Saturday, December 31, 2011

Two Years at Sea (2011) A Film by Ben Rivers

Focusing with unflinching directness on the unbreakable bond between a human being and his environment, Ben Rivers' Two Years at Sea ultimately reinstates in 86 minutes both cinema's fundamental connection with labor and its function as a tool for comprehensive, peerlessly intimate portraiture. The camera is, at its technological and epistemological core, a device used to document physical reality, with people being its ideal and most revealing subject. Rivers, a London-based experimental artist who has been creating short, vaguely anthropological visual studies since 2003, does away with narrative trappings, explanatory details, and dialogue altogether to exploit this capacity in Two Years at Sea, his first feature-length work. Expanding upon the 2006 short This Is My Land, the film concerns the life of Jake Williams, a hermit living in the middle of a forest in Scotland. According to the brief production notes, Jake held a desire to live alone in the wilderness from a very young age, and "spent two years working at sea to realize it."

The film has no interest in revealing what exactly its title means, nor is it concerned much with providing any context at all for Jake's lifestyle. None of the aforementioned background information is revealed in the film itself (although there are occasional silent cutaways to photographs seemingly depicting Jake's past life with what are perhaps family members), leaving Rivers to immerse himself and his camera in the unconventional routines and temporal rhythms of his Herzogian subject without any urge for commentary. Jake has fashioned a decrepit one-story home filled with ungainly piles of tools, papers, and paraphernalia, a structurally questionable tree-house consisting of an old caravan hoisted up across the branches of tall trees, and a ramshackle yard that doubles as a holding ground for his gathered forest supplies (mostly wood) where he sits in a beach chair to enjoy the quiet tranquility surrounding him. A great deal of his time, however, is spent away from his home on day trips up misty mountains, across tree-less fields, and into derelict ponds. He has held onto a dusty Jeep in order to entertain some of his more far-flung adventures (how he obtains the gas is a negligible question mark), but the majority of the time he simply backpacks across land, whistling as he goes.

Rivers eventually finds a loose structure out of what is ostensibly a life without obligations and restrictions, defined only by the daily need for survival. The film alternates between passages of work and rest, with the transitional moments comprised of contemplative shots of the wilderness composed with a painterly sensibility for shape, texture, and light. For such a deceptively muted, peaceful, carefree film, Jake's life is punctuated heavily by labor, by the numerous manual tasks required to sustain even the humblest of livelihoods. Thus, the film restages life itself as labor, calling attention to the presence of humans as ultimately transitory in a larger, natural order. Jake, as all humans, is essentially a guest to nature, and his work is necessitated merely by the fact that nature throws obstacles in his way (weather, unpredictable availability of resources, etc.). What I love about Two Years At Sea is how it sidesteps the impulse to either glorify the isolated lifestyle as some agrarian, primitivistic ideal or predict its character’s inevitable loneliness to make a case for the necessity of sociality (see Into the Wild), which speaks to Rivers’ anthropological curiosity. No imaginary, non-human, or anthropomorphic friends here, just a man doing what he needs to do to survive alone in the wilderness, seemingly for the comfort and exciting freedom that isolation in the natural world brings.

As Rivers fixates his camera on Jake's routines throughout the film, the man himself largely remains an enigma. There's something so casual and well-adjusted about his behavior that suggests he has long ago shaken off any doubts about his radical lifestyle. Recurring shots show him sitting or lying down doing nothing to hold his attention, but rather than implying deep thought Jake's blank facade seems to express a transcendent tabula rasa, a total elimination of typical social concerns. At the same time, however, Jake has not entirely shed worldly materiality, showcased in his propensity for throwing on bluesy background music on his gramophone (he seems to have taken a special liking to the Jew harp and the bouzouki), or in the old photographs littered across his living space, fragments of a more traditional social history. That Jake can resemble anywhere from an excited boyscout to a Winter’s Bone extra to a great philosopher in a Rembrandt (a shot of Jake reading seems designed to banish any hasty assumptions of hippie illiteracy) depending on how Rivers frames and lights him only compounds his unknowable and eccentric personality.

In a truly original move, Two Years at Sea brings the real and intimate concerns of a documentary into the parameters of the hyper-cinematic, trotting out an absurdly wide ratio (2:75:1) via cropped Super 16mm that hasn't been touched since epic 70mm productions like Ben-Hur (1959) and The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965). What Rivers does with the format is remarkable, lending a mythic quality to Jake and his environment even as he staunchly refuses the fussy cinematographic calculation of those Hollywood superproductions. Sometimes he will place the area of interest in the far side of the frame just because he can, leaving the rest of the frame black, whereas other times he animates every portion of the vast geography of the frame, watching as Jake takes the long hike across the composition. There's something truly sculptural - in Tarkovsky's sense - about the way Rivers carves out blocks of his subject's unique time and arranges them into striking, free-flowing images. In one instance, Jake assembles a makeshift raft out of wood and jumbo milk cartons (a comparatively bombastic moment in an otherwise quiet film) and rows it out into a pond. Right when the viewer assumes he’s headed to the other side, he stops dead in the middle of the body of water to drift carelessly - his body entirely motionless – the long distance to the other side of the panoramic frame. And once his vessel has nearly bumped against land, he turns back. It’s an achingly poetic image that possesses the sparse, smeared beauty of a Caspar David Friedrich oil painting and most succinctly and elegantly communicates Jake's firm sense of inner peace.

