Sunday, July 31, 2011

Screening Notes #6

Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows: Part 1 and 2 (2010, 2011): I can't comment on the narrative content, because having seen these films far apart and in questionable order, all the story's complexities (needless complications of wizardry?) still baffle me. But I must admit that these final two films by director David Yates, the franchise's Jonathon Papelbon, pack a distinctively ominous and dreary wallop when compared to the rest of the series. There are moments, fleeting as ever, but still moments, in which Yates' terrific ability to dredge up a palpable atmosphere of doom just overwhelms any concerns of plot and character, particularly during the epic intercutting in Part 2 between Voldemort's army's approach and Harry's search for the second-to-last horcrux (?), one of several elements to pull from the Lord of the Rings playbook (a confused brunette protagonist perversely lured to the darkness through the magnetism of various jewelry, a villain's evil, disembodied whisper flung through an unstable delay effect, and ugly, amoral, boulder-swinging behemoths). One animated episode in Part 1, for further proof, might be the franchise's shining moment. Yet a sense of the momentousness of this cultural occasion, the wrapping-up of a ten-year-old cinematic saga based on the most commercially relevant work of popular literature of our time, is curiously missing from these films. So awkwardly handled is the final twenty minutes - energy here, hefty exposition there, thin character drama somewhere - that a tacked-on epilogue can only elicit embarrassed chuckles, the final straw in an oddly insubstantial realization.

Louie: Season 2 (2011): While Louie gets progressively unfunny (Louie's friend Pamela puts it aptly when she says "you're like, the most boring comedian ever", and I don't think she means it entirely as an insult), which is mostly a way of saying its punchlines spread out significantly and most of its time is spent not trying to be a comedy, it also gets far more direct and unsentimental about the way we live our lives, the way we hold insecurities, possess dreams, take things for granted, and lose our grip on reality. Already this new season boasts several snippets of scrappy, blue-collar profundity: Louie waxes depressively about the insignificance of life to a girl he takes on a date, explains to his daughter that every second she spends on Earth should be cherished, and spews his deepest romantic impulses to Pamela, a take-no-bullshit single mom with no interest in Louie beyond buddy-buddy friendship. Fortunately, Louie's stoic, drawn-out manner of articulation is quite funny in a dry, even arid way, and he makes what might be the most fearlessly confessional show on television also a modest entertainment.

Mars Attacks! (1996): It's inspiring to me that piles of studio money was spent on this garbled, deliberately shoddy expansion of a defunct line of sensationalist trading cards from the 60's. That Tim Burton, one of the most happily grotesque big-business directors working today, was able to muster up a fruitful career after this politically inflammatory, misanthropic vision of alien apocalypse is startling and reassuring, proving that Hollywood has a flicker of sensitivity for brash, anti-corporate sensibilities and campy, D-grade aesthetics. Granted, Burton has not made anything as personal or memorable as this schlocky piece of trash since (nor has he worked with as killer a cast), and the images of radioactive chaos and destruction he created were more than enough to make up for the lopsided pacing and haphazard logic.

500 Days of Summer (2009): I watched it for Zooey, but even she can't temper 500 Days of Summer's extraordinary annoyances. Every time an emotional undercurrent or a thematic shift is registered organically in conversation (and the actors do quite a handsome job of maintaining chemistry and expressing longing and frustration), director Marc Webb feels the need to address it through some stylistic shift, some quirky device that underlines his characters' emotional subtexts. What he doesn't realize is that instead of highlighting and immortalizing the tricky sensations of romance, these handsy moves simplify his characters' actions and feelings, making them redundant and generic. I've rarely seen a film so unsure of itself as 500 Days of Summer, but that has nothing to do with Joseph Gordon-Levitt's confusions and insecurities and everything to do with Webb's inability to express anything complex or subtle about human interaction outside the domain of Hallmark signs and symbols. Also, it's impossible to ignore the breathtakingly sappy ending wherein Gordon-Levitt meets a new broad named Autumn to symbolize his new beginning.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Midnight in Paris (2011) A Film by Woody Allen

I've been disappointingly slow in catching up with the latter half of Woody Allen's oversaturated directorial career, which seems to be defined by countless riffs on the same themes, stories, and characters. What Midnight in Paris appears to suggest is that in his old age Allen has grown both wiser in his worldview and more juvenile and obvious in his delivery methods. The film's hokey premise – an insecure Hollywood screenwriter and wannabe novelist Gil Pender (Owen Wilson) strays from his fiancée Inez (Rachel McAdams) on their Paris vacation to find himself moonlighting in the 1920's nightlife among his various artistic idols – feels ready-made for a high-school-level improv skit, or perhaps a young Allen-influenced filmmaker trying his hand at self-referential comedy. (If this is the so-called late career "comeback" Woody needed, I have even less anticipation for his other recent films.) But while the scenario compulsively heightens in absurdity, with Gil speaking dreamy gibberish about his new friends in the 1920's and Inez writing him off as some drugged-out lunatic, or his eventual romantic pursuit of a Picasso mistress named Adriana (Marion Cotillard), Allen's firm grasp of it rises in conviction, sincerity, and sheer craftsmanship. In a nutshell, Midnight in Paris is the grand, eccentric realization of an utterly stupid idea.

