Friday, December 24, 2010

Pussy Control


by James Hansen

Mirroring its own central conceit in several unfortunate ways, Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan functions as a double-edged sword on which it repeatedly impales itself. At once an artistic “prestige picture” and a Tex Avery-esque Looney Tunes riff on Tchaikovsky’s famed ballet Swan Lake, Black Swan tempestuously navigates these concepts alongside the similarly fractured mental journey of doomed protagonist Nina Sayers/The Swan Queen (Natalie Portman).

Nina’s personality splits when she is chosen to perform both Swan roles in the highly anticipated ballet. She must be The White Swan of purity and precision and also The Black Swan of fear, desire, and improvisation. With mounting pressure from director Thomas Leroy/The Gentleman (Vincent Cassel) and a unique relationship with new girl Lily/The Black Swan (Mila Kunis), Nina tries to loosen up from her White Swan tendencies to achieve artistic perfection by embodying both states of mind. This mixture of reality and fantasy, good and evil, failure and success pushes Nina beyond anything she has experienced before. She is in a new, strange world which she must either journey through or become lost within.


Black Swan’s journey quickly reveals itself as having little to do with art or artists, but rather dicks, pussies, and earth-shaking orgasms. Thomas chooses Nina for The Swan Queen after a timid request for a second audition results in a seductive, unwanted kiss in which Nina bites his lip. Thomas questions Nina’s sex life and suggests she have sex. After multiple masturbation attempts with no “success,” Nina goes out with Lily and explores her Black Swan side. With barely a hint at lesberation, Nina is rolling on E and howling in her bed via Lily’s magical cunnilingus. Nina’s orgasm is more than a sign of sexual pleasure, but one of the perfection she seeks in life, work, and art. Still, this false moment of perfection leaves Nina lost in time, late for work, and threatens her success in the ballet. Her climactic scenes late in the film with Lily and Thomas indicate a further presumption of sexual pleasure as cataclysmic, threatening, overly demanding, and strangely confining. The residual effects of sexuality understood in this manner come through in Nina’s final swan song, which make her choices harder to stomach. Threatened by a perfect pleasure outside of her art, she destroys it.


Yet – no matter the bizarre, enormously entertaining, trash genre hijinx – Black Swan remains a thuddingly literal extension of Swan Lake and purely surface level. Nina’s existential crisis, fear of failure, and ambiguous sexuality plays out as a cartoonish fodder. Instead of exploring the ideas of psycho-bisexuality, artistic creativity, or pressures on femininity which seem inherent in the mtaerial, screenwriters Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz, and John McLaughlin loads the script with softballs (“lose yourself”) which they pay off by literalizing the terse statements. This strangely unthoughtful approach creates a checklist for Nina’s tragically battered psyche and quickly knocks off each aspect as Black Swan plods forward becoming simultaneously more entertaining (as The Black Swan of hilarious trash spectacle) and disappointing (as The White Swan of an artistically considered film) as it goes along. (For more on this, see Martha Polk’s terrific critique).


That it devolves into sexual games is a further indication that Aronofsky’s direction of underlying dualisms is far from complex. Constantly maintaining an obvious grip on the Swan Lake story told several time throughout the film, Black Swan shows neither controlled mania or tight composition of cinema made by true artists. In a journey of a fracture mind, everything is perfectly clear and logical. Unfortunately, this also means that Black Swan works only off statements, rather than instilling thought or ideas. By bringing everything pointedly to the surface, Black Swan chooses to stay shallow.

Entertaining enough for a B, but thoughtfulness earns it a C+

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Friday, December 17, 2010

The Revenge of the Bitch with Mutant Lungs


by Chuck Williamson

A garish mash-up of backstage musical and divalicious pop spectacle, Steven Antin’s Burlesque works best as a hyperkinetic, hootchy kootchy parade of plasticized bodies where a coterie of chorus girls writhe and wriggle as the pseudo-vaudevillian “living curtain” backing up their bitch-goddess Xtina who soulfully caterwauls at center-stage. The film’s narrative, a creaky collection of showbiz melodrama clichés complete with the inevitable “a star is born” catharsis, erupts in brief staccato bursts that intermittingly punctuate the razzle-dazzle of the deliriously trashy production numbers with what traditional screenwriters might misconstrue as “motivation.” Cher and Christina sashay through one gauzy burlesque performance to the next, high-stepping, posing, and dishing out the high octaves while periodically loping into frame to discuss whatever low-stakes dilemma will be resolved either through an inexplicable third-act deus-ex-machina or the combined powers of divadom. Does it matter? Because, like, who cares? Burlesque is all about kinetic momentum, open-palmed sass, and the forbidden thrill of bad taste, doubling as a sequined love-letter to the pre-code backstage musical that oscillates somewhere between reverence and camp (but mostly camp).


Equal parts earnest and ridiculous, Burlesque indulges in the trashiest sub-quadrants of pop-culture ephemera, reveling in the most empty-headed and spectacle obsessed sort of bad taste; the film wallows in the garish, the grotesque, and the gleefully artificial. Even its glittery production numbers, once the interstitial passages in Hollywood musicals designed for authentic, spontaneous, or—heaven forbid!—introspective expression, function more as a tacky, carnivalesque displays that turn showbiz kitsch into a delirious bodily performance. Each production number is forceful and frenetic, chopped up into a near-indecipherable tangle of limbs and filled with glitter, garish neon lighting, and Aguilera’s hyper-charged vocal solos; they do no express the characters’ psychological interiority because—wouldn’t you know it?—the characters are all surface and no soul. For Ali (Christina Aguilera), the mid-western farm-girl turned overnight burlesque sensation, “keepin’ it real” entails gaining fame, fortune, and her deliciously muscled songwriting lothario all while re-imagining herself as a one-dimensional pin-up, an eroticized icon whose corseted frame and ghoulish stage make-up suggests a performative masquerade at odds with her oft-exposited desire to rise to the top without “losing herself.”


Perhaps no character pays better lip service to the film’s credo of shameless superficiality than Tess (Cher), who occasionally slinks out from the film’s periphery to delivery sage advice like, “When you are putting on your make-up, it’s like you’re an artist. But instead of painting on a canvas, you’re painting your face.” And as the so-called “bitch with mutant lungs” shimmies down the stage and delivers a full-throated rendition of Etta James’ “Tough Lover” while decked out in S.S. fetish gear—transforming herself from small-town zero to cooch-dancing superstar—she follows the Tao of Cher and splatter-paints her face into a near-parodic extreme of femininity. Extreme close-ups of Aguilera’s dolled-up face and kinetic bodily movements (recalling similar imaging techniques from The Red Shoes) make the performer look phantasmagoric and unreal, a plasticized shell that can paradoxically belt out high-octave renditions of blue standards.


But rather than grate on the nerves, this willful embrace of the frivolous, fake, and borderline idiotic makes Burlesque strangely charming and compelling; it is a paean to kitsch, camp, and bad taste that delights from beginning to end. And why shouldn’t it? What else could we expect from a film where the temptation of materialist excess is literalized as a gaudy pair of Louboutin pumps? Why should we expect interiority or introspection from a film that has its soulful songwriting love interest pay homage to Aguilera, his creative muse, by penning a deeply personal but innanely trashy showtune called “Show Me How You Burlesque?” How could we not be sucker-punched by a film that compresses its narrative into multiple musical montages, that pauses everything so Cher can get diva on, that uses “eating cookies” as erotic innuendo, that’s so replete with cat-fights, hissy-fits, tacky costumes, and eye-rolling one-liners?

My mind says B, but my heart says B+

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Wednesday, December 15, 2010

One Style Does Not Fit All


by James Hansen

The only really positive thing about Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours is that the audience gets what it expects. The story of Aron Ralston – the extreme adventurer who amputated his lower right arm to free himself from a boulder which pinned him in Blue John Canyon for 127 hours – was a media circus when the event took place in 2003 and has become a well-known inspirational story. Boyle, long before the success of his supremely overrated Oscar winner Slumdog Millionaire (2008), defined himself as an “auteur” to the film community by crafting a highly kinetic visual style and spinning it through a variety of genres, most successfully in the druggie epic Trainspotting (1996) and the contemporary zombie spin 28 Days Later (2002).

