Saturday, January 31, 2009

And the Ship Sails On (E la nave va) A Film by Federico Fellini (1984)

Many have said Federico Fellini approached lunacy in the latter half of his career, but these have often been self-defensive critical stabs that result from Fellini's journey into more unconscionably personal works. The elements that peppered the films he received acclaim for (8 1/2, La Strada, La Dolce Vita) do not differ greatly from those present in his more festive late films; rather, they are exemplified - frequently overblown, but always striking. In a way, 1984's And the Ship Sails On feels like a nutty cross between 8 1/2's high culture and Amarcord's fantastic incoherence.

The film is set in 1914 on the brink of World War I - which becomes evident in its finale - on a cruise ship titled Gloria N. On board there is an eclectic horde of Italy's intelligentsia: wealthy aristocrats, musicians known for their abnormally high or low registers rather than their genuine musical merit, painters, political thinkers, hopeless romantics, and even a stenchy rhinoceros. They are headed to the island of Edmea Tetua's birth (a sublime opera singer whose death has left the artistic world in mourning), where they will scatter her ashes according to her wishes. A frizzy-haired journalist, who resembles both palpably and thematically the tour guide in Sokurov's Russian Ark, introduces himself to the camera as an outsider on a mission to document the monumental funeral. When he breaks the third wall in a number of silly scenes, Fellini is suggesting him as the viewer, equally new to the unusual circumstances.

The initial half of the film is rife with lightweight, quietly affecting moments that play like a satire on snobby, highbrow culture. The camera stops by several of the ship's peculiarly lavish interiors to capture scenes that range from delightfully surreal to softly touching. Some highlights include a symphony of silverware in the kitchen, an tacit battle of singing voices in the depths of the ship between a multitude of aristocrats, a basso stoning a chicken to sleep with his bellow, and a stroll on the deck at dusk to a gentle piano accompaniment. This somewhat inchoate rhythm is hindered by the arrival of a group of Serbian refugees, rescued from a shipwreck by Gloria N's captain. Many of the passengers are wrongfully discomforted by the refugees, thinking of them as possible threats, so they are ordered to stay behind an expanse of rope. What results is the eventual acceptance of the Serbs, translated vivaciously into a mutual celebration on the ship deck beside a glistening cellophane sea in one of Fellini's trademark motifs (the setting aside of woes for the genuine excitement of hoopla).

The film also invites political significance into its repertoire with the coming of the Serbs. Eventually an Austro-Hungarian battleship is spotted making threatening requests to the Gloria N to hand over their refugees. Deliberately stagy spectacle begins to overwhelm the carefree charm of the first half of the film. It's an opportunity for Fellini to showcase his creative bravura but it feels slightly uncharacteristic in relation to the rest of the film. There is an even more overt acknowledgment of the artifice towards the end when the camera reveals the vast film set and its busy crew; it feels gratuitous when given the number of times this ground is covered less directly. There are a multitude of moments in And the Ship Sails On however, especially when Fellini's sympathies lie with his jaded central bunch, that feel like a very fond farewell to Edmea Tetua, a symbol of shimmering humanity and perhaps even of fine art itself; interestingly, the film may have been Fellini's final work of art.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Naked City (1948) A Film by Jules Dassin

When taking into account the widely acknowledged schematics of "film noir", Jules Dassin's influential procedural drama The Naked City seems not to fit at face value. However, if one takes noir in the grim, direct, and realistic sense of the word, the film does not seem too distant from the trend. This is because Dassin separated himself from the influx of glossy studio-produced dramas of the period and created a film that was shot entirely on location in New York City. In order to capture a documentary-like immediacy, Oscar-winning cinematographer William H. Daniels went to the great length of lugging his bulky camera inside a car with tinted windows, explaining some of the perplexed glances the onlookers give to the focused actors.