The film's treatment of Paris as a lively receptacle of history and culture, where ghosts of the past slide with ease into the present (a metaphor made concrete through the scenario), hearkens back to Allen's Manhattan, where the American city was treated as similarly fertile ground for artistic influence. But there's something different going on here; Allen's latest film is not so much a love letter to a city as it is the deconstruction of a mind so smitten with a city that it sees that which is not there, or put in other words, finds creation in reality. Midnight in Paris, then, could have been set anywhere with as vivid a cultural lineage as the French capital, allowing that the main character was as doe-eyed about it as Gil is about Paris. Arriving there at the beginning of the film, Gil lectures Inez about the allure of the city like a schoolboy recounting his playground adventures to his mother. Problem is, it's not only Gil lecturing but also Allen unsubtly dishing out character exposition through explicit address rather than a casual compiling of conversational details, something that he can't seem to stop doing in Midnight in Paris. At one point, when the couple meets Inez's parents for dinner, Gil quickly launches into an anti-Tea Party rant, seemingly for the express purpose of establishing that Inez comes from a Republican family.

Allen continues to layer the unlikeable qualities of Inez and her family – Inez is taken by the pseudo-intellectual filibustering of her old professor Paul (Michael Sheen) and she eventually hits the sack with him, her mother is a materialistic snob who thinks that an $18,000 wicker chair is affordable, and her nosy father goes out of his way to hire a private eye to follow Gil on his nightly prances around the city – until it's only natural that the film finds an escape route to the 1920's, some breathing room from the stuffy social atmosphere of the present. The film presents the past through Gil's glorified lens, a fantasyland where nightlife is always raging and everyone he runs into is a legend in the history of Western literature, artwork, or cinema. Wilson plays off this spectacle with wonderfully slapsticky immediacy; his initial reaction to F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston and Alison Pill) is a precarious mixture of disbelief and amusement, and as the big names pile up over the course of his first night in ancient Paris (Cole Porter, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein) it's not unlike the sight of watching a first-time drunk happily accepting his thorough displacement (one reaction shot as the legends all dance together at a cabaret is particularly priceless). Gil's experiences in this bygone era are so ludicrously idealized – he becomes acquaintances, if not friends, with nearly every historical figure he bumps into – that it's tough not to see it as an elaborate mental construction, a perfect dream. To return to this dream, Gil has created a simple escape mechanism: all he has to do is sit on a specific set of steps just as the midnight gong rings in the new day for the entire look and feel of the film (the production design, cinematography, and costumes) to be suddenly and magically ruptured.

Protruding from this set-up is a plot involving Gil's idyllic love object (Cotillard's Adriana), allowing Allen to chart the hilarious disconnect between past and present. This is most skillfully rendered in a great bit of physical comedy when Gil steals Inez's favorite diamond earrings to give them to Adriana based on her written yearnings in an old French memoir that is translated for Gil by a present-day museum tour guide. Of course Inez returns to the hotel room with her parents partially to grab the earrings and Gil is forced to pluck them out of their gift box nearly in front of her eyes to fake them being scattered in the bathroom. Other times, Allen uses the drastic separation in time to plant clever in-jokes about artist's careers: Gil, in an attempt to surprise Adriana with his creative genius, drops the seed for The Exterminating Angel to Luis Bunuel, Ernest Hemingway speaks in a stoic, poetic manner typical of his prose, and Gil must prove to a suicide-prone Zelda with little evidence that's not creepy or mind-boggling that her husband's only love is for her. Towards the end of the film when Adriana reveals her glorification of the Belle Époque in a way that instantly recalls Gil's blind love for the 1920's, it's easy to see where Allen's taking us, but the general predictability of the whole affair is never overwhelming or self-defeating. In fact, unusually for a film about the awkward leaping between time periods, Midnight in Paris's greatest asset is its remarkable pacing and flow, the care and precision with which Allen has arranged his images (the honeyed gas-lamp glow courtesy of cinematographer Darius Khondji is one of the finest visual accomplishments in Allen's career).

