Saturday, May 29, 2010
Like Noah Baumbach's The Squid and the Whale, Josh and Benny Safdie's microbudget tale of fatherhood-gone-wrong (or right, depending on whether or not you're prone to nostalgia), Daddy Longlegs, is a film that feels frozen in time. Its scrappy, no-frills presentation of New York City - a kind of distilled anytown, USA where catching a cab is as likely as getting mugged by a gun-wielding bum - is a fittingly universal backdrop for the unpredictable exploits of Lenny (Ronald Bronstein), a divorced father of two whose behavior is really as human as it is initially off-putting. Situated during the only two weeks per year that Lenny is allowed by custody to see his children, the film is a frantic, moody evocation of a man who desperately wants to make his prized two weeks count, but who is plagued by an itchy tendency to lose sight of maturity and responsibility. It opens to Lenny ordering and subsequently scoffing down half of a foot-long hot dog, then proceeding to unsuccessfully leap over a fence and mutilate his second half. Unlike the majority of busy workaday adults living in a big city however, Lenny does not trudge off like a curmudgeon mourning the loss of both cholesterol and green. Rather, he soaks up the absurdity of the moment, remaining fixed in his post-wipeout position, laughing off any residual disappointment. This is a man who seeks uninhibited pleasure in life and finds it in the immature flaunting of adolescent behavior, who feigns to swim upstream against the current of middle-aged mediocrity.
None of this is to suggest that Lenny is an instantly likable character for his "charm" or "perseverance" though. The feat of Daddy Longlegs (subtitled Go Get Some Rosemary), actually, is in its gradual transition from pity to empathy, from bemoaning the feral emotional spectrum of Lenny to understanding it and perhaps even identifying with it. As it happens, recent Boston College graduates Josh and Benny Safdie have based the character largely on memories of the disorderly father figure of their own childhood. The two grew up in Manhattan with a European father who bestowed his love of film on his children through restlessly filming home videos. In Daddy Longlegs, Lenny adopts a similar status as a film projectionist at the local theater, a job that obstructs his life with all its scheduling vagaries even as it provides his only financial and structural support. In one thrilling scene, Lenny is forced to take a shift he previously tried, without luck, to remove, at the same time as he needs to pick up his two little boys - Sage and Frey (the real life sons of Sonic Youth guitarist Lee Ranaldo) - at school. He hastily kickstarts the first reel, sprints to retrieve his children, and runs back to allow them a chance to operate the next reel (a tricky, time-sensitive maneuver that is not suitable for the wandering mind of a seven-year-old.)
A similar balancing act - between responsibility and enjoyment, seriousness and a desire to be a jovial father - is at play throughout the film. The problem is that Lenny tends to suppress the former until it's too late, when he has either argued vehemently with a school principle, found himself on a banal vacation upstate, left his kids with one of his several wayward friends, or almost lost them permanently to his ex-wife. In one of the few smacks of frightening reality in the otherwise relatively tame and comical film, Lenny force-feeds Sage and Frey a quarter of a sedative each ("a whole one can put a grown man out for days!" he insists) to keep them sleeping while he works an unexpected overnight shift, only to find them in a near coma for an indeterminate amount of time when he returns. He seems incapable of harnessing any logical foresight about whether a behavior is safe or not, and he can't seem to grasp both the fragility of childhood (later, he sends them out alone to retrieve the contents of a grocery list) or - given the fact that he is more of an extended play date than a wise father, the importance of maintaining a healthy balance of freedom and discipline. As much of an abrasive can of worms as he is though, it's clear where the Safdie's sympathies lie. They'd rather the contradictory jumble of Lenny to the stern, by-the-numbers conservatism of Sage and Frey's mother, whose presence is more often that not felt only implicitly in the muffled diegetic yammer on the other end of the telephone line provoking Lenny and grilling him for his mistakes. When she does reclaim the children later in the film, the one brief sequence inside her organized, hyper-controlled domestic environment has the formula of an army routine, with the daily customs like dinner and bedtime boiled down to an airless science.
In this sense, with the Safdie's tender acceptance of Lenny's complications, Daddy Longlegs comes across with a deeply regressive, nostalgic heart at its center, a potent yearning for the pleasures of the past and a coming to terms with the confusions of the present. Ronald Bronstein, an accomplished filmmaker himself, delivers a performance of immense skill and grace, somehow expressing a buried, troubled soul beneath an otherwise madcap exterior. His Lenny may not nearly be able to handle the labyrinth of the modern world, totally and pathetically, but his triumphs and charms - like pretending to catch fish for dinner off the side of a speeding motorboat, playing old tapes in the car in the midst of a late-night traffic jam, and running through public parks with Sage and Frey - are pure products of youthful energy. The signs of wearing out are there - smoking cigarettes in a panic, getting arrested for spray painting "Dad" on a street side wall, the disorderly sprawl of graying hair - but he refuses to let them suffocate his passion. This retro warmth is reflected in the distinctive visual style of the film, an energetic stream of home-video-like images shot on grainy 16 mm, bookended by illustrated brown and yellow credit sequences reminiscent of the Charles Schulz' Peanuts cartoons.
