Thursday, September 29, 2011

Putty Hill (2011) A Film by Matthew Porterfield

Avoiding cliché, hyperbole, and mumblecore posturing, Matthew Porterfield's Putty Hill gets right to the heart of its eponymous community, a small working-class neighborhood on the outskirts of Baltimore. It is there that he loosely documents the undramatic goings-on of a faintly connected group of people in the limbo period before a funeral. Porterfield points to Pedro Costa, particularly his sprawling In Vanda's Room, as inspiration for his approach here, which casually jockeys between narrative and non-fiction, ultimately raising questions about the origins of each. What's more, drugs play a pivotal role in the subject matter; here, they are the cause of the premature death of Cory, a local skater whose untimely and offscreen overdose is the impetus around which the film is structured. It's also a matter of fiction that Porterfield constructs to examine the virtues of community, family, and memory as united by tragedy, but what's so extraordinary about Putty Hill is how honest and authentic it feels. I didn't know Cory's death was a ruse until after seeing the film, when Porterfield unassumingly addressed the matter in a post-screening Q&A.

Erecting an observational ensemble study atop a fictional foundation allows Porterfield to achieve two unique effects: that of drama and reality coexisting in never quite clearly demarcated degrees, and that of real people pulling from their own memories and life experiences to comment on the subject of mortality. Putty Hill is essentially about people, their stories, and the way that those stories find ways to link up, and Porterfield's attention to the simplest, most mundane of behaviors is never less than rapt. After a wordless opening consisting of shots inside the barren rooms of Cory's apartment, the death quickly becomes peripheral to the film's engrossing immersion into the day-to-day rhythms of the milieu, merely a jumping off point for Porterfield in his insistent probing of individuals. Without warning, the director will hang on a close-up of some townie - young or old, boy or girl - and begin asking prosaic questions from behind the camera: "What is your name?"; "Did you know Cory?"; "What do you think about going to a funeral?"; "What do you do here in Putty Hill?" The performers - many of which are playing near exact versions of themselves - relay a comfortable spontaneity before the camera in their uncomplicated, often choppy answers, blurring the line between what is rehearsed and what is lived-in and authentic.

Because many of the individuals Porterfield focuses on are people who once lived in Baltimore and have since moved away only to return temporarily for the funeral, the film gathers a striking tension between stability and transience, a mood of dazed pre-funeral stasis where the visitors have nothing to do but visit their old friends and family and the townsfolk feel perhaps too devastated to carry on normally with routines and obligations. A trio of skater girls wander aimlessly in the woods, Cory's mother sits on her porch in the middle of the day blankly, and Cory's friends lounge in pools and inscribe his memorial in spray paint at the skate park. These people are defined by a dumbstruck silence, a disinterest in doing much to divert their thoughts away from the somber event. One notable exception is the local tattoo artist, who Porterfield shows a particular interest in. His tale of vengeance over his wife's assault is the dialogue that inspired the film's making, and the artist delivers the harrowing words in clipped, quiet tones that are nearly stifled beneath the high-pitch buzz of his tattoo gun. The scene, and Porterfield's tight, slowly panning camera, are blunt and intimate, refusing to sensationalize the grim story or the man's clear sadness upon hearing the news of Cory's death. But work must go on, as Porterfield chooses to return to the makeshift tattoo shop later in a scene that eschews dialogue in favor of an extended wide shot of the lowly lit room (it's here that Porterfield's Costa influence is strongly felt).

The tattoo artist's daughter Jenny (Sky Ferreira) is also a special subject for Porterfield. At once echoing the indifferent, emo-punk attitudes of her peers, Jenny is also the most thoughtful and complex of the bunch. She takes time out of her day to visit her chain-smoking grandmother for lunch in a geriatric home, and later has the film's only emotional outburst, sobbing and stomping her feet on the second-story porch of her father's house. Porterfield challenges the limits of the long take here, suspending deep sympathy for the girl's somewhat incoherent ramblings to her father about her alleged hatred for him and for Baltimore. Then, as if oblivious to her personal drama, peers into her soul shortly after in the backseat of a moving vehicle as she answers questions about the minor ethical dilemmas of funeral-going. Porterfield so genuinely wants to reflect the varying shades of these people, their dramas and routines, their goals and dreams, and their thoughts and emotions.