In spite of the pitch-perfect cast however, there's often a noticeable stiffness to the line deliveries, a lack of the natural chemistry existing in Allen's best work, and this shortcoming becomes even more pronounced when Allen makes Wilson spell out the film's heavy-handed lesson about the fallacy of romanticizing the past in neglect of the present during a scene in the Belle Époque with Cotillard, a thematic thrust gradually hinted at by various characters throughout the film. Funny thing is, Allen seems to contradict his own message by presenting the past exclusively as a place of historical caricatures and endless intrigue and the present as (mostly) a place of uppity, snotty Americans who take for granted the simple things in life, including female representations that border on the sexist (all that's missing is the sickly blue tint that so many unimaginative directors incorporate when trying to evoke the despair of our modern world). A belated first try at romance between Gil and a Parisian record-store employee (Léa Seydoux) with whom he seems to share everything is a flimsy stab at surrounding the present with an equal sense of mysteries and opportunities on the horizon, not to mention the fact that it provides the film's eye-rolling final scene. But major flaws aside, it's hard to get past the feeling that Allen's saying something essential and timeless here about the threat of succumbing entirely to nostalgia, and that he's saying it inside a taut and assured package.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Record Club: Sam Amidon "All is Well" (2007)

It's not where you take things from - it's where you take them to.
- Jean-Luc Godard

Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination.
- Jim Jarmusch

There’s a misnomer is modern music – in fact, in all modern art – that originality and authenticity of vision is of utmost importance, that an artist must write a song or a filmmaker must produce a novel concept in order to be worthy of consideration on the high altar of art. So widely accepted is this belief in individuality that the once-prevalent traditions of community art and the popular domain have mostly dwindled and become unfashionable. Over the course of his career, Vermont musician Sam Amidon has been gently deconstructing this myth by rearranging, reharmonizing, and recontextualizing ancient Appalachian folk songs. Managing a miraculous balancing act by paying gloriously self-conscious homage to public domain music and maintaining a vivid stamp of independence simultaneously, his work is living proof that originality and mimicry are not so mutually exclusive. The feelings I get listening to Amidon’s eclectic folk music are quite a unique privilege in contemporary music; I am privy to what feels like the private musings of a single consciousness and also the countless emotional undercurrents of a more universal consciousness. By the time the sentiments inherent in the songs Amidon lovingly covers reach his distinctively affectless croon, they’ve been filtered through an abundance of voices before him, yet they are somehow singular with each new utterance.

His 2007 album All is Well, his fourth effort in a body of work consisting of four proper solo LP's and a couple of EP's and team efforts for which Amidon regularly takes a massive artistic leap, is perhaps the best example of this balance between respect for the original and fearless pursuit of the new, a concise sampling of ten moody tracks from the displaced pages of American musical history. For the most part, Amidon luxuriates in the domain of traditional folk instrumentation (acoustic guitar, fiddle, banjo, piano), yet it's both the strange places he takes those instruments as well as the unexpected additions to the palette that make All is Well such a quietly enthralling work. His two pivotal collaborators - young American composer Nico Muhly and Icelandic producer Valgeir Sigurosson, both of whom have formed their own impressive bodies of work - push Amidon out of his comfort zone of sparse folk exhibited on his prior album But This Chicken Proved Falsehearted, using their own backgrounds in electronic and orchestral experimentation to provide nuanced and fanciful additions to Amidon's evocative, bare-bones covers.

The oddities creep in slowly though, allowing time for the equally impressive moments of pure restraint to take hold. This is evident right from the album's opening track, a cover of a tune called "Sugar Baby" popularized by banjo troubadour Dock Boggs in the 1920's, one of the record's highest peaks and a fitting introduction to the melancholy, introspective atmosphere Amidon likes to conjure. Boggs' gorgeously expressive version was a frantic assualt of messy banjo plucking and nearly unintelligible lyrics pleading desperately through thick static for his "sugar baby" to return to him. Amidon reverses the formula altogether. His is a slow, meditative rendition, one that so thoroughly stretches out the repetitive refrains ("I got no sugar baby now", " Who'll rock the cradle when you're gone?") that they acquire an aching emotional urgency more serious and convincing than that of Boggs. All of a sudden the story of a man pining for his true love to come back home to him and their child possesses a contemporary relevance, a plea for the many marriages on the rocks in today's scatterbrained society. Here Amidon's simple acoustic picking is supplemented by the muted electric guitar melodies of Pakistani musician Shahzad Ismaily and a single bass clarinet. At just over five minutes, the song's desolate sound-scape is hypnotizing in its repetitiousness and emotional sincerity.

"Sugar Baby" is probably the album's most musically straightforward tune; from here Amidon & Co. complicate the rhythms, melodies, countermelodies, and song structures, taking them further and further away from their origins. The contrast between a song like "Sugar Baby" and the subsequent track, the enigmatic and darkly propulsive "Little Johnny Brown", is much like the gaping contrast between past renditions of these songs and Amidon's. More often than not, the ancient folk songs Amidon is covering have rarely before even been paired with instruments, a notable example being "O Death", a morbid acapella poem famously sung by Ralph Stanley on the O Brother Where Art Thou? soundtrack. Therefore Amidon's compositions, which feel natural and lived-in, are all the more breathtaking for their having been ignited from either nothing or from something radically different. "Little Johnny Brown" is as stunning a testament as any, a series of words originally taken from a children's singing game by Ella Jenkins in the 1960's that become unsettling and almost demonic as they are looped and overlapped by Amidon towards the end of the track like a perverse equivalent of "Ring Around the Rosy", all while piano cadences and bizarrely percussive snaps and clicks circulate around Amidon's central guitar part.

