Thursday, May 31, 2012

Cannes 2012: A Virginal Diary

(I attended the Cannes Film Festival for the first time this year, resulting in my low output on this blog for the past two weeks. I will soon post a round-up and ranking of the films I saw.)

The international cinephile is at a great deficit when entering the grounds of the Cannes Film Festival. Navigating between filmmakers, press, agents, buyers, distributors, programmers, and the French, all of whom sit atop a higher rung in the mysterious hierarchy of power at this strangely clandestine event, he must obsessively organize his time, maintain a stoic façade, communicate quickly and definitively with those in charge, and suppress his own feelings of ecstasy upon being granted access to any number of the festival’s events. All of this, of course, while being severely jet-lagged, poorly rested, malnourished on baguettes, ham, and Red Bulls, and vaguely loopy from the wine, champagne, or Stella Artois presented freely and eagerly at so many of the festival-sponsored social gatherings. What’s more, this is all assuming the international cinephile was able to acquire one of the nifty identification cards known as the accreditation badge that is required to make one’s way through any gate, queue, or building. And not even those solve much.

I won’t go into the many ways one can get his hands on said badge, but in my case, as I attended my first ever Cannes Film Festival, I was granted a Short Film Corner accreditation due to the festival’s acceptance of my now three-year-old medium-length dramatic film Wind Through the Cradle. Sounding quite prestigious at first, the limits of the badge – which is adorned with a red circle in the top right corner and a yellow circle in the bottom right so as to prevent confusion - swiftly made themselves known to me: no access to market screenings (an unfortunate setback after I missed the premiere screening of Apichatpong's new film Mekong Hotel), only a limited 150 points to use for in-competition film premiere tickets (some of the bigger entries risked obliterating my total entirely), and apparently no access to the festival-ending Short Film Corner party on the beach. The badge seemed like bullshit. Others told me I was lucky. A market badge actually costs money, and restricts the festival-goer from reserving any premiere tickets. At the same time, it allows for one to boost his/her credentials over the course of subsequent festivals, to gain respectability and clout in the eyes of the business. The Short Film badge is less beneficial in the long run.

What these limitations mean is that going to see arthouse films in the cinema, hitherto a simple, unfussy process, is now riddled with obstacles, governed by a faceless and enigmatic force known as Securitas that is made up of tan-suit-clad Frenchmen whispering to each other, arbitrarily ticking away at their audience counts, scanning badges, and either letting you by their iron post or sternly professing the words “It’s not possible,” a phrase I found to be in abundance in Cannes. It’s the death knell that tolls the long walk back past the rest of the soon-to-be dejected queue, all of whom have stood waiting in hot sun (or in the case of this year’s oddly turbulent two weeks, cold and relentless rain) like you for anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours. As an example of the perplexing nature of linguistic translations, it has to be one of the most spine-tinglingly impersonal in history. Imagine it lining the billboards of the Croisette in 2013 as the newfangled motto: Festival De Cannes – It’s Not Possible.

When one does manage to slip through this hurdle and ascend the steps to one of the festival’s many official theaters (and this is a much more frequent phenomenon than I’m making it seem, as I stood in line 23 times and only missed the mark 8 times, resulting in my grand total of 15 films viewed), he is greeted to jovial female guards who check bags and usher to open seats. In fact, everything about the internal spaces of Cannes is luxurious, quite a contrast to the militant exclusivity of the external zones. Theaters are clean, often massive, well air-conditioned, and filled with cozy red chairs that encourage dozing as much as they enhance the film-viewing experience. Screens normally stretch beyond the proportions of the respective rooms they’re in, and the surround sound collaborates magically with the acoustical architecture of the theaters. (Given the generally amazing sound design on display in the selected films this year, this was quite a treat.) After scrambling to find a seat (because one can never be sure if security properly gauged the available seating in the building), there’s something sacred about sitting in the cinema successfully with moments to spare before the start of a film. Surrounded by film lovers and finally shielded from whatever chaos reigned outside, the achievement allows for the rare instance of repose, of remembering what you’re really there for.

There's really a special sensation that occurs when watching the types of films I have hitherto watched alone or in half-empty theaters in the presence of hundreds and thousands. A rapt silence, punctuated by an unusual frequency of coughs (perhaps the cumulative result of a country so famously known for smoking), washes over the theaters and centers all attention of the screen. This is especially uncanny in the 2,300-seat Grand Théâtre Lumière, where quieter films produce the sense of a mass holy communion. With the exception of the routine walk-outs in anything mildly provocative (Reygadas, Carax, Haneke, Kiarostami), rarely did I witness patent disregard for films. At one point what I thought was outright hostility from a snickering couple next to me turned out to be uncontainable enthusiasm, as the culprit of the noises giddily remarked in the urinal next to me after the film through language barriers: "I'm sorry, this director just interests me!", speaking of Hong Sang-Soo. Open, honest, democratic cinema enthusiasm prevails at Cannes, so much so that the awkward conversations when you realize you're communicating with an entirely incompatible perspective (usually when someone (often an American) brushes aside a film for being "slow," "boring," or "pretentious") stick out like sore thumbs.

