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December 10, 2007

Romances de terre et d'eau, 2002

romances.gifA reverent, humbling, and impassioned observation of life among the landless, peasant farmers of the semi-arid Carriri region of Ceará in northeastern Brazil, Jean-Pierre Duret and Andrea Santana's poetic ethnographic documentary Romances de terre et d'eau bears the deep humanism and trenchant, sociopolitical commitment of its venerable producers, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. Insightfully filmed near the commencement of the town's nine day, Feast of St. Anne - the patron saint of mothers and childless women (and in a broader sense, fertility) - the film opens to the shot of potters forming and hand painting an assortment of decorative, pastoral clay figures on the dirt floor of a modest, unlit house. In a subsequent establishing sequence, a sprightly octogenarian and water diviner standing at a grazing pasture, Miguel Rodrigues de Barros (affectionately known in the village as Seu Tetel), tells the story of his birth in the context of a terrible drought that had devastated the region in the same year. In a way, the juxtaposition of artisanal clay people and the personal testimony of real-life farmer Seu Tetel, whose identity is similarly rooted in the bounty of the earth, embodies the harsh reality of everyday life among the dispossessed and profoundly marginalized Sertão farming communities - an existence that has been shaped and worn down by a profound connection with a generous, but unforgiving land that has led to a life of nourishment and deprivation, joy and hardship - a way of life, already imperiled by the unpredictability of seasonal harvest, that is further being eroded by increasingly hostile enforcement of land rights, privatization, and commercial development. This sense of silent resilience is similarly reflected in the words of peasant farmer Thiago Pinheiro Gomes who recounts his own haunted childhood, having witnessed the prolonged illnesses and eventual deaths of his two young sisters as a result of their family's abject poverty following the abandonment of their father (that prevented them from receiving timely, proper medical care), as well as his mother's implacable guilt (even now some 35 years later) over having been unable to accommodate what would prove to be their deathbed requests for a meager meal of eggs and cassava. Now a father of six children, he supplements his seasonal employment as a day laborer in a sugar cane plantation by working as a sharecropper, reasoning that while the plantation provides him with the occasional means of buying his children clothing and school supplies, farming ensures that his conscience will not be burdened by the guilt that his mother continues to harbor, and that his children, even in their poverty, will not go hungry as his sisters had. For Thiago, a peasant farmer's integral connection to the land is an unbreakable bond that is both essential and cathartic, a sentiment that is similarly echoed by displaced elderly farmer, João Bosco Ferreira Paz and his Josefa Amara da Silva who, having left the village as an act of impotent protest for an even more uncertain life in a shantytown after a rancher spitefully asserted his land rights by grazing his cattle on João's planted vegetable garden, wistfully recall their well-worn lives on the fields of the Sertão. But perhaps the most emblematic of the farmers' complex relationship with a borrowed land that engenders poverty is illustrated by a group of itinerant amateur actors who stage their rustic pageant before appreciative local villagers. Performing in full costume, an actor proudly reflects on the continuity of a cherished cultural legacy instilled by these outmoded staged spectacles, even as he expresses his relief in retaining his anonymity by donning a mask and avoiding the stigma that the troupe is ultimately soliciting charity. It is this paradoxical coexistence of cultural heritage and obsolescence, community and marginalization, impotence and fertility, that is poignantly encapsulated in the film's closing montage - an attribution of individual names that accompanies the stationary shots of the posed subjects - a captured, privileged moment of intimacy that reflects both the bittersweet validation of a faceless, ennobled people and a fragmentary record of an indigenous culture on the twilight of man-made extinction.

Posted by acquarello on Dec 10, 2007 | | Filed under 2007

December 4, 2007

Fantômes, 2001

fantomes.gifOn the surface, Jean-Paul Civeyrac's Fantômes unfolds with a sense of haunted, supernatural disequilibrium that similarly infuses Kiyoshi Kurosawa's atmospheric, tonal cinema. In the film's opening sequence, a young acting student, Mouche (Dina Ferreira) stares out the window of an empty room and wistfully implores her absent lover, Bruno (Olivier Boreel) to return. Alone with her grief, she retreats into the silence of her intimate memories, briefly interrupted by what appears to be an anonymously placed, prank telephone call (in a premise that coincidentally evokes Kurosawa's Pulse, made in the same year), before being brought back to the mundane reality of rehearsing text in Russian for an upcoming drama class during a subsequent telephone conversation with her professor, Andreï (Jean-Claude Montheil). However, Mouche's desolation does not lie in the vestiges of a failed love affair, but rather, in the tragic loss of a new lover from a motorcycle accident. The image of the sad-eyed Mouche invoking the name of her dead lover is reflected in the dorsal shot of another distracted acting student, Antoine (Guillaume Verdier) as he stares out the window of a country house while rehearsing his lines, avoiding the gaze of his first love (Emilie Lelouch) before finally resolving to break up with her. Emboldened by his newfound emotional liberation, Antoine turns away from the quiet familiarity of his pastoral life and hitchhikes his way to Paris to visit his cousin Mathieu (Serge Bozon) where, on the eve of his arrival, he witnesses the curious disappearance of his traveling companion (Guillaume Junot) on the side of a hill overlooking the city - an unemployed motorist attempting to reconcile with his estranged wife with empty promises of finding a new job - after he pulls his car over to the side of the road in order to get better reception on his cell phone, and simply vanishes into the darkness. Arriving disoriented at Mathieu's apartment on the following day, a flophouse shared by a curious assortment of interchangeable, self-involved roommates who lead their separate lives oblivious of each others' presence, Antoine's strange encounter is validated by Mathieu who recounts the apparently rampant urban legend of unexplained disappearances that have recently plagued the city. Soon, as Antoine strives to forge a new life in Paris as a drama student and a part-time accountant, he, too, finds himself surrounded by the strange presence of aimless, disconnected lost souls who hover over the empty spaces of their resigned lives pining over lost - and perhaps imaginary - loves. At the core of Civeyrac's allusive and resonant, if opaque, subverted ghost story is the integral anxiety of illusive love, the regret of missed opportunity, and the fear of being ordinary and anonymous. Civeyrac expounds on the visual continuum developed in his earlier film, Les Solitaires where past and present, the living the dead coexist within a character's interpenetrating perceptual reality (a seamless transition through obscuring shadows and underlit, interstitial spaces that is also incorporated in the aesthetic movement of All the Fine Promises and À travers la forêt) to explore what would become his recurring orphic themes of corporeal love, longing, existential passage, and redemption. Framed against Antoine's diverted journey towards self-discovery near the sea - an image that is underscored by his encounter with an alluring, siren-like woman in the water - Fantômes presents a reconstituted contemporary mythology of human desire and frailty, where limbo is the banal reality of unreconciled memories, and immortal love exists only in the illusion of an irretrievable, transitory bliss.

Posted by acquarello on Dec 04, 2007 | | Filed under 2007, Jean-Paul Civeyrac

November 27, 2007

The Legend of Time, 2006

legend_timeNamed after legendary flamenco singer Camarón de la Isla's groundbreaking record album (which, in turn, was inspired by the works of Andalusian poet, Federico García Lorca), Isaki Lacuesta's The Legend of Time melds the improvised encounters of Johan van der Keuken's ethnographic documentaries with the quotidian intimacy of Mercedes Álvarez's El cielo gira to create a understated, yet meticulously observed meditation on grief, identity, and self-expression. Composed of two, self-contained chapters capture the disparate lives of figurative outsiders from Camarón's ancestral hometown of San Fernando, Cádiz - a gypsy boy, Isra who decides to honor his father's memory by refraining from singing during the family's self-imposed period of mourning, and a young Japanese woman, Makiko who leaves her ailing father behind in order to follow in the footsteps of Camarón and learn cante by immersing herself in the culture - the film is also a lucid and thoughtful essay into the inalterable nature of change, resonance, and connectedness.

In The Voice of Isra, a boy who bears a vague resemblance to a young Camarón with his long, curly hair and charming smile, struggles to come to terms with the subtle, yet profound shifts in his personal life, both as a younger brother who sees his relationship with his elder brother transform from that of playmate to surrogate father figure, man of the house, and, more importantly, disciplinarian (a change in the family dynamic following their father's death that is suggested in the film's poetic introductory sequence, when Isra plays with his brother Cheíto by pretending to bury him in a mound of fake snow), and as a maturing adolescent trying to win the affection of his brother's pretty friend, Saray. Chronicling Isra's maturation through seemingly mundane, yet insightful episodes of sibling rivalry (tersely encapsulated through Cheíto and Isra's arm wrestling contests), self-proving acts (initially, in Cheíto's goading of Isra to spray paint graffiti bearing Saray's name on the side of a tower, then subsequently, in the Japanese expatriate, Joji's feigned rite of passage with a sharp knife), and illustrations of time's passage (the advent of Mardi Gras, Isra's breaking voice, and Saray and Isra carving their measured heights onto a tree), Lacuesta uses the trauma of Isra's deliberately silent, then "lost" voice as a metaphor for the gradual formation of his own identity.

Similarly, Makiko's immigration to Spain in The Voice of Makiko is also one of self-discovery. In an early episode, Makiko, inquiring about referrals for cante instructors at a flamenco dance class that caters to a predominantly Japanese clientele, instead receives a tip from a student for a possible waitressing job at a local Chinese restaurant. This idiosyncratic image of interchangeable, borrowed identities becomes a reflection of Makiko's search for her own identity as well, a quest that is implied in the image of Makiko lip synching to Camarón's performance that opens the film. For Makiko, singing cante becomes inextricably bound to the exhilaration and adventure of immersing in a new culture as it is to a profound sense of guilt, grief, and dislocation (in an unexpectedly intimate scene, Makiko talks to her father from a public phone about her nursing schools studies as she speaks in voiceover of how her father taught her to suppress her display of emotion, a haunting image of imposed distance that grows more poignant during a subsequent, routine telephone call to her father). As in Isra's story, Makiko's identity and transformation emerge from the trauma of (paternal) loss and separation. Framed against the characters' personal stories as cross-cultural reflections of Camarón's inextinguishable spirit, Lacuesta creates an eloquent allegory for the cante itself as the embodiment of an eternal collective consciousness in its weathered, intertwined expression of joy and sadness, beauty and banality.

Posted by acquarello on Nov 27, 2007 | | Filed under 2007, Isaki Lacuesta

November 3, 2007

Tarrafal, 2007

tarrafal.gifIn an episode that occurs halfway through Tarrafal, Cape Verdean immigrant José Alberto, having just received his expulsion notice, encounters the elderly, displaced Fonthainas resident Ventura waiting on the side of a dirt road as his friend, Alfredo tries in vain to catch rabbits by thrashing random bushes with a wooden club. In a way, the idea of silent, enduring landscapes as figurative intersections for other unfolding - and often converging - human stories (a recurring theme in José Luis Guerín's cinema as well) may be seen as a metaphor for Pedro Costa's densely layered themes of dislocation and statelessness. As subsequently revealed in The Rabbit Hunters, Alfredo, too, is homeless, resorting to a life in the streets after having been thrown out of the apartment by his wife. In Tarrafal, this converging image of forced - and implicitly traumatic - displacement and exile is established in the opening images of José Alberto's ironic inquiries to his mother over the derelict conditions of their ancestral houses in Cape Verde from his own ramshackle home in the slums. As the conversation morphs from the neglect and inhabitability of their beloved, deserted homes that recalls the reclamation of abandoned ghost houses in In Vanda's Room, to the strange tales of a blood-sucking phantasm who foretells a person's hour of death by surreptitiously leaving letters in the most mundane of hiding places to be subsequently retrieved at the time of their immutable appointment - an impersonal, life-altering communication that alludes to the state's arbitrary dispensation of deportation and eviction notices in modern day Portugal - Costa illustrates a sense of anonymous interchangeability among the transitory, drifting souls of Tarrafal. Visually, this sense of surrogacy and transplantation is reflected in the repeating angular doorway view of José Alberto's house: first, in the solitary image of José Alberto facing away from the camera as he sits on a wooden plank to smoke, then subsequently, in a reframed shot of Ventura and Alfredo seated on the same plank looking out into the neighboring town, commenting on the profound transformation of the once desolate landscape (note Alfredo's humorous misidentification of stray cats as rabbits that further reinforces their seeming interchangeability). Moreover, intrinsic in José Alberto's sad tale of requesting a work release to single-handedly bury his estranged father, and the rabbit hunters' conversation over their mistreatment and death at the hands of authorities is the specter of Tarrafal's unreconciled history as a prison camp where inmates were tortured and relegated to die a slow death. Composed as skewed, frame within frame stationary shots that evoke the acute angles and distanced address of Straub/Huillet, these parallel testimonies of dislocation, separation, entrapment, and fatedness unfold through supplanted images of interchangeable, moribund, drifting ghosts that integrally reflect their own erasure and social invisibility.

Posted by acquarello on Nov 03, 2007 | | Filed under 2007, Pedro Costa

October 29, 2007

Naked Spaces: Living Is Round, 1985

nakedspaces.gifIn Naked Spaces: Living Is Round, Trinh T. Minh-ha expounds on the themes of postcolonial identification and the geopolitical (and social) apparatus of disempowerment in Reassemblage to create dense, thoughtful, and articulate ethnographic essay film on indigenous identity, the impossibility of translation, and architecture as cultural representation. The prefacing image provides a terse, yet incisive encapsulation of Trinh's recurring preoccupations. Opening to a fragmentary, red filter shot of a Senegalese village celebration against the unsynchronized sound of tribal rhythms, the film then abruptly cuts to an extended black screen as the drums continue to beat in the background, before returning to the same idiosyncratic footage of unnaturally reddened villagers in the midst of their animated performance. In a way, Trinh's odd presentation of images serves as a metaphor for the abstract, often exotic representation of African culture in Western society - the reframing of images through the figurative filter of a usurped, privileged gaze - dissociated from its cultural rooting, repackaged, and systematically reinforced as quaint entertainment or exploited by the international community as justification for continued sovereign meddling (and consequently, domination) in the absence of a colonial-era "enlightened" mandate. Indeed, Trinh's symbolic crossing out of the word directed from the film's title sequence reflects her deliberate strategy to withhold preformed context to the presented images, not as a means of mystifying (nor exoticizing) African life, but as an act of resistance towards a filmmaker's unconscious process of interpretation as explanation in composing these ethnographic images - a defiance against reinforcing prescribed assumptions and perpetuating stereotypes that is announced in the film's tongue-in-cheek, pre-emptive opening statement, "Not descriptive, not informative, not interesting."

Implied in the opening tribal dance in Joola, Senegal is a sense of mutual causation - a body responding to the percussive rhythms through movement, that, in turn, drives the beating of the drums in a sympathetic resonance that the narrator (one of three accented female voices in the film) describes as the interactive process of mediated involvement. The theme of mediated ritual processes is subsequently revisited in the portrayal of native divinities, not as all-powerful gods who control the forces of nature and create mankind in their own image, but rather, as enlightened guides who initiate humanity into the "nature of death". Presented against images of house building and domestic rituals, Trinh introduces the idea of architecture as a fundamental life cycle - an initiation into the indigenous living culture. This essentiality between the organic and the inorganic is further reinforced in the subsequent chapter in Serer, Senegal where African folklore describes the creation of men and women as the elemental chemistry of air, water, earth, and light (a humbled sense of place that is also connected to the images of Bisa, Burkina Faso, where earth is symbolically collected from the center of a calabash during funeral rites). Juxtaposed against images that reinforce the idea of natural geometries found in everyday village life as rooted in the recurring pattern of circles - houses, granaries, calabash pots, the formation of harvest and ceremonial rituals, and even the shape of tombs - Trinh further expounds on the theme of native architecture as both a representation of cyclical life processes and its cultural function in forming an integral consciousness, a metaphysical convergence that is subsequently reflected in the description of the circle as a "spirit in eternal motion" in Peul, Senegal.

The idea of architecture as living testament of a collective consciousness surfaces throughout the film in unique and unexpected ways. In Jaxanke, Senegal, the tribal paintings depict, not a primitive mythology, but a mundane connection to the earth and its cycles of growth and harvest. In Birifor, Burkina Faso, the Western aesthetic of open floor plans is upended in the indigenous construction of dark passageways and secluded areas that prevent the layout of the house from being seen in totality, and whose spaces only reveal themselves in fragments through rays of directed, natural light - in essence, unfolding in levels of domestic intimacy. The stilt houses in Fon, Benin conflate the Western concepts of (demarcated) private and public spaces (a sentiment that is also inherent in the shared landscape of Peul, Senegal) as villagers row their boats from house to house exchanging essential provisions in the isolation of their floating community (a communal gesture that ironically plays out as a narrator comments on the nebulous distinction between external charity and conditioned dependency). In the traditionally conservative, deeply patriarchal society of Oualata, Mauritania, the austere, minimal exterior spaces open to ornately decorated interiors. Framed against the images of women instinctively withdrawing behind their veils in the presence of strangers, their domestic spaces, handed down from generation to generation, become the surrogate, silent guide to ingrained, unarticulated personal and cultural histories. In Moba, Togo, the metaphoric representation of the house as being is connected to the theme of natural communication in the description of doorways as mouths to the vault of heaven, a reflection of humanity's interdependency between the earth and sky for survival that is also reflected in the characterization of granaries as "celestial wombs" in Kabye, Togo that alludes to ecological and human cycles of fertility. This metaphor for living architecture is further illustrated in Soninke, Mauritania, where the breathing of houses - enabled by the incorporated structural design of open-air vents - becomes an overall reflection of a household's health and well-being. It is interesting to note that by using recurring images shot through vents and doorways, Trinh creates a sense of separated connectedness that supplants the filtered gaze of the opening images with one of obstructed transparency - a visual reinforcement of otherness that defines Trinh's (as well as the spectator's) mediated point of view that is also inherent in the inquisitive, stolen glances of the village women in Oualata. Concluding with the bookending shot of the Senegalese village ceremony - this time, without the distortion of red tinting - as a narrator comments on the mechanics of dance as a body's continuity to the gaps in the rhythm, the image becomes a dual-natured one: a reassertion of indigenous expression in the absence of imposed filters, and an invocation of ancestral spirits within the sacred circle of a shared cultural intimacy.

Posted by acquarello on Oct 29, 2007 | | Comments (2) | Filed under 2007, Trinh T. Minh-ha

October 23, 2007

In Vanda's Room, 2000

vanda.gifThe first image of Vanda's childhood friend, Nhurro is an insightfully intimate one. On the morning of the scheduled demolition of his home - an abandoned house in the slums of Fonthainas that he had taken over and settled into as his own - Nhurro takes a final, almost ceremonial, thorough scrub down bath in near total darkness in the midst of pounding sledgehammers and approaching heavy machinery, using buckets of ported hot water to rinse off the soap suds in the absence of running water and electricity. Emerging in the shadows from his bath with the steam evaporating from the surface of his skin, Nhurro's obscured silhouette momentarily appears phantasmagoric and evanescent against the stray rays of light poking through the crumbling walls and covered windows of the barren house, transforming him into an almost spectral, otherworldly figure that is subsequently reframed against a more mundane reality when he awkwardly stumbles from the wet floor while trying to retrieve his clothes from a nearby chair. This metaphysical image proves to be Pedro Costa's most direct illustration of the marginalized, discarded Fonthainas residents as displaced ghosts in In Vanda's Room - a theme that would again surface in Colossal Youth and especially Tarrafal) - a manifestation of figurative lost souls drifting from one derelict landscape to another in the wake of the shantytown's looming, phased demolition, systematic depopulation, and involuntary exile. In an encounter with Vanda that occurs near the end of the film, Nhurro, once again forcibly displaced by advancing bulldozers from his newly claimed "home" (a house that he continues to fastidiously clean until the very end of his brief "tenancy", perhaps as a symbolic gesture of his human dignity), secretly takes refuge in Vanda's room for a few days while searching for other intact, abandoned houses to move into, and resignedly tells her of his life in perpetual transience, "living in ghost houses other people left empty." In a sense, the sad, adrift characters wandering into and out of Vanda's room are also leading impermanent, yet paradoxically static and inescapable lives in the doomed ghost town.