In fact, what is happening on a subtextual level in "Little Johnny Brown" is happening throughout the album in different ways: the sense of Muhly and Valgeir's fluffy additions teasing out the underlying emotions from Amidon's droning, inexpressive voice (interestingly enough I don't mean that as an insult), similar to the way Robert Bresson's nifty cinematographic moves suggest otherwise hidden tensions in the blank facades of his characters. As a result, the songs are open to a seemingly limitless number of interpretations as the multitude of impressions in Amidon's wry inflections pile up. Every song on All is Well consists of a narrator relaying a story: an immigrant's gleeful account of his lover back home in "Saro", a prideful and eventually violent encounter with the boyfriend of a girl he's flirting with in "Wild Bill Jones", a boy excitedly reminding his date to prepare her outfit in "Wedding Dress", a religious devotee's self-assured leaving of a woman in "Fall On My Knees", a guileless young romance in "Little Satchel", a fearful confrontation with premature death in "O Death", a boy's realization that his love for his family is bigger than his pride in the escape from home parable of "Prodigal Son", and a stoic acceptance of impending mortality in the closing title track. Yet each of these cursory summaries does little to suggest the sublime layers of emotional complexity buried within Amidon's takes. Among many other surprises, the pensive air of "Wild Bill Jones" suggests skepticism to battle the narrator's misguided sense of pride, the serpentine disconnection of sub-bass and fingerpicked banjo on "Fall On My Knees" and the distant cackle and dissonant strings the song concludes with all challenge the narrator's feelings and actions, and the deeply sad sprawl of the strings in "All is Well" demonstrate that all is indeed not well.

All is Well is arranged in such a way to offer shifting relationships on its core themes of guilt, naivete vs. wisdom, death, love, and faith. There are three strands running through the album: the guilt theme cutting across "Wild Bill Jones", "Fall On My Knees", and "Prodigal Son", the romance theme stretching through "Sugar Baby", "Saro", "Wedding Dress", and "Little Satchel", and the inquiry into mortality at first abstractly marking "Little Johnny Brown" and then directly approached in "O Death" and "All is Well". It's as if with the progression of the record Amidon's narrators grow increasingly world-weary and knowing, or in other instances, such as in the approach to love, more juvenile. One can witness the palpable release of fear from the protagonist of "O Death" by the time he gets to "All is Well", in which the greeting of death, at least lyrically, suggests an awakening. Similarly, the knee-jerk gun-slinging of "Wild Bill Jones" in the event of heavy jealousy gives way obliquely to the devastating weight of guilt in "Prodigal Son", wherein Amidon again works with repetitious refrains ("I believe I'll go back home / acknowledge I done wrong") against a bouncy and plaintive fanfare of upright bass, french horn, clarinet, and strings.

Throughout the album, there are moments of musical bliss that supersede any of the narrative or thematic content, such as the violins swelling up ecstatically at the 2:05 marker of "Saro", the many extended rings of piano and banjo in "Wild Bill Jones", the crack of Amidon's voice as he stretches for the high notes in "O Death", or the growing sense of anticipation expressed by the growing number of instruments in "All is Well". Nico Muhly, whose 2008 watermark of modern classical Mothertongue was among the many albums I considered for this Record Club pick, has an instinctive feel for orchestration that seems to be heightened when paired with other artists, so much so that as much as Muhly's sensibilities challenge Amidon, Amidon's spare folk forces Muhly to temper his sometimes madcap and unrestricted tendencies. Combining the legato string arrangements of Arvo Pärt, the fluttery bells and whistles of Sufjan Stevens, and the forceful repetitions of Phillip Glass yet maintaining a distinctive oddness of his own, Muhly brings surprising beauty to these songs, a measure of pastoral charm and fairy-tale whimsy that is able to dance around Amidon's voice in unpredictable but never overbearing ways. Furthemore, Valgeir's touches, less noticeable but no less affecting, offer subliminal hints of modern electronica and electro-acoustic improvisation, not to mention his high-fidelity engineering of the record gives great room for the instruments to reverberate in space.

If hard-pressed to pick a low point on All is Well, I'd have to settle on the jubilant "Little Satchel", if only for the fact that its romantic emotional spectrum sounds less open to various interpretations as the rest of the songs (and the octave synth churning underneath the acoustic guitar is probably my least favorite flourish on the album). But even this song is memorable in its own right, a sudden explosion of pure giddiness surrounded by darkness and instability. Truth is, I'm thoroughly smitten with the record, certainly Amidon's most coherent and consistently evocative effort yet (though his subsequent I See the Sign - which pushes his urge for experimentation further - comes close). It's such an eclectic, emotionally complex, and intimate listen, the kind of album that absolutely necessitates and rewards total immersion. I'm very curious what everyone else thinks of the record. Maybe someone will challenge my unending enthusiasm. What are the high points? What are the low points? To return to my opening credo, does the public domain nature of these songs hinder your appreciation of them, heighten it, or does it not matter at all?