Further deglamorizing his bold format is Rivers' decision to leave evidence of the material wear-and-tear of his chosen medium. Throughout, the screen subtly flashes like a degraded silent film, evidence of a transfer from 16mm to 35mm that Rivers deliberately didn't refine, and blotches of dirt and dust accent the omnipresent grain. It's a fitting, and beautiful, aesthetic mirror of his subject, whose physicality and material well-being has been similarly deteriorated from continued exposure to the elements. As such, Two Years at Sea tends to feel like a lost film discovered beneath dirt, an organic object slowly dying like Jake's decrepit wilderness home and like the celluloid medium itself. In the marvelous eight-and-a-half-minute shot that quietly concludes the film, Jake drifts gradually into sleep beside a crackling fire, revealed only in a close-up that miraculously becomes less and less illuminated the more Jack slips out of consciousness. The film grain grows uglier and blotchier as the light source gradually disappears, eventually filling the screen with an indistinct mass of underexposed celluloid. Finding and watching Two Years at Sea is akin to discovering an unintentional objet d'art from this mysterious sleeping man.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Strange Case of Angelica (2010) A Film by Manoel de Oliveira

In the pivotal scene of Manoel de Oliveira's meditative, clear-eyed The Strange Case of Angelica, a curious detail emerges. A rural village's only photographer, Isaac (Ricardo Trêpa), is hired to snap a posthumous photo of the recently deceased Angelica (Pilar López de Ayala) in her family's posh, aristocratic hill-top hotel. Much of the photographic act is revealed in the same long shot. At first properly exposed (and indeed relatively dim), the image's highlights are blown out when Isaac requests a new, brighter bulb as a replacement in the overhead lamp hanging above Angelica's festooned corpse. The details in the lamp's cover are suddenly rendered indistinguishable, and parts of Isaac's face become a wash of white. Oliveira, the oldest working filmmaker at 103 years of age, surely possesses the chops to guard against such a "blemish," but he elects not to. In doing so, he problematizes the very nature of image production, calling attention to the materiality of the medium. It's only the first step in an elegant, compact metaphor for cinema itself, for what compels its making and what encourages our spectatorship.

Sure enough, this subtle manipulation of light is only of peripheral importance in the scene; rarely in The Strange Case of Angelica are there not multiple layers of meaning operating at once. More bluntly, the scene's purpose is to incite the conflict weighing on Isaac's psyche throughout the film. Upon peering in his camera's viewfinder, Angelica's eyes open and she bears a wide grin, shocking the already unsettled photographer. It's the beginning of a private pact between the ghostly Angelica and the weary, probing Isaac, which ultimately takes the two of them floating high above the village at night as Méliès-like specters, their bodies seemingly eternally embraced before Isaac is thrust abrasively out of the realm of dreams. Ayala, who enacted a familiar dance of unintentional playfulness and seduction in the similarly backward-and-forward-thinking In the City of Sylvia, taunts Isaac in both his waking and sleeping states, coming alive in his printed photographs and arriving as a glowing black-and-white phantom on his balcony. Often times it is to the unawares of Isaac, who, like a wide-eyed schoolboy, finds his lover disappearing every time he turns around sensing her presence. He is trying to capture that which is not there, that which is an illusion.

Of course, such is the apparatus of filmmaking, wherein celluloid presents images of a lost moment, forever consigned only to the physical medium. (Fittingly, Oliveira lingers on "empty" frames for some time after narrative action within those frames has ceased, quietly combating pictorial transience, the dominant mode in the modern world.) The film invokes a clear sense of Isaac's lineage: a dreamer, a poet, a thinker, a romantic, an introvert, an outcast, a cultural connoisseur, a revolutionary - in effect, a surrogate of the early film director. As such, he is prone to the two fundamental cinematic impulses: that of George Méliès, the grasp for the fantastical and unobservable, and the Lumière brothers, the realist urge. Alongside his compulsion towards Angelica, Isaac is indescribably drawn to taking photos of laborers in the hills, obsessively depicting their pickaxes pummeling into the Earth. Later, he begins following the gyrating gears of a tractor sifting through dirt, snapping as many shots as possible. Glancing over these and other images draped across a string beside his balcony, the suggestion comes gently to the fore: he has created movement.

