Monday, April 30, 2007

Adapting Krasznahoraki

Laszlo Krasznahorkai's novel The Melancholy of Resistance features a running dialogue between two unlikely friends, the idealistic Janos Valuska, a man confident in the benevolence of the universe and the elderly Mr Eszter, a cynic who has withdrawn completely from life. As the novel's horrible events unfold and a wave of brutal violence is unleashed by a vengeful mob, the two characters reverse their positions and embrace the viewpoint of the other. In adapting the novel for the screen, Krasznahorkai and director Bela Tarr, unable to fully articulate such interior character changes through the primarily visual medium of film, downplay the alterations in the characters' viewpoints, but suggest a lesser change in their outlook through two striking images that conclude the picture.

Tarr's film The Werckmeister Harmonies, like its source, details the arrival in a small Hungarian town of a circus, whose attractions are limited to a giant whale and a mysterious figure (glimpsed only in shadow) known as the Prince. Along with the circus' arrival, a mob of sinister figures, outsiders to the town, congregate in the central square, poised for action. The film masterfully conjures a world on the brink of destruction and towards the end of the picture the tension inherent in such a world resolves into apocalypse as the mob end their waiting and begin marching towards the hospital. Although Krasznahorkai's novel devotes only a paragraph to the hospital attack, Tarr makes it the centerpiece of the mob's actions. The mob brutally assault the inmates until the appearance of a withered, naked old man causes them to turn and begin an orderly retreat from the hospital. As the mob disperses, Tarr's camera remains inside and reveals Janos who, we learn, has been witness to the attack. The camera stays fixed on Janos' face, a face transfixed with disbelief. As Tarr's camera lingers, we sense that Janos' idealism has begun to give way to a more skeptical attitude.

Janos Valuska (played in the film by Lars Rudolph), viewed by many of the townspeople as a simpleton, is characterized by his naive wonder at the universe. He stages a re-enactment of an eclipse in the town pub; he sees the circus' whale as proof of God's greatness; he goes into raptures about the wonders of the stars as Mr Eszter listens politely before mounting his rebuke. In the novel, we learn that Janos' witnessing of the destruction has completely altered his outlook. Looking back on his conversations with Mr. Eszter, he derides his own foolishness and concedes that Mr. Eszter's counterarguments were correct. After bearing witness to (and in some sense participating in) the evil that man is capable of, he can no longer hold the same opinions of the universe's benevolence.

Since Janos' change of outlook is entirely an interior development, it is not well suited for the cinema, an art form which favors outward images. Tarr downplays Janos' change, it is nowhere near as explicit as in the novel, but does call on a powerful image to suggest the alteration in his lead character. In the film's penultimate scene, Janos, confined to a mental institution, sits on a bed, dressed only in a hospital gown, with a blank expression fixed on his face. Mr. Eszter, dressed in black, sits next to him and fills his unresponsive friend in on the changes that have taken place since the mob's attack. Tarr uses a static medium shot to fix his two protagonists in the frame and forces the viewer to acknowledge the changes undergone by the innocent Janos, reduced to a catatonic state when compelled to come to grips with the universe's evil. Finally, as Mr. Estzer prepares to leave, Tarr's camera slowly pulls back, allowing the older man (as well as the audience) egress from the uncomfortable scene. In both the film and the novel, Janos' experience has reduced him to a wordless stupor. In the earlier work, however, Krasznahorkai takes us through the character's disillusionment which finds its conclusion in this catatonia. The film powerfully shows the conclusion, but cannot give us the same details in Janos' interior development. Still, the power of the image is enough to drive home the horror of the transformation.

The film's final scene (a scene not in the novel) takes place in the now abandoned town square. The circus truck has collapsed and the whale sits alone in the deserted marketplace. Mr. Eszter enters the scene and examines the whale. In the novel, Mr Eszter, a former music teacher, has withdrawn from the world because of its stupidity. His only contact is with Janos, who despite his diametrically opposed worldview, nonetheless elicits his sympathy. Forced to leave his house due to a threat by his estranged wife, he comes back with a new attitude. He accepts Janos' viewpoint and is suddenly content with simply existing. He only awaits the return of Janos and plans a peaceful existence with the two men living together. At that moment, however, Janos is off witnessing the massacre, and having his own viewpoint altered.

