Thursday, February 25, 2010

Eclipse (L'Eclisse) A Film by Michelangelo Antonioni (1962)

I have a troubling relationship with Michelangelo Antonioni's loose early 60's trilogy (the other two being L'Avventura (1960) and La Notte (1961)), because it seems that just about every time the films become so achingly beautiful that I'm in awe, Antonioni does something that achieves little more than bland fulfillment of the conventions of alienation that were in vogue in the art cinema of the time. L'Eclisse represents the apogee of this divide, with sequences that are among the most sublime Antonioni ever committed to film and others, like an endlessly prolonged stock market diversion or the moments when Monica Vitti can't utter anything but the words "I don't know", that are irritating beyond belief. Throughout these works, one senses that Antonioni was building up a personal stamp in the public's eyes, one that dealt with longeurs of wordlessness and blunt acknowledgments of the kind of dwarfing effect that modernity has on the individual, and, either consciously or subconsciously, he was factoring in what was expected of him. Thus, there are times when Antonioni is just being Antonioni, lounging in his signatures without necessarily always servicing the work. I find L'Eclisse to be the most accomplished of the three films though despite the transparency of these shout-outs to himself, because when it shines, it really shines.

It goes without saying, but the film is about the difficulty of making lasting emotional connections in an increasingly modernized milieu, and it stars Antonioni's muse Monica Vitti as the romantically, even spiritually confused bella. The first scene of L'Eclisse is actually the middle of a scene, one in which Antonioni does not supply the supposedly essential parts. We experience the feeling of dropping in on an uncomfortable tension between two lovers - Vitti's Vittoria and Francisco Rabal's Riccardo, a smug, corporate type - as it is perceived that Vittoria has in the very near past made a declaration of closure to Riccardo. The silence that pervades the moments with the adult couple shying awkwardly away from each other in a confined apartment space, a polar opposite of the chatty remoteness occurring in a similar scene between Michel Piccoli and Brigitte Bardot in Godard's Contempt, is an immediate predictor of the film's relentless quietude, not just sonically but psychologically. Even in the most boisterous stretches, there is a blankness of mind, a murkiness, a general inability to externalize internal feelings. Vitti may invariably laugh, smile, and dance, such as in an uncharacteristic throwaway visual gag where she paints herself black and has a Kenyan pow-wow with her best friend's colonialist neighbor, but she is never resolutely happy.

About halfway through, L'Eclisse seems to incidentally pick up what becomes its primary plot point, just as L'Avventura unexpectedly transitions from a mystery regarding a lost woman to a timid romance between the two who are dispassionately searching for her. It's important to mention however that a "primary plot point" to Antonioni is just an excuse to explore a theme, and any semblance of story is democratized amongst the other aspects that make up the film. After literally drifting around for an extended period of time after leaving Riccardo, she begins to develop an enigmatic romance with a stockbroker working for her mother (Lilla Brignone) named Piero (Alain Delon). Their interactions begin as fragmented and uncertain; although Piero's attraction is bluntly clear, Vittoria has a habit of turning away from him at all possible costs, though never fully abandoning his company for fear of losing all hope in human connection. Eventually, she has difficulty holding back her attraction, and they grow more flirtatious, even engaging in a few outbreaks of unrestrained jostling with one another. Yet, to emphasize the fundamental distance between them, which can be uncannily felt through through their more mechanized movements, Antonioni, in one of his more leaden uses of visual symbolism, composes them kissing from opposites sides of a glass window. The suggestion is that attraction can exist merely on a superficial level, and as long as there are barriers to put up (the stock market and glass windows, both creations of man), people will forever be doomed to stand on either side, prohibiting them from real physical and emotional contact.

Vittoria's romantic liaisons are foregrounded against the materialistic concerns of urban life. To be more accurate, L'Eclisse is set in what looks like a newly renovated metropolitan area, with vast expanses of construction work within a hilly landscape. There is a driving contrast that the film establishes between the natural and the unnatural or man-made, evident in both the physical landscape as well as the emotional landscape between the sensual, searching Vittoria and the money-hungry Piero. Several instances powerfully illustrate this, such as Vittoria's aimless walks, shot in successions of wide panoramas. Antonioni also extracts the synthetic beauty out of the environment through Vittoria's heedless curiosity; one particularly stunning moment shows her standing motionless before a row of metal pillars clanking in the soft wind. However, there are also times when he brazenly overstates the world's mechanization, and this is precisely what I mean when I say Antonioni's just being Antonioni. The sequences at the stock market are intolerably long and banal, simplistically implying that to experience it for long enough is to truly understand its shallowness. Unfortunately, this comes across right away, and we are left to wallow in a clamor of writhing men in suits, screaming out numbers and plotting their next moves behind gargantuan pillars. Furthermore, the rather absurd, Tati-esque tone of the scenes muddles the intent, attempting to make something that should be dry and mathematical into an almost slapstick romp.