Oliveira, on the other hand, humbly rejects camera movement for the vast majority of the film, preferring to keep his camera - like the Lumière's - a stationary observer. There is supreme formal precision to the film, a fixed understanding of the behavioral patterns within a single rectangular room that is reflected in nearly symmetrical compositions that allow space for multiple planes of action to occur in one shot. The Strange Case of Angelica, however, is not exactly a "room film" in the same way that a Roy Andersson or an Akerman is a room film; Oliveira has constructed a fully realized, hermetically sealed fable world with a firm sense of built-in rhythms and patterns. The film's repetitive skyline cutaways have a storybook quality to them, containing the action within a single community and also reinforcing a temporal linearity. It's fitting that the film concludes on the shot of a woman closing up the boards on a window until the screen goes black, an image that is instantly reminiscent of Satantango. Like Tarr, Oliveira is interested in maintaining a communal narrative and entertaining the many digressions it brings, and when that narrative reaches a conclusion there's no more space for it to live beyond the cinema. Allowing it to exist would mean suggesting a continuity in the cinematic space Oliveira has built, which runs counter to his intentions. Instead, he finds this world, drops in on it in the middle of the night and leaves with it faded to black, preserving its memory.

The Strange Case of Angelica is an argument for the timelessness of images, for the fact that pictures, particularly moving ones, can reflect an immortality that causes the mortal to pine in hopelessness. There are gentle, multifaceted dichotomies at the center of the film - mortality and immortality, life and death, realism and surrealism, past and present - that Oliveira wisely navigates, finally coming to the conclusion that they are irresolvable, that there is no ideal course of action, only an endless tug-of-war between two respective poles. In an act of pure selfishness that is the sum of all those ruminative stares off camera and into the Great Beyond, Isaac eventually implodes with consuming desire for Angelica and commits some unfussy form of suicide, running to the hillside and collapsing before a procession of chanting children. Back in his room under the detached care of a village doctor, Isaac finally succumbs to death in one of Oliveira's most elaborately choreographed, yet entirely modest, long takes. His concerned landlady enters the room, sighing in quiet despair and acknowledging the inevitability. Her sigh is quite like that of the filmmaker, who at such an old age presents with utter clarity a simultaneous fear and embrace of the void, which of course is entangled (as with all great directors) with an awareness of the enduring power of love.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

My Favorite Albums of 2011

2011 proved to be the year of the solo musician. Eight of my top ten picks are solo artists, as well as fourteen of my top twenty overall. Granted, several of these musicians simply release music under their own name but work with a band, but the statistic is still striking. In keeping with that trend, I found myself liking less and less of this year's rock offerings and discovering more rewards in the broad realms of folk and ambient. Interestingly, the year's overarching cinematic themes of nostalgia, memory, and history (Hugo, The Tree of Life, The Artist, Midnight in Paris, etc.) are also mirrored in the musical offerings, whether reflected in their cyclical structure and forms (Josh T. Pearson, The Caretaker, Tim Hecker) or in their lyrical content (Matana Roberts, PJ Harvey, Iron & Wine). It's funny, because there is always talk of the year at hand being "wretched" or "worst than last year," and in some ways these albums - in an echo of Woody Allen's Golden Age fallacy lesson - seem to argue against that path of thinking. Below is a comprehensive list of the best music I heard this year.

1. Josh T Pearson: Last of the Country Gentlemen

Too often when describing folk music catch phrases like “emotional honesty” and “raw power” are tossed around hastily, as if the mere presence of an acoustic guitar guarantees a special pact between singer and listener. So rarely are we greeted with real, tough, unguarded honesty, the kind that’s unsupported by lush arrangements and miniature, consistent relief, and that’s exactly what Josh T. Pearson’s Last of the Country Gentlemen accomplishes. The album is spine-tinglingly personal, a venture so deep into the bearded Texas believer’s head-space that it’s uncomfortable and off-putting at first. But repeated listens marry indelibly to the subconscious. Guitar motifs recur and scrape at the memory, creating a flowing document that shifts organically from climactic swells of violin and voice to barely audible whispers. Perhaps it’s because parts of Pearson’s lyrical content mirrors my own emotional trajectory this year, but ultimately there’s nothing more moving and cathartic as this.

2. Bill Callahan: Apocalypse

In a positive review of Bill Callahan’s Apocalypse, Pitchfork critic Mike Powell wrote that the 45 year-old Austin-based musician has “nothing to add to the general conversation about music in 2011.” Horseshit. Callahan’s particular brand of Americana – simultaneously dry, intimate, sardonic, casual, poetic, merciless, jagged, warm – is unparalleled in the 2011 musical landscape. The aforementioned stream of adjectives may represent a bundle of contradictions, but Callahan’s music thrives in tension with itself, the more the disparate elements converse with each other. Single “America!” is a lethargic pulse of gargled guitar distortion beneath Callahan’s witty celebration/indictment/elegy of/to his home country, “Free’s” is eccentric swing jazz laced with flutes and a bouncy bass line that questions the nature of freedom, and “One Fine Morning” is a soft acoustic waltz that fittingly sounds like waking up in the morning but is obliquely about leaving society, people, potentially even life itself. A mere seven songs possess more lyrical complexity and unexpected, seemingly improvisational musical energy than other singer/songwriter record this year. If that’s not adding to the general conversation, I don’t know what is.

