Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Irma Vep

Maggie Cheung is Irma Vep. Maggie Cheung is Irma Vep. Playing herself as an actress starring in an ill-fated remake of Georges Feuillade's classic silent serial Les Vampires, Cheung is synonymous with Olivier Assayas' clever, relentlessly meta film. Assayas' Irma Vep is a sly satire of the film industry, and an attempt to figure out the place of French cinema in a world in which the classic French cinema, from Feuillade to the New Wave and beyond, seems on the verge of being forgotten or rendered irrelevant. Assayas' film is very conscious of its cinematic lineage. Why else cast New Wave icon Jean-Pierre Léaud as struggling, aging director René Vidal? Vidal is himself a former icon, a legend even, who has become hopelessly out of touch, unsure of his art. He is remaking a very famous film, and knows it, and maybe isn't quite sure why he's doing it. He is the film's representative of a film industry that's growing old and growing young at the same time: while there is precious little room left for Vidal's arty kind of cinema, or for the old-school politically engaged work that once defined French art and cinema, a new generation has embraced a populist cinema of violence and action, and is frankly suspicious of any film that doesn't cater to mass audiences. A journalist, interviewing Cheung, tells her that Vidal is washed up, that Jean-Claude van Damme is where it's at, Schwarzenegger is where it's at: movies that audiences love, movies full of violence. And movies that this same journalist excitedly justifies as being full of poetry and "ballet" and choreography.

This is, not coincidentally, the same rationale that Vidal uses to explain to Maggie why he hired her. He saw her in a Chinese action movie, he says, and admired her "grace." She simply laughs, and quietly murmurs, almost embarrassed, that all the stunts were done by someone else; the clip that Assayas collages in at this point, looking cheap and tawdry from a blurry VHS, makes a mockery of Vidal's desperate search for "grace" in artistically bankrupt commercial ploys. Cheung fares much better. Because although Maggie Cheung is Irma Vep here, she's also Maggie Cheung, and always remains herself in the midst of all this movie-making chaos. It's very important to Assayas' film that Cheung is playing herself, is playing Maggie every bit as much as she is in the short film, Man Yuk, that Assayas made as a silent, expressionistic portrait of his actress and muse. Cheung is at the core of Irma Vep, looking bemused and somewhat non-plussed by all the pretensions, pettiness, and bitchiness that goes on during the making of a movie. She is in many ways Assayas' stand-in here, a quiet observer who's entirely foreign to this world: she speaks no French and is thus always standing to the side, watching these conversations without really understanding what's going on. Assayas keeps reminding us of this by having someone in the scene occasionally translate into English for Cheung, giving her fragments of information, always biased by the speaker's perspective and personal grudges. As an outsider, Maggie is free to observe from a distance, to stay above the fray, to simply accept her role — as fetish object in black rubber, as foreign exotic — in this weird production.

Indeed, Cheung — the character, not the actress, to the extent that there's a separation — begins to inhabit her role even when she's not filming. In one of the film's most stunning sequences, Maggie returns to her hotel room, jitters around to a massive fuzzy burst of Sonic Youth, then ventures out into the hotel in her skintight black rubber costume. She's become Irma, the vampire, the ghostly thief slinking through the corridors. She sneaks into another woman's room, spying on her as she lies in bed naked, yelling at her boyfriend over the phone, and then Maggie spies a pile of jewels and is seized by the desire to take them. It's all bathed in a glowing blue light, with the unreal sparkle of the jewels calling to Maggie/Irma, demanding her attention. Afterwards, she runs to the hotel's roof in the rain, the lights reflecting off the sleek curves of her suit, her hair getting all slick and wet, clinging in strands around her face, hovering like a vampire above the rain-shiny streets of Paris. It's gorgeous, the kind of sensual moment around which Assayas' film is built.

It's telling that Assayas has made a film about movie-making in which he privileges a sense of reality, of the moments that happen when the camera isn't rolling. There's a great sequence where the costume designer Zoé (Nathalie Richard), who's infatuated with Maggie, takes the actress to a party hosted by Mireille (Bulle Ogier). Assayas' camera weaves through the apartment's rooms in endless handheld takes, following conversations that drift in and out, as the layered soundtrack captures the cacophony of multiple threads going on at once. It's fun and funny as hell, particularly Zoé's conversation with the gossipy, matchmaking Mireille about Maggie, or the dance sequence where a group of girls put on Luna's cover of the Serge Gainsbourg/Brigitte Bardot tune "Bonnie and Clyde," another nod to the history of French culture, and its habit of appropriating cultural tropes from elsewhere. Just as the New Wave and its aftermath appropriated America's obsession with gangsters and crime flicks, Vidal is appropriating Chinese kung fu pictures to provide a different perspective on a distinctively French forebear — and Assayas, too, is appropriating from his actress, who is used here like a sample, an icon of foreignness and exoticism.

There is magic in this film, cinematic magic of the kind that only shows up in films made for "intellectuals," the word that the film's journalist uses so derisively, as a marker of elitism and anti-populism. There's magic in the film's celebration of its lead actress, who is radiant and exciting and who drifts through the film with poise and strength, even adrift as she is in a strange culture. There is magic, especially, in the final sequence, in which Vidal's unfinished film is screened and it is revealed that he was apparently not making the boringly faithful remake that everyone assumed he was making. Instead, his fragmentary assemblage (and Assayas') is a dazzling, avant-garde collage in which Cheung slinks through a barrage of slashes, designs and white noise, scratches that trace her form or the directionality of her intense gaze, creating a cinema of bare essences in which shapes, impressions, movements are everything. It's a jaw-dropping sequence that respects the past, not absolutely, but as a foundation for the experiments and playful reconstructions of the present. That's the spirit in which Assayas' film is made, as well, riffing on the history of French cinema as he laments what's been lost and celebrates the enduring possibility of a cinema that really matters, that's really in touch with people, with emotions, with visual beauty.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Blissfully Yours

For his second feature, Blissfully Yours, Apichatpong Weerasethakul crafted a delicate, impressionistic depiction of a lazy summer afternoon shared between Min (Min Oo), a Burmese who has illegally crossed the border into Thailand looking for work, his girlfriend Roong (Kanokporn Tongaram), and Orn (Jenjira Jansuda), an older woman who Roong has hired to help Min. The film is decompressed to an extreme degree: virtually nothing actually happens in its two hour duration, as routine tasks and long moments of stasis are captured and mined for their emotional and sensual nuances. In the lengthy opening scene, which starts the film without any credits or lead-in, Roong and Orn have taken Min to a doctor to treat his skin condition, and they simply argue in a low-key way with the doctor about what's wrong with him and what he needs. Min stays silent; much later, it will become apparent that Min is pretending to be mute so he won't reveal his foreign dialect, while Orn is trying to trick the doctor into giving Min the health certificate he needs to find work. But Weerashethakul doesn't dwell on any of this. He simply allows the conversation to play out, as puzzling and elliptical as it is, capturing the absurd way in which Orn and Roong are forced to keep talking in circles, confronted by the doctor's obstinate refusal to do anything outside of regulations.

It is a frustrating, mysterious scene, but also a strangely funny one; Weerashethakul has a streak of dark but playful humor that often shows up in moments like this. Here, it becomes apparent when the conversation with the doctor goes on for several minutes as though it's about a new condition, and then when the doctor asks how long this has been going on, they answer that he's had it since he was a child. It's the kind of absurd reversal of expectations that Weerashethakul subtly integrates into his otherwise hyper-realistic, observational aesthetic. Even better is the brief few moments when the director lingers to watch the doctor's next patient, a hard-of-hearing old man who's grumpily bickering with his daughter. Upset over his broken hearing aid, he advises the doctor that if she should have children, she should have a son because "boys are much better with electronics than girls."

In this way, Blissfully Yours simply drifts along, from moment to moment and place to place, patiently watching these people's daily routines. In one scene, Orn mixes together chopped-up fruits with a table full of creams and skin lotions, creating her own concoction, halfway between a fruit salad and a skin treatment. Weerashethakul loves to watch procedures like this, just as later his camera admires the careful, methodical way in which Roong prepares a snack for Min, wrapping up a piece of meat with a cluster of rice grains, then tearing off a piece of bread to engulf it all, and dipping the small bunched ball into the juices from some fruit. She repeats the procedure twice, making one for Min and then one for herself, and Weerashethakul captures the hypnotic quality of her careful motions as she assembles these snacks. She does it, perhaps, with the same mechanical care with which she paints Disney figurines at the factory where she works, where she's so overworked that, as Min laments in voiceover, her hands are sore after a particularly hard day. The film's extreme patience becomes especially clear when, nearly 45 minutes into the film, the credits suddenly appear as Min and Roong are driving towards a picnic in a remote woodsy area. It's as though Weerashethakul is saying, now the movie is starting, everything that came before was simply a long prelude, an introduction, presenting the necessary context for what's to come.