Putty Hill culminates, fittingly, at Cory's funeral, a rather unfussy affair at a karaoke bar where the entire array of individuals Porterfield interviews pack into a small room to exchange their sorrows. At this point, this fictional death seems to have bore into the actors' collective consciousness so deeply that it effects their every gesture. It's a remarkably low-key, moving sequence, never devolving into melodramatics or over-stylization. Porterfield and his cinematographer Jeremy Saulnier are decidedly unshowy with their digital images, usually sticking to close and medium shots that keep faces as their primary interest. But the film does not quite conclude here, digressing to a brief episode where some of the wandering teenage girls visit Cory's empty house at night, a dark, foreboding vision that allows Porterfield to flirt with the aesthetic staples of low-budget horror: darkness, shadow, long takes, compositional tension. Unsurprisingly, the film doesn't entertain its subtle sensationalist gestures, keeping the scene to its bare essence. In doing so, Porterfield is able to bookend the film with a chilling re-visitation to Cory's house and vitally preserve the unique social experiment that is the film's backbone: the sense of individuals becoming personally affected by events to the point where fiction vs. non-fiction no longer matters.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Cyclo (Xich lo) A Film by Tran Anh Hung (1995)

The traditional tenets of a Westernized concept of a nation – those of family, gender difference, and cultural identity – have been splintered beyond recognition in Tran Anh Hung’s Cyclo. In the overcrowded post-war ghetto of Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, characters sleepwalk through their daily grinds, taking whatever meager job they can get to struggle by. It's a place of perpetual hustle-and-bustle, an assault of urban stimuli that Tran captures in a collage of fleeting impressions ranging from labor to violence to sexuality to spirituality. The film’s central focus is an impressionable teenage boy who is identified in the script - like the rest of the figures who are defined by their professional type - only as Cyclo, the name given to the tricycle taxi he peddles around to carry supplies from one place to the next. When he is beaten up and his mode of transportation is stolen by a group of thugs, Cyclo’s already thin grounding of stability and identity is forced into flux as he descends into a shady underworld of violence, drugs, and sex.

It’s a scenario that is instantly familiar for its allusions to Vittorio De Sica’s neorealist classic The Bicycle Thieves as well as countless gangster films exploring the subject of innocence lost, but Cyclo’s brilliance lies less in its recycled narrative than in its harrowing depiction of a bruised nation, something it effortlessly aligns with the fate of its protagonist. Tran’s presentation of Vietnam overtly dissects the archaic metaphor of the “national family” by shattering every potential local family in the film. Since his single sibling (Tran Nu Yên-Khê) and mother lead lives just as turbulent as his, Cyclo is conspicuously lacking in any routinized domestic experience, and a gaping absence of a father figure is carved into the film’s DNA. The immaterial presence of Cyclo's father is felt only through periodic bits of poetic narration, seemingly the only fragments of wisdom handed down to Cyclo before his likely death in the war. It is telling that the only fathers in the film - Cyclo's grandfather (Le Kinh Huy) and the father (Din Tho Nguyen) of the gangster leader known as "The Poet" (Tony Leung) - are impotent and irrelevant to the progression of the narrative, wiling away in their drab apartment buildings smoking cigarettes. Without a firm sense of immediate family to fall back on, generations of young people are absent of moral guidance and thus, Hung suggests, turn to illegal activity to scrape by.

While Tran's representation of this illegal activity as reducible to the trades of drugs, sex, and violence may be a deterministic oversimplification of the vast scope of post-war Vietnamese societal degradation, it's important to note that he's attempting to work through the tactile grit of the everyday to get to the level of the allegorical. Characters are unnamed because they are microcosms of more widespread trends of hardship. Cyclo's sister, who is whored out by The Poet, is not necessarily an instrument of Tran's misogyny but rather a symbol of the lamentable tension that forces women in this society to resort to their bodies to get by. Interestingly enough, some of the real movers-and-shakers of this fatherless milieu happen to be women, as glimpsed in the shadowy old mob boss who mediates the economy-defining world of drug and sex trafficking. Alternately, The Poet, her leading subordinate, questions his position of authority in leading his overanxious thugs through a carnival of violence that escalates further and further away from perceivable motivation and logic. (Leung is quietly devastating in the role, even as his actions can be whittled down to moodily smoking cigarettes and dispassionately stabbing victims.) Such imbalances between youth and old age, action and inaction, knowledge and leadership, not necessarily themselves indicative of disorder or chaos, at least point towards a radical reordering of social and national identity as well as a profound disillusionment with morality.

Cyclo meticulously ties its central concepts back to potent visual metaphors nestled within. Tran presents a country forever scarred by violent American occupation during a vicious and prolonged war with an onslaught of intense, savage imagery. His critique of the needless exploitation of the Vietnamese public is never less than teeming with anger, as he frequently collides moments of relative serenity (schoolchildren singing, Cyclo joking with friends, his sister enjoying a night of glamor) with harsh jabs of inner-city bombast as if to juxtapose What Could Have Been with What Is. Accordingly, his camera leaps from being controlled to agitated, with nearly kaleidoscopic bursts of ugly color and movement. Violence sprouts within the film like a tree, branching out to its several characters until Cyclo himself is so entrenched in memories of it that he too loses a sense of rationality; he douses his body in bright blue paint in the climactic scene of the film to signal a complete retreat from reason (and to clarify that Hung was absorbing Pierrot Le Fou at the time). The collective burden is often anthropomorphized, too, in both the shot of a lizard's tail being cut off, in a poultry slaughterhouse (a savagely beautiful scene), and in the throughline involving a fish tank in the mob apartment. There's an inherent imperialism reflected in the gangsters' ownership of the fish that is not unlike that of the American relationship to Vietnam during the war, and when Cyclo stuffs his dirty head into the fish tank in one scene it's a similarly disruptive force.