3. Tim Hecker: Ravedeath 1972 / Dropped Pianos

Tim Hecker’s Ravedeath, 1972 is the most complete, immersive statement in the ambient genre since Jonsi and Alex’s 2009 album Riceboy Sleeps. It’s dense, riveting sound, stemming from cathedral organ and guitar recordings but transforming into something else entirely through the layering and processing of post-production. The organ can sound anywhere from grinding and oppressive to somber and elusive, slipping through the cracks of the surrounding textures and hovering behind snatches of piano melody. Ravedeath, 1972 is the desperate, unintelligible cry of laborers dehumanized amidst a brooding industrial landscape, eerily reminiscent of both 1984 and Damnation. Only recently did I discover Hecker’s subsequent record, Dropped Pianos, released only eight months after Ravedeath, and it’s almost equally fantastic, if lighter in tone and sparser in execution. Together the albums form one of the most impressive bodies of work in 2011.

4. Julianna Barwick: The Magic Place

This is a holy listening experience, as close to church as I get. It’s in the way Barwick’s voice pricks against the ceiling of her register in “Keep Up the Good Work”, the way that elongated, ethereal falsetto becomes inextricable from whatever instrument is creating the supplementary ambience (especially in “White Flag”), and the way layers gradually creep up in the mix. There’s no posing here, just a powerful wielding of the human voice without the weight of lyrics, supported lightly by the occasional bass movement or detached piano melody. Capable of recalling Hildegard Von Bingen, tribal chants, and children’s choirs all at once, this is timelessly soothing music that is somehow also distinctly contemporary. We can only hope this doesn’t get consigned to a pseudo-enlightening moment in the next Danny Boyle film.

5. Radiohead: The King of Limbs

If Radiohead doesn’t provide some earth-shattering sonic evolution these days (as they have done so many times before), there’s widespread skepticism, even backlash. But I see The King of Limbs as a remarkable refinement of their talent, a paring down and purifying, that seems to suggest a conscious denial of the radical leaps they’re expected to take. I’m tempted to declare this an even more cohesive, free-flowing album than In Rainbows despite the fact that it doesn’t approach some of that record’s grandiose high points. These tracks are compulsively groovy, favoring headlong immersion in rhythm (and in subtle changes in rhythm) over dramatic songwriting maneuvers. Yorke’s plaintive voice and Greenwood’s spare, sneaky contributions float gloriously over the album’s busy, frantic percussion. Pastoral field recordings compete for attention with the colorful digital atmosphere. For all the internal tension here, King of Limbs winds up sounding remarkably unified.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2011) A Film by Tomas Alfredson

Tomas Alfredson's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy provides visual evidence of the significant distance between the impulses of literature and cinema. The tension between the two mediums tugs at every frame. There is Alfredson's conflicted relationship with the source material, John le Carré's original novel, the sense of the film paying lip service to the vertiginous strands of plot. Meanwhile, there is an intuitive feel for mood, atmosphere, mise-en-scene, and the various other elements that construct the cinematic world, elements that are somewhat jeopardized, or at least made secondary, when the film indulges a necessary urge to unspool plot. Alfredson has shown a curious propensity for downplaying exposition, for making narrative details and back-stories feel democratically unimportant. In Let the Right One In, this resulted in an intriguingly incomplete sense of the foundation for the characters' histories that effectively complimented the film's spare plot. In a story with such thickness of exposition as Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, however this low-key approach to dramatic detail is quickly distancing, deliberately failing to provide a base of comprehension as the enveloping mood overwhelms the specific words, behaviors, and conflicts marking the larger narrative design.

And yet, there's so much conviction in the film's construction - its acting, cinematography, blocking, production design, costumes, etc. - that the film remains entirely riveting. Alfredson has so thoroughly sunken into the gritty, unforgiving, desaturated Cold War milieu that his film exudes a sense of being lived in, as if it's a pre-existing artifact rather than something that was built from scratch to approximate a bygone time. Smoke and dust fill the air, splashes of light poke through windows, seemingly important papers and other bric-a-brac cover nearly every square inch of table-top, and faded, garish patterned wallpapers peel slowly off walls. Through these decrepit spaces weathered men in similarly discolored sports jackets brood silently or merely pass by, their perpetual exasperation leaving a bitter taste in the air. Someone in a tight knit circle of British intelligence officials has revealed vital information to a Soviet spy who's now likely running amok with it. Not one man will budge with any revealing news, so semi-retired espionage expert George Smiley (Gary Oldman, who paradoxically never smiles throughout the film) is elected to take the place of the recently resigned Control (John Hurt), who clearly felt significant pressure from all of his somber right-hand men (Toby Jones, Mark Strong, David Dencik, Ciarán Hinds, Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch).

Tinker, Tailor becomes centered on Oldman, a ruthless, uncompromising, and melancholy spy master whose hardened exterior Alfredson refuses to penetrate. Thus, the film's design - insistently paced, nearly inscrutable, and never stopping to check for audience comprehension - mirrors the rate at which and precision with which Smiley ponders his next move. A great deal of the film's major plot progressions are telegraphed not with dialogue but only with Smiley's gestures and sneaking eye movements (for the most part drooped in shadows). When the men do speak, often in long shot or peeped through telephoto lenses, they do so in espionage jargon (Operation Witchcraft comes up frequently), meaning that their political sleights of hand are obscured thickly by code words. As clues accumulate and suspicious men start to behave less and less suspiciously, one suspects the cool disorientation to be precisely Alfredson's point. It is so often in such ambiguous political affairs that the comparatively morally pure outsiders cannot pass judgment on the events because of sheer lack of insider knowledge. As a result, cruel, unfaithful, and insular men are the movers and shakers of a cycle of events that leave innocent people dead.

