Thursday, October 17, 2013
Screening Notes #20
Leones (2012): I'm quite bewitched by how debut director Jazmin Lopez moves her camera here. Gerry and The Loneliest Planet are Leones' obvious stylistic and narrative cousins, but while the film shares a similar structural identity with those precedents (a steadicam wandering along with characters lost in an open natural environment), there's a particular energy in the camerawork that is all its own. Almost as if to suggest sentience, Lopez's camera slides like a ghost around its subjects, sometimes abandoning them altogether in accordance with some ineffable logic. Its boldest gesture – enacted three or four times with transcendent results – is to depart from them into some unremarkable patch of woods, perform a lugubrious 540 degree spin, and then catch back up with them minutes later, all while wind vibrations animate the frame and imply an unseen presence (this movie emphatically revives the "beauty of the moving wind in the trees" that Griffith pined for). Lopez's work here is less traditional mise-en-scène as we know it and more futuristic 3D environment mapping; characters weave in and out of the camera's vision even as the camera gains its own vision separate from any narrative anchor. The forest becomes an infinite space, or, as characters seem to temporarily vanish, a space in constant flux.
The Inner Scar (1972): If you have a prior understanding of Philippe Garrel's career path, you can imagine my cognitive dissonance upon watching The Inner Scar only a week after Jealousy (2013) offered my introduction to the director's work at NYFF. This tedious, humorless, drugged-out brainstorm feels at least a couple thousand pounds heavier than Garrel's breezy latest without achieving a fraction of the insights into human relationships. There's obvious psychic pain at the core of such a brazenly autobiographical venting exercise, which is fine, but Garrel's effort to elevate it all to apocalyptic significance is just patently absurd even before muse/composer/star Nico unleashes the first of many speaker-shattering wails of romantic anguish. As more and more vague mythological overtones are shoveled in wholesale, it becomes difficult to escape the suspicion of heroin injections in between takes; besides arbitrary aesthetic fetishism and a compulsion to over-emphasize beautiful landscapes, what else could explain the endless, sludge-like tempo of Garrel's scenes? I haven't even touched upon the central issue of characterizing Nico as a volatile, unknowable Other and the Garrel surrogates (one of which is himself) as martyrs. This is all probably good for college art students with high levels of lingering angst, but not for me.
The Searchers (1956): The first thing that strikes me, and probably everyone, about The Searchers is the scope – how vast and heavy the landscape feels in those unbudging, deep-focus images. How everything (the houses, the teepees, the people) is both built from the Earth and swallowed up by it. The land is rough, unforgiving, nothing to screw around with, but these characters try anyways, partitioning off sections of land with fenced-off property lines. Ford establishes a tension between a man-made desire for order and symmetry and the natural inclination towards borderless chaos, which is embodied by the landscape and thus cycled back into the characters. It is this cyclical inevitability that leads the movie logically to its coarse characterizations, Ford treating no man as free of abysmal disorder and rage, yet clinging always to some shared sense of communitarianism.
Before Sunrise (1995) and Before Sunset (2004): Coming back to these films at different points in my life is proving to be so rewarding. Not only am I spotting subtleties in the films' designs that I never caught before but my emotional reaction is also evolving. Young Jesse and Celine seemed so intelligent and admirable to me in my late teens; now they come across as dorky and naïve. One of my more specific discoveries was the calculated reverse symmetry of the two films, the sense that they are constructed as different sides of the same coin. Sunrise closes with a montage of still shots showing the places Jesse and Celine spent their time at throughout the film; Sunset offers a similar sequence at its beginning, only this time the images foretell the spaces in which they will soon traverse. Another example: In the opening act of Sunrise, Hawke and Delpy chat in the back of a trolley car in two-shot, with Hawke on the left and Delpy on the right, and Jesse grazes Celine's hair, unnoticed; in the closing act of Sunset, there is a similar shot, only with the actors' positions switched, in the back of a passenger van, and Celine attempts the exact same gesture. Linklater's quiet formal mastery shows through in such deceptively simple bits of staging and framing.
Almayer's Folly (2011): I entered an afternoon screening of Chantal Akerman's first fiction feature in a decade the most exhausted I've been before a movie in a long time. Usually, out of respect for the cinematic experience, I bypass the opportunity to see a film I might fall asleep to, but in this case, it was the only time Akerman's movie would screen in Boston. I nearly dozed off a few times in the first hour, but at a certain point the force of this magisterial slow burner, in spite of its mood of tropical languor, was totally enveloping. Even as she gets older, Akerman is still a whiz with the camera; Almayer's Folly shuttles between dusky jungle abstraction (snake-like tracking shots through thickets of foliage, iconic images of a slowly encroaching tug boat that are reminiscent of Tarr) and sun-bleached long-take rigor that stinks of sweat and decay (it's impossible here not to mention the movie's show-stopping, 10 minute final close-up). Dean Martin and Mozart waft through this thick, humid atmosphere, providing a fitting sense of cultural displacement to this dark, pitiless meditation on the existential dead end of greed and colonialism. Must watch again.
