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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