Tarr downplays the change in Mr. Eszter, a character treated much more thoroughly in the novel, but his final scene does suggest Eszter's ability to reclaim some of his lost sense of wonder through his encounter with the whale. The scene begins with a medium shot of the creature before Tarr's camera slowly pulls away. Eszter then enters the scene and walks toward the whale, with the camera following him. He examines the whale closely, part by part, focusing particularly on the eye. Buoyed by Mihaly Vig's stunning piano and strings score, Eszter's close examination shows his willingness to consider the wonder inherent in the universe that he had previously rejected by his prior refusals to see the whale. His face, open and receptive, shows that Janos' attitude has had some effect on him. It may not be the transformation that Krasznahorkai offers in the novel, but it provides some antidote for the bleak apocalyptic proceedings that have sacrificed the innocent Janos. The younger man's outlook lives on in his elderly friend.

Saturday, April 28, 2007


Robinson Devor's strangely unemphatic bestiality doc Zoo (currently playing at the IFC Center) tempers its lurid subject matter with lingering shots of rural farmland and an unwillingness to provide graphic details, a strategy that works both for and against it, offering a subjective (and largely sympathetic) view of the zoophilia experience while leaving the audience frustrated at their lack of intellectual understanding of the entire proceedings. Devor was quoted in the Los Angeles Times as saying "I aestheticized the sleaze right out of [the subject matter]," but perhaps a little sleaze would have made for a stronger and more satisfying film. Still, Devor's impressionistic approach surrounds a seemingly repugnant act with an aura of beauty and the picture's odd hybrid of sensational subject matter and slow paced shots of rural landscapes creates a unique, and occasionally breathtaking, cinematic experience.

The film re-creates the gatherings of a group of middle-aged men who met at a Washington state farm with the express purpose of being sodomized by horses. Their activities came to public awareness when one of them, an aerospace engineer identified in the film only as "Mr. Hands," died of a ruptured colon following a bestialic encounter. Devor's approach to the material, gleaned through interviews with the participants, is to treat his subject in a carefully non-exploitative manner. Since the majority of the material comes from the testimony of the "zoos," the film presents them in a largely sympathetic light, as maladjusted men who, having difficulty interacting with humans, turn instead to the non-judgmental embrace of animals.

Devor is careful to shy away from the graphic accounts of the encounters, with the participants refusing to give intimate details except to insist on the consenuality of the sex, with the horse mounting the men without coercion. The sex itself is glimpsed only momentarily, as Mr. Hands' family watch footage on a video CD following his death. Devor's camera circles around the room, alternating shots of the family's reactions with brief peeks at the television monitor. Still, the director's restraint also works against him, since more details are needed to get an accurate picture of the entire situation. At 75 minutes, the film leaves viewers strangely unsatisfied and without the sense of really grasping the "zoo" culture or the motivations of the participants.

Devor's lingering camera and slow-moving dolly shots accentuate the idyllic setting of the encounters and the feeling of release the men experience in their trips to the farm. He doesn't give us much background on the lives of his subjects, except for Mr Hands, but the sense of escape from a demanding and unfeeling world that the zoos experience in their rural retreat is emphasized. In one shot, one of the men is filmed sitting in a chair watching television footage of the moon landings. Devor places the man and the TV at opposite ends of the shot, while the middle is dominated by a large window, revealing a moon-filled sky over a field. As Devor's stationary camera fixes the shot, the otherworldliness of the men's retreat, reflected both historically (through the television footage) and in the present becomes clear and the sense of beauty the men feel in their interactions is allowed full (though not graphic) expression. Devor's approach may leave the viewer wanting more information about the culture of zoophilia, but he perfectly captures the impressionistic experience of that culture's participants.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Reviews in Brief - French Cinema

Pola X
Taking the great undiscovered masterpiece of 19th-century American literature as its source, Leos Carax's 2002 film can't help but disappoint. Herman Melville's Pierre remains so baffling a work with its hodgepodge of literary styles, its dry humor, and its plot compounded of incest and madness that it still awaits admission to the literary cannon. Carax's film, despite its deft camerawork and impressive visuals fails to capture either the mystery or offhand inclusiveness of its source and turns endlessly inventive and fascinating material into a tedious cinematic exercise. Only one added element, the experiemental communal orchestra with whom Pierre lives, arouses any interest on the viewer's part, but cannot replace such elements from the novel as Plotinus Plinlimmon and his pamphlet that add both metaphysical weight and narrative pull to the original work. In addition, the film features one of the worst performances in recent memory. Katerina Golubeva, so natural in Bruno Dumont's Twentynine Palms, contributes a dreadfully mannered performance as the "mysterious" Isabel, compounded of nearly incomprehensible speech and self-consciously distressed facial expressions. Carax deserves praise for attempting to bring Melville's masterpiece to the screen, but his film neither does justice to the source material nor uses it as a basis for creating a new work of art.