The integration of violence into the flow of everyday life seems an irreversible phenomenon for the nation of Vietnam, where demoralized endeavors of violence are spread to new generations with regularity. A potent indicator of this fluid assimilation is the omnipresence of liquids - mud, water, paint, blood - in many of the film's compositions. Everything feels soaked in grime, and it seems inevitable (though Tran leaves it up in the air as to whether there is optimism or pessimism to be taken from his recurring shots of schoolchildren) that this dirt will trickle into the incoming generations of Vietnamese people. Tran’s vision of the battered nation is perhaps best visualized by the sight, late in the film, of a goldfish floundering on a wooden floor. Like the fish, the nation, seized and left to die by an outside force, is struggling to survive.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Drive (2011) A Film by Nicholas Winding Refn

It's pretty clear at this point where Danish director Nicholas Winding Refn's strengths and weaknesses lie: his eye for cinematic space and feel for primal (mostly aggressive) emotions has a way of obliterating nearly all nuance from character, theme, and story. Drive, his latest Ryan Gosling vehicle and Hollywood breakthrough, may be the film where that dichotomy is most evident. Like last year's The American (one wonders what might have caused this sudden urge to ape the contemplative action movies of old), Drive inserts a European flair for atmosphere and emotional restraint into a conventionally American conception of genre cinema. But Refn, unlike Corbjin, falls into thinking that stylistic affectations are enough to elevate trite material into something mythic and monumental, and ultimately Drive settles into a half-baked fever dream of flimsy homage - Mann, Wong Kar-Wai, Melville, and McQueen all join the party - to support a desperately Screenwriting 101 narrative of crime, film noir, and romance cliches. Regurgitated before a general American public, Drive's aesthetic signposts may look and feel novel (and I suppose they are when placed aside the majority of contemporary action movies), but they are for the most part merely rehashes of techniques and moods applied more convincingly and fittingly to the sources they sprang from.

The crux around which the film's ambitions can be measured is a montage sequence towards the end of the first act conveying a nameless Driver's (Gosling) infatuation with his doe-eyed neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan). Driver lusts after her apparent innocence, and it's made blindingly clear through Refn's many symmetrical compositions, where any human imbalance could throw off the pictorial and implied thematic unity, that he is the surrogate father of Irene's son, indeed even an ideal missing link to their family trio. (Considering Irene's jailed and "imperfect" husband is Hispanic, Refn seems unaware of the illicit racism inherent in the suggested betterment of this familial entity, but that's another line of thought entirely.) For Gosling, as with every existential anti-hero in the history of American cinema, getting the girl appears to be an instantaneous escape from the imprisoning drudgery of his repetitive role in life, which, in this case, consists of acting as the driver in big-budget movie stunts and manning the occasional getaway car for heists overseen by Driver's exploitative agent Shannon (Bryan Cranston). The montage in question covers Gosling's first leisurely endeavor with Irene and her son, when, given the task of driving her back to her apartment from the auto shop, he takes a diversion to a secret nature spot. Intending to crystallize Driver's single guiding desire and thus establish the backbone of the film's dramatic conflict, Refn instead reduces the scene to a brief, kitschy interlude where the gauzy blend of 80's synth pop and sunny visuals pillages the moment of any human tenderness that might have organically existed had Refn not indulged in the aesthetics of a television commercial. Disastrously, the entire justification for Refn's supposed character study feels tacked-on and superficial from the get-go.

Once Irene's husband does enter the narrative, of course he's tied up in some seedy shit left over from his pre-prison days. Taking it as his perverse strategy for acquiring Irene, Driver offers to assist the husband by providing his escape car in a heist that will help shake off his debts. In doing so, the tension between Driver's existentialist trap and his transcendent desires is erased, since pleasing Irene means doing what he already does. Henceforth, Drive spirals into an ultraviolent revenge yarn wherein Driver's life-or-death stakes rise, making his stoic put-on less and less convincing. Gosling, of course, has a role here that oozes cool, that is so indebted to historically badass representations of introspective action heroes (equal parts Delon, McQueen, and De Niro) that it demands a lot. And while Gosling is able to bring a formidable, enigmatic presence to the first half of the film, those same qualities of wordlessness and spare physicality are exposed later on as the self-conscious poses of a man disturbingly astray from functional morality. The issue is not that Gosling doesn't feel realistic, it's that he just doesn't feel like a human whatsoever and more like a pastiche of various tough-guy, anti-hero tropes (his resignation to a stuntman mask at the finale of the film suggests he has fully submerged his identity). Ironically, the same reasons Clooney was lambasted for The American are the grounds on which critics find ample praise here for Gosling, but the difference is that Clooney functions well as an interior actor, finding subtle ways to externalize his inner turmoil. Gosling, on the other hand, can only stare.

