Thursday, November 27, 2008

Satantango (1994) A Film by Bela Tarr

Have you ever gazed at mud so long that you begin to realize an intricate beauty in it? Do you perhaps come to appreciate its consistent texture or its effervescent gleam? At some point during the 7 hours you'll spend inside the filthy world of Bela Tarr's 1994 epic Satantango, you'll be able to answer "yes" to either one of these questions. I spent a large portion of the day yesterday watching this film after striking gold when it was finally released with English subtitles this year, eliciting one simultaneous roar from cinephiles worldwide. The film, yet another one of Tarr's antitheses of corporate cinema, is one of the most hidden of treasures in the movies. In his distinctive style, he weaves together multiple documentations of the miserable inhabitants of a farm collective. As a pure mood piece on entropy and desolation, few films surpass it. Tarr's mise-en-scene is drab and beautiful; the shots stall most times for up to 10 minutes and the camera is slowly orchestrated yet versatile. The actions of characters are focused on in their entirety, to the point that it is riveting when we see a man pour a glass of brandy. Off-screen dialogue, pensive glances, and elongated trudges are ubiquitous. With Mihaly Vig's unusually hypnotic accordion music, this peculiar atmosphere is heightened to a haunting degree.

However, Satantango should be seen not only for this admirable destruction of filmic norms, but also for its coherent, devastating subject matter. A mesmerizing tone is built once we begin to realize that the stories that are being told are unfolding in real time and during the same time. The four parts - a man named Futaki discusses cashing out and leaving with a friend whose wife he is having an affair with, a crumbling doctor stares from his living room window at the uneventful village and records his thoughts in a journal, a young girl contemplates with a cat her lonely and neglected life, and a group of stubborn adults drink to the coming of a conman - are connected by the fact that they overlap. This method has never been less tiring, as it establishes a plausible rhythm rather than advances some hackneyed plot. The rumor of the arrival of Irimias and Petrina, the two conmen who were thought by the village to be dead and gone, curiously recalls the confounding entrance of the circus in Tarr's Werckmeister Harmonies.

It seems Tarr has a fascination with the piling on of confusion during already miserable times. However, in Satantango, Irimias turns out be an unsung hero that woos the stubborn drunkards of the village into a trip to the outskirts of the pancake terrain. This turns only into more dissatisfaction assisted by poor weather. Whereas in Tarkovsky's films, the rain seems to have a spiritual presence, in Tarr's films, the rain simply acts as an internalized motif: the characters are miserable and therefore the rain adds to or reciprocates their misery. Perhaps this description makes Satantango sound extremely undesirable, but to reference the mud analogy again, it's actually beautiful and tragic, containing some incredibly moving sequences. It's also the ultimate summit of serious film viewing.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Times and Winds (Bes vakit) A Film by Reha Erdem (2006)

Two years ago, Reha Erdem's film festival contribution Times and Winds, only his fourth feature film, was met with assured praise. This September, Nick James of Sight and Sound took into account the triumphant nature of the film and declared Erdem as one of the emerging talents of Turkish cinema, along with Nuri Bilge Ceylan. Thankfully, Times and Winds deserves the credit it has been given.

A work of striking cinematographic beauty, it depicts a group of children freely growing up in a village divided by five time zones that shift with each call to prayer. The film pulses with the rhythms of a life that is unique to most, even ethereal to some. The forays into schoolhouse montage and voice-over establish a disassociation with the grounded schedules of common life: the young girl recites a lesson on the celestial movement that seems fundamental yet secondary to the procession of life in the Turkish village. Adults carry out routine jobs among the livestock while the children prance spontaneously around the pastoral vistas. Amidst this quotidian simplicity, there is the steady driving force of the Islamic prayers. Erdem portrays the fathers of the village as being one-sided and unfair, always preferring one son over another. This attitude has a direct effect on Omer, the boy who hopes clumsily for his father Imam to die. He shares his wishful thinking with his friend Yakup, and eventually decides that death will not present itself and he must take action himself. Yakup strongly lusts after his school teacher in a childish way that seems inescapably tied to that sexual confusion that exists only during the brief transition from childhood to teenage years. Another boy named Yildiz steals goods from a tree and is whipped repetitively in return by a gruff farmer.