La Haine
Roughly two-thirds of the way through Mathieu Kossovitz's 1995 film, the three leads, poor kids from the housing projects surrounding Paris, encounter a bizarre old man in a public bathroom. In town to collect payment from an acquantainance known as Asterix, the three kids stop off in the bathroom, where the man regales them with an unsolicited story of his trip to a Siberian labor camp. Crammed into cattle cars, the prisoners were only allowed to use the bathroom when the train came to one of its infrequent stops. One of the man's friends, self-concious about defecating in front of others, went off into the woods. The train left without him and he froze to death. As the man finishes his story, he wishes his interlocutors a good day and leaves. "Why is he telling us this?" the kids wonder.

This story, whose depiction of a brutal existance parallels the young men's, casts a spell over the remaining third of the film, as the kids fail to get their money from a drug-addled Asterix, get arrested and abused by the police, miss their train, and finally engage in a deadly encounter with skinheads. Despite these parallels, however, the old man's story's essential significance remains difficult to pin down. It is one of those mysterious elements that cannot be easily assimilated but adds to the overall texture of the film.

The film itself, shot in gritty black and white, is one of the most arresting portraits of urban angst commited to celluloid. From the opening footage of erupting riots set to Bob Marley's "Burnin' and Lootin'" to the devastating finale, Kossovitz's film is unrelentingly savage, but also refreshingly human, particularly in its depiction of the three leads, who, thanks to sensitive performances from Vincent Cassel, Hubert Kounde and Said Taghmaoui, give potent expression to the plight of France's disenfranchised youth. At the end of the film, Kossovitz's narrative has led to its inevitable outcome, but the image of the old man remains apart, something that cannot be contained by the film's conclusion.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Grindhouse and the Proliferation of Ironic Culture

Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino's joint undertaking Grindhouse, while occasionally entertaining, is symptomatic of an irony saturated American film culture in which popular genres are turned upside down and models of low culture are at the same time celebrated and looked down upon, an artistic stance that is increasingly distant from the central achivements of contemporary world cinema. In American cultural history, the 1990s are generally seen as the decade of irony and are, not coincidentally, the decade that Rodriguez and Tarantino (as well as the Coen Brothers) had their greatest successes, but the massive hype surrounding a film like Grindhouse illustrates the continued demand (or at least perceived demand) among audiences for ironic glimpses at low culture.

Rodriguez' segment "Planet Terror," which begins the film, is less successful than Tartanino's because it exists only insofar as it is ironic. For the first twenty minutes, the director's re-creation of low-budget zombie pictures is amusing, as the audience laughs at the "ineptitude" that Rodriguez gleefully recreates, as well as the increasing levels of gore. When the audience realizes that there is nothing more to the picture than an ironic celebration of B-movie culture, the laughs quickly fade, especially during the segment's endless denouement. Rodriguez' ironic stance, too, is somewhat disingenuous, since it represents an attempt to position himself above the material, while at the same time indulging in the filming of a genre he clearly enjoys. Successful neither as ironic send-up nor loving recreation of '70s zombie pictures, Rodriguez' segment is more or less a total failure.

Tarantino's segment "Death Proof", which will play in competition at this year's Cannes festival, is slightly more successful. Whereas Rodriguez pays tribute to zombie pictures, Tarantino uses as his model classic '70s car movies, such as Vanishing Point. Unlike Rodriguez' segment, however, Tarantino's offers audiences somewhat more than an ironic treatment of the source material. Tarantino waits a good 20 minutes before even introducing the car theme; instead, he allows his characters to engage in a quintessentially Tarantinian dialogue. The segment also contains some welcome surprises. Just as Tarantino establishes a group of characters, he kills them off and moves on to a second set of characters who dominate the rest of the episode. Still, despite the segment's occasional successes, Tarantino's characterstic weaknesses are on display. An annoying concern with hipness, which reached its nadir in Uma Thurman's characterization in Pulp Fiction, is present throughout. The director also indulges in his trademark misogyny (despite his "girls kick ass" plot), racism, and general sleaziness, indulgences which have grown quite tiresome.