If Boyle’s best work indicates the ability of his style to cross heterogeneous genres, his worst films loudly illustrate exactly that one style does not not fit all. In these cases, Boyle undermines his own films by confronting his narrative logic, his actors, and his actual story with cut-and-paste stylistic “obsessions” which grate against those former elements. Boyle’s direction (and his entire movie) ends up having nothing to do with the material at hand, but, rather, stands as a useless continuation of expected, inappropriate directorial choices. Case and point: 127 Hours – a story of individual strength amidst extreme isolation and deathly circumstances as directed by a zombie with the Rage virus.


Problems start with the first frames of the film – a tryptych, split-screen of large groups of people, vehicles, and nature displaying Boyle’s “kinetic vibrancy.” The pop soundtrack propels us onto Aron Ralston (James Franco) setting off on his adventure. He screens his mom’s phone call, forgets his Swiss Army knife, and soon enough races through the canyon on his mountain bike. This split-screen method may intend to counterpose Ralston with that contemporary world, but Boyle’s use of it throughout the film destroys its credibility in that regard. That aside, Ralston appears enmeshed in a similar form of movement, a mere extension of the crowded city energy pushed out into nature.

If all this, as well as Ralston’s amusing trail-guide excursion with a couple lost girls, showcases a thematic shift once the boulder traps him, Boyle and company seem either unaware or unwilling to let the challenge of their story – supreme desolation – become a demanding element for the limited audience who wants to see this as a cinematic narrative in the first place. Aside from one nice, if expected, shot of Ralstion crying for help as the camera tracks out and above the vast, confined canyon, Ralston never feels very alone. By repeatedly intercutting scenes of Ralston in alternate locations with masses of people, friends, and family, Boyle removes 127 Hours from the precarious situation at hand and uses it as a pedestal to launch into overwrought flashbacks and sequences which more aptly fit his stylistic choices. In allowing other characters to become a part of the movie during the crucial time span, Boyle lets the audience (and himself) off easy. Ralston appears here, there, and everywhere allowing his position to embody a dramatic one-liner instead of a draining and stirring emotional and temporal experience. Things become so confused in Boyle’s stylistic rampage that a fantastical dream sequence appears as plausible as Ralston’s seemingly unbelievable story.


Franco’s strong performance, slowly replacing his bemused loner attitude with anger, fear, and desperation, signals the emotional swings of his interpersonal journey through the traumatic experience. The dramaturgy, perhaps understandably, occasionally slips into histrionics, but Boyle’s push towards sentimentality thwarts the complex reasoning behind Ralston’s state, and hence his entire story. Much as Franco tries, Boyle’s moves undercut him at every direction.

In the film’s much-anticipated climax, Boyle finally demands that the audience face Ralston’s dire position head on. The amputation sequence has been a lot for the squeamish, and rightfully so. Saw really has nothing on this. But, in waiting for the final moments of this challenging story to make any kind of challenge, it becomes clear that Boyle is wholly unsure about and uncomfortable with the material, its questions, and its lessons. Rather than confront the difficult questions inherent in the actual story, Boyle pushes his own directorial machine buttons instead of anything else. In this way, Ralston becomes just an oddity with which Boyle could make another one of his “inspirational” movies. 127 Hours got what it expected from Boyle – kinetic style, tears, Dido, a children’s choir – but it needed something completely different.

C
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Monday, September 27, 2010

Magnolia's Metaphysical Melodrama


by Brandon Colvin

This piece was originally published in the recently completed PT Anderson blogathon at our friend Jeremy Richey's terrific blog Moon in The Gutter. I'm just posting the text here. If you want pretty pictures to go along with it, see it at Moon and catch up on what you missed during the quite strong "blogathon."

I first saw Magnolia (1999), Paul Thomas Anderson’s 3-hour masterpiece of meta-melodrama, at the tender age of 14. Lugging home two VHS tapes containing the movie, I was unaware of the formative impact the film would have on my understanding of cinema. I watched the film three times during that initial three day rental period, and I’ve seen it at least twice each year since. Every viewing serves as a reminder of the narrative virtuosity and unfettered emotion that first knocked me on my ass in a year that offered many video store treasures: Solaris (Soderbergh, 2002), Donnie Darko (Kelly, 2001), Punch-Drunk Love (Anderson, 2002), and Adaptation. (Jonze, 2002). Magnolia, however, towers above these foundational pillars of my cinephilia, primarily because it almost single-handedly taught me a very valuable skill – how to understand and appreciate the melodramatic mode of cinematic storytelling.

The source of Magnolia’s instructiveness towards the end of accepting melodrama lies in its relentless self-awareness as well as its sheer bravery, complimentary traits that support the film’s two-fold method of demonstrating the emotive capabilities of melodrama. This method is realized in the way Magnolia first presents itself as a self-conscious exemplar of post-modern insecurity only to explode that trepidation with unhinged histrionics and full-throttle excess in the form of cosmic coincidences and unabashed artificiality.

The fact that Magnolia begins in the post-modern mode before diving into extravagance is indicative of PTA’s awareness of his primary audience – educated adults attuned to the conventions of “art” or “indie” cinema and the attendant “grittiness” or “realism” of such film practices (my younger self included). Throughout the film’s first few hours, Anderson is covering his bases, so to speak, anticipating possible criticisms by co-opting them into a series of strategically self-reflexive moves – moves which allow him to nip certain objections to implausibility and assumptions of “realism” in the bud in an attempt to open up the skeptical viewer to a different type of storytelling: the melodramatic.

The first of these post-modern gestures, the film’s six-minute, Ricky Jay-narrated prologue, essentially serves the rhetorical function of addressing and invalidating the audience’s potential skeptical prejudices against chance, coincidence, and melodrama as reliable narrative tools for gaining insight into the human condition. Reality is depicted as unquestionably containing the incredible chance occurrences described in the prologue’s three vignettes: the Green-Berry-Hill murder, the scuba diver and the gambler, and the failed suicide-cum-homicide of Sydney Barringer. The vignettes point to something beyond happenstance, something which Anderson seeks to investigate through his film’s engagement with causality and artifice. As Ricky Jay’s narrator comments on Sydney Barringer’s death, “This is not just ‘something that happens.’ This cannot be just ‘one of those things.’ This, please, cannot be that. And, for what I would like to say, I can’t. This was not just a matter of chance. These strange things happen all the time.” In this way, the prologue provides an immediate, ready-made defense of Magnolia’s commitment to the coincidental and the fantastic as the centerpieces of its narrative structure: “these strange things happen all the time.” Through the prologue and its suggestive narration, PTA preemptively strikes, perhaps out of fear that a modern audience will reject his seemingly naïve immersion in the ostentatious.

This almost neurotic need to justify Magnolia’s deliberately fanciful approach pervades the film’s first few hours in the form of self-referentiality and, ultimately, self-defense. During the stunning post-title montage (cut to Aimee Mann’s rendition of “One”), which introduces the audience to Magnolia’s numerous intertwined characters, this self-consciousness is prominent in the form of omnipresent screens and ornately orchestrated cross-cutting, both of which throw the viewer, almost apologetically, into an overt awareness of the film’s constructedness. The shift to slight self-parody comes soon afterward, when Phil Parma (Philip Seymour Hoffman) realizes he must track down Earl Partridge’s (Jason Robards) son, Frank Mackey (Tom Cruise) in order to satisfy the dying man’s final wish. In a wide shot, Phil stands by Earl’s eventual deathbed. As Phil mentally develops his plan of action, Wagner’s “Also Sprach Zarathustra” swells, Mickey-Mousing his banal movements while also forming a sound-bridge to Frank Mackey’s infamous “Respect the Cock” speech. The joke is an intertextual one, mockingly comparing Phil’s moment of realization with the epic images of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) – the cultural counterpart to Wagner’s composition. PTA seems to be self-consciously poking fun at the balls-to-the-wall ambition behind Magnolia here, placing his film alongside Kubrick’s in a way that highlights the potential silliness of his own hubris. Once again, Anderson is beating his critics to the punch by demonstrating his self-awareness, winking at the skeptics, saying, “I know, I know, but just keep watching.” Similar moments of meta-commentary (even mockery) occur throughout the film, such as when Earl’s wife, the drug addicted Linda (Julianne Moore) exclaims, “This is so fucked up and over-the-top” or when Earl himself acknowledges his hackneyed situation, apologizing to Phil for how pathetic and clichéd his “whole man on a bed” circumstance is. A certain insecurity suffuses these moments, an admittance of deviance from “art” or “indie” cinema’s realistic grounding; Anderson appears to be hesitant, but he is simply earning a sort of credibility by demonstrating his self-consciousness.