Intermingled with the nostalgic comfort however is also suffocating camera staging that never veers away from the center of the action, suggesting there is no physical escape from the present, no retreat to the days that required less responsibility. The Sadfie's shoot everything in claustrophobic, shaky close-up, hardly ever cutting away to reveal an establishing shot. And their employment of this cinematographic tactic is not shoddy or nausea-inducing, but rather a sensitive way of heightening the immediacy of the physical world, capturing details upon details at the rate that Lenny is forced to process stimuli. Consequently, Daddy Longlegs is both a pleasant and bleak trip, a juggling of good and bad vibes. Quite refreshing, it is, to see young filmmakers with full careers ahead of them operating in such multifaceted, knowing territory with limited means and an understated visual style so appropriately unpolished.
Tuesday, May 25, 2010
In the past few weeks, a handful of critics (Steven Shaviro, Dan Fox, Glenn Kenny, Danny Leigh, Vadim Rizov) have begun passive-aggressively attacking Harry Tuttle, founder of the blog Unspoken Cinema, for a thesis he himself did not materialize. Unspoken Cinema is singlehandedly devoted to the presence of a trend in today’s film culture deemed Contemporary Contemplative Cinema, or CCC. He did not insist that CCC was an exclusive genre acknowledged by the filmmakers themselves, nor did he state that it was necessarily an oppositional form to Hollywood. His is a study of a particular inclination towards silence and plotlessness that has undeniably manifested itself most saliently in recent years (check out his thorough timeline), and has existed in the works of many directors – Bela Tarr, Pedro Costa, Lisandro Alonso, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Lav Diaz, Chantal Akerman, Tsai Ming-Liang, Carlos Reygades, James Benning, Jia Zhang-ke, Sharunas Bartas, among others - regardless of cultural background. Of course the filmmakers are after different effects (just watch Liverpool and Silent Light and experience a vast gap in motives), but there is often a deep symmetry in their approaches that suggests a more universal artistic kinship, a desire to revitalize cinema’s fundamental ability for pure visual and aural immersion.
His methodical and multi-layered definition of CCC – so sensitively sorted out that it has taken a long-running series of posts – is careful to recognize the tendency as distinct from the otherwise superficially similar facades of Modern Cinema or Structural Cinema, movements that either contained an intellectual analysis behind their aesthetic efforts (witness the deeply expressive films of Antonioni or Angelopoulos) or a concrete statement on the limits and capabilities of the medium in question (evidenced by Andy Warhol and Michael Snow’s groundbreaking experiments). Neither concern, Tuttle explains, appears to be at the heart of CCC’s aesthetic interests – extensive visual scrutiny, suppression of outwardly emotional expression and dramatic trajectory – but rather a heightened involvement in the physical and sensory world, removed from any analytical editorializing. Such films encourage a sense of contemplation in the audience, a willingness to abandon conventional modes of movie-watching, of digesting and interpreting films, to instead revel in the seeming emptiness of the natural or synthetic world, which, as verified by the greatest films of the bunch, can uncover an unexpected wealth of rewards that are difficult to put into words.
Tuttle’s exploring and open-ended defining of CCC is not something that should be frowned upon or painstakingly mined for faults, for it is one of the few, if perhaps only, substantial efforts towards contextualizing this cinematic trend that is as worthy of examination as any of the other arguably nebulous trends in film history (Experimental/Avant-Garde Cinema, Cinema Verite, Neorealism). Sure, it’s not something that can be quantified or completely rationalized, but Tuttle will be the first to acknowledge that: “The study of aesthetic movements (productively or in vain) is what Film Theory is all about. You never know beforehand if it was worth your time... Or else past critics would have never discounted in their times the great masterpieces that we acknowledge now.” He can occasionally get rather hostile and reactionary in his impassioned defenses, blithely proclaiming CCC as “the greatest today!” or reducing a storm of opposing viewpoints to “anti-intellectual banter”, but what comes across most potently is a serious apprehension about CCC becoming so marginalized among cinephiles that it would cease to be taken seriously as a formal preoccupation. There’s also a very coherent and very true warning regarding the now-pejorative use of the term “slow”, as well as the uncritical, subjective term “boring”, and how they have polluted a large portion of the film criticism that aims to discuss this current trend. The unregulated backlash against Tuttle’s enthusiasm, spawned by a Nick James editorial in Sight and Sound that denounced CCC for the fact that “sometimes it’s worth it, and sometimes not”, as if variability in quality is something new and unacceptable in cinematic tradition, is surely needlessly combative, proof of a competitiveness and antagonism that should not exist in scholarly discussion of movies. As far as I’m concerned, I will remain a passionate defender of great films, regardless of trend associations, and will not blindly gang up against well-informed critical theories.