The absence of Vitti's character for a great portion of the stock market scenes is typical of L'Eclisse's propensity to completely strand its main characters and plot line. It's also an augur for the film's notoriously mysterious conclusion, which, after creating the expectation that Vittoria and Piero will meet the next morning in their usual spot, instead becomes an extended piece of visual poetry documenting their absence from the street corner where they first kiss timidly. At this point, the overbearing presence of the locations takes total precedence over the people occupying them, eclipsing them, if you will. Antonioni's aloof camera makes the mundane seem alien, luxuriating in a piece of driftwood floating in a bucket of water, the textures of the skin of a random passersby, or a long, empty street. Droning soundscapes accompany the images, creating what feels more like a sci-fi than a romance. I can't think of a more entrancing way to conclude this lonely, elegiac film, and it almost singlehandedly makes up for the more eye-rolling formalities.

Taxi Driver (1976) A Film by Martin Scorsese

During a protracted scene of dialogue late in Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver, a twelve year-old prostitute named Iris (a blossoming Jodie Foster) referred to in the pimp world as "Easy" says to Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro), the stir-crazy misfit at the center of the film: "I dunno who's weirder, you or me". It's a casual one-off delivered by Foster with the kind of finesse that would suggest it as no more or less important than the rest of the conversation, but it rings with the kind of ambiguous moral inquiry that underscores the entire film. Scorsese's landmark 1970's film is not so much caught up in providing answers or condemning social issues as it is in thrusting the viewer inside the mind of a disturbed individual who, in combating the thing, becomes the thing itself. Bickle, a lonely, self-serious, aggressively moralizing figure, thinks he has it all understood: the New York City in which he cruises with his taxi is rife with corruption, "scum" as he routinely dubs it, and it needs to be swept away. He has no intended solution to this problem other than to simplistically "get rid of it", and Scorsese watches from a respectable, devastating distance as Bickle's one-track mind negotiates the need to purify the urban environment while it rots away without assistance.

Bickle is one of the most radically ambiguous anti-heroes that Scorsese has ever filmed, and it would be safe to extend this statement to include him in the entire scope of American cinema as well. His stance as a morally questionable vigilante who rebels against an almost post-apocalyptic milieu of urban angst looms large over the ensuing timeline of American films that take this type of figure as their signpost for dark, serious subject matter: Tyler Durden in Fight Club, to name one, is loaded with Bickle-isms. Part of the reason why he is such a fascinating character is because of the juggling act that is on display between his seemingly astute and well-intentioned dismissal of what he sees as the city's corruption and the psychopathic bloodlust that he embraces to defeat it. It becomes especially difficult to stand by Bickle's side when we witness how impulsive and rash he is when he does not get his way. A radiant love interest named Betsy (Cybill Shepherd) avoids him after he foolishly takes her to an adult film as a date, and in doing so Bickle nearly attacks her violently. Though he's been through the war as a Marine and will humbly take any job, he's really a child in a man's body who has a burning desire to eliminate all the obstacles that make life slightly less endurable.

The distorted lens through which Bickle views his surrounding city requires Scorsese to present his favorite setting in the bleakest possible manner, a fever dream of indecipherable sources of neon, wet side-streets lined with junkies and prostitutes, and bland apartment interiors. Much of what Bickle sees is from his taxi, and thus this landscape is usually shown from a voyeuristic perspective, glimpsed through windows and often abstracted by reflections of street lights. Several of these montages have been immortalized in film history, such as the scene that opens the film, with a taxi emerging portentously in slow motion from a cloud of manhole smoke, succeeded by Bickle's famous narration about the scum which envelops him. Set to Bernard Herrmann's final score, a dreamy lounge jazz mix of synthesizers and saxophone, these scenes are rightfully remembered for the beautifully foreboding snippets that they are, pointing subtly but surely towards the tragic bloodbath climax. The uncertainty that accompanies them also carries over into Bickle's ordinary activities, such as meeting up with his fellow cabbies at a diner or ogling Betsy from the street at her workplace. As always, Scorsese's cinematic technique is utterly in synch with the psychological and dramatic imports onscreen, emphatically whip panning, tracking, or zooming when called for. He even finds menace in a moment when Bickle is drinking a seltzer water, the camera ominously gliding towards the bubbling liquid with an enhanced sonic accompaniment, something of a condensed version of the coffee cup scene in Godard's Two or Three Things I Know About Her.

