Wednesday, December 23, 2009

An Interview with "Police, Adjective" Director Corneliu Porumboiu

by James Hansen

Police, Adjective - one of the major highlights at this year's New York Film Festival - opens in New York at IFC Center today. I wrote about the film in my round-ups of the festival, but I was also lucky enough to sit down with director Corneliu Porumboiu during the festival to discuss his approach in crafting this challenging film. The following is an edited conversation I had with Mr. Porumboiu on September 29, 2009 discussing the film, his cinematic influences, and, well, words.

James Hansen: How did the story come about?

Corneliu Porumboiu: There were two stories I heard that inspired me. One was about two brothers, one of whom betrayed the other in a small case about consuming hashish. The second story: I have a friend who is a police officer and he told me about case that he had where he decided he didn’t want to solve it because of his conscience.

JH: How much did the real events effect your stylistic choices for the film like the use of real-time during the police investigations?

CP: Doing research for the second draft of the script, I discovered that police officers have a lot of time - death time - waiting and surveilling. This was very important for me because it fits into the spirit that I wanted to give to the script and to the absurd tone of my movie. I take real time and it becomes an absurd time. The movie is about meaning and a policeman trying to get that sense in his world. The real time allowed me to construct that feeling.

JH: You mention the absurdist qualities of the film, which are infused with the realism. I wonder if this is what informs the comedy of both Police, Adjective and your earlier films?

CP: I think the comedy is really just coming with me. I don’t think before I make a movie as to whether it will be a comedy or something like that. It’s something that is in my point of view on life so it’s very natural.

JH: What your major influences were for this project?

CP: I had seen many police movies (policier) like All of Us, but for this particular movie I was influenced by Bresson’s Pickpocket and Antonioni’s Blow Up. Big parts of my movie are silent and the body language counts a lot. So, in the sense of both timing and atmosphere, I was thinking a lot about these two movies.

JH: Blow Up is an interesting choice since it is all about the dissection of an image, and in Police, Adjective it seems you invert the process by dissecting language. Can you talk about your approach to text and dialogue in the film and its relationship with the image, particularly in the final sequence and conversation with the dictionary?

CP: Blow Up is one of my favorite movies. I was thinking more about the technique in Blow Up for my first movie (12:08 East of Bucharest) in trying to define the revolution. In this case, when I was doing my research, I was seeing the daily reports from police officers. With these came the idea of representation that you can also see to some extent in Blow Up. You see what he’s doing everyday by what is written on the page. And it is just a representation of what happened that day. That was the first point when I started looking at language and words and what they really mean and what the express. You have this structure that repeats day after day after day, which is what leads into the final conversation.

JH: And that all leads into the final shot of the film, which I think is stunning. Can you talk about the idea behind the last shot and how it connects back to ideas of symbology, image, and text?

CP: As I mentioned before, it’s coming from those words and details and reports. They go into the word conscience and finally the word police. The drawing on the blackboard at the end gives you the absurd tone of the movie. Everything becomes a graphic. But I don’t believe so much in symbols. An image is dealing with an image. But it all goes back to the meaning of the words. And it’s a repetition leading to a certain kind of art. Plus, I prefer being a little cynical.

JH: Is your cynical approach to the search for answers and clarity in Police, Adjective related to your personal your views about Romania, whether before or after the revolution?

CP: For me personally, after the revolution, I was thinking all the changes would come the next day. I had quite a romantic point of view about it and life in general. Years after, I’ve become a more cynical. Maybe it’s the way things should be, but, for me, the expectations that I had were broken. For my research, I asked ten different friends to define the word conscience. There were so many different definitions! After that, I started to write and that was my idea in the end: what is in the back of these words? If it’s in a dictionary, I think it’s absurd, and that is the feeling I had writing and making this movie. What is the link to these words? What is the conscience of a society? It’s coming from this sentiment I have. The definitions [of conscience] were so different, but, at the same time, they express, as I feel, that in Romania we often don’t understand each other. The words are no use at the end.
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Tuesday, December 15, 2009

DVD of the Week: "Tony Takitani" (Jun Ichikawa, 2004)

by Chuck Williamson

Adapted from Haruki Murakami’s short story, Tony Takitani is an elliptical and glacial mediation on isolation, melancholia, and loss that, through its visualizations/externalizations of psychic trauma, surpasses its source material. Few cinematic representations of trauma encapsulate the sort of stasis and inertia—not to mention the psychic wreckage of loss and grief—that, from beginning to end, dominates the life of the film’s eponymous protagonist. Branded as an outsider by his strange gaijin name—the byproduct of his father’s post-occupation paranoia—Tony (Issei Ogata) seems predestined from birth to a life of isolation and loneliness. Indeed, his is a life defined by fixed, metronomic rhythms and interminable seclusion, a self-constructed prison where Tony goes through his daily motions as if in an anesthetized daze. Ichikawa externalizes the alienation and latent melancholia that dominates Tony’s day-to-day existence through muted, monochromatic compositions, a drained and minimalist mise-en-scene framed in claustrophobic long shots and punctuated by the slow, languorous rhythm of a continual left-to-right pan. Such formal strategies further immerse us in Takitani’s hermetically sealed shell of a world, giving us visual access to its monotony and loneliness.

But Takitani’s world opens up—formally and thematically—after a chance encounter with young fashionista Eiko (Rie Miyazawa), triggering in him not only a dormant desire to love and be loved, but also the sudden recognition of his own loneliness. In contrast to Tony’s ascetic isolation, Eiko’s shopoholic materialism marks her as a woman engaged with the world, if not consumed by it; she endures the same emptiness that Tony has grown accustomed to, but attempts to fill the void with designer clothes. As Tony says to his father after their marriage, “It’s as if she were born to play dress up.” But when a sudden twist of fate puts a permanent end to this domestic bliss, her clothes transform into corporeal representations of his internal trauma. Isolated within the confines of her walk-in closet, Tony is surrounded by the physical reminders of her absence—hundreds of designer outfits, accessories, and shoes—that, paradoxically, linger like ghosts that make “letting go” an impossibility. These objects take on a special significance for Tony, transforming his trauma into something more tactile and palpable; they are tangible reminders of her absence that make it more difficult to come to terms with his loss. Even when Tony hires a female assistant—a doppelganger for his deceased wife—to wear his wife’s old clothes to “grow accustomed to her absence,” Tony’s sense of loss and loneliness deepens and, by the end, completely consumes him.

As the film sinks into the deepest recesses of Tony’s sadness and seclusion, it gives us privileged access to both the physical and psychic spaces that define his experience with loneliness and loss. In the film’s final moments, we see Tony retract even further into his shell, surrendering to what the narrator describes as “the prison of loneliness.” The cumulative effect is chilling.

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Monday, December 14, 2009

While My Guitar Begrudgingly Complains

by Andy Hobin

A couple times while viewing Crazy Heart, I looked at Jeff Bridges and saw Hank Williams Jr. Williams suffered an ungodly fall back in the 70's, and he took to sporting a beard, dark sunglasses, and broad-brimmed cowboy hat upon his return to public life, so self-conscious he was over his surgically reconstructed face. The beard / hat / shades trifecta is said to be Hank Jr.'s trademark look, though he hardly owns it. Waylon Jennings sported it. Merle Haggard still sports it. And for the better part of Crazy Heart, Bridges' “Bad Blake,” another relic of the “sad guy with a guitar” era of country music gone by, sports it. But like Hank Jr., Bad Blake wears his trifecta like a mask. Lest you believe otherwise, observe Jean (Maggie Gyllenhaal), the love interest, yanking the shades and hat off of his emotionally distant head during one scene. She can't even see him, she complains.