Thursday, May 20, 2010
Pedro Costa's first look at the lives of Cape Verdean immigrants in the Fontainhas slum is also his first pronounced gesture towards a kind of fiction/documentary hybrid, a representation of real lives in real settings with the logistics of a narrative production. In short, a breathtaking work poised peculiarly in between authenticity and artifice, reality and hyperreality, logic and illogic. Assembled in a deeply elliptical fashion out of extensive blocks of self-contained moments, Ossos chronicles the routine struggles of a battered community over the course of what appears to be a few weeks. Within its first 15 minutes, a young woman named Tina (Mariya Lipkina) has threatened to gas herself and her newborn child in the confines of her own decrepit living room, and the inscrutable father has subsequently taken the baby away to the city for bartering. And Costa reveals these occurrences with such an economy and forthrightness that they fly by without being fully comprehended. A lack of storytelling aptitude is not what's at play here (Costa has no interest in the conventional workings of plot) but rather an early instance of such extreme immersion in the concrete that it surpasses easy encapsulation. The two individual shots that detail these events - the first a low static shot and the second a brisk horizontal tracking shot invariably interrupted by roaring traffic heading upstream - are utterly devoid of traditional exposition, leaving the viewer to connect the dots as to what occurred before the frame and what extended beyond it, both temporally and spatially. In each instance Costa eschews the explanatory essence entirely. One may be tempted to ask questions like "does she follow through with her grim setup?" or "where is he taking the baby in the bag?", but perhaps the more fundamental, unsettling question is "why is there gas or a bag in the first place?"
But the film keeps marching forward without any interest in tying these loose ends, only fractionally resolving the uneasy question marks scenes later when we see Tina still submitting to her daily grind and the father restlessly pacing around town looking for someone to either feed his child or buy it. Costa presents nothing beyond the physical presence of the characters onscreen, refusing to analyze their often contradictory behaviors, like swapping from hasty selfishness to tenderness or suicidal impulses to a calm moment of mutual laughter in a matter of moments. And his non-actors are certainly fascinating enigmas in their own right, with their mere corporeality superseding our understanding of them as living, breathing humans. In this regard, the figure who stimulates most frequently is more or less the central character Clotilde, the cleaning lady and close friend of Tina played by Costa regular Vanda Duarte. Clotilde's first appearance onscreen in the second shot of the film is utterly hypnotizing as she trudges down a set of stairs in the morning to haphazardly turn on a pot to boil then smoke a cigarette in front of the stove. Costa confidently sets her up in a long posed close-up, drawing attention to both her profoundly vacant stare and her peculiar, rather androgynous physical features: a pointy, angular bone structure, a faint mustache, and a long, greasy head of hair like that of a Native American tribe leader. She also moves with icy deliberation, completing each stone-serious gesture like the strictest of Bressonian archetypes.
Duarte's apathetic death stare introduces one of Ossos' central motifs of extended painterly close-ups that border on static portraiture. It even proves to be the chief leisure activity of the Fontainhas inhabitants, who have literally come to a standstill in their private moments. When no longer working, these people stop motionless and simply stare blankly, for there is nothing else to do. They cannot focus their eyes on an object, for there is nothing to look at. They do not look forward or backward, because their lives appear to have little progressive or regressive movement. They are locked in the oppressive present, perpetually sucking on cigarette butts, which look more damaging here than ever. Costa's unblinking camera frames them from a respectful medium distance in their evocative silence, a pictorial space gently composed with the look of a muted pastel painting, serviced tremendously by Emmanuel Machuel's stark rendering of deep shadow and neutral hues (after all, he worked harmoniously with Bresson too). These long closeups will often exist as scenes unto themselves, devoid of any surrounding context, a curiosity that is augmented when seemingly irrelevant peripheral players are the subjects. For instance, Zita Duarte (Vanda's sister, who actually dominates the first shot of the film) and Clotilde Montron both play haunting onlookers with no impact on the proceedings, particularly providing impassive stares from adjacent rooms in an arbitrary community dance scene somewhat reminiscent of the bar dance in Bela Tarr's Satantango. More interestingly, with the former's haggard slenderness and the latter's robust softness, they suggest doppelgangers of Clotilde and Tina, ghosts of meta import perhaps.
It would be disingenuous to say that nothing is going on during the many moments of seeming emptiness though, because Costa's aural representation of offscreen space is as dense as it is prescient, foreshadowing with equal potency the spaces that are later visually documented. Families are heard bickering in the alleyways near and far, doors are shutting, children are moving to and fro, and dogs are barking in the distance, a stunningly layered sound design that puts into question the level of artificiality. Are the diegetic sounds heard beyond the frame the quotidian reverberations of an unknowing slum populace, or have they been carefully manipulated? Costa preserves this tension between documentary and fiction as compellingly as he vacillates between the broader strokes of a faint narrative and the micro snippets of inconsequential routines. In the city, the father is taken in for temporary care by a compassionate nurse named Eduarda (Isabel Ruth) from the hospital that the ill baby is given to, and Clotilde also begins cleaning for her. Later, Eduarda visits Fontainhas and sleeps with Clotilde's husband (Miguel Sermão) while the two are intoxicated, completing a breaking down of the walls between the poverty-stricken lower class and the equally drifting middle class. Though Eduarda's behaviors tend to come across rather impulsive, she is ultimately redeemed when she nurses Tina back to complacency after another misguided suicide attempt, just as the father continues to comfort and feed his baby after abandoning it. In spite of their weaknesses, these are characters with a concrete sense of dignity and a residual tenderness even in the midst of all their struggles.
