Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The Thing (1982) A Film by John Carpenter

John Carpenter's The Thing opens in crisp whiteness and ends in a dark, smoky inferno, a fitting visual progression for a film that also shifts from relative normalcy and stability to paranoia and enveloping fear of the unknown. Its compositions are first airy and spacious, and later they are hazy and claustrophobic. Enemies are seen with perfect clarity when the film begins; by the end, it's not only difficult to spot them in the shadows, but it's nearly impossible to know whether they are an enemy or a friend. This is the linear descent of Carpenter's bleak, nasty horror film, and it's a shift that is carefully and tensely modulated over the movie's runtime. Plot is thin and characters are simply defined, the better to place emphasis on mood and tone.

Simplicity is the name of the game in The Thing. A loose rehash of the premise of the Howard Hawks-produced, Christian Nyby-directed The Thing from Another World (1982) as well as a distilled adaptation of John W. Campbell Jr.'s novella Who Goes There?, Carpenter's film seems determined to minimize any specific associations with prior versions of the same material. It concerns a group of men at a scientific research station in Antarctica on an expedition only given context by a brief insert shot of the sign at their temporary base. Connection to the outside world has been cut off, while relentless gusts of wind and -40 degree temperatures envelop the crew at all times. The film begins with a random invasion from a Norwegian helicopter, whose only passenger is a crazed scientist hell-bent on sniping one of the crew's many faithful Alaskan huskies. The lunatic is swiftly dispensed with, but as a mysterious alien phenomenon starts to plague the base, the full implications of his fleeting appearance make themselves clear. By the end of the of the film's prologue, the simple conflict that sustains the entire plot has been established: a group of scientists fighting an unknown, rapidly-spreading parasite.

The nature of this parasite is elusive. An opening shot of outer space makes it clear that it is of an extraterrestrial nature, but it has no definitive size or shape. Instead, the alien (never seen in its pure form) latches onto a variety of hosts and attempts to "imitate" their physical body. At various points in the film, Carpenter reveals the different stages of this process: sometimes the alien is a heinous amalgamation of a known creature (human or dog) and a slimy, shapeless beast, and other times the alien has completed its full transformation into the likeness of its host. The vague, shapeshifting characterization of this Other begs one to interpret it along the lines of metaphor; therefore, instead of an actual external threat, it is a manifestation of any number of insecurities – fear, paranoia, mistrust, alienation – that arise within the group when confronted with an unknown force.

Unlike the Hawks-Nyby film, where character traits accumulate through a barrage of words, facts, and actions (a general Hawks tendency), Carpenter is more interested in the gradual reduction of character specificity. Characters become mere bodies ready to be cohabited by the titular alien presence, if not simply diminished to a basic survival mode. Whatever defining, archetypal features the people in The Thing start the film with (disco and roller-skating for Nauls (T.K. Carter), compassion and gentility for Garry (Donald Moffat), and scientific expertise for Dr. Copper (Richard Dysart), to name a few) evaporate as the film progresses. The closest thing to a headstrong protagonist, Kurt Russell's R.J. MacReady, has his leadership undermined by an array of disorienting cinematographic effects, most notably a creeping tracking shot late in the film that resembles a villainous POV only to reveal itself as MacReady as the shot moves menacingly through a door towards an unsuspecting character. Furthermore, the best source of scientific authority in the film, Wilford Brimley's Dr. Blair, is one of the first to lose his wits, leading to a frigid solitary confinement outside the base.

One by one, starting with the husky who escapes the Norwegian's gunshots in the beginning of the film and, up until he meets his grisly end, stalks the base like a premonitory Danny Torrance from The Shining, the characters in The Thing are brutally molested by the alien force. The scientists learn that their flamethrowers are the best means of staving off immediate threats, but they also understand that whatever method the alien uses to spread its terror throughout the group will remain frighteningly unknowable and dependably lethal (an early bit of wonky DNA-testing and computer research warns them that the creature's powers could annihilate the entire human race in no more than two days.) As the death toll rises in this small, tight-knit group, so too does hysteria, paranoia, and panic. Many of the film's early sequences occur in the open spaces of the Antarctic tundra, but later the scientists are confined to the cramped interiors of their base, where extraterrestrial liquids lay splattered across surfaces, ready to possibly birth new offenders or violate new hosts. Carpenter prefers clustered group shots to a frantic interplay of close-ups, emphasizing the close proximity of the men to one another even as any one person may not be what they seem.

The Thing's special effects hew closely to those of Alien (at the time released only three years prior), borrowing Ridley Scott and H.R. Giger's suggestions of violent oral assault and their emphasis on phallic-like extensions emerging from layers of thorny flesh. It's obvious that Carpenter felt compelled to coast on the hair-raising success of Scott's film, but despite his somewhat opportunistic thefts, his use of such a sexually charged monster to provoke male anxieties makes perfect sense in the context of a film about men struggling to put trust in one another. The alien only gets larger and more tentacle-driven as the film goes on, moving in sync with the scientists' growing uncertainty in the face of a powerful force uncontrollable through traditional science.