Times and Winds evidently unfolds in an episodic, lyrical manner. These vignettes are paced slowly and assisted by composer Arvo Part's persistently mysterious score. (It's beautiful music, but I believe it's used too often.) In an attempt to familiarize the audience with the village, Erdem takes obvious pleasure in the protracted Steadicam shots that trail the kids through the rock wall alleyways adorned by airy bushes and bundles of sticks. The cumulative mood of the film is rather sobering, but its tendency to toss you around plot-wise doesn't help to create a relationship with its characters, whom are mostly non-actors. Instead, the film just washes over the viewer with all its photographic flawlessness. The sunny hills are irresistibly gorgeous and the versatile crane shots are a welcome upgrade to the usual low budget undertakings of Turkish cinema. While it could use some directorial polish and poetic refinement, Times and Winds is a worthy experience to seek out.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Father and Son (Otets i syn) A Film by Aleksandr Sokurov (2003)

In art film, Russian director Aleksandr Sokurov is an island. Although similarly contemplative to current Asian directors like Hou Hsiao-hsien, he has the clairvoyance of a wise historian crumbling to dust on his final days. Just when one believes that they have seen the most furtive celluloid oddities available (such as myself), Sokurov drops another one of his nostalgic tedium bombs. The films he creates feel like they have fallen from cinema heaven, yet in some nook that was never ventured to by other deceased films. Russian Ark flabbergasted me with its technical feat - one that I can't say has ever been accomplished to such an awe inspiring level and therefore earned an otherworldly quality - and now Father and Son has simply puzzled and discomforted me with the elliptical dream world that is presented.

While not jointed enough to be considered narrative cinema and with too much dialogue, music, and camera involvement to be pegged as minimalism, Sokurov's second addition to a trilogy about family evokes, as the title states, a tender father/son relationship. The opening sequence invites us suffocatingly into masculine body contact, an introduction that is sure to nauseate most audiences of the Western world. I wasn't necessarily turned off by this scene, in which the father is perhaps comforting the son who is telling him of a dream, but it certainly had me prepared for an oedipal homoerotic plot. It turns out this is nowhere close to Sokurov's intentions. Like many acknowledged philosophers and artists have sanctioned, he sees love as a universal, even spiritual event that transcends the societal trappings of gender and age. The son Aleksei is a military student living with his father in an angelic apartment where the rooftops are akin to front yards. He has a girlfriend and is interested in his increasingly present masculinity, but the film's attention is solely spent on the holy relationship between parent and child.

Their age gap is meager, causing Sokurov to prod their congruous souls through lingering close-ups. An aura of light is reflected off them and their surroundings throughout the film's entirety, and they seem as likely to vanish into thin air as the clouds in the sky that wisp away to muted blue nothingness. Similarly dreamy are the few wide shots in the film, which are shot with an anamorphic lens to generate dimensionally contorted imagery that will have viewers searching for a remote to correct the picture settings on the television set (i know i did). Father and Son contains very few establishing shots, and it is precisely this setting ambiguity that I have found to be at the heart of Sokurov's films. The father and son appear to live in a dream where only their faces and immediate surroundings are perceivable. As for Russian Ark, despite the fact that it was set in the vast hallways of the Hermitage, there is never an inkling as to what is around this museum. The denizens and locations of Sokurov's films function in a space that is absent of any time periods, or even worldly relations for that matter.

Despite all this spiritual presence however I feel that Father and Son is a tad too spasmodic. Sokurov doesn't ever prioritize one specific image or devise one specific rhythm. The conversations between the father and son are rather illogical and forgettable, and the slight narrative offers up one too many diversions, winding up unsatisfying. Instead there is only one thing to do: dream and soak up the atmosphere, which is magical. However, for all I know, Sokurov is yet another filmmaker whose greatness is difficult to catch.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

The Edge of Heaven (Auf der anderen Seite) A Film by Fatih Akin (2007)

German-Turkish director Fatih Akin's The Edge of Heaven is one of the great films of 2007. He provides a welcome alternative to the trend of intertwining narratives (an approach most notably exercised by Spanish-American Alejandro González Iñárritu) that is breezing through Hollywood currently. It seems that the multicultural directors have the best touch on the method, which is perhaps why Paul Haggis' Crash and Pete Travis' Vantage Point appeared as contrived to the most discerning audiences. Stories riding on so much surprising circumstance and coincidence are already closer to being forced out from the screenwriter's pen than a singular narrative. I am pleased to report that Akin's recent arthouse crisscrosser is an inquisitively believable journey through two dissonant lands: Germany and Turkey.