Refn, who has displayed a continued lack of imagination in his dealings with supporting role in the past, struggles to counteract Gosling's inertia with any vibrant, emotive characterizations for him to play off. The offhand glorification of Driver allows little screen time for characters like Irene, Shannon, and the movie producer-cum-mob boss Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks), to whom Driver becomes dangerously entangled following the film's central set piece. Mulligan, her suspected talents impoverished yet again by lack of screen time or one-dimensional writing (see also An Education), becomes little more than an abstract still frame of a Romantic Interest with no agency in the progression of the narrative. Sure, she's a symbol, a cipher more than anything meant to challenge Gosling's passivity, but her obliviousness makes her a moot point, not a tantalizing enigma. Brooks, meanwhile, injects artificial menace into the latter half of the film more by humorlessly cutting throats and slicing wrists than by actually telegraphing any convincing sense of doom in his facial expressions and body movements. His character, like Gosling, is a rudimentary idea of a genre archetype (the no-nonsense, antisocial mobster), and therefore is devoid of multiple layers.

All of this being said, Drive is a sufficiently assured film in several departments aside from narrative and character. I can practically hear the proverbial chorus of supporters stomping their foot down to the chant: "it's a film about atmosphere, not story!" Indeed, on that level Drive is a luscious ode to the nighttime gridlock of LA as a place of pulsating beauty, and one needn't look further than the film's first and finest scene, a calmly paced, compositionally tight getaway sequence following a too-close-for-comfort heist. It is here, in Driver's special habitat, that Refn really locks in to his character, paying close attention to the squeeze of his leather gloves against the clutch and the rapidly shifting eyes from road to rear-view mirror as he waits for the robbers and navigates the dark labyrinth of streets. Refn will frequently fill three-quarters of the frame with blackness and amorphous clusters of streetlights towards which his characters will apprehensively peer, evoking the claustrophobia that accumulates when there are so few options on where to hide a hulking piece of metal. The film almost never missteps in its calculated approach to shooting action in a way that respects silence and space while also ensuring that bursts of violence and noise are especially earth-shaking.

Trouble is, it's already well known that Refn succeeds on this level. He's been an atmospherically adept filmmaker from the start, but he's yet to marry his uncompromising craft with material that it can do justice to. And beyond that, he's yet to find aesthetic heft from within. As much as Refn's hypnotic treatment of driving is well-intentioned and well-delivered, it's pulled from Mann (Collateral in particular), Two-Lane Blacktop, and Walter Hill's The Driver. As pained and passionate as Gosling and Mulligan contrive to look at each other, their gazes - and the souped-up visual treatment of those gazes - is excavated from late Wong Kar-Wai, especially when Refn resorts to operatic slow motion for good measure. And as much as Drive pushes to become the next seminal anti-hero saga, it's constantly drowned underneath the weight of its towering predecessors (Taxi Driver, The Conversation, To Live and Die In LA, etc.) and relegated to the level of pedestrian.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Nostalgia Without Memory in Glen Goei's "That's The Way I Like It"

Like Mizoguchi, Ozu, and Ôshima before him, Singaporean director Glen Goei’s concerns lie in the shifting face of Asian culture, in the clashing tides of tradition and modernity that express themselves precariously in the social consciousness. But his 1998 film That’s the Way I Like It is as distinct in its mutated resonance as it is in its unapologetically commercial approach, which strays wildly from historically novel expressions of this quintessential thematic conflict. Verging on indifference and even contempt towards traditional societal mores (so long as the film’s single caricature of tradition bears such disdain for social difference), the film instead giddily absorbs the anarchic collage of transnational stimuli. In it, a go-nowhere supermarket employee lusts after an expensive hot rod, ventriloquizes his idol Bruce Lee, and concretizes the onscreen illusion of a suave John Travolta in his pursuit of disco dancing mastery.