The Act of Killing (2013): In the vigorous pursuit of a seeming greater good, logic can lead inexorably to delusion – this is one of the uncomfortably simple truths at the center of Joshua Oppenheimer's The Act of Killing, a startling documentary that dares to dig out the roots of humanity behind heinous genocide. In doing so, the film is packed end to end with, and thrives on, contradictions; both within the casual commentary by the carnivalesque ensemble of amoral gangsters and within the dense compositions, writhing with intimations of justice, heroism, and community on the one hand and overt acts of evil and carelessness on the other. Anwar Congo is such a complicated and disquieting figure to watch because he's at once the most vicious criminal in the film (being the head honcho behind 1,000 murders) and the man whose vulnerabilities (to pack mentality, media entertainment, image-identity lust, and matters of torture) are most transparent.
The Entire History of the Louisiana Purchase (1997): Oppenheimer's Harvard thesis film clearly planted the thematic seeds for The Act of Killing – namely, a focus on individuals who have continually justified immoral actions or worldviews as a way to maintain complacency in a warped system – but in other ways its effect is quite different. The closest comparison I can think of in relation to The Entire History of the Louisiana Purchase (which has almost nothing to do with the Louisiana Purchase) is Craig Baldwin's Tribulation 99: Alien Anomalies Under America, another medium-length concoction of historical reality, tabloid sensationalism, myth, and science fiction in which no obvious distinction can be made between found footage, newsreel, fly-on-the-wall observation, and staged artifice. In that film, Baldwin disguises a scathing critique of American imperialism during the Vietnam War in the trappings of a pulpy alien invasion fantasy; on the other hand, Oppenheimer's target, as well as the form he uses to attack it, are far less fixed and specific. The film introduces a host of self-proclaimed something-or-others (antichrists, microwave inventors, etc. many of whom have dissolved into the cultural ground zero of Las Vegas) and proceeds to showcase them in moments of startling confessional strangeness, subsequently layering in surreal narrative content that envisions them indulging the most heinous extremes of their attitudes. While Louisiana Purchase feels at times like a mere succession of sideshow freaks – it seems to lack the brave humanism of The Act of Killing in favor of more grotesque portraiture – the inscrutable way in which it snakes from subject to subject, from potential "documentary" to dreamlike fabrication, and from retro interview footage to expressively blotchy 8mm experimentation gives it a pulse that's uniquely unnerving.
Blue Jasmine (2013): A single close-up of Cate Blanchett – quietly intense, bleary-eyed, and halfway gone – dropped into an otherwise lighthearted dialogue scene twists Woody Allen's new movie from a familiar neurotic comedy into a much darker psychological horror film, a transformation it never returns from. Instead, the film, like a knife slowly entering one's torso, burrows deeper into the chasm of avarice and denial that is Blanchett's character, a Gucci-clad liability spawned by, baked in, and ultimately abandoned by privilege. While a lion's share of Woody's recent films have eyed the upper crust with a certain level of cool disdain, Blue Jasmine maintains a refreshing neutrality in regards to its title character, even while tunneling her through an ever-more dour and fatalistic sequence of events. Here's that classic moral quandary again that Woody has dealt with on and off throughout the years: how can we better ourselves in a world tainted with cruelty, and is it even worth the effort? As difficult as Blanchett can be to watch, Woody locates this woman's predicament, recognizing it as a bizarre result of human circumstances. Also, side note: Woody is still one of the most intuitive stylists of bodies moving through cramped apartments.
Museum Hours (2013): (From an aborted essay...) When you live in a city, it's easy to slip into a default mode of exasperated testiness. It's easy to ignore everyone who walks by and every tree in your vicinity, to be disgruntled by the slightest disruption of privacy, or, for the more experienced urban travelers, to build a cozy shell of insularity that desensitizes one to any stimuli that's not useful for getting from Point A to Point B. For me, the best option to alleviate this problem is to simply leave the city for a period of time, preferably to a much quieter, calmer place. But when that's not possible, a certain type of film comes in handy, and Jem Cohen's Museum Hours is precisely that kind of film. So was Hirozaku Kore-Eda's Still Walking, Raul Ruiz's Time Regained, and Pedro Costa's Ne Change Rien, to name a few other arbitrary examples of theatrical experiences I've had in the past few years in Boston that have thoroughly re-oriented my sense of awareness in an urban setting, as well as my entire perception of space and time, if only for a brief, magical time shortly thereafter. It's appropriate to say that any "good" film should grant this kind of reward to some degree, but it's particularly the films that make radical breaks with metropolitan standards of processing the busy world that have special impacts when seen in the city context.
Fittingly, Museum Hours is set in a city itself. Contemporary Vienna is the film's location, and increasingly it also becomes one of the film's main subjects. Many scenes take place within the Kunsthistorisches Museum, where the ruminative guard Johann (Bobby Sommer) treats the audience to his private thoughts while patiently idling through eight hour shifts, but an almost equal amount of screen time is devoted to the spacious, pasty streets of the archaic German city. A chance meeting with the ever-curious Anne (Mary Margaret O'Hara) – an American woman in town to oversee her hospitalized cousin – enables Johann to reacquaint himself with his home city, and their ensuing wanderings simultaneously connect our gaze to the sensory pleasures of Venice. This generous relay of information – from Johann to Anne and from Cohen to the viewer, as well as, in some ways, vice versa – lends the film an organic, intuitive pulse, the form of a casual conversation branching out in several directions.