Monday, February 27, 2012

Metropolitan (1990) A Film by Whit Stillman

One could imagine even Luis Buñuel, the famously scathing critic of the bourgeoisie, warming up to Whit Stillman's wry, patient debut Metropolitan, a film with an unapologetically affectionate perspective on the upper-class. At the very least, Buñuel, who, coincidentally, is one target of the relentless verbal gamesmanship in Stillman's film, would have hesitantly applauded the American director's confident simplification of space and time, a strategy Buñuel himself tried in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. Metropolitan unfolds in the confines of a few ritzy Manhattan apartments (which, with their rich color schemes and baroque furnishings, all look roughly the same) and in a vague portal of time coined "not so long ago" in title screens. Though the setting is specific - it's the Christmas season and a group of vacationing prep school students are getting together to attend gala debutante balls - the film luxuriates in a generic sense of "pastness", and its anachronism is matched by arch performances that have little concern for conversational realism. This is a film that is very much satisfied with its own insular world, with seeming to exist entirely outside the concerns of society.

Stillman uses this detached, formal approach for comedic ends, and it's fitting because the characters inhabiting this milieu are just as self-involved, just as oblivious to "normal" life. The group of friends refer to themselves as the Sally Fowler Rat Pack, named after Dylan Hundley's character, a dainty, stuck-up girl who often appears the most charmingly naïve in the group. Always beside her is Jane Clark (Allison Parisi), her slightly huskier, more self-aware mirror. Of course, in the company of girls like these, there needs to be a third wing, which is occupied by Audrey Rouget (Carolyn Farina), a timid Jane Austen fangirl with the kind of vaguely tomboyish look that characterizes French New Wave starlets. Naturally, the group's most shamelessly articulate, geeky member, Charlie Black (Taylor Nichols) - also the character who dubs the group a part of the supposed U.H.B., or urban haute bourgeoisie - harbors a mostly unspoken crush on her that is disrupted by the arrival of a slightly less affluent Upper West Side outsider named Tom Townsend (Edward Clements). (Much of the audience's awareness of class hierarchies is telegraphed through dialogue about specific sections of the city.) Charlie adopts a knee-jerk distaste of Tom's ways, which he finds unusually conniving and ideologically problematic (he proclaims a devotion to the socialist theories of Charles Fourier and neglects reading books in favor of literary criticism), while the nihilist blowhard of the bunch, Nick Smith (Chris Eigeman), predictably is attracted to Tom's unconventional ideas.

These twentysomethings pursue upward mobility to prevent what they interpret as the foreseeable demise of the U.H.B, but their pursuit is vague and passive, defined by endless stasis and conversation rather than forward activity. What Stillman does show of the dances they attend is brief and fragmentary, emphasizing the idea that whatever they do outside the spacious mahogany rooms where they convene late at night to chat is peripheral and insignificant to them. Instead, love, politics, art, literature, philosophy, and college stories are discussed with the kind of righteous confidence and verve that suggests it's always a put-on, and when Audrey falls for Tom's freckly innocence and proudly contrarian tendencies, the drama that enters their closed circle is enough to confirm there will never be a dull moment. The communication here is controlled, fast, and clever, bringing to mind the fierce comedies of Preston Sturges rather than a twee ensemble piece like The Breakfast Club. Sturges' films were all about structure and pacing, always sacrificing character development in service of the twisty, complicated verbal joke.

Metropolitan, too, relies on its seemingly effortless but totally disciplined pacing. Stillman's work is defined by the leisurely tempo of its plot trajectories (in spite of the speed of the dialogue) and by its sense of casually and almost imperceptibly integrating central narrative threads. What's so impressive about Metropolitan - especially in light of its status as a debut - is the way these plot kernels build up exclusively through conversation scenes rather than through some of the comparatively expressive visual storytelling of The Last Days of Disco, for instance. The effect is akin to listening in to different parts of a room at a party, gradually picking up details that form a larger picture. As such, Audrey's affection for Tom is first sensed, then gleaned, then hinted at, then addressed in part, then addressed in full, as is Charlie's jealousy, Nick's boredom, Jane's backstabbery, and Sally's immaturity. Because Stillman's characters speak so much, it has the effect of either making the majority of their statements unconvincing or perhaps not fully thought out. And naturally, it makes the moments when characters do not speak all the more suggestive and powerful, such as when Audrey slumps quietly as the group plays a dangerous game designed to spill deep truths, or in a throwaway moment in the third act when Nick leaves the group and turns around in the subway station to wave a bittersweet goodbye.

Instances like these make Metropolitan, in addition to being a sharp, funny film, an unexpectedly moving one too. This is not only a film about how unemployed, post-collegiate friends function in an upper-class milieu, but also how their social class figures into their every behavior and thought, so much so that it produces a kind of lament for their perceived demise. Melancholy weighs over the film even during the lightest stretches of comic verbiage, and it's the product of nothing less than a universal fear of the future. I already mentioned Farina’s resemblance to French New Wave actresses, and the film’s carefree but apprehensive mood is emblematic of that kinship as well. Stillman even has Tom pull a plastic cap gun in his final "rescue" of Audrey at the Cape Cod beach house of notorious jerk Rick Von Sloneker - a moment that echoes Godard's early "girl and a gun" cinema as well as some of the hokey romanticism of Truffaut. It underlines a playful whimsy that runs subtly throughout the entire film, a charming amateurishness that gives additional gravity to the genuinely felt performances of characters who, regardless of their abundant and adult resources, have yet to free themselves from adolescence.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Screening Notes #10