But here's the rub. Bad doesn't quite ring true as the kind of tortured soul the film would like us to believe he is. (Bad Blake goes by “Bad” for short; his Christian name is a guarded secret.) He drives a cruddy old truck around the Southwest playing little gigs at bowling alleys and corner dives. His shows are attended by sparse handfuls of baby boomer well-wishers who were fans way back when he was the big dog. They buy him drinks, they call out requests, and collectively they're a helpful indicator of how far he's fallen from the public eye. You feel for Bad in that regard, but you also come to learn that he's not so much in a desperate situation as he is in a holding pattern of mediocrity. He whines about being broke, but his manager regularly sends him cash and he has a nice little house in Houston. He's an alcoholic, sure, but he's a highly functioning alcoholic. (How quintessentially country!) Crazy Heart asks us to invest in the hopelessness of Bad's life – to see him as a walking, talking, boozing, screwing country music songwriters hall of fame. Scratch that, the film tells us to. “Where'd all those songs come from,” Jean asks Bad early in the film. “Life, unfortunately,” Bridges drawls. Boo hoo, cowboy. You could be doing a lot worse. What's more, at this writing, 10% of the country is out of a job, and I'll bet any among that figure who can carry a tune would line up to trade lives with a working musician.

Despite all this, the acting carries the price of admission. First time writer-director Scott Cooper sets up a dusty, sweaty, flophouse world for his characters to inhabit, and then wisely sits back and lets his actors do the heavy lifting. Especially Bridges. He's just about the most charming actor working today – the Tom Hanks of all points south of the Mason-Dixon line. It's that likeability, not a series of pathos appeals for sympathy, that causes the audience to find itself rooting for Bad. This is partly due to the fact that the pathos appeals in the screenplay are not terribly effective, but ah well. Bridges is supported by another fine turn from Maggie Gyllenhaal as an impulsive, big-hearted mom who takes an improbable shine to the old bastard, and their scenes together are tender and at times entirely moving. Also surprisingly good is Colin Farrell in a small role as Bad's one time protégé turned contemporary country megastar who might be Bad's ticket back onto the gravy train. (Ireland's a long way from Nashville, you scoff. Sure, but so is Australia, and Keith Urban could buy and sell me like I'm hanging on the shelf at a dollar store.)

Also worth the price of admission? The soundtrack. T-Bone Burnett's at the wheel in this department, thank God, and he spins gold out of Bridges' and Farrell's numbers. The real revelation here, though, is a guy named Ryan Bingham, who not only appears in the film as a member of Bad's backing band but, with Burnett, co-wrote the song that Bad struggles to write throughout the story. It's called “The Weary Kind,” and it's a lovely, somber song, one that is as authentic and stirring as Crazy Heart itself wanted to be. Bingham's stock will hopefully rise considerably between now and Oscar time.

Small side note: George Clooney's character in Jason Reitman's forthcoming Up in the Air is also named Ryan Bingham. Don't get confused.

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Saturday, December 12, 2009

New Concert Venue Not So Exciting

by James Hansen

Opening this weekend and only showing for one week in select theaters, Dave Matthews Band: Larger Than Life 3D reportedly was put together to bring a new kind of concert experience to traditional movie theaters. Entrepreneurs like Mark Cuban have been talking about streaming live events – sports, concerts, and, most successfully so far, opera – in HD. Larger Than Life isn't live, so the incorporation of 3D is supposed to be the major draw here. But watching Larger Than Life, I was reminded exactly why live events are meant to be seen live and in person. As close as you put a camera and as much spaciality there is with 3D, Larger Than Life only went to remind me that what is "larger than life" in live experiences is actually being in the same place at the same time with artists you admire. The screen immediately creates a distance that simply can't be made up for with 3D glasses. In fact, it just made the concert experience seem even more artificial. If cinema wants to expand into this realm, it has to find a way to make things more interesting than a filmed concert you see on TV, except in 3D. Larger Than Life may be of interest to the biggest Dave Matthews fans, but there's nothing here we haven't seen from filmed concerts before.

Nevertheless, I have some promotional materials for the event that serve as another form of memorabilia for anyone interested in Dave Matthews. I have a few t-shirts and posters that I'll give away to four people who email with your favorite 3D cinematic experience. If you don't have one, tell me why not. Since Larger Than Life is for a limited time, so is this "contest." Emails must be received by the end of the day on December 15. Winners will be notified via email by the 17th.

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Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Is It Eye, Cinema?

by James Hansen

In Gustave Deutsch’s found footage opus FILM IST. a girl and a gun, Detusch returns to a phrase from DW Griffith, revived by Jean Luc Godard, and appropriated to new heights by the contemporary cinema of spectacle which may have reached its zenith with Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen – a film starring Megan Fox’s ass, Shia Lebouf’s libido, and a bunch of war-mongering robots. Cinema has come so far, in time at least, only to repeatedly have its artists revert to the most fundamental of questions: what is cinema? Deutsch’s mission with the FILM IST. series (of which a girl and a gun is the 13th section) isn’t actually to define what film is – as Tom Gunning points out, “Film Is.” whether we define it or not – but to look at all the facsimiles of what cinema can be. Here, accordingly, Deutsch digs into the transformative obsessions of sex and violence.

A girl and a gun takes as its starting point sex and violence, girls and guns, and, eventually, men and women as a battle of the sexes. Through archival footage found by Deutsch on laborious journeys through eleven archives, a girl and a gun follows the progression of sex and violence through the shifting nature of the planet, as well as men and women themselves. Beautiful as the found images may be, the undercurrent of violence shakes the cosmos, seen through the practices of montage, reappropriation of imagery, and uncovering early cinematic representations of power and pleasure through the pornographic. In the end, Deutsch’s point is well taken, but troublesome for its directness amid what seems to be an open ended exploration. Deutsch’s addition in music, enhancing the film’s modernity, crush the images by providing too thin a context in which to evaluate the imagery. For all the formal concern at the center of a girl and a gun, Deutsch’s music makes the formalism all too literal. Rather than explore the deepest realms of sex and violence, a girl and a gun disappointingly remains on the surface while it dodges an implicit question lingering throughout: what is the weapon that allows the sex and violence? The obvious, yet troubling answer – Film Ist.

Of course, this is all part of what makes cinema thoroughly undefinable, and it would be wrong to suggest that Deutsch’s work, in both a girl and a gun and the larger FILM IST. series, is attempting to narrow the terminology. Deutsch’s found imagery conjures up an emotional reticence seemingly completed through cinematic osmosis. Sitting in front of a screen and absorbing the images, Deutsch’s point is made clear in a fascinating and exciting way. Starting with calming images of nature which soon turn into obvious depictions of violence (guns, volcanos, etc.), a girl and a gun slyly morphs from this overly explicit mode of address to one of deeper categorization. Male doctors examining a female patient, intercut with strikingly similar positions in an early pornographic film, illustrate the mechanization and inherent violence embedded within a dominated battle of the sexes. The mood is eery, dark, and voyeuristic even in the most neutral of images. Cinema quickly turns from a mode of capturing pleasure to a being that exploits it.