The fact that these intentionally archetypal gestures populate Magnolia’s plot is most directly addressed and defended during a scene in which Phil Parma pleads for assistance in finding Frank while telephoning an employee of Frank’s company. Anderson’s awareness of his audience’s possible skepticism is once again on display, as Phil remarks, “I know this sounds silly. And I know I might sound ridiculous, like this is the scene in the movie where the guy is trying to get a hold of the long lost son, ya know. But this is that scene. This is that scene. And I think they have those scenes in movies because they’re true, because they really happen. And, ya gotta believe me, this is really happening.” Anderson returns to the qualification that the seemingly grandiose events of his film happen all the time, that the syrupy, fantastic clichés are rooted in reality, but perhaps not “realism.” Phil’s remarks take up the self-conscious line of argument introduced by the narrator in the prologue and present the key for understanding Magnolia’s subsequent departure from rationality – that such implausible, artificial events are in movies because they actually have a correlation with reality, with lived experience. Indeed, interrogating and interpreting the nature of this correlation is what leads Magnolia to its eventual eruption of cosmic histrionics.

The film truly leaves behind its tentative relationship to the coincidence and obvious artifice that comprise it at the 139-minute mark, when the startling “Wise Up” sequence begins. Here, perhaps as well, is the point at which PTA feels the skeptical viewer will have been fully convinced to accept (or at least play along with) the type of narrative leaps found in Magnolia’s final hour – leaps that take it far away from any concept of “realism.” The scene begins with Claudia Gator (Melora Walters) snorting a line of cocaine while ostensibly listening to an Aimee Mann song on her record player; Mann’s music flows throughout the film, blurring diegetic boundaries in numerous instances (and giving credence to the film’s claim to melodrama), but nowhere is it as remarkable as in this show-stopping shot sequence. As Claudia listens, she begins singing along sullenly, continuing for a few bars before, surprisingly, Anderson cuts to Jim Kurring (John C. Reilly) singing along as well, followed by Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall), Quiz Kid Donnie Smith (William H. Macy), Phil and Earl, Linda, Frank, then Stanley Spector (Jeremy Blackman). Of course, they can’t all be listening to the same song at the same time. It is diegetically impossible. What Anderson does here, however, is to impose an extra-diegetic linkage system that unites the characters around a common emotion – sorrowful resignation, as indicated by the song’s lyrical content (“It’s not going to stop / so just give up”). All of this is deliberately artificial, yet convincing in an emotional sense. The emotional, perhaps even spiritual or existential, content of the scene blatantly supersedes any obligation to “realism” or legible causation or continuous temporality; indeed, time seems to stand still for the scene’s duration. This emotional resonance is uniquely powerful as a direct result of Anderson’s willingness to suspend “realism” in favor of artifice and contrivance. With the “Wise Up” scene, PTA lays the groundwork for his eventual masterstroke, providing an expressionistic model of melodramatic storytelling in which emotional intensity overrides rationality and plausibility as a narrative imperative.

The correlation between reality and melodrama, between what “really happens” and what cinema represents, then, is one of emotion, of feeling, according to Anderson’s film. Melodrama externalizes the most intense interior states (as in the “Wise Up” scene), dramatizing passions and beliefs individuals are perhaps too timid or isolated or self-conscious to express – whether they be romantic, violent, or even metaphysical. The progress of Magnolia’s carefully arranged self-presentation – from insecurity to justification to excess – mirrors this process of externalization, providing a cautious arc toward extravagant artifice that is careful to keep the reluctant spectator (which certainly included my teenage self) credulous and interested.

Magnolia’s full melodramatic externalization of its emotional core, of course, famously comes in the form of a rather curious bit of precipitation – a narrative gambit of Biblical proportions. I speak of the millions of frogs which cascade over Magnolia’s San Fernando Valley during its concluding half-hour, washing over the landscape and characters at the precise point that the weight of coincidence, of unmitigated sorrow, of hopelessness, of tears and sins, of all the film’s building melodrama becomes unbearable, and the film must climb to newer heights of expressive intensity. The raining frogs are, appropriately, Magnolia’s signature image, representing one of the bravest creative choices in the history of narrative cinema, a moment of melodrama in its most abstracted, virtually transcendent form. It is a scene of celestial histrionics, of the unbelievable; yet, it is also the truest, most sincere, most profound scene in Anderson’s entire filmography (which includes it as one of the greatest world cinema has had to offer in the past two decades). It is also, particularly upon initial viewing, mystifying, and its significance as an expressionistically melodramatic explosion, one that exemplifies the pulverizing power of excess and emotion flying in the face of “realism,” is best explained by answering the perplexed Phil Parma’s stammering question upon witnessing the meteorological marvel, “How are there frogs falling from the sky?”

Most basically, Phil’s question is a metaphysical one, pondering how the basic laws of reality appear to have been transgressed and contradicted. In this light, the term deus ex machina seems particularly apt (the god in question being PTA). With the falling frogs, Anderson employs a deus ex machina to a deliberate end (rather than demonstrating the laziness typically ascribed to the use of such overt narrative intervention), one which elucidates the melodramatic ethos of Magnolia by aligning the film’s entire universe with its core emotional concerns – perhaps the ultimate form of expressionism. Indeed, the spiritual overtones of the sequence (look for references to Exodus 8:2 throughout the film) point to a certain transcendence-seeking impulse often associated with profound emotion, an impulse Anderson is happy to indulge by emphasizing the act of forgiveness (Christian connotations abound). A specifically cosmic variety of forgiveness is the source from which the frogs fall in Magnolia, whether that source is an implied deity/metaphysical force or simply the writer-director (the god of the narrative machine). It is a forgiveness from outside, one which deliberately pushes people together, saves them from themselves, and retracts their seemingly deserved punishments. It is a narrative leap predicated on emotion and sympathy – that of the filmmaker, and, perhaps, the audience, for the characters; however, the leap is also motivated by the emotion and desire for redemption buried in the most intense interiorities of the characters themselves. Overflowing with these swirling sentiments, Magnolia’s surge into unfettered melodrama seems somewhat inevitable – fated, one might say, not just “one of those things.”

But the falling frogs are still more complex. As the scene concludes, the audience is presented with the same sort of defense of the fantastic and coincidental as earlier in the film. A close up of the corner of a painting’s frame in Claudia’s apartment reveals a strip of paper reading “but it did happen” and, while watching the frogs rain from within the confines of his school library, Stanley mutters, “This is something that happens.” In this new, metaphysically provocative context, however, the previously self-conscious move of rhetorical defensiveness becomes something different. Rather than suggesting the actuality of the fantastic (“these things happen all the time”) as a method of justification and reliability, Magnolia now points to the unbelievable wonder of actuality, offering a phenomenon that demonstrates the shockingly strange qualities of real occurrences. (Raining frogs actually occur in nature. Seriously, look it up.) Ultimately, the recurrence of the “this happens” motif results in an underscoring of the relevance of melodrama to our lived experience. The most outlandish moment has a relatable root in reality, even if that root is essentially emotional. It is all startlingly reminiscent of one of the most memorable scenes of Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman’s aforementioned Adaptation., in which Robert McKee (Brian Cox) berates Charlie (Nicolas Cage) after the later remarks that he wants to make a movie in which nothing happens, as in life, to which Robert responds:

"Nothing happens in the world? Are you out of your fucking mind? People are murdered every day. There's genocide, war, corruption. Every fucking day, somewhere in the world, somebody sacrifices his life to save someone else. Every fucking day, someone, somewhere takes a conscious decision to destroy someone else. People find love, people lose it. For Christ's sake, a child watches her mother beaten to death on the steps of a church. Someone goes hungry. Somebody else betrays his best friend for a woman. If you can't find that stuff in life, then you, my friend, don't know crap about life! And why the FUCK are you wasting my two precious hours with your movie? I don't have any use for it! I don't have any bloody use for it!"