Luck (Episode 1 and 2) (2012): A beautiful case study of why I do not watch episodic dramatic television much is Luck, a new HBO horse-racing show which has so far produced two episodes, the first of which is directed by Michael Mann and the second of which is directed by hired hand Terry George, the generically hacky director behind Hotel Rwanda and Reservation Road. Mann brings his characteristic visual flair to the first episode and incidentally introduces a serious digital video language to the realm of television. He continues on the controversial aesthetic paths taken in Collateral, Miami Vice, and Public Enemies - disorienting use of wide angle lenses, unstable, impressionistic staging, downplaying of dialogue in favor of telling body language and facial contortion, distinctly digital rendering of speed and velocity, and general embrace of the industry's cinematographic no-nos. As a result, there's something genuinely exciting and unpredictable about the first episode of Luck. But, as is the trend in television, directorial duties are tossed around to others who attempt to replicate the established style of the show. It's not that the second episode is bad television, per se, just that it's routinely ordinary and unmemorable television defined by the claustrophobic-long-lens-character-drama so commonly accepted as the only way to make dramatic television. Milch's dialogue is sharp, especially given its subcultural specificity, but he needs Mann's unique audiovisual instinct and skill with male actors to make Luck something that is worth the effort to continue watching.

Skinflick (2002): Thorsten Fleisch's seven-minute experimental short Skinflick is an unapologetically surface-oriented film, studying the surfaces of the human body, those of celluloid, those of the camera, and those of light, as well as those of all the mysterious shapes and forms arising from Fleisch's abstracted imagery and relentless editing. Using dichotomous cinematographic methods (direct contact with film, conventional shooting, optical printing) that frustrate the urge to compartmentalize the very nature of film production, Fleisch's film presents an assault of close-up footage of skin set to an unnerving soundtrack of distorted rubbing and scratching. About halfway through, Fleisch slows the montage to reveal a perfectly "legible" image of human skin only to rapidly undermine that sense of foundation and comprehension. Suddenly, his shots begin to take on a life of their own, resembling caves, waves, mountains, snakes, and spiraling vortexes. It's a brilliant interrogation of visual perception and the short distance between familiarity and revulsion.

Four Nights of a Dreamer (1971): Most Robert Bresson films feel like entirely one-of-a-kind works that could have come only from him. Situated between the melodramatic heaviness of Mouchette and Une Femme Douce on one side and the philosophical starkness of Lancelot du Lac and The Devil, Probably on the other, Four Nights of a Dreamer is a comparatively straightforward romantic comedy, and the shift in genre seems to have provoked a rare quality of intertextuality (probably most of which is unintentional) in Bresson's work. The film's naïve romanticism, presented with arid restraint, is the logical seed of a number of future trajectories: the deadpan comedies of Wes Anderson, the swoony European romance of Linklater's Before Sunrise/Sunset series, the detached inquiry into the nature of desire revealed in Jose Luis Guerin's In the City of Sylvia, among other things. But there's also Rohmer, Truffaut, even Godard in here somewhere, all of which is to say it's a fascinating film.

Beats Being Dead (2011): Class warfare dominates in this tonally ambiguous made-for-TV drama directed by German filmmaker Christian Petzold, so much so that it overwhelms authenticity and narrative coherence. Beats Being Dead is part of a tripartite project (other entries are by Dominik Graf and Christoph Hochhäusler) that ostensibly riffs on the same overarching narrative in a small German community, but it's hard to imagine even a larger episodic design lending an air of thematic, dramatic, or aesthetic satisfaction to this sterile dirge about the unlikely romantic relationship of a lower-class Bosnian refugee and a higher-class hospital worker. Petzold's oppressive message - that the rigid borders of class contain individuals and suffocate personal desires - weighs gloomily over the romance from point A (the boy's predatory pursuit of the girl) to point B (the boy's sudden and unconvincing abandonment of the girl in favor of a rich blonde), never allowing anything approaching emotional honesty or complexity to blossom. Toss in a ridiculously forced serial killer subplot that supplies some cheap scares at the end and Beats Being Dead is not only offensive but laughable.

Bergman Island (2004): It was raining the other day and there was a bitter chill in the air, so I thought it best to ignore the pressing work before me and sit down with Ingmar for an hour and a half. It's the second time I've seen Bergman Island, yet its extraordinary simplicity and candidness felt completely new to me. Marie Nyreröd gained access to Bergman's life in his precious Fårö Island only a few years before his death, and the result is one of the most moving documentaries on a filmmaker out there, an essential firsthand look at the creative, personal, and social journey of a world-class director. Some of the archival footage here - an overexposed Bibi Andersson grinning wildly in 16mm on the beach used for The Seventh Seal's opening scene, a young Bergman greeting Victor Sjöström at the Svenska Filmindustri, in-depth glimpses of rehearsals at the Royal Dramatic Theatre - is invaluable, and Bergman's surprising openness is treated with minimal editorializing by Nyreröd and her crew.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

David Gatten's Secret History of the Dividing Line

In a cinematic culture where words, whether onscreen or via narration, are commonly ghettoized as paltry emotional shorthand and "visual storytelling" is trumpeted as the pinnacle of the art form, David Gatten's films present an urgent retort. Having relished, dissected, and contemplated the printed word for almost twenty years now - and he plans to continue to do so for the rest of his career - Gatten has rediscovered the mysterious allure of typographic language in a specifically temporal context distinct from literature. The crux of this fascination is Secret History of the Dividing: A True Account in Nine Parts, a series of films initiated by Gatten in 1999 and prospectively set to conclude in 2028. Thus far, four films, all silent and black-and-white and ranging from 18 to 37 minutes, have been completed: Moxon’s Mechanick Exercises, or The Doctrine of Handy-works Applied to the Art of Printing, The Enjoyment of Reading, Secret History of the Dividing Line, and The Great Art of Knowing. Together these films represent an astonishing, mysterious body of work with a distinctive approach to visual grammar, a shifting set of complex themes, and a loose, fragmentary narrative.