It isn’t until the final frame, when Deutsch uses perhaps the most famous clip in a girl and a gun, when a man points at the camera (and the audience) with his gun and fires that film is held accountable, new violence directed itself, for the arguably vitriolic actions Deutsch uncovers. The images no longer have the context of their initial beings, but instead become a representation of cinema itself, and insodoing stand as a disturbing challenge for Deutsch in asking the question what is cinema. Film is, yes, but why film? Deutsch’s outside influence, – and here I mean in external decisions rather than his wonderful sense of montage – seen mainly in the simple, yet incredibly distracting music, ends up turning Deutsch’s polemical point around. Instead of allowing his filmic representation to embody what Walter Benjamin called an optical unconsciousness, Deutsch’s model is too directional and too driven by a would-be historical narrative for the images to speak for themselves. This perplexing misstep makes a girl and a gun all that more interesting for its workshop-like qualities, exploring cinema as a newfound chemical even 120 years after its advent, which provide the troublesome elements as an active counterbalance in a journey of cinematic expectation and attempted jouissance. Too problematic in its own method to be any kind of masterpiece and too enriching and well-constructed to go unconsidered, FILM IST. a girl and a gun is...and maybe that is just the way it’s supposed to be.

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Tuesday, December 1, 2009

DVD of the Week: "Loren Cass" plus an Interview with Director Chris Fuller

Loren Cass has already been reviewed on the site by Brandon Colvin (you can read it here), but, in honor of its DVD release, we all thought it deserved another mention. Plus, Brandon was lucky enough to interview director Chris Fuller about the film. A special thanks to Mr. Fuller for taking the time to talk to us. It's a hell of a film. You can buy it here. Interview after the break.

Brandon Colvin: From inception to finish, it took nearly a decade for Loren Cass to be fully realized. What about the project caused such a protracted production period? What sorts of obstacles (both creative and practical) did you face as a first time independent filmmaker and how were you able to successfully circumvent the temptation to throw in the towel?

Chris Fuller: I’d been working toward this particular project for a long time so there was never really any temptation to throw in the towel. We knew it was going to be a long road and just kept on going. We did the best we could when it came to the obstacles that were presented to us. As for the length of time it took to complete the project, it’s due to a number of things. I spent a long time working on and refining the script. Then financing took probably somewhere around 3 years, it’s just not easy as a filmmaker of any kind to secure the amount of money necessary to make a good run at a major project. Then, from a creative standpoint, I felt like we needed to get back out there and pick up some footage I felt I was missing. We ended up doing 3 re-shoot days spread over the course of a few years. The sound mix took about a year and a half. When you don’t have the money to devote to certain things, work just gets done when there’s spare time, and isn’t necessarily the full-time focus of everyone involved. That’s just the way it’s got to be when you’re working on an extremely low budget, independent film. We had to make things happen any way we could, however long it took, and we knew we’d eventually get it finished and be able to put it out there. There’s always going to be obstacles when you’re working on a film, but the limited means and resources certainly make the problem-solving that much tougher.

BC: Loren Cass is a very specific film in that it concentrates on a particular city at a particular time – St. Petersburg, 1997. How did the local community impact the creation of the film, and how did you preserve such a vividly real representation of a certain place and time that was constantly receding into the past as the film’s production progressed?

CF: The setting is extremely important for a film and I think a vivid, detailed back-drop is a vital step toward making a film that feels real and has some truth to it. Too often it seems that the layers of a film that are necessary to build a real world for the characters are neglected in favor of a hyper-focus on the events taking place on the surface of the film. Obviously those are important too, but you have to build the thing from the ground up. One of the things I always tell people when they’re asking about the film and the length of time it took to make it and all that, is that I didn’t spend twelve years screwing around, we were working on the details of this thing the entire time in one way or another. And that’s how I think it should be. Everything is important, and everything is an opportunity to evoke the story, whether it’s the color of something, a prop, the camera angle or movement, and so on. Every detail is a chance to tell your story that much better and make it that much more real. I definitely credit the focus on multiple layers to the film, the story, the characters, for the final representation of that particular place during that particular time.

BC: The sense of reality in Loren Cass operates on many levels. A few of the most striking ways the film taps into this are your integration of documentary materials from other media (both visual and audio recordings) and your use of non-professional actors and actual locations. How do you view these documentary elements, and what role do they play in enhancing, or even commenting on, the film’s fictional narrative?

CF: I really think that the best way to approach a feature film is with a combination of the two. Obviously it is art, and it needs to have an author, so the pre-determining of things is a necessity. But you can definitely blend that with certain things from the documentary world, particularly when it comes to the actors and the events taking place between them. There’s such a vastly different feel to something that is genuinely taking place between people and something that is staged and ultra-controlled. A good example of what I’m talking about are the fight scenes in Loren Cass. It’s faster, easier, safer, whatever, to stage them like every filmmaker stages every fight, but that’s just ridiculous in my opinion. People have been fighting since the dawn of time and getting punched in the face, particularly in service of your art, something that will long outlive you, seems like a small sacrifice. I think you can apply this to so many aspects of people and their relationships, to events and things that are often portrayed in films, and get something that’s a perfect synthesis of narrative fiction/art and documentary. That’s what I think the goal should be regardless of what you’re presenting, it’s just how they all films should be made no matter what’s on the surface. You’re already manipulating the story, the setting, the interactions, so much before you even get started, because it’s the nature of things, but that shouldn’t preclude you from trying to depict those events as realistically as possible and doing what’s necessary the make the best film possible, something that people can get totally immersed in. Reality on that level will allow viewers access to the other levels, or layers, in the film, which is where the meat is.

BC: Your film presents a certain formal aesthetic that has been compared to a rather wide group of filmmakers, ranging from Robert Bresson to Harmony Korine. You’ve also cited Schopenhauer as a broad non-cinematic influence. How did you develop the stylistic and philosophical principles of Loren Cass? Especially as a first-time filmmaker, how much did you rely on intuition and/or improvisation?

CF: Your intuition definitely does and should, in my opinion, play a huge part in it. My scripts are fairly detailed and I have real concrete ideas about what I want to do heading into something, but some of the best things happen unexpectedly and you definitely need to be open to that or the film can pass you by. The freedom to confidently do that sort of thing comes from a good understanding of the material, it allows you to make unanticipated choices on the fly that you know are right for the film. It’s all in the preparation, but that doesn’t mean you can’t alter a word or a movement or whatever it is here and there when it feels right. I can’t remember who it was but some filmmaker, when asked what’s the best feeling he’s had on a set, said something to the effect of “When I’m surprised.” You can’t go into a project without rock-solid ideas and a dedicated approach, but if you don’t let instinct play a role and let the film breathe a little bit while it’s being made I think it’ll end up missing its soul.

BC: I’ve read before that you believe every film should have an “author,” and you are clearly the author of Loren Cass, serving as screenwriter, editor, director, actor, and producer. Do you see yourself always playing so many roles in the production of your future films? What has your multi-faceted experience taught you about the different responsibilities involved in making a film, and which role do you feel most comfortable in?

CF: I’ll definitely continue to perform all of those duties on my films. It seems kind of silly going over each particular title, they’re really all part of one thing from my perspective. Each of those, especially writing and editing, have so much to do with what the final picture is that I can’t really imagine handing them off to someone else and not doing all of those things.

As far as which role I feel more comfortable in...I’m pretty comfortable with all of them. Going back to what I said above, being a “filmmaker” sort of encompasses all of those things to me, so I don’t really separate them that much, it’s all part of making a project real.