Indeed, the earlier scenes have a groundedness, a quotidian quality, that wafts away once the characters leave behind the city for their rural getaway. The early scenes establish that these characters are trying to escape, that they're bored, fenced in by routine. One of Min's periodic voiceovers even explicitly calls their picnic in the woods an "escape," and at this point Weerashethakul's sensuality, his pictorial sensibility, takes over. As the young couple winds through the woods together, the branches brush up against their skin and the sun sporadically breaks through the dense foliage above to flare white-hot in their eyes. They finally arrive at a beautiful rock cliff above a lush, deep green valley, and they picnic there, picking berries together in the woods, kissing, sleeping in the sun, eating, fending off the alarmingly large ants that scramble across their blanket. The ants are harbingers of the ruin to come, tangible suggestions that this afternoon is ephemeral, that whatever happiness they might find here is fragile and easily upturned, but initially they're just a nuisance to be laughed off.

These scenes are all about the play of light dappled on bare skin, the casual sensuality, and sexuality, of the characters as they drift together and apart over the course of the afternoon, sometimes joined in intimacy and at other times separated by silence and disconnection. Weerashethakul intercuts the scenes between the two young lovers with scenes of Orn and her husband, engaged in a similar indulgent afternoon in the woods not far from the younger couple. Weerashethakul is all about suggesting emotional and thematic depths without directly confronting them. Through subtle gestures, the sex scene between Orn and her husband becomes, without a word being spoken, about her desire to have a child and his reluctance to go along with her. The way she watches as he takes off his condom and throws it away after sex, the way she caresses her own belly as she lies next to him: these simple gestures say everything about these characters, their urges and needs. Later, Orn joins up with Roong and Min, following a strange and elliptical series of events in which her husband runs off, chasing a motorcycle thief, possibly to die or merely to confront some more mundane fate, but either way disappearing from the film without ceremony. Afterward, Orn wanders through the forest, donning an antiseptic mask she finds on the forest floor. Even in such a direct and seemingly realistic film, Weerashethakul displays a weird kind of beneath-the-surface surrealism in small, unexplained details like this. These seeming non-sequiturs simply add to the film's richness, its texture, its ineffable sense of mystery.

This mystery is intact, certainly, throughout the final stretches, in which hardly a word is spoken. Roong and Min lie down next to a river together, and nearby Orn lies down by herself in her underwear, her full middle-aged body looking Rubenesque, straining against the constrictions of her garments. Roong, in contrast, is childlike and skinny, and the older woman gently mocks her for it, even as Roong playfully pinches the older woman's large butt. Weerashethakul pulls back for a long shot, showing the couple and the woman lying on opposite sides of the frame, implicitly establishing a comparison between generations, between maturity and youth. In fact, though, both women seem equally troubled, linked by their concern for the helpless, drifting Roong, who they together are helping to shepherd through life as though he was a child. In the final minutes of the film, Weerashethakul maintains a steady gaze on Roong's face as she lies next to Min, lost in thought, absentmindedly stroking his penis. Then he cuts away for a couplet of moody sunset landscape shots, before returning to find Roong turning slightly towards the camera, an unreadable expression on her face for the few frames before the cut to black.

It is a fittingly mysterious ending, and that's even before the strange textual coda that scrolls across the screen a few seconds later, describing Min going to Bangkok for a job, Roong getting another boyfriend and selling noodles, while "like before, Orn continues to work as an extra in Thai movies." It's a suggestion, perhaps, that life goes on in its own strange and often disappointing way, that afternoons like this, extended moments of contemplation and sensuality, are fleeting and momentary, and also tinged with sadness. Implicit even in joy is the inevitability of decay, of loss, of death, like the ants who skitter gleefully across the food during the final scenes, ruining everything, devouring whatever they find.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Man Is Not a Bird

Man Is Not a Bird was the first feature film of Yugoslavian filmmaker Dušan Makavejev, who later achieved cult acclaim for the sexual surrealism of WR: Mysteries of the Organism and Sweet Movie. In this debut, the themes Makavejev would explore in those later films — the double-edged sword of sexual liberation, totalitarianism, Communism, the tense relations between men and women as caused by social structures — are expressed through much more conventional means. The film provides a hint of the origins of Makavejev's sensibility in social realism and pseudo-documentary observation. There are early traces here of the irreverent perspective on sex and politics that would appear in Makavejev's later films, though here his satire is understated and subtle, ingrained within the framework of a loose narrative centered around two different working men. One, Rudinski (Janez Vrhovec) is a famous foreman renowned for his expertise in finishing jobs ahead of schedule, while the other, Barbulovic (Stole Arandelovic), is a lowly menial laborer who quarrels with his wife (Eva Ras) and his mistress alike.

The gulf between these two men, both laborers under the Communist system, is the gulf between the boss and the mere worker, but even Rudinski, so well-respected and famed, is subject to orders from above. He is as much positioned within a rigid hierarchy as the less fortunate Barbulovic. The film is all about power and the structures that control and shape lives. To this end, Makavejev opens with a scene of a hypnotist delivering a speech about the power of his craft, his ability to overcome people's innate beliefs and superstitions with his own control. Then Makavejev displays a very different form of control by cutting to a Communist Party manager giving orders over the phone, and then still another form of control when he shows a voluptuous nightclub singer arousing a roomful of drunken man into a frenzy of violence and spontaneous clamor simply by grinding her hips, shaking her ample breasts and suggestively licking her full lips. These scenes, each one exploring a different way in which people lose control over their lives and actions, establish the film as a kind of treatise on control and power, on the loss of self that occurs in both sexuality and under oppressive governmental regimes.

One thread within the film is the domination of women by men. Barbulovic's cowed, subservient wife is constantly berated by her husband, who expects her to obey his every order, to prepare dinner for him, and above all to be silent, never to question him. What's unstated but very much present in this relationship is the idea that Barbulovic, who is on the bottom of the chain of command in every aspect of his life, needs this sense of superiority and dominance at home. At one point, a tour guide is leading a group of schoolchildren around the industrial site where Barbulovic works. The tour guide praises Barbulovic as one of the best laborers, but in the same breath implicitly puts him down for not being a "mental" worker with an office job; the unspoken subtext is that this worker doesn't have to use his brain, or perhaps that as a mere laborer he doesn't really have a brain worth using. It is in cruel but subtle ways like this that the state keeps its people in line, convincing them that they have their place and that they dare not try to rise above it.

In this atmosphere, Barbulovic needs to feel as though he has someone to order around the way he is ordered around at work. It is in this way, perhaps, that the dynamics of power and control corrupt and infiltrate the realm of sexuality and relationships between men and women. Within a society where people are rarely able to feel much sense of self-determination in anything they do, they enact dramas of sexual domination and exploitation instead. So Barbulovic insists on his wife's acquiescence to his philandering, his naked betrayal of her: he even gives away her dresses to his mistress. As it turns out, his wife is not so meek, and she assaults his mistress on the streets and decides that she is no longer going to give in to the "hypnotism" by which men keep women under their thumbs. By the end of the film, this mousy, shy woman is seen with a new man, laughing and drinking with him, having realized that men need not be the only ones to cheat or abandon their spouses.

The other story running through the film is the romance developing between the older Rudinski and the young barber Rajka (Milena Dravic). Rudinski, like Barbulovic, is trapped by circumstances and powers beyond his control. He is famed as a great employee and a great manager, and as a result he travels everywhere, never staying in one place for very long, always laboring under pressure to get things done as quickly as possible and move on to the next place, the next job. His is a life dedicated to work, with little room for developing meaningful relationships. Thus his romance with Rajka, as passionate as it is, seems doomed from the start: he knows that he'll have to move on sooner or later, leaving her behind as, no doubt, he's left many others behind in the past. And even though he reassures her with various promises — even telling her he'll take her with him when he goes — she seems to know as well as him that this is a temporary arrangement, a temporary love. And so she never quite convincingly fends off the advances of local boy Bosko (Boris Dvornik), a lecherous ladies' man who counts off his amorous conquests with notches on the steering wheel of his truck. She knows, perhaps, that when Rudinski is gone she'll have to settle for a different kind of romance with a more geographically convenient object of affection.

Makavejev is exploring, in many different contexts, how little control these people (like all people, in some ways) have over their lives, how much they are at the mercy of outside forces. Throughout the film, he inserts digressions with a Communist party official who never seems to leave his office, but whose edicts over the telephone have wide-ranging consequences. At one point, he is able to tell a group how to vote on an upcoming decision; "we decided how the Communists would vote, and thank God you're all Communists," he exclaims. The people at the bottom get whatever the ones at the top decide to hand down. For his dedication and skill, Rudinski gets an elaborate party at the climax of the film, a lavish celebration where he gets a medal and a handshake, small compensation for his total commitment to his work, while an orchestra plays Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. (In a hilarious scene, the orchestra accidentally wanders into a working area, where they're beset by showers of sparks, the dress of one instrumentalist catches on fire, and the site foreman responds to the orchestra's alarmed chatter about the Ninth Symphony by saying, "we don't produce such things here.")