Six prosaic lives are tested by tragic occurrences that cause them to meet. Told in three parts entitled "Yeter's Death", "Lotte's Death", and "The Edge of Heaven", the film manages to continually surprise every time the suggestive titles come to fruition. The tendency for the film to always be on the move, alternating countries, roadways, and characters, explains this emotionally renewing phenomenon. Akin opens the film with a smooth camera movement through a gas station, introducing Nejat Aksu (Baki Davrak), but keeping his character unexplained. In the blink of an eye, the story of his father sets in motion; we see him, Ali Aksu (Tuncel Kurtiz), trudging down a sexually energized street, the smug look on his face clearly signaling that fact that he is on the market for a prostitute. When he picks one seemingly at random, he returns multiple times in the subsequent days and forges an attraction that is absent of any emotional sincerity. Wanting to keep her to himself, he asks her to come live with him. Acting as a polar opposite, Nejat, who is visiting home, is a warmhearted young scholar who finds a deeper humanism in the now conventionalized Yeter. The father is unremittingly disrespectful to Yeter, who has informed Nejat of her longing for her lost daughter.

Following a beautifully restrained tragic sequence, of which the detached camerawork is honorably sophisticated, the lost daughter's story is told. She is a political rebel in opposition to the globalization of Turkey, and when she gets hold of a gun that is dropped during a riot in a crowded street, she hides it and flees to Germany unscathed. In Germany she meets a young student who invites her to stay at her house with her mother (Hanna Schygulla), and the two begin a curious affair. These two initial sections of the film are insightful and compelling and establish a powerful emotional base that becomes shattered when Akin begins to unravel the drama.

Although at times the story deals with heavy subject matter, the extremely admirable direction never settles for heightened melodrama. Iñárritu's films do this to a gut-wrenching extent, but I believe that Akin's style is all the more respectable for showcasing a sympathetic interest in the power of people. He shifts stories with amazing subtlety, and when you realize that one narrative is beginning to overlap into another, it's tough not to wonder if a regrettable quick lapse into sleep resulted in such causal disorientation. However, it's true that Akin strikes each note (multiculturalism, the effects of globalization, friendship and love, and parent/child relationships) with eloquent grace. The compositions in The Edge of Heaven are also astounding. Akin has a keen sense of what to put on the screen when and and what not to show; his camerawork is awfully pared-down for such an involving drama. In the finale of the film, Nejat has perhaps reached the edge of heaven, gazing out at the other side of the sea that also harbors its fair share of basic human conundrums.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Nói albínói (2003) A Film by Dagur Kari

In movies the coming-of-age genre has been formed, reformed, recycled, copied, and in the case of Noi the Albino, refreshed. In an Icelandic village sitting at the foot of a massive glacier, a bald, skeletal teenage misfit named Nói lives a commonly angst-ridden lifestyle. Amidst his monotonous day-to-day offerings, which are limited to trudging around the frost-bitten streets and sitting devoid of all spirit in his school desk, he finds few serene moments to kick it in his basement's sub-floor space and ponder the existence he wishes he could escape to. When he meets the new gas station attendant Iris and finds her charm nearly irresistible, a slimmer of hope presents itself. However, destined to follow in the footsteps of his slacker father, Nói's attempts at escaping his bleak life are simply clumsy and ill planned.

In a style reminiscent of Jim Jarmusch, Director Dagur Kari finds deadpan humor in depressing and unconventional characters, but also showcases the ability to shift narrative tones with deftness. The film finds a healthy medium between its offbeat, slow-paced romance, its absurdly comic moments, and its tragic digressions. Although Nói is rather methodically-paced as a narrative, it is always enduring. This can be attested to the overall atmosphere of the film, which Kari seems to have a personal relationship with. As I've seen in numerous films and photographs, Iceland is an absolutely gorgeous country. Kari doesn't necessarily fixate on the landscape in the way that a film like Heima did, but he establishes it as a ruthless entity, one that is a living, breathing, but forever stagnate asset to the character's lives. They plan their clothing around it, their jobs, and it seems that their personalities reflect it as well; the village's inhabitants are all calm, introverted, and perhaps cynical. Surely this quiet atmosphere makes it mark on the film, literally when Nói describes the animal museum as being the wildest place in town, and figuratively in the peacefully frigid panoramas set to melancholy guitar picks. Despite the film's mundane surface details, it is continually absorbing and a triumph of independent filmmaking.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

La Jetee (1962) A Film by Chris Marker

Told entirely with still photography, unorthodox French filmmaker Chris Marker's 28 minute La Jetee is a chilling evocation of a postwar Paris where radiation endangers the surface of the city, creating an underground laboratory of survival experiments. The remaining humans look into time travel in hopes of salvaging the food and supplies that the past contained. One man is put to the test specifically because of the strong mental image of a woman that he possesses. Admittedly somewhat of a preface to Terry Gilliam's 1995 film Twelve Monkeys, La Jetee makes for an index of great black and white lo-fi photography. It's also a substantially enigmatic work that has left me puzzled through even my second viewing.

