of plural marriage (and therefore reinforce their ancestral social status) even as they complain of their inability to properly provide for their families and resort to begging and exploitation of their wives; petit bourgeois who believe that the only true prospect for social mobility for Africans lies in imitating Western ideals by attaining a Western education and emigrating to Europe; progressive-minded, financially independent women who, nevertheless, submit to a subordinate marital role in their domestic lives. (It is also interesting to note the implication in a scene in which a customer attempts to intimidate Kiné into accepting European currency by bringing along her European husband, revealing society's continued vestigial, culturally ingrained deference to Westerners even after achieving post-colonial independence). Unfolding through a series of encounters and flashbacks, Sembene's humorous, compassionate and affirming portrait of Kiné's lifelong struggle for self-reliance, equality, identity, and human dignity in a patriarchal society is a trenchant and bracing moral tale on the prevailing - and, in part, largely self-inflicted - social conditions that invariably shape the pulse of contemporary African society, from perennial social ills of poverty and gender inequity to modern-day afflictions of neo-colonialism and AIDS.

Posted by acquarello on Sep 15, 2005 | | Filed under 2005

September 11, 2005

Weekend Shenanigans

I spent the better part of this weekend recovering from a comment spam bomb from an online poker site that was using a rotating IP to mask the source, which caused me to shut down the commenting feature on both the journal and notes blogs for over a day. I've since reinstalled Movable Type 3.2, tightened up my spam controls even more, and made some internal changes so that the automated spamming wouldn't go through.

In any case, everything should be back to normal now (with some tweaked improvements), and hopefully, I can catch up on some of the films that I had intended to see over the weekend soon.

Posted by acquarello on Sep 11, 2005 | | Filed under 2005, Quick Notes

September 4, 2005

Chef!, 1999

chef.gifChef! opens to images of people in traditional ceremonial robes and western-styled business suits heading towards a cultural exhibition of ancient tribal rhythms and dances, the road towards the event anachronistically demarcated by a large Fanta corporate sponsorship banner that frames the main entrance. The auspicious occasion is the unveiling of a monument in commemoration of Kamga Joseph II, the western-friendly ancestral chief of the village of Bandjoun (and ancestor of filmmaker Jean-Marie Téno), who ruled one of the largest villages in western Cameroon at the turn of the twentieth century. During the early 1900s, the man "who tried to straddle the two worlds" initiated the path towards the modernization of the village by imposing European culture even as he sought to retain ancestral traditions. Now, decades later, it is in this curious spectacle of cultural celebration turned pro-government rally - where government officials mingled freely with other village leaders to illustrate the intrinsically incestuous, cultural fraternity of "chefs" (chiefs) - coupled with the filmmaker's coincidental purchase of a souvenir calendar written in the regional language of Ghomala that outlines the unwritten, traditional "Rules of the Husband in his Home" (that anoints every man as the indisputable chief of the household) that Téno seeks to examine the conflicted legacy of this double-edged policy in modern-day Cameroon where half of the population are "chiefs" according to ancestral tradition, leading to an inhumane cycle of the nation's collective imprisonment by chiefs who defer only to higher chiefs, unaccountable to the very people over whom they govern.

An initial glimpse of this residual legacy that has contributed to a pervasive cultural anachronism that has undermined social progress is seen in the roadside capture by a vigilante mob on the morning after the celebration of a young chicken thief who, without the presence of Téno and his camera, would have undoubtedly been beaten to death. With the mob persuaded by a village elder to instead take the young boy to the village chief (who, in the meantime, has been forced to strip off his clothes (as dictated by ancient tradition) before starting on his humiliating public march), the pattern of self-absolution, blind deference to authority, and inconsistent, open-ended justice continues when the chief is reluctant to personally sanction the boy's beating, and instead decides to send him to the police station, rationalizing that only the police are empowered to conduct such a beating with impunity.

Another manifestation is revealed in an interview with the director of a women's crisis center who remarks that Cameroon is still governed by an archaic combination of the French Civil Code of 1804 (long after the French, themselves, have updated the code) and unwritten, ancestral tradition defined by a patriarchal society, pointing out inconsistent legal definitions such as the notion that a man can only be is only guilty of adultery if it is committed in his own home, while a woman can be guilty of committing adultery anywhere. Moreover, with young girls (often from poor, provincial families) entering into undocumented, traditional marriages rather than civil marriages, many discover too late that they (and their children) do not have any legal rights to property or support when their husbands drive them away from their homes years later, since they are not considered legally married.

The concluding example is illustrated through the inner workings of the justice system, as seen through the eyes of Pius Njawé, editor of the independent publication, Le Messager, who had run afoul with the government after reporting on President Paul Biya's abrupt departure from a soccer match. Encountering a justice system rife with corruption (such as a codified bribery schedule to ensure even the simple procedural act of filing formal charges), Njawé becomes a first-hand witness to the systematic imprisonment of the poor and disenfranchised (who cannot afford to pay the bribes and therefore, languish in jails without ever receiving a trial).

Téno's complex and organic, yet cohesive and insightful essay is an incisive portrait of the culturally ingrained, self-destructive fusion of perpetuated, inhumane (and patriarchal) ancestral traditions and obsolete, subjugative colonial-era civil codes that continue to enable the political mechanism of dictatorships, widespread corruption, social stratification, and human rights violation. Inevitably, what emerges in Téno's penetrating examination, is not only of the social, political, and economic malaise that continues to plague Cameroonian contemporary history under the "peaceful democracy" pyramidal power structure of the presidency, but also reflects the endemic state of many post-colonial African countries at the end of the twentieth century. As the filmmaker similarly (and incisively) articulates in his earlier documentary Africa, I Will Fleece You, native empowerment comes, not from archaic (and increasingly arcane) birthright self-anointments of chiefdom, but from education, social awareness, and humanity.

Posted by acquarello on Sep 04, 2005 | | Filed under 2005, Jean-Marie Téno

September 2, 2005

Remembrance of Things to Come, 2001

remembrance.gifA visual essay into - or more appropriately, a thoughtful process of signification for - a montage of photographs from Denise Bellon's photo-reportage from the period between the two world wars (as the "grand illusion" of a lasting peace during the mid 1930s after the Great War gradually unraveled to reveal an inexorable path towards another devastating world war), Remembrance of Things to Come resolves to reconstruct the evolution of European (and colonial) history during the early half of the twentieth century by examining the prefiguration of documented images taken by Bellon during that era. The first of these prefigurations appear in the idyllic, stylized poses of the uninhibited body for a print advertisement - celebrations of the precision and strength of the human body that would come to represent the proletarian images of totalitarian regimes such as the torch bearing athletes that metamorphosed into the iconic hammer and sickle Kolkhoz sculpture that became the symbol for the Soviet Union. Another prefiguration occurs in the documentation of the "shattered faces" whose disfigurement would bear witness to the barbarism of war and provide a glimpse into the inhumane physical consequences brought by the advent of technological weapons of mass destruction (such as the disfigurement caused by the atomic bomb). Even quotidian images from the reconstruction prove to be prescient as seen through Bellon's gaze as migrant workers from the French countryside foreshadow the influx of immigrant workers into the city, both classes of workers representing the notion of foreignness in the mindset of deeply entrenched Parisian sensibility (if not implicit chauvinism). From images of film archivist and Cinémathèque founder Henri Langlois' legendary bathtub that was used to store film cans during the Occupation, to the brothels in Tunis that de-exoticized the pleasure industry that grew out of the profitable economy of serving colonial forces stationed throughout the French Empire (in essence, putting real faces of suffering in the trade (and cycle) of human exploitation), to the little-documented, forgotten history of the failed uprising against Franco by Spanish Republicans in the Aran Valley, Bellon's camera would also serve as a unique and irreplaceable chronicle of early 1940s zeitgeist.

Perhaps the most emblematic prefiguration of Bellon's gaze is in the photography of a gypsy bride that would be published for the cover of Paris Match, an issue that would also contain excerpts from Adolf Hitler's Mein Kampf. The mental image of "gypsy", already a connotation for displacement, outcast, and marginalization, would later be inextricably bound with another shared history with Hitler through the human tragedy of their racial targeting for extermination during the Holocaust: their grim connection foretold through the portentous association of a glossy magazine. It is in this analytical deconstruction between the integral art of composing an image and the cognitive assignment of significance behind the captured image that filmmakers Chris Marker and Yannick Bellon create a compelling exposition on the processing and (subconscious) self-actualization of human memory.