Like Adaptation., Magnolia is a film at odds with itself regarding its post-modern and melodramatic tendencies. Magnolia, however, is decidedly more committed to the latter, demonstrating the truth of McKee’s powerful objection by extracting and externalizing the power and intensity of world that frequently seems banal. The world, Magnolia suggests, is vital, dynamic, and beyond our ken – its full expression requiring a narrative mode imbued with the cataclysmic, the extravagant, the super real, in other words, the melodramatic.
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Friday, September 24, 2010

Bittersweet, Overblown Symphony


by James Hansen

It’s been a while since I’ve seen Gaspar Noé’s new film Enter The Void, which was born 163 minutes prematurely at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival before resuscitating itself in 137 minute (25 fps) form at Sundance 2010 where it was met with the critical divisiveness we have come to expect of Noé whose name has become associated with in-your-face extremes of violence, sex, not to mention ambition. Mention I Stand Alone (1998) or, better yet, Irreversible (2002) to your friends and see the response you get. It will likely be polarized, which should let you know whether or not you should invite them when you go see Enter The Void. In Enter The Void, Noé isn’t just trying to stir up the audience with flashing lights, effervescent camerawork, and an (overworked) narrative of life, death, and “The Void” as summarized in a few early conversations about The Tibetan Book of the Dead; one better (or worse), he’s trying to do all that while simultaneously blowing the brains out of the back of our skulls.


This, of course, leaves Enter The Void with some advantages (it is never not interesting and is sure to find a stoned, midnight cult following) and some drawbacks (shit gets retarded). Much as I’d like to avoid it, the story of Enter The Void follows the strange relationship a small time drug dealer, Oscar, and a nightclub stripper, his sister Linda. A bond and promise between the two, replayed several times in the film, refuses to be broken even after Oscar’s death. The camera pivots from Oscar’s actual POV and take up his would be soul as it floats around Tokyo finding visions of his past, present, future, and...the void.

This is already too much description for a film that wants to be treated as purely experiential. Noé’s insistence on crafting a filial melodrama where the emotional excess is taken up by the camera (hence, an surfeit of embarrassing Metaphors) ultimately undercuts the film as a pseudo avant-garde exercise creating a vision of “life” in The Void. Much as I wish I tried to put those issues aside, it becomes impossible as Enter The Void continues returning to the family bond where rules and logic are beaten out of the bluntest details.


Still, I still find myself defending Enter The Void (to myself). It’s drugged out vision of Oscar’s displacement and isolation in the superb neon, mutating lights of unfamiliar Tokyo is oddly beautiful and completely terrifying. As the 2010 movie year has floundered on with prepackaged, tidy, and downright lousy movies, Enter The Void, despite undoing itself with some enormous (not to mention hysterical) misfires in the final third when Noé is really swinging for the 2001 fences, has stuck with me. There might be no other movie I would rather see again in theaters this year. After my screening, I stumbled into the street, dazed, where the lights of Times Square shone down on thousands of other souls stumbling through the streets, looking at the lights, staring at each other, and floating into some beyond where I will never encounter them again. Then again, I never knew them to begin. For all the faults, Enter The Void, at least afterwards, made me think about my place and our places in the world. I’d never felt so lonely than among those thousands of strangers.


Yves Klein’s Le Saut dans le Vide (“Leap into the Void”) is a photograph of a performance by Klein in 1960 in which the artist leaped into space and nothingness. The photograph captures this instant where the body, floating in the air, is forever leaping into that void. When he made this leap, Klein said “to paint space, I must be in position. I must be in space.” In the photograph, Klein’s body becomes freely trapped in the beyond in both time and space. In Enter The Void, there are plenty of wonderful moments – enough to make it a must-see – where Noé’s camera, like Klein, becomes a timeless companion of the unexpected, beguiling void. Unfortunately, Noé (and Oscar) show us the full leap. As the cycle continues and continues and continues, ashes, ashes, it all falls down.
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Friday, September 3, 2010

The Sound of Realities


by James Hansen

Miguel Gomes’ Our Beloved Month of August is a lot of things at once: a blatantly reflexive formalist inquiry into the nature of filmmaking, a concert documentary featuring musicians from various locales in Portugal, a documentary about a filmmaker trying to make a film without funding or actors, and a cheerily dark melodrama about a young singer’s relationship with her uncle and cousin set to leave for France. Truth be told, it might also be none of those things.


Premiering in New York this week after two years in distribution limbo following its premiere at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival, Gomes’ film has the (constructed?) back story to match its methodical existence as a single work. The story goes Gomes had a large screenplay ready to shoot before actors and financing were completely pulled. Stymied but determined, Gomes went to the location anyways with his crew, a camera, and shot everything he could to complete his film with whatever and whoever he could find amid an August musical festival in rural Portugal. OBMoA gives the audience little reason to believe Gomes’s wild tale, although there’s also little reason not to. Regardless, the story functions as a kind of mythic fable built into the fabric of the film.


A key to thinking about this construction is the collision between the image and the soundtrack. OBMoA performs as a concert documentary, complete with titles identifying each different band, but the sound of music carries into each realm of reality into which the film seamlessly veers. If we see the sound being recorded and then “see” the sound where it isn’t, then how does the sound belong? How or why do we accept this? These questions are asked directly in the film’s coda – played after the end credits begin, naturally – but the question (and answer) comes across as hysterical (and rhetorical). It might be best if we take a cue from the lead actress who, after crying hysterically in one of the film’s serious scenes, bursts into laughter. There may be no rhyme or reason, but, if we stop and wonder why, then we are constructing the illusion ourselves and putting up a wall against the nature of the film. From Gomes’s fable forward, OBMoA shatters the illusion of levels of reality and demands the audience follows suit.


OBMoA winds the lines between truth, fiction, and fiction-reality into a ripcord before they dissipate into the film’s being. The question that would usually come up here is what is real, fake, or pre-conceived, but the question and those terms hardly seem appropriate. Rather, OBMoA uncovers that, as filmmakers enter into the process of creating films, and as the people we see on screen prepare themselves to perform for a camera, and as audiences finish the cycle by engaging with what we see on screen, the what is undeniably malleable and hysterically useless. (In this way, OBMoA functions as the antithesis of the torpid Inception whose realities are clearly defined even within dreams). Instead, OBMoA embraces the ambiguity and asks how we see and understand these levels of reality in life and interact with films. Before the opening credits roll, the terms are laid out by a film crew, the soundtrack, and a set of dominoes. OBMoA makes sure they linger throughout the film and far past the lights coming up. How do we react and interact knowing that our dominoes have already toppled?

Our Beloved Month of August is playing at Anthology Film Archives through Sep. 11. It can also be viewed online at MUBI.


B+

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Monday, August 16, 2010

New York Film Festival 2010 Slate

The 48th New York Film Festival main-slate:

Opening Night
THE SOCIAL NETWORK, David Fincher, 2010, USA, 120 min

Centerpiece
THE TEMPEST, Julie Taymor, 2010, USA, 110 min

Closing Night
HEREAFTER, Clint Eastwood, 2010, USA, 126 min


ANOTHER YEAR, Mike Leigh, 2010, UK, 129 min

AURORA, Cristi Puiu, 2010, Romania, 181 min

BLACK VENUS, (Venus noire), Abdellatif Kechiche, France, 166 min

CARLOS, Olivier Assayas, 2010, France, 319 min

CERTIFIED COPY (Copie conformé), Abbas Kiarostami, 2010, France/Italy, 106 min

FILM SOCIALISME, Jean-Luc Godard, 2010, Switzerland, 101 min

INSIDE JOB, Charles Ferguson, 2010, USA, 120 min

LE QUATTRO VOLTE, Michelangelo Frammartino, 2010, Italy, 88 min

LENNON NYC, Michael Epstein, 2010, USA, 115 min

MEEK'S CUTOFF, Kelly Reichardt, 2010, USA, 104 min

MY JOY (Schastye moe), Sergei Loznitsa, 2010, Ukraine/Germany, 127 min

MYSTERIES OF LISBON (Misterios de Lisboa), Raul Ruiz, Portugal/France, 272 min

OF GODS AND MEN (Des homes et des dieux), Xavier Beauvois, 2010,
France, 120 min

OKI'S MOVIE (Ok hui ui yeonghwa), Hong Sang-soo, 2010, South Korea, 80 min

OLD CATS (Gatos viejos), Sebastian Silva, 2010, Chile, 88 min

POETRY (Shi), Lee Chang-dong, 2010, South Korea, 139 min

POST MORTEM, Pablo Larrain, 2010, Chile/Mexico/Germany, 98 min

REVOLUCION, Mariana Chenillo, Fernando Embecke, Amat Escalante, Gael Garcia
Bernal, Rodrigo Garcia, Diego Luna, Gerardo Naranjo, Rodrigo Plá, Carlos Reygadas,
Patricia Riggen, 2010, Mexico, 110 min