In fact, Taxi Driver is fundamentally informed by diverse cinematic sensibilities, and in a way becomes a hodgepodge of all of the direct as well as invoked collaborators on the work. Consider the fertile merging of the European and the American; the film presents a nihilistic loner not unlike a Dostoevsky figure within a distinctly American political and social context. Its mirroring of the turbulent racial and sexual tension that existed in the mid-70's is acutely realized, and can be witnessed in Bickle's conspicuous bigotry towards the African American street-dwellers (who work both as continuations of the Vietnamese he antagonized during the war, with the final scene being a chilling echo of the My Lai Massacre, and reflections of the still-prevalent racism of the time, even after the passing of Civil Rights Acts) and the gulf between the openly sexual mindset that leads the trench-coaters to attend porn theaters and the more prudish outlook of a character like Betsy. This distillation of reality is extended by the decision to present New York City in the midst of an exciting voting season, with a heavyweight candidate named Palantine, a loose fictional representation of Ronald Reagan, being an anchor around whom much of the story's action occurs. So if the guts of this film are American, contextually and cinematically (the grandiose sweep of major Hollywood directors like John Ford and Alfred Hitchcock guides the proceedings - after all, Scorsese is a firm devotee of classic Hollywood cinema - and even Kubrick's The Shining is recalled in the ironically sedate conclusion), then it is sprinkled with fascinating doses of European arthouse furnishings. Bresson, specifically a la Pickpocket, is felt in the film's emotional distance and use of diary narration as a formal narrative device, and German Expressionism makes its mark on Scorsese's florid visual style, with Fritz Lang's M being a particularly fitting precursor given its general thematic thrust of ethical decisions in the face of an outsider.

The Bresson influence is actually especially substantial because Taxi Driver's screenwriter, Paul Schrader, is an enthusiastic worshipper of the French director's work. He provides the introduction to Criterion's Pickpocket release, and one point he makes seems particularly relevant to his effort with Scorsese. Schrader glows about Pickpocket's achievement of transcendence, which he attributes to the utter absence of direct emotionality in the film with the exception of its closing moments. With Herrmann's score, Scorsese's blackly comic touches, and the spontaneous charisma of Robert De Niro (the widely quoted "are you talkin' to me" scene is a result of improvisation), Taxi Driver is far from the austere terrain of Bresson, but there is still a noticeable stride away from the Hollywood tradition of always keeping the audience emotionally invested in and knowledgeable of the character's motivations. Thus, the film's ambiguous final scene, which comes off as too saccharine by half, approaches a similar level of emotional reward, albeit not a completely understood one. I find this bittersweet ending, which is refreshingly indeterministic, to be the clincher of the film's success, and it is largely the reason why I respect the film more than I did after a first viewing. It gives us both violent destruction and perfect fantasia, and although one might occur in a post-mortal realm, who's to say it matters?

Friday, February 12, 2010

In the Mood for Love (Fa yeung nin wa) A Film by Wong-Kar Wai (2000)

Mr. Chow (Tony Leung) and Mrs. Chan's (Maggie Cheung) coincidental romance is doomed from the start. The two have moved into neighboring apartment rooms in Hong Kong on the same day, and just as soon as this happens they suspect both of their respective traveling spouses of infidelity. In the instance of mutual dejection, they begin seeing each other rather routinely enacting rehearsals of the imagined romantic liaisons of their spouses, a sly narrative device that only superficially masks the pair's own growing attachment. Yet we know from the outset that this is a relationship that will not work, if only for reasons outside their control, and director Wong Kar-Wai laments this fact while emphasizing it through tight domestic compositions and a rich patchwork of fragmentary scenes in which words are schematic and desires are withheld. The acute sense of melancholy and longing that imbues In the Mood for Love is masterfully realized through Wong's impressionistic sensibility, and it results in film that, despite its deliberately elusive narrative, which constitutes a memory of the past rather than a present moment, acquires a plausible emotional register. Everything that is mere stylistic flash in Wong's earlier films works marvelously here, as it's always stressing the underlying emotions and themes in the film, and also - being a film that is consciously constructed of moments as opposed to chronological sequences - the precise feelings inherent in every memory.

The immediate discontinuity between In the Mood for Love and Wong's earlier Hong Kong-set films like Chungking Express and Fallen Angels is the level of design precision. His early films display a burst of Godardian energy, seemingly subject to great spontaneity and fluctuation between script and finished product. Here, no notes are bent. The art direction, costumes, cinematography, and musical cues feel so pre-ordained and exact despite the film's strangely episodic, elliptical nature. Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung's meta performances are assured and mannered yet not without a sense of humor and imperfection, unlike the freewheeling naturalism of Fallen Angels' sprawling, hyper-kinetic bodies in urban spaces. Although the bulk of Wong's core collaborators remain the same (William Chang is the film's editor, and Christopher Doyle once again lends his talent to the film as cinematographer), In the Mood for Love calls upon Wong to adapt. Its story emphasizes ephemerality as well as formality (the setting is of established middle-class adults in a pivotal early 1960's instead of disillusioned twentysomething loners in a more modernized urban environment), so the style works accordingly. Scenes are alarmingly short and to the point but still beautiful, and that is very much the ulterior motive: the lovers' milieu is only deflating and suppressing the impassioned attraction at the core of their encounters.

