Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Science of Sleep (La science des rêves) A Film by Michel Gondry (2006)

Michel Gondry's The Science of Sleep is one among only a handful of great 21st century examples of an established film artist letting loose their surrealist vision in a feature. David Lynch's INLAND EMPIRE and Matthew Barney's Drawing Restraint 9 are other standouts in this increasingly diminutive alcove whose cinematic lineage dates back to Luis Buñuel in the 1930's. These three films could hardly be more different aside from their shared agendas, which value stretches of sheer imagery and digressions over narrative causality. Sure, a myriad of current and future releases do disrupt film flow to focus on other avenues, be it fantasy or dream or something completely separate from the two, but more often than not they are doing so to jumble a narrative frame of mind, whereas the plots of surrealist films are decidedly diffuse or even non-existent at heart, and by extension shouldn't warrant any skepticism from the viewpoint of an audience expecting a narrative. This is precisely why critics who denigrate Gondry's The Science of Sleep for its befuddling "story" or its lack of discrepancy between waking and dream states - indeed, a characteristic often seen as an indicator of interesting surrealism - are so off-base. Gondry's film, and by default Lynch's and Barney's as well, is after an altogether incomparable audience response, a response that is intended to be more complex and slippery than what a basic story can deliver.

Meanwhile, despite the fact that I think surrealism is ultimately what Gondry is after with The Science of Sleep, a potent and surprisingly understandable story is cloaked beneath. In a part that demands more boyish whimsy than any of his career roles combined, Gael García Bernal plays Stéphane Miroux, a Mexican visual artist who comes to Paris after the death of his father to stay in his mother's apartment and work at what she describes a "creative job". What he ends up doing at first is simply screen printing at a puny firm among Guy (Alain Chabat), a sexually charged man-child, and the two underlings he calls "faggots" despite their opposite genders, which puts him in a miserable state. When the job of piano movers goes terribly wrong one day on the spiral staircase leading to Stéphane's mother's apartment however and Stéphane hurts his thumb, the neighbor Stéphanie (Charlotte Gainsbourg) feels responsible and invites him into her apartment, unaware of the fact that her patient is living next door. Stéphane is immediately attracted to Stéphanie's blond friend, but after more run-ins with the quaint brunette living across the hall, he develops a longing for her that is closer to soul searching than it is to a common romantic pursuit, given the fact that Stéphanie shares not only a similar name, but also his childlike love of the handmade arts.

That The Science of Sleep is such a personal film for Gondry does instill an innate sense of intimacy and sincerity. Watching interviews with Gondry, one can tell that the person behind the director's chair is the same person as the main character onscreen. It's nearly impossible not to read Stéphane as the older version of the character of the same name in Gondry's early short film La Lettre, a photography fanatic with similar romantic misfortunes who was a direct portrait of Gondry himself as a child. Funny though, because in The Science of Sleep, the only adult aspect of Stéphane is the fact that he has the capacity to grow facial hair. His attempts at winning Stéphanie's heart are laughably cute at best, pathetic at worst, and his cultivated views of opposite gender relationships - at least compared to Guy - are overshadowed by his unattractive tendency to cry or burrow into his winter hat when in an uncomfortable situation. Why would Gondry go out of his way to create a double that proves he himself has matured little since her early days? I actually think Gondry embraces this idea of innocence and infantilism, and in doing so he not only challenges the accepted notion of masculinity but also gives himself leeway to be unwaveringly imaginative. When he needs to prove himself an adult, he does so in the moments of dry humor, brilliant technique, and eloquent juxtaposition of image and music.

The idea of the film being a virtual CAT scan of Gondry's psyche is supported by the incessant dreamworld that bleeds into the film's structure, or lack thereof. The whole film, which is essentially a document of Stéphane's inability to reconcile his waking state and his REM state, is therefore automatically a record of Gondry's own dreams. Stéphane's dreams are scarily "real", in the sense that they feel like what would result if one were to devise a way to actually film someone's dreams. They either consist of botched efforts at romance with Stéphanie, cartoonish, self-actualizing bouts of romantic success, or they incorporate mini-narratives that seem stripped from comic books and are replete with cultural caricatures, such as in a scene towards the end when Stéphane fancies himself an opportunist on the run from the police after a femme fatale inevitably deceives him. Gondry gives them his own unique flair with the omnipresence of paper products; cellophane becomes water, cardboard makes televisions, cars, and cameras, and felt works for everything else under the sun. This craftiness mirrors that of a child, but its nifty and immensely comprehensive application makes it indicative of a stirring imagination. The most transcendent shot of the film has Stéphane literally swimming over a cardboard city below him where the buildings sway back and forth underwater.