Dassin tells the step-by-step story of the murder investigation of Jean Dexter, a popular fashion model in the country's most vibrant city. On the prowl for suspects are Lieutenant Muldoon (the prolific Hollywood actor Barry Fitzgerald), his right-hand man, Detective Jimmy Halloran (Don Taylor), and the remainder of steadfast crew members. Dassin is relentlessly economical in his delivery, never hanging for a moment on a scene inconsequential to the investigation, which includes a crooked jewelry business, seemingly unlikely connections, and jealousy and lies of all sorts. Unfortunately, the film dips into some lousy characterization, a result of the story's matter-of-fact, newspaper-like presentation (famously deemed by radio-personality-turned-producer Mark Hellinger as just one of the "eight million stories in the naked city"). Muldoon, despite being played splendidly well by Fitzgerald, verges frequently on caricature; he is a classic hard-boiled lieutenant committed wholly to doing his job and earning his salary. Halloran is broadly sketched, and a scene involving him at home with his wife before being ripped away by an important business call feels like a strained attempt to toss in some depth to his character, and the fact that he's young and married and juggling several commitments isn't given any future resonance.

However, where the film may lack in emotion, it shines in verité quality and deft pacing. Dassin's direction is taut for its entirety, and in the end, memorably exciting. He treats the city as a microcosm of society as a whole, where truth is continually elusive through a number of subjective views. The images, albeit not as flashy or atmospheric as some of the other 40's productions, are - due to practical reasons - flooded with sunlight, creating harsh snapshots of the busy daytime streets of the Big Apple in the mid 20th-century. The Naked City's influence on television shows like C.S.I and Law and Order remains noteworthy, and the film still has the ability to lock viewers in.

Monday, January 26, 2009

The Peter Bradley Show

Last night as I perused the supplementary disc to Criterion's version of Wes Anderson's brilliantly deco-stylized family study, The Royal Tenenbaums, I came across a feature titled "The Peter Bradley Show". At first I felt I was in for a nice, organized interview with Wes Anderson or perhaps some of the central actors in the film. What I got was a sloppy session of a man named Peter Bradley, who was likely the most oafish television personality I've ever encountered, conversing with five of the most minor characters to have participated in any of Anderson's initial three films. For a while, I believed the program to be authentic yet incompetent, but eventually, as it went completely haywire, I realized it was one heck of a spot-on parody of PBS's The Charlie Rose Show. And in all sincerity, I can't remember laughing this hard in months. I don't actually watch The Charlie Rose Show, but I feel that having a knowledge of the late-night chat program is unneeded, because for anyone who gets a grand kick out of deadpan comedy, the short does not disappoint.

It involves Peter Bradley in a darkened studio with two of Anderson's marginal extras, while on the phone with a separate studio containing two chairs - only one of which is filled - and a small room in San Francisco holding the most well-known Anderson minor, Dipak Pallana, and his son. Pallana can be witnessed as Gene Hackman's sidekick in The Royal Tenenbaums, or as a man who furtively rings his neck in a distant alcove of the frame in Rushmore. As an ardent admirer of Anderson's films, I especially got a kick out of seeing Pallana gradually reveal his mounting anger, culminating in San Francisco's line being cut. The interview features several clumsy cuts, bumbling camera movements, and graceless shifts in pacing. Peter Bradley continually cuts his subjects off to move on to another, and once he realizes they are all unworthy of television attention, begins to uncomfortably penetrate their personal lives. The virtue of the short is its ability to just nearly seem plausible, never overdoing its ineptitude to the point of indulgence. For the majority of the interview, it seems possible that Bradley is just simply an awkward character, much like Elvis Mitchell has frequently displayed (most notably in his chat with Christopher Nolan). Unfortunately, "The Peter Bradley Show" can only be found on the extras to The Royal Tenenbaums, but it nearly matches the film in merit, so why not indulge?

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Fando Y Lis (1968) A Film by Alexandro Jodorowsky

Cult surrealist Alexandro Jodorowsky's debut film Fando Y Lis caused riots upon its release in 1968, and subsequently became lost for 30 years. It's discovery is a crucial step in getting a full Jodorowsky triple whammy, when placed alongside 1970's El Topo and 1973's The Holy Mountain. The film is the initial signs of blasphemous life (save his previous short film La Cravate) from one of cinema's most insane provocateurs. Jodorowsky's characteristically mythic storytelling - kitschy imaginings of the ancient etchings which his films often form their shape around (in Fando Y Lis' case, the opening credits closely resemble the graphics that open Zelda: Windwaker) - involves a hapless couple, both of whom have survived bizarre childhoods, traversing the world's rubble in search of the spiritual city of "Tar". "Tar" promises spiritual ecstasy, as it's the last remaining city after all were destroyed, and eternal happiness for the damaged (and in fact never even translucent) relationship of Fando and Lis.