THE ROBBER (Der Räuber), Benjamin Heisenberg, Austria/Germany, 90 min

ROBINSON IN RUINS, Patrick Keiller, 2010, UK, 101 min

SILENT SOULS (Ovsyanki), Alexei Fedorchenko, Russia, 75 min

THE STRANGE CASE OF ANGELICA (O estranho caso de Angélica), Manoel de Oliveira,
Portugal, 97 min

TUESDAY AFTER CHRISTMAS (Marti, dupa craciun), Radu Muntean,
Romania, 99 min

UNCLE BOONMEE WHO CAN RECALL PAST LIVES (Lung Boonmee raluek chat),
Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2010, UK/Thailand, 113 min

WE ARE WHAT WE ARE (Somos lo que hay), Jorge Michel Grau, Mexico, 90 min


The 17-day New York Film Festival highlights the best in world cinema, featuring top films from celebrated filmmakers as well as fresh new talent. The selection committee, chaired by Peña also includes: Melissa Anderson, contributor The Village Voice; Scott Foundas, Associate Program Director, The Film Society of Lincoln Center; Dennis Lim, Editor, Moving Image Source & Freelance Critic; and Todd McCarthy, Critic indieWire.

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Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Love Is Blonde


by James Hansen

With his stature becoming more and more mythic with each passing year (and each new film), 101-year-old Portuguese filmmaker Manoel de Oliveira has become something of a godfather of contemporary cinema. Active in filmmaking since 1931, his career has persisted while cinema searched for (and found) its foothold throughout the world. Meanwhile, various other art forms have redefined and recontextualized themselves in light of the rise (and fall) of the moving image, modernism, post-modernism, et al. The few Oliveria films I’ve seen have all centered around a conflict between competing art forms, art and reality, representation and actuality. Eccentricities of a Blonde-haired Girl does the same. Eccentricities’ complex peculiarities – from the title, to the cinematography, to the 58-minute running time, to the ambiguousness of its storytelling – help contain its expanses and expand its containment. Replete with contradictions and anachronisms, Eccentricities plays like a photo-painting projected onto a cinema screen – several things all at once and each element is instantly isolated and united, beautiful and repellent, true and false, past and present, now and forever.


It starts with the Blonde-haired Girl whose hair color is one of the only things Eccentricities makes clear about her. Eventually her name is dropped – Luisa – but from the interactions seen with the protagonist, Marcario, she exists predominantly as a figure of the imagination. Marcario gazes into her room from across the street in his accounting office. Her window serves as a canvas into another world, one with a beautiful blonde-girl who waves her enchanting Chinese fan and stares longingly (but for what?) across the street. She fans herself and smiles. She fans herself and frowns. No matter for Marcario – he is completely under her spell. We never know very much about her or their relationship, but Marcario quotes romantic poets when speaking about her so there is little reason to doubt his honest sentimentality. Marcario, blinded by his love, misses the several, all be them brief, clues as to the true nature of his blonde.


Soon, Marcario pleads with his uncle to allow him to be married. His uncle, with no explanation, rejects the request and fires him from his accounting work. With his economic future in shambles, marriage is out of the question. Determined nonetheless, Marcario leaves in search of other work in hopes of becoming sound enough to marry his would-be goddess. Though the moral fabric of the story is undoubtedly 19th century (the film is based on a short story by Eça de Queirós), Oliveira fills the frame with eccentricities of its own. Macario recalls the fated story of the blonde-haired girl on a high speed train, his office has a computer, he does a goofy dance when he discovers a friend of his knows the family of blonde. Even more oddly, perhaps, Marcario visits the estate of Eça de Queirós with Luisa. Eccentricities shows Eça de Queirós in alternating forms – sculpture, figurine, and modernist painting (not to mention the film itself as a further extension of Eça de Queirós’ work). This sense of historical presence exists ambiguously (no one in the film mentions the oddity of the situation or winks towards the existence of contemporary objects) but is undoubtedly a primary concern for Oliveira. Michael Sicinski wonderfully summarizes, “Oliveira is implicitly asking his audience to lend a 21st century ear to works in a classical mode, to admire their beauty and present-day resonance, despite but perhaps in some ways even because of their temporal alterity to our world.” And, of course, this works both inside and outside of the film. Oliveira’s role as a contemporary cinematic figure shadows the historical presence within Eccentricities, while the film creates characters as figures with inescapable pasts and futures.


In the opening sequence of the film, voice-over narration advises, “If you can’t tell it to a friend, tell it to a stranger.” The voice-over then shifts to a conversation between Marcario and a stranger on a train, which ultimately functions as extended voice-over narration in conversation form. Thus, the romantic Maracario’s relationship with the blonde is fated (as always), but what is more interesting about Eccentricities is how the characters, the camera, and the film text itself serves as mere figures or identifiable objects rather than being entrenched, definable characters. However, this isn’t to say the choice leaves the film and its characters empty. Quite on the contrary, it allows Eccentricities to double back on itself and extend the characters and the film’s ideas in multiple ways. The stilted, awkwardly staged conversation between Marcario and the stranger seems almost as if the actors are reading from cue cards beyond the frame. They rarely look at one another, instead gazing at a strange angle off screen. Perhaps the mark of Oliveira’s translation, Marcario and the stranger may as well be holding his novel and reading from it. (Later, a man does exactly this with a book of poetry). The scenes on the train seem like cameos for the source text, where the characters suddenly exist as mere actors reading the narration. The actors are playing parts in a new artistic dimension, which may be understood as a piece of its own, yet – like the sculpture, figurines, and paintings of Eça de Queirós, or the harpist who plays Debussy, or the poet who recites Alberto Caeiro (Fernando Pessoa) – they embody the livelihood and existence of these "dead" artists.


On a more narrative level, even in this opening scene, Marcario doesn’t refer to Luisa but rather “the blonde.” While this may contain different national signifiers, but she fits the Western bill and serves as a traditional figure of unfathomable beauty and mystery whose downfall, in the end, is vanity (and perhaps a dash of poverty). The blonde functions simultaneously functions as everything the sentimental romantic ever wants and the last thing he should ever have. Her inability to fulfill Marcario’s initial expectation of the mystical blonde-haired girl with the Chinese fan, precisely because of the flawed assumptions in defining her as such without any details, leaves her broken and rejected, possibly forever. Unlike the artists kept alive through the arts, she becomes a dead symbol by destroying her own "meaning." Her chief sin seems rather slight, but, for Marcario and the film, once her iconography is shattered she slumps over, as Keith Uhlich argues, and becomes an “animate still life” – stunningly real, almost alive, yet always already disintegrating.

B+
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Friday, August 6, 2010

The Horrors of War


by James Hansen

Samuel Maoz’s debut feature Lebanon - winner of the Golden Tiger at the 2009 Venice International Film Festival (and one of the few films I missed at NYFF 2009) - may offer little “new insight” in the war movie narrative (war is hell, everyone is unprepared, you’ll never get out the same, etc.), yet its intensely personal evocation of the unavoidable, manufactured chaos inside a clunky, constantly deteriorating war machine makes Lebanon a harrowing horror movie.


Set almost entirely within the confines of a tank named Rhino, Lebanon focuses on the first 24 hours of the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. The four soldiers who operate Rhino - Assi, Herzl, Shmulik, and Yigal - only see the outside through their targeted scopes. With no experience in combat, the four soldiers become increasingly wary of their situation. Shmulik, the gunner, refuses to shoot a bomb at an oncoming truck which attacks the platoon and ultimately kills one solider. Soon after, a chicken truck driven by a civilian approaches and Shmulik blows up the truck without a warning shot.