BC: How important is it for Loren Cass to be seen by the citizens of St. Petersburg? What sort of reception has the film experienced thus far from people living there? Does the local audience differ from the (inter)national audience?

CF: We screened a rough cut of the film here in 2006 and it did really well, so we’re excited to bring the film back to where it all started and give more people a chance to see it. We actually had to turn a number of people away at the ’06 screening because we ran out of space. The reaction has definitely been passionate around here, I’m sure there’s a slightly different effect on an audience when you recognize certain locations, places that are a part of your day-to-day life, or remember certain things that happened over the years.

BC: With the DVD release of the film and your inclusion in Phaidon Press’ upcoming book Splice, which highlights 100 of the world’s most promising filmmakers, I have to ask – what’s next?

CF: I have a lot of things planned for the future but I’m developing two particular scripts right now which I’m hoping to get moving fairly soon. Unfortunately, I can’t really get too into the details at the moment but in the coming weeks and months I’ll be able to put some more information out there on what they are.
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Monday, November 30, 2009

Mathematics, Mysticism, and the Modern Job

by Brandon Colvin

Despite being the least stylized, most aesthetically conventional example of the Coen Bros’ auteur-tastic cinema, A Serious Man is so damn unusual that it might be their most radical, difficult film.

Pondering the film’s (intentionally) obscure narrative and thematic intricacies is akin to stretching one’s brain around an elusive (meta-) physical paradox, encouraging what could be called a “quantum” viewing experience, one hinging upon the fundamental principle of underlying uncertainty—the principle that defines the existence of A Serious Man’s pathetically unfortunate protagonist, Jewish mathematics professor Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg).

Overcast with a complex and complicating membrane of impenetrable spiritual and existential malaise, A Serious Man narrates Larry’s Job-like downward spiral with exceeding intrigue while being more than a little disjointed. As one might observe upon viewing A Serious Man, however, the film’s puzzling disunity may be the Coens’ exact intention, the narrative fulfillment of physics theories and mathematics proofs that suggest our universe is indomitably chaotic.

Larry, an archetypical conventional mensch plodding through a banal existence in suburban Minneapolis c. 1970, finds himself in the midst of a vertiginous descent into an inescapable abyss of mind-crippling, heartbreaking, soul-crushing inscrutability. Beset by fate or randomness or Hashem (God) or nothingness, Larry suffers a series of mounting crises, from the dissolution of his marriage to the bizarre death of his wife’s (Sari Lennick) manstress to his extortion at the hands of frustrated Korean student (David Kang) to his accruing debt and failing attempt to earn tenure.

Attempting to model himself after and seek advice from the “serious” Jews around him—including a slew of ineffectual rabbis, uncaring community leaders, and his wife’s self-important lover, Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed)—Larry probes the (non?)meaning behind his misery, fruitlessly investigating the confusing collision of religious enigma and cryptic mathematics showering ambiguous shrapnel all around him. Though his questioning is undertaken in earnest, it is also darkly hilarious—ironic and biting in its unrelenting honesty, sharply devastating in its unsolvable futility. Larry’s tribulations are, like A Serious Man as a whole, tonally paradoxical, both emotionally-lacerating and cackle-inducing—as ambivalent as the uncertain universe its characters populate.

This elusive universe is best interpreted according to two complimentary quantum concepts discussed by Larry in his lectures: the paradox of Schrödinger’s cat and Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. The first is a thought experiment revolving around the indeterminacy of atomic particles, specifically the unpredictability of radioactive decay. Schrödinger explained that if a cat were locked in a box with a device that released a tiny amount of radioactive substance that could cause atomic decay (but might not), after a certain amount of time, the cat could theoretically be either alive or dead. Because the decay is unpredictable, one could not know for certain. In this instance, with the box locked, the cat is both alive and dead, demonstrating the quantum concept of superposition—the overlapping coexistence of multiple outcomes/realities—in concrete, macrocosmic terms. The cat is not either living or dead; it is both. That is, until one opens the box.

There are, however, some boxes that cannot be opened. Their contents remain immeasurable. Larry’s trials constitute such a “box,” and, as Heisenberg suggests in his uncertainty principle, as he seems to begin comprehending some aspects of the universe, the others retreat from his grasp with ferocious intensity. Nothing can be pinned down for sure. It is always shifting, always indefinite. This is the reality of A Serious Man.

The film’s bizarre prologue establishes the nature of the narrative’s ambiguous circumstances before Larry even appears onscreen. A 15-minute Jewish parable taking place in 19th Century Poland, A Serious Man’s introductory scene depicts the eerie experience a curmudgeonly couple has with what is either a man or a dybbuk (demon) masquerading as a man. The husband (Allen Lewis Rickman), who has offered the entity (Fyvush Finkel) entrance into his home in order to repay its previous kindness, believes it to be human, a local acquaintance. His wife (Yelena Shmulenson) is convinced it is a dybbuk, citing evidence that the man in question is three years dead. The husband remains skeptical.

As they debate, the entity remains seated in a chair, until, suddenly, the wife stabs it through the heart with an ice pick. The entity’s reaction is curious. At first, it does not bleed; it merely chuckles. The wife notes the lack of blood. Suddenly, red begins staining the entity’s shirt, rippling out from the wound. Befuddled and bleeding, the entity leaves into the snowy cold, remarking that it knows when it is unwelcome. Horrified, the husband worries what will happen when the body is found in the morning, feeling his wife has committed murder. Confidently, the wife remarks that she has merely forced evil out of the house. The entity is presented as both man and dybbuk. The Coens leave the box unopened.

Despite a few clichéd moments, a couple of bland dream sequences, and a handful of unnecessarily canted angles, A Serious Man proves to be an intriguing entry in the Coens’ oeuvre. Like Job, Larry and the viewer never receive an answer to the persistent “why?”

All that is displayed in the awesomely destructive power of the universe/Hashem/uncertainty, epitomized by A Serious Man’s stunningly unexpected conclusion. Whether one is a pot-smoking teenager, like Larry’s good-for-nothing son, Danny (Aaron Wolff), or a whacked-out numerological quack, like Larry’s brother, Arthur (Richard Kind), the universe remains incalculable, even with the assistance of Danny’s marijuana or Arthur’s garbled prophecy, The Mentaculus.

No solution is stable. Threats await in the form of racist neighbors, bullies, unfulfilled sexual liaisons, car crashes, subscription scams, lawsuits, anonymous defamatory letters, natural disasters, and x-ray results only delivered in-person. Though Larry is “trying to be” a serious man, he is left dangling over an abyss of obscurity, just like the viewer. There is only uncertainty; and, perhaps, even that is uncertain.

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Friday, November 27, 2009

Supernatural Anti-Sex Education

by Chuck Williamson

A crude amalgamation of supernatural soap opera, neo-gothic rape fantasy, and fundamentalist abstinence parable, the Twilight franchise has continually been the source of mixed cultural signals. New Moon, the second installment of this inexplicable pop-cultural phenomenon, is no exception, tempering its chaste adolescent romanticism—full of love triangles, teen angst, and pseudo-poetic exposition—with sadomasochistic kink, coded threats of sexual violence, and authoritarian alpha male posturing. But don’t get too hot and bothered. Directed by certified franchise killer Chris Weitz (The Golden Compass), New Moon recasts its supernatural boyfriend bugaboos as fundamentalist gospel, dishing out the secularized death/sex abstinence tropes in LiveJournal-lite soundbites. “Every second that I’m with you is about restraint,” predatorial dreamboat Edward Cullen (Robert Pattison) exposits, “And you’re too fragile.” For Bella (Kristen Stewart), the central dilemma is simple: keep your damn pants on or you’ll be the main course of a vampire buffet (a sexy buffet). A tangled knot of sub/dom discourses intermixed with reactionary anti-sex rhetoric, New Moon acknowledges female erotic pleasures only to disavow them, propping up its phantasmagoric romance on a broken edifice.