The film's finale escalates towards a complete breakdown in the relationships that had developed throughout the film. The orchestra's bombast is set off against Rudinski's post-celebration depression, as he throws a bottle of liquor and shatters a mirror; Makavejev freezes the image of the shattered glass, capturing the moment of destruction in a still frame. This freeze frame is matched by another that caps a love scene between Rajka and Bosko. The pair have sex in Bosko's truck and then follow it with a joyous sequence in which Bosko playfully sprays a hose at the truck's window while Rajka presses herself up against the glass, making faces and splaying her fingers as the water cascades across the windshield. Makavejev freezes the image of Rajka's hand on the glass, a moment of sexual and sensual fulfillment that he treats with as much import as the moments of desperation within the film. One could argue that, while the men in the film remain trapped by work and responsibility, the women achieve some measure of independence by striving for sensual pleasure rather than romance or stability; just as the pain of Rudinski's depression lingers in a frozen image, so too does the freeze frame of Rajka's hand aginst a sheet of water allow this ephemeral moment to linger, to endure beyond its brief duration.

This is an early indication of Makavejev's later, more fully developed dichotomy of sex as containing the potential for both destruction and for radicalism and self-fulfillment. This film lacks the freewheeling spirit and sense of play that runs through Makavejev's later works, but its near-documentary commitment to prosaic reality, to the drab exteriors of industrial communities, makes it a promising, satisfying debut nonetheless.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Rowe/Meehan/Lescalleet | March 21, 2010

(Photo by Yuko Zama)

On Sunday, March 21, tabletop guitarist and AMM founding member Keith Rowe played a pair of duo sets at the Diapason Gallery in Brooklyn: one set with ultra-quiet snare drum improviser Sean Meehan, and one with tape loop manipulator Jason Lescalleet. It was a fine night of interesting music, the first time I've managed to make it out to one of these shows in several years. I'm very glad I did.

Rowe and Meehan played first, and as expected it was a hushed, extremely minimal set of very quiet music. Meehan's set-up remains as simple as it was when I last saw him: a single snare drum, which he acts upon with various small objects: contact mics, silverware, perhaps some rocks (it was rather dark throughout the performance, making it difficult to see exactly what he was doing at times). No sign of the cymbals and dowels that are probably Meehan's most commonly used set-up. Rowe, of course, plays with a "tabletop" guitar assembly, an array of effect boxes, shortwave radios, and other electronics, as well as various tools and fans which he uses to excite his guitar strings. Not that there was much of that during this set, which was very stripped-down and deliberately limited to a fairly narrow palette.

This aspect of the set was both interesting and, at times, rather frustrating. Rowe seemed to be responding to the dry, crunchy textures of Meehan's sounds by offering up very similar noises as counterpoint. This was especially true towards the beginning of the set, when the two players were leaving lengthy spaces of silence between sounds, then offering up tiny little cracks and pops. The two musicians often worked in surprisingly similar territory, as Rowe would match Meehan's discrete crinkles with a spiky, subdued shard of guitar feedback. At other times, Rowe created thin streams of fuzzy static, more or less a quiet background hum over which Meehan would occasionally interject with his own clusters of pebble-like clatter.

Maybe it was just because it's been so long since I've seen this music live, and thus had difficulty getting into this piece, but this set was rather distancing to me; I often felt as though the performers' respective sounds weren't truly coming together, or at least I couldn't get into the right frame of mind to really appreciate the space they were creating. This improved somewhat in the second half of the set, when they became (relatively) more animated, with Meehan inserting piercing scratches made by scraping a fork's tines across the surface of his drum, and Rowe moved into slightly more muscular territory as well. The ending was perfect, too, as after several false endings, moments when Meehan seemed to have lapsed into silence and Rowe kept playing, the duo ended simultaneously with a few last delicate sounds, intuitively in touch with one another. Still, I vividly remember the set these two did a few years back (which Erstwhile Records owner Jon Abbey, introducing them here, cited as their first duo meeting ever), when they created a gauzy, low-volume drone that seemed to cause a hazy state of half-consciousness in everyone who heard it. In comparison, this set was occasionally pleasant and formally interesting, but didn't really go beyond that for me.

The second set of the night was another matter altogether. I was very excited to hear what was only Rowe's second meeting with Lescalleet; the pair played together for the first time in Boston last week. As an improviser, Lescalleet is more like a builder, an architect, than anyone else I've ever seen play; he is always accumulating sounds, stacking them as though he's laying bricks side by side, establishing the groundwork for developments that he's already planning for later in the piece. He's a fascinating contrast against the more in-the-moment gestural improv of Rowe, who always seems so perfectly attuned to the contributions of his fellow musicians and the overall sound at any given moment. (Not to say that Rowe doesn't think ahead, too, or that Lescalleet obliviously tramples over his collaborators; it's a matter of emphasis, long-term construction versus more responsive playing.)

This was a complex, viscerally exciting piece of music, a mind-blowing performance with several discrete movements, often triggered abruptly by Lescalleet allowing large chunks of sound to drop in or out. The overall sound of the music was a dense, textural drone, with multiple layers and sounds moving within this overpowering totality. Although it was rather difficult to totally separate out the two musicians' contributions, Rowe often seemed to be both contributing to the drone and subtly working against it, inserting spiky blasts of ugly noise, jarring intrusions that disrupted the fluid and escalating overall drive of the music. If Lescalleet's typical sound is a slow accumulation, a steady build-up, Rowe was preventing this build from being too smooth with his gritty interjections, like the gnarled sound of a handheld fan's blade against his guitar strings. Some of Rowe's sounds were also processed rather obviously, with some rather naked pitch-shifting sounds cutting through the murk at a few points, occasionally recalling the more grating/harsh moments of Between, his second album with Toshimaru Nakamura.

The music was intense and powerful throughout, as Lescalleet's tremendous cascades of sound filled the small room, with Rowe moving within and around the space created by his collaborator's noise. There was so much going on within this cacophony, so much motion and layering: the hum and static of Rowe's radios and electronics just barely audible within the crunch of Lescalleet's noise; the high-pitched feedback tones wildly oscillating within the drone, as though bouncing around within a contained space; the occasional hints of pop music or voices eaten up and warped by the surrounding maelstrom. There was a real dynamic sensibility to this set as well; the two performers didn't remain in this battering, noisy mode for the entirety of the set, but instead transitioned back and forth between these barrages and more delicate, quiet passages in which Lescalleet often seemed to be setting up the next onslaught. At one point, he switched out the tape loop he'd been running for most of the set, replacing it with a loop of drastically slowed-down, distorted singing, which added a haunting element to one of the set's quieter stretches; it reminded me a bit of Philip Jeck's warped vinyl pieces.

Towards the end of the set, Lescalleet began working away from the table where most of his gear was arranged. Instead, he was moving around in the space behind where the performers had set up, even stepping behind the curtain at the back of the area. It wasn't clear what he was doing there until the very end of the set, when these preparations paid off with a stunning ending. The duo's latest burst of noise had died down, and as Lescalleet seemed to remove most of his contributions, what was left behind was a hushed and very familiar atmosphere, the quiet hum of some radio static, a few little sounds skittering around within the low buzz. This is a familiar place to end a set, perhaps a little too familiar; many improv sets eventually arrive at this place where it seems natural to simply let the music fizzle out. But Lescalleet, presumably with Rowe's foreknowledge, had a more dramatic twist in store, as he unleashed torrents of noise with what turned out to be an amplified, stretched-out metal slinky strung around in the area behind the performers' tables. As Lescalleet vibrated this metal strand, the noise became nearly deafening, and he slowly worked his way around until he was standing right next to Rowe, holding the strand aloft. Lescalleet froze in this position, the clamor abruptly disappeared to total silence (presumably because the engineer at the mixing board had been given instructions to cut out all the sound at this predetermined moment) and the set was over. It was a surprising and effective end to a thrilling set, a performance that again and again made me really happy. This was exciting, vibrant music, and I had a big grin on my face for much of the set.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Tokyo Chorus

Tokyo Chorus is an early pre-war silent film from Yasujiro Ozu, whose silent work generally reveals quite a different director from the later static, patient sensibility of his mature oeuvre. Of course, there is still a continuity in terms of themes and subjects connecting these earlier silents to the sound films. Tokyo Chorus is, like almost all of Ozu's films, concerned with domesticity and family relationships, and with the changes wrought on the family by outside pressures and developments. In Ozu's post-war films, these pressures take the form of encroaching Westernization, of the old traditional ways transitioning into a new modern sensibility. Obviously, there are some slightly different concerns at the core of this pre-war film, made in 1931 with the Great Depression affecting Japan as much as any other country — as one character jokes early on, "Hoover's policies haven't helped us yet," a wry punchline made even more bitterly ironic by the retrospective knowledge that Hoover's policies didn't help anyone very much.

The film centers on one family struggling to make ends meet during this difficult economic time. Shinji (Tokihiko Okada) is introduced as a rebellious, goofy schoolboy, but a few years later he has a family: a wife (Emiko Yagumo), a son (Hideo Sugawara), a daughter (Hideko Takamine) and a baby. Ozu introduces Shinji in a lengthy and near-slapstick sequence as a stern school teacher (Tatsuo Saito) tries to maintain control over a rowdy line of students (though, admittedly, the fact that all these schoolboys look like grown men initially makes it hard for an outsider to figure out the context of this scene). Ozu pans across the line of students, his camera moving across a diagonal composition that is repeated several times throughout the film. Such motion would later become rare and uncharacteristic in Ozu's post-war work, but here his aesthetic is not pinned down to the static, low-height observation that would come to be his most salient visual characteristic. Instead, Ozu's camera tracks along with the characters as they walk, or passes along rows of people lining a street.