(Also worth noting: if you like the album at all, I highly recommend catching Amidon live, as he's one of the most distinctive personalities you'll ever witness on stage. For a taste, see this video of "Little Johnny Brown" and then proceed further to his YouTube channel for wackier tidbits.)

Thursday, July 21, 2011

In Vanda's Room (No Quarto da Vanda) A Film by Pedro Costa (2000)

Pedro Costa's In Vanda's Room is a remarkable, all-encompassing portrait of the Fontainhas ghetto of Lisbon and the people who live there, a stunningly intimate and compassionate panorama of a truly grim way of life. In its epic length and patient observation, the film accumulates an extraordinary power by its conclusion, a realization of the unmistakable humanity that can exist even as everything turns to devastation and degradation. At the center of this portrait is Vanda Duarte, an angular, slightly androgynous woman who spends her days selling lettuce and cabbage to the Fontainhas inhabitants and free-basing heroine with her sister Zita in the confines of her claustrophobic and filthy bedroom. Hers is a dour, self-destructive lifestyle, yet one not without its degree of perseverance, dedication, and dignity; Costa's impressive achievement here is to flip any pre-conceived notions of lowly drug addicts, to assert their essential humanity rather than belittle them for their reckless choices or suggest that they are disposable. In fact, through his persistent camera, Costa is able to uncover these same positive qualities in a variety of characters who cohabit the same concrete dungeon as Vanda while also discovering the vital concept of community that survives in this scenario.

The film now exists as a memorial for this strangely self-contained slum, because throughout In Vanda's Room it is being steadily demolished, resulting in the eviction and subsequent displacement of these already displaced immigrant souls (an experience Costa would tackle directly in his next film, Colossal Youth). While the rest of the world becomes transient and individualized and the New Europe furthers its diffusion of geographical and cultural identity, the people in Fontainhas cling to an established code, perhaps the only sense of consistency and stability they've known in their lives. The first post-credit shot of the film watches as Vanda's lifelong friend, the recently evicted Nhurro, bathes in buckets of hot water in a dank and shadowy room. As he finishes, steam rolls off his entire body to create an image of spectral and otherworldly effervescence, and it's as if Costa is immediately establishing the ghostly quality of these people, the fact that they are so vividly on the brink of total extinction. Periodically the film will pull back from the human component of the film for a reminder of the mechanical demolition of the neighborhood. Long static shots reveal trucks crushing the cement foundations, and at one point, a couple of steel office buildings are glimpsed in the background of the debris, presumably the impetus for this drastic act of modernization. As a result, a sense of encroachment and time running out is always palpable in the film, always something that quite literally weighs heavily on the inhabitants as the sounds of destruction dominate the soundtrack.

Subtly, Costa is raising a correlation between this mindless form of destruction as political and economic "progress" and the more personal form of self-destructive drug abuse witnessed in the characters, in its own perverse way a route to satisfaction and fulfillment. Both are careless and reprehensible, but in Costa's sublimely sympathetic vision the addicts seem almost justifiable in comparison to such an abstract political affair that would blindly annihilate an entire community of human beings for the supposed betterment of the greater good. In Vanda's Room, then, is not as laissez-faire as its cinema vérité trappings might lead it to seem, but rather works as an understated indictment of these wrongheaded government attitudes. As such, its finest and most potent argument is its peerless investigation of the private spaces behind the concrete walls where individuals - aside from consuming copious quantities of hard drugs - are harboring their own loves, desires, suspicions, and ideas. In a word, being human. In one scene, Vanda shows a group of friends and family a decrepit, utterly unsellable antique wooden ship that she plans to exchange in town for a modest wage and is met with skepticism and mockery. In another scene, an addict named Pango perseveres in mustering up a wardrobe out of scattered pieces of wood from old appliances that are lying around his dismal two-room apartment. And later, in the film's most moving scene, an older man named Pedro offers a bouquet of roses to Vanda after she compulsively outlines the schedule for taking the respiratory treatment she just supplied him with (Vanda coughs incessantly in the film, and every time she does it's as if her lung is flipping inside out). Each instance offers a small glimmer of camaraderie, resourcefulness, or kindness that powerfully articulates the vitality of these people better than any artificial dramatization of such a moment could.