But none of this is particularly new. Designed to trigger a specific spectatorial response, the audible gasping, squealing, and cooing of an obsessive fanbase, New Moon hashes out the same promise of female pleasure offered in the films of Rudolph Valentino. Marketed by studios as the silent screen’s “great Latin lover,” Valentino occupied the dual position of erotic spectacle and sexual aggressor. The Sheik (1921), for instance, spiced up its orientalist fantasy by casting Valentino as the object of erotic exhibition, a preternaturally handsome serial rapist who casts bedeviling looks at the shrieking female fanbase. And like the sparkle-vamps and teen-wolves of New Moon, Valentino narrowed the gap between discipline and pleasure, stomping toward his resistant female prey for a little nonconsensual, fade-to-black hanky-panky (that, as the next scene suggests, she really enjoyed). This sadomasochistic quality is made even more transparent in The Eagle (1925), where Valentino, decked out in BDSM fetish gear, gestures at his female detainee with a riding whip—before his code against flogging women forces him to verbally humiliate her instead (predictably, she kinda digs it). But this authoritarian attitude eventually subsides when true love stops Valentino right in his tracks, sending him into a euphoric paralysis that only the look of his lover (and that fanatical female audience) might break.

As in the films of Valentino, New Moon dispenses its predictable, paper-thin plot in dull, expository chunks, focusing more of its energies on erotic spectacle. Romantic interludes, punctuated by snatches of purple prose and forced exposition, are staged as a slipshod mix gothic chamber drama and Tiger Beat photo spread, replaying the same one note ad nauseam as the camera doles out the two-tons-of-hunk money shots. Ooooh, mantastic! Nearly every “big moment” between Bella and Edward is preceded and/or followed by forward-tracking shots and slo-mo effects designed to accentuate our fang-faced beau’s super-sexy-cool mystique. Pattinson’s performance intermixes Byronic moping with teen idol modeling, and the camera eagerly frames his body in a staged series of theatrical tableaus that could double as a centerfold (check out the scene where he takes off his shirt—raaawr!). When the focus shifts from Edward to Jacob Black (Taylor Lautner), the framing becomes less affected and more visceral; the camera lingers on his semi-nude body and details its every inch in fetishistic detail (the scene where he lopes about shirtless through the rain sends all the prepubescent hearts aflutter). While these sequences momentarily interrupt narrative progression (particularly since the noise of screaming tweens drowns out most of the dialogue), a bit of sadomasochistic lip service always snaps us back in shape. Like Valentino, the New Moon boys have to negotiate between their compromised (possibly effeminized) statuses as erotic objects and narrative roles as authoritarian bullies. Behind the veiled threats of sexual abuse and domestic violence (of which we see physical evidence) lurk a desire to dominate their twitchy, blank slate love interest who, by the time she becomes the world’s most inert adrenaline junkie, seems to get off on victimhood.

But even Valentino, for all his authrotiarian-meets-androgyne posturing, never wasted his time with promise rings and monologues about self-control. The paranormal heartthrobs of New Moon might steal a page or two from the Valentino handbook, but their neutered, anti-pleasure waffling makes them far less interesting as cinematic sex symbols. Like many of Valentino’s films, New Moon is a bloated, lifeless bore that succeeds only as female fantasy. But don’t let the film’s forced references to Romeo & Juliet fool you—its low-stakes love story is about as convincing as a stop-motion animation made out of crayons, poster board, and teen mag cut-outs. Pattinson and Stewart stumble into frame like dead-eyed somnambulists, regurgitating their prosaic, pseudo-poetic dialogue in bullet-points—and even though this limp spectacle does nothing for outsiders, the Twi-hards go wild. Carrying on the torch passed on from the Cult of Valentino, Teams Edward and Jacob seem to care less about the film’s quality than the promise of fantasy role-play, where forbidden pleasures can be indulged through the act of film spectatorship.

But New Moon eleventh-hour disavowal of female pleasure complicates this spectatorial engagement. As the film’s pro-abstinence subtext culminates in a full-on marriage proposal (and the crowd goes wild!), Bella sinks further and further into the backdrop and becomes little more than a prop used by Edward to prove his virtue and integrity. So much for sexual gratification — to quote Beyonce, “If you like it then you shoulda put a ring on it.” Say what you will about Valentino, but at least he followed through with his promise of torrid and illicit pleasure. New Moon, on the other hand, goes from female-focused smut to after-school special.

But what the hell do I know? This movie was not made for me.

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Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Disaster (On Your Mind)

by James Hansen

Pull back the knives! Richard Kelly, known in certain circles as THE GREATEST DIRECTOR OF ALL TIME and in others as an inexplicably successful hack job, is back again with The Box, which should be known as the third film in Richard Kelly’s Melodramatic Menage-A-Trois Sci-fi Extravaganza. With just three movies under his directorial belt, Kelly is three for three in tackling the end of the world by looking at the people who can save us, the people who can’t, and the people who contemplate disaster on the sidelines. While Donnie Darko’s parabolic singularity found new hope, Southland Tales (and The Box) illustrate a collaborative mish-mash of a society-enabling snap-crackle-apocalypse that swarms the earth faster than a D-list celebrity porn star flashes her box on reality TV.

If both Southland Tales and The Box ultimately suffer from an overly explanatory mode of address – Southland Tales in its final third, The Box a little more consistently throughout – it is only because Kelly actually has something to say. Perhaps movies with musical interludes and a Swimming Pool Transit Authority have no right to feature finales that drench overwhelming seriousness onto thin moral lessons, but Kelly seems to disagree. As the dead man standing on the corner or the boy looking through a window, Kelly makes it clear that the world is a vampire sent to drain the better homes and gardens of an objectivist mass culture without rationality.

The Box, based on the short story “Button, Button” by Richard Matheson, delivers an impending sense of dread throughout its opening half when the recently deformed Arlington Steward offers a box with a bright red button to Norma and Arthur Lewis. Norma, a prep school teacher seen teaching Sartre’s No Exit before being asked to display her deformed foot to the class, and Arthur, a wanna-be NASA astronaut who flunks his psych exams, have a moral dilemma placed on their dining room table like it was Thanksgiving dinner. Push the button, get a million dollars and someone in the world will die. Can hell be other people if you don’t know the other people? Once the button is pushed – hence the box opened – hell remains broken loose for the entirety of the second half, as the conspiracy and trappings of the box and its associative systems becomes entangled with what seems to be entire human race.

Starting with gobbly-gook water portals run by “The People Who Control The Lightning,” Steward’s associates, looking for some good in the world, run morality tests with the box and stand by perpetuating the cycle until the humans have literally killed each other. Nothing subtle here, especially in the screenplay (“This is purgatory, isn’t it!!??”), but the moral quandary isn’t something to toss off so easily. The digital cinematography, operating as an hourglass peering into a forgotten, immoral world, echoes the period distinction, yet also allows for a hallucinogenic time warp (almost literally), which brings the distinctly past moments into the hyper-modern foray of a chaotic, uroborotic society seen in Southland Tales.