Posted by acquarello on Sep 02, 2005 | | Filed under 2005, Chris Marker

August 29, 2005

NYFF Itinerary

I tried to maximize the number of films that I could catch at the New York Film Festival within the span of one week and another long weekend, making sure that my priority films (new Garrel, Haneke, Sokurov, Dardenne, Hou, and Straub/Huillet, as well as Gosho, Shimizu, and Shimazu from the Shochiku sidebar) were captured. With that in mind, I ended up with this screening list.

Main Program

Avenge But One of My Two Eyes (Avi Mograbi)
Bubble (Steven Soderbergh)
Cache (Michael Haneke)
Capote (Bennett Miller)
The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (Cristi Puiu)
L'Enfant (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne)
Gabrielle (Patrice Chereau)
I Am (Dorota Kedzierzawska)
The Passenger (Michelangelo Antonioni)
Regular Lovers (Philippe Garrel)
Something Like Happiness (Bohdan Sláma)
The Squid and the Whale (Noah Baumbach)
The Sun (Aleksandr Sokurov)
Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (Park Chan-wook)
Three Times (Hou Hsiao-hsien)
Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story (Michael Winterbottom)

Shochiku at 110 Sidebar

The Army (Keisuke Kinoshita)
A Ball at the Anjo House (Kozaburo Yoshimura)
Black River (Masaki Kobayashi)
The Cruel Story of Youth (Nagisa Oshima)
Every Night Dreams (Mikio Naruse)
The Lights of Asakusa (Yasujiro Shimazu)
The Neighbor's Wife and Mine (Heinosuke Gosho)
Ornamental Hairpin (Hiroshi Shimizu)
Our Neighbor Miss Yae (Yasujiro Shimazu)
Star Athlete (Hiroshi Shimizu)
Woman of the Mist (Heinosuke Gosho)

Views from the Avant-Garde

Program 1: A Trip to the Louvre x2 (Straub/Huillet)
Program 2: The Daily Planet (short films by Karen Mirza & Brad Butler, Stephanie Barber, Leslie Thornton, Michele Smith, Jeanne Liotta, Julie Murray, Ken Jacobs, Fred Worden)
Program 3: David Gattan: Secret History of the Dividing Line: A True Account In Nine Parts
Program 4: The Terrestrial Observatory (short films by S.N.S. Sastry, Jim Jennings, Ken Jacobs, Thorsten Fleisch, Fred Worden, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Luther Price, Mark Lapore)

Posted by acquarello on Aug 29, 2005 | | Comments (12) | Filed under 2005, Quick Notes

August 22, 2005

The Bow, 2005

bow.gifOne aspect of Kim Ki-duk's filmmaking that I continue to find problematic is his penchant for introducing elements of pseudo-mythical orientalism in his films: a kind of exoticized mélange of stereotypical, yin-yang images of Eastern culture that would have audiences believe that when a Buddhist priest attains enlightenment, he also acquires a certain level of physical dexterity and knowledge of hand combat techniques to earn his nth degree martial arts black belt (as in Spring, Summer, Winter, Fall...and Spring) or that there is a practical side to the art of Zen that, when mastered, can be applied to such nefarious activities as breaking and entering into people's homes (and seducing the lady of the house) without ever getting caught (as in 3-Iron). When introduced unobtrusively within the context of a better developed story, they are minor irritations in an otherwise commendable work. But when inserted as integral elements to propel an underformed narrative and reinforce ambitious, ephemeral themes that, when taken into root context, sink into the abyss of rationalized (and perhaps even morally justified) transgression, then no amount of evocative visuals or impeccable, aesthetic construction can redeem this inextricably mired concoction of half-baked philosophy and herb shop spirituality.

Such is the case with his latest offering The Bow, a film that combines familiar Kim elements of intimate isolation, triangular (romantic) conflict, and surrogate acts of transcendence. The opening sequence of the old man transforming his archery bow into a traditional bowed musical instrument by inserting a small drum and a wooden bridge provides a foreshadowing of this quasi-Zen holistic balance, a heavy-handed juxtaposition that quickly transforms from the sublime to the ridiculous when a weekend fisherman asks to have his fortune read: a bizarre fusion of divining ritual and vaudeville act that involves suspending an innocent, virginal young girl (and his self-anointed future wife) on a swing that is placed on the side of the boat in front of a large painting of Buddha, and target shooting the portrait as the girl precariously swings back and forth. However, even the loopy recurrence of these carnivalesque, fortune-telling sequences could not foretell the indescribably gauche realization and vulgar, transparent symbolism of the film's preposterous and embarrassingly laughable final scene. Rather than validating Kim's entry into a subtler, more artistically mature phase that had been reflected in his recent films since Spring, Summer, Winter, Fall...and Spring, The Bow instead regurgitates like a bloated self-parody of his earlier work.

Posted by acquarello on Aug 22, 2005 | | Comments (5) | Filed under 2005, Kim Ki-duk

August 21, 2005

A Tale of Cinema, 2005

tale_cinema.gifHong Sang-soo makes a refreshing - and much welcomed - return to form with his most structurally complex, insightful, and thematically multilayered, yet deceptively facile and satisfying film since Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors in Tale of Cinema. The curious introduction of a narrative voice-over and the appearance of formalized, zooming into close-up - devices that have not previously been signature elements within Hong's earlier work - provides a hint of the film's concentric, overarching structure. As the film begins, Sangwon, an aimless and indecisive college student on school holiday after final examinations, avoids walking together with his older brother by instead taking a side street, where he finds a former girlfriend, Yongsil, working at an optician's store. Unsure of his own emotional preparedness in rekindling the relationship, he decides to watch a play while waiting for her to complete her work shift, delaying the decision to meet her later in the evening. The final words of anguish in the play, uttered by a desperately ill child unable to be comforted by his mother, would later be echoed by Sangwon from the rooftop of his parents' apartment after his own failed act of despair. In the film's corollary chapter, Tongsu, a struggling, rootless, and inscrutable filmmaker who has become obsessed with a short film directed by his former classmate - and in particular, the devoted and obliging woman in the film - encounters the young actress in person and begins to ingratiate himself into her company, acting out his projected image of her by imitating gestures and revisiting locations from the film in an attempt to realize his own created image of her. Concluding with a first-person voiceover, the film is a provocative and articulate exposition on the filmmaker's role (and moral complicity) as the creator of images and idealized fantasy, and an incisive cautionary tale on the demystification (and irresolvability) of unattainable illusion.

Posted by acquarello on Aug 21, 2005 | | Comments (3) | Filed under 2005

August 20, 2005

Shadow Kill, 2002

shadowkill.gifExploring similar human rights issues as Nagisa Oshima's Death By Hanging on the sociopolitical framework that lies beneath the inequitable administration of justice and capital punishment, Shadow Kill is told from the perspective, not of the condemned but of the reluctant executioner, an aging, guilt-ridden hangman named Kaliyappan. Set in colonial-era state of Travancore in Kerala, an idyllic, rural outpost in the southwest tip of India, the images of lush, textured landscapes of the film visually presage a thematic divergence from Death By Hanging wherein the clinical and sterile setting reflect the rhetorical tone and delineated logical argument of Oshima's cerebral polemic. Rather, Adoor Gopalakrishnan's vision of state-sponsored execution and intractable social codes are set against the overarching context of universal balance, cyclical natural order, and even fated inevitability. The opening sequence, composed of a single image of an extended black screen, provides a temporal dislocation to Kaliyappan's story: devoid of associative images, the introductory passage presents an (appropriately) terse summary of the appointment, imposed isolation, duties, and interconnected rituals of death and healing associated with the everyday life of a professional executioner, a "privileged" vocation that is traditionally passed on from father to son. In the opening sequence, a drunken, world-weary Kaliyappan sits in the counter of a tavern recounting his belated discovery of a condemned man's true innocence after carrying out his execution, a knowledge that has haunted him for much of his life. But in the death ritual is also the promise of salvation as the hanging rope is presented to the executioner to be burned in spare increments (until the next hanging) before the altar of Kali (the goddess of creation and destruction) and the holy ashes anointed upon the sick in order to cure them of their illnesses. (Note that the early episode of his daughter's celebration of womanhood is contrasted against the recounted episode of a young girl's violation and that the same actor portrays the brother-in-law in both sequences, further reinforcing the idea of the human condition as a universal, collective interconnectedness). One day, Kaliyappan is instructed to prepare for an execution and begins his ritual of purification, a period of intense meditation and focused spirituality that brings him extraordinary powers of healing. However, as the fated, grim ritual draws near, Kaliyappan begins to doubt his ability to bear the moral burden and carry out another execution (since the Mararaja has devised a convenient way to absolve himself of any guilt by dispatching a procedural pardon a few minutes before the appointed hour knowing that the document will arrive too late to save the condemned prisoner), and the looming reality of the inevitable execution increasingly pushes him further towards maniacal escapism, alternating between lapses of purifying, transcendent prayer and emotionally dulling constant intoxication. Gopalakrishnan's penchant for aesthetic naturalism, evocative compositions, and visual economy are particularly well suited to the idyllic landscapes of his native Kerala, creating an intrinsic juxtaposition between the timeless beauty and natural paradise of the countryside, and the unnatural, man-made acts of destruction (and self-destruction) that occur within it: an eternal violation of natural law that can only be set right by the spiritual healing of moral recognition and acceptance of personal responsibility.

