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July 27, 2006

The Tuner, 2004

tuner.gifSomething of an irreverent collision between the offbeat, carnivalesque formalism of Lina Wertmüller or Ulrike Ottinger, and the somber, often sardonic view of despiritualized, post-communist societies from contemporary, ex-Soviet bloc filmmakers such as Darezhan Omirbaev (in particular, Killer), Béla Tarr, and Cristi Puiu, Kira Muratova's The Tuner is a wry, infectiously offbeat, penetrating, and relevant portrait of the inescapable greed and exploitation that have come to define the cultural landscape of modern day Eastern Europe in the inherently dysfunctional mechanisms of its nascent, capitalism-based, free market economies. A series of parallel, early encounters establishes the prescient tone for the film’s recurring themes of subverted expectation and complicit deception. The film opens to the image of an apprehensive, privileged, lovelorn woman named Lyuba (Nina Ruslanova) curiously wearing an incongruously out of fashion, beaded headdress as she initiates a conversation with a dashing, middle-aged man reading a newspaper at a public park with whom she has arranged a rendezvous after exchanging correspondences through a personal advertisement in a local newspaper (and whom, she subsequently realizes, she had mistakenly approached in her eagerness to find a potential suitor, having arrived a half hour earlier than the proposed meeting time) - an introductory meeting that invariably turns into a subtly goading, hard luck story that culminates with an indirect overture to solicit a loan in order to move forward with a lucrative, short window of opportunity deal despite personal, short-term cash flow problems. The image of Lyuba's fruitless rendezvous is immediately reinforced by a shot of petty thief and conman, Andrei (Georgi Deliyev) borrowing money from a local loan shark (a shot ingeniously - and symbolically - taken from below the sight line of the table), before heading off to the supermarket to buy groceries (as well as opening bottles of expensive liquor to sneak ample swigs while feigning outrage that the store has been selling opened merchandise). The two sequences, connected by the act of implicit, underhanded, financial solicitation, presage the interconnected fates of Lyuba and Andrei, a seeming predestiny that is concocted by Andrei after he overhears a wealthy widow, Anna Sergeyevna (Alla Demidova) ask for personal recommendations for a piano tuner at the supermarket. Under the spell (or at least, the thumb) of his beautiful, capricious, and extravagant lover, Lina (Renata Litvinova), Andrei sets out to ingratiate himself into the company of Anna Sergeyevna and her friend Lyuba by responding to the classified advertisement for a piano tuner in an attempt to win over their trust, and access to their dwindling fortunes.

It is interesting to note that Muratova operates within the framework of her idiosyncratically familiar absurdist stylizations and visual elements that are visible throughout her body of work in order to illustrate the film's own themes of opportunism, amorality, and obsolescence. The recurring red herring encounters - Lyuba's mistaken identity rendezvous, Andrei's groping by a man in the supermarket who may or (more likely) may not have been a store employee frisking him for shoplifted items, Lina's invitation of a scatterbrained, homeless person to her table after ordering everything on the menu, Lyuba's impulsive marriage to an opportunistic projectionist - serve to reinforce the atmosphere of pervasive deception that has defined the young couple's existence (an early shot of Andrei returning home by sneaking into the attic of a residential complex alludes to their existence as scam artists living in the margins of society). Similarly, Anna Sergeyevna and Lyuba's repeated encounters with twins at the Central Bank - another recurring visual element within Muratova's cinema - proves especially appropriate within the context of an interconnected (and ever escalating) pattern of double crosses that binds the characters together in their dysfunctional mutualism - Anna Sergeyevna and Lyuba in their archaic rituals and old-world insularity who are literally (through the malfunctioning piano) and metaphorically out of tune with the world around them (an image that is comically reinforced by Lyuba's disco-era ornamental headdress as well as the gated entrance to Anna Sergeyevna's house), and Andrei and Lina in their aimless and futureless hedonism and sense of self-entitlement (a rootlessness and disconnection that is also reflected in Andrei's penchant for using cell phones and in Lina's ambiguous declaration of commitment). It is the end, it is this representation of Andrei as a modern-day, morally ambiguous everyman that is captured in Anna Sergeyevna and Lyuba's vague, often contradictory descriptions of the perpetrator at the denouement of the young couple's elaborate scheme - the faceless anonymity and amorphous indefinability of impoverishment, desolation, and moral bankruptcy endemic within the corrupted ideals of self-motivated enterprise emerging from the ashes of a post-Soviet brave new world.