Ossos is one of the shining achievements in recent world cinema, so sure of its own scope while remaining decidedly mysterious, a pure force of nature that does little to illuminate in distinct terms yet stuns in ineffable ways regardless. Costa's visual and sonic instincts are remarkable; as a pictorialist with paramount emphasis on drawn-out, fixed takes, he stands among the finest in cinema, capturing the gritty erosion of the slum with a sensuous poise that turns the ugly into the evocative. Though Ossos is the most "cinematic" of the Fontainhas films, no less alarming is the emotional authenticity, no cheaper are the rhythms of life. Operating under its own inexplicable internal logic with a formal dedication to match Robert Bresson, the film is presumably Costa's final foray into film before his further attempts at intimacy in the digital works In Vanda's Room and Colossal Youth.
Tuesday, May 18, 2010
Remember David Lynch's vehement disapproval of all things product placement in the past? Well, given that apparent sense of outrage at the notion of whoring one's art to the advertising industries, there is more than a strong whiff of hypocrisy at the crux of his latest short film endeavor, Lady Blue Shanghai, a project designated as a vehicle for Dior's new accessory line. In it, Marion Cotillard does her best Laura Dern "woman in trouble" impression by staring uncomfortably at a fogging, radiating purse in the middle of a Shanghai hotel room (blatant allusions to Mulholland Drive's blue box in its transportive, otherworldly power), inexplicably recalling past traumas (or are they peaceful memories?), and trudging through fantastical spaces in hysterical fits of emotion. Her spacey character eventually recites poetry (written by Lynch) in front of a pair of Chinese bellboys about the Oriental Pearl Tower, leading her to an epiphany involving a blue rose. If it sounds like a cheap entry-level tour through the wonderfully surreal sights and sounds of Lynch's oeuvre, that's because it really is. And with its jittery, unpolished, intimate digital video stamp, it comes closer to a 16-minute abbreviation of INLAND EMPIRE.
At first glance, the film appears to be fixated on a typically Lynchian universe of dark hallways, glowing patches of light, and stilted dialogue, as if this was really a passion project for Lynch to begin with that got tagged with a Dior purse late in the game. Yet there's also an overwhelming impression by the end that this is a mere novelty item whose lone motivating force is the appearance of an ominous Dior product in a few incarnations, the most prickly being an utterly gratuitous shot overlooking the Shanghai cityscape where a video billboard plays a bit that feels lifted straight from a more television-ready commercial. I can admire Lynch's ability to suffuse the mass market with his trademark sensibility (unsettling, dead-end dialogue, low-frequency drones, opaque narrative), but I wonder if it's worth it if it means downgrading it at the same time, sugarcoating his fine-tuned tics to fit into a nice "weird" envelope while simultaneously maintaining a degree of allure and trendiness, because, after all, this product has to sell. It's likely that Lynch had to update his bank account after a few years of inaccessible experimental work, which seems fair enough, but I would hate to see Lynch get stuck in a creative impasse. Of course, be sure to check out the film yourself over at Lady Dior's official website, and weigh in with your own thoughts.
Thursday, May 13, 2010
Critical polarization has struck me again in the face of the films of Aaron Katz. I tend to approve and disapprove of his work at the same rate that it vacillates between irritating self-consciousness and poignant stretches of pure visuals. Of course, with the immediate stamps of "microbudget", "handheld", and "personal", his is an infantile oeuvre cultivated singlehandedly by the South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Texas, which has been so endlessly giving to the crop of films deemed part of the mumblecore movement. (Katz's latest, Cold Weather, which I have yet to see, recently premiered there.) As much as Katz's two debut films, Dance Party, USA (2006) and Quiet City (2007) - which only elapse a cumulative 143 minutes - revel in and even glamorize the repetitive quirks of the genre, they seem to periodically reach for something more pointedly cinematic and ambitious. There are times when the films try to prove that the man behind the camera is not a cash-strapped college graduate but rather an experienced filmmaker looking back critically at the unusual periods of his life between adolescence and serious adulthood, when all the potential was there without any understanding of how to achieve it. And then there are other times when they scream of amateurism, with Katz getting carried away figuring out how to properly stage a scene so that it strikes the accurate levels of cuteness, awkwardness, and naturalism. Granted, Katz's subject is the stuff of real life, and that's not always a breeze to convey. Fortunately, he handles it better than most - say, Andrew Bujalski for instance.