Their trip is relentlessly burdened by ludicrous freak-shows that rummage through the rocky landscape and a sadomasochistic rivalry that always trumps the borders of reality. As the film progresses, the two sink further and further into madness, as Lis' desperate cries for Fando (which recall Gelsomina's for Zampano in Fellini's La Strada) become more and more inane. A laundry list of sight gags is available in Fando Y Lis, and as with most of Jodorowsky's work, attempting to commit to language the breadth of visual originality present in his preposterously hilarious images would most certainly ruin the indescribable feelings they evoke. Here his camera style is at its most primordial; the overexposed, high contrast black and white hand-cam shots differ greatly from some of the eye-popping cinematographic calculation that emblazoned The Holy Mountain, but one can still sense Jodorowsky's presence behind the camera. There are his obtuse zooms, bird's eye view observations, and deliberately nonrhythmic edits. Not to mention the soundtrack, while naturally rougher around the edges than in his later work, is typically contradictory and irritating (a peaking track of what sounds like a cluster of buzzing bees accompanies a scene involving elderly woman at a dinner table aside the dusty environment).

Although Jodorowsky throws several ideas together in tangled webs in his films (in Fando Y Lis, there is a generous helping of elementary symbols such as eggs or white ponies), there tends more often than not to be a coherent schema. The city of "Tar" seems to have the general notion of a utopia, or a God, but throughout the film it is unattainable, much like "The Holy Mountain" is. Lis even states in optimism, "If Tar does not exist, then we'll invent it". Jodorowsky's films function as elaborate methods of pushing aside humanity's profound claims, so that one can attempt to enjoy the wonder and absurdity of life that already is ubiquitous. Whether Jodorowsky took beaver tranquilizers while directing his films or not, there is an undeniable wealth of imagination that imbues his unceasingly wacky world.

Friday, January 23, 2009

If.... (1968) A Film by Lindsay Anderson

"Violence and revolution are the only pure acts," states Malcolm McDowell in If...., British director Lindsay Anderson's tale of public school rebellion. Later on in the film, McDowell finds himself cut and gazes down at his hand; "real blood," he whispers in awe. This is the kind of dichotomy that is ever-present in Anderson's wonderful allegorical satire, which lead a counterculture rampage in 60's Britain. McDowell, before his definitive turn as Alex in Kubrick's Clockwork Orange, is Mick, a senior at a prestigious school for boys that is run by The Whips, a small pack of snobbish seniors with a penchant for brutal discipline. The film often approaches its serious subject matter lightheartedly, explaining McDowell's seemingly contradictory turn of quotation and also providing a telling reminder of the apparent casualty in teenagers that often precipitates tragedy (although its less unnerving and more symbolic in If....).

Mick and his two comrades Johnny and Wallace become increasingly fed up with the oppressive environment they inhabit, which at the time was a tad too subtly representative of Anderson's view of Britain as a whole to please the system. Many dismissed If.... as "madness", but its anarchic view is one that still packs a punch. Anderson's direction is modest and classical, but also absurd and deceptive at times (think a slightly tamed Godard). Mick and his friends long for the company of beautiful woman - evidenced by the numerous posters tacked on their dorm walls - and when they finally escape the school in the middle of the film, steal a motorcycle in a flash of male bravado too convenient to be true, and schmooze a dreamy waitress, the film officially makes a departure from the realism associated with Anderson's early work. Much of the film spasmodically jumps into the fantasy world of the protagonists that is suppressed by the highbrow school. At times these scenes are shot in black and white, which at first was resorted to for practical reasons (the cinematographer Miroslav Ondrícek could not guarantee color consistency in the scenes that take place in a chapel) but eventually seems to be used with some logic, such as in a similarly hyper-realized moment when Johnny swirls on a gymnastics beam in front of the wide-eyed Bobby Phillips.