In Vanda's Room also anticipates José Luis Guerín's En Construcción in its untold stories of disposable lives and buried cultures that continue to surface and reassert their inerasable identities from the rubble of area revitalization. Composed of long take, stationary shots, often of cramped interior spaces or narrow alleys framed against neglected building façades, doorways, and even gouged walls that reflect the characters' economic bondage and spiritual captivity, the film's oppressive moral landscape and interminable stasis are also revealed through repeating episodes of inarticulate, idle conversations, hardscrabble drug use, door to door peddling, acts of petty theft, and habitual rummaging (most notably, in Vanda finding an antique model ship that had been inadvertently left outside that alludes to the country's own historical change in fortune from colonial empire to increasingly marginalized country within the economic homogenization of a borderless European Union). But there is also a specter of inevitable change in these uncomfortably intimate moments of destructive (and often self-inflicted) limbo as the remaining residents, too impoverished to move away, await their fate. (In one ironic juxtaposition, the extended image of Vanda resting in an alley with a crate of unsold vegetables is framed against a doorway as the song The Power by Snap! plays in the background.) The news of Nhurro's newfound residence that is mentioned during Vanda and her sister, Zita's opening conversation is supplanted by his subsequent eviction from his latest home during the course of the film. In another conversation, the state-enabled, mass eviction of Fonthainas is reflected in the inequitable dispensation of institutional justice over the apparent theft of Knorr soup cubes, where punishment is exacted against the arbitrary measure of human disposability. Perhaps the most emblematic of its systematic cultural extinction lies in the fate of a middle-aged woman named Geny who, early in the film, anxiously stands near the door of her home, having been evicted on the same morning as Nhurro. Raising a faint smile when a neighbor tries to cheer her up with a tongue in cheek offer of cohabitation, the fleeing moment of lightness becomes even more poignant within the context of a passing visitor's subsequent indirect account of her misfortune. This sobering convergence in Vanda's room - the evocation of Geny's faint smile, told by an emphysemic friend who trades a bouquet of flowers for a supply of respiratory medicine, in the room where Vanda and Zita get their heroin fix - powerfully encapsulates the film's haunted, indelible, and unflinching intimacy: an image of tragic souls hovering aimlessly over their physical captivity, pursuing distractive quests for transitory relief.

Posted by acquarello on Oct 23, 2007 | | Comments (3) | Filed under 2007, Pedro Costa

September 5, 2007

En Construcción (Work in Progress), 2001

construccion.gifSomething of a cross between the organic essentiality of Johan van der Keuken's ethnographic documentaries (most notably, in I Love Dollar) and the disenfranchised cinema of Pedro Costa, José Luis Guerín's En Construcción anticipates Jia Zhang-ke's Still Life in its understated, yet bracing portrait of economically imposed dislocation, class stratification, and cultural erasure. Ostensibly a chronicle of the construction of a condominium as part of a multi-phased, residential development project intended to revitalize the working class Barcelonan port town of El Chino (whose name had been derived from its once bustling commerce as a trade port to Asia), the film is also a provocative and poetic document of marginalized, discarded lives lived within the constant flux of demolition and construction, urbanization and depopulation in the pursuit of an economic renaissance that comes with the process of gentrification - the people on the figurative other side who are slowly being pushed away from these transforming communities: the migrant, day laborers (usually foreigners or people from rural provinces) who work on the construction site without the security of continued employment after the project is completed, and impoverished townspeople who look on at the construction activity from the windows and rooftops of their own worn down tenements (often scheduled for future demolitions themselves), unable to afford the price of an apartment unit in the new building. This underlying dichotomy is tersely encapsulated by the plight of a young couple, Juani and Iván who, as the film begins, have been given a notice of eviction by the landlord after falling behind on their rent (as well as receiving underhanded threats to implicate Juani's mother in a lawsuit if they refuse to comply). Juxtaposing their impending homelessness against a shot of a wrecking crew throwing out the contents from a room of a gutted apartment building with a graffiti bearing Juani's name (while passersby rummage through the contents of the dumpster and retrieve a painting that had once been hanging on the couple's wall) in preparation for clearing the site for new construction, Guerín subverts the notion that area redevelopment creates a new economy, but rather, merely supplants the old one.

In documenting the discovery of ancient relics from a suspected Roman-era catacomb at a demolished building site (a theory that is acerbically rebutted by an elderly bystander who is convinced that the corpses had instead been buried there during the dark days of the Civil War), Guerín not only expounds on the film's prefiguring images of cultural disposability and substitution, but also underscores the theme of inorganic structure as testaments of "living history", a preoccupation that resonates with Alain Resnais's early cinema in his recurring expositions on architectural memory. This idea of human imprint as encapsulated (and inerasable) records of history is visually reflected, initially, in the establishing shot of a large, four panel graffiti mural of eternal eyes that is mirrored in the children's chalk drawings at the construction site, then subsequently, in the foreman, Juan López's correlation of a building's structural framework to an inanimate soul - the hidden substance that defines an object's underlying integrity. Within this metaphysical analogy, the indelible images of deformed silhouettes as passersby invariably peek through the canvas enclosure along the perimeter of the construction site to watch the activity that is also evoked in the exaggerated shadows cast on adjacent walls as laborers work through the evening may also be seen as metaphoric figurations of transcended bodies. It is in this aesthetic representation of spaces as interchangeable, transitory containers for human existence that Guerín's haunting exposition ultimately converges towards the displaced spirit of Chantal Akerman's cinema, where concreteness of place is an untenable illusion, and the idea of home proves to be arbitrary and elusive.

Posted by acquarello on Sep 05, 2007 | | Comments (2) | Filed under 2007, José Luis Guerín

September 1, 2007

Washed Ashore, 1994

washed_ashore.gifAn elderly cemetery caretaker, Josef Fuchs, impassively looks out into the Danube River before turning to face the camera and reciting Count Albrecht Graf Wickenburg's requiem for the namenlos - the unidentified dead, often people who committed suicide or lost their lives in boating accidents, whose bodies have washed up along the riverbank over the years and were buried at the Cemetery of the Nameless in lower Austria near the city limits of Vienna. In another area along the Danube River, a military guard stands atop an outpost scanning the landscape amidst the rumble of a hydroelectric plant overlooking a pedestrian bridge as vehicles speed past across a road on the opposite side of the river. In still other images of the Danube itself, a floating, ceremonial casket covered with flowers drifts aimlessly with the current towards its indeterminate place of rest, and a lone angler watches the tranquil waters for signs of activity as he rows his boat along the river in search of an ideal fishing spot. These introductory parallel images of disparate, yet intrinsically connected river sentinels along the Danube provides the framework for Nikolaus Geyrhalter's evocative and understated stream of consciousness rumination, Washed Ashore, an interweaving elegy on ritual and obsolescence set against the eternal, yet indelibly transforming modern day, socioeconomic landscape of the river in the face of encroaching urbanization, a collapsed Soviet bloc economy, and globalization.

This paradoxical coexistence of construction and erosion, activity and decline that characterizes contemporary life along the Danube is initially reflected through Fuchs's own testimony of his evolving role in the cemetery since the site's incorporation into the city of Vienna during the early half of the twentieth century. Decades earlier, during the final years of regional autonomy from Viennese jurisdiction when the laws still permitted people to trawl bodies found floating on the river, he had retrieved as many as fifty unclaimed corpses for burial. Now prohibited by the district charter from recovering the dead from the river (a phenomenon that would also be mitigated by the implemented diversion of the river, perhaps to feed the hydroelectric plant and prevent soil erosion that will accommodate new construction along the riverbank), the aging Fuchs now single-handedly tends to the care and maintenance of the existing (and now largely representational) anonymous graves, often faced with exhausting responsibilities of controlling overgrown foliage, grounds keeping, and even repairing markers and placards that have been defaced by thrill-seeking vandals and souvenir hunters from the gravesites. A similar sentiment of a dying way of life is intimated in the fisherman's explanation of the local community's opposition to the assimilation of the area's natural attractions into a proposed national park, arguing that such a project would not only open the floodgates to large-scale tourism that will adversely affect the area's already fragile ecological balance, but also, as a consequence, lead to the imposition of even more stringent regulations that will threaten their very livelihood.

However, the vulnerability of integral economies enabled by the river cannot be not solely attributed to the problems of (over) development, as illustrated by the middle-aged husband and wife team of barge operators from Romania, Aurel and Helene Rotaru, who live modestly aboard their company-supplied boat transporting industrial goods and raw materials bound for harbors along the Danube throughout Europe. Nearing retirement, the couple sees their lifelong career as a dying vocation, as younger generations, raised in an age of modern conveniences and discotheques, are unable to adapt to the more old fashioned (and decidedly low tech) lifestyle demanded by their nomadic occupation. This sense of self-imposed simplicity and asceticism is perhaps best illustrated by Gyosei Masunaga, a Buddhist monk who, years earlier, heeded the teachings of his mentor and left Japan to establish a peace pagoda and temple in Vienna in order to commemorate the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and now leads a humble life of devotion and subsistence near the riverbank. Closing with the rhapsodic performance of an untranslated traditional folksong by a traveling musician (Polina Schestova), her soulful performance serves as an idiosyncratically fitting coda to Geyrhalter's organic symphony on the enduring mutability of life along the margins of the Danube itself - at once, exotic and familiar, somber and rapturous, distant and transcendable.

Posted by acquarello on Sep 01, 2007 | | Comments (2) | Filed under 2007, Nikolaus Geyrhalter

August 29, 2007

2007 NYFF Sidebar: Views from the Avant Garde Program

The NYFF Views from the Avant Garde sidebar program has been announced. Aside from a jaw-dropping program entitled Memories featuring short films by Harun Farocki, Pedro Costa, and Eugène Green from the Jeonju International Film Festival Digital Project (by far, my most anticipated program of the entire festival!) and the 35 mm restoration of Robert Breer's Recreation and Eyewash, I'm also especially looking forward to the Robert Beavers program, which includes Grogory Markopoulos' Reel from The Eniaos (Bliss). Views screened Helga Fanderl's Bulrushes in last year's program, and is dedicating an entire program of her work this year. Also worth noting is that Matthius Müller and Christophe Giradet, Jeanne Liotta, Paolo Gioli, Jacqueline Goss, Robert Todd, Jim Jennings, Ken Jacobs, Ernie Gehr, and David Gatten have films among the compilation programs.

Saturday, Oct. 6

12:15 pm - From the Canyons to the Stars, 84m
    - All that Rises, Daichi Saito, with Malcolm Goldstein on violin, US, 2007; 7m
    - The Coming Race, Ben Rivers, UK, 2005; 5m
    - Surging Sea of Humanity, Ken Jacobs, US, 2006; 10m
    - Black and White Trypps #3 Providence, Ben Russell, US, 2007; 11m
    - Energie! , Thorsten Fleisch, Germany, 2007; 5m
    - North Shore, Fred Worden, US, 2007; 11m
    - Armoire, Vincent Grenier, US, 2007; 3m
    - Finestra D’Avanti Ad Un Alberto (a Fox Talbot), Paolo Gioli, Italy, 1989; 13m
    - Transit of Venus, Nicky Hamlyn, UK, 2006; 2m
    - Observando el Cielo, Jeanne Liotta, US, 2007; 17m

3:00 pm - At Sea, Peter Hutton, 60m

5:00 pm - Unending, 94m
    - The Hyrcinium Wood, Ben Rivers, UK, 2007; 3m
    - Nymph, Ken Jacobs, US, 2007; 2m
    - Anonimatografo, Paolo Gioli, Italy, 1972; 26m
    - What the Water Said 4-6, David Gatten, US, 2006-07; 17m
    - How to Conduct A Love Affair, David Gatten, US, 2007; 8m
    - Tziporah, Abraham Ravett, US, 2007; 7m
    - Phantom, Luke Sizceck, US, 2007; 6m
    - In Memoriam Mark LaPore, Phil Solomon, US, 2005-07; 25m

7:30 pm - Ken Jacobs and Rick Reed, approx. 60m
    - Dreams That Money Can’t Buy, a live Nervous Magic Lantern performance.
    - Capitalism: Child Labor, Ken Jacobs, 2006; 14m

9:15 pm - Stranger Than a Strange Land, 112m
    - Untitled, Peggy Ahwesh, US, 2007; 3m
    - Notes from A Bastard Child, Fern Silva, US/Portugal, 2007; 6m
    - The Mongrel Sister, Luther Price, US, 2007; 7m
    - Victory Over the Sun, Michael Robinson, US, 2007; 12m
    - Stranger Comes to Town, Jacqueline Goss, US, 2007; 28m
    - Light is Waiting, Michael Robinson, US, 2007; 11m
    - SpaceDisco One, Damon Packard, US, 2007; 45m

Sunday, Oct. 7

12:30 pm - House Next Door, 111m
    - Old Dark House, Ben Rivers, UK; 4m
    - We the People, Ben Rivers, UK; 1m
    - Detroit Block, Julie Murray, US; 7m
    - Frontier Step, Gretchen Skogersen, US; 8m
    - Dedication, Peggy Ahwesh, US; 4m
    - House (single screen version) , Ben Rivers, UK; 6m
    - Footnotes to a House of Love, Laida Lertxundi, US; 13m
    - Office Suite, Robert Todd, US; 14m
    - Prague Winter, Jim Jennings, US; 7m
    - Electricity, Henry Hills, US/Czech Republic; 7m
    - Recordando El Ayer, Alexandra Cuestra, US/Ecuador; 9m
    - Tahousse, Olivier Fouchard & Mahine Rohue, France; 31m

2:30 pm - Helga Fanderl, 43m
    - Glaciers, 2006; 3m
    - Drawing Cobblestones, 2006; 3m
    - Gulf House, 2006; 3m
    - Leaden Waves, 2006; 1m
    - Shadows on a Red Wall, 2006; 2m
    - Tents on a Canal, 2006; 3m
    - Warrior’s Market, 2007; 2m
    - Louie, 2007; 1m
    - Tombs, 2004; 3m
    - Broadway, 2006; 3m
    - Reflections, 2006; 3m
    - Courtyard, 2006; 2m
    - Gray Heron, 2006; 3m
    - Three Midtown Sketches, 2006; 2m
    - Pond in the Berry, 2004; 3m
    - Green Balloon, 2007; 1m
    - Carousel, 2006; 1m
    - Swinging Zora, 2007; 2m
    - Throwing the Net, 2006; 1m
    - Under the Water Lilies, 2005; 3m

4:00 pm - Ernie Gehr, 79m
    - Untitled, 9m
    - Cinematic Fertilizer 1, 5m
    - Cinematic Fertilizer 2, 8m
    - 10th Avenue, 57m

6:15 pm - Bits and Pieces (Make Up To Break Up), 80m
    - Antigenic Drift, Lewis Klahr, US, 2007; 7m
    - Hide, Matthius Müller & Christophe Giradet, US, 2007; 5m
    - The Counter Girl Trilogy, Courtney Hoskins, US, 2006; 6m
    - Volto Sorpresso al buio (Face Caught in the Dark) , Paolo Gioli, Italy, 1965; 6m
    - Beirut Outtakes, Peggy Ahwesh, US, 2007; 7m
    - For Them, Jonathan Schwartz, US, 2007; 3m
    - For A Winter, Jonathan Schwartz, US, 2007; 3m
    - Sunbeam Hunter, Jonathan Schwartz, US, 2007; 3m
    - A Logic Sore, Jonathan Schwartz, US, 2007; 3m
    - The Wedding Present, Jonathan Schwartz, US, 2007; 3m
    - 40 Years, Jonathan Schwartz, US, 2007; 3m
    - The Film of A Thousand and One Nights and A Night (Volume 1) , Scott Puccio,
      US, 2007; 26m
    - Hanky Panky, Ken Jacobs, US, 2007; 1m
    - Eyewash, Robert Breer, US, 1959; 3m (35mm restoration)
    - Recreation, Robert Breer, US, 1956, 1m (35mm restoration)

8:15pm - Robert Beavers, 53m
    - Pitcher of Colored Light, US/Switz., 2007; 23m
    - Reel from The Eniaos (Bliss), Gregory Markopoulos, US, 2004; 30m

9:30 pm - Memories, 102m
    - Respite, Harun Farocki; 40m
    - The Rabbit Hunters, Pedro Costa; 23m
    - Correspondences, Eugène Green; 39m

Posted by acquarello on Aug 29, 2007 | | Filed under 2007, Quick Notes

August 21, 2007

The Assault of the Present on the Rest of Time (The Blind Director), 1985

blind_director.gifCuriously opening near the end of the second act of Tosca as the heroine (Maria Slatinaru) fends off the advances of Scarpia (Günther Reich), the corrupt police commissioner, the unexpectedly abrupt, in medias res performance of the Puccini opera provides an incisive prelude to the elliptical structure of Alexander Kluge's "anonymous city" symphony, The Assault of the Present on the Rest of Time, an organic and fractured, yet humorous, intuitive, and poetic rumination on the integral - and correlative - nature of technology and (urban) identity, the intersection of film and new media in the creation of art, and the delusive quest to manipulate time. A rearticulated theory by Professor von Gerlach (Hans-Michael Rehberg) presented during a radio interview discussing the seemingly patternistic evolution of history - remapping the twentieth century as a cumulative progression of compartmentalized, four-year plans that, when stitched together, reveal a tabula rasa, generational life cycle of social change and political reinvention - serves as an introductory paradigm for Kluge's multi-faceted approach to the film. Observing that the year 1984 intriguingly represents exactly sixteen years since the height of the May 68 revolution, as well as sixteen years from the end of the twentieth century, the recursive, yet arbitrary reduction of human history as binary multiples of repeating intervals reflects the perpetuated myth of time as a conceptual, yet quantifiable point of convergence - a precise demarcation of an idealized, indefinable present that exists only in relation to another. It is this illusive idea of time as absolute and infinite that the narrator (Kluge) reinforces in an abstract composition that occurs midway through the film:

"Time is what you can measure with a clock. A child, a city, a love, death...these are clocks. One cannot measure that which we consider past, present, future. People, being at fate's mercy, interpret the period of time in which they decide as 'the present'. They want this period to be long. This is the source of illusion."

In a chapter entitled The Superfluous Woman, Kluge dispels the argument of time as an interminable entity through the case study of a well-respected doctor (Rosel Zech) who goes away on an extended vacation to Africa and returns to find that her superior has recruited an additional physician to the medical practice (enticed, in part, by the ambitious doctor's offer to finance the purchase of expensive diagnostic equipment for the clinic) and has demoted her to the basement office. In a subsequent chapter, The Hasty Ones, the idea of manipulating time through arbitrary parameters of (apparent) activity, preoccupation, and speed is subverted by the randomness of fate as a business executive's "saved time" proves meaningless against the inevitability of death - an egalitarian destiny that also recalls a researcher's (Alfred Edel) earlier conversation on the transitory nature of time as kairos, an intense, but fleeting consciousness of experience (a conversation that is wryly prefigured by the interstitial, keyhole shot of a fluffer at work in an anonymous, high-rise building). Contrasted with an earlier vignette of a young Polish woman who reluctantly entertains the romantic overtures of a German soldier during the war in the hopes that his infatuation will aid in delaying the confiscation of her parents' film collection, Kluge illustrates the paradox of time as both malleable and inalterable - a tradable commodity and an irreplaceable endowment - an interplay between the ephemerality of kairos and the eternity of chronos (whose essential Truth resides in its enduring quality).

In The Handover of the Child, the idea of time as a surrogate for desire is illustrated through a lonely single woman, Gertrud Meinecke (Jutta Hoffmann) who decides to become a foster parent to an orphaned child (primarily out of financial incentive), only to face losing her when the girl's wealthy relative is found years later. The theme of surrogacy similarly infuses the final chapter, The Blind Director, in which a veteran filmmaker (Armin Mueller-Stahl), struggles to complete his latest film despite his increasingly failing eyesight. Enlisting the aid of assistant directors to describe the shot footage, Kluge captures the underlying dichotomy between rote image and vision. In both episodes, time exists, not in the present, but in the acute awareness of its eroding passage - its finiteness. Moreover, Kluge's fragmented, idiosyncratically assembled sequences of narrative vignettes, time lapse sequences, found film, and rough hewn, artisanal compositions also reinforce an integral aspect of the discourse that culminates in The Blind Director (a theme that is also broached in a segment chronicling the captive life of a computer-addicted family): the illusion of technology as a surrogate for human imprint. Juxtaposed against images of steel recycling that allude to the obsolescence of traditional production (the materials having been reclaimed from an automobile salvage yard), Kluge's intriguingly dense exposition transcends the simple novelty of creating thematic variations on the dual nature of time, and instead becomes a stage for articulating its repercussions. Concluding with the extended shot of the blind director alone on the ledge of a fire escape as a montage of heavily matted, vintage film stills supplants the frame, Kluge presents an indelible metaphor for the enduring role of film in an age of immateriality, the relativity of images, and the isolation of creative vision.