Although the film doesn't hold true to its story with the same dedication that marks Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, its singular achievement is capturing the uneasiness of love, the ephemerality of satisfaction, and the warmth and wonder of dreams. I think this is because Gondry is not restricted to the confines of someone else's script. Some see this as a problem, for it allows Gondry to pursue his relentless visual ideas with little restraint, but this is where the magic happens, where it has the freedom to sustain onscreen. Few had an issue with the randomness of Buñuel's Un Chien Andalou, another film that riffs explicitly on dreams, so why denounce Gondry for going down the same path if he's going to do so with care and finesse? One might say its purely a matter of taste, but if one can't see the beauty in the severely underrated Science of Sleep, one fails to grasp the magic of dreams and relationships.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Still Walking (Aruitemo aruitemo) A Film by Hirozaku Kore-Eda (2008)

Coming out of the cinema after Hirozaku Kore-Eda's latest film Still Walking, the world seemed so unremarkable. The Boston streets felt like an urban dump in comparison to the lilting atmosphere created by Kore-Eda in what is, without a doubt, a spectacular masterpiece of observational family drama. Although deeply indebted stylistically and thematically to the films of Yasujiro Ozu, down to every last motif, with the leaves on the trees swaying with the exact same air of tranquility, Kore-Eda manages to settle into this mode expertly and still bring his own touch. Still Walking is the kind of film that makes you want to stay in the cinema forever and leave behind the real world, even though ironically, the film is so rooted in reality. Just as Doris Dörrie's Cherry Blossoms (2008) echoes Tokyo Story's first half, Still Walking's general plot reminds us of its second half; brought together by the death of a beloved son, a family packs into a cramped space in a seaside town to commemorate over a 24 hour span.

It is in the home of Kyohei (Yoshio Harada) and Toshiko (Kirin Kiki), the elderly parents, where this drama occurs. In their town lies the grave of their eldest and most preferred son Junpei, who died 15 years earlier in a tragic attempt to save his friend from drowning. Naturally, youngest son Ryota (Hiroshi Abe) does not have a soft spot for these family gatherings, because his father treats him with coldness, wishing beneath muted expressions that Ryota had been the one to die if one had to at all. He brings along his new wife Yukari (Yui Natsukawa) and young step-son Atsushi (Shohei Tanaka), the path of whom Kyohei attempts to bend to his own beliefs, brusquely informing him that a career as a doctor is the only honorable choice. Ryota's sister Chinami (Japanese pop star You) is also at the home from the very beginning with her husband Nobuo (Kazuya Takahashi) and her two children, and she is planning on moving in to her parents' home permanently, much to their dismay. In the opening frames of the film, we see Chinami shaving vegetables in tight close-up with her mother whilst the two beat around this subject, instead discussing Ryota's new wife, who Toshiko describes as being a bad choice because as a widow she did not have to choose to leave her husband.

These types of stinging offhand comments, which frequently take form not in words but in glances, densely populate the entire film, comprising a tense familial dynamic that only Ryota and his wife seem to be aware of. Kyohei is by no means deft in his disapproval of the circumstances, either sitting silently through an entire dinner reading a newspaper only to make one erratic footnote or hiding away in his office, mindlessly shuffling the papers that are the last physical reminders of the medical career he once had and the intensive labor that put a roof under his head. Toshiko is less overt with her rudeness, and also seemingly less self-aware; in a scene following the visit of the fat, unsuccessful friend that Junpei saved, Toshiko bows her head and tells Ryota a shameless account of why she invites Junpei's friend back every year. Knowing that it is a difficult task for him and that it makes him severely uncomfortable to see the family given his modest failures only fuels Toshiko's need for closure. Ryota sternly advises against the actions of his mother, hiding away the feelings of supremacy towards his mother that surely lurk beneath his relatively complacent facade.

If the immediate family members are caught up in a flurry of these shared experiences, Yukari represents a passive observer and an audience surrogate. Though recently inducted into the family due to her marriage to Ryota, Yukari does not fully understand the seeming shallowness of her husband's mother (she treats Atsushi like a guest and not a grandchild) and the obvious disinterest of Kyohei. As the film progresses, the sparse dialogue she does have becomes words of wisdom, as she gradually picks up on and embraces the hurdles the family has to deal with, just as we do. Kore-Eda paces the film with extreme deliberation, as each sublimely placed cut serves only to enhance the power of the scene rather than to show off. Indeed, if he does not need to cut, he will not, which explains the several extended observational takes of the family during mealtimes, compositions that delicately pay homage to Ozu. In one perfectly machinated sequence, the family sits on tatami mats and eats sushi while the young children go into the yard offscreen giddily to smash a watermelon. The camera stays fixed outside the open porch door, respectfully remaining there until the majority of the family exits the room, leaving only Kyohei and Ryota. The two uncomfortably discuss Ryota's job as an art curator with the camera placed 180 degrees from the initial shot, until Kyohei gets hostile and the camera closes in on his face. This long, evocative scene explains a great deal about the characters while remaining decidedly non-confrontational from a stylistic trajectory. It is indicative of the kind of restrained calculation that characterizes Still Walking.