During the opening scene, Shinji and the other students goof around and play, as the instructor makes disapproving notes in a little book, calling them out to examine their outfits and their posture. Shinji gets in trouble for not having a shirt on under his jacket, and is left sitting alone, picking at something (bugs? stray threads?) on his pants as the rest of the students are led away. This introduction establishes the film's broad sense of humor, telegraphed through the loping gait of the students as they act surly towards the teacher, or the instructor's head-bobbing bounce as he surveys them. From this opening, Ozu cuts away to a few years later, when Shinji is working at an insurance company. It is not stated directly, but the gap is meant to represent the onset of maturity, the rowdy schoolboy gaining responsibility as he settles into life with a family and a respectable office job.

This stability is disrupted when Shinji loses his job after defending an older employee who he felt had been unfairly fired: his earlier insouciance towards authority manifesting itself again in an act of benevolent defiance. The scene is nearly played for comedy — Shinji and his boss get into a slowly escalating shoving match by tapping each other on the shoulder with fans — but there's no mistake that the consequences of this lost job are truly dire for a man with a wife and three children in the middle of a terrible depression, with no jobs available. The central theme of the film is this man's struggle to maintain his family's honor and his own self-respect when faced with the loss of his profession and, with it, his claim to respectability. Honor is central to the film, especially as expressed in the way that Shinji's wife looks at him; Ozu captures the impact of a look, the humiliation of seeing her husband in a menial job that is beneath his station, a job he only got because of a chance encounter with his sympathetic former teacher.

What's interesting, though, is that Ozu ultimately critiques, in his own indirect way, the concepts of honor expressed here. Shinji's wife at first resists her husband "stooping" to a job carrying banners to advertise his former teacher's new restaurant; when she sees him doing this, she is humiliated. In fact, it's a rare moment when Ozu reinforces her feelings with an intertitle that outright says she's humiliated; Ozu generally uses such titles sparingly, preferring to capture such emotional nuances in the actors' performances, using the editing to emphasize certain glances and expressions. This, apparently, was a beat that Ozu felt the need to hammer home more forcefully, however, hitting his audience over the head rather than risk anyone missing the wife's sense of disgrace. She tells Shinji that he should remain proud and not do anything so obviously beneath his status. But Shinji resists, insisting that he is doing the right thing, that all a man in his situation can do is take whatever opportunities come to him. His wife soon gives way as well, agreeing to help him in his new job and supporting him until, at the end, his former teacher comes through with an offer of a better job in education. The lesson seems to be that abstract concepts like honor and pride are not nearly as important as putting food on the table for one's family, just as keeping up appearances must be secondary to providing the necessities of life for one's loved ones.

Tokyo Chorus is a fine film if not a particularly distinguished one. It reveals Ozu's nascent sensibility in its earliest state, as he deals with his usual themes — family dramas, the conflict between traditional values and changing conditions, the rhythms of domestic life — in a less formally rigorous way than he would in later years. The film is unfailingly direct and straightforward in its approach, telling a simple story simply. It is thus not quite a peak Ozu film, but perhaps an important work in his development, a step towards the greater depth and aesthetic richness of his later films. It is, regardless, an affecting film, particularly in two scenes between Shinji and his teacher. In the first, when the teacher offers Shinji a job, the latter offers some token resistance based on honor, saying that if the teacher merely feels pity for him, then he can't accept, but that if it's a gesture of friendship instead, he can. Shinji is essentially constructing a way for him to take the job and still feel like he's not sacrificing his honor; Ozu captures the desperate yearning on Shinji's face as he fears that perhaps his teacher will withdraw the offer, and the knowing nod from the teacher as he accepts this face-saving gesture. Later, in the final scene, Shinji's former classmates have gathered together for a reunion, and are singing a song together. Shinji and the teacher both join in, but as Ozu cuts between closeups of the two of them, isolating them within the crowd, their faces are troubled briefly by sadness and introspection before they regain their composure and join the celebration. Even in a relatively straightforward and conventional film like this, Ozu asserts his mastery with shots like these, shots where complicated emotions arise from his probing of the faces of his actors, and the juxtapositions between uplift and loss that flow through this film.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Charleston Parade/The Little Match Girl

Charleston Parade is a totally bonkers short silent film from Jean Renoir, a nutso little experimental showcase for the animalistic eroticism of his wife, Catherine Hessling. The short is set in the then-distant future of 2028, a time in which, apparently, Europe has descended into apocalyptic disrepair while Africa is ascendant, its people traveling in globe-shaped UFO-like vehicles that hover through the air. Johnny Huggins plays an African explorer visiting the wasteland of Paris in just such a ship, and encountering the local savage Hessling, clad in skimpy shreds of lingerie and leering at him with a frankly lascivious interest. The film's conceit is especially interesting for its era since it more or less reverses the typical depictions of black men and white women in films of the time. Huggins plays in minstrel makeup, his big white lips often the only part of his face that shows up in the low-contrast images, but the film's narrative has the white woman feverishly pursuing the frightened black man for a change. She chases him with abandon and even ties him to a lamppost. The film doesn't exactly overturn stereotypes — Huggins' performance is pure minstrel show slapstick — but it does place them front and center for examination.

None of which should imply that Charleston Parade is a serious work about race, stereotypes, or anything else. It is, more than anything, a deeply goofy, silly film, an opportunity for Hessling to really cut loose and for Renoir to indulge in some of his more playful sensibilities. The depictions of Hessling seducing Huggins by performing a rough, sensual Charleston dance are particularly fun, as Renoir subtly slows the images into a sinuous, snake-like motion as Hessling sways and wiggles, kicking her legs high and leaping into the air like a frog. At the climax, when Hessling and Huggins perform the dance together, the images become frenzied and wild, as Renoir cuts in shots of the dancers' feet as they twirl and encircle each other, their feet bouncing wildly around.

There's also a playful crudeness to many of the effects shots, from the opening model shots of the explorer's aircraft taking off to the inserts of "angels" portrayed as disembodied heads with small wings floating beneath them; Renoir himself appears among the angels at one point, mugging broadly. At one point, Hessling hears a phone ringing, so she draws a phone on the wall in chalk, and when she's finished an actual phone fades into view atop the drawing so she can answer it. Later, when she's preparing to leave, her coat and umbrella sashay along the ground towards her, the coat crawling up to wrap itself around her and the umbrella leaping into her waiting hand. There's an offhand magic to these rough shots that's charming; the same goes for Hessling's playmate, a man in a grotesque ape costume who dances the Charleston along with her and weeps when she's about to leave. These images reveal a spirit of play and weird humor in Renoir that would later manifest itself in his kindred spirit antiheroes like Boudu. Charleston Parade is an oddity from Renoir, but it's a compelling and enjoyable oddity.

The Little Match Girl is another short silent film from Jean Renoir, based on the Hans Christian Anderson fable and starring Renoir's wife Catherine Hessling as a poor match seller named Karen. She is sent out by her family on a cold night to sell matches, but she can't find any business and she suffers in the cold and the snow, assaulted by boys with snowballs, ignored by potential upper-class customers, freezing in the dark as she peers into bright, warm, lively shops and pubs where people laugh and eat and drink. It is a maudlin but nonetheless effective piece of humanist social realism, contrasting the suffering of the poor match girl, who no one cares about, against the security and comfort of those who pass her by in the snowy streets. There is one especially potent shot in which Karen is scrambling around on the ground in front of a restaurant, desperately gathering up her wares after they've been knocked away by the boys who pelted her with snowballs. A policeman arrives and chases the boys away, then walks towards Karen. Renoir remains at ground level with Karen, on all fours in the snow, and behind her the policeman's clean, shiny boots pass by, then stop, not to help Karen, but to talk with the restaurant's owner, who had been hit with one snowball when she briefly came outside to yell at the boys for hitting her windows. The shot is utterly heartbreaking: Karen in despair on the ground, while the figure of authority, his boots in the background of the shot, ignores her to comfort the comparatively uninjured upper-class shop owner.

At around the short's halfway mark, this mix of hard realism with broad sentimentality — the match girl peering wistfully through the frosted windows of a restaurant — gives way to the crude effects and whimsical tone that Renoir also utilized in Charleston Parade. At this point, it would seem, the film becomes a surreal fantasy, a dreamlike imagining as the match girl, freezing in the snow, desperately trying to warm herself with the tiny flickering flames of her matches, instead dreams of happier things. She steps into a giant-sized toy shop, where she wanders among the toys as they come to life: ballet dancers dance, a shaggy stuffed dog balances a ball on its nose, and toy soldiers march in formation. The rough stop-motion animation effects are compelling, but what's really interesting and affecting about this diversion is that Renoir doesn't allow the fantasy to be a complete escape from reality. Although these animations are charming and playful, they are also poignant; as Karen is dancing through gauzy white curtains or juggling, or watching the toy soldiers march, it's impossible to forget that she's actually lying in the snow, alone and forgotten, losing herself in hallucinations brought on by starvation and frostbite.