Posted by acquarello on Aug 21, 2007 | | Filed under 2007, Alexander Kluge

August 16, 2007

Intentions of Murder, 1964

intentions_murder.gifAnticipating Nagisa Oshima's Ceremony in its metaphoric representation of the dying of the samurai class through contaminated bloodlines, mystical connections, incestuous relationships, frailty, and impotence, Intentions of Murder bears the characteristic imprint of Shohei Imamura's recurring preoccupations: the sensuality and resilience of women, the manifestation of individualism in a codified society, the idiosyncrasies and primitive instinctuality that define human behavior. Opening to an establishing montage of a working class suburb that overlooks commuter railroad tracks, the double entendred image of a train rushing headlong into the foreground is reinforced in the subsequent image of a gaunt salaryman, Riichi Takahashi (Kô Nishimura), his elderly mother Tadae (Ranko Akagi) and his young son, Masaru, restlessly waiting at a train station - as a seemingly random bystander inconspicuously hovers nearby - for the arrival of his earthy, common law wife, Sadako (Masumi Harukawa) who is bringing a change of clothes for his business trip, only to discover that she has misunderstood his instructions and has only brought along a change of underwear. In hindsight, the introductory milieu proves to be a terse encapsulation of the strange dynamics at work in the Takahashi household - a purported "curse" (as alluded to by the servants in the Takahashis' ancestral home) that had been sown generations earlier by the family patriarch's abandonment of his mistress, Sadako's grandmother, following the birth (and appropriation) of their child who, in her profound despair, had taken her own life. Reluctant to register the lower classed Sadako, who once served as the family housemaid, as his legal wife, Riichi's parents had instead registered Masaru as their own child in an attempt to mask the boy's illegitimacy and ensure the succession of the Takahashi bloodline, leaving Sadako without a legal claim to her own son (but with all the domestic responsibilities for his upbringing). Returning home alone after Tadae takes custody of Masaru in Riichi's absence, Sadako is followed by the enigmatic bystander, a poor, washed up musician named Hiraoko (Shigeru Tsuyuguchi) whose nebulous intentions turn from robbing the simple-minded housewife to committing rape, seemingly driven by the mere sight of Sadako's bound, voluptuous form struggling to break free in the shadows. Consumed by thoughts of suicide as an honorable gesture to escape the moral stain of her violation, Sadako's morbid preoccupation soon gives way to a return to normalcy, as Masaru and Riichi return home, and Sadako begins to busy herself with repairing items that were broken during the struggle (and consequently, concealing the evidence of the committed crime). However, when Hiraoko unexpectedly returns declaring his undying love for Sadako, her desperation to maintain at all costs her unhappy marriage and menial status within the Takahashi clan propel her to concoct an ill conceived plan to permanently rid herself of her troublesome suitor.

Returning to animal imagery as a surrogate for human behavior that Imamura would incorporate in Pigs and Battleships and The Insect Woman, the recurring images of captive mice and silkworms in Intentions of Murder, nevertheless, prove to be more malleable. Ostensibly a representation of the robust Sadako's figurative social captivity as an undereducated, peasant woman in a male-dominated society (albeit one of sickly and financially insolvent men), the plight of Masaru's pet mice - the smaller one having apparently killed and consumed the larger one - may also be seen as a reflection of her overturned role in her relationships with the (Implicitly more powerful) people around her. Similarly, the re-appearance of a lone silkworm in the final sequence that recalls an earlier memory of a silkworm being crushed during an act of punishment illustrates both the realization of a stunted, childhood fixation, as well as Sadako's dramatic transformation in her return, full circle, to Riichi's ancestral home. In essence, even as Riichi and Hiraoko alternately use (violent) sexuality as a means of exerting control and domination over Sadako, it becomes an even more powerful weapon in the hands of the exploited heroine - a poetic role reversal that is incisively marked by chance events that would derail her own "intentions of murder", initially, in her fateful encounter with Hiraoko in a tunnel after their Tokyo-bound train is delayed by a snowstorm, and subsequently, in her indirect implication in a traffic accident that would bring an unexpected end to Riichi's infidelity. Framed against Sadako's continued efforts to correct the official family registry that would identify her as Masaru's biological mother, her struggle becomes a metaphor, not only to find a place within the margins of a patriarchal - and vestigially class-entrenched - society, but also for the validation of her own identity.

Posted by acquarello on Aug 16, 2007 | | Filed under 2007, Shohei Imamura

August 15, 2007

New York Film Festival 2007 Lineup

The press release for the NYFF line-up has been released. I'm a little disappointed that Nicolas Klotz's La Question humaine didn't make the cut, but I'm thrilled to see the new Jia on the slate (I didn't know there was one), along with Guerin, Reygadas, Rohmer, Lee, Saura, Ford, Tarr...

Opening Night:
The Darjeeling Limited, Wes Anderson, US, 2007; 91m, screening with Hotel Chevalier, Wes Anderson, US, 2007; 12m

Closing Night:
Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi & Vincent Paronnaud, France, 2007; 95m

No Country for Old Men, Joel and Ethan Coen, US, 2007; 122m

Blade Runner: The Definitive Cut, Ridley Scott, US, 1982/2007; 118m
Hamlet, Sven Gade & Heinz Schall, Germany, 1920-21; 110m (Piano accompaniment by Donald Sosin)
The Iron Horse, John Ford, US, 1924; 132m
Leave Her to Heaven, John M. Stahl, US, 1945; 110m
Underworld, Josef von Sternberg, US, 1927; 80m (Accompaniment by the Alloy Orchestra)

Special Event:
Fados, Carlos Saura, Spain/Portugal, 2007; 92m
The Other Side of the Mirror: Bob Dylan Live at the Newport Folk Festival, 1963-1965, Murray Lerner, US, 2007; 80m
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers: Runnin’ Down a Dream, Peter Bogdanovich, US, 2007; 238m

Joaquim Pedro de Andrade Retrospective

Feature Films:

4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days, Christian Mungiu, Romania, 2007; 113m
Actresses, Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi, France, 2007; 110m
Alexandra, Alexander Sokurov, Russia, 92m
The Axe in the Attic, Ed Pincus & Lucia Small, US, 2007; 110m
Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, Sidney Lumet, USA, 117m
Calle Santa Fe, Carmen Castillo, France, 2007; 163m
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Julian Schnabel, France/U.S., 2007; 112m
The Flight of the Red Balloon, Hou Hsiao-hsien, France, 2007; 113m
A Girl Cut In Two, Claude Chabrol, France, 2007; 115m
Go Go Tales, Abel Ferrara, Italy/US, 2007; 96m
I Just Didn’t Do It, Masayuki Suo, Japan, 2007; 143m
I’m Not There, Todd Haynes, US, 2007; 136m
In the City of Sylvia, José Luis Guerín, Spain/France, 2007; 90m
The Last Mistress, Catherine Breillat, France, 2007; 114m
The Man From London, Béla Tarr, Hungary/France/Germany, 2007; 132m
Margot at the Wedding, Noah Baumbach, US, 2007; 93m
Married Life, Ira Sachs, USA, 2007; 90m
Mr. Warmth, The Don Rickles Project, John Landis, US, 2007; 90m
The Orphanage, Juan Antonio Bayona, Spain, 100m
Paranoid Park, Gus Van Sant, US, 2007; 85m
Redacted, Brian DePalma, US, 2007; 90m
The Romance of Astrea and Celadon, Eric Rohmer, France, 2007; 109m
Secret Sunshine, Lee Chang-dong, Korea, 2007; 142m
Silent Light, Carlos Reygadas, Mexico, 2007; 142m
Useless, Jia Zhang-ke, Hong Kong, 2007; 80m

Posted by acquarello on Aug 15, 2007 | | Filed under 2007, Quick Notes

August 8, 2007

Sink or Swim, 1990

sink_swim.gifComposed of twenty-six distinctive chapters, each thematic, one word title representing a letter of the alphabet in reverse order, Sink or Swim is, in some ways, an autobiographical corollary to Su Friedrich's The Ties That Bind, a series of allusive, poetic, and insightful third person anecdotes that deconstruct the complicated relationship between a girl - now a young woman - and her estranged, emotionally distant father. Appropriately opening with the moment of creation in a chapter entitled Zygote, as archival laboratory film footage illustrating the fertilization of an ovum traces embryonic development (a scientific approach to physiological and biological phenomena that evoke the films of Jean Painlevé and Barbara Hammer), the image of growth and cultivation is replaced in the succeeding chapter, Y-Chromosome, by the seemingly abstract composition of disembodied hands setting free a dense clump of milkweed spores into the wind. In hindsight, this odd act of metaphoric emancipation serves as a reflection of the filmmaker's father, Paul Friedrich's disconnection and absence from her life as well - a double-edged gesture that represents, not a custodian placing faith in a child's journey towards maturity, independence, and sexual awakening, but a willful dissociation from the "ties that bind" a parent to his child.

By chronicling tell-tale incidents from their strained relationship through recurring, often complementary patterns that provide the abstract fragments of a candid and intensely honest autoportrait, Friedrich introduces the idea of human behavior as inherently hereditarian - a self-perpetuating cycle of trauma and dysfunction that has not only been instilled since birth, but also passed on from generation to generation through the emotional baggage of a tenacious collective consciousness (a persistence of long memory that is alluded in the early shot of a grazing elephant). Perhaps the most emblematic of this transference is the discovery of the father's commemorative poem that he had written on the occasion of the birth of his first-born daughter, a celebration of a new life that he would weigh against the loss of his younger sister from a childhood drowning - in essence, offering his newborn child at a figurative altar of memory to atone for his guilt over his sister's accidental death. (Note the father's self-absorption between lamentation and culpability that is also reflected in a subsequent poem that paradoxically expresses his grief in watching his daughter's growing distance from him, even as he single-handedly bears the responsibility for sending her packing for a premature return trip home during a Mexican vacation.) A similar duality of celebration and mourning is also revealed in the girl's eventual victory in a game of chess against her father - a triumph that would prove to be bittersweet when he decides to stop playing against her. Still another is suggested in the long-awaited introduction of a television set into the household after her parents' acrimonious divorce - an object that he had refused to purchase during their marriage (and who would, instead, send the children to a neighbor's house to watch such spectacles as Don Ameche's Flying Circus Show) - the images of intact, nuclear families represented by The Donna Reed Show and Father Knows Best serving as an ironic surrogate for their own rended family. But far from merely reflecting a child's rebellion over her absent father, the oppositional elements in Sink or Swim also reflect the institutionalization of this dichotomy within the complexities of a contemporary family structure (one that, in Friedrich's case, entails a succession of three wives and the addition of half-siblings) - a perpetuated conflict posed by the coexistence of bifurcated, unrealistic ideals that is mirrored in her father's kinship studies at the time of the divorce, as well as his research on Aphrodite (the goddess of love) and Demeter (the goddess of grain and fertility). Juxtaposed against alternating images of women as both mother and whore (as depicted through assorted ecclesiastic art and Ukiyo-e prints of the pleasure quarters), Friedrich exposes the inherent irreconcilability of these ideals - a mythologization that is reinforced in the film's final (and only multi-titled) chapter, Athena, Atalanta, Aphrodite - a reflection, not of god-like invincibility, but a father's inflicted destiny.

Posted by acquarello on Aug 08, 2007 | | Filed under 2007, Su Friedrich

August 4, 2007

Nordrand, 1999

nordrand.gifThe advent of the Balkan Wars following the collapse of the Soviet Union (and leading to the breakup of Yugoslavia) - and in particular, the engagement of NATO peacekeeping forces in Kosovo - forms the destabilized, uncertain backdrop for Barbara Albert's politically loaded Nordrand, a zeitgeist film on the changing face of Austrian society at the end of the twentieth century framed from the perspective of a pair of working class young women living on the outskirts of Vienna. Opening to the interweaving voices of children in prayer, among them, a girl named Tamara who wants to be a nurse when she grows up and Jasmin who wants to have a large family, the universality of their humble dreams is subverted by an early awkward encounter between Tamara, a shy, Serbian immigrant girl being humiliated, then summarily left out by the other children during play time, after passing a friendship note to Jasmin, the most popular girl in class. Their inability to come together as friends - an imposed distance that is implicitly reflected in Jasmin's seemingly privileged status as a cherubic, Germanic child - establishes the sense of alterity and exclusion that runs throughout the film, an image that is subsequently reflected in an ideologically divided family's argument over a loved one's involvement in the Kosovo War at a hospital where Tamara (Edita Malovcic), now a grown woman, works as a part-time nurse's aide. But even away from the sensationalism and scarred images of the local news, the corrosive effects of the war on Austrian society prove to be inescapable, as refugees and migrant workers from Eastern Europe converge on Vienna either in search of opportunity or as a gateway to other countries, and soldiers are called into service to reinforce border patrols and stem the influx of illegal immigrants fleeing the neighboring war torn region. Meanwhile, Jasmin's (Nina Proll) reputation for popularity has taken on a more insidious connotation, embarking on a series of reckless affairs (perhaps a promiscuity brought on by incest) with all too familiar endings of abuse and rejection. Rebuffed by her lovers after discovering that she is pregnant, Jasmin, still living at home, is left with few alternatives but to undergo an abortion, a decision that would unexpectedly reunite her with Tamara who, too, has arrived at the clinic to terminate a pregnancy against the wishes of her boyfriend, a border soldier on weekend leave named Roman (Michael Tanczos). Brought together by the unspoken trauma of their own hidden scars, the two women embark on a long overdue friendship that had eluded them in childhood.

Structured through intersecting episodes of chance encounters and parallel experiences (visually reinforced through recurring shots from a bustling train station and extended, interstitial musical seques), Nordrand provides the blueprint for Albert's subsequent (albeit, less cohesive) film, Free Radicals on coincidental interconnectedness. However, while the peripheral associations in Albert's latter film occasionally prove to be abstract, they serve as an integral representation of Austrian society's state of flux in Nordrand - an uncertainty that has been imposed both externally by the trauma of a virulent, neighboring war, and internally by the challenges of large scale assimilation. Juxtaposing images of a military (and implicitly nationalistic) parade with a targeted police identity check of a group of Eastern European workers waiting at a train station, the film poses the integral question on the essence of Austrian cultural identity at a time when an unprecedented influx of foreigners have raised the specter of Anschluss on a nation's moral character. Indeed, inasmuch as political pressure towards enacting tighter borders and stricter immigration policies reflected the public's growing anxiety with an interminable war, it is also a reflection of society's endemic xenophobia and propensity towards ethnic scapegoating - a bias that is revealed in Jasmin's flippant dismissal of Serbs during a radio news report on the war while hitching a ride with Roman and Tamara from the abortion clinic (in a seemingly dour episode that is hilariously turned on its ear when Roman changes the station and the trio begins to listen to Ace of Base's All That She Wants (Is Another Baby)). Far from portraying the seasonal "sameness" of human behavior, the film's elegance lies in Jasmin's subtle, yet profound transformation after Tamara (re)enters her life - a metamorphosis that illustrates the human capacity to retain one's identity even as it learns to accept (and even embrace) change. Concluding with a parallel montage that begins with an emotionally liberated Jasmin crossing a pedestrian overpass (in a shot that uncannily prefigures Hou Hsiao Hsien's bookend shots of the heroine, Vicky (Shu Qi) in Millennium Mambo), the images of people in transit becomes a metaphor, not of flight, but a redefined homecoming.

Posted by acquarello on Aug 04, 2007 | | Filed under 2007

July 25, 2007

Night and Fog in Japan, 1960

nightfog_japan.gifNamed after Alain Resnais' essay film on the abandoned landscapes of postwar Auschwitz that bear silent witness to the tragedy of the Holocaust, Night and Fog in Japan, Nagisa Oshima's fictional deconstruction of the left movement in the aftermath of the ratification of the second U.S.-Japan Security Treaty (Anpo) in 1960 is also a caustic and pointed cultural interrogation into personal and collective accountability that, as implied by Resnais' film, have been (consciously) obscured by the fog of guilt and memory. The marriage of two Zengakuren members sets the symbolic stage for Oshima's critical inquiry into the collective failure of the Japanese Left: former activist turned field reporter, Nozawa (Kenzo Kawarazaki), a member of the student movement during the collapsed opposition to the first Anpo treaty in 1950 who now covers the continued political struggle of a new generation of young radicals for the local newspaper (a gesture that he believes demonstrates his continued solidarity with the movement), and the younger Reiko (Miyuki Kuwano), a student protestor who had been injured during recent demonstrations opposing the treaty's extension. As in Oshima's subsequent film, The Ceremony, the empty performance of the traditional wedding ceremony becomes a reflection of dysfunctional, antiquated social rituals, cultural displacement, and impotence.

Implicit in Oshima's indictment is the entrenchment of American imperialism into contemporary Japanese culture - an inculcation that had been fostered during postwar occupation and continued to shape the country's process of political self-determination on its road towards international re-emergence - and with its exerted influence, the formation of a key ideological alliance, not only against socialism, but also towards enabling the U.S. government's policy of containment (particularly in Asia) during the early stages of the Cold War. Structured in a series of flashbacks as a pair of wedding crashers (and fellow Zengakuren members hiding from the police) confront the guests, some now prominent members of the Communist party, on their culpability over the nebulous circumstances surrounding the fates of two fellow activists - Nozawa's comrade, Takao (Sakonji Hiroshi), and Reiko's friend, Kitami (Ajioka Toru) - the film is also an examination into the factionalism, internal power struggles, and petty self-interests that sabotaged the left movement. Revisiting the botched imprisonment of a presumed spy from the group's student headquarters a decade earlier (an unproven allegation perpetuated by the group's authoritarian leader, Nakayama (Yoshizawa Takao) despite the membership's increasing, though unarticulated, skepticism) that lead to Takao's scapegoating, Oshima not only illustrates the personal (and implicitly selfish) issues that undermined the movement's effectiveness in promoting a collective agenda (most notably, in Nozawa and Nakayama's ongoing rivalry for the affections of fellow student activist Misako (Akiko Koyama)), but also exposes its underlying repressive, totalitarian culture that mirrored the heavy-handed government of Stalinist-era communism in the Soviet Union - a tendency towards paranoid suspicions and intolerance for dissent that contributed to its self-inflicted public disfavor and political marginalization. Similarly, the subsequent disappearance of Kitami from a hospital during a violent government crackdown on demonstrators protesting the 1960 Anpo treaty extension (a watershed incident for the radical left that also fatefully brought Nozawa and Reiko together) reveals the younger generation's increasing disenchantment with the inflexible, out-of-touch Zengakuren leadership that had resulted in the group's disorganization and irrelevance at a critical stage when the credibility (and sustainability) of the left movement in the shaping of the Japanese political landscape was at stake. By framing the group's moral dissolution within the context of embittered, unrequited love and consuming self-distractions, Oshima creates an incisive metaphor for the failure of the left movement as an ill-fated love affair - a displacement of unrealized desire and resigned acceptance of convenient, if compromised, ideals.

Posted by acquarello on Jul 25, 2007 | | Comments (3) | Filed under 2007, Nagisa Oshima

July 11, 2007

Tales of Little People, 1994-1999

The unreconciled ghosts of colonialism and its legacy of economic stagnation, currency devaluation, and underdevelopment among emerging contemporary African nations lies at the core of Djibril Diop Mambéty's whimsical, yet incisive (and sadly, unfinished) series of envisioned fables, Tales of Little People, that sought to illustrate - through accessible, culturally familiar folkloric imagery and traditional, tale-teller narrative - the endemic socioeconomic malaise that continues to plague the continent as it collectively struggles to emerge from its exploited history and remain viable in an age of effacing globalism. But far from the resigned lamentations of systematic exclusion and seemingly arbitrary, externally inflicted injustice at the hands of myopic, international economic superpowers, Mambéty sought to expose the underlying dysfunctional culture as a means of confronting - and inevitably breaking - the self-destructive behavior that enables (and continues to fuel) these entrenched mechanisms of corruption, exploitation, and crippling dependency. In the two completed tales, Le Franc (1994) and The Little Girl Who Sold The Sun (1999), Mambéty introduces the trenchant idea that the power of the imagination to raise post-colonial African consciousness does not exist in fanciful, but ultimately empty, idle dreams or wistfully dwelling over a lost - and stolen - noble past (a theme that is also articulated in Jean-Marie Téno's films, as well as Ousmane Sembene's Borom Sarret), but in a certain wide-eyed innocence and naïve determination that recovery and advancement are still possible with dedicated effort. It is within this contrasting framework of marginalization and perseverance that the protagonists of Le Franc and The Little Girl Who Sold The Sun may be seen as both symptomatic representations and character foils towards this overarching theme of indigenous self-empowerment: Marigo, the perennially daydreaming, able-bodied, bumbling loafer and sidelined street musician of Le Franc and Sili, the determined, young, disabled newspaper seller of The Little Girl Who Sold The Sun.