Part of the reason for If....'s controversial nature is that it is unflinching and unsentimental in its depiction of punishment. One of the greatest scenes of the film involves the three rebels taking turns entering a room to be physically abused by the head Whip on account of "general attitude"; the camera holds on a static shot in the room as the first two enter and return with off-screen noise, until finally Mick enters. His slyness affords him a tensely prolonged sequence of stick to the ass. Whether taken as a dark comedy (whose surreal moments are quite memorable), a comment on the social standing of Britain, or a study of fleeting youth, the prevalence of fantasy under a dominating authority, and rebellion, If.... is an energetically paced, enjoyable classic.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Woman in the Dunes (Suna no onna) A Film by Hiroshi Teshigahara (1964)

The running collaboration between novelist Kôbô Abe and artist/filmmaker Hiroshi Teshigahara may have been forgotten for years, but Criterion's wonderful box-set release of the three films suggests a fusion as mysterious and fruitful as that of Bela Tarr and Laszlo Krasnahorkai. Listed as Tarkovsky's tenth favorite film, Woman in the Dunes is a bristling psycho-sexual allegory that holds up extremely well today, and almost seems to predate some of the erotic, surreal worlds of David Lynch. The film showcases Teshigahara's fine arts background as he stunningly adds aesthetic and philosophical heft to a rather simplistic narrative taking place entirely within a small village in the desert.

An entomologist - in hopes of getting his name in an encyclopedia for some canonical finding - scrounges the desert by the sea in the opening frames, digging for insects. These scenes establish some of the thematic groundwork for the film: the protagonist recites in narration a musing on man's formalized place in society (with cards, ID's, etc.) and is seen decked out with carrying bags and devices, revealing him as a logical thinker, contrary to the naturalists living in the desert village; the camera also gets right up in the environment's grill multiple times, the micro close-ups of both sand grains and insects foreshadowing the similar shots of dirtied human skin to come, which seem an attempt to make union of landscape and subject. The entomologist misses his bus back to Tokyo (which is familiarized in the audio accompanying the opening credits) and is sent by some villagers to a widow's cabin in a pit of sand to stay a night. However, he finds in the morning that the rope ladder used to descend into the pit was removed, and that he is only a prisoner abducted to assist the woman's daily labor. The woman lives under less than ideal situations, forced into accepting her harsh situation of shoveling sand to avoid burial and to help the villagers who sell her salty sand illegally to city workers. The entomologist finds his abduction was no first for the village, as it is a necessary means of survival.

Woman in the Dunes is about how the entomologist's identity - at first plagued by disbelief and anger - transforms into that of the woman he eventually comes to terms with. He realizes that he must accept his gloomy fate and find communion in a simple discovery. Teshigahara is masterful in his development of the two main characters and in his knack for reflecting their conundrums through the ever-changing atmosphere. Multiple times he uses shots of the shifting sands to signal horrific, phallic, or existential meanings. Although the film is set up like a bizarre thriller (serviced supremely by Tôru Takemitsu's chilling score marked by orchestral thumps and shrieks), it focuses more heavily on the characters than it does on the potentially spooky situation. Rather than being impermanently shocking, surreal sequences - such as when the sand pit is converted to a stage as the masked townspeople bang drums as in an ancient ritual and egg on a sexual moment between the entomologist and the widow - resonate with haunting multivalence, assuring Woman in the Dunes' place as an essential art-house puzzle.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

I Don't Want to Sleep Alone (Hei Yan Quan) A Film by Tsai Ming-Liang (2006)

A celebration of Mozart's 250th birthday in 2007, marked as the New Crowned Hope Film Festival, comprised of some challenging films including Apichatpong Weerasethakul's two-part Syndromes and a Century, Bahman Ghobadi's Half Moon, and Tsai Ming-Liang's ninth feature, I Don't Want to Sleep Alone. Strand Releasing issued the film in 2007 with gaudy design, but Ming-Liang is a brilliant auteur, so his dreamy film naturally makes up for it. Lee Kang-Sheng plays both a lethargic vagabond rescued from the streets by a group of immigrant construction workers and a bald comatose son being nurtured by a waitress (another Ming-Liang regular, Chen Shiang-chyi) that is bossed around by the mother. It's difficult to tell at first that both characters are Kang-Sheng - given that the homeless man's hair is like a mop as opposed to the paralyzed man - but their situations and demeanors are suspiciously congruent as to perhaps suggest a dual personality or "two sides of the same person", or perhaps something different altogether: both the men are being cared for by another, and both are emotionally repressed. Kang-Sheng's performance is typically silent and pensive, with his wandering mannerisms on constant cruise control as he drifts through the hazy Malaysian streets (the backdrop of the film being Tsai's native country).