Alfredson tracks this cycle of events with clinical rigor; if the characters he's portraying are caught in an existential black hole with no escape (Tom Hardy's character is the best example, not known to the audience at first but quickly yanked from reclusion into the narrative), the director himself presents his material with the straightforward duty of an existential anti-hero. Rarely is his camera devoid of modest acrobatics, tracking around rooms slowly and unassumingly, gracefully shifting focus, giving visual attention to every member in a room, equally unsure of who to trust. With the help of the brilliant interior lighting by DP Hoyte Van Hoytema (definitely the cinematographer's finest moment since Let the Right One In) wherein light falls with seemingly malign intent and every lamp and overhead appears to cover only a one-foot radius (the inability to see clearly - what with the smoke and darkness - is often played into the narrative), the film's backhanded maneuvers are utterly enthralling to behold. It is quite simply the best looking film of the year, lovingly designed to recreate its setting and shot with an Ozu's eye for symmetry and indoor details. The film only grows more confusing as it presses on, but the mood of enveloping doom and sadness surrounding Oldman's compulsive workman expands. Rarely has being out of the loop felt so engaging.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Backs to the Wall: Alps and Shame

Both Greek director Giorgos Lanthimos and British director Steve McQueen have released massive international festival hits in the past few years: Dogtooth, a singularly unsettling allegorical black comedy, and Hunger, a transcendent chronicle of the IRA Prison Strike of the 1980's. With their latest films, one director has kept it low-key and local, and the other has gone American, keeping his Irish lead actor but moving to an NYC setting. The films, Alps and Shame, are both unmistakably their maker's, which is admirable for directors with only one previous feature (or in the case of Lanthimos, one obscure flop and one breakout success) to their name. Furthermore, they're also curious objects that suffer from very similar issues: they both tackle their ideas - fuzzy and vaguely complex in Alps, simple and familiar in Shame - in an oblique, non-confrontational manner, shying away from direct exploration and seeking to invite larger significance that's not warranted in the execution. But since I genuinely enjoyed their previous efforts, it's an example of sophomore slump that I greet more with interest and confusion than with frustration and hostility.

Following Dogtooth's primal scream of oddness and ambiguity, Lanthimos has decided to capitalize on the success of those traits and elevate them in Alps only a year later. Transplanting the social retardation and behavioral quirkiness of Dogtooth's suburban prison to a wider, more public and less specific milieu, Lanthimos reveals a group of eccentrics slowly and mysteriously, only exposing that which loosely connects them in an offhand bit of dialogue a third of the way through the film. It turns out that their regular meetings in a nondescript gymnasium are for an under-the-radar social service (deemed "Alps" for seemingly no reason other than to justify the title) that assists grieving individuals and families in the event of the sudden loss of a loved one by performing as that person and fully adopting their day-to-day routines. Aggeliki Papoulia, the brave actress who played the older sister in Lanthimos' prior film, is the performer we see most in Alps and the one who delivers said line of dialogue to an aging couple whose tennis-playing daughter was just killed in an accident. There's a cult-like strictness and dedication to the group that registers in Papoulia's consistent expression - which seems to suggest dread struggling to conceal itself beneath a collected exterior - and in her colleague Ariane Labed's nervous posture, a side-effect of her submission to a terrifyingly imposing dance coach played by Johnny Vekris who restricts her from graduating to pop music. Meanwhile, in episodes that are peripheral to the other narratives, members of Alps rehearse melodramatic, inscrutable dialogues to each other in clipped, uninflected tones as if amateur actors preparing for an audition, but they never break character.

The scenario is intriguingly flamboyant and fittingly bizarre, and as such it's a shame that Alps remains the mere skeleton of a film, a brilliant idea that was stillborn at the conception phase. Like Dogtooth, Alps presents a handful of motifs, metaphors, and subtexts to be sorted out, and specifically amplifies Dogtooth's concern for the influence of American media consumption on its characters. But rather than letting his ideas arise organically through the interaction of characters and environments, Lanthimos exerts a rigid conceptual grasp on every scene until the purpose of each individual shot is exhausted the instant an idea is effectively elucidated. What’s left is a series of repetitions of the same few notions, triggered with an approach to scene structure that grows increasingly coded and formulaic. Alps functions in the theoretical arena of spectatorship, aligning both the act of the griever and the movie-goer (in this film, everyone's an implicit movie-goer, reciting lines and ranking favorite actors and actresses) as false respites from death, fundamentally flawed attempts at forgetting that nonetheless ease the pain of reality. Unfortunately, there's rarely any basis of reality to assist the process of empathizing with these acts of profound selfishness. Lanthimos is too busy deflating his characters into controlled, undiscerning props (in order to warn against the mechanization of modern life that might result from projecting our emotions onto media) to examine the reactions of the married couple to their surrogate daughter, or to allow his main characters to contemplate the ethical implications of their service. As a depiction of a lopsided practice in an already lopsided world rather than a misguided venture unleashed on a convincing population, Alps neglects to confront the complexity of its themes as they relate to reality.