Taken as a whole, Grindhouse is just one more example of a culture that would rather celebrate garbage than worthwhile achivement. Whereas Jean-Luc Godard took American genre films (specifically crime pictures) and raised them to the level of art while simultaneously critiquing the genre, here Rodriguez and to a lesser degree Tarantino are content to sit back and celebrate B-movies as they are without offering much more than an ironic appreciation. American film culture has become such that it can only embrace seriousness when it is insisted upon, as in self-righteous indulgences such as Babel. Otherwise it is a culture devoted either to mindless entertainments or irony-drenched films like Grindhouse which dress up mindless entertainment by pretending to distance themselves from the sources they celebrate. Either way, it is up to truly challenging filmmakers like David Lynch and Gus Van Sant to sustain an American cinema that is increasingly falling behind its European and Asian counterparts, rival cinemas that rely not on irony, but on genuinely imaginative filmmaking. Only then can American cinema once again hold its own on the world stage as it has throughout most of cinematic history.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Good Men, Good Women

What is Hou Hsiao-Hsien's masterpiece? With limited access to his pre-1990s work, it may be difficult to fully assess his oeuvre, but of the films that are readily available to us 1995's Good Men, Good Women would seem to be the best, his most successful exploration of the interplay of Taiwanese history with the present day lives of the country's people. In this picture, Hou's carefully composed shots give perfect expression to his historical and personal concerns.

Alternating past and present, Good Men, Good Women tells the story of Liang Ching (Annie Shizuka Inoh), a young actress preparing for the role of Chiang Bi-Yu, an anti-Japanese and later anti-Nationalist revolutionary. Liang receives mysterious phone calls and faxes from her stolen diary, communications which force her to recall events in her own past, specifically her relationship with her late boyfriend, Ah Wei (Jack Kao), a small-time gangster. The film thus takes place in three temporal settings which interact with and comment on each other: the present, the near past, as events from Liang's diary are recreated, and the 1940s and 1950s, scenes illustrating the life of Chiang Bi-Yu (portrayed in the film by Inoh). Hou conviently films the scenes from the present and near past in color, while shooting the historical scenes in stunning black and white.

There are, of course, parallels between the lives of Liang Ching and the women she portrays, but Hou doesn't force the associations. Both, for instance, suffer the loss of a lover, a man involved in forces beyond his control. However, unlike the noble cause of Chiang Bi-Yu and her husband Chung Hao-Tung, for which the latter dies, Ah Wei dies because of his involvement with petty gangsters. The struggle for a free Taiwan has given way to a struggle for profit. The grief experienced by both women is nevertheless real.

The film's penultimate image shows Chiang Bi-Yu sitting by the deathbed of her executed husband, lighting a small memorial fire at the foot of the bed. The room is otherwise completely empty. Hou's fixed camera slowly zooms in, adding increased immediacy to Chiang's grief. As the camera draws nearer, suddenly the film switches from black and white to color, suggesting a temporal switch to the present day and drawing a parallel between the mourning of Chiang and Liang, a parallel underscored by Hou's decision to have the same actress portray both women. As the past becomes the present, the inextricability of history with contemporary life becomes clear to the viewer, as it has for Liang through her preparation for her portrayal of the revolutionary.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Noé and the Abuse of Non-Linear Narrative

Since at least as far back as Faulkner, non-linear treatment of time has become increasingly commonplace, an appropriate depiction of subjective experience and a reaction to a fractured sense of existence that doesn't allow us to view the world in a logical, ordered manner. Although previous authors had experimented with different narrative strategies that rejected a straight ahead sequencing of events, with The Sound and the Fury and Absalom and Absalom Faulkner posited a radical departure from accepted narrative sequencing. By the 21st century, this form of storytelling has become an accepted narrative strategy that authors can draw from in their work and has extended to other narrative art forms such as cinema.

If a work is to employ such a strategy, however, it must be for justifiable reasons. It must, in other words, be the best way to tell a given story or it must have something important to say about the nature of time. In Christopher Nolan's 2000 film Memento, the director's decision to tell the story in reverse was at least partly succesful since the dislocation of the audience mirrored the dislocation of the amnesiac hero. In addition, the film questioned the very nature of memory, a questioning directly linked to time. So, despite the film's other shortcomings, its use of non-linear narrative strategies was justified. It is worth noting that the film is not told in strict reverse order, which would be a form of linear narrative. Instead, the director shows a scene in sequential order and then shows the scene that happened before it in sequential order, telling the story both forwards and backwards.