Posted by acquarello on Aug 20, 2005 | | Comments (11) | Filed under 2005

August 18, 2005

NYFF: Shochiku Sidebar

The sidebar this year looks even more exciting than the slate of films. The partial program though September 30 (the first week of the festival):

7:00 The Hidden Blade Yoji Yamada, 2005; 132m

11:00 am Souls on the Road Minoru Murata, 1921; 112m
1:15 Ornamental Hairpin Hiroshi Shimizu, 1941; 70m
3:15 Nezumi Kozo Noda Hideki, 2005; 110m
6:00 The Hidden Blade
9:00 The Castle of Sand Yoshitaro Nomura, 1974; 140m

3:00 The Neighbor's Wife and Mine H. Gosho, 1931; 64 m
4:30 Our Neighbor Miss Yae Yasujiro Shimazu, 1934; 76m
6:00 The Neighbor's Wife and Mine
Graham Greene & the Cinema

2:30 Our Neighbor Miss Yae
4:00 Woman of the Mist Heinosuke Gosho, 1936; 90m
6:15 A Story of Floating Weeds Yasujiro Ozu, 1934, silent; 86m (with live piano)
8:30 Every Night's Dreams Mikio Naruse, 1934; 64m (with live piano)

2:45 Forget Love for Now Hiroshi Shimizu, 1937; 73m
4:15 The Lights of Asakusa Yasujiro Shimazu, 1937; 90m
6:00 Our Neighbor Miss Yae
7:40 Forget Love for Now
9:15 The Lights of Asakusa

1:45 The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums Kenji Mizoguchi, 1939; 142m
4:30 Ornamental Hairpin
6:15 The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums
9:00 Woman of the Mist

2:45 Army Keisuke Kinoshita, 1944; 142m
4:30 The Ball at the Anjo House Kozaburo Yoshimura, 1947; 89m
6:30 The Loyal 47 Ronin Kenji Mizoguchi, 1942 / 43 ; 241 m

Posted by acquarello on Aug 18, 2005 | | Comments (2) | Filed under 2005, Quick Notes

August 17, 2005

2005 New York Film Festival Line-Up

The slate of films for the 2005 New York Film Festival has been posted and the selections are more promising than I've seen in the past two or three years, especially when combined with the Shochiku sidebar program.

I'm planning to order tickets for:

Cache (Michael Haneke)
Breakfast on Pluto (Neil Jordan)
L'Enfant (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne)
Regular Lovers (Philippe Garrel)
The Sun (Aleksandr Sokurov)
Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (Park Chan-wook)
A Tale of Cinema (Hong Sang-soo)
Three Times (Hou Hsiao-hsien)
Who's Camus Anyway? (Mitsuo Yanagimachi)

It looks as though I'll be able to catch Views from the Avant-Garde this year as well.

Posted by acquarello on Aug 17, 2005 | | Comments (9) | Filed under 2005, Quick Notes

August 14, 2005

Passing Fancy, 1933

passingfancy.gifThe first of Yasujiro Ozu's Kihachi 'Everyman' pictures after Takeshi Sakamoto's recurring role as the stubborn and uneducated, but goodhearted rogue, Passing Fancy is a thoughtful, humorous, and accessible domestic portrait of family, community, and everyday life in the poor, working class suburbs of Tokyo (a social milieu that Ozu would return to in other Kihachi films such as The Story of Floating Weeds and An Inn in Tokyo, and also in Record of a Tenement Gentleman). The opening sequence of live entertainment at the local town hall comically illustrates the carefree existence, but seemingly inescapable poverty that surrounds Kihachi and his sharp-witted, but undisciplined son Tomio (Tomio Aoki): an inadvertently misplaced, empty wallet works its way around the room as each presumptuous finder retrieves, checks for content, then discards the object before Kihachi exchanges the larger wallet with his own, smaller one, initiating a new chain of ill-intentioned finders as Kihachi's wallet inevitably makes it way back to the original site of the lost item. Chronicling the quotidian of Kihachi's daily life as he alternately tries to dodge the responsibilities of work, win the affections of an out-of-work young woman named Harue (Nobuko Fushimi) who has been taken in by his widowed neighbor Otomo (Choko Lida), and teach his far more learned and responsible son important life lessons, Ozu's portrait of the working class is affectionately rooted in the inviolable bonds between parent and child and the collective strength of human community.

Posted by acquarello on Aug 14, 2005 | | Filed under 2005

August 11, 2005

Africa, I Will Fleece You, 1993

plumerai.gifAs a young boy growing up in the newly independent nation of Cameroon, Jean-Marie Téno's grandfather would tell him a great many tales to fuel his fertile imagination, among them, the story of a land inhabited by larks that, on one auspicious day, was stumbled upon by a group of hunters. Realizing the abundance of the land, the hunters decided to settle, enslaving the larks for their own personal gain before installing a chief to rule over them after their departure. However, the chief, as it turned out, was not actually a lark but was instead a hunter-sorcerer who, fearing his own mortality, slipped into the body of a newborn lark, creating a strange, new breed of larks that no longer had a sense of duty to its brethren nor respect for its fragile habitat. It is this national allegory of exploited and corrupted, "false" larks within the native, ancestral land of larks that Téno alludes to in the title of his film Africa, I Will Fleece You (Afrique, je te plumerai), a play on the children's song Alouette (lark). Ostensibly presented as a thoughtful, stream-of-consciousness personal essay on the filmmaker's beloved, academian city of Yaounde, the film evolves into a broader political and cultural commentary on the state (and perpetuated social ills) of post-independence Cameroon as the first post-colonial president, French ally, and self-anointed "Father of the Nation", Ahmadou Ahidjo consolidated political power under a single party rule that inevitably set the repressive authoritarian framework for the heavy handed government (and wide-scale corruption and political suppression) of his successor, Paul Biya. Recounting his childhood memories of being encouraged to study and to work hard in order to be "as the whites", Téno examines this culturally ingrained sentiment that has contributed to his country's inability to exorcise itself from the specter of colonialism that has kept the nation impoverished and disenfranchised, creating an inextricable cycle of Western dependency that prompts an observer to insightfully comment, "the principal victory of colonization was also to have perpetuated a real cultural genocide." In an incisive illustration of the country's systematic cultural genocide, Téno enlists the aid of his friend Marie Claire Dati to visit the city's major libraries: a bibliothèque that specializes in French-pressed, European authored publications and only offers a handful of books by African writers or on continental history (a cultural marginalization that is also revealed in Marie Claire's surprise that the head librarian is actually an indigenous African rather than the more typical situation of a French curator); the British consulate library with a similar disproportionality of native books, the Goethe Institute that promotes German language studies. A trip to the international repository, CLE completes the cultural portrait of the state of contemporary literature in Cameroon - a library established by missionaries to promote (Western) Christian history and ideals - and establishes the implicit correlation between colonialism and missionary work towards the ingrained philosophy of erasing indigenous identity as a necessary step towards religious conversion (a theme further explored in Téno's subsequent exposition The Colonial Misunderstanding): a systematic process that can only be turned back by cultural awareness, mutual respect, and self-empowerment.