In that respect, even as the film becomes a fantastical farce on its surface, it retains its edge of despairing realism: Karen has chosen to retreat from reality rather than face it any longer. It is a film above giving up, about losing one's grip on life, and this sobering undercurrent runs through even the most playful moments of the fantasy segment. Towards the end of this sequence, Renoir turns back to darker territory, introducing a toy soldier with a skull and crossbones on his hat and bone ribbing on his jacket. That's right: this film features Death as a toy soldier, pursuing Karen and her protector, another soldier, in a horse chase across the sky. The film's denouement transitions smoothly from the whimsy and escapism of Karen's wistful fantasy into a startlingly poignant depiction of the journey into the afterlife, as the dark soldier, this icon of death, throws Karen's lifeless body across his black mount and rides through the clouds with her. The rough superimpositions of these images lend a quality of eerie minimalism to the fantasy's final moments — culminating in Death, previously a forbidding, villainous figure, tenderly laying Karen down on a cliff edge beside a cross which then morphs into a budding bush. Then, the return from fantasy to the cold harshness of reality in the film's final moments only underscores that even this romantic vision of death is far from reality: the truth is sadder, more pathetic, without the heroic adventure of Karen's dream death. This is a poignant, moving, evocative short from Renoir, the cinema's premier humanist delivering a powerful depiction of how social class dictates life and death.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010


Aleph, the only film made by Beat artist Wallace Berman, is a frantic collage that represents, in a brisk 9 minutes, a kind of hyper-speed gestalt vision of the 1960s and all that that wild, tumultuous decade represented. Berman, a poet and artist, worked on Aleph as a kind of private journal, continuously altering it and adding to it, collaging together the images that fascinated him and subjecting them to a process of degradation, layering and frantic editing so that each image is merely a momentary flash before the eyes, flickering into motion and then vanishing within the deluge of visual stimuli that Berman stitches together for this film. He apparently uses newsreels, still photos, home movies, advertising cutouts, and any other visual material he can get his hands on, building upon these varied foundations a powerful document of 60s culture.

The haunting beauty of this film arises from the impression that it is constantly on the verge of falling apart, or that perhaps Berman assembled it from exhumed materials encrusted with the wear of the ages. The film crackles and pulses with the signs of film degradation: burns, brown-hued scars and scratches, black lines shimmering across the frame. To this, Berman adds his own defacements, layering on additional colors and superimposing text — flashing across the frame too fast to read, mostly composed of Hebrew writing and other glyphs anyways — on top of the rapidly moving stream of images. These images originated from a variety of sources, ranging from private, intimate footage to the public appearances of celebrities, radicals and world figures. Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger, the Pope, pulp magazines, softcore porn, home movies, Alice in Wonderland, a snatched shot of a movie theater marquee playing It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. The 60s vibrate and pulse through Berman's film, in every frame: all the chic 60s girls, lounging around in long dresses or in the nude, practicing free love; the radicals reading books with delicate wire glasses looking out-of-place on their hard faces; Dylan looking young and baby-faced the way he did on the cover of his eponymous first album; Jagger, as always, stretching those rubbery lips to sing or shout; sober, suited politicians in clusters, caught from above so their bald spots show. All of this is contained by Berman's film, appearing and then disappearing, returning in subtle rhythms.

The film has something of the aesthetic of an old photograph, decaying and rotting with age. Figures and faces seem to emerge from an encrustation of rust, and the images are frequently textured, thickly layered with paint and markings and scratches across the emulsion of the film. The sheer variety of the images, and the pace of the editing, gives the film a surging forward momentum, a vibrancy that captures the sense of freedom and enthusiasm running through this era. And yet at the same time the whole thing seems already retrospective, an artifact of the past, assembled throughout the peak of the 60s and yet already with a built-in nostalgia in its half-obscured images, a sense of looking back at a moment already lost. There is, in this film, a nostalgia for a time that had not even yet ended when this film was made, as though Berman already sensed the import of this era and the ways in which it would someday be eulogized and remembered. It is thus by turns a haunting film, a joyous one, an aggressive one, cycling through moods and impressions as quickly as its images flicker by.

This impression is enhanced by the film's lack of a proper soundtrack. It is totally silent, though when showing it privately, which was pretty much the only way Berman ever did show it, he often accompanied it with a random record. The film is more or less a very radical home movie, intended for home viewing, constantly subject to change, always being reworked or paired with whatever music was at hand. It is a film very much alive with the circumstances of its own construction, and with the spirit of the era captured so memorably in its torrent of images.

Ron Rice's Chumlum is one of those films in which the conditions of its construction are integral to the experience of watching it. It is a record of a cadre of creative people having fun on camera, playing dress-up, dancing, flirting, lazing around. The film's cast gathers together a roster of figures from the Warhol Factory and the underground arts and film scenes in New York: Beverly Grant, Francis Francine, Mario Montez (star of Warhol's infamous Mario Banana), Gerard Malanga, Joel Markman and filmmaker Jack Smith, whose film Normal Love was the inspiration for Chumlum (Rice made the short while working with Smith to assemble props for the latter's film). This ensemble cast is nothing unusual for the era, a sign of the film's emergence from this prolific and fertile period in 60s New York when seemingly everyone was working with everyone else.

Rice uses these familiar faces and personae as fodder, as a kind of foundation from which he builds his densely layered compositions. The use of multiple overlays and superimpositions means that no image, no performer, stands on its own, no image exists in isolation. Instead, multiple images are used for their textural properties: a burst of color here, a fluid movement there, a flicker of reflected light there, and somewhere in the background the dull blue flicker of a nighttime horror scene, a mummy shambling after its intended victim through the somber dark. Furthermore, Rice frequently uses semi-transparent materials within the individual images, adding to the sense of fragile, gauzy overlays. The actors wrap themselves in shawls and sheets, the thin material acting in much the same way as Rice's superimpositions, rendering multiple layers within the image, creating compositions where one is always looking through something. A woven cot, with its honeycomb of empty spaces between its threads, is overlaid with a thin fabric sheet, and then incorporated as one onion-skin layer within Rice's dense overload.

This film is dazzling and sensual, reveling in the gender-ambiguous piles of flesh and translucent fabrics. At times, the frame becomes so cluttered, so dense with multiple layers, that it's nearly impossible to separate out the constituent parts from one another. The individual images are often blurred and swirled together into collages of stray limbs and colorful patterns, chaotic and beautiful pile-ups that completely confuse things. It's disorienting and reduces the human form to one more abstract component in Rice's hodge-podge compositions, which blend textures and exotic elements, throwing together Eastern garments and decorative flourishes of various origins. This catholicism is also reflected in the clanging, bell-like music by Angus MacLise, the onetime Velvet Underground drummer who left the group before they ever recorded their first album, and whose Oriental-influenced music, with its elements of repetition and minimalism, provides just the right soundtrack to Rice's fantasia: stripped-down and destabilizing, with a sound that just barely hints at exotic lands and foreign musics in its ringing tonalities.

Chumlum is a viscerally exciting, visually stimulating short that uses the formal properties of layering and multiple exposures to create a film in which multiple narratives seem to be happening at once, in which pirates and Middle Eastern belly dancers coexist within the same space as New York bohemians and cross-dressers. Rice co-opts the imagery and props of various genres and traditions, all of it accumulating into a multi-layered pastiche that suggests all stories without actually telling any of them.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Valerie and Her Week of Wonders

Valerie and Her Week of Wonders is a poignant, surreal Freudian fantasy in which a young girl's transformation from child to adult through the onset of puberty is expressed as a nightmarish fantasia, a dreamlike fairy tale populated with vampires, uncertain parentage, transformations from one state to another, grisly violence and lurid sexuality. Valerie (Jaroslava Schallerová) lives with her forbidding grandmother (Helena Anýzová), retaining her child's sense of curiosity and good humor despite the austere circumstances of her upbringing and the religious seriousness of her pale, corpse-like grandmother. Director Jaromil Jireš depicts Valerie's grandmother in thick, pasty makeup that gives her a wan appearance, as though she was already a ghost with no corporeal presence. There is an opposition here between those who embrace the sensuality of the world, like the curious, open-minded Valerie, and those who deny it and castigate themselves for supposed sins of the flesh.

Valerie is very much out of place within this atmosphere of Christian guilt. She spies on young women bathing in a lake, watching as the women's white clothes are soaked through, and they kiss and play strange sexual games; one woman puts a slithering, writhing fish down her shirt, letting it slide around between her breasts. As Valerie walks home after seeing this outrageous erotic fantasy, a few drops of blood fall on a white flower, signaling the girl's first period and thus her transition from girl to woman, setting her off on a journey she only half understands. Her grandmother takes the news disapprovingly, but is even more dismayed when Valerie points out a sinister stranger who her grandmother seems to know: a man (Jirí Prýmek) dressed in a black cloak with a pale white face and horrible crooked, pointed teeth. He hides behind a weasel mask and keeps with him a servant named Eagle (Petr Kopriva), who generally obeys his orders but revolts when it comes to Valerie, with whom he forms a nearly instant camaraderie. This sinister man is a monster, sometimes called Weasel, or Richard, or the constable, or the bishop; he is apparently many different men, possibly Valerie's father, a former lover to Valerie's grandmother and/or her absent mother. He is the devil, or a demon, or the vampire of Murnau's Nosferatu (with whom he shares an especially close resemblance with his bald white dome and pointed ears), or a metaphysical incarnation of the missing man who begat Valerie and then vanished from her life. Whoever he is, his attempts to gain control over innocent young Valerie, who possibly holds the key to his eternal life, send the young girl on a strange adventure through multiple planes of reality.