Ennio Morricone's doom-laden music – all synthesizer drones and spine-tingling cascades of strings – rarely lets up, laying on thick the atmosphere of fatalism and dread that guides the film to its logical, death-shrouded conclusion. It's a heavy, intoxicating score, perhaps a little too portentous at times, but it's one of the key elements that makes The Thing such a dark and oppressive experience (also, I should add, such a distinctly 80s experience – see also DP Dean Cundey's illogically beautiful neon stylings). Carpenter's film doesn't so much catch its viewer off guard with such relentless aesthetic decisions as drip slowly and inexorably towards an apocalyptic finale in which neither human logic nor divine hope will save these men from disappearing entirely from existence in an icy no man's land.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Intensifying the Affect: Peter Tscherkassky’s Virtuosic Repurposing Acts

(Note: The following is the last paper I ever wrote at Emerson College, an essay for my History of Experimental and Avant-Garde seminar.)

Looking for a world’s essence is not looking for what it is as an idea once it has been reduced to a theme of discourse; it is looking for what it is as a fact for us, before any thematization.
                -Maurice Merleau-Ponty, "What is Phenomenology?"

Substitute “world” with “film” and one has a fairly instructive credo for digesting the work of Austrian avant-garde filmmaker Peter Tscherkassky (1958 - present). Since his first short film in 1981, Tscherkassky has sought increasingly imaginative ways of transcending conventional pictorial representation in cinema, producing radical aesthetic experiences that intentionally gesture towards visual coherence before completely unsettling any sense of spectatorial stability. Provocatively touted as “the most important and most internationally celebrated contemporary avant-garde filmmaker,” (Möller) much of his work has been the subject of psychoanalytic and philosophical analysis, but the films explored in this essay – Motion Picture (1984), L'Arrivée (1997/98), Outer Space (1999), Dream Work (2001), and Instructions for a Light and Sound Machine (2005) – suggest a desire to move beyond constricting modes of thought towards a new iteration of what Germaine Dulac deemed Cinéma pur; that is, a cinema with expressive qualities divorced from those of the other art forms based on “the power of the image alone” (34). Even as these films toy with structural framing devices, historically and theoretically loaded found footage material, and broader trends in the history of Austrian avant-garde cinema, their continual focus on material vulnerability reflects a larger interest in the fragility of various frameworks of thinking.

For the greater part of Tscherkassky’s career, this pursuit of pure cinema, absolute film, or immersive abstraction – whichever you prefer – has been tied to the photographic dark room. Starting with Motion Picture, Tscherkassky has been devoutly tied to celluloid film stock (both 16mm and 35mm) and hand processing (developing his film using his own chemicals and his own special methods). Integrating dark room manipulation of found footage stock into each of his works, not to mention producing his films entirely in this way for over a decade, Tscherkassky scratches, smudges, distorts, reprints, rephotographs, and multiplies his source material, in the process often abandoning any trace of the traditional point-and-shoot recording process that marks the vast majority of film production. Much of this work is accomplished with an optical printer, a device that allows one to scrutinize and maneuver individual film frames. Other times, Tscherkassky’s manipulation is entirely hands-on, in which case the effects seen in the finished films are produced through direct physical contact (abrasive or controlled) with the celluloid.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

The Informant! (2009) A Film by Steven Soderbergh

(Warning: Spoilers ahead.)

Steven Soderbergh is (or, as of two days ago when the filmmaker premiered his latest and alleged last at Cannes, was, depending on whether or not you take his statements of retirement to heart) a Hollywood artist – that is, a paradox. "Hollywood," of course, pertaining to an industry (as well as a place) and "artist" entailing creative, individualistic expression. Even as Soderbergh has participated for 20 years in an industry of deceit and corporate cynicism, he has always expressed through his work a critical distance from it. Never has this paradox been put to better use than in The Informant!, a film about corporate dishonesty that is itself dishonest. The film concerns Mark Whitacre (Matt Damon), the very embodiment of a contradiction in that he is a compulsive liar as well as the informant of the film's title. Mark is an upper-level manager for ADM, a multinational lysine developing company, who blows the whistle on his company's illegal price-fixing tendencies and winds up working for the FBI, covertly tape-recording various business meetings throughout the world.

Generally speaking, the bulk of Hollywood narrative cinema has historically been driven by character psychology. The Informant!, meanwhile, is driven by an abstract process: that of a global business infrastructure. Released the same year as The Girlfriend Experience, another of Soderbergh's very best and most daring films, The Informant! watches as Damon's character, like Sasha Grey's, follows the demands of his occupation. In both films, the subject is at once near and far, constantly observed yet unknowable. Soderbergh sustains such intimate visual attention on Damon and Grey that the movies become catalogues of their physical mannerisms and ways of speaking and forming sentences. The Informant! even incorporates voiceover of Mark's free-associative contemplation, which sits in nearly uncomfortable sonic clarity atop the rest of the mix. Despite this superficial closeness, however, the studied focus in these films on occupational processes strands these characters in a cocoon of abstraction. They seem to think, feel, and act only according to their role in a capitalist system. For them, work is not merely consuming their lives; work is life.