Yet the pacing of the film also bends to the mechanics of memory on occasion. Because of the fact that Wong ends the film on Mr. Chow during a lush coda in the midst of Cambodian ruins, and positions its final quotes as those of Mr. Chow, In the Mood for Love presumably is the product of his memory. Therefore, moments of glimpsed tenderness between Chow and Chan are normally protracted by Wong through either slow-motion, matched harmoniously with Michael Galasso's mischief-soaked waltz, or nearly imperceptible shutter speed effects which retain real-time diegetic audio (such instances are infinitely more effective than their overuse in Fallen Angels). Mr. Chow savors these fleeting hints at fully expressed love with Mrs. Chan, and through the magic of his mind, and the cinematic medium, he can extend them, fetishize them, and even repeat them, explaining the several repeated scenes (and images) in the film. We are however left without the subjectivity of Mrs. Chan, and her ambivalent, emotionally confused presence in the film leaves her actual thoughts up to interpretation, but through minor, evocative gestures, Wong (and Cheung) suggests that Chan's repressed feelings are reciprocated.

In the Mood for Love is a decidedly personal, introspective work, but it also has a compressed social and political component to it. In a perfect world, free of societal constructs and points of view towards marriage, loyalty, and manners, Mr. Chan and Mrs. Chow would go unrestricted with their desires, falling for each other the moment their first instinctual love bug crawled out. Repressed romances in the face of a collective society is a storytelling plug as old as dirt, identifiable in the literary works of Shakespeare and subsequently throughout film history, most radically practiced by Luis Buñuel. Wong's film breathes interesting new life into this theme because the rapturous, rainy Hong Kong that Mr. Chan and Mrs. Chow occupy is far from being an oppressive area. Rather, the gorgeous wallpaper and meticulously placed old-fashioned cars are reflective of an adequate, even luxurious Hong Kong, and the economic situation of the time is what initially brings the pair together in the adjacent apartments in the city. As the 1960's progressed, the social situations worsened, culminating in a series of subversive riots in 1966 and 1967, when the film spends its final where-they-are-now episodes. The coming-together of Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan occurs at a highly specific time and place, and the precise conditions of their meeting could not be replayed, demonstrating the impact of the public on the personal.

Given the film's adeptness in conveying the intangible through clever visual and editing rhymes, it becomes rather redundant when Wong adds the captions referring to Mr. Chan in the final acts, phrases which add verbal verification to the broader feelings communicated through the film. This has the unfortunate effect of showing and telling, of limiting the potential for cinematic reflection to what is spoken in summation. "The past is something he could see, but not touch. And everything he sees is blurred and indistinct." In the Mood for Love does not need these words because it has an uncanny ability to make us live this experience of transience and forgetting, to truly feel the sensation of a blurred snapshot. Every ecstatic detail - the bottom of a red window shade blowing next to the floor, a cigarette in an ashtray smacked with fresh lipstick, the rotting texture of a cement wall beside the noodle house - accumulates to convey this with expertise. It's a film whose richness confirms Wong Kar-Wai as a major talent.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Headless Woman (La mujer sin cabeza) A Film by Lucrecia Martel (2007)

The recent batch of audacious Argentinian films have come from some decidedly opaque filmmakers, but among them, Lucrecia Martel is the most willfully teasing in terms of narrative expectations. Her third feature, The Headless Woman, is a monument to diffuse plotlessness after making us believe after its chilling setup that it will be at least a low-key thriller. Instead, it is a cinema of reactions, of effect rather than cause. Documenting the quasi-amnesiac state of a middle-aged woman in the days following an accident on the road where she collides with a force (the identity(s) of which becomes the latent mystery of the film), it purposely excises the kind of empirical evidence that might lead the viewer to an understanding of what exactly happened. Martel prefers creating an ominous tapestry of portentous diegetic sounds and nondescript visuals reflecting the world only as her anti-heroine sees it, thus leaving us without any accurate frame of reference. The result is a film that washes over the screen in an indistinct blur, making it difficult to engage with during or even directly following the viewing.

It is only now, a day later, that I am able to gain my bearings and recall some of the devices she sneaks into the modest frames, which appear at a surprisingly frequent rate and inspire a curiously numbing effect. These are not only cinematic devices, like offscreen noise, subtly tampered audio, and mildly oblique widescreen compositions, but also elusive narrative motifs, such as incest, bizarre family dynamics, and the intermittent presence of lower-class Argentinians. Martel emphasizes nothing, so it's easy to second guess oneself and wonder if what was seen was really processed or interpreted correctly. Further shrouding the content is the fact that our new experiences are also the main character Verónica's (María Onetto); the guilt, anxiety, and dissociation forged by her accident shifts her significantly out of complacency, to the point where she seems to be reintegrating herself into her own life. Her impending routines - family gatherings, massage sessions, and work as a dental hygienist - remain systematic, yet it is always as if Verónica is experiencing them passively for the first time, a confused voyeur to her own existence. When advanced sexually by her husband's cousin, she first reacts in a trance, then gives in, assuming it is something she has done comfortably for a while. Another crucial scene involves her sitting down with members of her family watching old video tapes and finding herself unable to detect whether the names her mother uses for identification with certain individuals in the video are indeed correct.