Although the POV scope becomes Lebanon’s chief gimmick – overused and oftentimes too directly staged – it makes clear that throughout the battle everyone and everything becomes a target. A sign in the tank reads, “Men are made of steel. The tank is only a piece of iron.” As the scope whirls around the landscapes throughout Lebanon, the sounds of the clanking, rotating lens are a constant reminder of the mechanical nature of the Rhino. The soldiers are reminded that they need to be unflinching steel machines, but, as the film progresses, the fallacy of this idea becomes more and more apparent.


While Lebanon has many interesting parallels with the terrific HBO miniseries Generation Kill, in its last third, Lebanon begins to feel much more like The Descent. The Rhino becomes an inescapable cave. After the Rhino is attacked and nearly destroyed, it begins oozing oil, dripping water, and slowly deteriorating as the soldier’s sanity and optimism does the same. Lebanon's formal rigor – the constant, intense close ups, the violent bouncing of the tank, the horrified glazed over eyes of the soldiers – makes the claustrophobic fear palpable. The only way to get out alive is to keep driving and continue fighting in the start of a war with no leaders and no clear objective. The soldiers rarely know where they are, much less how to get out.


Even with its brief 85 minutes running time, Lebanon formally echos the traumatic mission in such a way that unprepared audience members may flee from the theater. And Lebanon makes clear, for the soldiers (and thereby Maoz himself), there are never going to be explanations for the trauma. However, in a wonderful scene near the end of Lebanon, a seemingly simple act with a POW proves the one thing the soldiers can’t afford to lose is their humanity. This might be a typical anti-war message from a war movie, but Lebanon’s focus is experiential rather than sentimental. The sentiment arrives in bursts and always feels a little overdone, but the experience is frightening.

B

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Friday, May 7, 2010

An Interview with Harmony Korine on "Trash Humpers"


interview by James Hansen

After its fall premieres at the Toronto and New York Film Festivals, Harmony Korine's Trash Humpers is unearthed in New York City today at Cinema Village. I wrote about Trash Humpers in my NYFF dispatches where it was one of the highlights of the festival. Shot on lo-grade VHS in and around Nashville, where Korine is from, Trash Humpers jovially observes characters who walk around humping trash, tree branches, gates, and mailboxes. They laugh at kids who can't shoot a basketball, advise putting razor blades in apples, and smash light bulbs in empty parking lots. Trash Humpers is frightening, funny, and utterly fascinating. At the festival, I sat down with director Harmony Korine (who also portrays one of the Humpers) to talk about his approach to this curious object. We discuss his ideas, methods, and the beauty of exploding toilets.



James Hansen: When did you start working on Trash Humpers?

Harmony Korine: Yeah, it was pretty recently. I only started the movie four months ago [in May 2009]. It was shot and edited in right around a month. But I had been dreaming up this idea for close to a year. I always walk my dog through these back alleys by my house in Nashville, especially late at night. I would see all these trash bins that were all laid out with these dramatic overhead lamps and lights that would light up the sewers. The trash bins looked kind of human to me. They looked kind of like they had been mauled and molested and beaten. I don’t know, sometimes I just let my mind wander and I started to dream up these characters – these old people who just walk through these alley ways, peep into windows, hump trash, and do the most vile, disgusting deeds.

JH: And once you dreamed up the idea and came up with the images, what was your approach to actually putting it on video?

HK: I don’t know...I just started thinking it might be nice if this it could be not a movie in a traditional sense, but more like a found artifact or an unearthed object – something that was buried in a ditch or lost in some ladies attic. It was this home movie made by these kind of sadists. Once I figured that out and felt like I knew the movie would replicate a found VHS tape, it got very exciting.

JH: Was it difficult to find VHS cameras to record on these days?

HK: Yeah. It was difficult. But I also wanted to work with the lowest of the low, the worst 12 dollar VHS recorders. The hardest thing was just that the batteries were so terrible in those. We had to constantly be changing those.

JH: Was the use of VHS in any way a limitation? Or was it freeing in some ways? It sounds like it could have been a restraint, in some ways similar to the self-imposed Dogme limitations of Julien Donkey Boy, but I wonder if it really was a hindrance.


HK: No, it was really freeing. The only thing I needed to stay true to was it being a found VHS tape, so everything else didn’t matter. The aesthetics, the compositions, the lighting – none of that mattered. It was all just about documenting on this one machine and that very, very freeing. It became instantaneous.


JH: How was this approach of documenting, or creating an artifact, different from your approach to others things you’ve made in terms of making a film?

HK: I think there are a lot of similarities in the other movies, but I think this is maybe one or two steps further in that direction. I think it was different because I was an active participant in the film. It was as much a character piece as anything technical. It was really just about becoming a Trash Humper.

JH: Along with this idea of a character piece, I’m curious as to how the location informs the characters. How did The South inform the characters and the movie itself? How much were you thinking about the distinct South-ness while you were making Trash Humpers?

HK: Yeah, that’s where I grew up, and, for the characters, as a kid, those types of voices and the things being said, the mannerisms were very familiar to me. A lot of it was like trying to close your eyes and tap into that place with the voices. Some of them are very horrible and some are very exciting. And the south, and I guess most of America in general, was to me, at least, as a kid... it seemed a lot more wild than it does now. Now, everything is starting to seem the same. In the south, it seemed more regional, more isolated, and more wild. There was something more susceptible to horror.

JH: And the idea of Southern horror is definitely something that has persisted throughout horror films. It seems pretty applicable to Trash Humpers.

HK: Yeah, you could almost make the argument that it’s a horror film just because it feels horrible. You know what I mean? I wanted to make a movie where the violence erupted more in the ambiance than anything else. You see most of the violence in this movie post-action. It’s more about the mood, the feel, the ambiance. That seems a lot freakier to me. And so, I guess you could call it a horror film because some of it feels horrible. I always try and make something that lingers and can’t be talked away. It has more to do with the emotion or the tone.

JH: Yeah, and it’s interesting that, despite this horror basis, Trash Humpers just as often verges into comedy. Perhaps that relates to the performances – I mean, you are humping trash, which, at least to me, is funny – so I wonder about the relationship this “horror film” has to comedy and performance.

HK: Yeah, I’m not sure. You could make that argument, maybe, that the first half is a comedy and then it turns into something else. I don’t really know. I don’t question it too much. A lot of times I’m not exactly sure about why or where it comes from. But it just feels like there’s a force pulling me in some direction.


JH: How did you get everyone else on board to perform? I know your wife is one of the Humpers.

HK: Yeah, my wife Rachel. She’s potentially a really terrific actress. I just asked her if she would be into making this movie, but she would have to hump a lot of trash. And she was up for it. The other guys are friends of mine and characters from around where I live.

JH: I’m curious about the real characters you always seem to find in your movies. I think that’s especially interesting with Trash Humpers here in terms of creating an artifact and recording real, strange people.

HK: Well, the Humpers kind of do their thing and then the movie is series of semi-vaudeville moments of where they go. All the want is a kind of entertainment, so they just knock on doors and find performers and people who tell jokes with no punch lines or play one-stringed guitars or do neck exercises and watch nine televisions. I think a lot of the people, the real people, you see are kind of their friends.

JH: And are they people you know? Or had you just heard about them?

HK: I know them all. That was the way the movie was made. We’d wake up under a bridge or something and go to their house and knock on their door. That’s pretty much how all of it happened.

JH: There’s a sense throughout the movie, and maybe celebration is the wrong word, but there’s a sort of romantic view of anarchy. I wonder if that’s a view you have or if it’s just something interesting that you wanted to explore.

HK: It’s funny because anarchy always reminds of me of high school and junior high. I had this very good friend – we used to call him ‘The Gregler’ – and he looked a lot like Count Chocula. He was a Jewish anarchist. He had read The Anarchist’s Cookbook. We were only 14 or 15, but he would do these amazing things. He would blow up toilets, but he would do it with these chemicals and stuff. He was obsessed with blowing up toilets and I always admired that. He never hurt people, but he was just really focused on destroying this one type of object over and over again. I mean, he must have destroyed millions of dollars of toilets. Coincidentally, he’s now a State Senator! Anyways, I would say I always thought there was something just as exciting in the act of building and creating than there was in destroying and burning. Vandalism could be considered a really high form of spiritual existence.