Jireš depicts Valerie's adventures with a casual surrealism that is constantly disrupting the flow of reality. Characters die and are reincarnated without explanation, while others transmute into multiple forms and multiple personalities, seemingly warped by the strange power of Weasel or Valerie's imagination. As Valerie hovers on the cusp of womanhood, she is beset with multiple possibilities, multiple incarnations of her oncoming sexual awakening. As befits this unstable, uncertain transitional phase, her exposure to sexuality is sometimes fascinating, sometimes horrifying, sometimes merely puzzling. She is pursued by the priest Gracián (Jan Klusák), another religious hypocrite who promises her he'll tell her all about her father and mother but instead merely tries to seduce her, dancing towards her baring his grotesque teeth and pulling his robe down from around his neck to reveal the necklace of bones at his throat.

The veneer of normality is very thin here, and the priest might become an animalistic rapist at a moment's notice, just as the "missionary" in the pulpit, lecturing about the sanctity of virginity and the way innocence is spoiled by sex, might be Weasel barely in disguise, his white face painted dark blue beneath his robes. There is something disconcerting, though, about the way Jireš' camera sometimes seems to be ogling Valerie and the real teen actress who plays her, who spends much of the film in various states of undress or carefully arranged disarray. There are times when Jireš seems unwittingly complicit in the sexually voracious leers of those who pursue Valerie.

Despite this unsettling feeling, the film is a sensual phantasmagoria, exploring the strange netherworld opened up at the junction point between childhood and adulthood. Jireš marries his dazzling imagery to a continually shifting score (written by Lubos Fiser and Jan Klusák) that encompasses tinkling music box circularity, jaunty folk melodies, and haunting religious choral hymns. This mix of disparate musical moods and sources mirrors the film's uneasy blend of fantasy with a child's eye view on reality. The film's unsettling surrealism is perhaps a perfect visual expression of a preteen's insecurity and uncertainty: she is beginning to understand certain things, to be disabused of her innocence, but she her perspective is still slightly askew, without an adult's certainty about how the world works and what her experiences might mean. Valerie is starting to be exposed to the adult world, and what she sees looks grotesque and perhaps even evil: thus one interpretation of the film is as a wholly subjective perspective on Valerie's dawning realizations about her family's complicated sexual history and the hypocrisy and distasteful behavior underlying the seemingly respectable Christian folk around her.

Valerie, however, is ultimately triumphant because she manages to maintain her honor and her innocence even as she transitions towards adulthood. She is not corrupted by the adult things she is learning about, but instead confronts them directly. She resists the priest's advances and struggles to understand the nature of her developing relationship with Eagle: are they brother and sister or prospective lovers? This relationship especially could indicate a new perspective forming, a transitional state between the innocence of childhood, when everyone, boy or girl, is merely a friend, a platonic sibling, and the new sexual awareness of maturity, when relationships between boys and girls are fraught with sexual tensions and the possibilities of less platonic affections. Valerie is still polysexual, unattached to any particular conception of herself or her sexuality. At one point, she goes to bed with the young bride Hedvika (Alena Stojáková), and Valerie's innocent affection ("I've never had a girlfriend before," she exclaims excitedly), her kisses and embraces, cure the other woman of the vampiric affliction she'd been suffering, which had been slowly draining the life from her. Valerie, in her innocence, is a powerful figure; hers is a spiritual innocence, like that of Joan of Arc, to whom she's implicitly compared in the scene when Gracián, in a fervor of religious hypocrisy, sentences her to be burned at the stake for supposedly trying to seduce him.

With its striking surrealist imagery, Valerie and Her Week of Wonders is a haunting, magical film, a film alive with a sense of forbidden sexuality and transformation. It's a deeply strange film, constantly subverting narrative clarity and demanding that its images be taken as metaphors rather than at face value. Valerie's grandmother makes a deal with the Weasel for eternal youth, and returns as a sexy vampire who sucks the life out of the men she beds, but by the film's end she's been restored to her former dour, pale-faced self; perhaps her vampiric incarnation was only an expression of her domineering influence on Valerie's life. The ending is similarly ambiguous, as Valerie wanders with a mischievous smile through a riverside bacchanalia, summoned with a wave of the hand from various revelers to join in their orgiastic sexuality, but she simply strolls through their midst, no longer threatened by the man in the black robes, or her grandmother, or even by the frightening and longed-for specter of her missing mother. Instead, she simply finds her way to a white, frilly bed in the center of a clearing and goes to sleep, initially surrounded on all sides by a circle of partiers but then framed in isolation within the spacious clearing for the film's final image. This image suggests that Valerie has maintained her innocence and purity of spirit against the temptations and horrors of the world, and gone back to sleep with the ease of a child in her cradle.

Friday, March 12, 2010

A Song Is Born

Howard Hawks amassed such a consistent, and consistently fascinating, oeuvre by always making, with very few exceptions, only the films he really wanted to make. In an era when directors had very little power or prestige in Hollywood, Hawks was notable for working largely independently, outside of the usual studio system; he moved from studio to studio, breaking contracts and going elsewhere when he couldn't get his way. Hawks thus earned a reputation as a director who seldom bowed to the pressure of producers, who always stuck to his own vision. One of the few exceptions to this independence was A Song Is Born, which Hawks made at the insistence of Samuel Goldwyn, who got Hawks to say yes to the project by, quite simply, offering him an exorbitant amount of money. The resulting film feels like the work of a man who's just earning a paycheck, too. It's not so much a remake of Hawks' Ball of Fire as it is a shameless pilfering of the earlier film, barely bothering to alter the example set by its predecessor; the film basically counts on fresh audiences who hadn't seen Ball of Fire. Hawks of course was famous for such pilfering and recycling. If a bit worked in one film, he wasn't afraid to translate it into a new context, and late in his career he kept remaking the basic scenario of Rio Bravo, riffing on its relationships and structure in interesting ways. This is nothing like that: A Song Is Born simply repeats, by rote, the best lines and moments from the earlier film, barely bothering to offer anything new. It's stale, and dull, and comes off as the one thing Hawks otherwise never made: a formulaic flop.

The basic set-up is taken right from Ball of Fire. Seven professors, six old bachelors and a younger man named Hobart Frisbee (Danny Kaye), are researching an ambitious musical encyclopedia that would chronicle the entire history of music, with accompanying recordings of various musical forms. In the earlier film the professors needed to learn about slang, but in any event the film's plot is triggered by Frisbee's realization that he's out of touch, that he needs to go out into the world and get refreshed on current events in his field, folk music. In other words, he needs to learn about jazz. The film's enduring appeal — indeed, virtually its only appeal — comes from the inclusion of musical appearances by some of the great jazz musicians of the era, including Louis Armstrong, Tommy Dorsey, Mel Powell, Lionel Hampton and many more. At its best, the film is merely an excuse to throw all these musicians together into massive jam sessions. It's fun stuff, and Hawks thankfully put his foot down by refusing to segregate the black and the white jazz musicians, one of the few stands he took on a picture he otherwise didn't seem to care about at all.

The jam sessions and the scenes at jazz nightclubs thus incorporate both white and black musicians, refusing to ghettoize the black players or maintain a racist separation. The notoriously conservative Hawks was at least enlightened enough to recognize that such attitudes would have been as out of place in the free-wheeling jazz milieu as they were in the lily-white Song of the Thin Man, which was shot the year before and similarly tried to chronicle the jazz scene, but with no black musicians at all. Hawks' film is thus notable for acknowledging the music's black roots — one number explicitly chronicles the nascent origins of jazz in slave spirituals — and the importance and talent of black musicians. The whole crew reportedly wasted a lot of time simply jamming and listening, both on camera and off, but not much of this no doubt lively atmosphere really makes it into the film. A lot of the music is infectious and enjoyable, but there's not enough of it to distract from the rote dullness surrounding it.

Part of the problem is Danny Kaye, who Hawks was saddled with since the film was conceived by Goldwyn mainly as a vehicle for the MGM comedic star. There's also the problem of Virginia Mayo, taking on the Barbara Stanwyck role from the earlier film, as singer and gangster's moll Honey Swanson. Mayo doesn't have Stanwyck's side-of-the-mouth toughness, or her edgy sex appeal, just as Kaye doesn't have the earnest goofiness that Gary Cooper brought to the role of the stiff professor in Ball of Fire. Instead, Kaye's Frisbee just seems stiff and boring, which is fitting for a stuffy, starched professor but doesn't leave much wiggle room for his eventual realization that he loves Honey and wants to be looser and freer. Hawks can't coax the comedic performance he got out of Cooper from Kaye, nor can he get Mayo to give Honey quite the edge she requires. Mayo's actually fine here, radiating a cheery girl next door quality, and she infuses the best patter from Ball of Fire — like her veiled naughty allusions when trying to convince Frisbee to let her stay overnight — with just enough zing to get them across. But she lacks the slight dangerous quality, the realistic vibe of a been-there-done-that kind of gal, that Stanwyck naturally brought to the role. If there wasn't that precedent to compare her against, Mayo would probably seem perfectly okay.