For a large portion of time, Verónica remains seemingly adrift from her sense of self, until an unexplainable epiphany leads her to surmise that it was a boy that she ran over with her car. This instantly jars with the audience's preconceived notions, because a relatively identifiable, albeit indefinite, image shown through the rear-view mirror of her car earlier in the film revealed the corpse of a dog. It can be recalled however that the film's dynamic opening frames captured a group of three dark-skinned children and their dog playing hide-and-go-seek along the dirt road through the deserted outskirts of town. When the collision occurs, Verónica blankly stays in the driver's seat of her car, refusing to identify the victim of the crash. In doing so, the film establishes an aversion to sight that is two-fold: firstly, that what is seen may not always be the whole truth, and secondly, that there is a consuming desire not to look, for to see is to face the validation of horror. Accordingly, The Headless Woman is a visually hazy film, heavy on off-center framings and shallow focus, revealing ghostly figures beyond the scope of Verónica's foggy vision.

The realization of the central character's own faults is also something of a vague regaining of her own conscience, for she begins to make decisions that come from a recognizable motivation. She openly admits her hunch to her husband and asks him to drive her out to the scene of the crash in the middle of the night, making it clear that she finally wants to extinguish her guilt through confirmation. However, when nothing to her suspicions is found on the road, she seems to recoil slightly back into her detached state and pursues knowledge of the accident less actively. Gradually, it appears that Verónica is less interested in knowing what happened as an act of justice as she is in simply being able to acknowledge the facts and move on with her life in psychological order. (Such a conceit resembles Antonioni's Blow-Up, in which the pursuit for objective truth was equally misleading. Coincidentally, María Onetto bears a physical and stylistic resemblance to Monica Vitti.) The film's pacing grows increasingly sluggish and fragmentary until after Verónica makes the classic Hitchockian identity transformation (dying her hair from lucid blond to pitch black), it comes to an unexpected halt, one that is far from indicated by the context of the final shot.

Although nearly the whole of The Headless Woman rests on the minor variations, or lack thereof, in actress María Onetto's expression, the film can hardly be categorized as a psychological drama. Rather, it's a purely phenomenological work which is more interested in making us experience before understanding or interpreting. It is also ostensibly a condemnation of a somnambulistic middle class, Verónica being the scathing microcosm, founded on the clear delineations the film makes between Argentinian social classes. Nearly all of the dark-skinned characters in the film function as servants to Verónica's family, and the boy that she presumably hits with her car is further proof of the inability of the middle class to recognize their prejudices. This theme lines Martel's film up with a structurally similar work that also deals with deeply unacknowledged biases: Michael Haneke's Caché. But whereas Haneke's film finds tantalizing ways to augment its enigmatic mystery, The Headless Woman deliberately lounges in a more stoic atmosphere, and for this, it's often a frustrating, alienating piece of Antoniennui introduced by a masterful pre-credit sequence that would suggest a more diversely moody film.

Monday, February 8, 2010

The Hurt Locker (2008) A Film by Kathryn Bigelow

It is rare in American war films that we are presented with characters that are as alarmingly single-minded and undiscriminating as those in Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker, a taut, stringent panorama of the Iraq war as well as a first-hand account of the suffocating tension of an omnipresent life-or-death mindset. Usually, soldiers are much more than what is presented onscreen, with dense backstories fashioned by the filmmakers to account for their actions, or perhaps they have a bubbling, unspoken rift against their own side. Instead, Bigelow's film is - with the exception of a few didactic scenes - uninterested in dressing its characters up in psychological complexity, favoring a tactile view laden with complacent martyrs willing to uncritically accept the agenda that has been laid out for them. It's not so much a conventional war film providing details about the political conflict at hand as it is an almost documentary-like observation of the experience of battle. For this, it's safe to say that it is anti-Hollywood, hardly giving its audience any extraneous details to clumsily promote an emotional engagement.

Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner), the film's vacuous central character, is hard proof of this fact. Taking up the role of lead bomb defuser as part of the bomb squad Bravo Company in the place of Sgt. Matt Thompson (Guy Pearce), who meets a tragic end in the first scene of the film, James is a hard-nosed warrior with a complete lack of fear in the face of danger. He is at first off-putting to his two subordinates, Sgt. J.T Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty), because of his callous nature and his refusal to follow the survivalist protocols such as keeping headsets and bomb suits on during missions. Though the trio never forms much of a kinship, they begin to grow accustomed to James' unorthodox professionalism simply by enduring it over and over and making it out of situations unharmed, just as we begin to gradually settle in to Renner's character.