Dance Party, USA is his first feature, and everything about it is bite-sized: the running time (65 minutes, which puts into question its very existence as a feature), the spare plot, the range of emotions. But this is not to say that its achievements are microscopic. Centering around a group of high school students wallowing in the age of partying and perversion, it speaks of an era whose external displays of emotion may be flimsy or veiled, but whose motivations behind such emotions are vast and elusive. This is the terrain through which Katz unassumingly navigates. The point of inspection is chiefly Gus (Cole Pensinger), a soon-to-be eighteen-year-old with a hyper-masculine swagger and a social and verbal incapacity to rival Alex in Gus Van Sant's Paranoid Park (the film is also set in Portland, Oregon, another similarity between the two works). He has proudly amassed an outsized reputation as an arrogant debauchee who is willing to do the craziest things at parties and forget about it the next morning. It is the Fourth of July, and high school bashes appear to be on cruise control, with kids gathering in houses with cheap beer and sexualized rap music to dance around nothing but their own inchoate small talk, the objective of which is always physical reward. If this description, comprising a bulk of the film's opening half hour, sounds improbable, spend a year in a modern high school and witness how meaningless the social interactions in some circles have become. Katz's depiction of this growing high-school subculture is actually impressively spot-on, capturing with painful honesty the salient misogyny and anti-intellectualism that plagues much of today's young students.
Underneath a night sky bursting with fireworks, which Katz takes advantage of in one long, observant take, Gus sits and sparks up (pun intended) a conversation with Jessica (Anna Kavan), the mysteriously unassertive best-friend of his ex-girlfriend Christie (Sarah Bing). Jessica, who has already been introduced in both the protracted opening shot of the movie in a messy morning-after-the-party trudge and a series of stillborn communications thereafter, has already made up her mind about Gus before he opens his mouth. She is not interested in getting in bed with him and will not listen to any pathetic denials of his stature. Much to her surprise, Gus is genuinely open about his behavior, and stunningly does not profess any premeditated desire to get in her pants. Instead, after a few moments of stunted interaction rife with verbal dead-ends, he inexplicably decides to come clean to her about a past wrongdoing utterly unrelated to her. He admits to an instance at a party that technically qualifies as rape, but which was followed immediately by remorse and comforting. Moments later, Jessica is asking him to ditch the party with her. This gives way to an achingly tender sequence set to touching piano music where the two of them drive through town and eventually stop and sit silently in the middle of what looks like a parking lot lit only by dim streetlights. Neither of them have a clue what to say to each other, so they resort to a simple mutual exchange of "are you cold?", but their mere physical proximity is enough to qualify it as nervous attraction.
Though maddeningly opaque and nearly invisible, Gus' clumsy admission is actually an undaunted leap of faith and a faint sign of maturation presumably brought on by actual romantic interest rather than raging hormones. Dance Party, USA abandons narrative impetus after this premature climax, and instead drifts for its remainder as Gus and Jessica contemplate their encounter amidst mundane distractions: hanging out with friends, smoking cigarettes, discussing nothing tactlessly, and for Gus, attempting to right his wrongs by confronting the girl of his past indiscretion, who understandably doesn't remember him. It unfolds in a free-floating, directionless manner, as Katz's restless camera hovers over the blank faces of his unassured protagonists, eventually seeking poise and quietude in the occasional pillow shots of the surrounding streets. Much of this plods on incessantly - a few too many "ums" and "likes", a hysterically sustained air of discomfort and awkwardness such as in the scene when Gus watches TV with the oblivious girl, that suggests an overstatement of adolescent clumsiness. In such instances, Katz seems more concerned with getting a laugh at the expense of the characters than he does with accurately reflecting the ebb and flow of high school culture.
Taking place across the country in Brooklyn, and thus mirroring mumblecore's nation-spanning nature, is Katz's second feature, Quiet City. Here his aspirations prove not altogether distinct from those in Dance Party, USA, focusing in on another precarious intimacy, only this time in the context of hapless post-collegiate slackers. Jamie (Erin Fisher) has arrived in Brooklyn by subway to meet her friend Samantha at a cafe. Problem is, she's not familiar with the city and has no idea where to find her destination. She asks a young man (Cris Lankenau) in a parking garage where to find it, and after trying several different variations of the same explanation, he ends up just walking with her. Katz starts making sly cuts that affirm the subtle spark between them, when every time it seems as if they are going to go their separate ways, we see them together a frame later in the space they were supposedly departing from. She winds up not finding her friend in the cafe, and after waiting for a while to no avail, the young man offers to let her hang out at his place, an unadorned apartment, for as long as she needs. They talk, drink some wine together without any hint of connoisseurship, and tinker with a toy keyboard (how could this be a mumblecore film without at least one instance of cloying amateur musicianship?) The beginnings of a delicate connection are afoot, but each of them maintain a degree of caution; their interactions remain purely friendly, as if hampered by a constant awareness of the other's romantic situation (Jamie has an ambiguous attachment to a jealous boy back home and the guy, whose name we eventually learn is Charlie, is still getting over a break-up).