Much of the film ebbs and flows almost randomly, deeply establishing its destitute characters before finally advancing its laconic narrative about an hour and a half through. Therefore, much of the film is viewed as a moment-to-moment appreciation that eventually gets tiresome, but this slow fizzle is reciprocated in the engrossing final act. A toxic smoke, the result of a fire, begins to capsize the city streets and acts as a powerful counterpoint to the character's suffocating longing for one another; gas-masks and all, Kang-Sheng's homeless man gropes at the passionate Shiang-Chyi as Rawang, the homosexual construction worker forging a connection with him, accumulates humid jealousy. Ming-Liang uncharacteristically reveals himself as an adept, if still faint, dramatist here, even imparting a brief scene of reverse close-ups.

Aside from this interjection, Tsai's visual style is still his miraculous formalism. The compositions are immaculate in I Don't Want to Sleep Alone, capturing the creaky dwellings of claustrophobic Malaysian alleyways, the impersonal immediacy of the Kuala Lumpur's urban culture (restaurants, apartment complexes, and a football stadium), and most ravishingly, a flooded construction site with sunlight seeping in. Tsai works mindfully with the frame, filling it up tastefully with dead space or entrancing appliances (such as a fan or radio), and often splits it into two scenes: one a smooth vanishing point and the other a tight point of stasis which often comprises an odd human behavior. Although almost all of the words in I Don't Want to Sleep Alone come from either radio broadcasts, music, or off-screen comments, the film speaks poignantly about love and alienation (two common Ming-Liang themes), and like most of his films, leaves a viewer swarmed by thoughts for days.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Los Muertos (2004) A Film by Lisandro Alonso

The New Argentine Cinema has been thriving in recent years, and the most exciting newcomer is undoubtedly Lisandro Alonso. After his debut film La Libertad in 2001, which began a trilogy of poetic realist works, Alonso has made a name for himself on the festival circuit. Los Muertos - the second film in this loose "trilogy" - is certainly no easy endeavor, but through its lush longueurs and aural delights, it creates a tranquil atmosphere of unease that periodically reveals arduous metaphors that Alonso allows you to take or leave. If one engages with the former, the film is a disturbingly affecting "road movie" that takes fundamental genre conventions (a path towards freedom or absolution, pushing aside the past in favor of the future...) and conceals them to startling effect.

Rural folk, the underprivileged, and "simple" people, have been on the forefront of Alonso's mind throughout his career, and they are a direct influence on his stories and characters. Los Muertos specifically concerns Argentino Vargas (who also plays the main character in his third film, Fantasma), a manual laborer who determinedly took the leading role despite his complete lack of acting experience. Vargas - who indeed plays a man named Vargas in the story - is what Lee Kang-Sheng is to Tsai Ming-Liang, and what Anne Wiazemsky was briefly for Robert Bresson: a personal, under-the-radar performer whose existence in these unique works is so plausible that it almost goes entirely unnoticed. In fact, Bresson would likely give Vargas' dull corporeity in Los Muertos' his greatly admired stamp of approval. Vargas embodies an upper middle-aged man imprisoned for (as we are discreetly informed) the murder of his two brothers. The film's hushed, floating opening frames perhaps imply this, and so does a point towards the middle of the film when a man explicitly asks Vargas about the murder, to which he mutters with forgetfulness. His character is mysterious and self-contained, almost stubbornly becalmed even, yet withholds a virility that is on shocking display when his actions become wholly uninhibited (such as in a protracted shot of his routine slaughter of a young goat at riverside, or his immediate and casual sexual encounter with a prostitute).