The modernization of Ozu's key themes - inheritance, generational conflict, acceptance of flaws - mixes with Kore-Eda's own gentle deployment of familial shame to create a film that speaks volumes about human existence while being, with its generous doses of wry, modern humor, universally relatable. While adopting Ozu's cinematographic chops, Kore-Eda also incorporates his own use of camera movement, accentuated by the gorgeous and unexpected final shot, a dolly upwards over the seaside town that recalls the final shot of Mizoguchi's Ugetsu and reveals the visual elements (trains, trees, ocean) that seem as inseparable to Kore-Eda as they do to Ozu. With an expressive guitar-based score, immaculate naturally lit photography, and artisanal attention to Japanese cuisine, Kore-Eda's awareness of his surroundings becomes heightened to consummate verisimilitude. And to further ingrain the influence of Ozu, Kore-Eda implants the film's title with subtle resonance. At another of the family's dinners, Toshiko plays a record of the sentimental pop song that reminds her of her marriage to Kyohei. A notable lyric describes a couple that will "walk together forever". Kyohei and Toshiko are still walking, even in the face of everything that threatens to pull them apart, a relationship as strong and complex as family itself.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Snow Angels (2007) A Film by David Gordon Green

Snow Angels is my introduction to director David Gordon Green, but, given some general knowledge of his oeuvre, it is clear that the film is somewhat of a criterion by which to map out the rest of his career. Small-scale dramas with crisp dialogue and gently poetic undertones is definitely where Green excels, and is also the mode that his early features appear to operate under (George Washington (2000), All the Real Girls (2003), and Undertow (2004)). It's when other forces, namely Hollywood, begin encroaching on Green's comfort level that his films veer in a different direction (Pineapple Express (2008)), for better or worse. In Snow Angels, this dialectical push-pull of internal and external motivations frequently threatens to ruin the film altogether, but Green's undeniable adroitness with human drama manages to instill an undercurrent of lifelike emotion even when uncomfortable pacing and slightly artificial plotting emerges. One can sense Green juggling two sensibilities - low-key suburban drama and Hollywood melodrama - and this collision is often jarring. However, while these two frameworks do arguably bleed into each other for the entirety of the film, the stretches of time where each is emphasized is rather sharply divided.

In what can be considered to be the initial half of this dividing line, Green intimately observes the lives of a group of small-town Connecticut locals whose humdrum routines invariably intersect. Two estranged families are at the center of attention: there are the Marchands, with mother Annie (Kate Beckinsale) living in the family's house with the daughter of her and divorced husband Glenn (Sam Rockwell), a recovering alcoholic who stumbles around town trying to win Annie back; alternatively, there are the Parkinsons, who have another divorce issue, a familiar hurdle whose impact their son Arthur (Michael Angarano), a high-school student, fails to express. Arthur works as a dish-cleaner at the same Asian restaurant where Annie, his former babysitter, waitresses, and Annie is having an affair with the husband of another waitress at this restaurant who she considers a close friend. Green engineers this web of camaraderie and hostility with great nuance, casually drawing their links and respective personalities through protracted scenes of interaction. Working off of a novel by Stewart O'Nan, Green allows the dialogue to be informal and lucid, letting the sleek visuals substitute for literary description and thus masterfully outline these characters. As a result, there becomes a potent mosaic of indirectly communicated vibes, such as repressed sexual attraction between Annie and Arthur, and adamantly veiled longing that Annie has for Glenn.

A nonchalant fluidity in pacing also marks this section, which makes up approximately the first 45 minutes of Snow Angels. Green never lets the scenes last longer than they should, and the way in which the film cycles back and forth between Annie and Glenn, Arther's high school life and evolving romance with a new girl in school, the feud between the Parkinson parents, and Annie's relationship with the adulterous Nate Petite (Nicky Katt), is seamless. Often times they are shuffled together simultaneously to augment unseen tension; for instance, we see Annie and Nate in bed together, post-intercourse, in the home of Annie and Glenn, along with a montage of Glenn spending his much cherished time with their daughter, who consistently nags at her father about how she wants to see "mommy". Before this scene, Annie, while giving Glenn their daughter, mistakenly slips a line that makes Glenn suspicious of Annie's new relationship, saying that "we" do the chores as opposed to simply "I". Meanwhile, Glenn's earnest attempts at getting Annie to have dinner with him and his genuine love for their daughter make him a powerfully sympathetic character despite his bumbling naivete and foolish born-again outlook. Such scenes gain a complexity that never devalues the feeling of naturalism, of these events seeming completely realistic in the context of a snow-bitten suburb.