The inspiration for Gatten's series is a mesmerizing melodrama circling around the history of the settling of the boundary line between Virginia and North Carolina in the early days of Colonial North America. William Byrd II, a government official from Virginia, is the focus of Gatten's historical curiosity. In a forgotten fragment of history, Byrd was one of the pivotal journeymen responsible for finalizing the colonial border, and subsequently wrote two volumes about the experience (one titled The History of the Dividing Line and another more suggestively deemed Secret History of the Line). These two pieces of literature were the seeds of an entire library established by Byrd of writings on the social, economic, and political landscape of 18th century America. However, this sizable repository of personalized knowledge, considered by Gatten to be in many ways the inauguration of American intellectual identity, was gradually eclipsed by a generation of more conventional libraries and has become, like its founder, a mere blip in the timeline of history.

Taking the lead of the supposed "secret history" that Byrd penned which was swiftly obfuscated, Gatten similarly mines the non-sequiturs, loose ends, and unglamorous areas of history. What results is a sprawling interrogation of the notion of historical accuracy, raising the question of what gets into history books to be taught to new generations and why. Part 1 of the series, Secret History of the Dividing Line (2002) - which was actually the third film released, adhering to Gatten's strange, achronological ordering - wastes no time elucidating these themes, opening with a single jagged scratch running frantically through the center of the frame as various dates flash by beside it. It's immediately clear that the scratch represents the border drawn between Virginia and North Carolina, but it becomes several other things in the process: a wavering timeline, a manifestation of the divide between what we know and what we can't know, between reality and fiction, and between life and death. The thematic import of this line weighs on the rest of the series, as Gatten is not so much nodding to the tidiness of the line as he is questioning how accurate it can be when dealing with the mysteries of time and existence. A subplot in Byrd's story is a spooky tale of William's daughter Evelyn, a woman with romantic hardships that plagued the final years of her life, and whose ghost has allegedly been spotted several times roaming around the state border. Gatten wonders whether a narrative such as this, seemingly only the stuff of folk tale, is any less vital, any less instrumental in the progress of history than, say, the writing of the Declaration of Independence.

The onscreen time allotted to each historical date running along the timeline of the scratch varies drastically. Some dates run only a few frames, appearing as indecipherable flashes of text that mirror the relative insignificance of single moments in such a vast stretch of time. Others, such as the date of the inauguration of Spiritualism in the Americas, or the birth of William Byrd II, show up legibly for a few seconds. Gatten is foregrounding those seemingly trivial aspects of history that are of importance to his project, and neglecting some of the more universally talked-about and written-about cornerstones of the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries. In doing so, he provides subtle hints towards the thematic and narrative preoccupations that the series continues to explore in fragments. That these are merely hints and not full aesthetic discourses seems essential to Gatten, because the Secret History of the Dividing Line series traces the way a narrative and a work of art is pieced together over time, just as the ideas and stories being explored were nurtured throughout the course of decades and centuries. Further issuing this point, Secret History of the Dividing Line, the film, follows this opening timeline sequence with an extended progression of images of amorphous, gravelly textures, chiaroscuro concoctions smearing half the screen and evoking a primordial soup. It's a gesture that bluntly denies any further intellectual engagement, insisting upon a sensual relationship to the celluloid instead.

The Great Art of Knowing (2004), Gatten's second and most poetic film in the series, extends upon the project's relationship to the act of searching through history and excavating details. Here, Gatten's camera scours a library, revealing old, dusty books illuminated only by a tickle of sunshine sneaking through trees outside. Not only do these luscious close-ups revel in the ancient artifacts of preserved but ultimately defunct knowledge, they also savor the very idea of material aging, bringing dust, wrinkled paper, and archaic cursive writing into detailed view. One can practically smell the organic odor emanating from the old paper. These shots are all about the beauty of the handiwork involved in printing these books, and equally about a lament for the decline of the library or the archive and the loss of printed literature as a primary mode of research. To contrast the printed word, Gatten also reveals excerpts from some of Byrd's writings in onscreen text, begging the same question Abbas Kiarostami's Certified Copy raised so eloquently last year: is a copy of an original inherently any less authentic or moving?

Gatten juxtaposes his library imagery with the occasional burst of abstraction, like a wispy shot of refracted light or a microscopic view of shrubbery, all of which establishes the undercurrent of micro vs. macro running through the film and more gently through the entire series. The Great Art of Knowing explores both minutiae - the relaxed daily schedule jotted down by Byrd in his journals, the texture of old books, the play of natural light on objects - and grand imagery, such as a black-and-white lithograph of a Renaissance-era creation painting, or a glimpse of Byrd's full name and government rank etched majestically beneath a dramatic logo. The film is posing the comparatively mundane next to the decidedly iconic and searching for the dissonances, or lack thereof, between the two. One can also sense Gatten's interest in spirituality growing in stature; throughout the series, myth, religion, and ghost stories show up offhandedly as ways of glimpsing into the past with greater clarity, or, perhaps for Byrd, living life to the fullest. Philosophical concepts appear as jumping off points for examining and sifting through the vast landscape of history.