The most bizarre aspect of the festival experience is the way that the kinds of contemplative, challenging films that Cannes has prominently featured in the past decade exist alongside such a raucous atmosphere of partying. Everything is in excess on the Croisette: films, drinks, people, noise, prices. There is simply no time - other than perhaps a measly window between 5 am and 8 am - when the activity settles down, so organizing one's schedule becomes vital and extraordinarily difficult. Accepting the invite to a late-night party where great directors, actors, critics, etc. are present is tempting and exciting, but it frequently means sacrificing quality sleep, which in turn launches a spiral of sluggishness that infects the experience of films the next day, deteriorating the active, thinking mind. One drink at the cheap-minded hotspot Le Petit Majestic (outside of which flocks a massive nightly crowd of networkers) can quickly turn into a long conversation with a peer about a film in competition, which almost surely will lead to another party in the wee hours. Just when I thought I was finishing up a conversation with an LA-based sound designer around 3 AM, circumstances somehow led me into the apartment of three Italian cooks - one of whom spoke more languages and dipped his feet into more industries than I could count - who fixed up a lavish meal of pasta and wine. This was merely one of the experiences I had in Cannes that was impossible to predict and which, in hindsight, is impossible to plot out.

That any film critic can produce thoughtful commentary on this mess of cinema during the festival is mind-boggling to me, and a testament to how much I have to learn before I am fully on the right mental wavelength for this frenetic environment. Granted, I had no access to WiFi or a Press Room (an actual Zen-like space in Cannes where writers crowd into a quiet, potentially sound-proofed room to escape the hubbub of the festival and earn piece of mind), but the thought of containing my varied and overlapping reactions to the films I saw still seems radical, maybe even insane. However, the result of this mental anarchy is a quite unique sensation that was previously unknown to me: the feeling of gathering an omniscient understanding of festival programming, of noticing interesting patterns and trends (aesthetic, thematic, narrative, and otherwise) across the collection of films. In acknowledgment of this, I ended up staying largely within the In Competition films and not venturing too far into the Un Certain Regard, Director's Fortnight, Out of Competition, and Critic's Week categories, preferring to zero in on the formal rhymes within the festival's main event. Regardless of the limitations and difficulties of this, or any of my approaches for that matter, the Cannes Film Festival was an eye-opening experience, an invigorating, frustrating, magical two-week daze in which I was never, ever fully awake.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Wuthering Heights (2011) A Film by Andrea Arnold

If there was any doubt of the emotional infantilism and redundancy of Andrea Arnold's new and fiercely independent update to the classic novel Wuthering Heights, a tune by English pop-folk act Mumford and Suns portentously titled "The Enemy" springs up on the soundtrack, interrupting the soundscape of this otherwise insistently diegetic work. The song cries, "How could you lean on a man who was falling?" a pithy summarization of the central doomed romance of Heathcliff and Cathy Earnshaw, two young lovers in a windswept farmhouse in a harsh 19th Century Yorkshire landscape. Arnold pulled a similarly heavy-handed move in her previous Fish Tank with Nas' "Life's a Bitch," a rap that not only cemented the film's incessant miserabilism but also undermined the progress hitherto made by the impoverished characters. Musical accompaniment this overt and unwarranted can't help but give the impression of a director timid about the impact of her source material and the methods used to convey the emotions and themes within. In Fish Tank, that timidness severely distracted from the strengths of the film; here, it's just a safety net, another sign that the audience should be feeling the kind of unease and desperation that they've been feeling throughout.

Fortunately, the musical coda is not the nail in the coffin of Arnold's work. This is a film loaded with too many striking aesthetic ideas and brooding atmospheres (all of which descend from Tarr, Malick, and French director Philippe Grandrieux, who uses similarly abstracted handheld shots) to be entirely hampered by its intermittent juvenilia. With its opening scene of an adult Heathcliff (James Howson) slamming himself into a concrete wall repeatedly in a drab, featureless room filmed in queasy handheld shots that translate the brutality of the act to the screen, the film announces itself as a proudly extreme diversion from the long line of previous cinematic adaptations of Emily Brontë's text. Arnold replaces dialogue, character development, and lavish attention to period decor with mud, wind, rain, and rotting animal carcasses, all of which impress upon the film a tactile relationship with nature. The weather (usually grey and threatening) and the open landscape dictates the lives of the characters in the novel, and Arnold, recognizing that as the most cinematically expressive aspect of the work, fills the film with shots of flora and fauna and painterly montages which seem to accomplish little narratively. It's tough to say whether Arnold is making any kind of statement about man's minuscule part in the natural world; instead, this fascination with the details of the setting functions to ground Heathcliff and Cathy's youthful emotional reticence in a very specific place in nature.