Soderbergh cleverly establishes this truth in The Informant!'s opening moments. Mark is prattling on about the omnipotence of corn in various food products, and the sound of his voice – soft, warm, and deep, as if it was recorded with Damon's mouth a centimeter away from the microphone – gives the impression of an extra-diegetic source, of Damon speaking directly to the viewer. Suddenly, this voice confronts the viewer by asking "do you?" after posing a question about what makes the "big, green bags biodegradable," but upon this utterance the aural quality of Damon's voice becomes roomy and mid-rangy. Soderbergh cuts away from sunny images of corn fields to the interior of Mark's bright red car, where his son responds to his riddle: "corn," he assumes. "Corn starch," replies Mark. "But Daddy's company didn't come up with that one." This destabilizing intro establishes that Mark's line of work has seeped into both his thinking patterns and his family life. The film continues to interweave internal and external until they are one and the same; often times, Damon's narration butts in right when it appears he's about to begin talking to another person.

This opening gesture is so subtle that it barely registers as any kind of directorial "comment" on the character. A film with a more harshly critical view of this type of subject might have taken a more forceful route, but The Informant! never quite adopts a cynical perspective on Mark. In these opening stages of the film, and indeed for much of its runtime, Mark seems a perfectly affable, logical, trustworthy, and morally strong individual, albeit a bit eccentric and out-of-touch. The film's surfaces reflect this easygoing demeanor. There's the happy-go-lucky sheen of Marvin Hamlisch's afternoon jazz score, reminiscent of the composer's work on the early, funny ones of Woody Allen. Pleasant, shimmering colors pop from the mise-en-scène. Crisp digital edges – the film marked Soderbergh's third use of the Red One camera – are softened with a Pro-Mist filter, which lends bright areas of the frame an ethereal glow. Dark shadows in the daytime are kept to a minimum. The film's ambient, consumer-friendly aesthetic erects an ironic stance on a crooked narrative of hidden motives and competing intentions, making it genuinely difficult to decipher a consistent tone: is it farce, dark comedy, morality tale, or drama?

As the film moves from office room to office room, international city to international city, and airport to airport connected by the physical resemblances of the locations and the breezy dance of Hamlisch's score, there's a sense in which Mark's life has become a transparent cycle of the same thing over and over (in a world where everything seems to look the same, whether it's Paris, Mexico City, Zürich, or California). Herein lies both the beauty and the strangeness of The Informant!: in a system of such clarity, redundancy, and predictability (both the film and the corporate occupation), how is it that Mark's considerable violations of protocol go unnoticed for so long (by both the audience and the executives and FBI agents with whom Mark routinely interacts)?

In attempting to answer this possibly unanswerable question, it's worth considering the precarious balancing act created by Damon's Midwestern Everyman, the same type of figure so often skewered by the Coen brothers. Soderbergh avoids that pretense in favor of a more roundabout critique. Mark is an automaton, albeit one who is ascribed different character traits at different points of the film. First are qualities of American moral exceptionalism: commitment to family, old-fashioned work ethic, dedication to a job efficiently and responsibly done, and seeming resistance to corporate opportunism. But Soderbergh spends so much time focusing on Mark's actions that the film doesn't so much investigate these aspects of his character as lay out surface-level indicators of them (a suburban home, a well-tailored suit, a generally affable and articulate demeanor) and rely on their iconic, predetermined meaning. As the film continues, begging for a more specific detailing of this character, Mark paradoxically becomes more distant, more mysterious, until it's difficult to reconcile the good-natured atmosphere built up around him with the contradictions and lies that Soderbergh gradually enters into the narrative.

This task is even further complicated by Soderbergh's stark delineation of the human and the corporate, a dichotomy that merges into one in the film's final act. Mark's mental wanderings – the most obvious way in which the audience is invited to join his headspace (if never to fully share his perspective) – defiantly don't conform to any traceable psychological path; vague, divergent, and random but unmistakably human, they are treated as a low frequency hum of not-quite-useful mental information, a sonic texture that contrasts harshly with the schematization (visual, aural, informational) of the world around him. Soderbergh makes no attempt to render the business details of the plot in a palatable manner. Everything is relayed in dense thickets of financial jargon and corporate logic. The very fact that we have access to a single individual's consciousness amidst this never-ending verbal overload from suited, drone-like businessmen establishes a sense of Us vs. Them in which Mark's charming and rather goofy thinking patterns are pitted against the professional order around him. Soderbergh reinforces this sense of order by having the same groups of executives and special agents reappear like clockwork for meetings with Mark; it's a well-oiled and sharply organized world of business that Mark participates and thrives in.

It seems impossible, however, for a man with such a high level of involvement and respect in this company to be free of its patterns of behavior. As Mark's head FBI associates (played with steely precision by Scott Bakula and Joel McHale) start to detect inconsistencies in his story and suspect him of criminal activity, the investigation turns away from the possible price-fixing offenses of ADM and towards those of Mark himself. Soderbergh's cool, orderly mode of address, however, as well as the specialized language used by those investigating Mark's actions, remains the same. Mark is thus treated as just another blip in the business plan, not an individual who is separate from the company but someone to point to as a substitute for larger corporate issues for the sake of convenience. The realization that Mark is a liar, therefore, doesn't expand our understanding of the character as an individual but rather folds him into an unwieldy web of corporate deceit, leaving the audience without stable ground on which to relate. Mark's pathology – identified at the end of the film as manic depression – is understood less as a psychological abnormality than as a metaphorical side effect of participation in the corporate world, where corruption is not just about price-fixing scams and breaches of protocol but also about the very fact of seeking the impossible task of dividing one's identity day after day between two competing impulses: a human one (home life, family life) and an abstract one (capitalism, finance, business).