The first two films produced in the series - technically part three and four in Gatten's order - are Moxon’s Mechanick Exercises, or the Doctrine of Handy-works Applied to the Art of Printing (1999) and The Enjoyment of Reading (2001). The former takes its name from writer Joseph Moxon's 18th century volume on the use of the newly invented printing press, which initiated a widespread proliferation of knowledge that was hitherto unheard of. It's fitting that Gatten would have started production of the series with this film, because like Moxon, it marks an attempt to assess and comment upon the current function and significance of written knowledge. Naturally, the film, as well as its follow-up, is filled with optically printed text, almost at the neglect of any conventionally filmed images, but the ways in which Gatten uses text become intensely and distinctly cinematic. In The Enjoyment of Reading, letters, enlarged and small, zip by on the screen in all different directions (Gatten rarely adheres to left-to-right movement, the standard method of visually depicting historical progress), transforming into pure abstraction. It's simultaneously a clever joke on the title (none of the text is actually legible), a representation of the chaotic progress of many different types of knowledge across history, and a gentle critique of the modern propensity towards speed, which so often reduces disciplined written work to mere visual noise. In Moxon’s Mechanick Exercises, or the Doctrine of Handy-works Applied to the Art of Printing, sentences appear on screen slowly and legibly, but their meanings are obscured by nonsensical grammar, forcing the audience to admire the texture of the printed word instead.

This dynamic between admiration of the printing process and argument for the necessity of reading is only one of the many balancing acts on display in Secret History of the Dividing Line, which also negotiates the tricky terrain between progress and stasis, preservation and obsolescence, fiction and non-fiction, cinema and some kind of post-cinema, and life and death. Gatten has embarked upon a body of work that is perpetually shifting and expanding upon its core ideas, and that utilizes a narrative backbone that is broad and intriguing enough to warrant continued attention. Given the web of ideas, methods, and characters Gatten has yet to explore, there is practically a guarantee that future works will avoid redundancy. With its overwhelming accumulation of details and symmetries, the series requires and rewards the kind of devoted, solitary attention with which it was lovingly created.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

My Night at Maud's (1969) A Film by Eric Rohmer

My Night at Maud's is simultaneously one of the most accessible and thorniest of Eric Rohmer's Six Moral Tales, exploring as it does the diverse philosophical terrain of a simple bourgeois love triangle. The film is marked by a ruthlessly droll and de-romanticized adherence to the romantic ideal that we are all meant for certain types of people, and fate will inevitably lead us to them. Jean-Louis (Jean-Louis Trintignant), a self-professed Catholic and lover of mathematics, is fond of such a model, and discredits entirely the role of spontaneity. Maud (Françoise Fabian), on the other hand, the sophisticated and proudly atheist brunette friend of Jean-Louis' old academic pal Vidal (Antoine Vitez), does not succumb to the idea that there is any predetermined plan for her life and conducts her behavior accordingly. Despite the inherent contradictions in their personalities, Jean-Louis and Maud discover conversational chemistry in the film's centerpiece, a long scene in which the two men visit Maud for a dinner that gradually becomes a soul-bearing evening of talk. As a result, Maud slowly becomes Jean-Louis' project in the same sense that the many men of Rohmer's Moral Tales settle upon a woman to distract them from their more stable lovers and proceed to dissect the every move of said female. But unlike these other characters, Jean-Louis does not possess any flesh-and-blood lover as much as an ideal object - a blonde woman named Françoise (Marie-Christine Barrault) that he glimpses regularly at church.

At the core of the film are the concepts of Blaise Pascal, the Catholic French philosopher and mathematician whom Jean-Louis, Vidal, and Maud tirelessly discuss. Pascal's Wager, a much-debated philosophical proposition that states that the logical man should obey faith and reject nihilism because there is nothing to lose and everything (salvation, grace, etc.) to gain, becomes a central talking point for Jean-Louis and Vidal when they reunite in Clermont towards the beginning of the film. As is characteristic of Rohmer, intellectual discussions such as these always mask more immediate thought processes and crises in the lives of his characters, and in Jean-Louis' case, the Wager becomes as much about his own romantic pursuits as it is about religion. If the odds of Jean-Louis' perfect mate existing are 1000 to 1, for instance, then he is resolutely set upon following that single possibility at the behest of all other options, and despite his dismissal of Pascal as too severe in his Catholic faith and reasoning, he obliges by the same principle in his search for a partner. Maud - the most knowable of Rohmer's many mysterious female specimens, and indeed one who presents a kind of moral and philosophical grounding in the film - sees right through Jean-Louis' intrinsic hypocrisy, yet searches for a human core to him regardless. In a subtle twist on the established convention of the Moral Tales, it is the female who orchestrates a greater portion of the scheming and manipulation, and Rohmer's biting dialogue (more linear and coherent than the digressive bouts of La Collectionneuse, for instance) keeps the audience especially alert to the fact that she is always a step ahead of Jean-Louis.