Despite this largely impressionistic, almost sedate flow, there is always an air of impending doom, as if the events are quietly accumulating into something terrible, and when tragedy finally does strike, while it does contain dramatic force, it ultimately changes the tone of the film. A few days after Annie and Glenn's daughter is officially labeled missing, Arthur and his friend head to the woods behind their school to smoke some marijuana and their discovery there, the young girl frozen beneath ice, launches the film into unrelentingly grim territory. Her death propels Annie into a severe existential crisis, Glenn into a drunken stupor, and the rest of the town into a cloud of gloom. At this point, Green starts playing Hollywood games, putting his characters through a series of miserabilist scenarios and subsequently observing their crises via supposedly introspective shots of them sitting alone staring out the window. The film loses out on its intimacy, preferring melodrama. Moreover, the onset of this tragedy clunks into the film abruptly, finishing as fast as it started, leaving us far from the end with some pacing deficiencies.

To be fair though, what the film loses from this episode, it evidently tries to regain by focusing acutely on the repercussions of the tragedy. Potentially humorous scenes of Glenn waltzing with drunken bar patrons or slurring during a pathetic speech about his lost love to Nate become deeply disturbing given the context of what's ensued. Annie questions her own life while Glenn perversely inquires about the nature of forgiveness, this being the point at which his born-again ideology has reached its apogee. In this light, one wonders how much of the denouement of Snow Angels is ostensibly "real" and how much is warped into Glenn's heavily skewered perception. If we're to embrace the latter, I find the film's final minutes to be extremely complex and rewarding, almost managing to negate the unevenness that comes before it. And while overwrought melodrama is clearly not what was meant to be in this film, Green still handles it better than most, presumably because he knows how to deal with the nuances of human behavior so well, evidenced by the beginning of the film. For instance, Arthur's relationship with the new girl, a nerdy photographer, is a solid, believable romance. The investigation into the death of Annie and Glenn's daughter is tensely emotional. Without these elements though, and perhaps without an overarching plot in general, Snow Angels could have been a sharper film, with dialogue as its main attraction.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Made in U.S.A (1966) A Film by Jean-Luc Godard

As a turning point in Jean Luc-Godard's career, Made in U.S.A is also one of the director's strangest endeavors, an overtly self-indulgent grab bag that chops up the American film noir by way of dry political musings and random allusions to movie lore and historical figures. It features Anna Karina playing a modish private eye named Paula Nelson investigating the story surrounding her recently dead ex-lover in an imaginary oasis of France called Atlantic-Cité, encountering hip political workers and ominous buffoons linked tangentially to crimes committed along the way. For a film that is so readily billed as a substantial, albeit unusual, narrative - Criterion even wittily calls it "a Looney Tunes rendition of The Big Sleep gone New Wave" - the film could hardly be less plotless, even by Godard's standards. One expects the narratives of Godard's late films to be nonexistent, but in 1966, Made in U.S.A was an explosive deconstruction of filmmaking conventions, while simultaneously being rooted in them in a giddy, almost childlike manner. What Godard is doing in the film is leaving behind any commercial perception of what makes a film interesting, and is instead using the medium as a launching pad for his own obsessions, preoccupations, and ideas, in no matter how frenzied a manner.

And yet, for all the times Made in U.S.A is labeled as one of the defining moments for a revolutionary, the film is hardly suitable for anyone but Godard. Shot in an improvisational manner in extreme brevity, no less during the shooting of Two or Three Things I Know About Her, one can't help but think it was merely a hiccup for him. With characters carelessly named Doris Mizoguchi, Richard Nixon, and David Goodis, a hapless slapstick cameo by New-Wave favorite Jean-Pierre Léaud, and pounds of obscure poetic tidbits spoken by Karina, the feeling that Godard was simply pulling arbitrarily from his catalog of cinematic, literary, and political knowledge is never inconspicuous. In some of the most technically harsh moments in Godard's career, he rants on and on over a small radio system about the political state of French, the consolidation of the Left and Right, and the necessary onslaught of Maoism, all while the soundtrack blares in a high frequency for god know's why. While this type of explicit directorial intrusion is no surprise in the New Wave master's oeuvre, here it drones on so incessantly and with such little inflection that it stands as one more irksome departure from the alleged story.

His leftover infatuation with Karina, a subtext already explored heavily in Vivre Sa Vie and Pierrot Le Fou, is also omnipresent. For the entirety of Made in U.S.A, the camera is less interested in the content of what she is doing than it is in how she's doing it, pausing all forward motion to watch her lie down and mutter cryptic lines about her lost lover, jaunt around a crime scene as if a hooker looking for a client, and stare longingly into the camera in pristine panoramas that look like fashion spreads for Alienation Weekly. She looks gorgeous throughout the film with her makeup perpetually laid on just right, and Godard is aware of this when he subjects her to such prolonged scrutiny. But there's also a hostility in her screen presence, as if Godard is creating a pointedly mysterious and unlikeable character to justify his own divorce. The character of Paula Nelson lines right up with the rest of the modern women from 60's arthouse cinema as a beautiful but cold and indifferent enigma that will ruin a man with the same level of seeming carelessness, even shooting characters in Made in U.S.A with the gun that is persistently slung by her side.