Posted by acquarello on Aug 11, 2005 | | Filed under 2005, Jean-Marie Téno

August 7, 2005

Le Parfum d'Yvonne, 1994

The brooding and achingly sensual Monsieur Hire was my first exposure to Patrice Leconte's films, and to a great extent, it was this initial encounter with haunted obsession and sad-eyed romanticism that propelled me to continue to seek out his body of work, trying to recapture in some way the searing melancholia and bittersweet intoxication - the elusive intensity of feeling - that had marked the experience. At times, his films would follow a similar trajectory of foreboding obsession and consciousness of elusive happiness without achieving a similar weight of tragedy (most notably, The Hairdresser's Husband); at other times, his films would embark on a different manifestation of obsession and fatalism that were accomplished and satisfying, but nevertheless remained sentimentally dissimilar to the experience of watching Monsieur Hire (as in The Girl on the Bridge, The Man on the Train, and Intimate Strangers).

parfum.gifIt is interesting to note that Monsieur Hire is a tailor: a profession that, as rendered in Wong Kar-wai's atmospheric Eros installment, The Hand, involves a degree of familiarity but also a certain kind of calculated, analytical detachment. In hindsight, this paradoxical coexistence between intimacy and distance lies at the core of Le Parfum d'Yvonne as well. In the film, a carefree drifter and French expatriate named Victor Chmara bides his time "growing old as gently as possible" (and perhaps trying to evade conscription in the Algerian War), living a rootless, seemingly privileged life from one lodging house to another in Geneva when he meets a wealthy, flamboyant physician, Rene Meinthe (Jean-Pierre Marielle) and his protégée, a beautiful, aspiring actress named Yvonne Jacquet (Sandra Majani). At first, Rene's relationship with Yvonne seems indecipherable - or perhaps, too sordidly obvious - to Victor as he tries to seduce the young woman behind Rene's back (or rather, under the dining table). However, even after realizing Rene's open homosexuality, his attachment to Yvonne remains a mystery, as the two travel in social circles where money and affection change hands all too casually. But Victor is also a mystery, introducing himself as a Russian count but without any visible means of support or a vocation (and who, at the beginning of the film, was compelled to change accommodations from the L'Hermitage luxury hotel to a more modest bed and breakfast guest house). Told through a series of intersecting flashbacks between recent past (filmed in brisk, rough, wintry darkness) and several years earlier (filmed in warm, sun-bathed hues and cerulean summer skies) from Victor's perspective, the film is an evocative and fascinating deconstruction, not only of obsessive impenetrability, but also the character demystification of the enigmatic narrative hero. Like Monsieur Hire, Victor's inescapable tragedy lies in his own tacit complicity to perpetuate the masquerade and transparent deception in order to hold onto the unsustainable illusion of blissful, idealized innocence.

Posted by acquarello on Aug 07, 2005 | | Comments (11) | Filed under 2005

August 6, 2005

Eros, 2004

thread.gifAlmost ten years ago, Time Magazine had featured an article of ten great international films from the late 80s to early 90s that had (up to the publishing date) not been released in the U.S. There were two films on the list that were also very high on my wish list: Krzysztof Kieslowski's Decalogue and Michelangelo Antonioni's Beyond the Clouds. With the emergence of DVD, I was finally able to see these films and while the former was every bit of the masterpiece that I had imagined it to be, I found the latter, particularly in the early encounters, to be something akin to a thinly veiled softcore porn film in the guise of high art. While I appreciated the hopefulness of Patricia (Fanny Ardant) and Carlo's (Jean Reno) reluctant, heartbroken encounter, and was even quietly moved by the star-crossed romanticism of Niccolo's (Vincent Perez) attempt to woo the young woman in the church (Irène Jacob) in the final episode, I could not help but find the early anonymous encounter sequences between Carmen (Inés Sastre) and the impeccably coiffed, Armani-suited sewage engineer Silvano (Kim Rossi-Stuart) as well as between the uncharismatic American director (John Malkovich) and oversexed bohemian (Sophie Marceau) to be unnecessarily gratuitous, chagrining, ponderously self-important, and ridiculously laughable.

When Michelangelo Eye to Eye was released in 2004, it seemed as though Antonioni had begun to evolve this more immoderately voyeuristic phase into something a bit more distanced, formalist, and relevant. Alas, this evolution isn't entirely perceptible in his short film installment for the triptych Eros entitled The Dangerous Thread of Things. Replete with overt sexual metaphors (a middle-aged man squeezes his Maserati convertible between the narrow gateway of their villa entrance as he and his gauze-draped, translucently dressed, brassiere-less wife ponder the loss of marital spark in their relationship) and ridiculously contrived situations that invariably lead to female nudity and anonymous sex with a young woman on horseback who lives in a tower, the glimmer of hope for an artistic resurgence that seemed possible with Michelangelo Eye to Eye seems once again out of reach.

Steven Soderbergh's Equilibrium is a deceptively facile and compact, permutative story of déjà-vu. Retrospectively set in the 1950s as an overworked electronics salesman (Robert Downey Jr.) becomes haunted by an erotic dream of a mysterious woman in a blue dress, the film is an adept exposition on recurrence and the permeability of reality and dreams.

hand.gifWong Kar-wai's installment, The Hand is the first film of Eros and is also the strongest work in the series. Told through a series of elliptically fractured, episodic snapshots of the long-term, working relationship between a renowned courtesan (Gong Li) and her personal couturière, a sexually inexperienced tailor named Zhang (Chen Chang) through changing fortunes, ill-fated love affairs, personal betrayals, and the ravages of time, Wong is able to create an atmosphere of charged eroticism in the seemingly paradoxical and counter-intuitive act of dressing a woman. Distilling the essence of the innate intimacy in their unspoken ritual, Wong retains the imbued sensuality of In the Mood for Love and 2046 to create an equally understated and voluptuous tale of transfigured desire.

Posted by acquarello on Aug 06, 2005 | | Comments (3) | Filed under 2005

August 2, 2005

This Charming Girl, 2004

charming.gifIn 2003, South Korean filmmaker Park Ki-yong followed up his atmospheric and textural debut feature film Motel Cactus with the even more haunting, visually austere, and understated Camel(s), a film that subtly, but incisively, articulates the desperateness of (failed) connection between two emotionally unfulfilled people through ordinary gestures, uncomfortable silence, and anonymous - and ultimately empty - encounters. Lee Yoon-ki's equally muted film, This Charming Girl, follows in a similar vein of internalized pain and unarticulated sentiment of Camel(s) and other emotionally implosive films such as Hur Jin-ho's Christmas in August and Song Il-gon's Flower Island. Presenting the seemingly mundane everyday rituals of an attractive, introverted, and mildly eccentric postal worker named Jeong-hae (Kim Ji-su), a seeming loner with a curious penchant for setting alarm clocks at odd hours of the day, avoiding personal conversations in social settings, and bringing home stray cats, the film modulates between past and present in order to illustrate the interpenetration of memory and human behavior. What is revealed in Lee's narrative economy is an insightful portrait of broken souls who silently bear the internal scars of personal trauma, continuing to perform the hollow rituals of social conduct as a reluctant, but psychologically necessary step to reaching out - and moving ever closer - towards reconciliation, healing, and even intimacy. Beyond the film's quietly observed exposition on displaced emotion and unrequited longing, it is this visual restraint and inviolable human search for reconnection and trust that invariably set the film apart from the nihilism and abandon of recent transgressive cinema that similarly explore the idea of empty ritual and intimacy, rendering a delicate work of stark, emotional nakedness without the abstraction of overwhelming flesh.