Le Franc, 1994

franc.gifSet against the French government's economically catastrophic devaluation of the CFA franc exchange rate in 1994 (from 0.02 to 0.01 French francs), Le Franc chronicles an impoverished, ne'er-do-well musician, Marigo's (Dieye Ma Dieye) impossible path towards financial recovery and independence. Unable to go out into the city and earn a meager income as a street performer when his landlady (Aminata Fall) impounds his beloved congoma after failing to pay his back rent (and who then proceeds to taunt him by playing the instrument in front of his house), Marigo resorts to spending his idle time watching life go by from a city sidewalk until he spots a fallen bank note near the lottery ticket stand of a mystical, dwarf peddler named Kus (Demba Bâ). Following Kus' advice to play his envisioned lucky numbers on the national lottery (whose theme is pointedly titled Devaluation), Marigo fastens the ticket behind a poster of his Robin Hood-styled folk hero, Yaadikoone for good luck - an impulsive act that soon threatens to invalidate his ticket when he is unable to hand over the item for verification at the lottery office. Concluding with the double-entendred image of a lone, raving, ecstatic Marigo on an isolated rock formation hovering between uninhibited euphoria and seeming madness, the film is as a wry and sardonic fairytale that implicitly reveals the entrenched cycle of self-defeating poverty, where the popular gravitation towards quick fix, delusive panaceas of instant wealth and easy money reflects both the inertia of a resigned acceptance to second-class status, and an endemic culture of victimization and sense of helplessness, where the very notion of economic (and moral) recovery rests in illusive - and implicitly external - ideals of reparation, charity, and arbitrary dispensation of divine justice (a wishful thinking that is embodied by Marigo's idolization of thief/benefactor, Yaadikoone).

The Little Girl Who Sold The Sun, 1999

vendeuse.gifInasmuch as Le Franc serves as a parable for a pervasive moral climate of disempowerment, Mambéty's subsequent installment for Tales of Little People, The Little Girl Who Sold The Sun is its poignant and sublime antithesis. The film centers on a young, illiterate, crippled girl named Sili (Lissa Balera) from a shantytown on the outskirts of Dakar who decides one day to abandon her blind grandmother's vocation of begging in the street and take up the physically demanding job of selling newspapers - a task usually undertaken by boys who can aggressively peddle them at busy intersections throughout the city (an early image of a dead kitten lying on the side of a road alludes to the harshness of life for these impoverished street children). Given an initial allotment of thirteen copies of the less popular, government newspaper, Le Soleil (a symbolic quantity and representation that alludes to the continent's struggle to emerge from a position of disadvantaged history), Sili's first day on the job proves to be auspicious when a well-to-do businessman, encouraged by her initiative and self-reliance, offers to buy out all her remaining copies, leaving her free to share her unexpected good fortune with her grandmother and a few neighboring friends for the afternoon, and even pleading for the case of a wrongfully accused woman who has been imprisoned without charges at a local police station. In time, Sili forges a thriving business with her refreshingly low-key sales approach, cultivating a growing clientele of customers who go out of their way to buy her newspaper. But as the competition becomes increasingly desperate and cutthroat, Sili's popularity soon places her in the crosshairs of rival peddlers who see her presence as a turf invasion and resolve to thwart her profitable enterprise by any means necessary. In juxtaposing Sili's well-earned success against her rivals' increasingly underhanded - and implicitly thuggish - territoriality, Mambéty presents an incisive metaphor for the cultural institution of lawlessness and corruption, enabling a tragic legacy of factionalism, civil wars, and government coups that have contributed to a climate of chronic destabilization. However, as the government's announcement of its decision to dissociate its currency from the French franc in Le Soleil suggests, the travails of post-colonial Africa are not solely rooted in cultural dysfunction, but are also an insidious (and perhaps inevitable) consequence of imperialism. It is through this seemingly anecdotal convergence with the government's symbolic declaration of independence that Sili's quest for financial independence becomes an integral metaphor for the plight of contemporary African nations in their own struggle for economic survival. Concluding with the parting image of a mistreated, but unbowed Sili emerging into the light, her defiant gesture not only represents an ennobled act of perseverance, but also offers a way forward from the chaos, despair, and sense of helplessness of inflicted marginalization.

Posted by acquarello on Jul 11, 2007 | | Comments (4) | Filed under 2007, Djibril Diop Mambéty

July 6, 2007

Strongman Ferdinand, 1976

strongman_ferdinand.gifSomething of a wry spiritual ancestor to Harun Farocki's 1990 found film montage, How to Live in the German Federal Republic on the pervasiveness of efficiency training and preparedness exercises in German society and their intrinsic reflection of a people's stunted growth, repressed conformity, and evasion of human experience in a climate of increasing economic competition and ever-refining (and consequently, more dehumanized) industrial production, Alexander Kluge's Strongman Ferdinand is a bracingly prescient, humorous, astute, and understated satire on the obsessive culture of rote rehearsals, role-playing, and fear-mongering as delusive reinforcement towards an (otherwise) insupportable effectiveness and self-justification under an ambiguous, and largely untenable, responsibility of upholding security. An early argument between the stocky, middle-aged detective (and quintessential Napoleonic figure) Ferdinand Rieche (Heinz Schubert) and a superior officer following the botched police pursuit of a burglary suspect reveals Rieche's underlying ideology in his obsessively inhabited role as security expert, insisting that the escaped suspect should have been apprehended prior to breaking into the house when the crime had not yet been committed - a pre-emptive that would have ensured, not only a successful arrest, but also the safety of the pursuing officers who, with their lax training and marginal shooting accuracy, were destined to miss their fleeing target. Falling out of favor with his superior officers for his constant insubordination, Rieche is relegated to a dead end desk job until an opportunity for a position as security expert opens up following the sacking of a security chief for an industrial corporation auspiciously called Deutsche Neuropa (an allusion to the emergence of a new Europe under Nazi-era Germany) in the aftermath of a worsening scandal involving his controversial deployment of snipers to subdue protestors, and his subsequent cavalier statements to the press on his instituted policies that has brought even more unwanted attention to the image-conscious multinational company. Having assumed the responsibility of chief security officer under a six month conditional employment, Rieche is eager to make a strong impression over his irreplaceable (and more importantly, immeasurable) value to his new employers - in particular, a skeptical executive, Wilutzki (Gert Günther Hoffmann) who was not consulted during the board's decision to recruit him - by seeking to dramatically (or at least palpably) transform the security operations of the industrial complex while restoring the legality of their enforcement and mitigating any potential scandal that could fall into the hands of the press (in one comical encounter, Rieche rejects an informant's complaint of sexual indiscretion between amorous co-workers by countering that his corroborating proof was verbal and not visual). Nevertheless, despite implementing a series of security and detection measures (including a lockdown of offline areas during non-working hours that traps a bemused cleaning lady in the utility room), reinforcing classroom theory (a return to the discipline of intelligence gathering that Rieche believes will prove useful during indeterminate interrogations), and conducting elaborate field maneuvers that begin to resemble battlefield combat and guerilla warfare, the industrial complex soon falls prey to a targeted, coordinated night-time bombing in an apparent - and ultimately unsolved - act of sabotage. Emboldened by his new corporate mandate to secure the plant and handle the media in such a way that the public does not begin to question the integrity of their products, Rieche embarks on an increasingly maniacal quest to ensure the security of the industrial complex by attempting to inhabit the mindset of the agitators whom he believes to be behind the attack (a predisposition towards blaming the left movement that is suggested in his earlier purchase of Marxist literature at a bookstore for research purposes), inevitably resorting to his own perpetrated acts of theft, intimidation, and sabotage under the expedient justification of enforcing security. At the heart of Kluge's penetrating and profoundly relevant exposition is Rieche's assumed - and largely inflated - role as the guardian (or more appropriately, exterminating angel) of Security, a self-anointed posture that conceals his incompetence, systematic abuse of power, and arrogant excesses under an inherently corrupt policy of strong-armed tactics, unchecked authority, and willful disregard of legal consequences. Framing Rieche's paradoxical, self-perpetuating act of terrorism as a sensationalist, cautionary statement on the perils of terrorism itself, Kluge presents a potent metaphor for the vicious circle of violence and exploitation, where the idealistic goal of a noble end no longer justifies the draconian means, but metastasizes into a grotesque inhumanity and corrupted, if amnesic consciousness.

Posted by acquarello on Jul 06, 2007 | | Filed under 2007, Alexander Kluge

July 2, 2007

Rose Lowder: Short Films (1982-1995)

Les Tournesols, 1982

tournesols.gifIn some ways, Rose Lowder's Les Tournesols, a kinetic, color-saturated, Vincent Van Gogh-esque structural film could just as easily have fit Jean-Luc Godard's description of "blind, trembling pans" as interior representations of the artist's psychological state (as Godard once described Alain Resnais' Van Gogh). Composed of frame by frame stationary shots of a lush field of sunflowers in full bloom near Bédarrides, Vaucluse where the focus of each successive image varies according to prescribed subject patterns - the fluttering of petals, the (sideways) bending of the wind, the cross-pollination of bees, the casting shadows by passing clouds - the apparent movement in the film results from the individual frame changes in the depth of field. Rather than simply capturing the diurnal, two-dimensional, to and fro motion of sunflowers swaying in the breeze, the focal modulation results in a momentary (single frame) displacement perpendicular to the plane of the film frame, causing the resulting image to appear to pulse. Expounding on the ideas presented in her first film, Roulement, Rouerie, Aubage, Lowder's trompe l'oeil "still life" composition is similarly rooted in the mechanism of the mind-eye's registration of images, where the placement of the frames of an image within the continuity of a film strip itself alters its apparent behavior. Creating an increasingly animated portrait of the verdant sunflower field as the natural movement of the sunflowers seemingly triggers a corresponding, proportional change in the camera's alternating focal length, the resulting image becomes a dynamic reflection of the subject itself in its rustic beauty and irresistible vibrancy.

Quiproquo, 1992

quiproquo.gifSet against the sound of an aggressive drumbeat, Quiproquo opens to the successive images of an errant, bobbing, plastic bottle floating towards the foreground, a man seemingly walking on water towards the left of the frame, and a duck floating backwards to the right of the frame against the powerful current of a body of water. The opening montage serves as a distilled metaphor for the divergence of nature, humanity, and technology in contemporary society. Incorporating structural techniques from her earlier films - most notably, in the repeated, subtly modulated landscape shot of a nuclear power plant that is bisected by a train (that recalls the shifting aesthetic imagery of Roulement, Rouerie, Aubage) and a cherry blossom-laden tree that, in its shimmering whiteness, appears incandescent (a visual created by the asequential, odd-even frames that Lowder studies in Impromptu) - Quiproquo is an abstract and freeform, yet cohesive rumination on the fragile intersection of industrialization and environment, where the coexistence of development and natural preservation create an essentially bifurcated landscape (note Lowder's bisection of the horizon that anticipates James Benning's Thirteen Lakes). Using stationary images that are subsequently animated through alternating shot frames, the manic collage of disparate ecological images and ever-shifting soundscapes becomes an integral representation of our own irreconcilable relationship with the environment.

Bouquets 1-10, 1994-1995

bouquets.gifBouquets 1-10 is Lowder's first collection in an ongoing series of one minute episodes, each composed of footage shot around a general geographic location that has been alternately woven, frame by frame, into a single film reel and connected through the interstitial still life image of a flower that cues the beginning of each integrated film Bouquet. In Bouquet 1, a day of leisure at Mount Ventoux, Vaucluse juxtaposes the vibrant image of indigenous flowers with the equally colorful bins of candy. In Bouquet 2 a seemingly uninterrupted study of flowers near the village of Brantes is eventually disrupted by the passing of cyclists in the last few moments of the film. Perhaps the most memorable is Bouquet 3, set in the village of Roquevaire, Var on the banks of the Huveaune River featuring a nondescript, old-fashioned pedestrian bridge that, interwoven with images of colorful wildflowers, optically transforms into impressionistic, Claude Monet-like compositions. In Bouquet 4 wildflowers and weather worn local handicrafts represent the slowly disappearing, rustic panorama of Beauduc, Camargue, Bouches-du-Rhône. Bouquet 5 illustrates the inevitable intersection between environment and technology as commuters figuratively share the same space as a field of poppies near the Marseille-Paris railway line. Work and leisure intersect in Bouquet 6 at a fishing harbor in Vesse, Bouches-du-Rhône, as boats are summarily abandoned in favor of a recreational swim in the idyllic blue waters. The image of water carries though to the therapeutic springs of Fosse Dionne in the medieval town of Tonnerre in Bouquet 7, where the wildflowers emerge from the interstices and abandoned ruins. In Bouquet 8 the absence of flowers on the beach at Beauduc, Bouches-du-Rhône is replaced by brightly colored sailboards that dart in and out of the horizon. The uneasy intersection between humanity and environment resurfaces in Bouquet 9 on the open fields near Signes, Var as assorted, discarded junk litter a field of buttercups. In Bouquet 10, the swarm of pollinating insects near the conclusion of the episode serves as a tongue-in-cheek metaphor for the influx of vacationing tourists on Lake Serre-Ponçon, Hautes-Alpes near a pastoral town on the mountain ranges of St. Apollinaire.

Posted by acquarello on Jul 02, 2007 | | Filed under 2007, Rose Lowder

June 27, 2007

Pedro Costa at the Smithsonian (Freer Gallery) in D.C.

Just a quick note to remind everyone that the Portuguese Cinema program at the Smithsonian's Freer Gallery concludes this weekend with A Weekend with Pedro Costa, which includes the screening of O Sangue and Colossal Youth, both followed by discussions with Costa and Cinema Scope editor, Mark Peranson. Admission is free.

Posted by acquarello on Jun 27, 2007 | | Comments (2) | Filed under 2007, Quick Notes

June 25, 2007

The Ties That Bind, 1985

ties_bind.gifIn an interview with Scott MacDonald for A Critical Cinema 2, Su Friedrich comments that the inspiration for her first feature film arose from the idea of her mother's seeming uprootedness despite having settled in the United States since after the war. This sentiment of an elusive home suffuses her mother, Lore Bucher Friedrich's candid, heartfelt, and thoughtful account on her early life in 1930s Germany as well - a traumatic experience that, in its fateful intersection with the collective shame of a terrible national history, could only be relegated to the silence of personal memory - as a young woman orphaned in part by the cumulative toll of persecution on her defiantly anti-Nazi family, as a civilian driven out of her late parents' house by insensitive American soldiers during the occupation, as a postwar immigrant starting over a new life in the United States, and as a wife and mother whose husband left the family after fifteen years of marriage:

"Before I made The Ties That Bind I had such bad feelings of being German; and my father is half-German too. I don't think I really trusted the material I had. When I was working on the film, I told myself to stop worrying, to stop thinking I shouldn't be doing it, to stop disbelieving her, to trust her. I figured if the film was a failure in the long run I wouldn't show it. At some point I just stopped carrying on about it. It was strange to suddenly be thinking of my mother in this respectful way, to really be admiring her for what she did, for surviving. I had never thought of her."

Introducing her mother through an idiosyncratic montage of arms, elbows, hands, and feet, the fragmented images serve as an oblique reflection of Friedrich's own process of re-framing her mother's life within the context of personal testimony rather than a representative collective history. As the youngest daughter of a German Catholic family in the town of Ulm whose family patriarch, from the onset, had distrusted the lofty promises of Adolf Hitler and refused to join the wave of popular support despite social (and financial) pressure, Lore recounts her ostracism from school as being only one of the three girls who was not a member of the BDM (League of German Girls branch of the Hitler Youth movement), her family's unexpected disinheritance from their father's will at the hands of a suspicious executor that prevented her from pursuing her university studies, her forced draft into a Dornstadt air facility at the age of 19 at a time when her mother was dying from incurable cancer (an involuntary service that she suspects was instigated by a former piano teacher's denunciation of her), her increasing awareness of resistance groups, such as the White Rose Group formed by siblings Sophie and Hans Scholl who were also from Ulm, her traumatic memory of the bombing of Stuttgart that killed 3/4 of the local population and left her shell-shocked and wandering aimlessly through the streets, her fateful encounter with American soldier Paul Friedrich who was working on the de-nazification program, and finally, her emigration and less than fairytale marriage that would end in divorce .

Eschewing the interview format by replacing oral questions and observations with scratch film, the prominence of her mother's lone voice ironically reflects Friedrich's own process of personalization, introducing a physical self-imprint - the figurative ties that bind - that connects her mother's life experience with the formation of her own identity. This imprinting of collective consciousness is suggested in an early intertitle commenting on her mother's odd aversion to fireworks that is subsequently reinforced, not only in Lore's recollection of the bombing of Stuttgart, but also the continuous bombardment that would mark the last day of the war. Juxtaposed against images of the filmmaker's own acts of protest and resistance against the military and nuclear proliferation, and in particular, the implementation of Ronald Reagan's capstone Star Wars program, Friedrich subverts the notion of a silenced history, and instead presents a multifaceted collage of a remarkable, humble life lived within the eternal recursions of an all too human history, where a return to the simple pleasures of swimming in the sea and playing the piano serve, not only as implicit acts of defiance, but also as a re-assertion of suppressed identity.

Posted by acquarello on Jun 25, 2007 | | Filed under 2007, Su Friedrich

June 13, 2007

Elsewhere, 2001

elsewhere.gifIn 2000, the final year of the twentieth century, Nikolaus Geyrhalter and his crew set out with a digital video camera to film twelve, self-contained ethnographic episodes, each encapsulating a month-long document of the lives of people who perform their quotidian rituals in a figurative "elsewhere" - distant cultures and remote geographies seemingly left untouched - or perhaps, more appropriately, left behind - by a ubiquitous, untenable West, unaffected by the media-cultivated sensationalism (and crass commercialism) surrounding the advent of the new millennium. Opening to Ekeschi, Ayr at the heart of the Sahara desert in Niger in January, the image of the parched, sun bathed landscape on what is traditionally winter season in the West incisively underscores this sense of alterity and exoticism that the film subsequently subverts in its quiet observation, absence of mediating narration, stationary frame, long take sequences, and first person direct address. Chronicling life among the nomadic Tuareg as a woman and her child retrieve water from a deeply dug well (with the aid of a donkey that must travel a span of nearly 300 meters before the pail of water surfaces from the opposite end of the rope), men herd their camels through the barren landscape, and a tribesman comments on the lure of the cities for the younger generation and his concerns over the ability of the land to continue to support their ancestral way of life under a climate of overpopulation and land development. But perhaps the most insightful portrait of the Tuareg is revealed in the mundane gesture of a traditional, extended handshake that contradicts the notion of a casual greeting implied by its Western counterpart, emphasizing the act of the tactile, interactive human contact that reinforces a sense of communal intimacy and solidarity.

The repercussions of overpopulation and uncontrolled growth subsequently resurfaces in the portrait of the Moso tribe, a matriarchal, ethnic minority community of farmers and ranchers living in the Yunnan province in China, as an extended family tends to their farm. Addressing a recurring comment by the Han Chinese (the majority tribe) towards the Moso tribe's resistance to marrying as a means of leaving the ancestral home and establishing a new household (and familial independence), a woman argues that the family's (and by extension, the tribe's) longevity is enabled by their clan's collective work ethic, a mutual consideration that regards the land as an ancestral stewardship to be passed on to future generations, and not as personal property to be divided (and subsequently, further subdivided) among heirs and future generations as inheritance (a process that inevitably leads to the fragmentation of the land into unusable plots for farming). The idiosyncrasies of tribal notions of inheritance and (dis)possession also unexpectedly surfaces during a discussion of polygamy by Himba tribespeople in Kaokoland, Namibia as the co-wives of a village elder (and regional administrative judge) recount their own stories of courtship and inclusion into the family (even as they express disapproval over the idea of their husband marrying a third co-wife), and the elder explains the traditional disbursement of property upon his death that not includes his designated heir's customary accession, but also the assumption of marriage for his wives.