Our tragic hero embarks on a quest through his romantic memory bank, visiting the home of his youth, a museum of his youth, and the diversions he enjoyed with the curious girl. In the end, he is forced to decide on a life in the past or in the future, one of which has already offered humanity's solution. He opts to search for the woman on the pier (la jetee), the image that has stained his mind for so long. With a droning voice-over, fascinating sound design that includes incomprehensible whispers, heartbeats, and bird chirps, and an occasional musical score, La Jetee is just as much a story for the ears as it is for the eyes and mind. Marker once said his work was to "question images", so perhaps the shadowy characters who test the man are simply brainwashing him, resulting in a labyrinth of existential continuum. Whatever the message is, there's no doubt that it's fun to be brainwashed by Chris Marker.

Pierrot Le Fou (1965) A Film by Jean-Luc Godard

Pierrot Le Fou, yet another one of Jean-Luc Godard's French New Wave triumphs, is nothing if not a fantastic ode to life and living. This stylish and spontaneous creation by Godard makes for one of the most enjoyable film experiences one could ever imagine. From a filmmaking standpoint, its risky and extemporaneous style does not owe itself to firm calculation or narrative logic; rather, its the ecstatic enthusiasm that Godard conveys through Jean-Pierre Belmondo and Anna Karina that heightens this film. In the first several minutes of the film, we are introduced to Belmondo's character Ferdinand who reads to his daughter in a bathtub the words of the painter Diego Velasquez. Godard excites the senses with visions akin to Belmondo's words. However, in an instant he is interrupted by his wife, whose sudden request for Ferdinand to dress up for a classy adult party comes as no surprise in light of her flashy bourgeois lifestyle.

At the party, Ferdinand is surrounded by "imbeciles", as he puts it, which include the American film director Sam Fuller, who describes the cinema as a battleground of emotions. These uncomfortable diversions lead Ferdinand to leave the party and take off excitedly with the babysitter at his house, Marianne Renior (Anna Karina). From here on out we are in a world of the hyperreal, where Marianne and Ferdinand's actions are venturesome and romanticized. Supporting the "opposites attract" concept, Belmondo plays an apostle of cool and contemplative whereas Marianne is an antsy free-spirit. Her unusual connections with Algerian gangsters continually divert her attention and thus ruin Ferdinand's mad hopes of a simple existence by the Mediterranean Sea, quietly working on his writing and enjoying Marianne's company. Essentially, she destroys him personally, spiritually, and artistically. However, their relationship is so lucid and radiant that he can't abandon her.

They are on an idealized tirade of the French countryside, doing whatever they feel like with no regard to the repercussions, and this is precisely what Godard is doing in a filmic sense. If ever a filmmaker is splashing buckets of paint onto a blank canvas, this is that film. Godard's relentless visual and conceptual ideas are marvelously entertaining, telling the tale with outbursts of emotion in short and often times unconnected sequences. The film is like a memory or a dream, and this notion is further supported by Ferdinand and Marianne's unpunished ruthlessness. Not to mention we get that sense of colors being ultra-saturated to the point of blinding vibrancy with the help of Criterion's dazzling transfer. Raoul Coutard, the cinematographer, uses red and sky blue with such remarkable coherence. I am tempted to say that it's one of the most magnificent uses of color I've ever seen in a film. The imagery of the peaceful abodes by the Mediterranean is ravishing and transcendent, clearly representing the lavish side of life in contrast with the "gangster film" that Karina speaks of in voice-over. Pierrot Le Fou, because of its ecstatic vision and Belmondo and Karina's great chemistry, cannot be missed.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Changeling (2008) A Film by Clint Eastwood

Contrary to pyschological norms, Clint Eastwood's creative instincts have arguably increased in response to aging. As a director he is more calculated than ever, and it shows with his latest film Changeling, the true story of the corrupt L.A.P.D. in the 1940's. His film depicts Christine Collins, a working class mother who is lied to by the police after her son disappears inexplicably, and whose well-being is unceasingly ransacked by the authorities that are in place, whether it's the crooked police captain or the menacing lead psychiatrist of the asylum that she is "thrown" into (or as it is so poignantly put by the captain, "escorted" into). The police return the incorrect son to Ms. Collins and she insists it's not hers ("because a mother would know," she pleads); in her attempts to prove her case to the police, her words are unfairly digested and flip-flopped continually. She is irrationally deemed as socially unacceptable.