The first few chapters of the film show Vargas being released from prison (few formalities are shown in this exoneration, what matters to Alonso is the state of his protagonist as reflected by this crucial change in environment) and directed out into the Argentinian jungle with a canoe in a seemingly motiveless trip to see his daughter. Vargas' travel downriver is the poetic monument of the film; the canoe, the chirping jungle, and the river could all be taken as symbols for Vargas' isolated behavior during his transformation, one that includes a hope for salvation and an apparent denial of his past. However, Alonso offers no help, crafting a film that is one dynamic throughout. There are no scenes that necessarily stand out dramatically, nor are there ever moments of overly prolonged tedium; Alonso prefers his long, painterly images to evoke a rhythmic, transcendent, yet oddly realistic quality. Los Muertos comes to an unexpected halt in its final frame, and with its thought-provoking use of two dropped children's toys on the dirt beside two swaying fabric sheets, it may suggest Vargas as a fetishistic killer (shades of Angelopoulos' Landscape in the Mist, in which a similar composition deals with unseen malice). However, nothing can be taken as fact in this enigmatic film by Lisandro Alonso.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008) A Film by David Fincher

F. Scott Fitzergald's whimsical fable - which is the basis of David Fincher's latest film, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button - is not something I have read, but simply given the fact that it is a short story, I assume it deals less with the inexorable flow of time and mortality than it does with comic fantasy. While Fincher was likely not entirely loyal to the prose, his expansion of it into a fantastical two and a half hour rumination is impressive. Fitzgerald's story, adapted by screenwriter Eric Roth, is of a man who is born an elder and ages backwards. The premise is absurd and seemingly unfit for feature-length cinema, but fortunately Fincher seems to have been aware of this fact, and therefore has created a film that is often very casual in tone (in fact, it even involves a hilarious running joke) rather than emotionally overblown.

Brad Pitt plays Benjamin Button, a character whose psychological makeup is about as simple as can be; he continually accepts life's misfortunes with complacence, a trait that has already elicited several comparisons to Forrest Gump (not surprising given that Roth wrote that film too). As a squealing, horrendously wrinkled infant, Benjamin is left on the front steps of an African American home where he is taken in by the woman whom he eventually believes to be his true mother. Through digital processes, Pitt's artificially aged face is tacked on to a short, frail old body, a transformation that curiously balances an almost Pixar-like artifice with a confounding credibility; surely this manifestation of a toddler with geriatric features is exciting to behold.

Benjamin spots a young love in Daisy (Cate Blanchett), and the relationship evolves into the main dramatic thrust of the film. Naturally Benjamin and Daisy head their separate ways for a time, but there is a simmering tension that is created by their inconsistent romance, especially due to the fact that it is chronologically fleeting. The two share several ups and downs in the film, but when they finally come together at similar ages, it undeniably picks up steam. A scene several years after Benjamin leaves Daisy following the birth of their daughter (he feels incompetent as a father, wanting to be her parental figure rather than her "playmate") involving Benjamin seeing Daisy with her new husband for the first time accounts for an extremely emotionally awkward moment.

The ambitious concept of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button inevitably results in a fair share of shortcomings. The whole story is told in a manner that is very familiar in sweeping epics; a woman accompanying another on her death bed reads her diary, the sentences of which are completed in voice-over by Benjamin. Towards the middle of the film, we realize the identities of these two characters and how important the technique is to the story, but nonetheless it feels like a formality that Fincher found himself required to intercut into the fantasy. Whenever the scene wallops back into the harsh hospital room color scheme (blue and grey mainly), it detracts from the sepia-toned tale we are just beginning to engage with. Also, Fincher, who deals with an entire lifetime in telling his story, drifts in and out of melodrama at times; he shows us several of Button's personal adventures (a stint in the Navy) but fails to provide the ramifications they have on him. There is one action sequence at sea that has little noticeable effect on Benjamin in the long run, so it felt too much like story fluff. Thirdly, Fincher resorts to the tired use of a hummingbird as a metaphor for hope, a device that certainly was distracting and unnecessary.

Despite these seemingly integral missteps however, the film remains compelling and never drags. Pitt is showing, as he ages (forward of course, unlike in the film), his seriousness as a performer; his character is no scene-stealer, but there is certainly a subtlety that can be admired. Blanchett also does a fine job, and there's no doubt that the pairing is the greatest dramatic aspect in the film. The nearly flawless cinematography is a welcome ingredient in a film that is a monolithic attempt at something powerful, which it may not entirely achieve, but is nonetheless fascinating to experience.