However, beyond the exposure of social inequities intrinsic in patriarchal societies, perhaps the most salient and integral observation that emerges throughout the film is the overarching idea of the complex interaction - and often forcibly imposed imprint - of external forces on these eternal, yet gradually transforming landscapes. Although at times, a simple reflection of the inevitable forces of nature (as in a reindeer herder's discovery of the headless carcass of an errant reindeer that had been killed by a wolf in Samiland, Finland near the Norwegian border), the film becomes an increasingly incisive exposition into the indirect repercussions of man-made legacy on indigenous identity. On one side of the equation, the institution of "witch villages" by the West has contributed to the eradication of cannibalism among the Korowai people of Irian Jaya, Indonesia where, only a few generations earlier, those denounced as sorcerers were killed and ceremonially eaten by their accusers. Similarly, in Arnhem Land, Australia, a Western doctor conducts routine visits to the remote Aboriginal Reserve in order to tend to the sick and monitor the health of the local population, especially the children (note the sustained paradoxical sense of geographic remoteness that is subverted in the subsequent images of children playing European football and video games near the end of the segment). In Umla, Ladakh, India, the imprint transcends from the physical to the spiritual, as a Ladhaki rancher and sheepherder reflects on her life of grace and blessing, alternating her time between grazing the animals at higher mountain elevations and immersed in Buddhist prayer, even as she expresses her trepidation over the plight of the tribe's younger generations in an environment of systematic depopulation, limited opportunity, and increasing isolation from other countries (and in particular, their spiritual brethren in Tibet as China tightens its border controls).

The murky, often tenuous and uneasy intersection between the imposition of Western ideology and the integral symbiotic relationship between environmental responsibility and cultural survival first surfaces in an episode on Inuit sea hunters in Thule, Greenland who, while acknowledging the cruelty of the now-discontinued practice of hunting baby seals, believe that protests by high profile celebrities (in particular, Brigitte Bardot) and environmentalist groups have gone too far in their attacks on the tribe's ancestral vocation of whale and seal hunting and now threatens, not only their livelihood, but the very survival of their cultural identity. Conversely, the specter of man-made (often corporate-based) ecological irresponsibility looms inescapably over the few remaining Khanty herdsmen in the village of Kantek Ko Jawun in Siberia, Russia, as fish and wildlife have dwindled to the point of near extinction as a result of repeated oil spills and industrial pollution associated with the pipelines, even as the oil company attempts to improve its public relations image towards the local population by offering free helicopter rides for running errands into faraway towns. A similar ecological crisis looms in the village of Thárros in Sardinia, Italy as regional over-fishing is leading generational fishermen into taking riskier trips with their boats into ever deeper waters in search of "beautiful" fish like pagello, gilthead, and grouper that are in high demand by the restaurant industry, leading an elder fisherman to remark that "only poor people eat ugly fish." In New Aiyansh, British Columbia in Canada, the exuberance over the Nisga'a tribe's ceremonial dedication of a totem pole in the town square contrasts against a tribesman's frustration and anger at the government's empty, symbolic gesture of atonement in returning a parcel of desecrated tribal land that had been appropriated, exploited, and entirely deforested by industrial loggers. This insidious image of implicit domination and cultural imperialism under the feigned guise of goodwill is subsequently illustrated in the Red Cross' biennial Christmas package drops to the Falalap, Woleai Atoll in Micronesia, the film's final destination, where the tribe sifts though a collection of well-worn clothing and assorted trash in the hopes of finding something of practical use. It is through this interlocking, artificially imposed social framework of privilege and marginalization, inclusion and otherness, "civilized society" and elsewhere that a Rei Metau teacher's expressed fears on the devastating, secondary effects of melting polar ice caps on the low lying islands of Micronesia serve, not only as a provocative reminder of the earth's ecological interconnectedness, but also as a poignant and incisive expression of a forgotten people's sense of place in an increasingly alienating and myopic global environment - the residual imprint, not of the dawning of a new era, but its casted twilight.

Posted by acquarello on Jun 13, 2007 | | Filed under 2007, Nikolaus Geyrhalter

June 8, 2007

Yesterday Girl (Anita G.), 1966

yesterday_girl.gifIn his early short essay film, Brutality in Stone, Alexander Kluge channels the contemplative spirit of Alain Resnais' Night and Fog and Statues Also Die (co-authored by Chris Marker) to convey the idea of architectural memories, the traces of memory that subconsciously remain within the de-contextualized images of derelict structures and abandoned ruins, in this case, the decimated Nazi Party Rally Grounds in (then) present day Nuremberg. For Kluge, this evidence of a haunted, inerasable palimpsest of tragic, forgotten history is an unspoken reality that continues to shape Germany's unreconciled, postwar collective consciousness - a nation eager to put its turbulent and ignominious past behind and re-emerge internationally as an enlightened and formidable economic world power (enabled by an economic miracle that would lead to the implementation of a liberal guest worker program during the 1960-70s). It is within the resurfacing of these abandoned, yet apparent traces of a scarred history - this persistence of suppressed memory - that Kluge also frames his first feature film, Yesterday Girl, an acerbic, deliriously fractured, incisive, and darkly comic satire on a young German woman (and archetypal embodiment of the postwar generation), Anita G.'s (Alexandra Kluge) search for happiness, liberation, and independence in the illusive wake of a transformative national recovery (a parallel history of postwar reformation not unlike Japan's recovery). Indeed, the film's tersely written preface, "What separates us from yesterday is not a rift but a change in position" reinforces this sense of subconscious, recursive inevitability, as the heroine, the titular Anita G, is introduced through incisive, cross cut images: initially reading a piece of paper in subtly varying intonation, then subsequently, from a high angle-shot title sequence as she repeatedly assesses her vantage point before changing seats at a hotel bar lounge. From the juxtaposition of these fractured opening images, Kluge establishes the idea of postwar collective memory as an empty shell game that has been essentially formed from the simple, but implicitly deliberated modulation, displacement, and reconstitution of latent, prevailing cultural mores.

This sense of an ingrained, un-rehabilitated, and perhaps even defiant national psyche is also reinforced in Anita's appearance in court before a judge over a theft charge stemming from a colleague's appropriated cardigan sweater. Reviewing Anna's background as a German Jew from Leipzig, now in (the former) East Germany whose family business was confiscated by the Third Reich, then reinstated after the war, the judge is eager to exonerate the possibility that the "certain incidents of 1943-44" had contributed to Anita G.'s current charge - an association that she, herself, never implied - attempting instead to trivialize her relocation to West Germany as a simple search for opportunity that, like any other outsider (despite being born in a unified Germany before the war), is an attempt to exploit the country's bourgeoning economy. Challenging her sense of guilt for the offense by her curious behavior in not hiding the cardigan - an inaction that Anita admits stemmed from confusion over "prior events" that the judge, once again, is quick to erroneously suggest that she is attempting to evoke the tragedy of the Holocaust in order to gain sympathy from the court - the inquisition itself reveals the underlying hypocrisy of German society after the war, where people who served in positions of power during the Third Reich (obtained through party loyalty) were often restored to their bureaucratic appointments. This contradictory behavior that is, at once, an all-too-ready admission of (factually verified) historical culpability and a trivialization of the consequences of its legacy reflects a culturally pervasive attitude, a tenuous co-existence between half-hearted acknowledgement and adamant denial that is encapsulated by the judge's curt dismissal in continuing the line of inquiry that raises the specter of the human tragedy (one that he, himself, has introduced out of apparent habit): a pre-emptive declaration of its particular - and implicitly broader - irrelevance towards the resurgence of an inclusive, tolerant, and transformed "New Germany". Ironically, it is a metamorphosis that, nevertheless, perpetuates a climate of exclusion (East versus West), moral imprisonment (the evangelical probationary officer attempts to convert her to Christianity), and dispossession (the landlady's decision to evict her from the boarding house by impounding her suitcase). Inevitably, perhaps the key to Kluge's fragmented, yet lucid and penetrating social interrogation is revealed in a university professor's sterile and philosophically dense lecture on the relativity of the Greek concept of aischron and the opposing corollary ideas that the greater shame resides either for the one who commits the transgression, or the one who suffers from it - a delusive posture of righteousness that re-invents collective history through the perspective of defiant transgressors as the greater victims of their own willful, moral complicity.

Posted by acquarello on Jun 08, 2007 | | Comments (2) | Filed under 2007, Alexander Kluge

June 4, 2007

A Man Vanishes, 1967

man_vanishes.gifConverging towards Kobo Abe's experimental fiction in its fragmented examination of the strange phenomenon of johatsu - the unexplained (and presumably self-initiated) disappearances of otherwise seemingly responsible and professional salarymen in metropolitan Tokyo - as a broader social symptom of the anonymization and erasure of identity inherent in urbanization and rigid cultural conformity (most notably, in the novels Man Without a Map and The Face of Another that were later adapted to film by Hiroshi Teshigahara), and infused with Shohei Imamura's familiar penchant for human imperfection, awkwardness, and irrationality that infuses his films with a certain idiosyncratic messiness, A Man Vanishes is an ingeniously constructed and subversively intellectual, yet captivating and elegant rumination on the malleability, inexactness, and ephemeral nature of reality. Opening to the seemingly conventional aesthetic of a documentary film in its clinical images of institutional spaces and dry, impassive presentation of compiled data - in this case, a visit to police headquarters as an official provides the physical description and vital statistics of a missing plastics salesman named Tadashi Oshima who disappeared two years earlier during a routinely scheduled, payment collection business trip - the film explodes the creative myth of cinéma vérité as a direct, unadulterated means of capturing Truth in its essential (and integral) ambiguity and representational hybridity.

Ostensibly framed as an investigative film that seeks to put a human face to a curious phenomenon and solve the mystery of an everyman's disappearance, the film unfolds as a procedural, documenting the field research and interviews conducted by recurring Imamura actor turned investigative reporter, Shigeru Tsuyuguchi as he follows a trail of potential, often contradictory, and invariably dead-end information related to Oshima's case, accompanied by Oshima's enigmatic fiancée, Yoshie Hayakawa who, in turn, continues to be haunted by her lover's disappearance and shadows Shigeru in his search for truth (initially, in an attempt to bring about her own personal closure, then subsequently, in her own increasing attraction towards the genial actor). In an early episode, Oshima's supervisor suggests a possible motive for the disappearance by disclosing a suppressed company scandal involving Oshima's embezzlement of payment checks that is subsequently tempered by his financial restitution, as well as an accountant's realization that the still missing checks that had been collected on the day of his disappearance have remained undeposited. In another potential lead, the pair uncovers a salacious rumor over Oshima's failed love affair with a waitress named Kimiko that may have resulted in a pregnancy, a rumor that is subsequently refuted by Kimiko herself. Still another clue surfaces when a witness suggests that Oshima had discovered that Yoshie's sister, Sayo was leading a disreputable life as a former (and not too successful) geisha and kept mistress of a married man, creating an embarrassing situation that, as the son of a samurai family, had complicated his marriage plans - a theory that is seemingly reinforced by a shaman's divination of the sister's involvement in his disappearance (an assertion that, not surprisingly, contradicts her earlier reading that Oshima's troubles stem from an unresolved situation from within his own ancestral family).

Imamura presciently anticipates the blurring of bounds between truth and fiction of Abbas Kiarostami's cinema (most notably, in Close-up and Through the Olive Trees) and the recursive irresolvability of Nagisa Oshima's The Man Who Left His Will on Film through the film's amorphous, ever-shifting logical (and increasingly visible) construction - at times, part docufiction in the director's (played by Imamura himself) casting of professional actor, Shigeru as the interviewer for the documentary, and at other times, part metafilm in the participation of the missing man's real-life fiancée, Yoshie as both a character witness providing insight into Oshima's personal life in the days before his disappearance, and as an actress facilitating the staging and reenacting of events surrounding the film crew's search for answers in the aftermath of his disappearance. Moreover, in illustrating the role of the filmmaker in selecting the distilled, encapsulable images - what is filmed, edited, and reinforced - that innately represent the author's personal ideas of what is Truth, Imamura reinforces the theme of all filmed reality as intrinsically subjective and, therefore, consequently staged: transformed into spectacle by the subject's change in behavior resulting from an awareness of being filmed (a correlation that also surfaces in Harun Farocki's essay film on the Lumière brothers' Workers Leaving the Factory). It is this interpenetration between reality and the subjectivity of perception, individual will and performance of role, that defines the bold and irreverent spirit of Imamura's inventive and thoughtful exposition on the essential paradox of cinema: a medium that integrally conveys both the representation of real life and its projected imitation.

Posted by acquarello on Jun 04, 2007 | | Comments (2) | Filed under 2007, Shohei Imamura

June 3, 2007

Movable Type (Re)Installation Complete

Just a quick note to mention that the blog issues over the past week have finally been resolved (more on the back end side) after a clean re-installation/upgrade of Movable Type and re-initialization of the databases, so updates will be forthcoming...as soon as I can catch up on some sleep. :)

Posted by acquarello on Jun 03, 2007 | | Filed under 2007, Quick Notes

May 22, 2007

Diary, 1973-1983

pervlov_diary.gifA connecting thread that invariably weaves throughout documentary filmmaker David Perlov's organically unfolding, yet instinctively lucid, pensive, insightful, and intimately observed personal essay film, Diary is the recurrence of unconscious, naturally occurring patterns - at once, symmetric, convergent, and coincidental, but also paradoxically autonomous, singular, and bifurcated - that continue to resurface and permutate within the unexpected thematic trajectories, understated compositions, and evocative juxtapositions that integrally shape the film's sublime and enrapturing stream of consciousness. This sense of intrinsic, yet divergent (and inevitably recombinant) symmetry is foretold in the film's preface, an unattributed, seemingly quoted passage that cites the bureaucratic practice (perhaps in Perlov's native country of Brazil) of placing two X marks above the photographs of illiterate peasants, one to indicate a person's first name and another to denote the surname, that serve as default representations of their pseudo-signatures - visually identical glyphs that conceptually signify two separate names, but that, taken together, ascribe a single, unique (and implicitly marginalized) identity. In a sense, Perlov's epic, decade long chronicle of everyday events and mundane encounters also converges towards as a multivalent singularity that locates his own consciousness - at once intimate and anonymous - within the complex intersection of personal and collective histories, where diurnal life cycles of migration and homecoming, separation and reunion, death and renewal, connection and exile play out against a seemingly unchanged, yet ever transforming cross-cultural, transcontinental landscape.

In fact, the presence of complex, patternistic, bifurcated images pervade even the earliest of Perlov's shot footages from his (then) newly acquired camera in 1973, most notably, in the domestic images from the family's first apartment of his wife, Mira and their teenaged, twin daughters, Naomi and Yael who, despite the commonality of their shared birthday, are shown to assert their own separate identities even in the most banal of morning rituals, an individuality that will inevitably lead to artistic professions in unrelated disciplines (as the film begins, Naomi has recently abandoned her music studies in order to study dance, and subsequently, Yael develops an interest in her father's ongoing project and offers to edit the shot footage from his archived diaries) but that will, nevertheless, propel both daughters, as grown, independent women, to relocate to Paris after the conclusion of their symbolic rite of passage - their compulsory military service - in order to pursue their respective careers (in a subsequent chapter, Yael, now in her twenties, is shown assembling and editing archival footage for Claude Lanzmann's seminal documentary, Shoah, and Naomi is rehearsing choreography with students at a dance studio).

The duality of images is further reinforced in the early shot of an idyllic sunset along the cityscape of Perlov's adopted hometown of Kikar Malchei Yisrael on the seemingly auspicious eve of Yom Kippur - the day of atonement - on what would prove to be the calm before the advent of the Yom Kippur War. Staging his camera at several shot positions in order to find the ideal perspective from which to capture the solemnity of worshippers praying along the Wailing Wall on the fateful morning after the outbreak of war, Perlov's aesthetic preference for the frontality of images becomes a metaphor for his own quest to transform cinema, not as a medium for the illustration of ideas, but for the documentation of "faces" - a theme that is subsequently repeated in the sobering footage of people searching for information on the fates of their missing loved ones by scanning the backgrounds of photographic stills developed from news footage taken by war correspondents. In Perlov's film, the subject is not found in the foreground of the sensationalized pictures of the battlefield, but in the granular periphery of its anonymous, incidental images that reassert the human face into the collective consciousness of the toll of war - a humanization that is, in turn, reflected in the Israeli public's outrage over the subsequent massacre of Palestinian refugees in Sabra and Shatila by Christian Phalangists during the War in Lebanon, a tragedy that was indirectly enabled by the military's inaction.

It is interesting to note that in presenting the coincidental intersections between personal experience and contemporary history, Diary transcends the role of cultural testimony and instead becomes a complex autoportrait of Perlov as artist, intellectual, person of conscience. Filming encounters with such notable figures as the inimitable Klaus Kinski on the set of Entebbe: Operation Thunderbolt (from the low budget, action film production team of Ken Globus and Menahem Golan) and documentary filmmakers, Joris Ivens and Claude Lanzmann with equal consideration (and affection) as his lifelong friends from Brazil, especially a psychiatrist named Julio and his wife, Fela, a former singer dubbed "the nightingale from Montevideo" who visit the family several times in Tel Aviv during the course of the film (a visit that is invariably accompanied by the gift of records from their native country), and friends from his student days in Paris (including a poignant visit with a bed-ridden, terminally ill friend, Abrasza who reveals his intention to commit suicide when his condition becomes unbearable, and whose final act of despair is subsequently recounted by a witness during one of Perlov's return trips to the city). Perhaps the most indelible of these incidental convergences occurs in Fela's performance of a melancholic Brazilian folk song that implores painters of churches not to leave out the "angelitos negros" from their cathedral illustrations for they, too, are loved by God and reside in Heaven, a curiously worded and distinctive plea for social tolerance and equality that surprisingly resurfaces during Perlov's assignment to film a documentary on the near extinct language of Ladino, a Romance language that is rooted in both Castillian Spanish and Hebrew, where a participant in the documentary plays a soleá on the guitar that echoes the familiar passages and intrinsic sentiment of Angelitos Negros. It is these unexpected, fleeting instances of remarkable, seemingly fated coincidences - these integral, chance moments that reflect an acute awareness for an overarching universal design and interconnectedness - that inevitably captures the indefinable grace and quotidian poetry of Perlov's groundbreaking Diary: a dissolution of the bounds between author and subject, face and idea, where the ritual of filmmaking transforms into the essential ritual of life itself.

Posted by acquarello on May 22, 2007 | | Filed under 2007

May 16, 2007

Le Lit de la vierge, 1969

lit_vierge.gifThere is an understatedly crystalline moment in Le Lit de la vierge (The Virgin's Bed) when the scarlet woman, Marie Magdalène (Zouzou), having encountered the fragile and aimless Jesus (Pierre Clémenti) for the first time, cryptically explains that the men of the village pay for her company through the archaic currency of stones - and along the way, has amassed a collection that seemingly serves no other purpose than to have the potential having things to throw. The allusion to the casting of stones proves particularly incisive, not only within the loose, Biblical allegory of Philippe Garrel's reconfigured tale of a dislocated, modern-day prophet who crosses paths with (and shows compassion towards) an adulterous woman, but also within the contemporaneity of the widespread social unrest that had defined the political and moral climate of May 68 - a turbulent, yet profoundly transformative era when emboldened, young radicals like Garrel who saw film as an integral instrument of protest were galvanized into direct social action, hurling rocks (as well as more incendiary objects) at riot police during the infamous Night of the Barricades (a personal watershed that Garrel would also recreate in Regular Lovers).

Filmed in the smoldered ashes of the failed social revolution as Garrel and a community of young artists from Zanzibar film (a film collective of like minded, radicalized artists financed by heiress Sylvina Boissonnas) abandoned the emblematic barricades of domestic protest and retreated to Africa to transfigure their ideological disappointment into subsumed cultural action through the creation of an intrinsically personal, revolutionary cinema, Le Lit de la vierge is, in a sense, the reconstitution of a fevered, post-traumatic creative manifesto - an impassioned, reflexive apologia composed in the fog of a drug-fueled delirium that not only reflected a not yet resigned sentiment of implicit denial over the failure of the revolution, but also served to reinforce the counter-culture generation's delusive posture as alienated and discarded messianic ideologues who, nevertheless, continue to hold the keys to an ever-receding utopian paradise. In presenting an idiosyncratically distorted embodiment (or perhaps, resurrection) of fringe society through a sensitive, misunderstood, outcast savior plagued by self-doubt and dispirited by a pervasive sense of impotence against the weight of human suffering, Garrel illustrates, not only the profound loneliness and alienation caused by a singularity of vision (a recurring idealized representation of the May 68 generation as well-intentioned holy innocents that seeks kinship not only with the abstracted heroes of Carl Theodor Dreyer's cinema - most notably, The Passion of Joan of Arc and Ordet - but also posits their intrinsic state of immanence, as revealed through their allusive alter-ego's consuming empathy for the oppressed and the marginalized (an altruistic desire for connectedness that is reflected in Jesus' despair over the seemingly anachronistic sight of bohemians being harassed by authorities within the sanctity of their own commune-like cavern dwellings).