Because Dogtooth already took this route, it doesn't help that Lanthimos' treatment of the concept lacks the structural firmness of that film, which was a careful crescendo to a devastating final shot. Where Dogtooth's narrative assurance hinted at a conceptual assurance, Alps' insistent skirting around its major themes resembles the work of a director who is either too fuzzy on whether or not they make sense or too unsure of their legitimacy. Fittingly, the film waywardly shifts between its several mini-stories through fractured and vague cinematography, wherein only objects closest to the camera earn focus and the physical world is reduced to a smear of gray. When it's not hilarious - Lanthimos is better at making dark jokes of his characters than he is at drawing them as serious, if exaggerated, models of real human beings worth sympathizing with, which suggests a lot about his outlook on life - it's frequently dull and repetitive, evoking the feeling of a lecture that reached its climax early on and kept repeating minor variations on the same idea. What was seductive, suggestive, and horrific in Dogtooth is alienating, stiff, and preposterous in Alps, and unfortunately the film suffers from the feeling of being half-finished, its realization carrying only phantoms of the core ideas Lanthimos clearly wanted to tackle and its sense of ambiguity adrift from any semblance of cohesion.

Shame, on the other hand, is so coherent to the point of being simple-minded that McQueen's insistence upon creating an enigmatic, ambiguous atmosphere feels awkwardly disingenuous at best and utterly silly at worst. The entire film essentially advances the idea that Michael Fassbender's Brandon is a man whose seemingly high quality of living - a well-paying job, an uptown apartment with a panoramic view of the biggest city in the world, devilishly good looks - belies his emotional impotence and severe inner turmoil. Although this is the ultimate thesis, McQueen is persistent upon allowing the audience to try to tease out their own meaning by gesturing faintly in several different taboo-breaking directions - sex addiction, incest, corporate dehumanization - with ominous long takes and Duchampian blankness. When Brandon's predictably damaged vagabond sister Sissy Sullivan (Carey Mulligan with an alliterative name that sounds like a whore's psuedonym) arrives to crash at his apartment with nowhere else to go, the past's infiltration of the present metaphor is literalized by Brandon's inability to get down and dirty with NYC prostitutes and spend quality time with himself due to his sister's presence. The rampant sexual thirst so forcefully telegraphed in the film's opening montage is suffocated, the male ego is compromised, and regular, unquestioned behaviors Brandon mechanically performs (ogling women on the subway, extending his encyclopedia of internet porn) are put into perspective.

Unlike in Hunger, a work of great empathy, McQueen appears to despise his main character here, taking every opportunity to bounce light off of bar tables to demonize him. Whether subsuming him into a generically flat and sanitary office environment or scrutinizing his clumsy attempt at dating with a newly single co-worker (Nicole Beharie) whose smiley excitement swiftly degenerates throughout the course of a dinner ominously punctuated by McQueen's languorously zooming camera, Brandon encompasses the Rich, Privileged, Unappreciative Schmuck that is seemingly ubiquitous in New York (his boss, David Fisher (James Badge Dale), is another sterling example, and represents the only character McQueen dislikes more). Eyes Wide Shut and Last Tango in Paris already peered into - as rapper Nas put it - the "N.Y. State of Mind," and these types of sex-addled characters in particular, in much subtler ways, and it seems that the one new inquiry McQueen is bringing to it is his questionable implication, when Brandon attends a hellishly red gay club in a ditch effort for satisfaction, that homosexuality is the lowest form of debasement for this kind of soul-sick urban individual.

What makes Shame tougher to swallow is McQueen's reluctance to pick up the great opportunities he lays down for himself to understand his character. Crystallizing his irritating diffidence here is a sequence about halfway through the film when Sissy takes Brandon's boss back to the apartment after a night at the lounge club where she had a gig. Upon hearing the muffled noises of cheerful sex in a room nearby, it appears Brandon is destined for one of the possible courses of action: 1) confront the two of them angrily, 2) passive-aggressively masturbate in his room, or 3) call up a prostitute to assert his power in his own apartment. He does none of the above, and instead fleas the scene to go for a jog outside. Given his visceral outbursts throughout the rest of the film (screaming at Sissy, provoking jealousy out of anonymous strangers), it feels less like a natural extension of his character than a cop-out by McQueen when given a chance to thoroughly explore the inner state of his character. He favors a technically complicated and lushly photographed tracking shot that simply illuminates Brandon's anxiety and drops the troubling scenario placed before him. In numerous other instances, McQueen resorts to his stylish aesthetic flair (and he has a great deal of it) in ways that purport to visualize inner conflicts but actually just de-emphasize and abstract them. What is left is a shell of a person and a conflict, the gaps of which are filled with repeated shots of Fassbender ruffling his perpetually feathered hairdo or crying out in the rain with a scrape on his face as the predictable downfall narrative reaches its fruition.