Gaspar Noé's celebrated 2002 film Irreversible uses a similar approach, but with far less success. The final image of Noe's film, an abstract grey background with a jarring light flashing through, encapsulates the entire film. It is flashy, unpleasant to look at, and ultimately pointless. In Noé's film, the decision to tell the story in reverse (in a similar manner to Memento) feels like one more gimmick to go along with the flashy camerawork, seedy locations, and famed twelve minute rape scene. Noé feels the need to dress up a relatively straightforward story of revenge to lend weight to an otherwise uninteresting tale. The backwards narrative does not create a sense of mystery as in Nolan's picture, since the story offers little for the audience to discover. Nor can Noé's film be said to be succesful as an exercise in style, since it is so overloaded in effect that it offers little for the eye to appreciate, save for the lovely Monica Belluci. Belluci is set up as a sacrificial victim by Noé, first to be raped, then to talk about sex, then to lie naked on a bed until she becomes just one more object of the director's visual overload. Ultimately, the director's flash, exemplified by his half-baked decision to tell his story backwards, cannot overcome an uninspired and unpleasant film. Faulkner may have oppened up these new narrative possibilities, but he cannot take the blame for their abuse.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Five Under 50

A look at five of the most accomplished filmmakers under 50 years of age.

1. Nuri Bilge Ceylan
The constant comparisons to Antonioni may grow tiresome, but the similarities between the two filmmakers are readily apparent. Re-casting the Italian's trademark ennui in contemporary Turkey, Ceylan's films feature characters who have little connection with each other and even less to say. The lead character in his pointedly titled 2002 film Distant (Uzak), like Sandro in L'Avventura, is an artist who has given up his ideals for commercial projects. When a distant relative comes to stay with him, their nearly wordless interactions take place almost entirely in front of the television set. But dwelling on comparisons doesn't do justice to Ceylan, a wonderfully original filmmaker. Gifted with a strong eye for composition, Ceylan often frames his characters against natural landscapes and uses the cycles of the seasons to structure his works and underscore the changing relationships among his characters. He also excels at inserting delightfully offhand elements into his films, such as the car alarm that Yusuf sets off in Distant or the nut that falls on the floor precipitating a sexual encounter in his masterpiece Climates (Iklimler). That film sets a fractured romance against three different natural settings, a sultry beach, a rainy fall scene, and a snowstorm. As the snowflakes fall on Bahar in the film's final moments, mirroring her tears, Ceylan's gift for fitting the image to the situation has become unmistakable.

2. Bruno Dumont
Keeping the tradition of edgy French filmmaking alive, Bruno Dumont has made a major impact on world cinema in the ten years since his screen debut. Known for mixing brutal violence, often presented in a matter-of-fact manner, with scenes depicting the banality of life in the provinces, Dumont has a rare ability to provoke the viewer both emotionally and intellectually. His famed aesthetic comprised of static shots, location shooting, the use of non-professional actors and an unwillingness to introduce outside technical elements such as music, add a rare immediacy to his work. He debuted his fourth film Flandres in March and it is one of the year's best to date. His previous work includes The Life of Jesus, a portrait of small town youth, L'Humanite, a character study in the form of a police procedural, and Twentynine palms, a road picture whose sense of impending dread, sustained brilliantly for almost two hours, gives way to two scenes of genuine horror.

3. Todd Solondz
No filmmaker walks the line between laughter and disgust so well as Todd Solondz. The American director's trademark is the treatment of taboo subjects in comic situations. Rape, incest, pedophilia, racism, fundamentalist groups, abortion are all fit subjects for humor, albeit a very dark humor resulting in very uncomfortable laughter. His razor sharp screenplays, assured direction, and willingness to offend mark him as one of the most exciting directors working today. His treatment of taboo subjects may seem flippant or in bad taste, but it represents a genuine desire on the director's part to grapple with the most horrifying elements in contemporary society. His masterpiece is 1998's multi character drama Happiness, which remains, along with Blue Velvet, the definitive entry in the suburban dysfunction sub-genre, an effort which puts such facile melodramas as American Beauty to shame.

4. Tsai Ming-Liang
Along with Hou Hsiao-Hsien and Edward Yang, Tsai has helped position the Taiwanese film industry at the forefront of world cinema. His alienated characters, frozen in static long shots, grope their way through his apocalyptic world, searching desperately for human connections, often through sex, but rarely finding it. The formal beauty of his films is matched by the totality of his vision. This vision is granted continuity throughout his body of work by the casting of the same actors, the repetition of the same themes, and the element of water which plays an increasingly important role in his work. His eighth film I Don't Want to Sleep Alone opens this May and is the first to take place in the director's native Malaysia. Among his best works are 1997's The River, in which Lee Kang-Shang comes down with a mysterious illness after exposure to the polluted Tansui River, and 2003's Goodbye, Dragon Inn, which details the closing night of a once glorious movie theater.