Quickly, the film becomes the Singaporean answer to the American hit Saturday Night Fever, if not an outright remake than at the very least a work that would not exist without its global countercultural impact. In itself, this is a tantalizing prospect: not only has American “exceptionalism” fueled the ubiquity of various corporate chains around the world, it has also become the primary source for inspiration, a necessity for artistic creation. But this is not blatant Americanization as is commonly claimed. Arjun Appadurai’s seminal essay “Cultural Dimensions of Globalization” delicately puts this misconception by the wayside in positing that “the crucial point, however, is that the United States is no longer the puppeteer of a world system of images but is only one node of a complex system of imaginary landscapes”. Hock (Adrian Pang), That’s the Way I Like It’s teenage protagonist, has neither transmogrified his entire lifestyle to that of the national source of his material interests, nor has he actively weeded out all but American stimuli. The Chinese influence of Bruce Lee still weighs heavily on his public (the long, thick dark hair and shirt-popping pectorals) and private (the endless late-night exercise routines and fights with invisible enemies) persona, and his ritualistic nights with friends at the bowling alley (a recreational activity too diffuse to be traced back exclusively to the USA) still define his quotidian life.

The markers of American fetishism come disembodied from their original contexts, nearly becoming new fascinations entirely. Just as Appadurai discussed Filipino musicians covering American popular songs with superior skill and fidelity to the originals despite “the fact that the rest of their lives is not in complete synchrony with the referential world that first gave birth to these songs”, so too does Hock’s increasing prowess as a disco dancer gradually lose any tangible connection to American culture aside from the abstracted icon of John Travolta. Here, Hock displays “nostalgia without memory,” adopting the sociocultural mindsets and material desires (his sexualization of the commodity is a particularly Western tendency) of hopped-up Americans without a historical contextualization for such frameworks. Faux-Travolta’s (Dominic Pace) reemergence in the conclusion of the film, tying together the loose ends, is therefore less a symbol of a completed cycle of Americanization as it is a reminder of the remoteness of his values, especially because Hock has chosen the girl who contradicts his unsubtle and single-minded courting advice. These simple narrative cues, which may seem like obvious emblems of Americanization on the surface, are in actuality loaded images of what Appadurai called the “ironies and resistances” of our global system, a system that now churns multi-directionally and diffuses the modern world in contrast to tradition more than ever.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Screening Notes #7

Scarface (1932): Paul Muni's turn as the immoral, faux-Italian, pseudo-philosophizing titular character in Howard Hawks' Scarface is a classic bit of scenery-chewing, a performance so unhinged and ridiculous that it suffocates the film that surrounds it until there's hardly anything left. Hawks' film is so compromised, so unevenly paced and clunky, that it never gels as a complete work, reducible only to a smattering of scenes here and there with any cinematic qualifications, but Muni chugs on through like a bull in a china shop, seemingly unaware of the camera and all too aware of it at the same time. That might sound incomprehensible, but it merely takes a few scenes in Scarface - his philistine presence at a show on Broadway, the final meltdown with his sister - to be rendered passive by Muni's ludicrous excellence. Had Hawks brought the visual care and wit of the opening shot to bear on the entire film, Scarface might be a different story, but as is it's a fairly banal, if radical for its time, gangster yarn.

Apocalypse Now (1979): This is the piece that has both confirmed and complicated my feelings towards Coppola's legendary Vietnam War epic, which I just saw for the first time (I know, apparently it's sacrilege) and fell asleep to. I will need to revisit it with undivided attention before I can develop any concrete argument for/against it, but I must say that I was both livid and entranced by the parts I did catch. Interestingly enough, Jameson finds fault in the final act, which I found to be the most convincing portion of the film, the part where Coppola's woozy narrative progression and disjunctive images of madness and "horror" (vague, I know) felt most earned. It's true that Coppola's "motifs don't grow, they merely recur"; Apocalypse Now is nothing if not a more successful and morally respectable precursor to Michael Bay, an example of a camera simply recording explosive and hallucinatory shit happening in front of it. I found its ending to terrifically lay bare the sludge and slime of war, while Coppola's earlier attempts to do so was like diving straight into the deep end of a pool without any floaties, but its general dearth of specific significance becomes retrospectively annoying.

The Baxter (2005): In the end it's an optimist's comedy, or in other words, the kind of comedy I can't quite warm up to. Michael Showalter tames down the polite vulgarity most hilariously displayed in Stella to leave behind a performance that is so irritatingly even-tempered and smiley that it hardly registers any solid laughs. One can sense the sickly romantic sap early on, the Hallmark platitudes about finding the right one and searching for the heart rather than the looks, particularly in Showalter's preachy and inconsistent narration. But there are still some genuine outbursts of humor here and there, traceable mainly to Justin Theroux's suave and sensitive lady-killer. There's a moment in the first act when his high school sweetheart tells Showalter there's no chance she'd ever see Theroux again, and then he shows up on the spot. Sure, it's cheap and silly, but Theroux pulls it off with such conviction.