JH: Toward the end of Trash Humpers, you get a real sense of that when you’re driving around giving the monologue about the types of people. Clearly, it’s a view the Humpers believe in, but I’m curious as to whether it’s something in today’s culture that you think is worth aspiring to.

HK: Sure. I mean, it’s difficult for me to say. I don’t really know how I feel about that. But I think there’s some truth to what he says in that speech though.

Harmony Korine's Trash Humpers (2009)


James Rosenquist's Gift Wrapped Doll No. 13 (1992)

Distant Cousins?


JH: At one point, a friend of the Humpers [Chris Gantry] reads a poem off a sheet of paper. Was any more of this scripted beforehand?

HK: No. There were ideas and things that I felt we needed to achieve maybe. But we were so focused on this idea of it being a found object. In some ways, it was like once everyone became the character and once we had the camera and once we were walking through these alleyways, there was no real right or wrong. It just became what it was. Like a home movie. It means everything and nothing. It just is what it is. It’s about documenting something and making sense of it or not making sense of it.

JH: I wonder about some of the repetitive chants and songs in the movie too, like the “Three Little Devils” song. I didn’t recognize that song specifically, but a lot of it felt like it was part of a creepy children’s fairy tale.


HK: There are some of those audio threads in the movie and that’s one of them. There’s also that breathing, the maniacal laughter, and then the “Three Little Devils” song. It’s actually a very old folk song. The song that’s sung in the movie is just a bastardized version of it.

JH: After all the chaos in the movie, I think the ending provides an interesting counterpoint to much of what we see when the Humpers get an actual baby. We see several fake babies or dolls in early parts of the movie – the kid who beats the doll with the hammer, for example – but, in the end, we feel this pretty genuine moment with the real baby and the Humpers. It gives them a little bit of a dual role, similar to your other movies where we find a relationship between the real world and something else (Julien’s schizophrenia, the stage personas in Mister Lonely). Can you talk a little about that final sequence.

HK: It was a hard sequence to film. You had to be very sensitive, obviously. I felt like it needed to be heartfelt and honest, but at the same time stay true to the intent of the Trash Humpers. I guess it’s kind of open ended what happens with the baby. But there’s something slightly loving about it. But also something a little sinister.

JH: And a final question: how can we all be Trash Humpers for Halloween? Any plans for commerce of the masks or anything?

HK: (laughs) That’s not a bad idea. I’ve got to make some money somehow!
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Monday, April 26, 2010

Migrating Forms 2010 Trailer

MIGRATING FORMS 2010 TRAILER from Migrating Forms on Vimeo.



Migrating Forms will take place May 14-23 at Anthology Film Archives. Trailer by Leslie Thornton. For complete details, see http://migratingforms.org/


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Monday, March 22, 2010

Lessons Learned


by Brandon Colvin

At the conclusion of Green Zone, the film’s whistle-blowing soldier-hero-everyman protagonist, Chief Warrant Officer Roy Miller (Matt Damon), sends a mass e-mail to writers for every major American news publication containing classified documents which prove the intentional duplicity of governmental officials in fabricating the presence of WMD in Iraq. Fueled by frustration and the humiliation of being duped, his laconic message suggests that its recipients see the controversial attached files and features a simple command: “Let’s get the story right this time.” This imperative is the driving force behind director Paul Greengrass and Damon’s Bourne-style revisionist Iraq actioner.

Scripted by Brian Helgeland (as well as the uncredited Greengrass) and inspired by journalist Rajiv Chandresakeran’s Imperial Life in the Emerald City (2006), Green Zone is about applying the lessons learned from our most recent military debacle – namely, that “official reports” are not inherently reputable, that those in power manipulate the truth to their own ends, and that it is our responsibility as citizens to take our country’s wellbeing into our own hands. Or, as one of the film’s repeated maxims simply and cumulatively commands, “Don’t be naïve.” Set in 2003 Baghdad, just after the initial invasion, the film serves as an ex-post-facto reimaging of how the war could have been different if this heuristic had been followed, if complex truth had been privileged over convenience and opportunism.


Green Zone begins, appropriately, with the breakdown of its hero’s naïvete, and, implicitly, the unenlightened viewer’s. During the film’s opening sequence, Officer Miller reaches the cusp of his already overstretched faith in his superiors, storming a location reported to be housing WMD, but which ends up being a long-abandoned toilet factory. It’s the third consecutive false alarm for Miller’s team. Miller gets the feeling he’s on a wild goose chase. Not only a wild goose chase, but one with casualties – unnecessary casualties. His voiced suspicions of faulty intelligence are repeatedly refuted by those around and above him, save for a long-serving Middle East expert with similar fears and a penchant for raising a ruckus: grizzled CIA operative Martin Brown (Brendan Gleeson). Urged by Brown, Miller begins deviating from his orders, pursuing alternative intelligence, including that of a helpful Iraqi, dubbed “Freddy” (Khalid Abdallah). He hits the jackpot, bringing in a slew of important targets and nearly taking down Saddam’s top official, General Al Rawi (Yigal Naor).

Success seems imminent. However, Pentagon official and all-around neo-con sleazeball Clark Poundstone (Greg Kinnear) intervenes, sending in a squad of roughneck lunkheads to do his dirty work by intercepting Miller’s prisoner and harassing his unit. Poundstone subsequently serves as an increasingly nefarious stumbling block to Miller and Brown’s muckraking endeavors, attempting to protect a mysterious source of WMD information codenamed “Magellan” – the originator of the faulty intelligence used to justify the 2003 invasion. In protecting their source, Poundstone and his Pentagon cronies utilize any means necessary, ranging from Abu Ghraib-style torture to outright assassination – not exactly a pretty picture of the highest of the higher-ups.

Though it is certainly not a flattering depiction of its “Mission Accomplished” celebrants, Green Zone is not the piece of liberal propaganda many have accused it of being. There is no humanistic tear-jerking or multi-cultural relativism. There is only pragmatic political reality, which demands the watchful interest that characterizes responsible citizenship. Miller does not investigate intelligence claims to gain an upper-hand for left-leaners. He does it to assert his legitimate right to be informed of the real reasons he is risking his life, to exercise his ability to ask.


Likewise, General Al Rawi is no sanctified victim of imperialism. Though he might be a crucial asset to securing peace – a leader to be dealt with diplomatically – he proves to be brutal when backed into a corner, killing numerous Americans with his gang of soldiers. The Iraqi militants in the film are undoubtedly dangerous and potentially ruthless, not over-sympathized or victimized. Green Zone is not interested in sugarcoating the circumstances. Instead, it views them with hindsight and healthy skepticism, concerned with solving a problem rather than following a political platform, warning the viewer against the comfortable complacency epitomized by the politically disconnected inhabitants of the titular “Green Zone” – the secure International Zone set up in Baghdad during the invasion. Such individuals, who lounge by pools sipping beers as Miller looks death in the face, lack any sense of real involvement. They are merely passive spectators, amused and safe, allowing misguided bullies like Poundstone to run the show unchecked.

Greengrass’ signature snatch-and-grab style of frenetic, yet coherent, composition and editing – honed in United 93 (2006) and The Bourne Ultimatum (2007) – eliminates such passivity in the film’s viewer at the most basic formal level. Jarring and somewhat disorienting, Greengrass and veteran cinematographer Barry Ackroyd’s jittery technique is given rhythmic elegance by Christopher Rouse’s relentlessly full-throttle cutting – requiring the viewer to actively process and decipher a series of suddenly shifting images. Particularly impressive is a nine-minute set-piece that details the spontaneous raid of a covert meeting of Baathist officials, culminating with the crucial acquisition of a notebook that proves central to Miller’s investigation. The lengthy, propulsive sequence is lean and vigorous, each shot riddled with anxious uncertainty and the seeds of tense mistrust, expressed in the camera’s nervous framings and movements. Paranoia lingers throughout, up until the final scene, in which Miller fears Freddy has made off with the precious book, only to be assuaged when Freddy willingly returns the tome, indignant at Miller’s suspicion. Jagged and quaking, Green Zone is not a film that “washes” over the viewer; rather, it is a film that enlivens the eyes, while also seeking to awaken political awareness and curiosity.