However, Bigelow never lets us be fully comfortable with James. She doesn't attempt to enlighten us about his enigma, preferring to keep his overwhelming motivation towards combat unexplained. He is clearly not simply a blood-lusting savage or a macho show-off; he seems to defuse bombs with a perverse enthusiasm as if it's the only thing in life that he knows how to do with expert precision. We know due to a humorous anecdotal claim (and, more irritatingly, an obvious manifestation of that spoken claim late in the film) that he has no way with family, because he is apathetic about his ambiguously defined significant other and unsure about the merits of having a child, while Sanborn professes to desire this path of life. Yet at the same time he is not a misanthrope, for Bigelow injects him with the occasional humane quality, such as his repeated encounters with a young Iraqi selling DVD's at the Army station, counteracted by his subsequent anger and sadness when he finds the boy's bloody body as a carcass stuffed with terrorist explosives.

Whereas James may be endlessly mysterious for the elusive contradictions that continue to unravel at his core, the other soldiers are fascinating for an opposite reason. Their devotion to formal workmanship and alliance is so steadfast as to be unfounded. What are they fighting for? Why do they display such loyalty to James when he makes little noticeable attempt to reciprocate by following rules? Why do they so reflexively denounce the Iraqi enemies as "bastards" and "assholes" and fire at them with no refrain? Sanborn and Eldridge do not ask themselves these questions, which would inevitably take the film into more actively political territory, contrasting with Bigelow's desire to keep ideological slants out of the picture. However, no matter how much Bigelow intends to be stridently apolitical, the fact that she fixates on American soldiers in Iraq without detailing their past lives or their understanding of the war they're fighting for paradoxically becomes deliciously open-ended, and some sort of political reading is unavoidable. The Hurt Locker leaves us only with these determined soldiers and their actions in combat and inadvertently asks us to try to decide what makes them so determined.

In keeping with the film's relatively contemplative tone, Bigelow eschews an over-arching plot and instead concocts a tight string of sequences documenting the bomb squad's dangerous missions. The suspense is extremely potent as James plods over towards the hidden bombs and Sanborn and Eldridge sit back with their guns perpetually ready to fire, on the lookout for any sign of terrorist spies intending to lure the Americans into a trap. The kinetic camerawork, though at times too heavy-handed in its attempt to scream realism, nonetheless effectively captures the anxiety present in these hazardous circumstances, and the muted, ugly palette, adding a palpable presence of heat and dust on top of the collective rattle of war equipment, augments the stifling quality of Bigelow's set pieces. It's difficult to recall more immersive, grounded combat scenes than the tepidly paced long-distance sniper shoot-out in the desert or the two-minute long paranoia of an innocent man strapped with a slew of explosives (which, to be sure, actually lasts two minutes, as opposed to that unbelievable Hollywood gimmick of exhaustively elongating time during vital moments). Bigelow makes us live the war here unlike any of the other Iraq films in all its hideous immediacy as well as its eerie tedium.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Three Colors: Blue (1993) A Film by Krzysztof Kieslowski

Krzysztof Kieslowski is a director who loves to devote a series of projects to a common theme, films that allegedly represent, or comment on, long-held ideals, like the Ten Commandments for instance. Such is again the case with his Three Colors trilogy, a set of works designed to reflect the motivations behind the three colors of the French flag. What’s interesting is how tenuous the connections are that he makes to the given ideal he is working with. It is never glaringly obvious what value his film is supposed to be illuminating; instead, Kieslowski’s films always tell rich stories of everyday occurrences which open up - through his gently poetic eye - into dense parables covering a range of existential topics, in the sense that they are such fundamental human questions that coincide with the entire thrust of life. Blue is a typically moving, immaculate work centered on the idea of a woman’s choice to either embrace a new life or continue to bitterly reject it, and this basic conceit ostensibly riffs on the notion of individual liberty.

Yet it is also a film about trauma, grief, cynicism, sensuality, love, recovery, and the elusiveness of truth. Kieslowski gives equal weight to all of these themes, and has something sophisticated and unique to say about each. Warranting equal praise is the radiant Juliette Binoche, who subtly breathes tangible life into these ineffable qualities through a range of distinctive facial expressions and gestures. She plays Julie Courcy, a woman who loses her husband and young daughter in one of the earliest scenes of the film in an unexplainable car crash in the middle of the French countryside. Miraculously, Julie survives the accident only to come out of a coma and discover her family is dead. She is immediately disillusioned, unable to come to terms with the sudden loss of what is most dear to her. The only family she has left is her bemused mother (Emmanuelle Riva) who sits in a nursing home all day with her eyes glued to the TV watching images of people tightrope walking and bungee jumping, a clear symbolic parallel to Julie’s own life, teetering on the edge of total neglect to the point where she is nothing more than a blank figure. Her partly blind mother claims to be able to see the whole world in the TV, an ironic counterpoint to Julie’s own temporary immunity to life’s pleasures.