5. Apichatpong Weerasethakul
One of the most impressive young directors working today (he is just 36), the Thai filmmaker alternates feature films with experimental video projects. His fourth feature film, Syndromes and a Century, which opened today in New York, is, like his previous film, 2004's Tropical Malady, a two part work. In each case, the second part recasts and completes elements from the first, while ignoring others altogether or introducing entirely new threads. Tropical Malady begins as a wonderfully understated love story between two young men, culminating in their eventual separation. For the second part, Weerasethakul draws on a Thai legend and recasts the two leads as a mythical tiger-like creature and a hunter who must track him down. In the more recent film, the two parts concern the doctors and patients at two different hospitals in two different time periods. The characters in the first part all have their counterparts in the second and are played by the same actors, a correspondence suggested by the film's discussion of reincarnation. But the correspondences are by no means exact and the film refuses to force any conclusions. It is also looser in structure than its predecessor with more random elements introduced and left unresolved, which gives the work a rich, multilayered texture. A fascinating and beautiful picture, Syndromes and a Century is the latest achievement from one of the world's best filmmakers.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Redemption in Dardenne and Arnold

Andrea Arnold's debut feature Red Road, which opens this weekend at the Landmark Sunshine Theatre, recalls Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne's 2002 film Le Fils (The Son) in its subject matter, cinematographic techniques, and in its concern with the possibility of redemption for its past burdened characters. In both pictures the final confrontation between antagonists resolves the tensions implicit in the characters' relationships and presents the moment where this redemption can either be seized or rejected. Only the film's conclusions differ in that the Dardennes offer redemption to their most troubled characters, whereas Arnold is interested in saving only the obviously redeemable character.

In Arnold's picture, Jackie (Kate Dickie), a lonely woman who works as a surveillance monitor, spends her days watching the series of cameras that patrol Glasgow's streets and calling in any sign of trouble. During her routine surveillance, she spots the man who killed her husband and daughter (Tony Curran), learning in this way of his release from prison. She begins following him and eventually insinuates her way into his life in the role of potential lover with the motive of taking revenge. Similarly, in the earlier picture, a carpenter, Olivier(Olivier Gourmet), who runs a vocational school for troubled kids, has an opportunity to take in his son's killer (Morgan Marinne) for his program and he begins taking a special interest in the boy. In Arnold's picture, Clyde, the killer of Jackie's husband, is granted the surrogate status of his victim, by taking on the role of Jackie's lover. In Le Fils, the boy, Francis, takes the place of the person he killed and takes on the role of son to Olivier. Although Jackie's motive in granting this surrogate status to the person who has wronged her is clearly revenge, Olivier's motive in doing so is less clear and this uncertainly adds to the film's tension, since the audience doesn't know what action he will take when he eventually confronts the boy.

Red Road takes the form of an outright thriller, but Le Fils, a naturalistic drama, is shot through with the same tension. In both pictures, this tension arises from the imbalance of knowledge in the central relationships. In each case, the main character knows the secondary character's secret without that character being aware of it. Both films lead to an inexorable conclusion in which the main character confronts his antagonist about the great wrong he has committed and offers him a chance at redemption.

In Le Fils, Olivier takes Francis on a long drive to a carpentry warehouse owned by a friend. During the car ride, Olivier gradually inches closer to confrontation by asking the boy about his past. Finally, when they arrive at the empty warehouse, Olivier tells Francis that the boy he killed was his son. Francis, fearing harm, immediately runs away from Olivier and the older man gives chase. The Dardennes' trademark use of the hand held camera adds immediacy to the scene, since the cinematographer, like the characters, must run in order to capture the action, and through him, the audience is granted a sense of participation in the recording of the scene. The chase eventually leads outside the warehouse, where Olivier catches the boy and begins to choke him. He soon thinks better of it and walks off to load his pickup truck with wood. The aborted sacrifice of the "son" recalls Abraham's binding of Isaac and the biblical allusion adds further spiritual weight to the encounter. In the film's final scene, the boy reappears and helps Olivier with the loading. This final image suggests a sense of redemption for both man and child. Apart from the obvious allusion to Christ, suggested by the loading of wood which emphasizes the fact of Olivier's vocation as carpenter, the scene cements a new relationship between the two, one offering new possibilities to both. Olivier has overcome his murderous impulses and can now accept his role as mentor (and surrogate father) to the boy with no illusions in their relationship. The boy has accepted his position and no longer tries to run away from the man he has wronged, but willingly submits to his guidance and forgiveness.

In Arnold's film, the final confrontation takes place in a Glaswegian street. Previous to this encounter, Jackie had engaged in a sexual tryst with Clyde in his apartment. Following intercourse, Jackie had retreated to a bathroom where she bloodied herself and removed Clyde's semen from a condom and inserted it inside herself. She then called the police and brought charges of rape against him. Later, after a talk with Clyde's roommate Stevie, she decided to drop the charges.