So in one sense, the only real problem with A Song Is Born is coming second. If it weren't for the familiarity of it all — and a majority of the film is outright stolen, line for line and sometimes shot for shot, from the earlier film — A Song Is Born might be a slight but enjoyable musical comedy. Unfortunately, as it is it's impossible to avoid the comparison, and A Song Is Born can't help but seem especially wispy in relation to its source. There's just no imagination here, none of the playfulness that Hawks so often brought to his best works. Kaye is allowed to simply be a dreary killjoy, rather than being lovably shy and naïve. And unlike in Ball of Fire, Hawks never manages to do much with the gangster subplot that takes over the film for its finale, as the gangster Tony Crow (Steve Cochran) arrives to claim Honey as his girl. The whole thing just seems rote, so much so that Hawks even skips over the great gag where Frisbee, confronted with fighting Crow, quickly teaches himself boxing from a book before pummeling the thug. Hawks skips the joke and just has Frisbee pounce on the gangster and beat him up.

That's the film's dominant aesthetic: cutting corners, recycling earlier bits but without the edge, without the humor, without the unpredictable chemistry of fine actors bouncing off one another. The basic elements are all there, the framework of the fine film that Hawks had, in fact, already made just seven years earlier. This time around, the framework is all there is; it's never filled in with any of the warmth and excitement that would've been needed to make this one of Hawks' more creditable attempts at a remake, like the way in which El Dorado riffs on the central conceit of Rio Bravo. Instead, Hawks took his money and turned out a generic film that's only enlivened by its sporadic bursts of music and its status as a Hollywood record of the era's jazz scene.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Shutter Island

Martin Scorsese's latest film, Shutter Island, is a stylish, artfully made work that establishes a powerful atmosphere of dread and despair right from its opening minutes, as a ship emerges from a thick gray fog and U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) sweats and shakes while staring into the mirror. Together with his new partner Chuck (Mark Ruffalo), they're heading to the foreboding, forbidding Shutter Island, a combination prison and mental hospital designed to hold only the most violent and dangerous mentally ill patients. One of these patients has escaped, and Daniels' investigation of this mysterious place will be a challenge to his own sanity. Scorsese's film is an odd, unsettling, potent concoction, at least for most of its length, even if it's painfully obvious just where it's heading long before it ever gets there — and even if its inevitable final act is disappointing in its predictability.

There is a nicely suggestive idea contained in this final act, nonetheless — and if it's not obvious by now, it's impossible to talk about this film without talking about its ending — and Scorsese does manage to make this resolution heart-wrenching and affecting even as it's also trite and formulaic. There have been countless films that revolved around the kind of pat reversal that Scorsese (working from a source novel by Dennis Lehane) tries to pull off here: see, the marshal was really a patient all along, and the film's whole convoluted plot, with all its conspiracies and weird details, was an elaborate attempt by the hospital's staff to shock Teddy out of his delusions. Of course, this could only fail to be obvious to those who have never seen a movie like this before, to those unfamiliar with the generic conventions that control this kind of movie. The thing is, no matter how familiar this territory is, Scorsese makes it a thrilling ride to traverse it once again. Right from the very first scene, it's obvious that something's up: something seems subtly off about the initial interactions between Chuck and Teddy, and it's not just the way Scorsese's camera gently directs attention to mundane acts like the sharing of cigarettes. We feel that these small gestures, these details, will be important later; Scorsese's visual cues suggest a mystery that revolves around the very basic precepts of this situation. It's possible that some may even guess, already, where this is all heading; it occurred to me, at least.

It almost doesn't even matter, though, as Scorsese makes the film's introductory scenes so compelling that any explanation seems unnecessary. There's an air of unreality to these opening scenes that never quite goes away. The sky behind Teddy and Chuck is somehow too dramatic, too beautiful with its thick gray clouds and the roiling water. Few commentators have failed to note the influence of British filmmakers Powell and Pressburger on this film, but it goes beyond the post-World War II setting or the handful of dizzying overhead shots looking down a cliff, directly referencing Black Narcissus. The stylization, the studio-bound aesthetic of Powell and Pressburger's lurid fantasies, lingers over this film even though Scorsese's shooting on location. Shutter Island, as a place, is a fusion of movie archetypes, a perfect genre location, all dark corridors dripping with water, flickering lights everywhere, barbed wire, a decrepit old cemetery, a lighthouse strangely guarded at all hours, where terrible experiments are rumored to take place. This is a movie-movie, a movie that's constantly reminding one of other movies, that revels in its genre conventions and self-consciously keeps pointing them out. That's certainly apparent in Teddy's troubling visions of Andrew Laeddis (Elias Koteas), who he believes is a patient here. Laeddis was the man who Teddy blames for the fire that killed his wife Dolores (Michelle Williams), but Laeddis is such a sinister, over-the-top movie monster — with a scar across his face, a milky white eye and a melodramatic leer — that it's impossible to believe he's a real person. It's obvious from the start that he's a mental projection, a way for Teddy to avoid the real truth, whatever it is, about his wife and his past. Koteas plays this monstrous character with clear delight, relishing the melodramatics, playing him like Scorsese's Travis Bickle a few years older and even further gone, twitching and grinning with his deformed face.

This is the kind of pleasure Shutter Island offers, and it's not an incidental pleasure by any means. Scorsese fully adapts to the conventions of the horror genre here, offering up some rather startling jump scares, like the half-naked inmate who leaps out of a dark passageway to scream "tag, you're it" and then races back off into the darkness. The fun here isn't necessarily in the content but in the execution, the way Scorsese continually does exactly what one expects but puts his own idiosyncratic twist on it. The atmosphere of the island, almost constantly overcast, with stormy weather always looming overhead, is one of slowly creeping dread. Scorsese further enhances this mood by inserting Teddy's internality into the film, a mix of visions, dreams and memories: of his wife, of the woman he's supposed to be finding on the island (played at various times by Patricia Clarkson or Emily Mortimer), and especially of his past as one of the soldiers who first walked into Dachau at the close of World War II. The film is located at this particular historical moment, in 1954, with the nightmare of the Holocaust not so distant, and Scorsese does a good job of capturing the paranoia and the terror generated by this travesty: most particularly, the fear of science as a monstrous corrupter, responsible for both the hydrogen bomb and the devilish human experiments of Dachau and Auschwitz. This fear informs Teddy's own paranoia, his solid belief that terrible experiments are being performed on the patients on Shutter Island. His rantings, increasingly unhinged throughout the film, draw from the fear of Nazism's anti-human sensibility spreading domestically, and from the kind of distrust of human decency that things like the Milgram experiments tended to confirm.

Some of that aura of dread comes, too, from Scorsese's soundtrack selections. He's assembled a compelling, complex soundtrack in which the music, frequently grating and eerie, seems to emanate from the harsh terrain of the island itself. Challenging classical and modernist music by John Cage, Gustav Mahler, Morton Feldman, György Ligeti, Krzysztof Penderecki and John Adams is omnipresent here, solitary notes and clusters of notes hovering in the still, damp air, occasionally interrupted by the piercing screams of the inmates. Scorsese's use of sound here is as compelling, as sensitive, as his more familiar pop music soundtracks in Mean Streets or Goodfellas. The music is so dense, so intense in its effect, that the moments of silence, the moments where the music cuts away to reveal a profound and empty quiet, hit as though all the air had been suddenly sucked away, leaving behind this awful vacuum. The complexity and eerie beauty of this soundtrack is often matched by the quality of Scorsese's images, which have a kind of processed grandeur that one associates with the Technicolor era, another reason the Powell/Pressburger comparisons are so salient. At one point, flickering flames slash up across the screen like fragments of Brakhagian light and color, as though Scorsese were superimposing this kind of experimental light study atop his images, playing across the faces of the actors. Even Scorsese's judicious application of CGI is affecting, and eerie: a shot where Teddy embraces Dolores in a vision, only to have her turn to ash and burn away, is devastating. The ash, often raining down around Teddy in the nightmare visions that haunt him, represents both the fire that killed his wife, and the human ashes that often rained from the smokestacks of the death camps when the ovens were running.