Perhaps the most subtle, and therefore most effective, of the politically apt observations presented in Green Zone revolve around Freddy, Miller’s unofficial informant and translator. A veteran of the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88) who lost a leg in battle, Freddy perceives the American presence as his country’s best hope. Not only is Freddy a knowledgeable, dependent ally for Miller, he is also Miller’s Iraqi mirror image, a fact that lends Green Zone much of its concluding wallop. Throughout the film, Miller experiences self-actualization, refusing to serve as a disenfranchised tool in the political machinery of others. He takes initiative. Freddy must undergo this exact process in relation to Miller, who seems to view Freddy as a handy sidekick to be ordered around, no matter how morally dubious or incriminating a situation might be. Freddy’s final act, a brave burst of insubordination, challenges Miller’s authority and represents Freddy’s own political actualization, vocalized in his direct declaration, “It is not for you to decide what happens here.” Freddy wants to protect his country much more than the Americans, and, when he feels it is his duty to act, he does, in many ways following Miller’s lead while also educating the (justifiably) self-righteous soldier about his own capacity for manipulation.

None of Green Zone’s characters is perfect. But a handful – Miller, Freddy, Martin Brown – are certainly heroic, as is unwitting-political-puppet-turned-investigate-assistant Lawrie Dayne (Amy Ryan), a Wall Street Journal reporter who helps Miller “get the story right.” These characters most likely existed in some form in 2003 Iraq, at least their characteristics must have, but, through and through, they are today and tomorrow’s political champions, their narrative infused with the knowledge gained from the massive, continuing failure of the Iraq War. Green Zone’s whistle-blowing conclusion amounts to a bit of wish fulfillment on par with that of Inglourious Basterds (as J. Hoberman pointed out), but with major differences: this war is still happening and similar conflicts loom. Individuals like Miller and Freddy will have the opportunity to correct the errors of the past, to latch onto the truth, to act like patriots.

B+
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Wednesday, March 10, 2010

A Bullseye from the Archers


by Brandon Colvin

Of all the greatest “color” films – those cinematographically-immaculate demonstrations of chromatic control – one stands above the rest in its mastery of expressive hues. Flawlessly photographed and delicately designed, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s Black Narcissus (1946) is a startling demonstration of colorfully cohesive narration and tone, from its costuming to its sets to its breathtaking matte effects. Utilizing a bold palette that does not shy away from geographical grandeur or ethereal atmospherics, The Archers’ film – their best, along with The Red Shoes (1948) – is undeniably gorgeous from first frame to last. Aided by the unparalleled craftsmanship of their frequent Pinewood Studios collaborators – legendary cinematographer Jack Cardiff and influential production designer Alfred Junge (both of whom justly won Oscars for their work on Black Narcissus) – Powell and Pressburger’s film boasts stunning visuals, but is not merely a work of superficial spectacle; the film’s psychologically dense narrative reflects Hitchcockian levels of tension and complexity, perhaps even influencing the subsequent work of the Master of Suspense himself, while adhering to a melodramatic mode reminiscent of Douglas Sirk at his most feverishly expressionistic.


Closely adapted by Powell and Pressburger from Rumer Godden’s best-selling 1939 novel of the same name, Black Narcissus takes place in Godden’s signature setting: British-occupied India, specifically, the Himalayan region near Darjeeling, where a group of Anglican nuns naively seeks to endow the locals with a Westernized school and hospital. Led by the young Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr, at her best), a handful of nuns, including the maniacally unstable Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron), initiates the project, taking the Young General (Sabu), a regional aristocrat, under their collective wing. Cultural conflicts quickly create strife between the nuns and the locals, however, whose religious ideal is embodied by the stoic mysticism of a silent holy man (the Young General’s uncle) rather than the intrusive ethnocentrism of the Anglicans.

Further complicating matters, Sister Clodagh becomes oddly attracted to the generally repulsive Mr. Dean (David Farrar), an alcoholic atheist groundskeeper with lascivious intent, causing her to confront her repressed romantic inclinations, particularly in the form of flashbacks (which feature Kerr at her most ravishing) to the failed courtship that forced her into the nunnery. Not only does this sensual temptation lurk like a specter in the shadowy, gothic corridors of their Himalayan convent, it seems to demonically possess the disturbed Sister Ruth, plunging her into the throes of psychotically violent jealousy while seeking to claim Mr. Dean for herself. Black Narcissus becomes not only a critical commentary on imperialist arrogance, but also a dreamlike, expressionistic narrative of the “return of the repressed” and the overpowering sexual subconscious – an untamable desire, impervious even to the rigorous discipline of divine duty. It is no surprise, then, that Powell declared Black Narcissus the most erotic film The Archers ever made.


The film’s scintillating sensuality is certainly not limited to its thematic content. Black Narcissus’ approach to color and design is rooted in a resolutely maximalist style, externalizing and celebrating the unbridled sensory extravagance buried within its outwardly ascetic characters. The painterly detail and lush imagery displayed in Cardiff and Junge’s work, approached only by that of Antonioni’s The Red Desert (1964) or Fellini’s Juliet of the Spirits (1965) or Godard’s Pierrot le Fou (1965), is astonishing and predates the comparable efforts of those 60s masterpieces by two decades – eons in terms of film technology and technique. Inspired by the vibrant paintings of Vermeer, Cardiff and Junge’s palette is full of stark whites and grays, deep blues and greens, purple and orange-tinted lighting, and kaleidoscopically-brilliant traditional Indian garments and interiors. Working in Technicolor, but without ‘Scope, Cardiff’s cinematography beautifully captures Junge’s glass mattes and blown-up, pastel-chalked landscape paintings to depict an uncanny studio-built sense of Himalayan majesty.

The artificiality of Black Narcissus’ world accentuates the surreal, psychosexual interiority explored throughout the narrative, appropriating landscape and architecture by transforming them into symbolist playgrounds. The matte mountains are crafted to evoke the sublime spiritual abyss which Sisters Clodagh and Ruth teeter over, both figuratively and, later, literally, in a climactic scene bearing a remarkable resemblance to the conclusion of Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958). An eerily-lit artificial wood, glazed in ghastly orange, attains metaphorical significance when the manic Sister Ruth, her face rouged and eyes wild, stumbles through it en route to Mr. Dean’s abode, wandering through the dark forest of her own mind. Powell and Pressburger are at their most expressionistic in Black Narcissus, employing emotionally-charged artifice without the diegetic mediation of the stage, which distances the “real” from the artificial in The Red Shoes and Tales of Hoffmann (1951). In Black Narcissus, the two are inseparably fused – reality and artificiality interlocked in a crisp, vibrant cinematic environment, dripping with color and oozing the unreal in a way analogous to Sirk’s Magnificent Obsession (1954) and All That Heaven Allows (1955).

It is with the latter film’s concluding frames that the final shot of Black Narcissus shares a certain kinship. In Sirk’s film, the closing image is of a lone deer, standing on a studio-crafted patch of forest beyond a blue-tinted, frosted window as huge imitation snowflakes float down to the falsely snowy ground. The image is a final self-reflexive suggestion of All That Heaven Allows’ constructed nature, its recognition of its own falseness, a fact underscored by the isolated actuality of the deer, surrounded by fakery and obvious unreality. In the last shot of Black Narcissus, this scheme is inverted, but a similar effect is achieved. As Sister Clodagh and the defeated nuns somberly flee their Himalayan environs astride miniature horses, studio rain begins to trickle, dropping on leaves in one of the only non-studio locations in the film before building to a fake downpour, blurring and hazing the nuns’ retreat through the real surroundings. The real and the artificial are merged in the film’s final moments, the sheets of false rain representing the subsuming of the real under the power of the film’s design and artifice, its expressionistic bombast flourishing, being absorbed into every celluloid particle like the wash of rain. Indeed, it is impossible for the viewer of Powell, Pressburger, Cardiff, and Junge’s masterwork to avoid succumbing to the same incredible spectacle of color and craft, a visual smorgasbord of Technicolor, mattes, and shadows as striking today as it must have been over 60 years ago.


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