Posted by acquarello on Jul 27, 2006 | | Filed under 2006, Kira Muratova

July 21, 2006

Mix-Up, 1985

mixup.gifFive years before Abbas Kiarostami would blur the delineation between documentary and fiction in Close-Up by casting underemployed laborer and accused Mohsen Makhmalbaf impersonator, Sabzian to participate in a re-enactment of his fateful encounter with Mrs. Mahrokh Ahankhah and his subsequent deception of the Ahankhah family by ingratiating himself into their company, Françoise Romand would channel the spirit of dramatist Luigi Pirandello's recurring preoccupation with the interpenetration between art and reality in the thoughtful and poignant, yet fascinating, idiosyncratically offbeat, and whimsical first feature, Mix-Up to explore similar Pirandellian themes of identity, destiny, and absurdity. The maternity ward of a small, Nottingham hospital in 1936 serves as the literal and metaphoric stage for the story, as Blanche Rylatt, one of the two mothers involved in the "baby mix-up affair", recounts her admission into the delivery room to fill out the necessary documentation in preparation for the birth of her first child, only to be asked if she would voluntarily vacate the room (leaving all of her paperwork on the table in the hastily arranged move) in order to accommodate another patient, Margaret Wheeler, who was already in a more advanced stage of delivery. Ingeniously shot from the waiting room of a hospital nursery, the now elderly women take turns in front of the viewing window to recount their birth stories, punctuated by the appearance of their respective daughters beside them ...or so it seems, as a disembodied hand reaches over to tap the arm of Blanche's biological daughter, Valery in a pre-arranged cue to stand beside her foster mother, Margaret, while Margaret's biological daughter, Peggy, in turn, once again returns to the foreground, this time, standing beside her foster mother, Blanche.

Already discomfited by the hospital staff's frequent misdirection of flowers and correspondences between the two mothers, Margaret becomes immediately convinced that the daughter given to her was not the baby shown to her during the delivery, a misgiving dismissed by the hospital staff as a common uncertainty expressed by many mothers overwhelmed by the birth of a new child. Without conclusive proof, Margaret sought to insinuate herself into the Rylatt family's life by any means necessary in order to maintain contact with the family (and above all, Peggy), asking Blanche's husband, Fred to become Valery's godfather, paying occasional visits to the family (as well as surreptitiously sending family and friends to view baby Peggy in the hopes of gleaning conclusive information from a third-person opinion), and even sending several photographs of Valery over the years as a courtesy to the family. In contrast, Blanche, placated by their family doctor's reassurances that Peggy was the child whom he had helped deliver, and frequent comments from family and friends on Peggy's resemblance to other members of their extended family (as well as Fred's own conscious attempts to insulate her from Margaret's skeptical instigations), never truly doubted that Peggy was her biological child and showered her with the a kind of over-attentive, doting affection parents often have for their first-born child.