But more intriguingly, Garrel's fusion of iconic cultural history and allegorical social commentary also provides the prescient framework for what would become the inevitable mythologization of the events of May 68, where personal memory has been tinted by the idealized nostalgia of unrealized history, and irreparably altered by the intoxicated haze of (trans)formative years lived under the influence - creating an illusive (and delusive) romanticism borne of a need to reconcile a generation's spiritual desolation with a sense of irrecoverable enlightenment that has been obscured (if not extinguished) by its own reclusive, escapist, and self-destructive behavior. It is, therefore, perhaps not surprising that the seemingly irreverent, Freudian casting of Zouzou in the dual role of the Virgin Mary and Marie Magdalène alludes to a duality of human nature that filmmaker Jean Eustache would subsequently explore in The Mother and the Whore, a film that also chronicles a moral self-destruction in the aftermath of the failed revolution. It is this perverted romanticization of incorruptible idealism and integrality of vision that is inevitably captured in the film's final image of Jesus marching out to sea that, like the indelible image of the wide-eyed innocent child of Le Révélateur, becomes a symbolic act of willful resistance against the raging tide - a gesture, not of benevolent self-sacrifice, but a staged, empty spectacle of quixotic defiance.

Posted by acquarello on May 16, 2007 | | Comments (2) | Filed under 2007, Philippe Garrel

May 6, 2007

2007 NY Human Rights Watch International Film Festival Schedule


Just a short note to mention that the 2007 New York Human Rights Watch International Film Festival schedule has been posted at the HRW.org website, along with the film descriptions. The festival runs from June 14-28. On my short list of films to see are:

• The opening night film, Mon Colonel by veteran political filmmaker, Costa-Gavras,

• Marcel Schüpbach's Carla's List on the inner workings of the International Criminal Tribunal in The Hague,

• Katy Chevigny's Election Day whose previous collaborative documentary, Deadline was a highlight from HRWIFF 04,

• James Longley's Sari's Mother, the extracted "fourth vignette" from Iraq in Fragments,

• Jennifer Baichwal's Manufactured Landscapes,

• Chema Rodriguez's Railroad All-Stars, whose DVD in Spain I've been eyeing since it was released earlier this year,

• Steven Okazaki's White Light/Black Rain on the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Posted by acquarello on May 06, 2007 | | Filed under 2007, Quick Notes

April 4, 2007

The Ceremony, 1971

ceremony.gifIn its idiosyncratically alchemic fusion of bituminous humor, fractured narrative logic, bracing social interrogation, and sublimated depictions of perverted sexuality, The Ceremony is a provocative and excoriating satire on the amorphous nature of modern Japanese identity that could only have been forged in the wake of Nagisa Oshima's increasing disillusionment with the impotence of the left movement: a cultural inertia enabled by the fateful personal and historical intersection of the once radicalized postwar generation's inevitable maturation, indirection, and complacency - if not collective amnesia - over the nation's dramatic transformation, public rehabilitation, and international re-emergence as an economic (and consequently, political) world power. This sentiment of frustrated destiny and ambivalent sense of place in a rapidly altering, yet culturally entrenched social landscape is embodied in the somber, world-weary gaze of Masuo (Kenzo Kawarazaki), a Manchurian postwar repatriate (whose translated name, "Man from Manchuria", is a perpetual reminder of his alterity) and sole remaining legitimate heir to the powerful and highly influential Sakurada clan - a burden of responsibility that is reinforced in the family patriarch, Kazuomi's (Kei Sato) seemingly paradoxical advice to a young Masuo to lead two lives upon learning of his brother's death during the family's flight from the Russians in Manchuria. Unfolding as a series of flashbacks that trace the evolution of the family's dysfunctional relationships through the empty rituals of formal ceremonies - uncoincidentally, as Masuo and his beloved (if unrequited) "relative", Ritsuko (Atsuko Kaku) embark on another familial obligation that has been complicated by the arrival of a cryptic telegram from a mutual cousin and Masuo's romantic rival, Terumichi (Atsuo Nakamura) - the film is also a sobering allegory for the intrinsic corruption, social conformity, and incestuous politics that continue to exist beneath the country's seemingly profound transformation and inexhaustible economic miracle.

It is within this atmosphere of cultural rigidity, subjugation, and blind allegiance towards a collective good (in Masuo's case, the survival of the family lineage) that the nebulous parentage of the Sakurada's postwar generation (who may not only be Kazuomi's legitimate and illegitimate grandchildren, but his own children as well) - Masuo, Terumichi, Ritsuko, and Tadashi (Kiyoshi Tsuchiya) - may be seen as an allegory for perpetuated, outmoded social customs that seek, at all cost, to retain the veneer of civility through the sanctity of the ritual, even in the face of blatant hypocrisy, moral bankruptcy, and inhumanity. It is interesting to note that in repeating Kazuomi's ambiguous - and overtly incestuous - relationships with the women within the Sakurada household with Terumichi and Masuo's own attractions toward Ritsuko and her mother, Setsuko (Akiko Koyama) (and who, in turn, may also have been the erstwhile lover of Masuo's father), Oshima establishes an intrinsic parallel between Kazuomi's obsession for the integrity of ritual with the narcissism inherent in maintaining the integrity of the family bloodline. Framed within the context of the Sakurada family as a surrogate reflection of Japanese society, the correlation may also be seen as an indictment of the country's repressive cultural conformity, monoethnic sameness, and xenophobia.

Moreover, from the early juxtaposition of Masuo and his mother's repatriation from Manchuria (and subsequent aborted flight from the Sakurada household) with the first ceremony commemorating the death anniversary of Kazuomi and his wife's (Nobuko Otowa) only child, Masuo's father (who is later revealed to have committed suicide), Oshima establishes an integral connection between culture and death that not only reflects Japanese postwar sentiment (note the family's indignation over the prevalence of American occupation in Tokyo that echoes Shohei Imamura's acerbic satire, Pigs and Battleships), but more intriguingly, reinforces the idea of the societal role of the ceremony - the formality of gesture - as a self-perpetuating (and implicitly, self-inflicted) death ritual: a regressive (and terminal) cycle of deceptive, veiled appearances that is further reinforced in the film's oscillating narrative structure between haunted past and unreconciled present. Concluding with the recurrent image of Masuo ritualistically straining to hear his brother's subterranean cries, Masuo's desperate and impassioned, yet impotent gesture becomes a poignant metaphor for the moral inversion and suffocated humanity of delusive enlightenment and hollow restitution.

Posted by acquarello on Apr 04, 2007 | | Comments (2) | Filed under 2007, Nagisa Oshima

March 31, 2007

El cielo gira, 2004

cielo_gira.gifPart elegy on the dying of a rural village, part exposition on mortality and obsolescence, and part exaltation of quotidian grace, Mercedes Álvarez's El cielo gira (The Turning Sky) is a serene, contemplative, and indelible rumination on the permanence of landscape, the transitory nature of existence, the imprint of history, and the eternal cycle of natural transformation. An introductory sequence juxtaposing the depopulation of Álvarez's ancestral village in the bucolic, agrarian community of Aldealseñor in the province of Soria with metaphoric images of local artist, Pello Azketo at work on his latest painting in his studio, sets the crepuscular tone for the film, as Azketo, visibly suffering from the effects of a degenerative eye condition, stands within a few inches of the canvas in order to study the texture of his painted, turning sky - an intimate, observant gaze of a recreated memory that is, all too palpably, receding and ephemeral. This theme of captured imprint and transfiguration is reinforced in the establishing sequence of an elderly villager following the curious trail of thee-toed fossilized footprints on a series of rocks that lead to a sedimentary clearing once used as a playing field in her youth - the lateral outline of a small dinosaur frame creating a figurative prehistoric trail towards its inexorable death. A subsequent conversation between cemetery caretakers evolving from their experiences with unexpectedly unearthing ancestral bones while preparing a plot for burial, to suggesting a pragmatic idea to dig larger and deeper graves in order to adequately plan for the inevitable deaths of the aging villagers, evokes the preceding palimpsestic image of the fossil turned playground, and intrinsically connects the two seemingly disparate sequences into a unifying metaphor for silent extinction.

Nearby, a similar transfiguration of an eternal landscape is illustrated in the construction of a windmill farm along a hill and subsequently, in the large-scale renovation of an ancient Moor castle, long since abandoned (and whose last occupants' departure is only vaguely remembered by the elders of Aldealseñor), into a luxury hotel. Meanwhile, an archaeologist conducts a tour of the neighboring ancient ruins of Numancia, the site of the final Roman siege in 133 B.C. where the Celtiberians, facing certain defeat, resolved to take their own lives in a Masada-like mass suicide rather than be enslaved by the Roman invaders. Juxtaposed against the eternal, yet ever transforming desolate landscape, the death of an ancient community is chronicled, not only within the scholarly discipline of contextualizing excavated artifacts in an academic study of the history of civilization, but also within the intimate orality of the villagers' personal history and collective memory. Moreover, it is interesting to note that through an encounter between a pair of Moroccan natives - an immigrant shepherd and a professional athlete who has come to the rural area in order to focus on his marathon training - Álvarez not only underscores the impermanence of existence, but also subverts the (western) notion of territoriality and ownership of the land, as the long forgotten history of a Moor settlement on the region (as symbolized the derelict castle) is figuratively repeated in the re-emergence of the Moroccan settlers in the area, and implicitly alludes to the turned fortunes of the Roman invaders whose conquered lands were eventually occupied - then similarly relinquished - by the Moors in the recursive tide of history (an inconstancy that is also reflected in the humorous appearances of competing political parties - one bearing such inappropriate token gifts as balloons, candies, and condoms - in the tiny village to solicit votes). Returning to Azketo's studio as the now nearly blind artist prepares the canvas for what would perhaps be his final work, a pastoral - and increasingly impressionistic - landscape contoured by the ephemeral haze of failing eyesight and inexact memory, the painting becomes, not only a temporally frozen image of a village on the brink of extinction, but also an encapsulation of the film itself - a reverent and privileged glimpse of an obsolete existence on the cusp of invisible transcendence.

Posted by acquarello on Mar 31, 2007 | | Comments (4) | Filed under 2007

March 23, 2007

The Back of the World, 2000

back_world.gifComposed of three self-encapsulated, cross-cultural, slice-of-life, quotidian portraits that are intrinsically connected by the pervasive sentiment of marginalization - economic, political, ethnic, racial - Javier Corcuera's The Back of the World is an understatedly observed, indelible, and provocative examination of the inextricable social cycle of poverty, exploitation, disenfranchisement, and disposability. The first chapter, entitled The Child, opens to a bookending sequence of a young boy named Guinder quietly rising - even before the first light of dawn - from a bed that he shares with several siblings in his parents' cramped, ramshackle home to gather his adult-sized tools and set out along with several of his similar-aged friends, not for school, but for the local quarry in the impoverished rural village of Carabayllo on the mountainous outskirts overlooking Lima: an early morning ritual that, as Guinder subsequently explains, affords him additional time to work on the rocks and perhaps earn additional money for his family. It is a life that his parents do not wish for any of their children, but one that, nevertheless, has become an inescapable reality in a village struggling with chronic unemployment and limited opportunity. Yet beyond the inhumanity and desensitization of a childhood spent more on breaking rocks at the quarry than studying in an elementary school, Corcuera's compassionate gaze captures graceful moments of a paradise not yet completely lost: a makeshift soccer game where the children momentarily act out the dreams of becoming professional athletes, a band of children working in the city as vendors, car washers, and market stall assistants who have found solidarity from the dangerous streets by organization into a union for protection, a group of village women who pool their meager resources to provide economically prepared meals for all the quarry workers at a community kitchen, a traveling circus that allows the children to indulge in all its silliness and over-the-top sight gags and briefly forget the austerity of their environment.

Inasmuch as Guinder and the impoverished villagers seem eternally bound to the Sisyphean ritual of breaking rocks in the quarries of Carabayllo, the second chapter, The Word, reflects a moral captivity as ethnic Kurd, former mayor of Diyarbakir in the now fractured former nation of Kurdistan (that has since been regionally divided among Turkey, Syria, Iran, and Iraq), political dissident, and Turkish exile, Mehdi Zana sits in his empty apartment in Sweden and wistfully speaks of a beloved ancestral homeland that he can no longer return to (and politically, no longer exists), a wife (imprisoned parliamentarian and Sakharov Peace Prize winner, Leyla Zana) he cannot visit in captivity for fear of his own arrest, and university-aged children whom he can only visit a few times a year in France after being denied asylum by the government. Juxtaposing the tranquil, yet cold emptiness of Mehdi's life in his adopted country with archival photographs, newsreels, and panoramic shots of modern day Diyarbakir and Istanbul (most notably, in the longstanding protest vigils of the women dubbed as "Saturday Mothers" searching for information on their missing loved ones in Galatasaray Square) that reinforce the chaos and dichotomy, yet enduring beauty of the landscape and its long-suffering, persecuted people (a paradox that is reflected in a woman's comment on how the Tigris River, once a destination for lovers to meet, is now a place to look for bodies of missing loved ones), Corcuera illustrates the inhumanity borne, not of economic poverty, but of a spiritual one created by perpetual dislocation and exile.

On the surface, the concluding chapter, Life on the rituals of state execution in Texas may seem incongruous to the notion of innocent victims represented by Guindar and Mehdi. Told from the perspective of an aging, death row inmate, Thomas Miller-El (whose own conviction was subsequently determined by the Supreme Court to have been based on a skewed jury created by racially biased jury selection process) and Tomás Rangel, the father of a death row inmate who religiously travels from Mexico to Texas to meet with a support group for the families of death row inmates on announced days of execution in order to provide solidarity and publicly protest against capital punishment, Corcuera presents a potent inquiry, not into the attribution of guilt or innocence, but rather, on the nature of a state's often inequitable dispensation of punishment, where the process of imposing a rigid code of moral righteousness itself leaves its own tragic legacy of voiceless, anonymous, and innocent victims. Concluding with the parting image of a pensive Thomas gazing out through the reinforced mesh of a visiting booth that segues to a kite navigated by Guinder flying over the horizon, the metaphoric image becomes one of a return to innocence, a spiritual transcendence achieved through the restored humanity of compassion, mutual struggle, and ennobled perseverance.

Posted by acquarello on Mar 23, 2007 | | Filed under 2007

March 18, 2007

Subarnarekha, 1965

subarnarekha.gifRitwik Ghatak's films are deeply haunted by the specter of the Partition of Bengal in 1947, and this sense of dislocation and self-inflicted human tragedy created by artificially imposed social division casts a pervasive sentiment of despair, instability, and perpetual exile through all the rended families and uprooted ancestral communities of Subarnarekha. Opening to the chaotic image of a pair of young, displaced teachers, Haraprasad (Bijon Bhattacharya) and Ishwar (Abhi Bhattacharya) inaugurating a makeshift village school at a refugee colony that has been established on the grounds of landowner's estate, while a low caste woman, seeking alms nearby, is forcibly separated from her son, Abhiram (Sriman Tarun) when she is rounded up into a truck and summarily ethnically cleansed from the colony by the landowner's hired thugs under the guise of religious orthodoxy enforcing caste segregation, the turbulent - and ultimately irrevocable - separation between mother and child serves as a potent metaphor for the trauma of the Partition itself, as Bengal is torn apart by religious and social sectarianism in the aftermath of the country's independence from the British. Ghatak illustrates the integrality of history to the interconnected destinies of Ishwar's communal family, initially, through the collapsed hope for reunification embodied in the idealistic Haraprasad's coincidental lament upon reading the news of Mahatma Gandhi's death - "Hey Ram!" (Oh, God!) - the exclamation commonly believed to be Gandhi's own last words upon his assassination, and subsequently, in Ishwar's conversation with his college friend, Rambilas (Pitambar), a wealthy businessman who inherited a foundry from his late father, as Ishwar comments on his dramatic change in fortunes from privileged student to orphan and caretaker of his younger sister Sita (Indrani Chakrabarty) after only six intervening years by reinforcing the contextual timeframe as 1942 through 1948, a profoundly critical period (with particularly great consequences for Bengal) that marked the birth of the 'Quit India' movement (1942), the Bengal Famine (1943) directly caused by the escalation of the Pacific War (a man-made catastrophe that is poignantly realized in Satyajit Ray's Distant Thunder), national independence (1947), the Partition (1947), and the assassination of Gandhi (1948).

Similarly, the Subarnarekha River (translated as the "Golden Line" River because of its proximity to rich ore deposits) becomes an implicit reflection of the inescapable social (and economic) disparity and cultural marginalization that continues to afflict the displaced refugees of the Partition, as Ishwar, seeking to find a new home and a better life for his young sister, accepts Rambilas' offer to work at the foundry in exchange for a small wage and company-furnished housing on the other side of the eponymous river. Leaving the colony - and in essence, abandoning the dream of reunification - with Sita and Abhiram, for whom he had assumed guardianship until his mother is located, Ishwar invariably settles into a life of middle-class comfortability when he is subsequently promoted as manager and given a minority stake in the company. But Ishwar's financial stability also betrays a passivity to the profound changes occurring within his own home, an indifference that is reflected in Ishwar's filial criticisms over the melancholy expressed by a now grown Sita (Madhabi Mukherjee) through her sorrowful ballads, and university student Abhiram (Satindra Bhattacharya) through his unpublished manuscripts that reveal a deeply harbored (and overtly autobiographical) longing to reconnect with a lost mother and an adrift sense of place, as well as through their increasingly inescapable affection towards each other. It is this pervasive complacency (if not outright willful ignorance) that inevitably lies at the core of Ghatak's impassioned social criticism on the fateful dynamics that led to the culturally self-inflicted tragedy of the Partition - an inextricable pattern of self-interest, insensitivity, and political apathy from the Bengali middle-class that not only enabled ideological fanaticism and sectarianism to shape the landscape of a post-colonial Indian nation, but also rendered the very idea of home as a sentimental place on an elusive other side that, like the distant, opposing banks of the Subarnarekha River, symbolically represents an idealized, and intranscendible, elsewhere.

Posted by acquarello on Mar 18, 2007 | | Comments (18) | Filed under 2007

March 15, 2007

2007 NY African Film Festival Line-up


The 14th annual New York African Film Festival brings back two highlights from the 2005 NYAFF program: Cameroonian filmmaker Jean-Marie Téno's provocative and thoroughly fascinating exposition on the integral (and ignominious) relationship between Christian missionary work and the enabling of colonialism in The Colonial Misunderstanding, and Zimbabwean filmmaker and author, Tsitsi Dangarembga's eccentric fusion of modern dance and moral tale, Mother's Day.

