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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