Posted by acquarello on Aug 02, 2005 | | Comments (8) | Filed under 2005

July 25, 2005

Sakura-tai Chiru, 1988

sakura_tai.gifA somber retrospective on the final days of the Sakura-tai theatrical troupe that had arrived in the island of Hiroshima to begin preparations for the staging of a play and, at 8:15 on the morning of August 6, 1945, became victims of the atomic bombing, Sakura-tai Chiru is a thoughtful examination of artistic imperative in a time of uncertainty and national crisis. Using the 1987 commemorative ceremony in Hiroshima and the dedication of a memorial to Sakurai-tai at Gohyaku-Rakanji Temple as a springboard to the re-examine the life and careers of the actors (and in particular, the troupe's director, renowned film and theater actor Sadao Maruyama who had appeared in such notable films as Mikio Naruse's Wife! Be Like a Rose!), the film is composed of a series of interviews with friends, family, and colleagues (among them, Nobuko Otawa, Eitaro Ozawa, Haruko Sugimura, and Osamu Takizawa) and re-enactments of the remaining survivors' tragic fate (four actors had survived the immediate bombing - Maruyama, Keiko Sonoi, Shozo Takayama, and Midori Naka - only to inevitably succumb to death days later). The film traces the evolution of the theatrical troupe within the context of Japanese history, from its early permutation as a government-mandated propaganda tool in the 1930s, to established actor, Maruyama's creative directorship of the splinter organization, to the Great Tokyo Air Raid of March 10, 1945 that caused several (predominantly male) actors to take indeterminate leaves of absence from the troupe in order to help their families (and city) rebuild, to the troupe's decision to send out two of the four remaining male actors in order to scout for replacement actors for their August Hiroshima engagement. These seemingly mundane operational decisions - to continue with the performance despite personal hardship and wartime uncertainty - would inevitably lead to the fate of Sakura-tai in light of the tragic context of world history. Tracing the fates of the four survivors as they sought the safety of family and friends after the atomic bombing only to endure lingering, agonizing deaths from incurable radiation poisoning, what emerges from the film's harrowing and deeply personal account is a sense of exploited and trivialized humanity in the face of military aggression and inhuman politics.

Note: A series of un-narrated photographic stills bearing only the Sakurai-tai actors' names and ages at the time of the bombing provide a simple, yet moving evocation of the human faces behind the senseless tragedy: Sadao Maruyama (age 44), Keiko Sonoi (age 32), Shozo Takayama (age 21), Midori Naka (age 36), Ayako Morishita (age 23), Kyoko Habara (age 22), Tsuyako Shimaki (age 22), Kiyo Komuro (age 30), Keiko Ryu (age 41).

Posted by acquarello on Jul 25, 2005 | | Comments (3) | Filed under 2005

July 21, 2005

Girish's Music Meme Non-Tag

Girish picked up the ball on an ongoing music meme, so I thought I'd join in on it too.

  • 1. Total volume of music files on your computer.
  • Not a lot, about 500 MB. I'm not as voracious about buying music as I used to be.
  • 2. The title and artist of the last CD you bought.
  • The Blue Nile, High

    The Blue Nile only releases an album every 7-8 years, and somehow, I missed this one. I just found out recently that this was released last year.

  • 3. Song playing right now.
  • Xavier Cugat, Sway (actually, it's the entire The Best of Xavier Cugat and His Orchestra CD). I was inspired to pick this up by the music from Wong Kar-wai's voluptuous 2046.
  • 4. Five songs you have been listening to of late (or all-time favorites, or particularly personally meaningful songs).
  • All time favorites (which are interchangeable with personally meaningful for me):
    Railwayed - Kitchens of Distinction
    Let's Go Out Tonight - The Blue Nile
    China - Tori Amos
    Pleasure and Pain - The Chameleons
    Dreams Never End - New Order
  • 5. Tag Five People.
  • For the same reasons are Girish, I'm putting out a "non-tag" too. No virtual pressure.

Posted by acquarello on Jul 21, 2005 | | Comments (9) | Filed under 2005, Quick Notes

July 20, 2005

Naked Island UK DVD


The DVD of Kaneto Shindo's elegant film poem, Naked Island, has now been released in the UK by the fine folks at Eureka/Masters of Cinema Collection, which includes an essay that I had written on the creative (and philosophical) influence of the atomic bombing on the Hiroshima-native filmmaker and in particular, its implicit manifestation in this elegiac and deeply moving pure film.

Posted by acquarello on Jul 20, 2005 | | Filed under 2005, Quick Notes

July 17, 2005

Savage Innocence, 2001

savage.gifIn an early episode in the film, a struggling filmmaker, François (Mehdi Belhaj Kacem) meets with a producer named Hutten (Jean Pommier) in order to obtain funding for his proposed, self-described anti-heroin and anti-mafia film that serves do demythologize drugs called Sauvage Innocence that revolved around the tragic life of a presumably fictional character named Marie-Thérèse (and whom his friends and family instantly recognize as a thinly veiled characterization based on François' former lover, Carole, a fashion model who had died of a drug overdose). Appearing eager to collaborate with the young filmmaker whom he considers to be a genuine auteur, Hutten offers to fund him an advance in order to help defray preproduction costs before leaving the room to attend to some unspecified matter, assuring François that his personal assistant is in the process of issuing him a check and will be handing it to him shortly. François continues to wait in the emptied office into the late hours for the check that never materializes until he is chased away by the night watchman. The brusque encounter would prove to be a turning point in François' obsession with the realization of his film. Contacting a disreputable businessman named Chas (Michel Subor) for funding, François agrees to smuggle a suitcase full of heroin into the country in exchange for the financing of his entire film budget. However, the irony of situation proves inextricably deeper than the tainted money. Casting his new lover Lucie (Julia Faure), a drama student and aspiring actress in the role of Marie-Thérèse, Hutten's description of François as an auteur proved eerily prescient and disturbing. Like retired detective Scottie Ferguson's manipulation and transformation of department store clerk Judy Barton into the tragic image of his dead lover in Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo, François becomes equally haunted in the pursuit of the illusion - the fictionalized reality - of his tormented, unrequited vision. By tracing François' increasing obsession and emotional withdrawal with the consuming idea of capturing the essence of Carole's troubled soul, embodied through the fictional reincarnation of Marie-Thérèse, and interpreted by his current paramour Lucie, Philippe Garrel creates an intricate, yet nuanced psychological deconstruction, not only of a pliable, self-destructive, addictive personality, but also the obsessiveness and controlling mentality (and to some degree, a kind of megalomania) innate in an auteurist personality. Rather than illustrating the innate disparity between performance and real-life that underlies the filmmaking process Savage Innocence presents an ingenious permutation on the narrative structure of a film within a film in which the myopic pursuit of the artistic ideal leads to a Pirandellian madness and self-prophecy. It is within this context that Chas' decision to recruit François for the clandestine task because of his "virgin" qualities in being neither a drug user nor a trafficker can be seen as a manifestation of the film's metaphoric title, the savage innocent who carves a corruptive path but remains pure in ideal, unscathed in the wake of his own emotional destruction.

Posted by acquarello on Jul 17, 2005 | | Comments (8) | Filed under 2005

July 11, 2005

Hélas pour moi, 1993

helas.gifAn ancient tale of forefathers journeying to a secluded, sacred ground in the forest in order to perform a solemn ritual of prayer and meditation underscores the film’s sense of disconnection and longing, as each passing generation represents a spiritual, ancestral, and cultural dilution of the observance until the ritual is reduced to words without meaning, gestures without cognition, landscapes without rooting.

The theme of spirituality is presented within the framework of a contemporary Greek myth as Zeus descends from the heavens in order to seduce Amphitryon's faithful wife Alcmene, this time, transfigured into the lives of Simon and Rachel Donnadieu - the faceless, disembodied voice of the descended god evoking, not omnipotence, but disarticulated frailty, a reflection of his seeming (ir)relevance in the modern world.

Jean-Luc Godard explores the nuances of the word faith to reflect, not only on eternal love and marital fidelity, but also intrinsic spirituality. However, as prefigured in the opening narrative, the word has become estranged from the consciousness of meaning: an utterance that is neither a prayer nor an invocation, but merely a casual expression ...a wistfulness.

The modulation between tragedy and comedy provides tongue-in-cheek whimsicality to the seemingly somber cerebral exposition. Dylan Thomas' elegiac poem Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night is juxtaposed initially against a highly formalized, dramatic shot of a lone Rachel pining for her absent husband, then subsequently, against an understatedly humorous shot of a sluggish bar patron reluctantly leaving the premises for the evening: the former, a poetic evocation of unrequited melancholia; the latter, a mundane caution on the perils of intoxication. The bifurcated juxtapositions further reinforce the idea of the importance of contextual fidelity (the ritual) rather than simply achieving a textual fidelity that can prove to be false (a surrogate).