Arguably it's Costa's severe technological transition that allowed for such piercing moments of authenticity (although I'd contend that nearly the same level of verisimilitude was already omnipresent in his comparatively bombastic Ossos, a work which utilized the traditional modes of production: a crew, lights, film, even some actors). In Vanda's Room was born out of Costa, a single DV camera, and a sound recorder, and the results are surprisingly high-fidelity if not frequently evocative and distinctive expressions of the digital medium. Costa has a painterly eye for texture and light and the way the two interact that is not unlike that of Tarkovsky, evident in the film's many lowly lit interiors where the deadpan expressions of people are offset by the grimy, clay-like shine of the walls and tables. Visually, the film is at its most stunning at these moments, and when the illumination is reduced at several points to the glow of one or two candles - as it is during one grueling midnight session of heroine usage - the contrast between light and dark is accentuated even further, taking on a metaphorical dimension to suggest the increasing loss of light and hope from these people's lives. Working in a similar fashion is Costa's dense soundtrack, a never-ending chaotic drone of destruction, children playing, rats squeaking, and people, like Vanda, chattering away in their superficially short and irritable tones, which is always offscreen as if to represent both the unbreakable togetherness of this community as well as the constant distance of those inside to the outside world.

The overwhelming sadness of In Vanda's Room is that these tiny shreds of human connection and satisfaction - even if they are centered around drugs - are soon to be extinguished and complicated by the eventual erasure of the neighborhood. In a conversation between Vanda and Nhurro in which the two of them discuss the prospect of whether their lives are predestined or chosen (Vanda is admirably always the source of assurance and nourishment in such scenes), it becomes clear that they have known each other since they were young, that they have struggled with the same issues for quite some time. The same is certainly the case for most of the people in the film, and the identical situation out of which they are forced to suck it up and start a new life is one that would be unspeakable in a less impoverished area of society. This shortsighted tendency to overlook the lower class is the real tragedy of In Vanda's Room, and it's one that Costa delicately and persuasively implicates the audience in through his calmly riveting filmmaking.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

The Silence (Tystnaden) A Film by Ingmar Bergman (1963)

Context has such an integral, inborn relationship to narrative that when it's stripped away, as it is largely in Ingmar Bergman's The Silence, the effect is shocking and unsettling. One of Bergman's most abstract films, The Silence is an outgrowth from no foundation, a tree without roots that springs towards the sky regardless with no base of logic to understand its tangled paths. Alienated sisters Ester (Ingrid Thulin) and Anna (Gunnel Lindblom) await an ineffable something in the cab of a train along with Anna's young boy Johan (Jörgen Lindström), coming from nowhere in particular as stated by the film and headed to wherever the train takes them. This is not a train as a train, that practical engine for getting people and materials to and fro, but rather a train as the purest cinematic cipher of meaning. It's a nakedly psychological construct, a symbol of instability and transition, and throughout The Silence Bergman continues to fearlessly employ these abstract and ungrounded representations, beckoning more aggressively than ever for an active engagement from the viewer. The lopsided family moves from one marker of limbo to another, from a train to an iconically strange hotel somewhere in war-stricken Europe, and in doing so they set in motion Bergman's mysterious parable of miscommunication and eroticism.

The Silence doesn't have a narrative form so much as an obscure musical pattern, which at a concise 92 minutes feels like a winding slow-burn towards a pensive climax. Bergman maps out the separate journeys of the three characters in this foreign land of "Tivoli", a fictional town where the inhabitants speak an inscrutable language and go about their daily activities with mechanical precision. It's logical to assume that the journey of each character is meant to intersect in some way, at least metaphorically, but Bergman keeps them self-contained, providing no recognizable motif with which to connect them. Instead, they're arranged in counterpoint to one another in an almost free-associative manner. Johan scours the opulent halls of the hotel throughout the film with curiosity and playfulness, finding himself fooling around with a troupe of dwarfs who perform at a local cabaret and appear to be the only other occupants in the hotel. Meanwhile, sexually promiscuous Anna shows up at the same cabaret desperate for physical contact only to sit in a booth beside a couple making uninhibited love in the corner. All this time Ester, whose unspecified illness instigated the family's detour in the town, kills time alone in the hotel room masturbating, smoking cigarettes, listening to Bach, and having convulsions that occur at erratic intervals.

When the three of them share the same space, there's a tension and jealousy in the room that Bergman captures with spare brilliance. In fact, right from the beautifully evocative opening sequence on the train, Bergman highlights the unrest that radiates through the sibling relationship for the rest of the film. Out of utter silence and ennui, Ester begins coughing and struggling for air, at which point Anna ushers Johan out of the cab to tend to her sister alone. The assistance she offers is masked somewhat by Bergman's restricting perspective, a medium shot of Johan looking through the door as Anna moves about in the foreground. Immediately, Johan is established as the point of sympathy, a nexus of hope and optimism continually challenged by the combative relationship of the sisters. Upon returning to the cab, the atmosphere is chilly and uncomfortable, and the feeling of not being privy to key information clearly overwhelms him. The ensuing sexual rivalry between Ester and Anna - wherein Anna uses the sensual embrace of her own body and an openness to meaningless sexual encounters to taunt Ester's contrasting revulsion of sex - seems to have such a tacitly powerful impact on Johan that Bergman makes sure to visualize it before it even formally begins: a series of tanks drive by outside the train window, their outstretched cannons thrusting forward like an onslaught of phallic imagery.