Composed of first-hand accounts of the daughters' childhood (and in particular, Valery's bittersweet expression of her youthful insecurities and incongruous sense of place within the Wheeler household), dramatized re-enactments, impressions and recollections by family and friends (cleverly shot as they all ride the same double-decker bus that underscores the themes of chance and convergences in seemingly random situations and interconnected degrees of separation), and interstitial tableaux that visually illustrate the complex dynamics of the families' relationships, the film straddles - if not, upends - the bounds of documentary and fiction in its idiosyncratic fusion of first-person testimonial narrative and Romand's creative infusion in her reconstruction (or rather, reconstitution) of the life-altering - and enriching - aftermath of Peggy and Valery's accidental switching. Romand's repeated incorporation of sharp geometries and mirrored images serve, not only to symbolize the irony of the perturbated, parallel lives of the Rylatt and Wheeler households (a consuming and seemingly irreconcilable predicament that would embolden Margaret to initiate such uncharacteristic acts as corresponding with leading scientific and legal experts of the day on finding conclusive proof of the children's parentage, and even seeking advice and emotional support from famed playwright and Nobel Prize-winning author, George Bernard Shaw), but also to illustrate the irreparably altered trajectories of their destinies. Inevitably, it is through these enlightened observations, comic asides, and eccentric tangents that Mix-Up incisively illustrates with liberating humor and pathos the refractions of fate and arbitrary chance that reinforce the poetry and absurdity of everyday life.

Posted by acquarello on Jul 21, 2006 | | Comments (12) | Filed under 2006

July 16, 2006

I ♥ $ / I Love Dollar, 1986

ilovedollar.gifFilmed in 1984-85 in an era of Reaganomics, a spiraling U.S. national debt, an unresolved energy crisis, a politically stabilizing Brazilian recession, and an unprecedented Asian high tech economic boom led by Hong Kong, Johan van der Keuken's I Love Dollar is an ingeniously conceived, cohesively organic, and provocative exposition into the circulation and financial mechanisms of money in modern civilization and its wide ranging social and geopolitical repercussions. Incisively opening to the sound of a jaunty, Tin Pan Alley-styled, synthesized piano melody (that recalls a more somber version of Abba's Money, Money, Money) juxtaposed against the curiously distorted image of a funhouse mirror-like reflection from the entrance of a commercial building, this introductory image of highly polished and transfixing, but visually deceptive urban financial institutions is immediately upended by the incongruous - and seemingly unrelated - shot of a bustling park (perhaps somewhere in South America) as a group of bystanders congregate around a dice-rolling betting table. A subsequent shot of a stock exchange trading room in Amsterdam provides the intrinsic correlation between the disparate images of recreation and work, poverty and privilege, as a commodities broker attempts to explain to a client on the telephone the increased risk and relative volatility of speculative investment associated with the commodities trading of precious metals.

Inasmuch as van der Keuken seeks to collapse the implicit class-based connotative shell game by redefining the underlying idea of stock investment as an act of gambling (a democratization that is subsequently represented by the high society sport of derby horse racing in then-British colony Hong Kong in which both thoroughbred owners and off-track betting agents represent the same potential for financial gain based on a calculated, yet essentially chance-based system), so too is the concept of investment recontextualized, not solely in terms of financial seeding and funneling of capital, but also in terms of personal commitment and dedication to communal projects. Switching locations to the (then) slums of Alphabet City on the Lower East Side of Manhattan (in a jarring contrast in economic conditions that is punctuated by a playfully sinister, otherworldly music that accompanies the shot of a pair of working class young men - the film's interview subjects and first hand witnesses to the urban blight - as they drive past the desolation and ruins of a seemingly alien urban landscape): first, a first-generation Puerto Rican immigrant and business student speaking from the kitchen of his hard-working mother's quaint neighborhood cafeteria as he explains his entrepreneurial goal to expand the reach of his mother's ethnic cooking into the more affluent clientele of Fifth Avenue by studying the mechanism of high finance while continuing to support the community by maintaining their original store as a reminder of their economic and social roots; then subsequently, a pair of working class homesteaders renovating a derelict, burned down building on Avenue C who express their frustrated attempts to petition City Hall to be issued a title grant to their homesteaded property and the constant fear of dispossession that inevitably accompanies the process of gentrification. Culminating with a radio-prompted, impromptu fundraising gathering in front of the cafeteria to raise money for paralyzed children in Puerto Rico, these marginalized communities subvert the notion of abstract consequences created by the short term goals of a manipulated, virtual money flow - a sentiment articulated by a Dutch commodities broker who acknowledges the international repercussions of the industry, but nevertheless, feels disconnected from its collateral effects (a figurative turning of a blind eye that is subsequently reinforced in the interstitial shot of a blind street vendor hawking pencils in the street) - by humanizing the face of personal investment and stakeholder in the building and nurturing of communities.