Rango (2011): The question is, is there any such thing as a children's film anymore or have children's films always been this subliminally heady and postmodern and I just didn't know it (because I don't watch many children's films these days)? Get this for attention-grabbing: Rango spends its first ten to fifteen minutes with an unapologetic and rather in-your-face discourse on the nature of narrative where its reptilian and amphibian characters bounce lofty questions off each other. It certainly wasn't exciting for children, and the failure to contextualize this straight-faced intellectualism didn't work for me either. Eventually the film settles into a conventional underdog tale, meanwhile flimsily attempting to connect its initial ideas to the progress of the story, but the intended balance is never achieved and the film reaches neither absorbing feel-good narrative qualities and character development nor rewarding subtexts. What it does have going for it is the textured, grotesque close-ups of seemingly limitless desert creatures.

Louie (2011): Forget what I said about how this show isn't consciously funny this season; the recent episode involving the anti-masturbation, puritan Christian girl is the funniest thirty minutes I've spent this year. In a season preoccupied by grave themes of life and death, war and xenophobia, and love and rejection, Louie suddenly embraces the fart joke, entangling it with sex in the most outrageous way imaginable. What's more, he follows it up in a back-to-back night with the scariest episode of the season, a descent into depression and suicide that resolves none of its frightening implications, and yet a week later, with an hour-long episode delving into the Iraq War in a manner refreshingly free of didacticism. It's further proof that Louie's still aggressively pushing the boundaries of cable television.

Curb Your Enthusiasm (Season 7 and 8): Those who know me know that this is my favorite show on television without question, but I've been mildly let down by the latest season, which isn't partitioning its virtues as wisely as I'd like. No longer pursuing Cheryl, Larry's at his freest and most balanced state yet, and as a result his dissections of quotidian etiquette are at their most ludicrous. What's more, the funniest character on TV, Leon (J. B. Smoove), isn't getting enough screen time, and when he does, Larry's stakes are so low that the pleasure of watching Leon casually and unintentionally destroy Larry's life is nonexistent. That being said (a turn of phrase hilariously deconstructed at the end of the brilliant 7th season), I enjoy getting into Larry's mind more than any other performer in comedy television, Louie included.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

State of Dogs (1998) A Film by Peter Brosens and Dorjkhandyn Turmunkh

The delicacy of human memory outweighs the unknowable depths of postmortem enlightenment in Belgian filmmaker Peter Brosens and Mongolian director Dorjkhandyn Turmunkh's State of Dogs, a mesmerizing documentary/fiction hybrid that raises countless questions about existence and faith, government regulation and community, reality and folklore, history and spirituality, and most of all, life and death. A co-production spanning almost half a dozen countries, the film nonetheless feels so organic to the Mongolian experience that it couldn't have been made by an outsider. Brosens made the film as the third entry in his Mongolia Trilogy (along with Poets of Mongolia and City of the Steppes), which launched a career marked by an immersion into foreign cultures as well as an engagement with a process that is increasingly rare in film production worldwide: co-direction. Here, Brosens works with Turmunkh, a Mongolian native who must have brought a level of familiarity with the various traditions and circumstances shown in the film that rubbed off on Brosens. It's difficult to say whose credit belongs where, but whatever the case their contributions have fused into a major statement, a simultaneously tactile and mystical experience that moves gracefully with the contours of the forbidding Mongolian desert.

Is is there, in this arid wasteland of sandy hills, snowy plains, and scattered ghettos, that Brosens and Turmunkh probe the wandering spirit of a stray dog named Basaar who is killed early on by a hunter hired by the government to extinguish diseased canines roaming the city of Ulan Bator. The atrocity of the dog murders is not shied away from by the filmmakers, who create a remarkably disturbing sequence set to foreboding Arabian music that is as much of a confrontational call to action as it is an inciting incident for the story of Basaar. Electing to not advance to human life right away, the dog prefers to let his soul venture from its rotting corpse on the side of a desert road to reminisce on the few charms of his past life via an unassuming narrator (Banzar Damchaa). The scenario itself, built from the Mongolian belief that the dog is the final life form before human reincarnation, is ripe for sentimentalization on paper, but Brosens and Turmunkh approach it with a loose, surreal touch, digressing from the central premise constantly to become absorbed in the life experiences, individuals, and Mongolian rituals Basaar remembers from his days of homelessness, desperation, and danger. Among these anecdotes include the life of a recently pregnant young woman from the city who once treated Basaar with kindness (and whose child, the film suggests, will be Basaar's reincarnated form), an old nomad who owned Basaar for a short period of time along with cattle, his experiences rummaging for food amongst indifferent passersby, and his observation of various rituals within the wandering Mongolian groups (music, wrestling, the spreading of myth).