Posted by acquarello on Jul 11, 2005 | | Filed under 2005

July 9, 2005

El Dorado, 1921

eldorado.gifIn the book Alain Resnais, author James Monaco cites a comment by the filmmaker on Last Year at Marienbad that his idea for the film was to "renew a certain style of the silent cinema", for which Monaco expounds that this overarching vision contributed to the film's multifaceted syntax that "any particular shot can be read as either present tense, past tense, conditional or subjunctive, or pure fantasy. This too is realism, but of a different sort... Robbe-Grillet called it 'mental realism'." It is within this context of creating mental realism, a hermetic, immersive sensorial experience that seems to exist solely in the personal realm of human perspective - a figment of the imagination - that the seminal influence of Marcel L'Herbier's El Dorado may be seen in Resnais' realization of Last Year at Marienbad. Tactile, voluptuous, and otherworldly, the ornate, impeccable architectures and visual geometry of the cabaret El Dorado and the clandestine meeting grounds of the desolate L'Alhambra also reflect this elaborately conceived imaginary construction, a meticulously rendered, but irresolvable fictional aesthetic that is similarly manifested in the baroque interiors and mise-en-scène of Last Year at Marienbad and invariably serve as an essential projection of the characters' own psychological reality and unarticulated desire: a sickly, illegitimate child is confined to a Spartan room adorned with a large cross, a constant reinforcement of his seemingly incurable illness and near death; the smoke-filled, unbridled hothouse of El Dorado, visually distorted under the influence of the patrons' intoxication and lust for the cabaret's feature performer, Sibilla; the recollection of a seduction and ill-fated love affair appears clouded and unfocused, sentimentally diffused by years of estrangement, frigidity, and fading memory; an artist pining for his lover envisions her materialization in the symmetric framing of an arcing fountain, in essence, a figurative mental projection of ephemeral desire onto physical architecture. The influence of L'Herbier's stylistic subversion of melodrama through plot distillation and integration of metaphoric imagery is also evident in Resnais' fractured narrative and metamorphosing imagery, introducing archetypal characters that eschew human complexity in favor of representational acts (note the denouement that occurs behind a translucent stage backdrop, creating a grotesque superimposition of spasmodic shadows). It is this narrative compression through the integral conflation of performance and mise-en-scène that inevitably defines the bold, idiosyncratic spectacle of El Dorado, a film in which the tale of the human condition is revealed, not through expressed character insight, but through the loaded imagery of evocative gestures and malleable architecture.

Posted by acquarello on Jul 09, 2005 | | Comments (2) | Filed under 2005

July 7, 2005

The Best of Youth, 2003

best_youth.gifAfter having missed the first hour of The Best of Youth when it screened at the 2003 New York Film Festival, I had constructed a mental scenario of what happened in that first hour that would have reconciled the way the film eventually unfolded. I had thought that Giorgia, the institutionalized young woman, was Nicola and Matteo's childhood friend (and perhaps Matteo's unrequited first love), the wedge between the brothers created when they became romantic rivals for her affection. I had also thought that this rivalry had somehow led to Giorgia's nervous breakdown and institutionalization, Matteo's enlistment in the military (in a defiant gesture to avoid following his heart again despite demonstrating a seeming penchant for academia in his youth), and catalyzed Nicola's decision to become a psychiatrist (after some transcontinental soul searching "at the end of the world"). As it turns out, none of these imagined scenarios actually happened in the film, and in real life, the course of human existence is never neatly predefined or reducible to that one transformative puzzle piece that reconciles everything. The implicit encapsulation of that underlying truism in such an epic and unhurried film as The Best of Youth is inevitably what makes the film so perceptive and satisfying. Eschewing the overt politicization and sensational cataclysm that could easily pervade any film that chronicles contemporary world history (particularly in the 1970s), the repercussions of history, nevertheless, remain palpable but indirect in the film (the Arno flooding of Florence, May 68-inspired student protests and worker strikes, Red Brigade terrorism, Fiat factory closures, mafia executions, Sistine Chapel restoration), and what remains is a more personal and insightful document of a middle-class family's assimilative quotidian through malleable history. In this regard, the film is closer in spirit to Hou Hsiao Hsien's A City of Sadness in the peripherality of the characters with respect to the national and cultural trauma of their environment. However, while Hou's film reflects the repercussions of an irreparable national struggle, filmmaker Marco Tullio Giordana's vision is one of acceptance, resilience, and the innate imperative to carry on with this process - the ritual - of living. For Giordana, the testament of human history is not told through the annals of revolutionary social struggle, but in the lifelines of average, unremarkable hands and faces made intimately familiar - and all the more indelibly beautiful - by time and briefly intersecting destinies.

Posted by acquarello on Jul 07, 2005 | | Comments (9) | Filed under 2005

July 5, 2005

Revised Mid-Year Favorites

» La Blessure (Nicolas Klotz) - Alternately enraging, moving, haunting, and affirming, I can't seem to shake the lingering impact of this film.

» L'Intrus (Claire Denis)

» State of Fear* (Pamela Yates, Paco de Onís and Peter Kinoy)

» Seoul Train* (Jim Butterworth, Aarin Lubarsky and Lisa Sleeth) - The kind of film that shakes your consciousness.

» Tomorrow We Move (Chantal Akerman) - Elsa Zylberstein's role elevated this film.

» Compadre (Mikael Wiström)

» Forgiveness (Ian Gabriel)

» The Colonial Misunderstanding (Jean-Marie Téno) - The genesis and evolution of African colonial history from an African perspective. Eye opening.

» Videoletters (Katarina Rejger and Eric van den Broek)

» Los Muertos (Lisandro Alonso)

Posted by acquarello on Jul 05, 2005 | | Comments (6) | Filed under 2005, Quick Notes

July 3, 2005

Ten Minutes Older: The Cello

Histoire d'eaux (Bernardo Bertolucci) - A whimsical, cross-cultural melding of east meets west romantic comedy presented in highly fractured (if unremarkable) ellipses that chronicle the couple's chance encounter, marriage, extramarital temptation, and bizarre separation.

About Time 2 (Mike Figgis) - Multichannel split screening in the vein of Timecode, sometimes converging towards the encounter, other times intersecting temporal planes between childhood and adulthood, life and death. At each transection, the incompleteness of connection, the failure of intimacy, the painful awareness of intranscendable distance.

One Moment (Jiří Menzel) - Poetic, affectionate, lyrical, and elegy for actor Rudolf Hrusinsky composed of a wordless montage of slowed film footage spanning Hrusinsky's entire career that embodies the human experience: toil, rest, education, romantic love, rejection, desire, aging, frailty. A recurring interstitial black screen with the words "ten minutes" becomes a constant reinforcement of transience, a career and life distilled to the precious few minutes of the film, a reflection of its brevity.

Ten Minutes After (István Szabó) - Jeanne Dielman meets Joseph K. (by way of Michael Haneke) surreal nightmare tale of a meticulous, bored housewife who is aggressively confronted by a drunken husband. Neither the cinematography nor the narrative, however, is particularly memorable or engaging.

Vers Nancy (Claire Denis) - A train conversation between an immigrant French woman and novelist Jean-Luc Nancy centering on the idea of intrusion within every foreigner (a more philosophical precursor to L'Intrus). denis.gifA social commentary on the inherent fallacy - particularly in nations with a strong national identity like the U.S. and France - of the social notion that assimilation and integration embrace cultural differences; rather, it erases them. The idea of intrusion is also present in the creation of the Schengen Zone which allows for free movement of people from European countries within the agreement signatory countries (note the opening sequence in L'Intrus), creating a buffer between Old Europe and the "other" Europe (an exclusion similarly explored by Aleksandr Sokurov in Russian Ark) that flouts the idea of globalism and a unified Europe, essentially establishing a segregated European "homogenous zone" where populations from outside the zone become "intruders" within it. Themes of transplantation, assimilation, rejection, and identity expound into broader cultural and social themes beyond Nancy's medical heart transplant.

The Enlightenment (Volker Schlöndorff) - Based on Augustinus (A.D. 354-430), the film is part philosophical meditation on the malleability and ephemerality of time, wryly (perhaps even cynically) set against a trailer park family barbecue. The point of view from the unidentified, seemingly all-seeing narrator is never still: always moving, floating, weaving, impermanent as time.