Julie’s husband was one of the world’s most distinguished symphony composers, so his death is not only a private tragedy but also a public one. Images of him and Julie flood the media, and this ubiquity does not alleviate Julie’s grief, especially when journalists begin questioning her against her will about the rumors that she was actually the real composer of most of his work. Julie strives to become a non-presence after resurrecting a long stagnate attraction to a neighbor named Olivier (Benoît Régent), only augmenting her sorrow after sleeping with him. She empties out her home and relocates to the middle of Paris, deliberately not informing anyone she knows about her decision in an attempt to free herself from all connections to the world, be it material or psychological, and immerse herself in anonymity. Kieslowski materializes this deep grief with a series of quiet, morose scenes that are light on dialogue but heavy on expressive close-ups. One specifically effective scene has Julie sitting at her piano for the last time, lethargically playing one of her husband's compositions with one hand. The camera cuts back and forth between softly focused tracking shots across the written music and shots of Binoche's barren visage, set to a creepy piercing piano. The scene culminates with Julie slowly sliding her hand down the piano top until it crashes down violently, the final time she expects to personally commit her husband's work to audible music.

It is not, however, the last time she hears the music, for she finds that it repeatedly reverberates in her head during late-night swims at an ethereally electric blue pool. Being able to hear the voluptuous symphonic movements, replete with flutes, violins, and piano, gradually assuages Julie back into an admiration of the sensuous textures of life. The sweeping music also coincides with her reacquired love for small surface pleasures such as the taste of coffee (Kieslowski watches a sugar cube become slowly consumed by liquid), her family's blue jewels that she hangs from her living room, and the warm, irresistible urge for human companionship (she gains a friendship with an emotionally feral stripper living in her apartment complex). Julie even learns a shattering truth about her husband that she did not know before his death, but she does not grow bitter. It is significant that at the height of this re-emergence, Julie dives into the pool and floats in a fetal position for an extended moment, as if she's truly being reborn. She successfully completes her grieving state, although the potent sense of melancholy remains through the very last frame of the film.

Blue, like The Double Life of Véronique, is an aesthetic revelation, a fusion of sight and sound that is flawlessly immersive. Kieslowski is a master of evoking inner states purely through cryptic visuals, subtle transformations of light, and shocking editing rhythms. As usual, he works with cinematographer Slawomir Idziak, who seems to always adopt his languorous visual storytelling style effortlessly, lighting the sets and actors in a way that is perpetually attuned to the natural changes in light over the course of a day, yet is also somehow vaguely unnatural. Zbigniew Preisner matches the grandiosity and intimacy of his score for Double Life, and Binoche captivates in what may be her finest and most emotionally rich performance. The humanity in Blue is also endlessly rewarding; as a story that could have become positively grim, instead it maintains an understanding of the possibility of second chances, of starting anew in life without forgetting the pleasures of the past.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Police, Adjective (Politist, Adj.) A Film by Corneliu Porumboiu (2009)

Corneliu Porumboiu's Police Adjective is strikingly similar in style to both Christian Mungiu's 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days (2007) and Christi Puiu's The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (2005), a triad of Romanian films distributed in the United States which embody the heart and soul of what is being deemed a Romanian New Wave. The grossly overused term - which, since the renowned French New Wave from the 1960's, has been uttered nearly every time a country that most people have never heard of unexpectedly shows some faint cinematic pulse - is actually quite adequate here given the homogeneity that is all of a sudden present in this artistically ambitious batch of works. In the years prior to these films, Romania's cinematic output was bland under a Totalitarian state, and the current works adopt a harshly critical tone against this once-prevailing political framework, the remains of which have given Romania a grayish bureaucratic patina, an inevitable vibe for a slowly recovering nation. The films literally reflect this stasis. Comprised of long, mundane blocks of time, they painstakingly document real-life situations rather than construct contrived plot lines. It has an Italian Neorealism ring to it, but such films had a greater sense of immediacy, exploring urgent social problems, whereas the Romanian films have broader questions to ask. In fact, there's a sense that these films could go unseen, and nothing would change (that is, if we want to believe that cinema can cause social change in the first place).

There are two ways to consume this work, and they are not mutually exclusive, but in some instances can be. One is to endure them, to watch them with an undiscriminating, objective eye, and by the end simply shrug your shoulders. Ok, that's it. It's difficult to think of a movement of films that are so uniformly nondescript, so hopelessly matter-of-fact and earthbound. One might argue that an Argentinean filmmaker like Lisandro Alonso is another in this breed, but truthfully there's always a mysterious undertone to his work, something potentially symbolic or metaphysical, but the Romanian films have no interest in flowery associations. They sit on the ground and stay there, refusing to stand up and jump or even kick their feet for that matter. The other way to watch the films is critically, with one eye on the material and the other on the larger context it's taking place in, to stay in tune with the subtle links to the societal flaws that are pertinent both directly to Romania and indirectly to the rest of the world. In The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, we get so locked in to the physical moments of the film that we may not fully notice and dissect the scathing critique of the health system that it is. This is how the two viewing apparatuses are sometimes separated, and in this way the Romanian films can incidentally work against themselves.