If The Box is less assured than Southland Tales – and I’m not sure it is – it may be that Kelly, for the first time, is dealing with real people and the morality that operates in a supposedly normally functioning society. (Donnie Darko does this to some extent, but its prophetization makes it troubling; Southland Tales may highlight a post-world world overtaken by modern trends and obsessions, but its deep connections to satire position it an a different context). This is a both a strength and a weakness, as Kelly tries to keeps it “real” but leaves his characters a bit too broad, which has resulted in some of the backlash, not to mention that this movie is actually bat-shit crazy making any goal of realism pretty far off target. But, then again, Kelly is a pimp… and pimps don’t commit suicide. Kelly is pushing the viewer against the grain (and himself against the critical community), for better or worse, but it’s all to keep us, and himself, alive. It’s another grand swing from Kelly who, for the third time, might be biting off more than he can chew. But he’s still biting...hard.
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Thursday, October 22, 2009

Short Film You Must See: "We Were Once A Fairytale" (Spike Jonze, 2009)

See the film here

by Brandon Colvin

It is the second collaboration between Spike Jonze and Kanye West.

It is a portrait of the artist as a forlorn failure, a charismatic creep, a self-hating superstar.

It is a feverish, fickle-focused fiction about fantasy, fucked-upness, and frustration.

It is a dreamlike documentary of digital-age debauchery, of a drunken dude in debonair duds desperately clinging to the final shards of his identity.

It is auto-tuned lyrics, cultural convergence, and sweating strangers shrugging off the awkward advances of a semi-suicidal, seppuku-committing icon of media megalomania.

It is NewTube.

It is a performer performing a performance of himself as a performer performing.

It is Kanye’s stilted slurrings and their amateur-professional truth.

It is the dancefloor tears that slyly suggest both autobiography and shameless solipsism.

It is confetti blood.

It is Godard.

It is a seriously shocking ending, for once.

It is the sincerity in such an ending, for once.

It is what I expect from the director of Adaptation.

It is a poem.

It is easily one of the best films of 2009.

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Friday, October 16, 2009

NYFF 2009: In Praise of Festivals

A week removed from the final press screening of the New York Film Festival, I have had a little more time to think about this year’s festivities after the verbal fireworks that were threatened to diminish the actual program being presented. Some of these charges have come from critics (who will remain nameless) who I assume no one takes seriously, but the more surprising charges have come from AO Scott the The New York Times. Given his stature, his piece roused the rabble of pretty much everyone, including this critic. This post is my festival wrap up (a top ten is posted at the end) and an attempt to grapple with the criticisms offered by Mr. Scott in light of the actual festival of films being presented, which get less than half the actual text of Scott’s piece. I wondered if it was worth responding to in the first place. Full of baffling contradictions, I honestly have had a hard time trying to discover where Scott is coming from and what he is after. So, a festival of the multiplex? An underground festival? A conceptual festival of popular, passably interesting, fun movies yet to be made? Still, I got worked up enough I couldn’t help but give some thoughts. Please excuse this former debater for the self-indulgence. If you’re just here for the top 10, feel free to skip down to the end.

This week, AO Scott resituated himself as the smarter-than-the-populus populist in the New York Times, shifting his role from film critic to axe grinder, shredding the festival as one that “seems to have been organized in pointed opposition to the pleasure principle” and challenging the selection committee as critics out to sustain their own worldviews entrenched in guilt and depravity. Mr. Scott goes on to call the situation “festivalism” which fails to recognize “the nature and value of fun.” Following that with a quotation from TS Eliot, Mr. Scott plays both sides in his call for some kind of middle ground, again accusing the critics of programming the festival “more as critics than as curators” – an especially odd suggestion after Mr. Scott slams the cohesion of theme of the overall festival. Curatorial work is the thing where you use a variety of works to build around a central idea, right? Seems both worlds would be met (even though it’s a misplaced cry to suggest there is an actual theme other than the simple criticism that “those movies were depressing,” which, naturally, is also not all true.) What exactly is required to make a variety? 26 films of 26 different genres from 26 different countries? Instead, it just seems to be a complaint about festivals, in general. The general criticisms of festivals showing the same films over and over, making it a participatory back-and-forth between the same groups of people, is valid, but I wonder what the alternative is. Seeing as Mr. Scott doesn’t really discuss the films at hand and rather merely their status as “festival movies,” it hard to say if an addition of more accessible [American] titles such as A Serious Man or Where The Wild Things Are (two of the three most mentioned films amongst the “snubs,” along with Audiard’s A Prophet which was also at Cannes) would have transformed this, or if maybe its just a sad, depressing year for international movies. But, again, I ask what is the alternative? A festival full of Hollywood films? Or films never before seen? Or more passable international work? Who knows. Mr. Scott’s piece ends up being a call against festivals, more than anything else, offering no suggestions or alternatives other than “find other movies.” Good luck with that.

Ah, but who actually does offer something? The selection committee. Love it, like it, or hate it, they were, in fact, showing something over there at Avery Fisher for the last two weeks. Scott’s claims can’t really be dismissed, or verified, without talking about the movies – something I have tried to do here throughout the course of the festival, and something which some major outlets have failed to do, instead turning their nose up at the smell of something serious asking for more popular alternatives. Yet, “festivalism”’s key feature is showing films that have not been seen before and may never be seen again. Cannes, Venice, Berlin, Sundance, New York all feature multiple titles that will never get distribution or only get distribution because of their presence at such festivals. This makes these festivals and their ongoing presence a celebration of work being done around the world. Rather than spit at what we’re given, it seems infinitely more positive, amid the dark films, to actually consider them for what they are and why they are here at this time, rather than searching for an enjoyable program of world movies that don’t exist. Moreover, I wonder what kind of “variety” people are missing. Mr. Scott calls for variety and unpredictability –two tenets I would strongly second. He finds weakness in the predictable selections allowing no room for “high-minded middlebrowism” to actually find an audience. Yet again, as Selection Committee head Richard Pena has said in years past, what is lacking is not adventurous movies, but adventurous audiences. Have any of these films been seen in New York before? In the United States? And have we become so redundantly theme-heavy in our criticism that major critics have actually started believing that this isn’t a variety? In a festival with numerous documentaries, ranging greatly in style and substance, foreign films, from old masters and young guns, and, yes, challenging films embraced by audiences at other festivals, the New York Film Festival continues to represent the best of world cinema out there in a given year. Party lines might be followed, as Mr. Scott says, but it’s a party for everyone and everything. New York, let’s keep the party going.

And now, the top 10 from a very strong slate of very different movies.

1. Trash Humpers
2. Ne Change Rien
3. Police, Adjective
4. Antichrist
5. To Die Like A Man
6. Everyone Else
7. Ghost Town
8. The White Ribbon
9. White Material
10. Bluebeard
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Sunday, October 11, 2009

NYFF 2009: Broken Records and Old Standards

by James Hansen

In order to make this post before the actual close of the festival, I have opted to posting even shorter reviews that will more or less give you a feel for how I reacted to several films that I have not yet had the chance to cover. I’ve decided to skip over some new works that I saw, since it seems slightly silly to post actual reviews after the festival has ended and several of the films I saw long enough ago that I don’t really feel comfortable trying to remember them accurately enough to write anything worthwhile. This is unfortunate, particularly for one film I really liked (To Die Like A Man) that has yet to receive a distributor. I take it no one will really mind waiting to hear about Precious, though, which will open in a few weeks anyway. And I’ll skip on The White Ribbon since it has already been featured prominently on this site, but I will say that I disagree with the enormous praise Brandon heaped upon it. To me, its a bit too overstated to be great Haneke. Thats not to say its bad (I do think its quite good), but probably not Palm d’Or material. This will be the final round up of reviews, but expect one or two more posts reflecting on the festival this week. After that, everything will be back to normal. On with the reviews!