This conversational sparring is on greatest display in the titular event, which comprises a significant chunk of the film's running time. Vidal, clearly in love with Maud, has too many drinks at dinner and quickly proves the joke of the evening, while Jean-Louis follows not far behind, voicing his newfound Catholic values to unanimous skepticism and contrasting the casual sensuality of Maud with his comparatively rigid social behavior. Lofty hypothetical questions pepper the discussion and reveal dialectical attitudes towards love, faith and reason, and fate and free-will. Yet these men who are deeply concerned with intellect (much of their action involves discussing books and scanning books) have difficulty discerning and acting upon the underlying subtexts of a social scenario. Maud represents the opposite, and her skill in manipulating Jean-Louis' pretenses comes to the fore in a moment shortly after Vidal leaves the apartment. Jean-Louis tries to leave but she asks him to stay. He doubts her and questions her seriousness. In slight irritation, she tells him to leave if he wants. He gestures awkwardly towards the door. He finds an excuse to sit back down on the couch, and she insists that if she wanted him to leave that she'd tell him. It's a familiar exchange between a man and a woman tentatively pursuing romance, yet so much brews beneath the loaded silences, his petty justifications and her confident declarations. The entire sequence - remarkably well acted, staged (a nightgown-clad Maud lies down in bed about halfway through, at once tempting and quizzing the men), and paced - dissects Jean-Louis' obvious hypocrisies, the emptiness of his alleged moral chastity, and the damaging politeness of his demeanor.

When the night turns intimate for Jean-Louis and Maud, he is unable to consummate a clear instinctual affection towards her. Upon kissing her, he turns away, scoffing at his own betrayal of desire for Françoise. Jean-Louis' conception of fate is strangely skewed, as it seems like he subconsciously guides his own life to realize his own desires, writing off the result as fate. Chance and happenstance play pivotal roles in the progress of the narrative: Jean-Louis randomly meets his old friend who takes him to Maud's, he finds himself sleeping there through a combination of snowy weather and Vidal's drunkenness, he stumbles upon Françoise while driving through town and subsequently is forced to stay the night at her place when an icy street thwarts his car's momentum, and he crosses paths with Maud while vacationing with Françoise (now his wife) in the brief epilogue. Yet Jean-Louis only takes full advantage of these unforeseen circumstances when they comply with the vision he has for his life (and which Maud so astutely mocks, continually calling out his single-minded fascination with blondes and Catholics). His moral code has mandated that he experiences life in one specific way, and that all spontaneous endeavors that could lead to perhaps better options (the chemistry he shares with Maud, for instance, unquestionably surpasses that which he shares with Françoise) are snuffed out.

Rohmer and his regular cinematographer Nestor Almendros subtly present the film through Jean-Louis' strict perspective. (Travelling shots from his car window proliferate and gently underline this idea.) Whereas Maud's inner-city apartment is seen as a flat, drably bourgeois space (with grey as the dominating shade), Françoise's outer-city residence is contrasted, with its heavenly white lighting and cozy vibe, as some kind of exotic escape despite the lesser amenities. The sadness here is that Jean-Louis' wooing of Françoise seems more of a contrivance and a resignation than the product of a genuine longing and love (though it may become that). This is perhaps illuminated to him in the film's wonderfully ambiguous epilogue, which juxtaposes a fully realized, unified vision of his hopes and dreams with an unexpected recall of the past. Jean-Louis pauses in mid-sentence when describing the chance meeting between him and Maud on a sunny beach, and a narration recites his jumbled thoughts during the pregnant silence. Both Jean-Louis and Françoise shrug off the encounter, but there is nonetheless an impression of regret, confusion, or uncertainty implanted in the pause. The final image of the married couple and their young boy running off towards the waves, deliberately romantic in its symmetrical composition and hazy late afternoon light, is not without a tinge of irony, a typically Rohmerian suggestion that the moral code so rigidly followed by the protagonist may be as much a curse as a blessing.

Friday, February 10, 2012

I Fell Silent (Shameless Self-Promotion)

For those readers who are unaware (which is probably all of you), I'm a filmmaker as well as a critic. I've made a whole bunch of short films in the past that are usually co-directed with a lifelong friend of mine named Michael Basta. A few of our collaborations can be found online (see: Wind Through the Cradle, Remedy in Phrases, or Bardo, among others that are floating around on the web.)

We're currently working on a new film called I Fell Silent, which is a dreamy horror/coming-of-age film in the stylistic vein of Claire Denis, Pedro Costa, Carlos Saura, Hou Hsiao-Hsien and Ingmar Bergman. The film will focus on the quotidian life of a young boy who dwells in a large mansion with his mother and grandmother, a home that has been passed down through family history. Part of the idea is to take some of the conventions of the horror genre and approach them from a strange angle, to render the "horror" - which is relatively mundane and universal to childhood - somewhat peripheral to the expression of a child gradually grasping at the broader world around him. It's a fairly autobiographical film, and it will be shot in my hometown of Nashua, NH.

I Fell Silent is definitely our largest production yet, and therefore we have had to reach out to our respective circles of family, friends, and colleagues in search of the funds to get the project off the ground. There is a Kickstarter page set up currently that is scheduled to hit a funding deadline of February 24th. If we do not reach our funding goal by then, the film will not be produced. Searching for donations is never an easy (or comfortable) thing to do, but in this case it's totally necessary. If you take a look at our page and have interest in the project, any contribution is hugely appreciated. We're getting closer and closer to our goal every day, and having devoted so much time and thought to this production thus far, we are sure we will deliver a strong final product. Also, there are great rewards!

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

L'Argent (1983) A Film by Robert Bresson

Boiled down to its essential actions, Robert Bresson's final film L'Argent might just resemble a bunch of people opening and closing doors and handing each other money and documents. However, through the precision of Bresson's editing and his rigorous command of compositional space, the film becomes a haunting, suggestive summary work about just how far our capitalistic, materialistic civilization has sunk. The characters in this hushed atmosphere of oppression and doom - in which the omnipotent dictator is money - are the ghostly shells of humans who once possessed dignity and desires and have now become little more than transmitters and receivers. Indeed, for the film's first thirty minutes, money seems more of a character than any single individual; a forged banknote is passed from hand to hand, sparing some and devastating others, and Bresson shoots it in close-up, as if a human face. Finally, after some opportunistic hoodlums spend the counterfeit bill and set off a chain of confusions and disruptions, the seemingly innocent delivery boy Yvon Targe (Christian Patey) puts it to use, unaware of its artificiality, and gets arrested, in the process become the central character of the film.