A subsequent pillow shot of the now iconic image of the World Trade Center (that punctuates a personable and motivated young woman's rendition of I'm Always Chasing Rainbows as a sardonic commentary on her demoralizing, catch-22 limbo to better herself: unable to get a job to further her education without work experience, and unable to get work experience without a job) also serves as an incisive symbol for the correlation between artificially created perturbations within the international stock markets of industrialized countries as a means of manipulating domestic growth and the imbalanced economies of developing nations. At the core of the hypothesis is an American analyst's examination of the concept of supply side economics that has become the framework for fiscally conservative governments - and in particular, Ronald Reagan's administration - that favors a less intrusive government in the stimulation of the economy, even as it seeks to implement tax cuts for businesses as a means of generating an eventual "trickle down" benefit to the local economy. Contrasted against the modern-day reality of a mammoth and unprecedented national debt caused by systematic deficit spending (that reached the trillion dollar milestone for the first time during the Reagan administration), the concept not only underlies the common practice of buying stocks on margin, but also encapsulates the inextricable disparity of underdeveloped countries in the arena of world trade (a miasmic, figurative deal with the devil that van der Keuken wryly alludes through the repeating images of revolving glass doors bearing the inopportune address of '666'), as export revenues are diverted towards interest payments to international debt holders and not re-invested into the national economy to foster sustained growth. Moreover, the idea of debt as a socially accepted, virtual generator of money is also presented as an ingrained aspect of American culture, enabled by a massive credit industry that generates income from the interminable payment of interest (while the amount of debt remains unchanged), and behaviorally reinforced by a dysfunctional government seeking to evade the responsibility for - and the catastrophic repercussions of - an inevitable national economic reckoning.

After establishing the interrelation between industrialized economies - and in particular, Western economies - and the stagnation of third world countries, van der Keuken then sets his sights towards Switzerland in order to examine the traditional (and at times, reprehensible) centrality of Swiss financial institutions in the conduct of international economic affairs. Correlating the Protestant Reformation (by way of John Calvin's theological work in Geneva) and the origins of capitalism through the converging ideal of a Puritan work ethic, the country's iconic reputation as the epicenter of international finance provides an archetypal framework for the very concept of virtually created wealth, illustrating the country's economic role as an archaic, but ingrained middleman gateway - in a complex financial network that resembles what van der Keuken describes as a "spider web" - for channeling (or perhaps, laundering) money to be reinvested into other parts of the world. It is interesting note that by invoking Calvin, van der Keuken also opens the door to the specter of colonialism though the settlement of Calvinist Boers in South Africa and, in the process, indirectly evokes its legacy of systematic exploitation of natural and human resources that has also contributed to the continued economic disparity of post-colonial, emerging nations in the world market. Concluding with a shot of a desolate outdoor farmer's market at sunset juxtaposed against the sound of an audio broadcast news of the European currency markets' collective decision to actively adjust the inflated value of the U.S. dollar against their respective currencies, with inaudible - and appropriately indeterminate - consequences for third world nations, the quotidian image of empty vendor stands in the process of disassembly serves as a metaphoric call to arms to dismantle the intrusive, artificially imposed financial structures created under the archaic illusion of a standardized, world trade free market economy that continues to foster a system of inequitable and disproportionate economic barriers, perpetuate marginalization, and engender inhumanity.