In pulling this brilliant, thematically rich fast one on the audience, The Informant! lies too, and Soderbergh is therefore complicit in the methods of the very industry he is trying to subvert. The film makes this sly point without calling too much attention to itself, and indeed, as a whole it's so brisk and entertaining, so agreeable to the casual viewer with its bouncy rhythms and eye-catching but unprovocative visuals, that it hasn't the time nor will to openly announce itself as the multi-faceted political statement that it is. It's too busy tucking its commentary into unassuming, even conventional narrative beats, such as in the final "where are they now?" montage that concludes the film, where Mark is cited as having secured another high-paying corporate gig. What's probably one-dimensionally uplifting in another film stands out here as a blind continuation of past misdeeds, a way of portending future financial corruption. If The Girlfriend Experience was an attempt to find the human within a capitalist system, The Informant! reaches a more complex, possibly darker conclusion: in a capitalist system, the human has been distinctly altered.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Frances Ha (2013) A Film by Noah Baumbach

In an American film culture crowded with evocations of drifting twentysomethings searching for a sense of stability and meaning, the latest character drama by Noah Baumbach, Frances Ha, seems at first glance a retread of overly familiar territory. Frances (Greta Gerwig) is an eccentric New Yorker who can't sustain a job, an apartment, or a romantic partner. She struggles to pay her rent. She is prone to fits of spontaneity, to impromptu vacations and last-minute plan changes. But for Noah Baumbach, who has set himself apart from his contemporaries with a humbling, nonjudgemental curiosity for his characters and an intuitive understanding of everyday interactions, this tired scenario is just part of another milieu waiting for detailed observation and empathy. Frances' "flaws" are not simply treated as lazy fuck-ups; each shortcoming is assigned its own practical reason for being. The film's characters are never less than real people, inspiring neither the seesaw between self-pity and self-aggrandizement that characterizes a much-touted show like Girls nor the simplistic anti-social comedy of discomfort that has marked the mumblecore movement of the past decade. Frances Ha is a compassionate, complex drama about people trying to find footing in their own chaotic lives.

It's also an uncharacteristically lighthearted film in the context of Noah Baumbach's career, which has variably been subject to criticisms of misanthropy – even, I should add, from myself. In my review of Greenberg, a film I liked very much with some reservations, I wrote that "it would be interesting and indeed a sign of maturation if Baumbach could transcend his own niche, which currently displays a rather narrow worldview." I was referring to Baumbach's penchant for compulsively limiting his characters' futures to something dismal and weighed down by the past, which I nonetheless respect as a committed aversion to sentimentality. Frances Ha, however, finds a cozy space between pessimism and melodramatic simplicity, even as it concludes on the most explicitly joyous moment in his body of work: a jubilant Gerwig directing her gaze longingly off screen at her newly reunited best friend Sophie (Mickey Sumner), proclaiming with utter conviction that "she's my best friend!" as a bouncy soundtrack leads into the film's almost too-twee finale (Frances failing to fit the full length of her name into a slot in her locker at a dance studio, revealing the movie's title).

Shot in placid monochrome on location in New York City, San Francisco, and Paris and doused in Delerue, Baumbach obviously has the French New Wave on his mind. At one point, we even glimpse a poster of Francois Truffaut's Small Change (1976) on the walls of one of Frances' temporary dwellings. The debt is both obvious and substantive: Frances Ha echoes the spirit (restless, witty, self-conscious), the narrative (drifting young people in urban environments), and the technical crudeness (the Canon 5D Mark II being a contemporary equivalent of the Bolex or the Cameflex in terms of size and efficiency) of Godard and Truffaut's early films, even sharing deeper thematic resonances with a less fashionable New Waver like Eric Rohmer (specifically the film's interest in characters leading one stable reality, being tested by another, unstable reality, and finally returning to the first reality). These inspirations have always been at the core of Baumbach's cinema, but just as Margot at the Wedding's gloomy island setting betrayed more than a little reverence for Bergman, Frances Ha's air of homage comes repeatedly to the fore.

Reminiscent of these older films yet still central to Baumbach's style is the film's rapt focus on friendship. More than a tale of Frances' romantic failings, her existential crossroads, or her struggles within a bum economy (and it is all of these things successfully), Frances Ha is about the impassioned, shifting, uncertain but never indifferent relationship between Frances and Sophie. The two describe themselves as "sexless lesbian lovers" in the early stages of the film, and Frances never misses an opportunity to regale someone of their shared histories coming from the same town and the same school, but different post-collegiate life trajectories (Frances want to become a dancer despite her graceless physicality and Sophie enters into a superficial marriage that finds her living briefly in Japan) gradually lead them apart. As Sophie haphazardly distances herself geographically from all she has known in pursuit of a socially respectable adult identity, Frances regresses back to odd jobs at her alma mater and sojourns at her parents' home.