As powerful as the film often is, its final act is clumsy and uneven, delivering exactly the expected payoff and relegating way too much time to the hospital psychiatrist Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley) laboriously explaining the whole thing. If the rest of the film is affecting and off-kilter, packed with compelling imagery, the finale switches gears for a succession of talking heads spelling out the entire plot. The film is a mood piece where the mood is abruptly disrupted in the last act. Nevertheless, even here Scorsese crafts some stunning sequences, particularly an absolutely horrifying flashback in which Teddy finally remembers, or understands, what actually happened to his wife. Still, there's an unavoidable aura of disappointment throughout the final scenes, a sense that Scorsese had abandoned the film's visual richness and imagination for a rote series of psychological explanations and diagrams, a nod to Psycho with Kingsley in the role as the psychologist profiler, diagramming and lecturing about the film's plot. If the rest of the film provides evidence of Scorsese's visual and emotional deftness, this ending perhaps suggests the limits of his imagination.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Syndromes and a Century

Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Syndromes and a Century is a remarkable, mysterious work, a film that's constantly slipping away from the viewer. It's a warm, disarmingly playful mood piece, as ephemeral and sensual as wisps of smoke swirling around the black hole of a vent: a strangely eerie image that Weerasethakul spends several long moments lingering over towards the film's slippery, abstract denouement. But it takes a digressive, wayward journey to get to that sinister image of deep blackness swallowing up white fog. The film opens straightforwardly enough, in a hospital office where Dr. Toey (Nantarat Sawaddikul) is interviewing a new doctor, Nohng (Jaruchai Iamaram), who's come to the hospital from a stint in the army. She asks him a number of questions, some of them conventional and some of them more abstract and conceptual; their conversation seems to be a mix of an employment interview, a psychological evaluation and a whimsical series of non-sequiturs. Throughout most of the interview, Weerasethakul keeps the camera trained in a long, static shot on Nohng's face as he reacts with varying degrees of curiosity and puzzlement to these strange questions. At the end of the interview, a hospital orderly comes to fetch Nohng and Toey, and as the doctors walk outside, the camera pans away from them towards an open, grassy field, which Weerasethakul frames in a static shot as the opening credits roll and the doctors' conversation continues offscreen. This scene introduces a subtle disjunction between audio and video as the doctors move away from this field, going about their rounds, without the audio fading away or cutting off. It is as though Weerasethakul is subverting the narrative stability of the opening scenes, suggesting that something more is going on beneath the surface, that all is not as it seems — he drops a further clue as, towards the end of this offscreen conversation, the doctors stutter to a surreal, confused halt in what seems to be a metafictional acknowledgment that these are actors playing doctors.

This opening, so destabilizing, by turns weirdly humorous and haunting, establishes the dominant mode of Weerasethakul's film, in which he's constantly toying with narrative cohesion only to pull back into moody diversions and puzzling interjections. Even so, there is a hint of a story running through the first half of the film. Toey is pursued by an admirer, who had been waiting for her throughout the opening sequence and who haunts her during her rounds, watching her from a distance and confessing his love to her. Nohng, meanwhile, adjusts to his new life in the hospital, and a dentist, Ple (Arkanae Cherkam) grows fascinated with a young monk named Sakda (Sakda Kaewbuadee). These disconnected stories and hints of stories weave through the film, at least until the halfway point introduces an even more disorienting disjunction: the opening scenes play out a second time, with slightly altered lines and situations, in a new context, an ultramodern hospital with clean, bright white corridors and antiseptic working conditions. If the first half centers roughly around Toey, the second half concerns itself more with Nohng, but otherwise the relationship between the two halves of the film is ambiguous. Perhaps one is the not-so-distant past (references to Star Wars possibly date it to the 80s) and one the not-so-distant future, or else they are both the present, representing the gaps in technology that coexist within modernity, or else they are alternate perspectives on the same set of characters, living the same stories over and over again with only minor tweaks.

There is a wonderful sense of ambiguity running through this film, as Weerasethakul simply strings together an elliptical series of events, anecdotes and moments, never drawing any firm lines connecting them to one another. It's a series of stories and non-stories, of moments both profound and prosaic: a monk playing the guitar, doctors drinking booze from a bottle hidden within a prosthetic leg, a solar eclipse, a picnic in the country, two lovers kissing by a window and, in the enigmatic finale, a large crowd exercising to the beat of an exuberant pop tune. It all fits together without quite forming a cohesive whole. The film is full of loose ends and lingering mysteries, characters who drift into the film for a few scenes only to disappear again.

An old monk (Sin Kaewpakpin) appears twice, once in the first half and once in the second, and each time tells a story about being haunted by dreams of chickens and falling out of bed as a result. But the subtle differences in the man's mood as he tells this story dictate the thematic throughline of his character (or characters): the first time he tells the story he is genuinely convinced that chickens are haunting him as a result of childhood cruelty towards the birds, and that they wanted revenge, while the second time he laughs the incident off as merely a dream. Linking these two perspectives is the chasm between superstition and rationality, between genuine belief in the supernatural and the mere recounting of it as folklore and legend. Is this, then, the true difference between past and present, between the country hospital depicted in the first half and the ultramodern facility in the second half, which seems to have been built atop the dilapidated earlier building?

It's unclear, but this conflict between tradition and modernity weaves through the film in sometimes surprising ways. In one scene, Ple is performing a dental exam on Sakda, and the two begin talking. The young monk confesses that he doesn't really want to be a monk but feels trapped in it, drawn to it by forces he doesn't understand. He'd really wanted to be a radio DJ or a comic book store owner, he says, and he loves "modern music," while the dentist is a bit of a pop singer himself in his off-hours. He begins singing for the monk, prompting the patient to ask if this is an exam or a concert. Who knows, and who cares? It's probably both, just as Weerasethakul's film vacillates between memory, abstract tone poem and narrative drama.

Later, banners billow in sinuous sine wave patterns in the wind above a stage as a Ple and his guitarist perform before a carnival audience. It's a wonderful moment, bathed in cool nighttime colors, subdued neon hues wafting through the night, as the song, an aching love ballad, drifts above the twang of the guitar. After the concert, Ple meets up with Sakda and gives him his newest CD, telling him, "Normally I only sing about teeth and gums, but this album is all love songs." It's like the set-up for an obscure joke: what does the dentist/pop singer say to the monk? And the punchline is as sublime as it is unexpected. One pictures it as a New Yorker-style gag cartoon, the monk and the dentist standing together by a balcony in a garden, the night alive with insect chirps all around them, and this deadpan caption set off against the poetry of the scene. The humor in this film is rich and often startling, burbling up from out of the framework of conversations that seem serious and poignant one moment, absurdly hilarious the next — Sakda and Ple transition from speaking about reincarnation and Ple's dead brother to this deadpan punchline. Even better, the line casts new light on the song Ple had been singing earlier, which is indeed a love ballad but which contained a line that seems puzzling and weird at first — a tribute to a girl's shining white teeth — but that makes sense once one realizes that the lyricist is a dentist, who can't help but return to his favored material even in the context of a love song.

The unlikely friendship between the dentist and the monk provides one possibility for the thematic implications of the film's halved structure. While the pair form a connection during a dental exam in the first half of the film, when this scene plays out again in the second half, it's in an antiseptic, blindingly white operating room, surrounded by rows of identical cubicals, with a nurse assisting the doctor. Patient and doctor don't talk here, except in laconic phrases about the mechanics of the exam itself. The gap between these two scenes suggests that the advances of modernity are fostering disconnection and increasing the distance between people, making it more difficult to form the kinds of human bridges that might allow a doctor and his patient to bond over pop music. Even so, Weerasethakul isn't making some simplistic point about the alienating effects of technology; this is simply one thread, and it is counterbalanced by the scenes in the second half between Nohng and a young patient he takes an interest in and tries to connect with.

Of course, the most potent form of connection shown in the film is the lure of sexuality, which remains a barely articulated undercurrent until a late scene between Nohng and his girlfriend, where they stand by a window and kiss, then talk about him relocating with her, then kiss some more. The scene ends with Nohng laughing with embarrassment as he adjusts his erection in his pants, a moment of frank sexuality that startlingly brings sex to the forefront, if only for a second. Such pleasures are fleeting — the couple's situation is obviously precarious and they seem on the verge of a breakup — but no less real. This is indicative of Weerasethakul's method in general: he allows themes and moments to emerge organically, presented for their own sake rather than as components in a tightly knit narrative framework.

At one point, when Toey is pursued by her admirer, she distracts him from his anguished declarations of love by telling a lengthy story about an orchid grower (Sophon Pukanok) she meets in a market, and her subsequent unarticulated desire for this other man. This anecdote rambles along without resolution; it begins as a story she's telling to a new suitor, but then it drifts off into its own place, expanding into a sensual depiction of an afternoon spent at the farmer's country home. This story is interrupted once by the intrusion of the present-day scene, but after that it ceases to be a flashback and takes on a reality of its own, as though it is not a memory but something happening to Toey in real-time. Weerasethakul never resolves either the story of the orchid-grower or the story of the other admirer; the flashback cuts off after the farmer obliquely tries to tell Toey that he loves her.

This meandering approach to storytelling serves Weerasethakul well. Syndromes and a Century is a rich, lively film, packed with moments of sensuality, grace and beauty. When the spirit moves him, Weerasethakul will pause to observe a solar eclipse, or the pale blue of the sky as seen through a web of tree branches, or a dragonfly briefly alighting on the rippling surface of a pond, a magical moment caught almost accidentally within the camera's view and stitched into the film for its inherent beauty and mystery rather than for any import it might have for the characters or stories Weerasethakul is elliptically telling. This openness inflects every frame of this film, which is very much alive with possibility; the narrative itself seems to be constantly branching off, suggesting the potential to follow multiple paths, to see the same scenes from multiple perspectives. It's a film, also, about the possibilities of human connection, about feeling empathy for others, about wanting to heal pains both physical and emotional. It is, above all, a beautiful and moving film, a nearly overwhelming cinematic experience that is dense with ideas and with suggestive imagery.