Despite this hesitance, the seeds of attraction are thoroughly and saliently planted. The iron walls that blocked verbal communication in Dance Party, USA have been broken down, so Charlie and Jamie interact with effortless comfort, even humor and charm. They are also substantially normal, under-the-radar people without flaws as obvious as those of the characters in Katz's debut. One night spent at Charlie's turns into the entire subsequent day for Jamie, which involves more aimless hanging around (indeed, Charlie is out of a job with literally nothing to do). They infiltrate Samantha's apartment, once again finding no one, stop by the apartment of Charlie's newly engaged friend Adam (fellow director Joe Swanberg) to reclaim a long-lost hat in the funniest scene of the film, and eventually find themselves at an art gallery showing curated by Jamie's friend Robin (Sarah Hellman), leading to a late-night party filled with more jobless slacker types. Quiet City unfolds in an all-too-familiar realm of financial hardship, estranged friendships, uncertain romances, and dispassionate gatherings that gain their pessimism from the fact that everyone there is worrying about their unpaid rent rather than enjoying the company of others. Katz evokes this mood with grace, still remaining conscious of the transient pleasures that exist, such as the charmingly inelegant boogie shared by Charlie, Jamie, Robin, and Charlie's witless old pal Kyle (Tucker Stone), or the first small gesture of outward physical contact between Charlie and Jamie, a tradeoff of high-fives.
Both of these films have a sense of effortlessness and economy in their progression, a refreshing lack of formula guiding their apathetic movement. I'd even venture to say that, in keeping with their clear absence of narrative promises, they value the spontaneity of the present over the vast anxiety of the future. This is a notion justified by Katz's enduring propensity to pause the narrative after long scenes of dialogue to ponder the tranquil stillness of the surroundings, shots that achieve their consummate power as punctuation marks in Quiet City due largely to a significant cinematographic leap between the two films, with director of photography Andrew Reed realizing the visual potential of autumnal skies and urban silhouettes. Yet with this equilibrium comes an astonishing lack of directorial intrusion, which can be both a blessing, in the film's best moments, and a curse, threatening to reduce the characters to caricatures. This negative aspect can be witnessed in both films, in Gus' frustratingly one-note friend Bill (Ryan White) and Kyle in Quiet City, a figure used only for comic relief. With that said, the rewards of Katz's work are not always to be found in character psychology, but rather in subtle shifts in tone. In this regard, Quiet City is his more tonally spectacular work, with an utterly refined interplay of tenderness, uncertainty, and nonchalance conquered with supreme visual and aural instinct. At the same time, it's the more straightforward of the two films; Dance Party, USA contains richer emotional undercurrents that bubble up beneath the surface, and do so in a lot fewer coherent words.
Yet all this time I wonder if I'm giving Katz too much credit, reading too far into films that are really just half-baked screenplay ideas stretched to just barely feature lengths with the liberties of non-actor friends and unimposing production schedules. After all, it's a whole lot easier to assemble a collection of rather lifelike moments if an overbearing producer is not breathing down your neck wondering when serious progress has been made. In fact, as a filmmaker myself, I know that it's not that hard. But I am still willing to accept these conditions if Katz's films continue to feel so serene and poignant. Dance Party, USA marks one of those rare instances when I actually felt a film was too short, and Quiet City stands as an even rarer instance of a film being just the right length. Because of this, Katz seems very sure of his own scope, aware of how his films are making an impact and when they are. And if the final offhand kiss between Gus and Jessica in a photo booth after a slow simmer of unrelated, anxiety-filled scenes isn't making an impact, I don't know what is.
Sunday, May 9, 2010
Sequels, those intolerable addendums that Hollywood regularly churns out in the sole interest of hearty financial returns, have never seen a finer day than Richard Linklater's Before Sunset, a film that rightfully completes and enriches its predecessor in ways that required the span of nine years between the two productions. Before Sunrise concluded with its two short-term lovers making a last second agreement to meet back in Vienna in six months in the same spot, still ignorant of each other's last names, phone numbers, or any means of communication but dead-set on carrying out the plan anyway, because their intimate connection was seemingly too unshakable to fail them. Though one would expect that this is where Linklater would begin the sequel, he opts to leap ahead nine years instead, equaling both the elapsed time since the release of the original and the years ticked away from the lives of Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy. Right from the opening sequence, it is evident that the time passed has made its inevitable mark on the two as well as on the production stamp, a discernment made concrete when Linklater splices antique images of the lovers from the first film amidst the tranquil cinematography of Before Sunset. If Before Sunrise looked lived-in, durable, and immutable, the sequel's wispy patina is like that of a postcard slowly fading away into obscurity, mirroring the weathered state of Jesse and Celine's relationship.
On the coda of his European book tour, Jesse is answering questions in an elegant Parisian bookstore about the ambiguous ending of his successful novel - which, to no one's surprise, is based on the events of Before Sunrise - when he spots Celine peering at him from a nondescript aisle. Her full, curvy features from years before, witnessed in the momentary archival glimpses, have given way to a coarser, thinner bone structure, indicative of not only aging physically but hardening her worldview from a handful of dispassionate experiences and missed opportunities. Indeed, soon enough we learn that this is actually the pair's first meeting since their romantic evening in Vienna (which Celine calls a "one-night-stand" in her waltz in the closing scene, an ostensibly self-effacing jab at herself for all her preoccupations with sex). Life - or more specifically, Celine's grandmother's death - got in the way of her fulfilling her promise to meet Jesse at the specified time and place. A potentially crucial opportunity was muffed, and the two of them have to deal with that through cordial niceties that only serve to mask what is clearly lamentation and heartache underneath, especially for the always amiable and understanding Jesse, who actually did show up in Vienna and was forced to pay the dividends.