Bluebeard (Catherine Breillat, France)- For those who don’t know, I wrote my Masters thesis on Madame Breillat so if there’s one filmmaker who I might claim to be a kind of expert on, it is probably her. Now, I’m not making that claim, but I feel like if I don’t say something about this slight new work, its a crime against myself. Based on a children’s fairy tale that Madame loved as a child (and haunted her older sister with, since the youngest child is the only one to survive), Bluebeard feels small in the scope of Breillat’s audacious oeuvre, but I think buried within it are some key questions and issues that Breillat has dealt with for years. Its an interesting shift, taking on a children’s story, as Breillat has always dealt with real young girls. Strangely, if Bluebeard feels like any other fairy tale film, it is Jan Svankmajer’s Alice. From some creepy close ups to the bizarre atmosphere, Breillat allows the children to project themselves into the story of Bluebeard – a large, ogre like man who has had several wives who have all disappeared. In Breillat’s tale, innocence trumps all as the virgin queen, refusing to consummate the relationship by literally holing herself in a closet that Bluebeard is too large to enter (crash symbols!), with the help of her sister are able to defeat the violent male. Beauty gets the Beast, but never tries to tame him. When he sadly lashes out – its equally strange how empathetic the character of Bluebeard actually is, giving the girls no real reason to despise him – beauty and innocence find a way out. Meanwhile, two young girls narrating our story create a mirroring effect for the story to find strange modern-ish application with a twist ending. So, while Breillat is treading familiar territory, she continues to shift her perspective and challenge herself along the way. Bluebeard is an odd little film, but I also think it may be a minor gem. B

Broken Embraces (Pedro Almodovar, Spain)- My ambivalence towards Almodovar post-All About My Mother turns into downright dislike with this new work. Sure, Penelope Cruz is beautiful and there is one kind of remarkable sex scene featured in here, many thanks to cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto. But, in a movie about a blind screenwriter with hidden mysteries that you, or the film, ever give even half a hoot about, it seems Almodovar is completely of of tricks and instead is taking up the challenge of directing a film with one hand tied behind his back and his heart totally left out of it. Broken Embraces ends with a kind of joke about the need to finish a film even if you do so blindly (ca-zing!), but I don’t think it meant to actually advocate the action and call itself out for being blindly haphazard and torpid. This scrambled grab bag of things-we-have-seen-in-an-inspired-way-before is chalk full of late game revelations that have little to nothing to do with anything, shrewd colors, goofy characters, and plenty of references to older films. But, lo – just because you reference things doesn’t mean you’re using them effectively. Its just a kick back to a steady base of fanboys who will smile, smirk, and laugh at all the references that they get. Unfortunately, Pedro’s biggest fanboy is starting to look like Pedro himself. C-

Life During Wartime (Todd Solondz, USA)- The people are plastic, the atmosphere is plastic, and there is no reason to buy into anything Solondz is doing here. This psuedo-sequel to Happiness, a film I remember liking, asks questions about redemption of the characters who have done despicable acts and the choice to recast new actors seems an inspired turn in this direction. Little else can be said to be anything near inspired, however, as the story rambles from scene to scene making the characters feel cynical, inauthentic, and outright depressing. Solondz attempts to throw in some empathy against the background he has set by the purposeful contradictions between the screenplay, the actions, and the look of the film (shot on the RED by the great Ed Lachman) highlight the shortcomings of this experiment. His humor has always been a little forced, but here it is just embarrassing. Life During Wartime is trying to balance two worlds of fake and real, past and present, even film and digital, but it just can’t get past its own insufferable attitude. C-

White Material (Claire Denis, France)- Boy does Claire Denis know how to use a soundtrack. This meditation of cross cultural exchange during wartime, shot on location in Africa, features striking imagery and a haunting atmosphere that exudes long after the final images. Denis’ stylistic convictions remain evident where spaces create their own language – from flowing grass, to a pool of water, to coffee beans bouncing through a machine. Anchored by the visuals, White Material also features some great performances from Isabelle Huppert, Isaach de Bankole, and William Nadylam who separately bring out the three different worlds at work in the film – the Western presence in a foreign land, the natives, and the rebels. Taking on civil war is certainly an admirable goal, and one that usually falters on sanctimonious predilections, but Denis manages the material well as she grapples with a devastating portrait of a world out of control. If something is holding White Material back from greatness, it is the puzzle-like structure, which isn’t confusing by any stretch, but, in this instance, has the tendency to undercut some of the action and rings a little false amid the subject matter. Nevertheless, White Material is another solid work by one of cinema’s greatest female directors. High B
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Tuesday, October 6, 2009

NYFF 2009: Trashing Concepts/Conceptual Trash - [online text reviews of four films, two of which the writer of the text loves]

This third dispatch from the New York Film Festival features reviews of one highly anticipated work (any work from Rivette at a site named after a film of his is a major event), two works that I was cautiously looking forward to (Pedro Costa's Ne Change Rien and Harmony Korine's Trash Humpers), and one work that I knew absolutely nothing about (Raya Martin's Independencia). I've already previewed my response to Trash Humpers, which comes at the end of this post complete with a defensive tangent that I probably shouldn't publish, but that I left anyways as a way of working out my own thoughts and ideas about the work and about how we should write about films in general. I meant to post this third dispatch sooner, and now am falling behind in my attempt to write about everything I see, especially with a busy last week of screenings this week. I'll attempt to persevere with good content. This post, above all others, seems to have contrarian written all over it, considering the other responses I have read to a couple of these films. Nevertheless, I stand by my rankings and unexpected love (well, one was unexpected) of these controversial works. There's nothing quite like the challenge of writing about a work you really care about (much less two in one post!) while also being genuine and not aggressively overwriting for the sake of your excitement. Lets see how well I did...

Around A Small Mountain (Jacques Rivette, France) - Maybe this just feels slight from the get go because of the running time. Clocking in at 84 minutes, the shortest film in Rivette’s oeuvre by half an hour, Around A Small Mountain sets a mystifying stage, this time quite literally, by centering on a sparsely attended circus. Following a wordless exchange, an Italian gentleman, Vittorio, befriends a carnie and subsequently spends his time wandering the premises, meeting more eccentrics, and discovering long hidden secrets of the circus many of which revolve around an infamous trick gone awry. At times dry, if not outright stale, Around A Small Mountain has the all the elements of Rivette’s strongest work, but, in the concise brevity of this tale which could have headed in various directions, it gets a bit of a short shrift. From the overlapping mysteries to the numerous rehearsals, Rivette chooses not to dwell on subjects or moments longer than needed. This refuses the world of characters, so often the lifeblood of ecstatic energy present in Rivette’s films, the chance to pivot, rotate, and revolve around each other. The world seems more isolated, the figures more singular, and the mysteries less interesting. Maybe its just the marathon movie fan, but I would have loved to spend another hour or two really getting lost in the fascinating world that Rivette establishes. My criticism is perhaps harsher than Around A Small Mountain deserves. It really is a perfectly fine film with interesting characters, an odd location, plenty of hidden mysteries, and a unique assemblage of theater, cinema, and performance (read: everything you want from Rivette), but I can’t help but think this could have been a lot more. B-