When reduced to a linear précis, Yvon's ensuing downfall may appear ruthlessly schematic: he loses his job, turns to petty crime, finds himself in jail, loses his child to disease, loses his wife to contempt, and becomes a thief and murderer. But Bresson's construction is so elliptical, his storytelling so pared-down, that Yvon's ignoble path starts to feel less like the product of an inner demon slowly emerging to the surface than it does a harrowing accumulation of survival mechanisms demanded of him and nurtured by a society where rigid institutional codes of capitalism and the judicial system have suffocated single voices and drained essential human values. In this milieu, humans have been cast astray from their natural impulses, instead forced to adhere to the massive governing umbrella of commerce if they want to get ahead in life. There is a suggestion that in such a society, no one can be truly innocent; everyone is either already guilty of betraying the law or is soon to be guilty, not to mention that on a more metaphysical level, everyone is guilty. Early in the film, Yvon attempts to sue the female shop-owner (Didier Baussy) who lent him the counterfeit in change, but she has calculated a lie to the court and bribed her shop assistant (Vincent Risterucci) to do the same. As a result, Yvon is unfairly convicted. Ethics and morality have disappeared, and only transactions remain.

In response, Bresson's style is truncated to a visual language of transactions. Nearly every shot features a hand placing something in a pocket or greeting another hand with something. Greed, deception, and ignorance all find expression through hands, and Bresson finds subtle shifts in the several uses of the body part. At one point, Yvon, hoping to commit suicide, collects the medicine provided to him in solitary confinement through a process in which he receives it from a guard, pretends to consume it, and subsequently hides it beneath his mattress when the guard walks away. Shortly after swallowing his large stash, Bresson efficiently cuts to a shot of a few inmates watching out their small window as Yvon is carried away in an ambulance. The very content of the sequence is communicated solely through body language and the poised intimacy of Pasqualino De Santis and Emmanuel Machuel's claustrophobic camerawork. Verbal communication, on the other hand, comparatively rare and resolutely mundane, is also transactionary. It is telling that the final scene Yvon and his wife share together takes place with a pane of prison glass in between them, their eyes averting each other and their voices abstracted through the small holes in the glass. (This transparent boundary, at once creating a sense of immediacy and distance, might as well exist between every character in the film.)

Much of L'Argent's downfall narrative is telegraphed through scenes like Yvon's attempted suicide - that is, through the power of restraint and innuendo. A mysterious scene early on showcases Yvon's desperate quick stint as a getaway driver without revealing much information. Later, it's easy to miss Yvon's inaugural murder, which is reduced to a brief foreshadowing shot of him eying a knife in the prison's kitchen and a subsequent, similarly short close-up of his hands under a sink as he scrubs blood away. Bresson preserves a sense of uncertainty with his clipped, boxy mise-en-scene, always shooting in medium shots or close-ups and refusing to visually complete the space in between people, objects, or actions. Particularly in the first example, there is little concrete evidence to prove that Yvon is indeed the getaway driver because Bresson's austere intercutting between a shot of him looking out of the car window screen right, a shot of policemen pointing their guns screen left, and a shot of two people fidgeting behind the huge glass wall of a bank deliberately restricts a tangible mental construct of the space. An analogous situation exists in Yvon's climactic slaughter of a rural family for a trivial monetary gain. Knowledge of the grisly events taking place arrives either tangentially through shots of a dog skipping across the rooms of the cottage, growling at a perceived intruder, or belatedly in shockingly direct images of fallen, mangled family members. It's a breathtaking, uncompromisingly fierce scene, both for the way in which Bresson stages and shoots it (Yvon carries an oil lamp through the pitch-dark cottage, and its orange light, stretching across the dark brown wood of the walls, quickly becomes a stand-in for his presence) and the way that it represents a sudden culmination of Yvon's misfortunes, a garish outburst of the feelings of anger for being cheated, abandoned, and left penniless that are bubbling within him.

With the exception of this unexpected intrusion of real, visceral horror, the film is pitched at an almost ludicrous deadpan throughout, emphasizing the absurdity of society's hierarchical structures and behavioral norms. Bodies move from space to space as if their joints are constructed with metal, droning voices quickly submerge into featureless surrounding walls, and doors abruptly shut or swing bluntly until they reach the conclusion of their graceless pendulums. Bresson evokes a world where humans have been fenced off from their own environments, where the steel confines of a jail are no different than the equally firm boundaries constructed by society. A recurring shot of prisoners being escorted through a gate - framed such that their heads are cut off and only the gate is in crisp focus - is exquisitely ambiguous: are they entering or exiting prison? And more strangely, does it matter?

Friday, February 3, 2012

The Grey (2012) A Film by Joe Carnahan

From the moment its grimy, grainy, workmanlike opening shots of a mopey Liam Neeson trudging around a hellish Alaskan oil reserve tarnish the screen, Joe Carnahan's The Grey boasts a strange texture for what is allegedly a #1 Movie in America, and it also announces itself as something with much more serious intentions than such a tag would imply. That the film's mostly a hokey, sometimes ludicrous, yet entirely thrilling genre piece is both predictable - surely Hollywood can't completely bank on the quiet, dour mood piece suggested by the opening - and a play to its advantage, as its genuine existential underpinnings heighten the film's suspense at every turn, and often take the stock characters on an unlikely trajectory from unmemorable everymen to goofy plot movers to truly sympathetic morsels pining helplessly from the fear of the unknown. In fact, the entire film adheres to this hump-like path, from seriousness to camp back to seriousness, from abstraction to concreteness back to abstraction, and in some ways, from death to life back to death.