In terms of this violence, despite its frequency, Godard presents it as non-violently and unrealistically as possible. Karina seems to brush off murderous acts with the same nonchalance with which she commits them. Furthermore, victims of gun-shooting in the film display only the scantest and most laughable evidence of physical disintegration, with either a perfect circle of vibrant red dabbed on their forehead or a puddle of the same substance that looks like red leather. The dead victim usually remains locked in a pose that could still pass off as fashionable, with their skin and clothes remaining in tip-top shape. This is not to say that Godard can't tell real from fake if his life depended on it; rather, one can see it as hysterically cartoonish violence for a point. It is both flagrant mockery of the Hollywood predilection to only equate overt believability with substance, and further proof of Godard's ongoing inclination to question the nature of the image, to challenge the notion that "seeing is believing". At the same time, given the pop-art aesthetic of the film, Godard sees these stylistic touches as all part of the same form. To him, flashing a cartoon still of the word "BING!" when Karina is pulled from her path by an unidentified stranger is just as effective and valuable a film technique as adding the appropriate sound effect to the scene.

These instances, along with several magnificent compositions courtesy of Raoul Coutard's typically flashy cinematography (one of the finest being Karina wandering through a backroom between gargantuan film posters), give Made in U.S.A a tickle of interest. When it comes down to it though, the film only contains a smattering of ideas rather than a coherent picture. I'm still unsure of what is gained by setting the visual essay loosely around the genre of film noir or procedural crime drama, other than that it vaguely comments upon these frameworks in a purely reverential manner, something that is by no means new to Godard's work. Whereas Two or Three Things was held together firmly by its thematic base, Made in U.S.A dances around a jumble of slightly interconnected themes, so there is nothing to grab onto besides Karina's face and Coutard's colors. And when Godard sloppily adds another disjunctive sound effect that smacks ten decibels too high, I'm not struck by the denial of film form it embodies, but rather, I'm just annoyed.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

In the Loop (2009) A Film by Armando Iannucci

Take The Office and Armando Iannucci's In the Loop. Observe the differences. Both are highly satirical looks at the behind-the-scenes shenanigans of seemingly uptight bureaucracies. It's easy to see the striking differences in trajectory though between the two countries they spawn from: the United States and the United Kingdom. There's something more steadfast and direct about the British sense of humor, a unabashed willingness to hit the point on the head that sometimes lacks in American comedy. Iannucci's In the Loop is by no means as subtle as The Office, in the sense that in the latter things are implied and much of it relies on "in-jokes" that warrant a familiarity with up-to-the-minute American culture, but In the Loop is definitely damned funny regardless. In a culture where the Iraq War is treated more often than not in a closemouthed, serious manner, Iannucci, without ever stating what war is being fiddled with, takes a welcome mockumentary stance.

In the Loop propels us into an unfamiliar but in no way unbelievable world of incompetent power-mongers, foul-mouths, and petty competition between a populace of indistinguishable gray-suited government officials. When Simon Foster (Tom Hollander), British Secretary of State for International Development, muffs his words during a radio interview, stating that a war with the U.S. is "unforeseeable", it unleashes the fury of his boss Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi), the Chief of Communications. His rude potty mouth and over-the-top bashing of Simon is steadily maintained throughout the rest of the film. Why would Foster say it is unforeseeable when it is neither that nor foreseeable? This misstep introduces a thematic crux of the film: the slippery nature of language and how the public image distorts it to mean something entirely different from its original intention. Upon heading to the U.S. with his partner Toby Wright (Chris Addison) to meet with the UN, Simon continues to falter under pressure, letting more ridiculous comments slip out from between his lips, such as a discussion of a certain "mountain of conflict" that must be overcome. Simon and Malcolm's tensions mount while on the American side of things, the concept of a war planning committee is fumbled around between a Pentagon General (James Gandolfini), a U.S. State Department Official with a bloody toothache (Mimi Kennedy), and Karen's smug colleague Linton Barwick (David Rasche).

When all is said and done however - but in more cases just said - In the Loop's "plot" doesn't matter. All we need to know is that we're watching the tomfoolery of government relations in a situation that dangerously resembles that which triggered the war with Iraq years ago. Iannucci is most interested in extracting the childlike behavior amongst the high-ranking officials, people who are in the vital position of managing nations. They spit on each other, fire low insults, and decide on whether or not they should inflict physical pain on each other despite the consequences that will surely result. With its guerrilla-style camerawork, relentlessly assured and committed performances from its talented actors, and crackling screenplay, In the Loop rarely falls short of nearly tear-jerking laughs. It's by no means a "difficult difficult lemon difficult" film, but it targets an area no one minds seeing satirized with hard-boiled force.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Persepolis (2007) A Film by Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Parronaud

