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September 2005 Archives


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