I'm eagerly anticipating the short films program by Burkina Faso filmmaker, Fanta Régina Nacro, whose 2004 feature film, Night of the Truth (also screening in this series) is a harrowing indictment of the factionalism, endemic corruption, and fragile stability that continue to plague contemporary African nations. Additionally, I'm also looking forward to seeing Dangarembga's profile of two AIDS activists, Growing Stronger (in the Women of Zimbabwe program), Brahim Fritah's The Train (in the Young Rebels program) whose poetic essay film (which screened in last year's festival), The Woman Alone on exploited (former) domestic servant, Akosse Legba, humanized the anonymous face of modern slavery and human trafficking, Abderrahmane Sissako's Rostov-Luanda on the repercussions of the Cold War on the (protraction of the) Angolan civil war, Micah Schaffer's documentary, Death of Two Sons on the tragic, coincidental deaths within a year of each other of Amadou Diallo (at the hands of New York City police in 1999) and American Peace Corps volunteer, Jesse Thyne who lived with Diallo's family in Guinea, the late iconic actor, Ossie Davis' political satire, Kongi's Harvest, and Raquel Cepeda 's Bling: A Planet Rock, a satiric documentary on the pop culture of flashy diamonds and its role in fueling the ten year civil war in Sierra Leone. The festival runs from April 4-12, 2007:

Feature Films

Africans Unite (Stephanie Black, 2007)
Bling: A Planet Rock (Raquel Cepeda, 2007)
Clouds Over Conakry (Cheick Fantamady Camara, 2007)
Death of Two Sons (Micah Schaffer, 2006)
The Colonial Misunderstanding (Jean-Marie Téno, 2004)
Kongi's Harvest (Ossie Davis, 1970)
The Narrow Path (Tunde Kelani, 2005)
The Night of Truth (Fanta Régina Nacro, 2004)
Max and Mona (Teddy Mattera, 2004)
Movement (R)evolution Africa (Joan Frosch and Alla Kovgan, 2007)
Paris selon Moussa (Cheik Doukouré, 2003)
Rostov-Luanda (Abderrahmane Sissako, 1997)
Teranga Blues (Moussa Sene Absa, 2007)

Short Film Programs

Women in the Diaspora:
- Redefinition (Leslie To, 2006)
- Lyttelton in Kenya - Archival Newsreel, 1952
- Kenya Gains Independence - Archival Newsreel, 1963
- Via New York (Kagendo Murungi, 1995)

Ghana's Political Experiments:
- African Footsteps (John Akomfrah, 1995)
- CPP Welcome Freed Leader - Archival Newsreel, 1951
- Ghana Celebrates - Archival Newsreel, 1957
- Testament - John Akomfrah, 1988

Women of Zimbabwe:
- Governor Stands Firm - Archival Newsreel, 1965
- Spell My Name (Tawanda Gunda Mupengo, 2005)
- At the Water (Women Filmmakers of the Zimbabwe Production Skills Workshop, 2005)
- Growing Stronger (Tsitsi Dangarembga, 2005)
- Mother's Day (Tsitsi Dangarembga, 2004)

Young Rebels:
- Tanganyika Independence - Archival Newsreel, 1961
- The Train (Brahim Fritah, 2005)
- Mama Put (Seke Somolu, 2006)
- Meokgo & The Stick Fighter (Teboho Mahlatsi, 2006)

Fanta Régina Nacro:
- Un Certain Matin, 1991
- Puknini, 1995
- Konaté's Gift, 1998
- Bintou, 2000

Ethiopia: Then and Now:
- Ethiopian Campaign - Archival Newsreel, 1941
- The Father (Ermias Woldeamlak, 2000)
- Menged (Daniel Taye Workou, 2006)

Hope in the Time of Crisis (co-presented with Human Rights Watch):
- The Forgotten Man (Osvalde Lewat-Hallade, 2004)
- UK: London: Mr. Louw's Views on UN Congo Intervention - Archival Newsreel, 1960
- The Congo–What Now? - Archival Newsreel, 1961
- A Love During the War (Osvalde Lewat-Hallade, 2005)

Posted by acquarello on Mar 15, 2007 | | Filed under 2007, Quick Notes

March 13, 2007

The Holy Innocents, 1984

holy_innocents.gifEvoking the films of Carlos Saura in its allegorical portraits of culturally entrenched social and psychological landscapes (most notably, in The Hunt) coupled with Luis Buñuel's wry excoriation of the bourgeoisie, Mario Camus' The Holy Innocents presents a caustic and potent indictment of the inhumanity (and corruption) of privilege, class stratification, and marginalization. Adapted from the novel by Spanish author Miguel Delibes, the film traces the interweaving personal stories of a peasant family working in the rural province of Extremadura at the feudal estate overseen by Doña Pura (Ágata Lys) during the early 1960s, as Franco solidified his stronghold (or rather, stranglehold) over the country with the support of powerful administrators like Doña Pura who represented the incestuous relationship between the upper class and the Catholic church. The film opens to image of a soldier, Quirce (Juan Sachez), recently discharged from the military, writing a letter to his sister at an empty café in what would prove to be a procrastinated homecoming. A series of extended flashbacks filmed from the perspective of several family members provides the framework for the young man's reluctant journey home as Quirce, then a teenager, and his family - headed by his father Paco (Alfredo Landa), a dutiful gamekeeper, and his mother, Régula (Terele Pávez) - are uprooted from their home at the instigation of Doña Pura's heir, Don Pedro (Agustín González), who has decided to relocate them in order to tend to his remote country estate. It is a move that the couple eagerly embraces in the belief that the geographic change will afford their older children, Nieves (Belén Ballesteros) and Quirce better opportunities for a proper education (and consequently, escape the cycle of poverty) beyond the self-instruction grammar drill kits that the government has disseminated to every peasant household in the country in order to promote (superficial) widespread literacy - a hope that is soon dissipated when, upon their arrival, Don Pedro appoints Nieves to be his wife's housemaid, and the family learns that the seeming unexpected visit by Régula's aging, simple-minded brother Azarías (Francisco Rabal) has become a more permanent arrangement, having been unceremoniously let go by his employer after spending a lifetime under his service for vague grievances regarding his boorish, unsanitary manners and impetuous behavior following the illness of his trained, homing pet owl, Kite. Left with few responsibilities except to occasionally watch over the couple's severely disabled young daughter (Susana Sánchez) (an affliction that perhaps also alludes to the family's insubstantive nutrition and inadequate access to health services caused by their poverty), Azarías seems content with living out his remaining years as an eccentric, if innocuous nuisance around the estate grounds and training Quirce's present, a new pet bird to replace his beloved Kite, to home. But as the family settles into a familiar routine of Don Pedro's perennially unfolding domestic dramas and Señorito Iván's (Agustín González) capricious (and often callous) demands to maintain his competitiveness during game hunting season, the couple's hopes for a better life for their own children begins to dissipate in the reality of their demoralizing, subhuman existence. This sense of pervasive dehumanization is perhaps best illustrated in Señorito Iván's seemingly genial, yet intrinsically contemptuous and exploitive interactions with the all too obliging Paco that would ultimately have profound repercussions for the entire family - initially, in his orders to track the scent of an errant, shot bird (an acquired skill that he backhandedly praises as being superior to that of a hunting dog), and subsequently, in extolling the government's literacy campaign, subverting his empty proclamations of the country's unprecedented social equality achieved under fascism by parading the servants as common spectacles before his dinner guests and instructing them to write out their names in order to prove their literacy. Inevitably, what emerges from Camus' understated, yet incisive gaze is a profoundly sobering portrait of a silent (and silenced), resigned servitude and institutionalized, moral enslavement enabled by insular - and essentially arbitrary - privilege and systematic exclusion.

Posted by acquarello on Mar 13, 2007 | | Comments (2) | Filed under 2007

February 15, 2007

July, 1988

july.gifDarezhan Omirbaev's penchant for spare, elliptical narrative, muted figures, and disembodied framing (most notably, of hands and feet) have often been (favorably) compared to the rigorous aesthetic of Robert Bresson. However, in imposing such a somber - and inescapably cerebral - analogy, there is also a propensity to overlook the wry, self-effacing humor and irony of situation that pervade his films: a lyricism that equally captures the human comedy in all its contradictions and nobility from the margins of Soviet society. This sense of the quotidian as a continuum of human experience, elegantly rendered in Omirbaev's recent film, The Road through Amir's recurring daydream of a mother milking a cow and her intrusive child (who, in turn, looks remarkably like Amir's own son) in rural Kazakhstan (an image that subsequently proves to be a catalytic historical memory from his childhood when man landed on the moon), can also be seen from the outset of Omirbaev's cinema through his incorporation of a decidedly Buñuelian sequence in the short film, July of a young boy who, while on the lookout for guards near the foothills of a kolkhoz commissary, curiously finds himself wandering into a recital hall where the performance of a young pianist is punctuated by the appearance of a horseman on the stage. Part pastoral observation on the pervasiveness of underdevelopment and the austerity of life in the rural villages of Soviet-era collective farms (and in particular, at the outlying frontiers of the Soviet Central Asia), and part autofiction on a pair of restless boys whose penchant for escapist (mis)adventures reveal a nascent, if displaced, creative sensibility, July establishes the aesthetic framework that would come to define Omirbaev's cinema: the overture of first love depicted through seemingly innocent - yet deliberate - passing touches (the bus encounter in Kaïrat, the movie house flirtation in July); the frustration of isolation inherent in a rural childhood manifested through acts of mischief (the opening sequence of Kaïrat, the courtyard fight of Kardiogramma), the subconscious act of self-reflection illustrated through literal self-reflection through the reflected image of a rear view mirror (Marat's drive home from the hospital in Killer, Amir's extended road trip to visit his ailing mother in The Road). Inevitably, what proves to be the most remarkable - and irresistible - aspect of Omirbaev's deceptively simple coming of age film is its ability to capture the interpenetration between reality and fiction interpenetrate with such seemingly effortless, uninhibited intimacy - a wide eyed innocence that hovers in the ephemeral - ever teetering between solemnity and absurdity, boredom and roguishness, anxiety and imagination.

Posted by acquarello on Feb 15, 2007 | | Filed under 2007

February 10, 2007

The Last Mitterrand, 2005

last_mitterrand.gifIn an early episode in Robert Guédiguian's The Last Mitterrand (Le Promeneur du champ de Mars), the ailing president (Michel Bouquet) visits the royal catacombs of Saint Denis Basilica with his personally selected ghostwriter for his memoirs, a young writer named Antoine Moreau (Jalil Lespert), and regards the extraordinary realism of a sculpture, glistening from condensation, depicting the anguish of Catherine de Medici's convulsed body at the moment of death - a testament, he explains, to the unflinching aesthetic of a time during the Middle Ages when artists strove to capture both the mystery and anxiety of the process of death, the crystallizing moment of transis. In a sense, this indelible image of the body in a state of mortal transfiguration also serves as an incisive reflection of the president's own personal and public life. Approaching the end of his presidency and battling an incurable, aggressive cancer that has already begun to ravage his aging body, the still sharp-witted, gregarious, and charismatic statesman approaches his mortality with a self-possession and unshakeable conviction of his secured place in history, as well the profound culture impact that his death would have, not only in national politics, but also in the symbolic embodiment of an increasingly extinct French identity with the assimilation of a free (old) Europe under a common market, and the advent of the multi-pronged approach to modern warfare that has rendered irrelevant the old world-styled "gentlemen agreements" of international diplomacy. But in a long and distinguished political career that has weathered the humiliation of occupation, the devastation of world war, and the chaotic struggle of decolonization, his public service legacy is still haunted by the shadow of his early - and irreconcilably obfuscated - tenure in the German-installed Vichy government and in particular, the level of his implication in the notorious René Bousquet affair, the Vichy chief of police who carried out an anti-Semitic campaign that led to the mass deportation of French Jews during the early 1940s. Within this context, even the chronology of a photograph taken with Marshal Philippe Pétain, a Great War hero turned wartime Vichy head of state, misdated (perhaps intentionally) by one year during a passing comment by the president to Moreau during a working meeting (a murky timeframe that, uncoincidentally, spans Pétain's public image transformation from savior of France to Nazi collaborator), reflects the malleability of history: an error that may either reveal the fog of memory eroded by the ravages of time and illness, or a subconscious attempt to reconcile with transgressions of the past by a man acutely aware of his own mortality and culpability. Guédiguian's remarkable depth of cultural (and geographic) texturality and penchant for complex characterizations prove ideally suited for the film's nuanced, but illuminating portrait, not only of a dying man and public figure, but of the very embodiment of a national soul in the throes of its own transis - often willful, suppressed, and contradictory in its attempts to come to terms with an unreconciled collective memory, and foundering under an encroaching, realized fear of obsolescence and cultural marginalization in the wake of globalization at twilight of the millennium. It is this uncharted journey through the existential threshold between life and death that is inevitably captured in the film's allusive reference to the "walker of Martian fields" in its original, eccentric title, a paradoxically somber, yet whimsical evocation of the profound desolation - and disorientation - of existential passage.

Posted by acquarello on Feb 10, 2007 | | Comments (4) | Filed under 2007

February 4, 2007

Still Life, 2006

still_life.gifPerhaps what is most striking about Jia Zhang-ke's latest digital feature, Still Life, is its unexpected maturity, a marked evolution away from capturing the sad, eccentric tales of youthful indirection and cultural anachronism of contemporary Chinese life under an often contradictory, dual economy system that defined his earlier films towards a more somber - and classically humanist - portrait of anonymous, uprooted lives lived in the (un)certainty of state-sponsored phased extinction along the margins (and bowels) of China's profoundly transforming economic and physical landscape. Composed of two parallel stories of familial absence - a coal miner named Han San-ming searching for his estranged wife and teenage daughter (whom he has never seen) in a now submerged Sichuan village that had been demolished during the first phase of an ambitious, ongoing Three Gorges Dam project (envisioned by the late Chairman Mao Zedong), and a woman, Shen Hong (Zhao Tao) seeking contact with her husband, a politically connected civil servant who has been sent to the village of Fengjie by the government to oversee the demolition project and has not returned home in two years - the film is a serene, breathtaking, and elegantly realized, if seemingly aesthetically depersonalized, panoramic tale of displacement, exclusion, and marginalization. That is not to say the Jia's recurring themes of the breakdown of family, the paradox of alienation in the most populous country in the world (a generational phenomenon that Jia allusively attributes to the government's instituted one child policy during the 1970s in his magnum opus Platform), the profound social polarization caused by the ossification of the state economy (in favor of opening certain market sectors to free enterprise), and the erasure of cultural identity in the face of globalization have been omitted from the film's aesthetic vernacular. Rather, Jia's brash, idiosyncratic touches of everyday absurdity - so integral to his meticulous (and implicitly political) illustrations of the contradictions of contemporary Chinese life (and particularly reflective of the cultural and generational intimacy revealed in his quotidian observations) since the country's formidable emergence into the world market - have been narratively tempered and relegated to the anecdotal interstices of offhanded humor (most notably, in sequence featuring a rock band featuring the lackluster choreography of visibly out of place hip hop dancers, in the image of Chinese opera-costumed performers playing with portable video games as San-ming observes the inclement weather from a window, and in the whimsical image of derelict structure that transforms into a launched rocket) in favor of a more contemplative exposition on an amorphous and faceless human condition in the wake of traumatic, if seemingly inevitable (and socially necessary) process of modernization.

Jia's more allusive, poetic, and subtler approach to illustrating the social repercussions of the country's rapidly expanding economy is perhaps best exemplified by his use of consumerist-themed chapters such as "Cigarettes", "Tea", and "Toffee" throughout the film - conventional goods in an international free market trade and examples of global corporate branding (as in the case of the ubiquitous White Rabbit toffee candies) - as the characters' fragile, connective tissues that continue to bind the characters (through the tactile reinforcement of their consumed consumer staples) to their absent and estranged loved ones: the cardboard from the box of a now-defunct cigarette company, Mango, that contains the former address of San-Ming's wife that is now located at the bottom of the Three Gorges Dam, the box of tea that Shen Hong retrieves from her husband's abandoned locker, San-ming's polite offers of cigarettes to his newfound friends and colleagues at a boarding house populated by migrant workers, the White Rabbit toffee that San-Ming's wife offers him as he broaches the subject of the possibility of a future life together (a tender overture comically - and quintessentially - interrupted by the unexpected razing of a derelict building in the background). However, in exploring themes of estrangement, cultural disconnection, and forcible uprooting, Still Life diverges from the rough hewn cultural testaments of Jia's earlier films and converges towards the broader, artistic experience of diasporic cinema, particularly, towards Tsai Ming-liang's and (early) Hou Hsiao-hsien's expositions on spiritual displacement and pervasive sense of otherness. It is this departure towards the universality of a certain aesthetic convergence that ultimately tempers the gravity of the film's powerful and poignant observations of marginalized existence. Inevitably, what had made Jia's cinema so incomparable in its originality and cultural authenticity has, itself, become a reflection of the borrowed culture of globalization that he has incisively captured in all its dislocated idiosyncrasy: erasing the inimitable precision of an indigenous voice - and implicitly, its role as cultural witness to the trauma of China's rapid transformation - towards a certain anodyne resonance of an all-encompassing, cross-pollinated, human polyphony.

Posted by acquarello on Feb 04, 2007 | | Comments (7) | Filed under 2007

January 30, 2007

La Lunga Ombra, 2006

lungaombra.gifOn the surface, Jon Jost's austere, somber, and uncompromisingly caustic improvisational rumination on the pall cast by the aftermath of 9/11 on the European consciousness, La Lunga Ombra seems an uncharacteristic departure from the intractable consciousness of middle America that pervade his early films - a post tragedy portrait that converges more towards claustrophobic, Bergmanesque angst rather than the transformative, post-apocalyptic, loss of innocence grief that its conceptual framework would seem to suggest. Loosely structured around the lives and mundane gestures of a trio of close knit friends - a literary figure (Eliana Miglio) (whose agency appears to be in the process of publishing a photo-essay journal on the faces of colonial-era terrorism) and a television producer (Simonetta Gianfelici) who retreat to a remote, off-season seaside cabin in order to tend to a mutual friend, Anna's (Agnese Nano) emotional crisis and ensuing depression after being unexpectedly abandoned by her cruel (and perhaps abusive) husband - the film is also a provocative, broader exposition on the intangible, often corrosive collateral damage of psychological warfare and demoralization.

Intercutting the quotidian rituals of women in the stasis of their isolation (as they alternately attempt to console Anna by lending a sympathetic ear as she struggles to articulate her sense of loss, distracting her thoughts with idle conversation and whimsical parlor games, and encouraging her to reclaim her identity by returning to youthful pursuits) with textural and increasingly abstract archival footage from acts of terrorism, Jost reinforces an atmosphere of disjunction between characters and context that, in retrospect, perhaps reveals the underlying separation between action and consequence that pervades the film. A videotaped interview with a businessman recounting his experience while working in postwar Afghanistan alludes to this bifurcation when he describes his observation of the absence of everyday interaction between men and women in contemporary, post-Taliban Afghan society, a culturally enabled separation that leads to a certain level displaced intimacy not usually found in patriarchal cultures.

Conversely, the friends' hermetic retreat also becomes a form of artificial segregation - this time, from the community of men - where their interaction is relegated to the margins (represented only as distant photographs hanging from walls or leafed through in books (uncoincidentally, as symbols of warfare or violence), or existing in the periphery as fire wood vendors, technicians, or photographers). However, inasmuch as instinctual regression serves as a defense mechanism against inflicted wounds, it also exposes the myopia of victimization. In a sense, this defensive retreat towards isolation - and in particular, a self-imposed isolation in order to reinforce a sense of solidarity and foster moral support - not only illustrates the core of human nature's response to trauma, but also introduces the idea of the women's private turmoil as a microcosm of post 9/11 consciousness where grief, loss, fear, and confusion have invariably given way, not only to isolationism, self-righteousness, and intransigence, but more importantly, to a self-perpetuating moral contamination and spiritual inertia that continues to fester long after the crisis has subsided. Moreover, by incorporating granular and pixellated images from the World Trade Center attack that appear increasingly impressionistic and decontextualized (paradoxically creating an inverse proportionality between the distance to the image and its resolution), the juxtaposition becomes a potent metaphor for the abstraction inherent in the psychology of terrorism, where effectiveness is measured, not in conveying graphic realism or maximized casualty, but in the manipulation of public sentiment through the global domination of media images. It is this quest for sensationalism and media occupation that is ultimately encapsulated by the controversial inclusion of a gruesome and desensitizing ritual execution footage taken in postwar Iraq that concludes the film - a grim and sobering reminder of society's own implication in the creation of the spectacle, in the systematic corruption of its own soul.

Posted by acquarello on Jan 30, 2007 | | Filed under 2007, Jon Jost

January 26, 2007

2007 Rendez-vous with French Cinema Lineup at WRT


The line-up for this year's Rendez-vous with French Cinema at the Film Society of Lincoln Center's Walter Reade Theater has been finalized. I'm looking forward to several of these, especially Christophe Honoré's new film Dans Paris and the Edith Piaf biopic, La Vie en Rose. The program runs from February 28 to March 11.

La Vie en Rose / La Mome (Olivier Dahan, 2007) – Opening Night
The Valet (Francis Veber, 2006) – Closing Night

Ambitious (Catherine Corsini, 2006)
Blame it on Fidel (Julie Gavras, 2006)
Il sera une fois (Sandrine Veysset, 2007)
Don’t Worry, I'm Fine (Philippe Lioret, 2006)
Flanders (Bruno Dumont, 2006)
Prete-moi ta main (Eric Lartigau, 2006)
Dans Paris (Christophe Honoré, 2006)
The Man of My Life (Zabou Breitman, 2006)
Chacun sa nuit (Pascal Arnold & Jean-Marc Barr, 2006)
La tourneuse de pages (Denis Dercourt, 2006)
Quand j'etais chanteur (Xavier Giannoli, 2006)
Tell No One (Guillaume Canet, 2006)
The Untouchable (Benoît Jacquot, 2006)
Humbert Balsan: Rebel Producer (Anne Andreu, 2006) – Tribute Program

Posted by acquarello on Jan 26, 2007 | | Comments (4) | Filed under 2007, Quick Notes

January 23, 2007

Cravan vs. Cravan, 2002

cravan.gifIn Chris Marker and Yannick Bellon's Remembrance of Things to Come, a thoughtful and illuminating survey of Denis Bellon's photo-reportage between the two world wars, the filmmakers provide a framework for the interpretation of Bellon's artistically rendered, zeitgeist images as prescient, historical documents that, in hindsight, provide an insightful glimpse of the looming, profoundly transformative world events that would unfold at the first half of the twentieth century. However, in this subjective, often arbitrary process of contemporal assignment of the meaning of images, the intersection between logical deduction and extrapolation continues to be amorphous and untenable. In this cognitive processing of "history as prophesy", when does documentation end and mythification begin? This ambiguity lies at the core of Isaki Lacuesta's elegantly conceived essay film Cravan vs. Cravan on the enigma of Arthur Cravan - the legendary poet-boxer, Dadaist, writer, critic, eccentric, provocateur, editor of the notorious Left Bank cultural publication Maintenant (whose readership included such notable personalities as Ezra Pound, Maurice Ravel, Jean Cocteau, and Gertrude Stein), and nephew of famed Irish playwright and novelist Oscar Wilde who, in 1918, set alone on a boat off the coast of Mexico bound for Argentina to reunite with his expectant wife, poet Mina Loy, and disappeared.