Posted by acquarello on Jul 16, 2006 | | Comments (3) | Filed under 2006, Johan van der Keuken

July 11, 2006

The President, 1919

president.gifIt perhaps comes as no surprise, given Carl Theodor Dreyer's lifelong, idealized melancholy over his own unresolved parentage, that the scenario selected for his first film, The President would involve three generations of children conceived out of wedlock, and thematically crystallize on the legacy of their unreconciled paternity in the resolution of their own disparate lives. For Dreyer, this expurgation of such deep-seated trauma was not only manifested in the naïve idea of restoring the virtue and honor of a "fallen" woman (an archetypal surrogate for his own idealized, unwed, biological mother) through transcendence, but also in confronting the innate cruelty of the very institutions that socially (and inequitably) stigmatized such human transgressions through codified notions of morality and class division. It is within this framework that the film's preface of the aging aristocrat, Franz Victor von Sendlinger (Elith Pio) offering a promissory relationship advice to his son Karl Victor (Halvard Hoff) on the folly of marrying outside (or more specifically, beneath) one's social class while walking along the grounds of their forbiddingly isolated, dilapidated estate seems especially conducive to the figurative idea of empty, superficial, crumbling institutions and Dreyer's own symbolic attempts to dismantle them.

Thirty years later, the dutiful son, now himself a highly respected and beloved regional magistrate continuing in the noble vocation of his forefathers, returns home from his travels. Immediately confronted with a dilemma between paternal acknowledgement (as his father had earlier done by reluctantly marrying his commoner mother shortly before his birth) or moral disavowal of his illegitimate daughter, a governess named Victorine Lippert who has been accused of killing her own illegitimate, newborn child, Karl Victor recuses himself from intervening in her pending case, citing the incorruptibility of the von Sendlingen family motto: "The majesty of justice is the holiest on earth", despite entreaties from her defense attorney, Karl Victor's closest friend, Berger (Richard Christensen) who, unaware of his friend's personal connection with his client, pays a personal visit to ask him for professional advice on her pending sentencing hearing. Pleading leniency from the court for a life of hardship caused by her illegitimacy, Berger recounts the despondent Victorine's unjust treatment at the hands of her callous employer: seduced by her employer's son, betrayed by her lover's coldly worded missive to his mother exposing their affair (and refusal to assume responsibility for the consequences of his actions), and cast away from home on the night of the child's birth, Victorine had been found unconscious the next morning at an open field near the body of her dead child. Abandoned by her feckless lover and continuing to mourn the loss of her child, the orphaned Victorine has refused any attempt at imploring the court for leniency in the hopes of hastening her own death from the gallows.

Even at this early juncture, Dreyer incorporates elements that would become immediately identifiable with his cinema, from the spare mise-en-scène that distills spaces to essential, signifying elements (note the surreal glow of a torchlight evening procession to celebrate Karl Victor's promotion that evokes both the grandeur of the spectacle and a sense of foreboding), to the expressionistic distortion of projected figures to reflect the eerie disquiet (a prefiguring image of seemingly disembodied shadows that would culminate with Vampyr), to the casting of actors (and non-actors) based on face types (most notably, in the tracking shot of peripheral activity and dour seated judges in the courtroom that prefigures the opening shot of The Passion of Joan of Arc). In illustrating the dichotomy between law and justice, Dreyer introduces a fundamental aspect of his cinema in exploring the intrinsic inhumanity of all rigid institutions, from myopic religious fundamentalism that can no longer accept the idea of the existence of a modern day miracle (Ordet) or remain open to the possibility of grace (The Passion of Joan of Arc), to ossified, patriarchal societies that inherently marginalize the role of women (Master of the House, The Parson's Widow), to entrenched social rituals and class stratification that have led to repression and spiritual immobility (Day of Wrath, Gertrud). With The President, Dreyer perhaps comes closest to an autobiographical reckoning with the tragic fate of his own biological mother, a paradigm for resolute faith and salvation in the face of profound inhumanity and marginalization - an embodiment of both profound transgression and improbable redemption.

Posted by acquarello on Jul 11, 2006 | | Filed under 2006