Only seconds after Neeson is seen rummaging across the Alaskan landscape and then stopping in at a raucous industrial bar, he is glimpsed aiming a rifle directly into his throat. Something catches his attention and derails him from his mission, but nevertheless the impact is made; this is a film concerned with the ancient question of to-be-or-not-to-be, and by staging a survivalist scenario in which men are entirely at the mercy of the elements, the question is given ample space to elevate in intensity. Neeson's character John Ottway - a shattered middle-aged man hired to protect oil drillers from incoming wolves with a rifle - gets stuck on an airplane full of pompous roughnecks, and then has the luxury of spending his time in the middle of the forbidding Alaskan tundra with these men once the plane crashes in the throes of a blizzard (the first of many to come). Of course, all the rations are dust, and all the potential weapons including Ottway's trusty rifle have been rendered dysfunctional from the high-impact crash, which Carnahan shoots as a bombastic, abstracted whoosh of sound, image, and what seems like a giant N64 rumble pack integrated into the screen and the theater seats (all indicating that this feels a hell of a lot like what it might be like to sit in a plane dive-bombing at amazing speeds). That the director follows this whip to the face with an emotionally direct scene in which Neeson must talk a man quietly through his inevitable death is a testament to his admirable willingness to shift moods in a moment's notice.

Wolves show up shortly thereafter, but these are not the simple, comparatively convincing wolves that prance around the oil reserve; these are ungainly, territorial monsters with an uncontrollable bloodlust. It is here that The Grey's closest genre cousin becomes Neil Marshall's nail-biting cave thriller The Descent, the former being the masculine answer to the latter's deconstructed girl-power. Both films design their beasts largely to put into perspective the place of modern humans in a larger scheme of evolutionary history and nature. Carnahan, hitherto a director of pulpy machismo, has placed big-headed men in a situation that makes them resemble pint-sized fools, utterly helpless against the brutal climate of the wilds and the relentless encroachment of the wolves. Indeed, Neeson, ostensibly the leader and hero of the pack - at least, as this survivalism subgenre would have it - winds up leading his skeptical followers straight into the belly of the beast after every new development. Tools, smarts, and, especially, Gods, have no effect here; in fact, Carnahan shows them being decimated one by one until, in the final ten minutes of this compact 117 minute film, Neeson is bellowing at an overcast sky to an (inevitably) silent Creator. It's no surprise for an American studio picture to be this doggedly Atheist, but it is a welcome shock to see spiritual questioning on such vehement display, and especially for it to be tethered to a simultaneous take-down of masculine swagger.

The film is defined by an interplay between long stretches of silence/introspective dialogue and jarring bursts of cacophonous violence, and this speaks to Carnahan's bleak vision of death and nature: there are no warnings, no free passes to consider for a minute or two the scope of your life - there is only harsh, inexplicable chaos. Nature is not only indifferent but malevolent, hurdling over your best defenses and sinking its teeth into your hip when you're at your weakest. Throughout the course of the film, the wolves seem to progressively develop an agreed-upon game plan: before an attack, stop howling. The ensuing silence leads the men into thinking they're safe, only to discover that they've been conned by animals. The conceit of the man-eating wolves is effective particularly because it's a stand-in for the sudden, seemingly cruel arrival of Death, and the relative substance of the metaphor renders the somewhat crude digitization of the beasts negligible (after all, it's when they're offscreen that they illicit the greatest fear, which aligns with Carnahan's idea that thinking about mortality is scarier than witnessing it). It's this unflinching vision of nature as a fate machine that makes the film's final two deaths such haunting scenes. The self-directed suicide by terminal pain-in-the-ass Diaz (Frank Grillo) is startling because it's the first death to be not a direct result of nature's wrath but a cumulative, peripheral one, and Carnahan's long take of Diaz sitting before a painterly view of mountains and river while the sound of wolves - at this point a purely allegorical presence - creep in on the soundtrack is the film's best moment. Then, Neeson has a slim chance to save his last partner Hendrick (Dallas Roberts) from drowning and fails completely at doing so. There are no wolves here, just exhausted men beaten down by the unforgiving world.

There's a lot to be irritated by in The Grey: the abundance of plot holes/continuity errors (the survivors seem to inexplicably gain resources the further they go and somehow Neeson was able to make a quick stop at a shoe store in the middle of Nowheresville) as well as the overbearing cliches/contrivances (apparently all Neeson and his beloved late wife did was lie in bed together in a misty, coffee-tinted room, and a recurring suicide note by Ottway embarrasses in its shameless aspiration to pathos). Not to mention the cop-out ending, which is Carnahan's most self-consciously "serious" maneuver. But there's something that sits nicely about the film's balancing act of exciting genre storytelling and philosophical headiness. Few blockbusters can manage this feat, but Carnahan stumbles upon something difficult to grasp and articulate, which is either representative of a half-baked stew of inquiries or a genuinely profound discovery; this vexing notion of the will to live, which can outlast even a man's self-described miserable life, is engaged with head-on in The Grey, and it's ultimately what lends it its surprising impact.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Silent Souls (2010) A Film by Aleksei Fedorchenko