Arnold is so committed in her portrayal of the Yorkshire setting that nature is often called upon to fill the void left by the primitive character development. Part of the goal here is to strip the novel down to its narrative essentials, compressing the book's epic romance and its themes of obsession, outsidership, class warfare, and religious hypocrisy to an implicitly felt brew of glances and gestures. When young Heathcliff (played by 14-year-old Solomon Glave) - a wandering black kid of questionable origins (Arnold's decision to do away with Brontë's more ambiguous explanation of Heathcliff's outsider identity and go straight for a black-white dichotomy is both a brave and simplistic decision) - is taken in by the lowly Earnshaw family because Mr. Earnshaw (Paul Hilton) believes it to be "the Christee-yan thing to do," Arnold immediately conveys the family's knee-jerk intolerance of their new black brethren through the menacing stares of Mr. Earnshaw's hateful son Hindley (Lee Shaw), the family's servant Joseph (Steve Evets), the housemaid Ellen (Simone Jackson), and even young Cathy (Shannon Beer). Little is spoken, but Arnold's choice to stage the meeting of Heathcliff and the Earnshaws on a rainy night by inky, flickering firelight, as foreboding a set as any in a film of fog, dim natural light, and dark interiors, directly introduces racism as a central theme.

The second aim of Wuthering Heights is to capture the feeling of hesitantly falling in love for the first time and of hormonal charges bursting to the surface at unexpected times and in unusual ways. Fish Tank's best scene featured a dangerously seductive Michael Fassbender fondling the daughter of his character's girlfriend, and by shooting the scene through the girl's perspective, Arnold was able to catch the vivid moments of fear and excitement that characterize sexual awakenings. Here, she rigorously adopts Heathcliff's perspective for the entirety of the film, and his first intimate encounters with Cathy pop like sunshine against the murky landscapes. One scene involves the two of them riding a horse, and for an extended moment Heathcliff luxuriates in the closeness, slyly smelling her hair and glimpsing her bouncing figure. Later they wrestle around in mud, an act that's fueled by both sensuality and subtle vengeance for Cathy's earlier intolerance, especially noticeable when Heathcliff pins her wrists to the ground in a charged embrace. Arnold deftly handles these moments of emotional ambiguity with claustrophobic, intuitive camerawork (aided further by the film's unconventional 1:33:1 aspect ratio).

Trouble is, Wuthering Heights is a two-hour-plus feature film, and it never expands these thematic roots any further. Racial tensions balloon outward into obligatory n-words, and the burgeoning sexual urges between Heathcliff and Cathy fizzle over into their adult selves (Howson and a questionably cast Kaya Scodelario), who are still kowtowing around one another and making indecisive advances. Instead of exploring the contours of these difficult emotions, how they morph and stagnate over time, Arnold prefers to reduce them to symbolic gestures. Thus, the relentless images of mangled and defenseless animals are able to stand in for both Heathcliff's animalistic image to the white folk and the inevitably decaying loss of innocence in the central romance. After not one but two puppy hangings, the film becomes metaphorically burdensome and, frankly, cruel. At a certain point around a third of the way through, Wuthering Heights bottoms out, adding nothing new to its portentous cycle of anticipation and failure. When a teary-eyed Heathcliff smothers Cathy's recently deceased body with kisses in the final act, it's a punchy metaphor for the film's own belated explosion of emotion.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The Girlfriend Experience (2009) A Film by Steven Soderbergh

For a director who pays fastidious attention to the politics, social trends, industries, and technologies of his milieus, it's no small achievement that Steven Soderbergh's films so often come across as powerfully generational. Few modern filmmakers risk the kind of ephemeral, insignificant subjects that Soderbergh repeatedly zeroes in on in his films, and even fewer can attest to continually locating something (sometimes just one thing) fascinating and timeless in the kinds of obsessive portraits of modern life that he deals in. The Girlfriend Experience, for instance, incorporates a fleet of very "2008-2009" artifacts: the notably self-aware and sophisticated porn star Sasha Grey, who had her moment in the form of a 2009 Rolling Stone interview and has since flirted with obsolescence; the Wall Street collapse, which seems like an ancient phenomenon by now; the presidential election that put Obama in the White House; the once-regarded online media blogger Harry Knowles, who gets an indirect onscreen surrogate in the form of first-time actor and wickedly sharp film critic Glenn Kenny. All of this would suggest that The Girlfriend Experience is a film of its time and not much more, but it succeeds most when its drifting emotional undercurrents and lackadaisical mood indicates something slightly broader and more intangible about life in a 21st century late capitalist society.