In writing, this scenario sounds schematic, and indeed the film's narrative shape has been traced countless times before. But Baumbach's unassuming direction, Jennifer Lame's fleet-footed editing, and lively performances suffuse the film with momentum and charm. Baumbach shoots much of the action in roomy medium shot, accommodating for Gerwig's physical spontaneity and for the most part refusing to underline key emotional progressions. This comfortable, respectful distance – neither dwarfing nor suffocating – is coupled with an editing rhythm that responds intuitively to tonal shifts in the narrative. The film opens with an exuberant, breathless montage catching bits and pieces of Frances and Sophie's goofy rapport with one another before slowing its pace considerably as the two break apart. This strategy leads to the film's beautiful, economical evocations of aimlessness, such as a shot of a displaced Frances trudging beside the Seine as Bowie's "Modern Love" blazes incongruously on the soundtrack (echoing Carax's Mauvais Sang (1986)), or a mind-clearing long take of an empty forest that slowly reveals Gerwig in the back of the frame talking to her mother on the phone. In such instances, Frances Ha breathes the rhythms of a quarter-life-crisis without attempting to diagnose or objectify this existential juncture. It understands that just beyond every moment of hopeless boredom is one of frenetic chaos, giddy excitement, or blissful friendship.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

To the Wonder (2013) A Film by Terrence Malick

To the Wonder is the first Terrence Malick film I've seen that has not elicited an immediate, coherent reaction out of me. I've needed two viewings and plenty of reading and thinking to synthesize my feelings about it and solidify that thing we tend to call an opinion. My initial naïve assumption was that this could mean one of two things: Malick is either moving into uncharted territory and creating something that's inherently difficult to grapple with or his vision is unclear, malformed, and incomplete. Now, I think it's more accurate to confess that the film is somewhere in the middle, or that it occupies a little bit of both positions. In the process of watching To the Wonder, I have an evolving relationship with it. One moment I'm enthralled, the next I'm bored or annoyed. The film shifts repeatedly from the sublime to the banal, from the sensual to the rigid, from the liberated to the clichéd, and from the modestly evocative to the deadeningly symbolic. How to reconcile these feelings?

There's a bit in It May Be That Beauty Has Strengthened Our Resolve, Phillippe Grandrieux's latest film, where he and Japanese director Masao Adachi discuss the world of sensations and the world of ideas, two warring concepts that the filmmakers agree must be carefully managed in the process of making cinema. My sense is that the wobbliness of To the Wonder speaks to the fact that Malick is battling with the world of ideas and the world of sensations. On the one hand, the film is the floatiest, least grounded that Malick has made; unlike The Tree of Life, The New World, and The Thin Red Line – which are framed by the creation of the universe, the founding of America, and the American involvement in World War II, respectively – To the Wonder lacks a readily identifiable structural backbone, and it allows itself total editorial freedom as a result. On the other hand, the film can't let go of theme, structure, and narrative entirely. At its worst, it is encumbered by these formalities.

Because the film is so averse to establishing any kind of traditional conflict/resolution structure, I will not discuss the plot as such but rather simply describe, chronologically, what happens in the film. Neil (Ben Affleck) and Marina (Olga Kurylenko) are in love in Paris. Neil invites Marina and her daughter Tatiana (Tatiana Chiline) to America. The unofficial family settles into a slick contemporary home in a homogenized rural neighborhood of Bartlesville, Oklahoma surrounded by fields of golden wheat. They luxuriate in their new surroundings, but alienation gradually sets in, and when Marina's visa expires, she and her daughter must return to Paris. Neil reconnects with a plain Jane named, conveniently, Jane (Rachel McAdams). Marina, having temporarily lost Tatiana to her estranged ex-husband, grows frustrated and claustrophobic in her urban environment and longs for the space and comfort of Oklahoma. Neil falls in and out of love with Jane. Marina returns to Oklahoma and marries Neil. They cherish their time alone together. Suddenly, fissures start to show. Marina has a motel affair with a skull-tattooed handyman. Neil erupts in anger. The two hesitantly forgive one another. In the midst of all of this, Father Quintana (Javier Bardem), Bartlesville's exiled priest, stalks the periphery of the central throughline attempting to alleviate a crisis of faith by engaging with the town's disenfranchised.

Already in this hopefully neutral description of events in the film, schemas crop up. The humility and sanctity of the rural environment is posed against the noise and chaos of city life. A brunette is associated with sophistication, worldliness, and unpredictability while a blonde is regarded as innocent, unpretentious, and emotionally open. Poor, disabled, and working-class types are called upon to enlighten the gorgeous movie stars at the heart of the film (at one point, Malick even resorts, disappointingly, to the magical negro convention). Parallels are drawn between the tests of love and the tests of faith. Ideas proliferate. In the Tree of Life, such dichotomies and stereotypes were (I think) self-consciously employed as naïve markers for understanding the world that were to be gradually dismantled over the course of the film's loose bildungsroman structure. The problem with To the Wonder is that it lacks such unifying motivation. Instead, it relies on these organizing frameworks to jerry-rig a sense of coherence and structure on complex reality, perhaps because Malick can't let go of the philosophical assumption that the world is inherently charged with meanings, rather than something messy, formless, and uncontrolled. For all his openness to diverse viewpoints, it is this abiding faith in larger meaning that distinguishes Malick. Even The Tree of Life, a film that relentlessly scrutinized various philosophical approaches to life (nature vs. grace, determinism, free will, solipsism), concluded with a vision of harmony that implied eternal closure to existential disorder.