The comic book to film adaption has seen distinct results: there are the slew of superhero films such as Spiderman, The Hulk, and Watchmen, and then there are decidedly smaller, more introspective comedy-dramas, like the excellent episodic Harvey Pekar film, American Splendor, and now Marjane Satrapi and her artist collaborator Vincent Parronaud's Persepolis. The latter arena roots its milieu in everyday life as it attempts to extract comedy and pathos out of autobiographical tales of normal existence, whereas the former shoots for a fantastical reality infused the grandiloquence of a myth. While Persepolis does hold true to these trappings, it also expands broader than the quotidian distress of American Splendor into something more politically minded and socially relevant. It is a documenting of the trials and tribulations of a feisty Iranian woman as she grows up through a turbulent era in Iran - the oppressive Shah regime, the subsequent hint at democracy, and eventually a turn towards a strict Fundamentalist system. The young woman is indeed Marjane Satrapi herself, and the story takes on an almost confessional bent at times with Satrapi utilizing the autobiographical mode to its fullest extent, revealing her successes and failures with a copious blend of self-mocking and self-aggrandizement.

Considering the film's sources are the two comic books Satrapi authored of the same name (Persepolis and Persepolis 2), it's a given that the film should adopt a fragmented, rapid-fire storytelling technique, as if each scene was plugged from the individual frames in the comic book. Satrapi's character - voiced by Gabrielle Lopes Benites as a child and Chiara Mastroianni (the daughter of Marcello) as a teen and young woman - guides the film via narration, and it takes the many excursions that her words entail, into dream, flashback, and fantasies. Sometimes the scenes are so anecdotal that they undermine the flow of the narrative as a whole, which favors shifting thoughts rather than wholly logical progression. Nonetheless, they are stitched together by Satrapi's consistent humanity. Her world-view, which takes on a hint of gentle rebellion, has been shaped by her intellectually independent role models: her loving mother and father, an Uncle Anoush she had never met until he was imprisoned, and her idiosyncratic grandmother, whom she lives with for a time. The first section of the film details Marjane's youth, which is probably the most dramatically diffuse. Like the bubbly child she is, and the Nike-wearing, punk-rocking adolescent she becomes, the narrative clamors with vibrancy but loses out on coherence.

As Persepolis progresses and Marji is sent away by her parents in the interest of acquiring a better education, it also gains more assurance on the level of fluidity. She is confronted with the decadent culture and introduced to such previously unspoken taboos as smoking and alcohol, thrasher punk, and spontaneous dating. Each of her flings, from flimsily characterized artistic weirdos to booger-eating grotesques, is presented in a slapdash manner, emphasizing the roller-coaster ride of emotions experienced in Marjane due to the displacement from her beloved but flawed homeland and her caring family. It all ultimately leads to depression, which she unsatisfactorily discovers when her doctor tells her after she vomits up a black liquid from too many cigarettes. Marjane vows to straighten up and heads back to her native land as a way of doing so, only to find it is in a much more dire position than she could have ever imagined. This is where the film is most successful, in its juxtaposition of the childlike view of the revolution in her early days to the slap of reality she gets upon returning as a fully formed woman. Perhaps this is why Marjane's youth is told with an almost naive structure. It allows for the later sequences to mold to that of a matured woman's mind.

Enough talk about narrative, for Persepolis' most recognizable achievement is its beautiful visual language. Satrapi's comic books are known for their minimalistic line-drawing, which admittedly gains infinitely more expressiveness in its commitment to animation. The aesthetic fascinatingly combines this simplistic method for the faces and bodies of people with textured shading on objects in the background. Such a technique allows the bodies to stand out even when they are reduced to white eyes on black shadow figures, as if animal eyes peering out from behind bushes. The backgrounds are wonderfully descriptive and often times willfully expressionistic; for instance, a wall frequently becomes a blob of black with a patch of white in the middle, recalling the eerie domestic interiors of David Lynch's Eraserhead. Contrasting this straightforwardness are the instances of cartoonish dreams that Marjane has. In her youth, a majestic God cushioned between one-dimensional cloud formations guides her frustration during sleep, and she even travels the seven seas. Satrapi and Parronaud draw these images with great innocence and detail, giving them the look of paper thin layers that move in and out to convey depth.

This artistic acumen is ultimately able to punctuate the otherwise rambling narrative with poignancy. The images are also coupled perfectly with a rustic soundtrack tinged with French classical and jazzy pop ditties, or even in one bizarre, out-of-step instance, Marjane's rendition of "Eye of the Tiger" during her self-realization. Satrapi and Paronnaud evidently have a skill with the pairing of image and music alone to create emotion, proved when the characters walk through the Iranian streets and a lovely snow falls. Persepolis is able to sidestep the conventional coming-of-age drama where some particular contrivance elevates the character to maturity, instead achieving the feeling of an accumulation of life events that help to shape a person, particularly a person who has been through political and social upheaval but has never lost her values.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Ugetsu (Ugetsu monogatari) A Film by Kenji Mizoguchi (1953)