Grey plays Chelsea, a high-priced call girl in NYC whose vocation echoes one line Grey uttered in said Rolling Stone article: "I am determined and ready to be a commodity that fulfills everyone's fantasies." The mantra sounds all-inclusive, and it is; Chelsea not only sleeps with the men who hire her, but she also engages them in conversation, shares romantic dinners with them, sits down for aimless relaxation time, and listens intently to countless inconsequential personal issues. She provides them "the girlfriend experience," and like a real girlfriend, sometimes she doesn't even sleep with them. Essentially, these men are putting a massive price tag on human companionship, an opportunity that ought to be staring them right in the face for free on a daily basis. The premise alone reveals the degree to which Americans have commodified anything and everything, constantly searching for new ways to spend money on items, attitudes, and ways of life that should otherwise be priceless.

Where Soderbergh's film gets tricky, however, is in its refusal to simplistically frame this contemporary ethos as strictly dehumanizing and demoralizing. No, the primary intent of The Girlfriend Experience - and of Soderbergh's sneaky, probing, sometimes meandering camera - is to unearth the value and meaning still erected in this consumer-saturated landscape. Early in the film, Chelsea's gym-assistant boyfriend Chris (Chris Santos) is tossing medicine balls back and forth to a customer looking to improve his physique. Their workout is exclusively designed for personal gain, yet the conversation that follows is casual and mutually curious, leading to an offer for Chris to go to Vegas on an undefined business trip. In another scene at the gym, Chris is trying to talk another male customer into buying a more expensive, comprehensive plan at the gym on the grounds that he believes they have a good working relationship and he'd like to keep it going. The assumption here is that the two men cannot go on being friends if commerce does not enter the equation, yet one can sense the desire on both sides to continue the relationship regardless. Despite the fundamentally business-oriented nature of the discussions between these men, there is a sense of ease and comfort in the dialogue that is entirely missing from the scenes that take place later between Chris and Chelsea in their own apartment.

Most of the film occurs as such; transactions, in the form of casual interrogations, interviews over coffee, and phone inquiries about Chelsea's service, dominate the content of the narrative. Rarely is there a scene when people are just talking back and forth, engaging equally, interested in both hearing and being heard. Even when Chelsea cracks her routinely impersonal, all-ears facade to open up to a client about her miserable experience at the hands of a rude slob, the man shifts his role in the meeting, suddenly acting as a therapist hired to ease a woman's personal troubles rather than a human hoping to understand and sympathize. In this urban environment, there is always a speaker and a listener, a teacher and a student, a professional and a client, a producer and a consumer. The one instance where a true conversation occurs is a running scene with Chris and his colleagues chatting in the luxury suite on their flight to Vegas, and appropriately it radically disrupts the film's otherwise contained aesthetic, replacing high-end digital gloss with cheap prosumer video. One of the guys makes a remark about never wanting a woman that he'd have to pay for, and suddenly the film's agenda is brought into clear focus: The Girlfriend Experience reflects a landscape in which humans resist the absurdities of their capitalist system, yet the system fights back, insisting on its own right to distort and to confuse.

Soderbergh again acts as his own Director of Photography in the film, and he sticks mostly to crisply framed shots of hygienic Manhattan high-rises and restaurants, emphasizing vertical lines and seeking angles where the architecture causes a separation between individuals in the frame. Fragmented in asynchronous chunks of long, largely static takes broken up by impressionistic shots of blurry city-scapes peered from a car window, the film is one of Soderbergh's most free-form and exploratory, its cold, angular perspectives hinting at a machine-like observer behind the camera but never fully extinguishing the sense of the director's presence, searching hesitantly for instances that make each shot worth the wait. And perhaps unsurprisingly, this has the effect of assigning a democracy across the film's images, a notion of visual equality that renders it acceptable to only briefly mention Grey's appearance in a work that is ostensibly all about her. The Girlfriend Experience, by embodying this mechanical object and still seeking the human within, continues this implicit battle with capitalism. Human interaction has been standardized, compartmentalized, and monetized, but not necessarily defeated, and it is in this that Soderbergh locates the flicker of warmth that justifies his film.