Born Fabian Avenarius Lloyd in Lausanne, Switzerland, Cravan's early life would be marked, not only by the abandonment of his father soon after his birth, but also by the family's closely guarded silence over a quietly buried scandal involving the family's famous uncle (Wilde's imprisonment under homosexuality charges of gross indecency). Whether in search of a father figure, or simply fascinated by the sensation caused by the taboo circumstances that led to his uncle's downfall and marginalization during the final years of his life, Cravan would become obsessed with the idea of him, even reporting fabricated sightings and conversations in articles that would be carried by such reputable newspapers as The New York Times. But more importantly, this potent combination of celebrity and scandal may also be seen as a catalyst to Cravan's immersion in the avant-garde community of turn-of-the-century Paris, relishing his role as instigator, provocateur, and cultural critic who equally attracted the attention of Dadaists, Surrealists, Impressionists, Fauvists (most notably, his friendship with Kees Van Dongen), and especially the Futurists, whose aesthetic fascination with the speed and strength of mechanization not correlated favorably with the radicalism and bluntness of Cravan's writing, but in some ways, also personified the physical ideals of industrial machinery with his ruggedly handsome, charismatic, intimidating, and complex persona as a pugilist and intellectual.

Moreover, in filming re-enactments and conducting personal interviews from the perspective of Frank Nicotra whose own unusual career trajectory as boxer turned filmmaker and writer (and occasional poet) bears more than a passing resemblance to that of Cravan, Lacuesta illustrates the often colliding interpenetration of documented reality and subjective memory, between creation and fabrication. This permeability of historical record may be seen in the controversial classification of Cravan as a painter, an attribution that, ironically, evolved from Cravan's practice of publishing under an array of pseudonyms, specifically, in his use of the name Edouard Archinard for an article in Maintenant that links him (whether validly or not) to a series of paintings by an obscure, turn of the century artist, Edouard Archinard (a connection that is dismissed by Cravan scholar and editor, María Luisa Borrás). Similarly, this historical distortion may be seen in Cravan's self-created celebrity, a penchant for fictionalization that is perhaps best exemplified by his instigated exhibition match in Barcelona with heavyweight boxing champion, Jack "Galveston Giant" Johnson (who, then plagued in America by controversy over his interracial relationships, sought refuge in France shortly after his second marriage), claiming several nebulous and unverifiable titles across Europe (including a purported match with an Olympic champion in Greece) in order to position himself as a valid contender. Sustained in the ring for six rounds only by Johnson himself who had consciously tried to prolong the fight as requested by the event's sponsors, Cravan was easily overpowered by the heavyweight champion, a defeat that would inevitably punctuate Cravan's departure from Europe and migration to New York City, once again turning to his cultivated associations with the European avant-gardists - a community increasingly in self-imposed exile from the Great War - this time, hosted by famed artist Marcel Duchamp (that led to his fateful encounter with Futurist muse and poet, Mina Loy).

Incorporating elements of biographic documentary, historical re-enactment, and essay film, Cravan vs. Cravan, too, invariably serves to reinforce the subject's inexhaustible sense of irreconcilable contradiction and self re-invention, in essence, orchestrating an elaborate semblance of real-life performance art that enabled - and continues to inspire - the very transfiguration of personal memory to public mythology. Concluding with the blurry, disintegrating archived footage of Cravan in the midst of his workout - perhaps for a boxing match - unfolding in slow speed, the degraded image encapsulates not only the elusiveness of Cravan's ephemeral (and often veiled) persona, but also the tenuous, often indefinable bounds that exist between the contextualization of a historical image and its signification.

Posted by acquarello on Jan 23, 2007 | | Comments (2) | Filed under 2007, Isaki Lacuesta

January 18, 2007

Film Comment Selects: 2007 at WRT


The program for this year's Film Comment Selects has been posted at the Film Society of Lincoln Center site and it is a beaut. I'm planning to catch these (*) :

*Exterminating Angels (Jean-Claude Brisseau)
Black Book (Paul Verhoeven)
Bardo (Lin Tay-jou)
*Colossal Youth (Pedro Costa)
Exiled (Johnnie To)
*Ten Skies (James Benning)
*13 Lakes (James Benning)
Lights in the Dusk (Aki Kaurismäki)
*Longing (Valeska Grisebach)
*Play It as It Lays (Frank Perry)
*Retribution (Kiyoshi Kurosawa) - oddly, it's not listed in the program, but tickets are available for Sat. 2/17 at 8:15 pm, Sun. 2/18 at 4:30 pm, and Mon. 2/19 at 8:00 pm.
*Summer '04 (Stefan Krohmer)
*Summer Palace (Lou Ye)
*Tachigui: The Amazing Lives of the Fast Food Grifters (Mamoru Oshii)
*These Encounters of Theirs (Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet)
*Twilight’s Last Gleaming (Director's Cut) (Robert Aldrich)
The Wedding Director (Marco Bellocchio)
Yacoubian Building (Marwan Hamed)

Posted by acquarello on Jan 18, 2007 | | Filed under 2007, Quick Notes

January 17, 2007

The Suspended Step of the Stork, 1991

suspendedstep.gifThe first film of what would be loosely considered Theo Angelopoulos' Trilogy of Borders, The Suspended Step of the Stork opens to the tumultuous and disconnected stationary long shot of a helicopter hovering over an indistinguishable, formless, dark mass floating lifelessly in an undulating open sea that has been encircled by a small fleet of recovery boats. The voice of a journalist, Alexandre (Gregory Karr) provides a grim context to the disorienting sight, as a group of Asian stowaway asylum seekers, having been refused entry into the country by the government, chose instead to end their lives by jumping into the hostile, open waters rather than be returned to their native land. The provocative image of adriftness, alienation, and disposability, a recurring theme within Angelopoulos' cinema that is visually anticipated in two iconic sequences in his earlier films - the disembodied sculptural hand towed by helicopter from the sea in Landscape in the Mist, and the aging couple cast out into the sea on a raft in Voyage to Cythera - in turn, serves as a prefiguration of the statelessness, refugeeism, and dispossession created by the institution (and institutionalization) of man-made borders in the film.

On assignment at a military outpost near the Greek-Turkish border (perhaps a documentary on the growing refugee problem, or the inhuman economic and moral conditions of the marginal communities that have developed near the border as a result of the refugees' status in bureaucratic limbo as unwanted, non-legal residents in the country who, for humanitarian reasons, cannot be compelled to return home), Alexander's attention is soon diverted from the project after a chance encounter with an Albanian refugee selling potatoes from a produce market on the riverbank, a handsome and distinguished-looking man (Marcello Mastroianni) who bears a striking resemblance to a well-respected statesman, social philosopher, and author who, at the height of his political and creative popularity, abandoned his beautiful, devoted French wife (Jeanne Moreau), walked away from his cabinet position, and disappeared into complete obscurity. Convinced that the refugee is, indeed, the missing statesman, Alexandre seizes an opportunity to embark on what on the surface appears to be a sensational exposé of the man's strange plight and inscrutable transformation from national leader to marginalized figure, enlisting the aid of his abandoned wife who, despite having moved on with her life, still continues to harbor the wounds of his silence and self-imposed isolation during the final days of their marriage (a profound estrangement that loosely echoes their previous relationship in Michelangelo Antonioni's La Notte). However, as Alexandre continues to search for clues to the refugee's real identity, he becomes increasingly haunted with the underlying reasons that led to the statesman's disappearance itself, a personal quest that would be further intensified by his attraction to an enigmatic young woman (Dora Chrysikou) whose childhood sweetheart remains stranded on the other side of the border, separated by the Evros River.

In examining the psychology of fugue, rootlessness, and self-erasure, Angelopoulos transforms the themes of identity and collective memory into a broader exposition on the absurdity of factionalism, sectarianism, and ethnic cleansing that have not only enabled wide-scale depopulation, migration, and displacement, but more importantly, contributed to an accelerated, selective cultural extinction and disposability (most directly, in Angelopoulos' (then) observation of the protracted Balkan Wars following the break-up of the former Yugoslavia in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union). Juxtaposed against the recurring image of yellow-jacketed telephone technicians installing new service lines along the desolate frontier (figuratively bringing civilization closer, even in the most remote populations), the stranded refugees' plight presciently underscores the unwitting upshot of technology and globalism at the end of the twentieth century. It is this paradox of the information age that inevitably defines Alexandre's unreconciled search for identity and connection in a community of faceless, invisible witnesses of a silent (and silenced) history - a perversion of social ideals that has cultivated, not the intimacy of an egalitarian, interconnected global village, but rather, a culture of exclusion enabled by the creation of artificially constructed borders (a theme of interpenetrating real and metaphysical borders that is similarly woven through Claire Denis' film, L'Intrus), and that, in defining arbitrary bounds of privilege and entitlement, foments its own cultural genocide through systematic isolation, social stratification, marginalization, and xenophobia.

This entry is part of the month-long Contemplative Cinema blog-a-thon, hosted by Harry Tuttle at Unspoken Cinema. Please visit the site for a list of all participants and entries.

Posted by acquarello on Jan 17, 2007 | | Comments (6) | Filed under 2007

January 13, 2007

Le Pont des Arts, 2004

pontdesarts.gifRecalling Robert Bresson (in particular, Une Femme deuce) in its muted gesturality and Manoel de Oliveira in its saturated formalism, and infused with a dose of Raoul Ruiz's puckish, tongue-in-cheek cerebral humor, the prevailing theme of Le Pont des Arts is perhaps best defined by a conversation that occurs early in the film between a computer scientist, Manuel (Alexis Loret) and his girlfriend, Sarah (Natacha Régnier) on defining baroque as the coexistence of two contradictory entities, both of which are simultaneously true. Manuel is quick to admit that the conceptual dichotomy evades him, a juxtaposition that implies the synthesis of bifurcated realities, even as he acknowledges a certain philosophical beauty behind the idea of it. But for the fragile and increasingly insecure Sarah, a talented, young classically trained mezzo-soprano studying the nuances of baroque performance under the tutelage of a cruel and vain, but highly influential impresario named Guigui (Denis Podalydès) (and whose own grotesque affectation and mercurial temperament have earned him the nickname "the unnamable" by his protégés), the silence of Manuel's incomprehension only reinforces the intranscendable distance that separates them. Elsewhere, a similar gulf continues to deepen for another couple, Pascal (Adrien Michaux) an undermotivated graduate student who has grown increasingly uncertain over the desire to finish his prescribed thesis, and his ambitious girlfriend, a philosophy student Christine (Camille Carraz).

A understated, alternating point-of-view framing of a repeated near encounter between Pascal and a demoralized Sarah at a café (featuring another cameo appearance by Eugène Green as a bartender that the filmmaker first introduced in Toutes des nuits) provides a insightful glimpse of their interconnected destinies, an ephemeral kinship that is also reinforced in Pascal's affinity for Michelangelo Buonarroti's lesser known works of poetry that is paralleled in Sarah's receipt of a similar book of poems as a Christmas gift from Manuel. It is interesting to note that Green's illustration of the profound connection between Sarah and Pascal, alluded through the evocation of Michelangelo's "lost art", is also implicitly suggested in the placement of a Death in Venice soundtrack record album next to Sarah's recording of Monteverdi's Lamento della Ninfa during Pascal's transformative moment of crisis (Thomas Mann's novella contextually alludes to Michelangelo's apparent obsession with the young man, "David" - who is generally considered to have served as the model and muse for his eponymous statue - that is reinforced in the image of young Tadzio's iconic gesture against the seascape that is witnessed by Aschenbach). Moreover, in indirectly evoking Death in Venice - and, in particular, the image of an accomplished artist brought to self-destructive obsession over a desire for the unattainable (and elusive) - Green provides a framework, not only to introduce the idea of the liebestod (love and death), but also to illustrate the implicit moral corruption innate in leading a life of cerebrality and empty intellectualism (and more directly, abstract philosophy) without corporeality or creative instinctuality - a visceral intuitiveness towards the aesthetic beauty of a work of art without the arbitration (and obscurantism) of rote academic theory - a perversion of the Socratic method as a path of inquiry towards enlightenment represented by Guigui (a dysfunctional incarnation of a Socrates figure) in his exploitation of his obliging, young steward, Cédric (Jérémie Renier) that is similarly reflected in his colleague, Jean-Astolphe Méréville's (Olivier Gourmet) nefarious, in-house "auditions" of young men, often street hustlers, whom he "discovers" by cruising the evening streets of Paris. It is this transparency and directness between the heart and mind in attaining enlightened beauty - the ideal of reaching the sublime by breaking free from the laws of logical thought - that is ultimately encapsulated in the transcendent and rapturous encounter between the star-crossed lovers on the momentous Bridge of Arts: an Orphic transfiguration that exists beyond the metaphysical realities of time and space, a convergence towards the unfathomable infinity of the human soul.

Posted by acquarello on Jan 13, 2007 | | Filed under 2007, Eugène Green

January 8, 2007

La Doble Vida del Faquir (The Magicians), 2005

magicians.gifIn 1937, when Spain was in the midst of a devastating civil war between the Nationalists (led by Franco) and the Republican loyalists, an unlikely sanctuary from the austerity and violence came in the form of Sant Julià de Vilatorta, a charity boarding school for orphaned boys established at the turn of the century by a wealthy family who had, presumably (as postulated by a family heir), undertaken such an ambitious project as a result of their perceived obligation to the church after their religious conversion to Catholicism. That year, a wealthy businessman, cinephile, and amateur magician and filmmaker named Felip Sagués, having retreated to the rural village with his family to seek refuge from the violence of war, decided to make his own fiction film after having previously entertained the schoolboys with an eclectic assortment of Chaplin comedies and German expressionist cinema. Casting several students from the school as well as local girls from the village, Sagués would create a whimsical, if unremarkable Arabian adventure "homegrown film" called Imitating the Faquir. Now, nearly 70 years since the shooting of the film, filmmakers Elizabet Cabeza (whose own late father appears in a supporting role as band leader in the Sagués film) and Esteve Riambau assemble several surviving members of the cast for a reunion screening and interview on the grounds of the boarding school. Ostensibly a documentary on the experience of making Imitating the Faquir as "disenfranchised", naïve children during the turmoil and economic severity of the civil war, the referential double life of the title alludes, not only to the rediscovery of Sagués' amateur film by a new generation of young viewers (whose abstract conceptions of war and death seem so disconnected from the everyday reality faced by the children in the film), but also a deeper examination into social implications of filmmaking itself, not only in its archival role as civil war-era escapist cinema, but more importantly, in its contemporary role as facilitators - if not, re-enactors - of an invariably altered national history. Evoking Miklòs Gimes' Mutter in its probative re-evaluation of a country's collective history in the aftermath of a repressive, political landscape that engendered constant and systematic revisionism to suit current policy, The Magicians is an incisive and bracingly lucid exposition into the irreconcilable disjunctions between official history and individual testament - a penetrating reconstruction of historical authenticity through the discrete, often ephemeral fragments of personal memory and human experience.

Posted by acquarello on Jan 08, 2007 | | Filed under 2007

The Education of Fairies, 2006

education_fairies.gifPart whimsical fable and part affectionate human comedy, José Luis Cuerda's The Education of Fairies is a slight and effervescent, but charming and thoughtful demythification of a "happily ever after" romantic ideal. The opening transition from a graphically illustrated title sequence to a live action shot of a father recounting a bedtime story on the magical powers and elusive nature of fairies to his young son (an abstraction that he would later explain as the result of a fairy's amnesia before coming into her powers) - sets the bifurcated, yet oddly cohesive tone for the film, as the seemingly idyllic, fairytale portrait of the family - the doting father, loving wife, precocious child - proves to be the result of a mundane fusion of divine chance and human intervention from the resourceful imagination of the endearing and good natured toy inventor, Nicolás (Ricardo Darín). Two years earlier, having spotted the attractive, young widow, an ornithologist named Ingrid (Irène Jacob) traveling with her son Raúl (Víctor Valdivia), Nicolás had appropriated a reserved, chauffeur-driven private car from the airport in order to ingratiate himself into their company, an audacious and impulsive act that would eventually succeed in winning the affections of both mother and son. Settling into an inherited country estate for a life of domestic bliss with his new family, Nicolás' life is turned to upheaval when one day, Ingrid enigmatically asks that he sleep in another room under the ruse of being kept awake by his distractive snoring, a request that soon becomes a palpable harbinger to his realized fear of her increasing estrangement from him. With his "natural" father and mother withdrawing further into the silent grief of their self-imposed separation, young Raúl decides to invoke his own fairy in the form of a troubled supermarket checkout clerk named Sezar (Bebe) in order to educate her into developing her powers and, consequently, reconcile his parents. Based on the contemporary novel by French author, Didier Van Cauwelaert, the film's pervasive eccentric humor and compassionate treatment of its characters provide an incisive framework for Cuerda's seamless exposition on the bounds of fairytale, enduring love, and the transformative power of the imagination.

Posted by acquarello on Jan 08, 2007 | | Filed under 2007

January 2, 2007

Le Révélateur, 1968

revelateur.gifOne of the experimental works created from the cadre of radical, emerging artists financed under the rubric of Zanzibar films that captured the spirit of May 68 and the counter culture revolution, Philippe Garrel's silent film Le Révélateur is a fractured and elliptical, but instinctive, elemental, and haunting rumination on the process of awakening, maturation, psychological trauma, and transformation of childhood memory. As the film begins, the révélateur - the processor of the images - is embodied through the isolated, spotlighted shot of a young boy (Stanislas Robiolles) in the corner of the frame, looking on as his father (Laurent Terzieff), apparently unaware of his presence in the room, struggles to connect with his abstracted mother (Bernadette Lafont) in an act of implied intimacy through the (iconic) sharing of a cigarette before fading into the proverbial background through a doorway suffused in a halo of light. But despite the physical act of transitory connection, what is ultimately retained in the child's camera/eye is not the residual image of tenderness and affection, but rather, a pattern of codependency, manipulation, madness, isolation, and perhaps even violence - an estrangement that is prefigured in the Freudian, reverse pietà image of the child emerging from a long, dark passageway towards his kneeling mother held in (apparently) resigned captivity tied to a cross at the end of the tunnel - a sense of pervasive emotional alienation and moral bondage that is further reinforced by the austerity and desolation of a seemingly godless, post-apocalyptic landscape. Pursued by an unseen, anonymous, but ubiquitous enemy (perhaps an allusion to the faceless nature of the embedded, guerrilla warfare tactics of the Vietnam War), the young family is compelled to leave the comfort of their dysfunctional home life and embark on an interminable journey to nowhere. Reduced to a life of perpetual exile and transience, the child begins to rebel, a defiance of parental control that is manifested in an act of literal repellance through his directed, repeated triggering of an aerosol can (in an elegantly composed, superimposed traveling shot) that further underscores his willful, symbolic act of distanciation from his parents. Reinforced by the subsequent shot of his parents posed as seeming trophy heads displayed on the corners of his headboard, the macabre image serves, not only to illustrate their role as trophic figures that he is weaning away from, but also represent their figurative impotence in his inevitable process of autonomy and independence. Concluding with the child donning his makeshift armor as he heads towards the sea, the image evokes a more primal Antoine Doinel (the adolescent alterego of François Truffaut's The 400 Blows) facing an alien and inalterable horizon - a silent and quixotic defiance against the oppressive and implacable forces of a cruel and inhuman human nature.

Posted by acquarello on Jan 02, 2007 | | Comments (3) | Filed under 2007, Philippe Garrel