All regrets and gentle grudges are tossed aside though, at least at first, while Jesse and Celine agree to catch up before his flight back to the United States. It would take a vegetable not to realize the immediate similarities between this and their previous rendezvous through French streets and cafes, for after the initial small-talk is exchanged, Jesse and Celine get right back to effortless, rambling discussion as if they had never ceased in the first place. They speak about Jesse's notion that people do not change, his experience in a Trappist retreat, Celine's work as a student in New York City during the same time that Jesse lived there, and the nature of aging and responsibility. But what gradually leads to the most personal admissions is when they summarize their current scenarios: Celine has a blasé relationship with a war photographer whose work causes him to be away half the time, and she now affiliates herself with environmental agencies in a half-hearted attempt to cure a hobbled world; Jesse, an established author, has a wife and a son but feels like he's "running a small nursery with someone [he] used to date". As adults invested in routine, they are more guarded and closed-off than before, and are thus less willing to release their emotions, so the conversation at first plods when it finally gets to this seemingly commonplace realm. But once the two hop aboard a tour boat on the Seine in a scene of masterful staging and careful pacing, the river breeze seems to stir up the hitherto concealed layers and the past lovers begin positioning their mundane existence in relation to their idyllic night in Vienna and the liberties it produced. Jesse asks, "Oh, God, why weren't you there, in Vienna?" He knows precisely why, but his real question has more to do with a lifetime of wondering how things would have turned out if she was.
These private revelations continue to crescendo until they reach their peak in an escort car driving back to Celine's apartment. It's a scene that curiously echoes the last moment at the train in Before Sunrise, because it is perceived that this is the final chance for communication before separation once again (the film's rigidly maintained real-time structure allows for no wasted minutes in the face of Jesse's fast-approaching airport deadline). Yet the potent sense of hopefulness in the original has been replaced by confessional hysteria, with Jesse and Celine voicing their feelings in an anarchic display of regret, sadness, anger, and pity. Hawke and Delpy handle the situation beautifully, exploding and regrouping in a matter of seconds, filling the gaps with tentative acts of subtlety - one fleeting moment has Celine reaching her hand out to comfort Jesse as he looks out the window only to pull it back submissively when he turns around. All of the repressed dissatisfaction about the formulaic lives these two spontaneous characters lead comes to the forefront. Perhaps realizing the importance of not letting her out of his grasp once again, Jesse offers to take her to her door, which leads to a tour of the inside of her apartment. Miraculously, Jesse and Celine manage a quaint reversal of their previous emotional outpouring. There seems to be a mutual acknowledgment of their success in overcoming the hurdle that spelled failure last time. They do not leave each other, and one gets the sense that Jesse isn't planning to, as he indifferently delays his escort. Maybe they exchange numbers this time. Maybe they realize they really should be together. Regardless of the end result, Linklater has provided an utterly complete and stirring portrait of two harmonious souls in discordant stride.
Saturday, May 8, 2010
I have recently been accepted as a freelance writer for Examiner.com, a national news website that caters to all sorts of special interests with a local focus. I will be writing for the Boston outlet as a Film Examiner, which ultimately means maintaining a firm grasp on all things cinematic occurring in Boston, Massachusetts, whether they be festivals, rare releases at local art house theaters, or bigger multiplex offerings. (If you check out my page so far though, you'll see that I have been largely neglecting the latter, which I guess comes as no surprise.) Several of my essays here will be cross-posted on Examiner in abbreviated versions assuming they were films I saw on screen in Boston, and anything else will be previews of what's up and coming. If you live in the city, I hope this can be a beneficial tool, and if not, feel free to take a peek at the articles anyway, because compensation is based wholly on readership and page views. (I have added a button on the sidebar for quick access to my page if you're interested.) Of course, this blog will remain my most prized center for writing, but Examiner may prove a nice supplemental project with a slightly different tone.
Monday, May 3, 2010
After sensitively probing the scattered fabric of Generation X with his seminal features Slacker (1991) and Dazed and Confused (1993), Richard Linklater moved towards a palette that was at once decidedly broader and more specific with Before Sunrise, one of the defining films of the 1990's American independent cinema. Meeting two disparate souls - a personable young American male named Jesse (Ethan Hawke) who wants to just "be a ghost for a while" and an intellectually curious French woman named Celine (Julie Delpy) - on a train in the anonymity of the European countryside, Linklater's film, while at first hearkening back to his unreleased debut It's Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books (1988) due to its emphasis on public transit, seemed instantly an attempt to transcend any of his familiar measures of place and community. Jesse and Celine are characters who are out of their element, standing out as clear central figures in opposition to the homogeneous ensemble pieces Linklater has perfected throughout his career. They begin conversing over coffee, and soon enough he is asking her to get off and kill time with him in Vienna for the day before he has to catch a flight in the morning. It's a setup that prefigures a situation of almost Greek-like levels of fate and free-will, contrasting the rambling, directionless non-structure of his earlier works.