Assembled from two of the nine sections in Akirari Ueda's popular Japanese folk tales, Tales of Moonlight and Rain, Kenji Mizoguchi's Ugetsu plunges into sentiments of consummate universality despite its distinctly Japanese inflection. Mizoguchi, like Ozu, was a director of undeniable talent with surprisingly little acknowledgment from western audiences, but the difference is that Mizoguchi reached international acclaim earlier than Ozu, who was deemed "too Japanese". Watching Ugetsu though, it seems the same label could be applied unfairly to Mizoguchi, despite there being a slightly more Orientalist appeal than what one can find in the rigorously formal familial observations of Ozu. I wouldn't say I was overwhelmed by the wealth of Japanese culture that was being directed my way, but I was in unfamiliar territory, amidst ancient civil unrest and Noh drama. Fortunately, Mizoguchi's directorial handle is so assured, his pacing and aesthetic choices so rich, that I was interested in traversing the risky terrain, and the results were greatly worth it.

The film deals with two materialistic brothers living in a village, Genjurô (Masayuki Mori) and Tobei (Eitarô Ozawa), who, in attempt to provide for their families, make the perilous trip to the local city. Genjurô and Tobei however, wrongly, equate fortune with happiness. Their wives, Miyagi (Kinuyo Tanaka) and Genichi (Ikio Sawamura), respectively, are at the mercy of the two men throughout the film, torn apart indirectly by their missteps and profoundly thankful for their successes. Tobei abandons Genichi once in the city in his giddy pursuit to become a samurai - one that ends with a fraudulent rise to the top that Tobei sees as honorable and Genichi, now serving as an ill-respected geisha, thinks of differently - and Genjurô leaves Miyagi and his young boy home while he pursues pottery sales. Living in a turbulent social landscape where warriors wreak havoc on the villages routinely, pillaging houses, raping, and killing without hesitation, all efforts undergone by the brothers are at the heavy risk of failure. It's a make or break situation, where one move could mean life or death.

For a while, it seems Ugetsu will be bound to this historical realism. And indeed, the film would have succeeded simply in this mindset, which Mizoguchi conveys perfectly through his pedantic attention to historical detail and his tense camerawork, detached but instilled with a startling sense of immediacy. Nevertheless, to offset the brutal realism onscreen, and most importantly to coincide with the delusional ambitions of Genjurô and Tobei, Mizoguchi flows furtively into an unforeseen arena of the supernatural. When we first witness Lady Wakasa (Machiko Kyô), who soon is revealed as a ghost of the past, she is subtly unsettling in her ethereal white garbs but doesn't scream of phantasmagory. One can accept her as simply an eccentric local, as Genjurô does, but she lures him into her mansion with her distant seductiveness, a place he soon enough deems a paradise. Through a bizarre, shadowy communion set to eerie hums and bongos, the two become maritally bound, a perverse bond of life and death, of life and afterlife, that jibes with the film's looming sense of mortality, of grave consequences being omnipresent behind foolish choices. Sequences involving Lady Wakasa also include some of the most visually arresting moments in the film, such as the bracing transitional "scroll shot" (a famous Mizoguchi trademark) that glides from Lady Wakasa and Genjurô in a steam bath across the ground beside them and up to a separate scene with the two sprawled out on a tranquil lakefront.

As much as I'm in awe of Mizoguchi's mise-en-scene, I remain skeptical of his dramatic precision. Mori and Ozawa, playing the two brothers, have a tendency to overact, placing huge, unbelievable grins on their faces in times when their overt shallowness has to be revealed. Of course the two border on comic figures, Tobei specifically, but rarely is there a glimmer of a serious human being behind all of the naivety. Tanaka and Sawamura have a similar tendency, although Sawamura's leans toward reeling self-pity, such as in the scene when Tobei discovers her unsatisfactory new lifestyle. Given the fact that Ugetsu is a tale of male domination, perhaps even a feminist tale, greater subtlety on the part of Mizoguchi's leading ladies could have gone a long way, as in the film's of Ozu. Nonetheless, I wouldn't refrain from proclaiming Ugetsu as the work of a director with a supreme understanding of the camera and the ways in which it acts as an inseparable counterpart to the mechanics of storytelling.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

WR: Mysteries of the Organism (1971) A Film by Dusan Makavejev

The ideas proposed by psychologist/philosopher William Reich were immensely radical in his time (1930's to 1950's), and perhaps still are today, despite the seeming applicability of them: sexual liberation is the key to peace and happiness, the destroyer of repressive ideologies such as Communism, and that this very lust for love is embodied explicitly in such ways of government, positing the Nazi swastika as a veiled image of entangled bodies. He also created the theory of "orgone energy", which basically states that the libido is a mechanism heavily monitored by the orgasm, and that beneath every orgasm lies a level of primal aggression. These baffling but undoubtedly thought-provoking concepts are all given ample exploration in Dusan Makavajev's Slavic essay film, WR: Mysteries of the Organism, the "WR" indeed standing in for William Reich. In some ways, the Western world has adopted, albeit obtusely, the ideas of Reich, evidenced by the commodification of sex throughout marketing and communication, but one senses this is not the kind of liberation Reich and Makavejev sanctioned. Theirs is leagues freer, less pent-up, and aims to manifest itself personally and publicly, rather than through the minor prism of pop culture.