In its opening sequence of lovely, elegiac imagery and reflective voice-over, Aleksei Fedorchenko's Silent Souls succinctly evokes its central motifs: the decay of tradition, the tenacity of memory, and the way that the flow of time washes away human rituals and pastimes. For the next 70 or so minutes, the film continues to use the same means in an attempt to reach the same end. Instead of strengthening and deepening the themes however, this method only renders Fedorchenko's purpose remote and tiring as his tools become increasingly apparent and his imagination wears increasingly thin. The loose, amorphous story concerns two men played by Yuriy Tsurilo and Igor Sergeev (names here are negligible, but for the sake of organization, they are called Miron and Aist, respectively) who traverse the breathtaking vistas of West-Central Russia to usher the former's recently deceased wife Tanya (Yuliya Aug) into the void on the shore of the allegedly sacred Lake Nero in an ancient ritual of Merja culture. The ins-and-outs of this spiritual process are laboriously laid out by Aist in characteristically heavy Euro-narration, and indeed it seems as if this descriptive and mournful text was the film's entire raison d'être. An intensely introspective road movie is built in here rather cryptically, but one gets the sense that it's ultimately incidental, that Fedorchenko could have offered up any anecdotal narrative in this cold, gray Russian milieu to flesh out his character's musings.

Aist's narration informs the audience that the Merjan people were an ancient tribe from Lake Nero, that they considered water to be the essential link between life and death, that they assimilated into Russian culture in the 17th century, that they treated Lake Nero as the axis of their spiritual endeavors, and that few of their descendants remain, among other particularities. Fedorchenko's images, on the other hand, inform the audience that this flat, deserted region of Russia is at once imposing and impossibly gorgeous, and that these men spend the vast majority of their days driving around this featureless landscape without speaking. Of course, I'm being somewhat facetious, but maybe not so much. The lasting impression of Silent Souls is its droning attention to the backs of Miron and Aist's heads as the environment passes by them. A fitting metaphor for the irreversible passage of time, yes, but also one that is pillaged so insistently and opportunistically as a structural element that it threatens to sabotage any understatement that might have existed in the shot itself. Half of the film feels vacated by these images, and instead of building to the walloping cumulative effect of transience that Fedorchenko clearly intends, the repetition adds a level of visual monotony to what is otherwise a carefully composed and formidably lit film.

Given all the lascivious shots of the vaginal region, pubic hair, and women either in sexual ecstasy or total numbness, it becomes tempting to label the film curiously sexist and perhaps vaguely misogynist. But then one realizes that Fedorchenko is not merely treating women as objects, but men too. And then, one realizes that any actual object in the mise-en-scene is also treated as a terminally unsymbolic, definitively plain object. Whereas filmmakers like Lisandro Alonso and Tsai Ming-Liang manage to find the weight and modest beauty in the simple fact of the physical world, Fedorchenko's Earth, as well as its human and inhuman inhabitants, feels dull and lifeless. I suspect this is largely because of the disconnect between the director's ideas and his execution. This is a film about the wonder and philosophical faith assigned to concrete things (people, traditions, clothing, objects (there's that word again!)) - that is, the unique ability for people to find meaning beyond surfaces - in which very little is anything more than a compositional element, and in which a dry, self-conscious, by-the-numbers "slow cinema" aesthetic suppresses any charm from the environments that are filmed. For a film so concerned with preserving tradition, nothing seems convincingly sacred.

A glaring case in point: Fedorchenko wears his Tarkovsky influence on his sleeve in many ways, the most salient being his interest in water and its metaphysical properties, yet the film's imagery rarely makes compelling use of liquid. This has to be the most parched film about water ever made. There are a few overhead shots of flowing water from rivers and lakes, but after its usage in the opening montage, it starts to feel pro forma, like a pre-coded symbol rather than a living, breathing image. In fact, in a single scene, fire makes a more visceral impact as it blazes by the shore of Lake Nero, taking the spirit of Tanya with it. Even then, the massive flame seems as much a ransacking of one of Tarkovsky's quintessential compositional elements as it is a tribute to the ancient Merjan custom of burning deceased loved ones and tossing their ashes in the lake. To complete the wholehearted love for the Russian master, Fedorchenko rips the haunting segment from The Mirror of Margarita Terekhova drenching her hair in water with a flashback scene of Miron sensually bathing his wife in Vodka.

Silent Souls isn't all fraudulence though; it operates under a distinctly Russian spell of melancholy and nostalgia, and this mood feels organically sewn into the patchwork of the film. Indeed, the best scene is a montage that visualizes Aist's recollections of his childhood and his father in which the two of them row canoes and walk on ice against painterly backdrops, likely because it actually engages with the reverence of the past that runs through Aist's narration. Otherwise, Fedorchenko's just wallowing in the present tense that he clearly finds corrupt and soulless, hence a brief scene of meaningless sex that the two men have with anonymous urban hookers, followed by an overwrought shot of their blurred figures in a hotel window in front of evil city lights. If Fedorochenko had brought the same complexity of thought to the distinction between past and present that he brings to the topic of life and death, Silent Souls may have developed a justification for its strange assault of visual punctuation marks loosely dancing around the narrative being relayed by Aist on the soundtrack. It's not that there's a significant chasm between sound and image; it's that Aist's words are so open-ended that only vague visuals can accompany them. What's left is a series of shots indicating transience and fading tradition (a typewriter being plunged into an icy lake, a moving shot from the back of a bicycle down a long forest road, old rundown buildings, etc.) without really evoking those feelings.