Given this line of thinking, it's no surprise that the film is at its best during moments of narrative renewal, when Malick, presented with new events or characters, reverts to the ecstatic lyrical instincts that have always been his forté. For instance, the beginning of the film. From its first word ("Newborn," uttered by Kurylenko over a black screen) to the moments when Marina and her daughter get homesick (it's difficult to point to a specific scene within the film's radical montage-heavy, dialogue-light sprawl), To the Wonder is a spectacular impressionistic montage of twirling bodies, tender glances, flowing streams, ravishing nature vistas, and stealthily mumbled story hints. I'd rank it as one of the most visually evocative stretches of cinematic mood-building in Malick's oeuvre, and it certainly has plenty of competition. The camera rarely stops moving (mimicking Kurylenko's ballerina-like gestures), and each cut continues a rhythm established in a previous shot. A similarly expressive sequence comes at roughly the film's halfway point when Jane is introduced after an unexpected black screen chapter marker. Until Marina soon re-enters the film, Malick crafts a delicate relationship between Neil and Jane that is relayed – like that of Neil and Marina in the beginning of the film – entirely through a fluid choreography between camera and performers. Jane's bright red dress gleaming against her golden surroundings, Emmanuel Lubezki's camera nearly scraping the ground as it glides through thickets of wheat to watch Affleck and McAdams coil around one another, a herd of stoic buffalo captured from an intimate distance at magic hour – this stuff is Malick's wheelhouse.

Unfortunately, the film seems hesitant to put all of its stock in such moments. Instead, it shifts regularly from the level of poetry to the level of discourse, and often this shift is cued by Javier Bardem. Incorporated as little more than a motif to forward Malick's ideas about the trials of love and faith in the modern world, Bardem's considerable acting chops are relegated to the background so that he can trudge wearily around dilapidated sections of town, recite stilted meditations on the higher pursuit of love in both the church and in voice-over, and dispassionately engage with inarticulate death-row inmates, amounting to a caricature of the angsty, self-doubting spiritual guide. The main issue with his misguided inclusion is that despite its effort to expand upon the romantic crests and falls of Neil, Marina, and Jane, it only simplifies, minimizes, and sucks the life out of them at every step of the way. The energy, emotion, and momentum sustained during the film's romantic passages is stalled, if not entirely drained, whenever Bardem shows up on screen to stalk another dirty apartment or hear out another pleading vagrant.

Lubezki argues in an American Cinematographer interview that these segments with Bartlesville townsfolk help bolster the film's sense of verisimilitude, that through them "the whole community becomes part of the production," which may be somewhat apt, but Malick's no Robert Gardner. His filmmaking tunes in to specificity only to reflect back on something general. The cast of locals that populate the periphery of the central drama only matter insofar as they have some psychological impact on Bardem, and to a lesser extent Affleck and Kurylenko. It's troublesome because the film accomplishes so much more without the aid of supporting characters. The film's finest accomplishment is its melancholy evocation of past selves through its focus on unfurnished houses, unoccupied laundromats, quiet neighborhoods, and empty landscapes, all locations the characters pass through at one point or another. Returned to over and over in the film's loose, flowing montage, these impressions of emptiness, accumulating into one giant void, make To the Wonder the saddest movie Malick has made. The film's by-now-routine collage of whispery narration, this time uttered in a host of different languages, constantly reflects on this aura of loss, on the cognitive dissonance felt when entering an old, familiar space that has now been irrevocably altered by time. In this sense, despite the allegedly autobiographical nature of Affleck's character (Malick apparently had a similar on-and-off affair with a French woman), it is Marina who seems to emerge as the film's heart and soul. Moving around against her will repeatedly throughout the narrative and becoming separated from her loved ones, she is in constant exile, experiencing a profound fragmentation of self that likely explains her moody behavior in the presence of the aloof Neil.

What I'm talking about here is sensations. In cinema, sensations are difficult to express in a non-verbal manner, but Malick has always shown an uncanny knack for it (To the Wonder suggests him further honing this skill). The thing is that, as rational human beings, we so often fall back on structures through which to impose a sense of order on sensations, and Malick, having embarked upon his most free-form experiment yet in sensory impressionism, is privy to this impulse. Witness, for instance, the way Marina's aforementioned feelings of dislocation are reduced in a third-act instance of infidelity wherein Marina, hitherto a typically Malickian saintly figure, touches the skull tattoo on the chest of her john. The tattoo is a symbol of danger and transgression, making it blatantly clear that she has lost contact with her core identity. Or the way Marina's brief Skype chat with Tatiana through her MacBook Pro immediately symbolizes contemporary disconnect. These are ideas, and they are what continually weigh down what is often times Malick's bravest, most sincere feature yet. If Malick's previous period pieces offered milieus which placed him in a constant mode of discovery, seeking something new and beautiful in everything, To the Wonder is a film by a man straining to grasp "meaning" in a chaotic modern environment when in fact the meaning is already there in front of his camera.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Screening Notes #19