These acts are all in the interest of sustaining the public image of the self-conscious department of justice. Without a doubt, you'll find yourself squirming in your seat in disgust and wondering if this could still be relevant with today's authorities. After all, they'd be hiding their flaws. Thanks to Eastwood's undeniable wisdom as a storyteller, we are allowed to sift through this question and an array of others. When the plot broadens to grand scope-juggling several bowling pins and managing to catch them all-there is a growing sense of terror. A heinous killing spree and a several fresh faces are shuffled in, but everything pieces together and maintains focus. This is the type of film that could have been burdened by sentimentality and incessant violence, and besides the forced clincher line that ends the film, Eastwood spares us of both of these Hollywood trademarks. Like Mystic River and his duo of World War II films, he exhibits deftness at handling a powerful drama.

In his earlier years, masculine shoot-out films reigned supreme in his oeuvre, but he has become more level-headed and actually brings to screen a largely feminine tale with Changeling. Angelina Jolie plays Ms. Collins, who Eastwood handles pretty well despite occasionally bordering on unrealistic. For a single mother whose son is presumably her life, she is awfully concerned with her chic wardrobe, and through thick and thin she is adorned by an impenetrable layer of bright red lipstick and dark eyeshadow. She works as the supervisor to a telegram enterprise so surely she can afford these items, but one gets the sense that Jolie just couldn't let her pretty girl image be tampered with in a heavier film.

Her sometimes questionable acting is balanced out by two mammoth performances however. John Malkovich (no surprise!) plays a passionately driven and active evangelist in support of Christine's case. It's rewarding to see him bark at the woman in the psych ward. Also Jason Butler Harner plays a senseless serial killer who is downright disturbing to look at. Tom Stern's Oscar-worthy cinematography is also notable. The lighting is superb in its sharp dark and light shadows, although for a director who recently praised longer screen time for singular images in his Sight and Sound interview, some of the greatest shots are often times quickly left in the dust. Fortunately however, Eastwood's amateur days appear to have disappeared in the dust just like Walter Collins, so there is only a promising future to look forward to.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Ordet (1955) A Film by Carl Th. Dreyer

After viewing two Dreyer films, I'm starting to understand the necessity of his plain and formalized cinematic language. It's certainly not a style that grabs your attention or demands praise. This puts the Scandinavian director's body of work close to two other understated masters who are thought of as the ultimate examples of truth and humanity in film: Robert Bresson and Yasujiro Ozu. With Vampyr and now Ordet under my belt, I just haven't been able to find an affinity with the director's films, something that I achieved instantly upon viewing only one Bresson and Ozu film respectively.

Ordet is the most blatant study of religious faith ever recorded on film. It tells the story of the Borgen's, a Danish family living on a farm who inevitably build towards a spiritual crisis. Each character undergoes a significant transformation in the film: the granddad Morten Borgen begins as a skeptic of prayer and ends as an embracer of the "warmth of life"; the son Johannes believes for a great part of the film that he is the reincarnated Christ and ends freed from his nearly insane behaviors; the son Mikkel begins as an agnostic and ends with perhaps the strongest faith; Anders Borgen clings to the wish of obtaining the tailor's daughter and eventually is fulfilled, and the tailor has an organized fundamentalist belief which he reverses considerably, finally allowing his daughter to marry Anders. These metamorphoses are the foundations of the truly miraculous climax that ensues when the daughter Inger, wife of Mikkel, is rebounding from intense labor.

Although Ordet's ending is magnanimous in its optimistic, faith-supporting religious appeal, I found it to be unrealistic. It was rewarding and moving from a plot standpoint, but it is seen better as a allegory on the excesses of faith than as a palpable occurrence. Nonetheless the film is a complex, sophisticated work of art in light of its incredibly dry but focused vision. Dreyer strips his locations down to the bare minimum, revealing mainly white walls and mundane portraits on the walls (which curiously always seem to mirror the people who own them). He avoids music and manipulative cutting, resulting in hopelessly austere camerawork that usually involves one shot per scene. The visual style that I find has existed in both Vampyr and Ordet is mainly mid-level compositions that continually pan around the room to observe the action. I find myself wishing Dreyer would frame more delicately. I also believe that Bergman's The Seventh Seal was a far more interesting religious exploration, with the use of a pessimistic mood and beautiful cinematography. However, one can't deny Dreyer's place in the maturation of film as an art.