The climactic scene begins when she accosts Clyde in the street. When Clyde sees her, he curses her and, like Francis, begins to run. She chases after him and Arnold's hand held camera adds a similar tension to the scene as the Dardennes' hand held in the older work. Clyde escapes onto a bus, but deciding to allow the confrontation, quickly disembarks. As Jackie confronts Clyde with his past crimes (he had been high on crack and drove his car into a bus stop, killing Jackie's family), the scene is ripe for a Dardennian moment of redemption. Arnold, however, offers no such closure for her killer. Clyde, although sorry for the killing, can only mutter "these things happen" and wander off. The film's redemption belongs strictly to Jackie. By dropping the rape charges, she has shown her willingness to forgive and to move on with her life. The film ends with her reconciliation with her in-laws, a reconciliation effected by her decision to scatter her husband's ashes. Her previous unwillingness to part with the ashes, symbolic of her unwillingness to move on after her tragedy, had proved a major point of contention. Her decision to relinquish her husband's (and daughter's) remains firmly illustrates her commitment to start anew, and provides her with a redemption different from, but no less important, than that achieved by the two characters in Le Fils.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

On Robert Altman's Lesser Known Films

The predominant assessment of Robert Altman's oeuvre posits a canon of several masterpieces interspersed with a score of wholly forgettable or downright awful works. This regrettable attitude has long caused many of Altman's best or most interesting pictures to be entirely neglected as critics have focused largely on MASH, McCabe and Mrs Miller, Nashville, The Player, Short Cuts and Gosford Park. In more recent years, The Long Goodbye, California Split, and 3 Women, three of his finest films, have attracted more attention, but the vast majority of his work has been dismissed as silly indulgences with little artistic merit. This assessment is completely misguided, as even Altman's lesser work provides numerous delights to the receptive viewer. Only 1987's Beyond Therapy and 1994's Ready to Wear qualify as outright failures. Below, we will look briefly at three unfairly neglected films that deserve a more prominent place in Altman's oeuvre.

Following the unexpected success of 1970's Oscar nominated MASH, Robert Altman made the first of his many contrarian moves by choosing a whimsical (and downright odd) fantasy as his follow up picture, refusing any attempt at duplicating the earlier film's commercial success. Brewster McCloud is arguably Altman's most entertaining picture. The story concerns the efforts of a shy, awkward young man (Bud Cort) to build a set of wings and take flight in Houston's Astrodome in whose basement he lives. Opposed in his quest by a series of quirky characters, including a miserly old landlord (Stacey Keach), an evidence-planting cop (Bert Remsen) and the racist woman who sings the national anthem at ball games (Margaret Hamilton), Brewster is protected by his guardian angel (Sally Kellerman) who sics a horde of murderous birds on anyone who threatens his mission. Adding to the audience's enjoyment is the running commentary of a professor (Rene Auberjonois) who lectures an unseen audience on the similarities between bird and man, gradually becoming more bird-like himself as the movie progresses until his monologue becomes an incomprehensible squawk. Altman would often introduce an unexpected element into his films to serve as a chorus, from the radio program of Thieves Like Us to the political broadcasts of Hal Phillip Walker in Nashville, but never more amusingly than in Brewster McCloud. At the film's end, Brewster finally takes flight and, after a brief moment of glory, crashes to the ground and dies. At this point, the film's artifice is revealed as all the actors converge on the scene and a narrator introduces them to the audience. Like Brewster's dream, the surreal vision of Altman's film has ended and we are brought back to reality by a reminder of the artificiality of the work. It certainly was fun while it lasted.


Although the five years between 1970 and 1975 probably accounted for the most sustained artistic success of Altman's career (he made eight films during this period including MASH, McCabe and Mrs. Miller and Nashville), the next five years, which are usually ignored completely, are equally worthy of consideration. 1977's dreamlike 3 Women is arguably the director's masterpiece and, thanks to an outstanding DVD release from Criterion, is beginning to achieve some recognition. Several of his other films from this period, however, including 1979's Quintet, one of Altman's most bizarre offerings, are still ripe for rediscovery.