WR comes across as a deeply weird film, but this type of knee-jerk response seems to be precisely what Makavejev wants to shake out of us. The uncomfortable tension that brews in most of the scenes, even at their most delirious and brief, has been born out of a prudishness in society that stems from popular opinion, which inevitably leads to government. Society has suffocated the seemingly barbaric views of sexual freedom that WR presents, and has, as a result, suffocated the possibility of liberation from the straitjacket mannerisms we currently abide by. We get glimpses, both bizarre and touching, of how the world might look under Reichian theory: in therapy sessions, women scream ecstatically while being encouraged by a trainer to simply move their bodies in certain ways; a large room holds men and women alike engaging in ritualistic acts - stepping on each other's backs as if they were beds of hot coals - while they collectively moan and shriek; a young Slavic student of Reich, Milena (Milena Dravic), passionately leads her own lifestyle in an apartment complex. However, conflicting ideals populate the film, from the Communist "people's artist" Ivica Vidovic (Vladimir Ilyich) who is seduced by Milena to the archival footage of ancient Stalinist propaganda films that are frequently interspersed with the action.

Therefore, Makavejev's film becomes a flamboyant polemic triggered through a dialectical exercise, both structurally and ideologically. Like a Godardian essay, Makavejev's film makes no attempt at maintaining one cinematic technique, shuffling around between documentary and fiction and fantasy and reality. At the same time, Makavejev is less deliberately contemplative as Godard. His associative montage is sprawling and inchoate, distinctly lacking any sort of directorial intrusion, thus leaving the viewer to stitch together the kernels of information entirely on their own. Abnormally, the film's first thirty minutes focus with near dedication on a documentary about Reich complete with interviews of his family (one of which believes the American dream is dead and has given way to the production of young people who are taught to be "good citizens"), his supporters, and even anonymous people associated with his casual life, such as his barber. A female narrator guides us through this section, at one point posing an absurd set of questions regarding the prospect of humans having interstellar pasts simply to underline the "everything-goes" mindset of Reich, the necessity to never discredit irrationalities. Then, like the kaleidoscopic image of lovers having intercourse in a field, the film branches out in several different, loosely linked directions, as if to account for all of the distorted reflections in the honeycomb frame.

Hinting at a possible narrative, the melodrama of Milena is shown. She is a decidedly rebellious young woman, poised to live free from the handcuffs of stiff manners. Her roommate casually performs animalistic sex with her partner in the duo's oddly decorated apartment. Meanwhile, Milena thwarts off nagging attempts her buffoonish neighbor, Radmilovic, makes at seducing her. Eventually Ivica Vidovic catches her eye at one of his ice-skating shows, and she determinedly goes after him despite his unflinching view of masculinity, the emblem of Communism which contrasts sharply with Reich's theories: Vidovic believes that the fulfillment of sexual impulses will drain people of their natural desire to overcome the bourgeois. This shard of WR though, as much as it may sound like it, is anything but narratively conventional. The drama progresses abruptly and clumsily, most of it filled and obscured by absurdist detours, such as Radmilovic busting through Milena's wall and locking Ivica in a closet all while opposing banter clatters around on the soundtrack. Milena is no simplistic firebrand either; staged wittily as if a triumphant Party meeting, Milena epically sermonizes the tenants who line the corridors of the apartment complex about the need for sexual liberation. Such scenes are proof of Makavejev's ironic tongue, never sacrificing comedy for hard-nosed intellectualism.

To present a geographically distinct compliment to Milena's story, WR also delivers interludes of 16mm documentary footage focusing on zany characters in New York City, including a liberated transvestite and an artist who paints explicit sexual acts normally unexplored. Each comment on or differ slightly from Reich's theories, and, in heightening the possibilities of cerebral links, Makavejev piles on the references to commercial culture's view of sex, setting a long walk between the transvestite and his boyfriend to an uninterrupted radio program. Elsewhere, rambunctious circus and folk music accompany scenes of a hippy, Tuli Kupferberg, dressed in orange army clothes holding a toy rifle as he wanders the streets as if in the midst of a behind-enemy-lines mission. It all sounds so disparate in writing that one could hardly grasp how curiously this film succeeds in evoking the spirit of rebellion and connecting the thoughts of the orgasm and politics, but somehow through its playful assembly it works. And the finale - in which Milena is beheaded following intercourse with Ivica, her lone head, speaking on its own, subsequently dissolved into an image of Reich himself - gives us one final statement that explodes with multivalence.