Addicted to the Stars (Michael Radford) - Hyperstylized time travel and homecoming, a transfigured, Einsteinian space-time odyssey, an Odysseus returning - not to his beloved Penelope - but to an aging Telemachus, the loneliness of returning after a long separation, the consciousness of time passed.

In the Darkness of Time (Jean-Luc Godard) - Brooding, ponderous elegy on the death of cinema. Juxtaposed images of disposability and history (shots of garbage collection cuts to images of Holocaust victims being loaded into a truck) underscore the confluence, obsolescence, and marginalization of film as a tool for social document. A micro-version of Histoire(s) du cinéma punctuated by a Kenneth Anger-esque, clandestine, sinister ritual, filtered through the aging filmmaker's cynical, contemptuous, and impotent gaze.

Posted by acquarello on Jul 03, 2005 | | Comments (4) | Filed under 2005

July 2, 2005

In Praise of Shadows

(Junichiro Tanizaki, 1933)

"One need only compare American, French, and German films to see how greatly nuances of shading and coloration in motion pictures. In the photographic image itself, to say nothing of the acting and the script, there somehow emerges differences in national character. If this is true even when identical equipment, chemicals, and film are used, how much better our own photographic technology might have been suited to our complexion, our facial features, our climate, our land. And had we invented the phonograph and the radio, how much more faithfully they would reproduce the special character of our voices and our music. Japanese music is above all a music of reticence, of atmosphere. When recorded, or amplified by loudspeaker, the greater part of its charm is lost. In conversation, too, we prefer the soft voice, the understatement. Most important of all are the pauses. Yet the phonograph and render these moments of silence utterly lifeless. And so we distort the arts themselves to curry favor for them with the machines. These machines are the inventions of Westerners, and are, as we might expect, well suited to the Western arts. But precisely on this account they put our own arts at a great disadvantage."

The preceding passage from Junichiro Tanizaki's unstructured essay In Praise of Shadows presents an interesting frameworkpraise_shadows.gif for the causality and evolution of indigenous culture. On the one hand, there is clearly an isolationist tone to his argument (although it should be noted that this was not an uncommon sentiment in 1930s Japan): one that proposes that a nation, left to its own devices, would have inevitably developed analogous technologies that similarly solve the presented problems of modern civilization, but more importantly, would do so in a manner in keeping with the aesthetics and philosophy of that culture. On the other hand, Tanizaki also raises a provocative question on how the assimilation of "borrowed" technology, in itself, is not only a subconscious act of cultural dilution, but also prescribes a certain integral, non-native conformity in its implementation and usage. In other words, people learn to adapt to a technology in which the parameters and specifications are externally defined by dissimilar societies, and as a result, those characteristics that fall outside the limitations of the technology are suppressed, while those that complement - or at least work within - its limitations are cultivated and preserved.

In another passage on the Japanese adoption of the fountain pen over a modern adaptation of the traditional, Oriental writing brush, Tanizaki ruminates on the idea of altering the course of national literature as an extrapolated consequence of changing the method of writing. In essence, by changing the mere act - and therefore, the ritual - of the manner of writing, the substance and content of the writing - and in turn, the indigenous culture that has produced it - also becomes irreparably altered.

Characterizing the Japanese aesthetic as an overall penchant for impureness, irregularity, agedness, and asymmetry, Tanizaki describes traditional Japanese architecture as a culmination of these factors, integrating natural materials as a means of diffusing (and regulating) natural light (such as those from paper lanterns) and creating spatial design based on the structural casting of shadows. According to Tanizaki, minimal decoration is not, in itself, the aesthetic but the integrated design to avoid detraction and fragmentation of continuous shadows cast on blank walls.

The essay introduces an intriguing perspective with respect to the evolution of Japanese film. Setting aside issues of distribution, availability, and even prewar and postwar censorship, has the mere fact that film is a Western invention already filtered and transformed the "natural" evolution of the Japanese film? What would Japanese film look like had the technology and artform developed independently? In particular, is it more appropriate to describe Yasujiro Ozu, often described as "the most Japanese of filmmakers", as instead perhaps the most adept at subverting the Western medium in order to retain the most indigenous aspects of the culture? In this case, how would Tanizaki reconcile the implicit "technological distillation" of Ozu's films with the philosophical validation inherent within them? Does not the articulation of loss, inevitable change, and cultural transformation conversely validate each other's sentiments?

Posted by acquarello on Jul 02, 2005 | | Filed under 2005

June 29, 2005

New York Video Festival 2005

nyvf05.gifThe program for Scanners: The 2005 New York Video Festival has been posted and it's always interesting to see how far off the beaten path the annual selections are. Armond White is back again with yet another rumination on pop music and pop culture, this time explored through the medium of music videos. Another seemingly perennial installment, Game Engine - an eye-popping showcase of the latest trends in computer animation - is noticeably absent from this year's slate, replaced instead by something intriguingly called Metagraphics: Freeing Form from Function which, in theory, sounds like a natural evolution of rendering virtual images.

The ones I look forward most to seeing are Yang Ban Xi: The Eight Model Works and the collection of video works by photographer Robert Frank. The former is an examination of a hybrid Peking opera and propaganda theatrical performance pieces developed during Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution in the late 1960s. For the latter, I had only seen one of the short videos being presented in the Frank anthology, Paper Route, which was something in the vein of an Abbas Kiarostami-like driver/passenger nomadic confessional. While it did not reflect the aesthetic level of his photographs, it was still an interesting meditation on the modern-day orality of communal history, set in desolate, winter wonderland of Nova Scotia.

This year's "pushing the bounds of art" selections are on the Japanese pink film industry which, although I'm curious about from a film history point of view, I'm also dreading. The capstone is the U.S. premiere of The Glamorous Life of Sachiko Hanai aka Horny Home Tutor: Teacher's Love Juice (the title alone is chagrining). Earlier questionable selections in the series have included featuring actual home (and home-made) videos and surveillance tapes, as well as gallery artists expanding their repertoire - often with limited success, such as the indescribably appalling creations of Mike Kelley - into video works. Suffice it to say, "radical" can sometimes be a euphemism for excremental and disposable. Thankfully, there is another series of Japanese video programs on tap: the Cop Festival anthologies, which includes Kiyoshi Kurosawa's The Spiritual Cop.

It should make for another interesting extended weekend at NYVF.

Posted by acquarello on Jun 29, 2005 | | Comments (3) | Filed under 2005, Quick Notes

June 28, 2005

5/6th Film

I had tickets to see Marco Tullio Giordana's The Best of Youth at the 41st New York Film Festival in 2003. In fact, I ended up seeing almost all of it ...that is, except for the first hour; I decided against writing about it then in my journal. The film was playing on a weekend morning, I was running late and didn't have time to get coffee, and, not surprisingly, the D train was again being diverted through a few stations along the route. An elderly lady sitting next to me had realized that the train had already skipped her scheduled stop and she asked me for directions on an alternate route that would get her to her destination. The 42nd Street station was coming up quickly, so I thought that it was probably better if we both deboarded the train and I ended up walking with her to the F train platform and waiting for the train with her so that she could catch a ride back to her station. As the train was pulling up, she raised her hand to pat my arm, and that was when I noticed that she had a faded, multiple digit numerical tattoo on her forearm, no more than 4mm tall and 35mm wide. I was humbled. I watched the doors close and she waved as she sat down. I smiled and waved too. I eventually made it to Walter Reade and managed to catch the rest of the film. I even figured out for the most part what was happening in it. Today, the DVDs of the film arrived from Korea, so I now have the opportunity to see what I had missed.

Posted by acquarello on Jun 28, 2005 | | Comments (5) | Filed under 2005, Quick Notes

June 10, 2005

Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet at Work...

...on a Film Based on Franz Kafka's Unfinished Novel 'America' (Harun Farocki, 1983)

The French word répétition - rather than the English word rehearsal - more closely captures the implicit connotation behind Straub and Huillet's rigorous and exacting method of preparation for the shooting of Class Relations. A seated Straub asks the actor Christian Heinisch (who plays Rossmann) to deliver his lines over and over, each time, subtly modulated from the last - muting intonation, eliminating traces of colloquialism, and controlling the pace of enunciation - to better reflect the transcription of the written text.