Nostalgia for the Light (2010): To synopsize Patricio Guzman's Nostalgia for the Light is to do a disservice to the film. It's more appropriate to note something more indisputable, like the fact that the film is set in the Atacama Desert of Chile. From there, Guzman's camera is like a butterfly net, catching fragments of the unanswerable questions raised by the land and swept around by the relentless wind. Early on in the film, one of the scientists Guzman interviews claims that in his field the answer to one question usually yields four more questions, and it's almost as if he's describing the film's approach. Structured not as a narrative imposed upon life in search of a single truth but rather as a broadening inquiry into a self-generating cycle of themes, Nostalgia for the Light contains an intellectual rigor that has been in short supply in the contemporary documentary film. Everything is treated as a continuum and nothing is isolated: science leads to history leads to politics leads to collective identity leads to collective memory.

Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania (1971-1972): Every time Jonas Mekas rolls the camera it's an impulse to try to capture everything and not forget anything. As such, this series of reminiscences, which chronicles Mekas' return to his home village in Lithuania after years in New York City, has a deep delicacy and sadness to it, a feeling of the images being only a sliver of time and space, the remainder of which is forever a casualty to Mekas' consciousness. Coupled by the filmmaker's gentle narration, relayed in broken, charmingly primitive English, the film's episodic structure marks an attempt to comprehensively catalogue a period of time rich with complicated emotion. Of course, Mekas knows full well that such a task is fraught with the weight of his preceding absence from his family. The past cannot be regained, but cinema can try its best to envelop the present.

Plumbline (1968): To distraught boys and girls of the YouTube generation: THIS is what a breakup film should look and sound like. Carolee Schneemann's subjective 16mm chronicle of the dissolution of her relationship is angsty in the best ways, its repurposed homemade footage and layers of superimposition exploding with passion, anger, and heartache. Among other inarticulate noises, on the soundtrack is the whining of Schneemann's kitty cat, seemingly an anthropomorphic surrogate for her own struggle.

Letter to Jane (1972): What can be found in a single image? What ideological presumptions rest beneath the surface of even the most seemingly neutral photograph? With a mixture of genuine intellectual epiphanies and scientifically justified but tedious spitballing, Godard and Gorin prove that the answers to these questions are, or can be, infinite. The film ends after 52 minutes, but every question these two pedants pose branches off in a myriad of directions, stimulating turbulent searches for answers that only spawn more discursive questions. The fundamental question, then, is: is there an answer at all? More than a nifty critique of the American mass culture formula, Letter to Jane is a demonstration of the self-perpetuating nature of abstract logic.

Reflecting Pool (1977-79): In a sunny patch of forest, bodies dissolve and reincarnate, a surface of water ripples and stalls according to unseen forces, and the image vibrates with a mysterious stillness. An eerily beautiful, painterly use of early analog video technology as a record of ghosts.

Mondomanila (2012): A rare thing in cinema, or at least a rare thing to see the light of day in American cinemas: a film about grinding slum life that refuses to condescend, simplify, pity, or hastily polemicize its subjects. Set in the titular district of the Philippines, Mondomanila is a low on budget but high on ingenuity ensemble cartoon that leavens its dire, disturbing subject matter every step of the way with punkish irreverence and a truly perverse sense of humor. The film stands in a tradition of grotesque surrealism that runs from Buñuel to Waters to Makavejev to Jodorowsky, yet I've still never seen anything like director Khavn De La Cruz's anarchic hybridization of genres (crime thriller, romance, musical, music video, social realism, fantasy, infomercial) and styles (at any given moment the film could be using a different camera, I honestly can't tell, and they cycle through hypersaturation, monochrome, slow motion, slow shutter speed, stills presentation, security cam, and queasily claustrophobic handheld). Reminiscent of City of God in the way it episodically introduces a community of wacked-out characters (a drug-addled young rebel, a mad goose-fucker, a one-armed rapper, a midget pimp, a flamboyant shoe-shiner, a fierce mother fighting against the impending foreclosure of her shanty shack, a hateful old Yankee), Cruz dips in and out of their stories with reckless abandon before connecting them all – regardless of whether or not they survived the plot's violent mayhem – in one final musical send-off.

See You Next Tuesday (2013): (Written as a blurb for a screening.) Familiar with those inebriated train wrecks who show up at parties and elicit raised eyebrows, or, worse, cause outright mayhem? Emerson College alum Drew Tobia places such people front and center in his latest feature See You Next Tuesday, a funhouse of dysfunction located within the cramped apartments, nondescript grocery stores, dingy dive bars, and sterile AA meeting halls of Brooklyn, NY. As the implicitly naughty title suggests, Tobia’s not gun shy when it comes to pushing buttons, and nearly every taboo that can still be breached in today’s increasingly risky culture is breached in this story of a self-destructive pregnant twentysomething, her techno-punk lesbian sister, and their unapologetically profane mother. Charged with crisp digital imagery, a feisty score, and intensely committed performances, See You Next Tuesday’s finest asset is its ability – even after prying open the gates of hell – to extract a core of human mishap out of this downhill spiral; what emerges is a surprisingly convincing portrait of already rough circumstances getting perilously, and almost irrevocably, worse.