These kinds of startling associations - between war and sex, violence and sexuality - spring up repeatedly throughout The Silence. Wandering the hallways, Johan wields a plastic cap gun tucked into his pants that he jokingly pretends to fire at a man on a ladder fixing a lightbulb just before admiring a provocative Rubens painting adorning the hotel wall. Later, Anna has carnal sex with a soldier temporarily lodging in town who doesn't even understand Anna's heated admissions about her sister due to the language barrier. In fact, the presences of war and sexuality, almost the only thematic presences in the film, weigh so heavily on The Silence that it's impossible not to think of them as informing one another. As such, the image of a hulking tank trudging through the dark streets glimpsed by Ester through the window seems to be a direct result of all the sexually charged bickering between her and Anna, a visual representation of the hostility and destructiveness of their relationship. Similarly, the shot of an emaciated horse strapped to a heavy load (perhaps of war supplies) suggests the baggage attached to the youthful, innocent Johan, the only main character here who seeks lasting gratification from this alien vacation. He even sparks up an odd and wordless camaraderie with the elderly hotel waiter who tends to Ester's illness, witnessing the man's unsettling presentation of childhood photographs, most of which consist of him standing beside a tall white coffin that he points to giddily.

Naturally, what all this sex and violence spirals towards is death, that omnipresent concern of Bergman, but here death is not predicated upon God's presence or absence. God is totally out of the picture in The Silence, which is clear enough from the title and the mere fact that the film is the final installment in Bergman's "Silence of God" trilogy. Ester's eventual death, only hinted at by the ending of the film when Anna and Johan leave her alone in the hotel, is solely a product of her confining and unearthly form of love, her inability to actually communicate with other humans in a nurturing manner, not by a refusal on God's part to soothe her crisis. This exorcism of religious inquiry from Bergman's artistic search is a vital step in his career, a move that results in one of his bleakest, most nihilistic films but doesn't prevent him from staring with utter conviction into the human soul and its curious way of forming frictions that result in war and interpersonal conflict. The Silence is a mysteriously compelling poem built from a minimal scenario whose symbolical resonances never fully conquer the film's existence as believable, intensely acted drama.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Almanac of Fall (1984) A Film by Bela Tarr

Just before Bela Tarr finally settled on the characteristic black-and-white, long-take formalism that he's become widely respected for in his later work, he made Almanac of Fall, a jarring transitional piece that attempts to suddenly marry the freewheeling social realism of his early career to a sophisticated and rigorous visual style. It's a social drama perched uneasily between down-to-earth sympathy and the more cosmic observation of films like Satantango and Werckmeister Harmonies, and as a result it's never fully satisfying as narrative or as allegory. When placed within the context of Tarr's artistic progression, however, it's a compelling work, flirting as it does with all of the cinematic staples the director would eventually fully embrace. Set entirely in an old apartment that feels at once cramped and labyrinthine, the film navigates the conniving power struggles of an aging woman (Hédi Temessy), her greedy and immoral son, his former teacher (Pál Hetényi), a housemaid who tends to the woman's health (Erika Bodnár), and her discontented partner (Tarr regular Miklós Székely B.). Tarr sticks rigidly to the simplicity of this scenario, never leaving the apartment and mostly unveiling the drama through long two-character exchanges. For the modesty alone, not to mention the implicit challenge of keeping things lively and interesting in such a limiting set-up, Almanac of Fall is an admirable exercise.

The flip side of the coin is that as much as Tarr's ingenuity in framing the central drama is praiseworthy, the content frequently cannot hold its own. Despite the ubiquity of dialogue and character, the film is oddly one of Tarr's least propulsive, searching desperately for quite a while to find some semblance of narrative momentum in the lives of these downtrodden and unhappy individuals. Eventually that kick does arrive when the maid sleeps with the teacher who is boarding at the apartment in the event of severe economic hardship, a mostly offscreen sexual encounter that slowly unleashes bitterness and jealousy in her partner, distrust from her client, and heightened sexual desire from the woman's son. Before this point, however, the film is frustratingly stagnant, reducible to a series of one-sided conversations in which one character muses about anything from his or her existential crises to simple day-to-day money issues. This is a very specific milieu of post-Communist Hungary that Tarr is zeroing in on here, the same context he would go on to symbolically deconstruct later in his career, and as such we get an up-close-and-personal understanding of the tepid and confused social atmosphere. The early dialogues often go unanswered by the listening party, a suggestion that the struggles of an individual in this climate cannot be solved or soothed by anyone else. Everyone is on their own, fighting their own battles, be it economic, political, social, or sexual.