What becomes especially interesting in Before Sunrise though is not that Linklater abandons any of his former methods, but rather how effortlessly he is able to adopt a more rigid three-act structure while still maintaining his signature air of casual spontaneity. Celine eventually does get off of the train with Jesse, but unlike Linklater's own cameo performance in Slacker, she does not have any stoic skepticism about it. On account of Jesse's prophetically logical dissertation about how she would regret not getting off the train with him in a distant, romantically confused future (the first of the script's devilishly clever speeches), she feels completely at ease with his laid-back, unassuming demeanor. For the rest of the day and into the night, the two wander around Vienna discussing various topics related to life, love, death, and the innumerable gray areas in between, all captured by Linklater and cinematographer Lee Daniels' modestly roving camera, which remains as straightforward as possible so as to not interrupt their delicate interaction. Knowing that the two must separate in the morning though lends a constant mood of melancholy to the proceedings, a feeling of transience and frailty that grows deeper and deeper, devastatingly, as Jesse and Celine's relationship grows stronger.
It's a premise that is simultaneously sad and inspiring throughout, but Linklater and his two leads have an uncanny way of diverting the negative aspects of the situation until the final twenty minutes, so that what remains is entertaining, thought-provoking talk interspersed with humorous non-sequiturs that often times lead to the intellectual core of Linklater's work. For instance, at one point the two are dining at a patio cafe when Celine mistakenly makes prolonged eye contact with an elderly mystic, who takes this as an invitation for business. Receptive as always, Celine agrees to have her palm read. The mystic makes a vague enough summary of her current and future self - enough to have gathered simply from the scene of course - and concludes by making a brief statement to Jesse, which he later deems "condescending", as well as labeling the whole encounter a hokey act of opportunism. Celine, on the other hand, is taken by this small spiritual communion between two souls, moved by how such a lowly street entertainer could inspire so much mystery and seeming understanding. A scene as minute as this works to cement the fundamental differences between Celine and Jesse's worldviews: he is the rationalist, and she is the lofty, spiritual romantic (roles that would, to some extent, be reversed in the tantalizing sequel, Before Sunset (2004)). Later, an encounter with a street-side poet affirms these statuses. Yet Linklater, ever attentive to the multivalence of human beings, throws in personality ripples that complicate their ostensible roles. Celine, betraying her idealistic nature, is constantly worrying about the omnipresent possibility of death (witness her possession of the George Bataille anthology The Dead Man in the opening sequence), and Jesse at one point waxes about how he feels like a child dreaming up his future life in his mind, a seemingly more reassuring, optimistic outlook.
And so Jesse and Celine continue to talk, talk, and talk, and after all of this heart-to-heart, as well as the equally vital gaps of silence, a charismatic relationship forms that feels as carefully constructed as any of the best in cinema, yet it maintains a wholly authentic sense of two people living beside one another as opposed to performing. It's almost as if the script was abandoned after a while and the film simply became a documentary of Hawke and Delpy's chemistry on set, assuming such conversations very well could have occurred when a camera was not rolling. Because of this, one feels a strong artistic kinship with the films of Eric Rohmer, who was always able to capture similarly holy moments of human interaction on screen with a casual formalism that Linklater shares. Like in Slacker, Linklater appears resolute on assigning the camera an ethical dimension, using the static long take in an utterly nongratuitous manner for reasons that have less to do with aesthetic editorializing and more to do with respecting the length and fragility of his character's exchanges. Moreover, the dependency on fixed visual patterns is yet another sign of permanence, along with the classical music heard on the soundtrack and the ancient sights of Vienna that Linklater occasionally - but not superficially - revels in, that counteracts the ephemerality that ultimately drives Jesse and Celine apart in the end.
Before Sunrise is sneakily calling attention to these themes throughout, without ever overshadowing the dialogue that is its central purpose. The images of trains, tracks, and blurring landscapes in the beginning and end of the film come to signify the race of time and the fleeting tragedies it creates. The sound of the tracks can be heard, implicitly, in the whole film, to be sure, but most presciently during the final moments of Jesse and Celine's time together, as they contemplate what the best possible solution is to their spiritual dilemma. Should they stay in Vienna and forget their lives at home temporarily? For just one more night, or for months? Or is it worth strengthening the relationship only to lose it later in a cruel, loveless world? Can they even go home and forget it ever happened? As the trains load their passengers, Jesse and Celine reach a consensus that is in some way a middle ground, but still it is stuffed with impracticality and snap judgments. Then Linklater makes a curiously poignant move not unlike the one made by Antonioni in L'Eclisse, yet infused with a remarkable Ozu-like tenderness, cutting back to the several locations the two spent time at over the course of their stay in Vienna. It is clear here, in this fond farewell (but not quite goodbye), that this is a precious film about places and people, about permanence and impermanence.