Just as Lanthimos devises esoteric codes and ciphers for his messages, McQueen shrouds in mystery a schematic script that redundantly exposes its character's primal sickness and aversion to emotionality. Both directors have taken a prior strength and applied it forcefully to new material only to reveal the specificity and shortcomings of that strength. Lanthimos' preference for broad allegory over narrative and characterization is jeopardized when aimed at a larger ensemble and a more diffuse setting. McQueen's artful detachment made poetry out of a historical event that was chiefly about collective action and brutality, whereas the same approach is rendered empty in the face of original material that favors individual introspection. Perhaps the bright side is that there is still great promise contained in these films that ensures future improvement: the squirmy comedy and dissociative editing in Alps (the superior of the two films) and the bold visual statements and skill with actors evoked in Shame. But the films' fear of direct engagement is their fundamental undoing. Quite simply, these are portraits of people with their backs to the wall in which the directors themselves have their backs to the wall, refusing to speak on the matter.

Monday, December 12, 2011

The Contemporization of Hou Hsiao-Hsien

Renowned for his mastery of the static long take, Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-Hsien caused quite a stir in the critical film community when his camera first began to move in 1995’s Good Men, Good Women. While it may seem like a superficial, ultimately insignificant stylistic tic to get hung up on, there was something simultaneously disconcerting and exciting about a director so committed to stasis and detachment suddenly deciding to openly follow his characters around their environment. With the mere loosening of a tripod head for greater mobility, Hou embarked upon a new chapter of his career that continues right up to his most recent film, Flight of the Red Balloon. This is a chapter of willful naiveté and unassertive observation that intentionally removes the traditional director/subject dynamic. For the first time, it is the agency of the characters - more so than the direction - that seems to dictate the flows and meanings of these post-2000 works.

Hou’s early films, right up until his renowned Taiwan Trilogy, were already thought of as radical redefinitions of conventional film grammar. They were particularly antithetical the films residing within Taiwan’s cinematic heritage. Using long, single-take scenes and a suppression of dramatic events and dialogue, the films luxuriated in objective reality in a way that is not entirely dissimilar from the director’s contemporary approach to his material, but there was a dense, serious historical-political dimension to the work, a predilection towards grand and unorthodox statements about Taiwan’s troubled national heritage that suggested a common understanding of cinematic authorship. The film’s lofty intentions were distinct, if not always totally clear. In the past decade, however, Hou has preferred to leave the meanings of his films in the hands of the viewer more openly than ever before, and his focus has shifted in more ways than one. Particularly when placed aside his early, heavily studied, and historically engaged offerings, these films (Millenium Mambo, Café Lumiere, Three Times, and Flight of the Red Balloon) not only signal the director’s substantial artistic and intellectual development, they also yield abundant insights into the still-turbulent relationships between Taiwan and its neighboring East Asian countries, and introduce new perspectives on his signature motifs of time, history, and the irreversible effects of the political on the personal.

One major shift is clear enough from the outset: though already present in his filmography in less overt fashion, Hou’s work in the 2000’s displays an intimate fascination with the youth of Taiwan. A possible practical explanation for this is that Hou is now 64 years old, and nestling his camera within the environment of twentysomethings is one convenient route to feeling younger. But over thirty years of work commenting upon the fractured history of the island nation of Taiwan, it’s easy to see this recent preoccupation as a gesture of simultaneous hope, concern, and curiosity. The idea that history repeats itself, and that shocking national changes force a rupture in collective psychology that remains insoluble, is given repeat emphasis in Hou’s cinema, so naturally his contemporary films reflect a profound desire to break that damaging mold. Guo-Juin Hong summarizes this tendency in his book Taiwan Cinema: A Contested Nation on Screen: “To write history, to represent history, is finally a desire for a future hidden under the backward temporal movement of cinematic retrospection that has been, from the beginning, casting its longing gaze forward.”

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Melancholia (2011) A Film by Lars Von Trier

Twenty years from now and henceforth, Lars Von Trier will be a fixture in surveys of film history. It’s hard to even say that about some of the greatest directors working today (of which I would not include Von Trier). He perpetually has his finger on the pulse of his viewers and is so gleefully and powerfully able to exploit that. One cognitive approach to cinema is as a tool of manipulation, and, setting aside the problematic ethical implications of that course of thinking for now, Von Trier is a master of manipulation. No director provokes such a physical response (nausea, chills, ecstasy) out of me, and no director gets me so livid one moment and so impressed the next. (I realize that by now this response to Von Trier is a cliche.) Melancholia is certainly no exception. Its opening montage is the most superficial, plastic-looking pastiche of Tarkovsky, Bruegel, and Last Year in Marienbad I've seen, yet it's somehow fascinating. Comprised of shots so slow-mo'd that they might as well be still frames and set to the Wagner symphony that is repeated bombastically throughout the film ("Tristan and Isolde"), the sequence feels emotionless and contrived. When Von Trier cuts away to the cosmos first for an elegant planetary dance and then for a representation of the titular planet bulldozing Earth, I couldn't help but recall Tree of Life, and in doing so, I was struck by the contrast between Malick's graceful, unassertive skill and Von Trier's self-serious, in-your-face heckling.