Movement - of Basaar's spirit, of trains across endless panoramas, of traditional customs passing on to modernity - becomes the crux of the film. Brosens and Turmunkh reflect it in their fluid integration of visual motifs that recur throughout, such as shots from the window of a moving vehicle and static compositions of various herds (people, cattle, dogs) moving from one side of the frame to another. Within this framework, the lack of movement becomes equally substantial; a landscape, vast and unchanging, passes through the camera's lens as if to represent a static force amidst all the movement, and thousands of dead canines are scattered across the desert and the sides of village roads, acting both as mementos for an old way of life and shocking reminders of collective guilt. Without ever becoming preachy or melodramatic, State of Dogs possesses a mournful lament towards these markers of the past, tying intimately into its concern for the sociocultural effects of globalization. Basaar's eventual rebirth, depicted in a striking sequence of intercutting, is a byproduct of drastic shifts in social and political customs. He will be born into an entirely different milieu by a woman particularly young for child labor, and it's difficult not to acknowledge the unsettling parallels Brosens and Turmunkh lightly draw between the tumultuous life of a wandering dog like Basaar and the upbringing of the modern child, especially in a context as rough and unforgiving as that of Ulan Bator.

There is a vibrant mysticism running throughout the film, but it never overwhelms Brosens and Turmunkh's intimate visualization of the physical, observable world. While State of Dogs' associative arrangement may at times seem sporadic and unmotivated, the filmmakers have a deft way of evoking the coexistence of the mythic and the mundane. Seemingly non-diegetic audio bleeds into from one shot to its subsequent shot and proves to be springing from a tangible source, and myths spoken by real Mongols find faint echoes in the shot compositions and cutting patterns. Brosens and Turmunkh appear to be suspending disbelief cinematically, using the film medium as a way to entertain supernatural possibilities such as the obliteration of time and space and the presence of spirits and myths, while doing so in a way that doesn't lose grip of authentic, lived reality. Their deepest plunges into the supernatural come in the final act of the film, when townspeople rave about the narrative behind an upcoming solar eclipse: the dragon Rah will swallow the sun and leave Earth in a total freeze of darkness. After suspensefully documenting the existential panic of the citizens, the ensuing eclipse acquires great life-or-death tension. When it passes by without harm, the sense I get is not that there is no Rah, but that the hysterical drum-banging and chanting of the townsfolk scared him away.

Brosens and Turmunkh's final montage, set to a typically haunting musical score by Charo Calvo, contains a poetic power that would be embarrassed by words. Suffice to say, the inclusion of an otherworldly contortionist suggests that they have succeeded in taking a full and justified leap into the unexplainable abstractions of life, coming full circle on a complete rejection of established rules of rationality, space, and even physics (seriously, this woman bends). What at first sounded like nihilistic verbal mush out of the mouth of an impassioned poet in the opening shot of the film now resembles principles to live by. The 180 degree turnaround from skepticism to belief that the filmmakers' inspire brings to mind L'Eclisse, in which Antonioni used a similarly jarring stylistic effect to communicate the irrelevance of the supposed story (Vitti and Delon's relationship, in this case Basaar's memories) and what was ultimately the central purpose (the spiritual void of modern romantic pursuits, the necessity of faith in the modern world). Incidentally, Brosens and Turmunkh's predilection for dwarfing individuals against vast expanses of dusty desert and dilapidated modern architecture through the use of the wide shot mirrors Antonioni's similar technique. They're in good company, and they've earned it. State of Dogs is a sad and eye-opening work that, in celebrating the tenacity of one dog's memory, is able to allegorize the passing traditions and practices of an entire nation.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Edvard Munch (1974) A Film by Peter Watkins

Peter Watkins' Edvard Munch so thoroughly intermingles the tenets of drama, documentary, and experimental cinema that it ultimately obliterates all three, becoming an undefinable artifact of artist autobiography, social critique, and visual poem. The film springs from the consciousness of the titular Expressionist painter with the same kind of all-encompassing grandeur of Andrei Tarkovsky's Mirror (or more recently, Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life), yet its own fragmented, vérité style is distinctly different from those works. What it does share is the sense of an interior life being sprawled out in cinematic images despite the scant and enigmatic presence of that person in the film itself. Geir Westby, a Norwegian non-actor like everyone else in Watkins' epic, plays Edvard Munch, a tortured artist born at the wrong time and in the wrong milieu, fighting to maintain his artistic license and his sanity. He brings an off-kilter, ghostly quality to the painter, barely speaking and frequently staring directly at the camera with his dark, sad eyes, much like the distorted and spiritually distressed figures in his paintings. When he's not attempting to imbue the same artistic pedantry of his subject into the very form of the film, Watkins is probing Westby from the outside in, peering into his soul like a member of Munch's bemused and hesitant audience.