The attempt to elicit a certain decontextualization and particularity to the actor's manner of speech is coincidentally similar straub.gifto the black screen rehearsal opening sequence of Chantal Akerman's contemporary film, The Eighties. On one occasion, Straub makes a meticulous observation that the duration of Heinisch's pause was equivalent to that of a period rather than a comma as defined by the manuscript. The reference to meter and speech also introduces the idea of rhythm and musicality in their methodology, and is reinforced in the repeated image of Huillet replicating the sound of a clapboard at each simulated take. In another occasion, Heinisch is given instructions to flatten the delivery of his lines when approaching another off-screen actor who is directed to collapse on cue, explaining that his character is motivated by curiosity and not concern.

In another sequence, Harun Farocki (in the supporting role of Delamarche) is directed to straighten his bent leg when responding to Rossman's inquiry over a missing photograph, an action that Farocki performs with the inertial awkwardness of discontinuous motion, and repeatedly rehearses to the point of fluidity.

Huillet: The final question is, does Harun sit or stand?

Straub: If Harun stands, he will look in a different direction. You leave him seated.

The final sequence of the actual location shoot underscores this methodical rigor, filming the same scenario beyond the realization of his acknowledged "best take":

"It's improving all the time so you don't need to worry...Thank you. That was very good. A final one. We still have 20 meters left, continue in this way..."

Posted by acquarello on Jun 10, 2005 | | Filed under 2005, Harun Farocki

June 8, 2005

Film About a Woman Who..., 1974

An extended silent sequence of a picture-perfect family posing stiffly and formally before a stationary camera on an open field illustrates the deliberateness and artifice of the idealized image. It also underscores the act of performance in creating the illusion of happiness.

The first image is of dual alienation: people watching something (later revealed to be a film) off-screen juxtaposed against a seemingly incongruous voice-over narration. This distancing is repeated in a series of quick cut film chapters punctuated by the narration of non-diegetic sentence fragments dispassionately (and deliberatively) articulated by a female speaker (Yvonne Rainer) to represent the suppression of the female voice.

Truncated narrative trains of thought are visually completed through the use of overlaid typed text (a recurring motif in Rainer's work) to illustrate the innate disjunction between words and sentiment. On occasion, the narrative precedes or reinforces the action on screen, while other times, becomes jarringly disconnected from it.

An uncomfortably hyperextended sequence of a submissive woman being disrobed in full frontal view before a camera underscores the theme of objectification and the male gaze.

Abstract (and consequently, alienated) representation of autobiographical elements: depression, an attempted suicide, alternating fear of rejection and sexual assertiveness, emotional ambivalence over a failing relationship, domestic violence. The reference to domestic violence (in the context of an incident at childbirth) is juxtaposed against the image of an idyllic beach at sunset, recalling the earlier shot of the "perfect family" and a shot of two lovers kissing on the beach, essentially subverting the illusive image(s).

Performance art as the artificial creation of the ideal - the graceful, disconnected body - silhouettes with malleable form and without identity - anonymous, androgynous, and interchangeable.

Fragments of expression - happiness and liberation - intertwine in the intercutting images of a modern dance performance and a view of the rolling waves of a coastline. Life elevated, or reduced, to the hyperbolic artifice of hackneyed drama, to clichéd cinematic constructions.

"You could always have an ocean ending."

Posted by acquarello on Jun 08, 2005 | | Filed under 2005, Yvonne Rainer

May 15, 2005

Swiss Army Knife with Rats and Pigeons, 1980


In the final, melancholic passage of Maurice Pialat's L'amour existe, a narrator contemplates the double entendre image of a victory commemorative sculpture that appears to equally articulate strength and human frailty, noting that "the hand of glory, ordering and directing, can also beg - a simple change in angle is sufficient." This intrinsic contextual duality of images based on the observer's perspective similarly provides the inspired methodology to Robert Breer's visually dense, yet integrally cohesive film, Swiss Army Knife with Rats and Pigeons. The introductory sequence of a rough sketch illustrating a closed Swiss army knife that is interlaced with images of a hand drawn rat presents the eccentric association of seemingly mutually exclusive objects presented in the film as the mundane pocket knife begins to associatively resemble the characteristic profile of a rodent waiting to pounce with its accipitral, nail inset eye, corkscrew tail, and jagged blade teeth. Breer uses spiral images - a tape dispenser, turning windmills, and rolling soda cans - in order to illustrate the recursive, abstract (and fanciful) transfiguration of mundane objects (a pigeon's eye into a tape dispenser, a partially opened folding knife into a stapler, the deployment of the pocket knife into propulsive flight) into a permutation of kinetic art. Moreover, Breer's extensive incorporation of recurring imagery throughout the film (bold, reinforcing colors, the juxtaposition of stapler and mousetrap that employ a similar hinge mechanism, silo windmills and single-engine propeller aircraft, the curve of the pocket knife mimicked in the outline of bicyclist racing through a public park) further serve to reinforce the interconnection of successive images, creating conceptual cohesion through the cumulative, perceptional impression of the linked images rather than direct (or even inferential), causal correlation of individual images. In its articulation of conceptual multiplicity through rapid-fire, transfixing, highly textural imagery, the film ingeniously derives meaning through the interdependent, contextual reference of other images rather than their interrelation to each other - an abstract, ephemeral afterimage that exists (and derives logic) only in the imaginary and the transient.

Posted by acquarello on May 15, 2005 | | Filed under 2005, Robert Breer

May 14, 2005

Form Phases #4, 1954


The opening image of Robert Breer's Form Phases #4 is that of two-strip red and white color panels, a seemingly tongue-in-cheek image that visually presages the film's fusion of two-dimensional animation and early color-process motion picture, as a sliver of white line breaks the bounds of the color border and continues to transect unimpededly (and organically) through geometric blocks of color before morphing into more complex shapes - a triangle, then square, then trapezoid, before developing curvature and pivoting into a rhombic, kite-like formation, then floating through the frame and attaching to other shapes to create more complex, composite (but elemental and reducible) forms - ever transforming, moving, fracturing, and transecting the bounds of cognitively predefined notions of visual space. Another ingenious manifestation of Breer's re-contextualization and transformation of two-dimensional space appears in the brief, isolated sequence of conic sections - a red triangle and black circle - locked in a hyperkinetic, follow-the-leader chase before the triangle becomes entrapped in a rigid "black box", seemingly imbalancing the object in its encapsulated potentiality that causes the overarching frame to fragment, not according to prescribed linear decomposition of the geometric sides of a rectangle, but rather, splinters into infinitely recursive, rectangular sub-frames that reveal a residual trail, recalling a rudimentary, prefiguring visual architecture of modern-day, computer-rendered mathematical fractals. More conceptually elaborate than cartoons, yet less formalist (and serious-minded) than typical gallery performance art, Robert Breer's unclassifiable animation film fuses infectious creative whimsy and penchant for structure and geometric precision with the decontextualized abstraction of modern art to create an indelible, visually arresting study of figures in motion where space becomes object, matter becomes void, and everything is relative, interdependent, mutable, and in a state of perpetual - and curiously wondrous - metamorphosis.

Posted by acquarello on May 14, 2005 | | Filed under 2005, Robert Breer


I've been meaning to create a feature on the site that would serve as a more informal venue for some scattered ideas and information for a while, something like a cross between the original intent of the journal (which was more of a repository of some rough ideas that I had hoped to develop further into a more "formal" essay), my screening list itinerary, as well as other films that I've seen and have started to formulate some expository themes, but don't feel as though I'm ready to write anything decent on the film yet. This year's screenings of Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Tropical Malady, Hirokazu Kore-eda's Nobody Knows (both of which I thought had some merit but didn't complete cohere in one screening and decided against writing about), and Claire Denis' L'Intrus (which I did write about to marginal effect) for the most part convinced me that this sort of stream-of-consciousness (and dynamic) "notes preservation" would be a good way to collect these fragmentary germs of ideas that haven't quite materialized into any sort of cerebral organization that could be useful for an article. In the spirit of Robert Bresson's Notes on the Cinematographer, the organic documentation of these working notes is a writing experiment to capture the essential distillation of ideas, minute observations, abstract moments of epiphany, and other "notes to self". Hence the title, Notes on the Cinema Stylographer.

Posted by acquarello on May 14, 2005 | | Comments (2) | Filed under 2005, Quick Notes