But it is precisely that heckling that makes Von Trier's work so distinguished. His aesthetic has taken a turn towards the romantic and the sensational since Antichrist that is aggressively singular: all downtrodden faces, gnarled jump cuts, deep, dark earth tones, and oppressively mangy tableau presented in rich high-fidelity widescreen. It's a look that can be both striking and thuddingly overwrought, like a melodramatic prime-time network TV drama. (The rate at which Melancholia vacillates between the two extremes suggests Von Trier rushed through production, spending more time on scenes he felt were of greater importance.) Even sillier is the insistence upon narrative segmentation, with title screens rendered in scratchy, prehistoric text or (as in Melancholia) iconic, Biblical scroll. Here, Von Trier divides his narrative into "I: Justine" and "II: Claire," the names of two sisters played by Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg, respectively. There's the predictable trope of the sisters being psychological binaries, an arthouse fetish that is by now old as dirt and that used to hint at auteurs like Bergman and Antonioni feverishly dissecting the female psyche but now often resembles a cop-out for a director who doesn't feign to understand how a woman's mind operates in the modern world.

Fittingly, Melancholia works best in its second half when Von Trier has all but abandoned introspection and obliterated the sanity of his leads. That's when the film starts aiming for the jugular and stops pretending to isolate its characters in a context that resembles real life. The latter is reserved for the first half, a wedding-from-hell scenario that hearkens - likely deliberately - back to 1998's The Celebration by Von Trier's Dogme colleague Thomas Vinterburg, by all accounts a superior anarchic outburst of familial tensions. Emerging out of the grandiose prelude, Von Trier's wedding narrative is souped up with jittery cameras and radically compressed perspectives to intentionally jar the viewer out of swoony stupor, regardless of the emotional texture of the scenes themselves. Unfortunately, the first scene Von Trier shows is a rocky attempt at comedy wherein Justine and her newlywed Michael (Alexander Skarsgård) shout in vein at their limo driver who can't seem to parallel park. The wide gap between style and content is surely one of Von Trier's many ill-conceived Brechtian devices, but it serves more to discombobulate the viewer's stomach than to actively foreground the chaos to come. Michael will soon be derailed out of the picture as Justine's mental illness takes the fore, and in doing so the rudimentary shaky-cam approach starts to find its footing: Von Trier seeks out the petty smirks and backhanded maneuvers that form a foundation for Justine's depression, and it starts to make sense; the people surrounding her (Charlotte Rampling as mother, John Hurt as father, Stellan Skarsgård as boss, Udo Kier as wedding planner) are all so cartoonishly rude, immature, and clueless that no relatively sane individual could stay with them for long. It's for the better that Michael's gone, and Claire's husband John (Kiefer Sutherland) ought to find his way out too.

Not that it matters, because everyone in Melancholia will be exterminated on and offscreen by the destructive finale of the film. Von Trier has always been at his best when dealing with ugly, extreme emotions (fumbling, of course, with the subtleties of human behavior) and the sci-fi scenario looming heavily over the characters - planet Melancholia is on a collision course with Earth - provides what is perhaps the perfect route to this emotional spectrum. Claire's herculean anxiety in the face of this perceived apocalypse, despite her astronomer husband's unconvincing declarations that Melancholia will miss Earth, is the focus of the second half, while Justine approaches a catatonic bliss at the mere thought of nothingness. Meanwhile, Von Trier orchestrates the growing disparity between the sisters' mental states with giddy stylishness, suspending the four actors - Sutherland, Gainsbourg, Dunst, and Cameron Spurr, who plays Claire's son Leo - in a Strindbergian, Dreyer-esque, existential black comedy complete with crazed horses and roiling layers of fog. In spite of the fact that the relative complexity of Justine's psychology is effectively stomped out by a line of dialogue about how "she knows things," or something, the effect of all this is hypnotizing. Von Trier's reliance on a DIY astronomical gadget concocted by little Leo out of metal wiring brilliantly elevates the tension as the mysterious planet nearly misses and then returns to Earth.

Melancholia is Von Trier's second quasi-autobiographical study of depression in a row, and with its final annihilation of the planet we live on, it stands to be miraculously bleaker than the pitch-dark Antichrist. The only perverse hope to be found is the supposed ecstasy that Justine achieves in putting a period on all things. Perhaps no director could entirely pull off making this small celebration convincingly triumphant, so it's remarkable that Von Trier manages to convey the ounce of euphoric grandiloquence that he does in the final back-and-forth of stirring close-ups, easily the film's best and most emotionally rich scene before it settles for an aggravatingly CG-laden money-shot of the Earth exploding around Justine, Claire, and Leo's triangular final dwelling. This is the most direct and unflinching capitalization on the climate of fear mounting around the allegedly incoming 2012 apocalypse that we've yet seen, and though I'm not ready to clasp hands with the devil the way that Justine does, Melancholia certainly evokes the soul-shattering intensity that such a cosmic event would inspire.