More so than any other artist biography I've seen in the film medium, Edvard Munch demonstrates how the political and social upheavals of one's life inform the ultimate trajectory of one's artistic output. Watkins, a left-wing filmmaker dedicated to proving that all cinema, all stories, and all reproductions of life are inherently politically engaged, has such an intelligent grasp of the codependency of the political and the personal that not a single scene passes without a level of involvement in both. Munch grew up in the Norwegian towns of Oslo and Kristiania in the heart of a puritanical bourgeois society in the late nineteenth century, a passage of his life that comprises the first third of a nearly three-hour film that roughly, but never strictly and often sporadically, follows a linear chronology. The repressive regimes of these towns have circumvented all but the middle class, leaving the poor with no child labor laws and a decriminalized but maligned attitude towards prostitution. In concise journalistic sequences, Watkins details these social inequities and then abruptly turns his attention to Munch and his sizable family, perched uneasily in this milieu as a group of both staunch Christians and questioning souls. Munch's sympathies are pretty much finalized when his mother and sister die prematurely of tuberculosis, with his moralizing father turning only to prayer for medical treatment.

The increasingly unconventional worldviews of Munch (at least in the context of his own family) are given space to gestate at the Kristiania Bohème, a circle of rebellious artists echoed later by Munch's cooperation in a Berlin collective pioneered by August Strindberg (Alf Kare Strindberg). Lead by the outspoken Hans Jæger (Kåre Stormark), members of the Bohème dissect the moral absolutism of the Norwegian society, concepts of free love and anarchism, and the crucial role of art and expression in a functional world. For the most part, Munch is a silent onlooker at these raucous gatherings of tobacco smoke and verbal warfare, but through his artwork - the maturation of which Watkins is attentive to at every stage of the film - one can sense his growing disillusionment with strict codes of behavior and expression. A tipping point is Jæger's imprisonment following an immediately banned work of emotionally direct and politically inflammatory literature, at once a premonition of Munch's own struggles with censors and the Scandinavian intelligentsia and a catalyst for his drastic evolution from commonly accepted modes of objective naturalism in painting.

Watkins pays so much attention to forces beyond Munch's control and personal sphere that the film can hardly be limited to the straightforward biography it purports to be (and which it is wrongly held up to by art historians befuddled by the omission of the later half of Munch's career). The act of painting itself - for Munch, crude, aggressive expressions of emotional volatility and spiritual turmoil - is detailed with great precision and persistence, with Watkins' largely nervous, zooming and focus-adjusting camera taking momentary pauses to scan the textured surfaces of Munch's canvasses. The images savor the tactility of the work, recognizing (as the majority of the backward-looking Norwegian public and critical community fail to do) the pain and joy that goes into every brush stroke, every scrape. Munch's painting are mostly of his family ridden by illness and devastation, an aspect of his life Watkins is sure to stress in his repetitive inserts of traumatic moments in their household, including Munch's own near-death experience coughing up blood in his bed. These terrifying fragments of tragedy and turmoil might come across as sensationalist window-dressing had Watkins not focused on patiently establishing Munch's domestic environment early on, and ultimately their continued employment manages to express the fidgety mental sickness that sparks much of Munch's artistic inspiration.

Perhaps even more instructive in understanding Munch's angst is his brief but impassioned affair with a married woman identified as Mrs. Heiberg (Gro Fraas, channeling her inner Liv Ullmann), the failure of which is the crux of the artist's social, romantic, and existential frustration. The film's most discernible narrative thrust is the rise and fall of this short-lived relationship captured by Watkins with supreme intimacy. When it does inevitably collapse, its repercussions are felt throughout the remainder of the film in Munch's paintings and in his mind, wherein fragmented moments of sexual passion, soulful staring, and subsequent jealousy replay over and over. As if to cement the fact that Mrs. Heiberg was Munch's true missed opportunity, his fullest and most transient pleasure, Watkins concludes the film on a painterly image of the two framed against a blood red sky, a simultaneously romantic and foreboding crystallization of the affair's impact on Munch. Fittingly, most of the film's loveliest, most unforgettable images - shot, like the rest of the film, in mysteriously grainy 35 mm - comprise the two of them in various natural landscapes, dreamlike evocations of bliss that seem to rest outside time.

These moments, however, are never as cathartic as the painter hopes for them to be. Edvard Munch has the tendency to cut short its brightest pleasures, splice them into otherwise bleak passages, or overlay a disparate element (sound, image) of darkness. The film thrives off the interplay of contradictory emotions and techniques (dramatic exposition, journalistic documentation, Tarkovskian meditation), unafraid to pit them against each other within a single scene. The ongoing narration itself, largely readings from Munch's third-person-ridden diary entries provided by Watkins himself, is a constant counterpoint to the action, undercutting the traditional documentary etiquette of always informing with clarity and "truth". Much of the narration seems to eschew crucial details evident in the frame, missing the entire story, or suggest an emotion not entirely accurate to what we see of Munch onscreen. It's a perfect representation of the confused and frantic psyche of this profoundly influential artist, and also one of Watkins' subtlest applications of dialectical editing maneuvers in a body of work ravaged by critical complaints about unconventionality. Fascinatingly, given the many superficial similarities in the careers of these two artists, it's probably natural that their strengths should interact in such a way.