To express this unrest, Tarr uses a garish color palette of hot reds and murky bluish-greens. Dictated less, as far as I can tell, by specific symbolical purposes and more by a general air of heightened emotion, these colors emanate from room to room with seemingly no domestic logic; a splash of green will glow in a backroom as if an obscure scientific experiment is going on while a face in the foreground is smacked by an orange light that seems to be shooting from the floor. At several points, the black boots of the teacher appear malicious as they trudge through the living room of chiaroscuro red and black. (Already, it's clear that Tarr is establishing a potent shorthand for black boots and pitch-black pea coats, a wardrobe pulled from noir that nonetheless has its own distinct flavor in Tarr's oeuvre.) Other times, the light is less harsh, almost as soft as the colors in Kieslowski's The Double Life of Veronique, particularly in an early scene of rare camaraderie between the woman and her nurse where the two laugh and discuss the nurse's romantic endeavors. Still, Tarr's continued use of lurid, unreal shades manages to extract the buried sense of anger that Temessy is able to so thinly veil towards the nurse until later in the film.

In fact, the film's best scenes are marked by these exchanges where an emotional subtext boils beneath the mostly calm dispositions of the two characters speaking. When the nurse's partner shaves the face of the teacher - whose sexual behavior with the nurse he is only vaguely aware of - Tarr's camera slowly circles the two, capturing the illicit bloodlust of the scene, the fact that he could dig right into the teacher's face at any time. Furthermore, Tarr's uncomfortably intimate sound design lays bare all the quiet breathing, grunting, and scraping, which uncovers an implicitly homoerotic tension as well. Yet later, Tarr's clever mise-en-scene can't fully justify the more one-dimensional realization of the bitter emotional undercurrent between the two: a startling shot from beneath a glass (or plastic?) floor watching as the nurse's partner violently beats the teacher into it. It's a moment that's more exciting for the unexpected way Tarr shoots it than for the actual act of violence onscreen. More effective are the instances when the outbursts explode to the fore after long and tense discussions, such as the one between the woman's son and the teacher in which the son interrogates the teacher about the presence of his mother's valuable piece of jewelry in the interest of selling it and running away with the nurse, eventually holding a broken glass up to his neck in ugly greed. The whole affair turns into a game of violent and scheming one-upmanship, with each of the characters pulling their own selfish pranks to achieve money or sex.

If Bergman's heated chamber dramas were marked by their firm establishment of a single space to highlight the insanity of monotony, then Tarr's is notable for its stubborn refusal to make the stage remotely recognizable from one moment to the next. The old woman's apartment is seemingly medium-sized and traditionally laid-out, but Tarr's searching camera makes it so that every room feels new, some serpentine diversion from the central plot of the house. Much of the scenes are shot in roving telephoto from behind indistinct foreground objects, focusing on the haggard faces yet never losing sight of the larger space in which they speak. One can sense Tarr beginning to distance himself from his characters until finally deciding to settle on an almost cosmic perspective in later films; one such clue comes early on when mother and son argue and the camera slithers back and forth from behind an indoor gate, occasionally sliding behind total blackness in a way that recalls the opening scene of voyeurism in The Man From London. Still, the ultimate sensibility of Almanac of Fall is not nearly as complex or open as those later masterworks. A final scene of atonal celebration in which all the characters' frustrations with each other seem to have been extinguished cements the bleak message Tarr is conveying; set to a pop song whose thesis is the inevitability of fate, the suggestion is that these people will remain deadlocked in mutual tension no matter how hard they try to break free from their dour situation, as if only an outside force can pave the way to happiness and stability. As Tarr's career continued, that force would become abstracted and untrustworthy, and his desperate search for the dignity of individuals would become increasingly nuanced and hopeful.

Friday, July 1, 2011

The Record Club #3: Sam Amidon "All is Well"

Two months ago, Ed Howard initiated The Record Club, a monthly series where bloggers gather together to discuss an album chosen by a host writer. In May, it was The Heart of the Congos over at Ed’s blog Only the Cinema, a seminal reggae album by the virtuosic vocal group The Congos, and the latest discussion was Brand New’s The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me at Kevin Olson’s blog Hugo Stiglitz Makes Movies. The idea is that in a world of such scatterbrained engagement with media, this communitarian approach to music consumption offers an arena for people to talk about a single album at the same time with a shared experience. Also, it’s an open group, so anyone can join and promotion of the series is encouraged all over the web.

I’m going to be hosting the third discussion on Monday, July 25th, and my selection is Sam Amidon’s lovely 2007 album All is Well. It's the month of American Independence, so I figured how better to celebrate that than with an album of traditional Appalachian folk songs? But this can be deceiving; these are not the covers you'd expect. I see this as one of the most compelling contemporary folk records because of the way it simultaneously pays homage to an ageless tradition of American folk music (it’s a set of ten “covers”, though that term could hardly be applied looser) and engages with a far more modern sensibility, which is something I’ll get into more when the discussion kicks off later in July. There's a lot to fall in love with, and as such, I expect there's also a lot to find problems with. It's an album that I hope will prompt some exciting conversation around the themes of originality vs. mimicry, storytelling, and the folk genre itself.

Feel free to post the banner below on the sidebars of your own blogs to encourage the widespread promotion of this and future discussions!