Poromboiu's film is the first of the three to hinge itself most substantially around an issue that is not necessarily specific to Romania, but an issue of ethics and morality that is identified with mankind. It follows a recently married undercover cop named Cristi (Dragos Bucur) who is investigating a group of high school students who are lacing their cigarettes with THC, a proponent of marijuana that is illegal in Romania but acceptable in several other parts of Europe. He observes the suspects from afar, outside of school and on the street, subsequently recording his day's observations on a document for his supervisor. At night he goes home to have dinner with his wife Anca (Irina Saulescu), who is a schoolteacher and a fan of innocuous Romanian pop songs. She brings up the fact that their relationship is not working, but Cristi brusquely turns the conversation into something unrelated. The film is relentlessly focused on the minutiae of all of these routines, and is so effective in its attenuated pacing that it occasionally tips over into tedium. Yet we subtly accumulate knowledge about Cristi's pragmatic, skeptical demeanor and gain a comprehensive understanding of the behavioral tics that inform the set pieces later in the film, which are basically petty, but paradoxically profound, linguistic debates.

The first of these unadorned, drolly staged knockouts is also the first time we view Anca and Cristi together at night. It is a remarkably protracted scene in which Cristi eats dinner alone at the table while Anca listens repeatedly to a boisterous "I Don't Leave You Love" by Mirabela Dauer in the adjacent living room. Cristi asks his wife to turn the music down to no avail, then ends up sitting in the living room with her and arguing about the use of empty symbolism in the song like "What would the sea be without the sun?" Anca takes the banally evocative lyrics for what they are while Cristi tries to analyze them, finding only a dead end which has no practical application in terms of real relationships. This finicky, judgmental ear for nonsense is indicative of Cristi's overall stance in life, his lucid approach to language, behavior, and morality. He begins to have qualms about arresting the students because of how minor the offense is, how unfair the punishment is, and how soon Romania will be legalizing the very substance which would put them in jail. More broadly, Cristi does not comprehend the indirect usage of language through figurative devices, which extends to his disinterest in allowing language to dictate society.

This, however, is precisely what the climactic scene of the film proves, that the ways in which we process and understand life all comes down to words, and that the "official" words are the ones that oppress the individual. Police, Adjective's most widely discussed scene - and for good reason, given the fact that it successfully elucidates all of the film's themes and even spotlights some new ones that were only vaguely implicit throughout - is when Cristi approaches his boss about the fact that he doesn't think the kids should be punished for their slightly inadvisable acts. He informs the boss that his conscience told him that making an arrest would be against his morals because of the drug's impending legalization. This leads to an excruciatingly long-held static take that watches the boss fire words at Cristi, intending for him to look them up in the dictionary and read them aloud. The neutral definitions end up proving Cristi wrong and validating the boss's thesis that nothing is above the law, and it is the job of the policeman to honor the laws put in place for society. Poromboiu, ever aware of the hypocrisies of bureaucracies, realizes that this statement has yet another unacknowledged layer: this is indeed the same mindset that lead to and helped sustain the Totalitarian state of the past, as well as the countless oppressive societies in the history of the world. It seems you can't retreat from the dualities of language after all.

Monday, February 1, 2010

A Letter to Uncle Boonmee (2009) A Short Film by Apichatpong Weerasethakul

The jungle is shockingly alive and direct in Apichatpong Weerasethakul's new short film A Letter to Uncle Boonmee, a fragment in "Joe"'s multi-part art piece Primitive. Its unfettered power bursts down the boundaries between the domestic and the natural, the internal and the external, in a small, extinct village called Nabua in the Northeast of Thailand. Decades ago, Nabua was home to a brutal police invasion that lead most of its inhabitants (Communist farmers) to either flee from their intimate cabins or bear witness to violent captures. Now Joe's swooping, weightless camera peruses the abandoned houses of the long-gone townspeople searching for ephemera from their life there, time-worn traces of the past. We glimpse ruffled coats, portraits on the walls, and mosquito nets, frozen in their positions as the materiality of the cabin decomposes around them. The perpetually ajar windows clatter against the slit-holed wooden walls and allow the unpredictability of nature to invade the once-comforting living spaces.

Joe's film is enormously tactile in both its evocative imagery and its dense, atmospheric surround-sound (watch this one with the best possible speakers), allowing us to float through the physical spaces of the film but also through time, as the repetitive narration is the rehearsal of a letter being written to the titular Uncle Boonmee by a group of leisurely Thai soldiers who are digging in the village. Its redundancy, paired with the fact that each new reading is by a new voice and accompanied by images from a new cabin, suggests the reincarnation of Boonmee, a familiar theme for Joe. His life in Nabua is emulated in the lives we learn about through the souvenirs of time present in all of the rooms. A Letter to Uncle Boonmee is an unexpectedly tranquil short film, an affirmation of the kind of director I expected Joe would become after seeing Syndromes and a Century. It's also a work which one especially cannot do justice to without paying tribute to its remarkable images, so I present to you, unedited, a whole string of them...