From Up On Poppy Hill (2013): (Written for the Boston Phoenix before the company folded recently.) From Up On Poppy Hill hails from director Goro Miyazaki, the son of the more famous Hayao, but his directorial debut nonetheless has less in common with his father’s body of work than it does with another precedent in Japanese film history: the quiet, restrained family drama of Yasujiro Ozu. The film’s lovingly drawn images – of boats floating on water, trains darting towards the horizon, and smokestacks chugging away – punctuate a simple tale about two young students caught in the crosshairs of the impending demolition of their school, a cynical government ploy that will make way for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Arguing that to do away with the school is to neglect the educational value of history, the political merges with the personal when an old picture of a deceased Korean War soldier dredged up in the protest suggests the boy and girl may actually be siblings. Miyazaki’s effort here may not reach the fantastical heights of, say, Spirited Away, but it’s still an earnest little film with its head in the right place.

American Movie (1999): If by the end of the year Mark Borchardt remains my favorite comic discovery of 2013 I won't be surprised. Borchardt's thick Midwestern accent, expletive-littered vernacular, abiding love for cheap beer, seeming lack of self-awareness, and old-fashioned hatred for mass culture and 9-5'ers (as well as the cast of characters around him that echo aspects of his persona) is so hysterical, his one-liners and physical behavior so well-timed, that I question the extent to which Chris Smith's documentary is actually unstaged, unvarnished vérité. Not that it really matters, because American Movie is one of the best comedies of the nineties regardless.

Mud (2012): While watching Mud, the sound of the collective heaves and exhales of a packed house obviously overeager to get the most of a free preview screening moved in perfect sync with every stale plot beat flowing like clockwork from writer/director Jeff Nichols' keyboard. Their reactions only exacerbated the film's maddening conventionality. Mud presents a feisty Huck Finn type who's in it for the express purpose of transforming from boy to man and a hideaway murderer who gets a pass because he genuinely loves a motel-dwelling blonde vixen. In the path of their pursuit of moral self-righteousness is a gang of bounty hunters who we know are bad because the leader has over-gelled, slicked-back hair and because the minions are fat, watch TV, drink beer, and pray for death. All of this is set against a sun-bleached Arkansas milieu as stereotyped as it is desperate to convince. (Oddly enough, a film that's so hell-bent on concocting a seemingly authentic sense of texture and place also has some of the shoddiest gaffing I've seen in an otherwise handsome film in quite some time (feel free to correct me if you've ever seen a campfire flickering enough to induce epileptic fits).) A limp study of denial, forgiveness, and masculine sacrifice, the film is only Catholic in the most superficial, pandering ways (a climactic image of said murderer floating underwater towards a glistening patch of sun is nauseating in its kitschy grandeur) and only cathartic at the expense of erecting absurd good-bad dichotomies. Mud won't make me avoid Nichols' earlier films altogether – critical acclaim has to come from somewhere – but it certainly will loom like a dark cloud over them.

It May Be That Beauty Has Strengthened Our Resolve: Masao Adachi (2011): Communication between two artists. A film that finds its own structure and rhythm as it's made, that responds intuitively to subtle changes within the filmed space. Grandrieux makes nothing less than an effort to sync his own consciousness up with that of Adachi, to meld two ways of looking at the world into one. The thrill of the film is not the extent to which this harmony is achieved (at a certain point, it's impossible no matter how close Grandrieux's sinuous camera gets to Adachi's face), but rather the glimmers of intellectual epiphany that come out of the attempt.

Night Across the Street (2012) and Time Regained (1984): Often resembling an amateur community theater production committed to crude digital cameras, what Raul Ruiz's swan song Night Across the Street lacks in technical gloss it makes up for with the worn wisdom and fidgety poeticism of a dying man. The movie's ultra-crisp digital flatness lends a strange hyperreality equal parts hypnotizing and awkward to Ruiz's dream structure, as well as a sense of immediacy that makes the film's odd diversions feel like genuine epiphanies worth sitting up straight for and listening closely to. Time Regained, on the other hand, is just a magical cinematic vacation, a film whose plethora of novel aesthetic and storytelling ideas more than justify its supposed failure to do justice to Proust. My favorite moment: a mid-film classical concert in which an entire roomful of intelligentsia as well as decorative set objects literally start shifting around the space as if floating in mid-air to the sublime music. In a narrative sense, I found myself blissfully lost during both of these films, but it's precisely this dreamy sensibility that makes Ruiz's themes and emotions crystal clear to me.

Utamoro and His Five Women (1946): Kenji Mizoguchi's 1946 drama about Edo-period woodblock print artist Kitagawa Utamaro could complete an unlikely double bill with David Fincher's The Social Network. Two films about young, eager, and brilliant minds seduced by the urge to memorialize and ultimately commodify an impulsive emotion; Zuckerberg uses a social networking website and Utamoro a physical canvas. Both directors incorporate an exacting mise-en-scène that favors deep space, a modestly virtuosic moving camera that accentuates drama, and a Kane-like rise-and-fall narrative structure. Both pleasantly traditional storytelling, both sad movies about sympathetic characters caught in the crosshairs of societies placing value on consumerist impulses.