Independencia (Raya Martin, Philippines) - If last year’s inclusion of Brillante Mendoza’s Serbis at NYFF introduced New York to an uprising in Filipino cinema, Independencia displays the wildly different kinds of work being done right now. Independencia was one of two films Martin, age 25, had at this years Cannes Film Festival where the Best Director prize was won by fellow countrymen Mendoza for his controversial film Kinatay. With Independencia, Martin shows some real promise, even while the film never completely works. Set in the Filipino jungle in 1943, a family awaits the arrival of American troops into their country. A bit obviously, the family waits for most of the film until a massive storm finally comes and sends the characters in different directions. Martin, above all else, does what he can to achieve the look of a 1940s Hollywood film, complete with beautifully hand drawn sets that give Independencia a remarkable look while creating an undercurrent of the American invasion of Filipino culture. Still, this concept only goes so far, as the flowing cinematography overwhelms this small amount of dramatic tension given to the actual plot in the first two-thirds of the film. The storm sequence is rather tremendous and won me over for Independencia as a whole. Wonderfully executed, Independencia ends with the mood and attitude it needed to sustain throughout. Though its not a complete success, its shows some real complex thinking from Martin about his films and should help in turning Martin’s idea around on him by finally bringing a larger Filipino presence to the US film scene. B-

Ne Change Rien (Pedro Costa, Portugal)- Apparently most people hate this. It drew the smallest crowd of any press screening I’ve been to throughout the festival (partially because of the canceled press conference with Mr. Costa, I assume) and still managed to have the largest number of people walk out. I imagine this has something to do with the labeling of Ne Change Rien as a music doc for French actress/singer Jeanne Balibar. Certainly its a somewhat accurate description – you do, in fact, listen to Balibar rehearse and perform for the entirety of the documentary – yet it lacks in identifying Ne Change Rien as perhaps the most experimental feature at NYFF. Costa’s is able to transition his long take form, introduced to New York audiences in 2007 with a retrospective and the presence of his short Rabbit Hunters at NYFF, into Ne Change Rien with almost alarming effect. With no narration and no interviews, Ne Change Rien shows Balibar in never-ending rehearsals, looping the same chords, the same notes, the same sections of songs over and over searching for perfection in every nuance of the voice. Using two or three different pieces throughout the film, from a strange Gainsebourg-esque rock number to an Offenbach opera, Balibar’s face is shown in shafts of light as she ceaselessly counts, thinks, and ponders every detail of her performance. Ne Change Rien, shot digitally with high contrast black-and-white, shows the dancing of the light across Balibar’s face as she sways through the frame in isolation. Drenched together in more muted tones of white and gray during collaborative sequences, an equally important story of the reflection of light, creating profound nuance in black blacks, light blacks, mid grays, light grays, and bright whites as the very process of creation and perfection shimmers across the screen. Costa’s engagement with Balibar’s quest for perfection is found in the smallest of details. The long takes give ample time for the mind to soak in every bit of the soundtrack while becoming enamored with each subtle shift in Balibar’s voice and the light as the performers directly influence the way the camera records Balibar and, subsequently, the way we see the film. This may sound like a small feat, but make no mistake: Ne Change Rien is a major accomplishment. A-

Trash Humpers (Harmony Korine, USA)- Unearthed from a hidden ditch somewhere in Tennessee, Harmony Korine’s Trash Humpers serves as an artifact from a unknown culture of deformed villains – a hybrid of The Hills Have Eyes and the laughing baby. The humpers exist in a world not so unlike our own, yet one where they have free reign of the ditches, parking lots, and backyards of whomever they choose. Acting partly as perverted peeping Toms and deranged lunatics, Trash Humpers acts as a piece of found footage in which the humpers run around hysterically cackling and chanting as they break TVs, smash lights and concrete blocks in the middle of abandoned parking lots, and find a host of unforgettable friends: a kid who smashes baby dolls with a hammer, a homophobic comic who tells jokes with no punch lines, and a man who plays a one-stringed guitar and sings songs about his oh-so-large penis. Yes, Trash Humpers is essentially a celebration of anarchy. Very funny but at times quite haunting, Korine has described Trash Humpers as a kind of horror movie, perhaps of the American Dream being flushed down the toilet. But how then, amidst the nonsensical cackling and hysterical, neverending chants (“Make it, make it! Don’t fake it!) and recitations (“Three little devils jumped ovvvverrrr the waaaaallll...”) is Trash Humpers so genuine, so heartfelt, and so damned inspired? Korine’s connection and return to the South seems pertinent, as this return home has also returned him to non-commercial practices and more of an exploration of images and ideas, which is where Korine’s films have been most comfortable in the past. But where each of his past features has seemed overstretched by their strangest elements, Trash Humpers, despite, or maybe because of, its [purposefully] haphazard construction, is undoubtedly Korine’s most complete work yet. The ending sequence, at once bizarre and strangely moving, is the final punch card for the way Trash Humpers works through its characters and finds an open ended space for the humpers to go on...and maybe in a different way. Chaos reigns? Maybe not.

And now a tangent: While several critics have questioned Korine’s effort, calling the deck stacked and the concept of creating an artifact as one in which you can’t fail, these criticisms seem largely unfounded to me – not only because I can cite one film in the festival that has the same central concept and is less successful, but mainly because, frankly, that its just a flat out stupid criticism. If critics actually attempt to meet films on the films own terms (which I’m not exclusively advocating, mind you), then a success is a success and a failure is a failure based on the work, not on what you read or what someone else said about it. Whether success means accomplishment is a different matter completely, but I find it hard to suggest that a work with a concept that is achieved is a fraud, a fake, a sham, or anything else. Moreover, it becomes the same criticism of contemporary art (where Korine’s work may more comfortably lay as a kind of performance piece) in that “my kid could paint that” or “its just a shark in a tank.” These questions might purvey through Trash Humpers to certain viewers, but, if we’re wanting to play the Artist card, then who is that did create it, that did ask the question, and that did make you think about all this to begin with. So go conceptual works, and so goes Trash Humpers. I suppose its just going to work for some people and won’t work for others, but to suggest something as a failure because you don’t think the effect is difficult to achieve is fundamentally flawed. Last year, I remember many critics (not sure if they are the same ones who have excoriated Trash Humpers) suggested after Manohla Dargis’s negative review of The Reader that Holocaust films should be judged differently because of the subject matter. most everyone disagreed with that at the time, but now it seems its being flipped back over when convenient to attack someone for creating an admittedly lo-fi thing that “might not even be a movie” (so says Korine). I wouldn’t be so worked up, I suppose, if I hadn’t so bought into Trash Humpers and been impacted by what it captures and how genuine it is while doing it. (It is the only movie I bothered seeing twice, and almost a third time, fearing it may not be coming to a theater near anyone anytime soon). I’ve gone on a huge, largely unnecessary tangent here, so I’ll avoid going on another about why I might connect to Trash Humpers on another level – lets just say it has something to do with also being from the South, also shooting shitty looking movies on VHS in high school, and finding many of the voices and events of Trash Humpers not only funny but frighteningly familiar. If you’re still reading at this point, congratulations! You made it! And, in case I hadn’t mentioned it, Trash Humpers is without a doubt one of the best new works in the festival. A-
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