One of the director's two ventures into outright science fiction (1968's Countdown is mostly forgettable), Quintet takes place in a post-apocalyptic future, in which a new ice age has taken over the earth (the film was shot in wintry Montreal). The inhabitants of a ruined city, knowing that the end is near, occupy themselves by playing a deadly game called Quintet. The game, whose rules are never explained, involves dice, a five sided board, and some odd tokens. The loser of the game is killed by another player according to a pre-arranged "killing order". With nothing left to do but wait for death, the players submit their fate to the game, which mirrors the largely arbitrary nature of their lives, while allowing the players a small chance to control their fate. The game, which seems to involve more luck than skill, thus perfectly illustrates the incidental nature of existence in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. The film is filled with images of striking beauty as when Essex (Paul Newman) floats his dead lover down the river, giving her her final rest on the water that continues to flow despite the frigid conditions. The movie has long been derided by critics as inscrutable and pointless, but it is rather easy to follow and, if the viewer is willing to accept some gaps in his comprehension, wholly rewarding. Quintet has long been a cult favorite among Altman fans and, now that it is available on DVD, it demands wider consideration.


The 1980s were somewhat of a down period for Altman. After the frantic rapidity with which he turned out pictures during the previous decade, he slowed his pace considerably and focused largely on filming plays both for the large and small screen. The best of his work from this period includes his adaptations of a little known work by Ed Graczyk, Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, and Donald Freed and Arnold M. Stone's one-man play Secret Honor. In the middle of his theatrical adaptations, though, Altman turned to another source, National Lampoon magazine, for his 1984 production O.C. and Stiggs which was released three years later in 1987.

O.C. and Stiggs is Altman's version of the teen comedy. We follow the title characters, two Scottsdale, Arizona teenagers, over the course of a summer as they take their revenge on the Schwab family whose patriarch, an insurance company owner, canceled O.C.s' grandfather's policy. Their revenge takes the form of a series of obnoxious antics, such as charging long distance calls to Gabon to the Schwab's phone bill, or causing a water fountain to explode on Schwab's son . In between, they find time to travel to Mexico, pursue romantic encounters, purchase an off-road vehicle, and crash a wedding. What is great about the film is its inclusiveness. Altman throws in every idea he can think of and assembles an impressive gallery of oddballs including Dennis Hopper as a deranged Vietnam vet (parodying his role in Apocalypse Now), Melvin van Peebles as a wino, Jane Curtain as a drunk housewife and even King Sunny Ade, who treats the audience to a musical number. The film also offers a mild satire on conventional middle class values. The film's tagline "adventures in upper middle class suburbia" makes the film's satiric intentions clear, but it is as a madcap, anything-goes comedy that the film achieves its greatest success. O.C. and Stiggs may not be Altman's most profound work, but it is nonetheless a welcome addition to his oeuvre, and thanks to MGM's DVD release one that need not be overlooked.

Apart from the three films discussed above, many of Altman's other lesser known films are worth a look. Below is a list of his most underrated films.

Images (1972)
Thieves Like Us (1974)
A Wedding (1978)
Health (1980)
Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (1982)
Secret Honor (1984)
Vincent and Theo (1990)
The Company (2003)

Friday, April 6, 2007

Images of Circularity in Herzog and Kusturica

In his early feature Even Dwarfs Started Small and again in his 1977 masterpiece Stroszek, Werner Herzog employs images of circularity to embody the pointless repetition and futility of the characters and their quests. In the earlier picture, the image takes the form of a driverless truck that spins around in circles while the titular dwarfs bombard the vehicle with various objects. In Stroszek, the circularity is manifested both by a driverless truck and by a ski lift which transports Bruno S around in circles while he prepares to kill himself. Seizing Herzog's example, Emir Kusturica uses the circular journey of a burning wheelchair circumnavigating an upside down image of Christ to bring his 1995 film Underground to a climax, suggesting a similar futility in the fate of the former Yugoslavia. Although a circle is often used to represent a state of completeness and fulfillment, in these pictures, it is instead indicative of the sense of redundancy and frustration in the lives of the film's characters.

Taking place in an alternate universe in which every human is a dwarf, Herzog's 1970 picture, Even Dwarfs Started Small details, in episodic fashion, a rebellion staged by a group of dwarfs confined to an unspecified institution. The rebelling party capture the institution director (also a dwarf) and hold him prisoner, while they engage in a series of antics on the hospital ground. Among the grotesque activities performed by the rebelling dwarfs are the crucifixion of a monkey, the forced mating of two inmates and the setting on fire of a building, all punctuated by the oddly guttural laughter of one of the dwarfs (Helmut Doring).

Roughly two-thirds of the way through the film, the rebelling dwarfs break into a shed and obtain access to a truck. They drive the truck to a nearby courtyard and begin driving in circles. Throughout the remainder of the film, the truck continues on its circular path, periodically abandoned, but always rediscovered by the dwarfs, the pattern itself a circular progression. After the driver sets the truck on its path, he climbs out of his seat and onto the roof, before abandoning the vehicle altogether. The truck continues its perpetual circular motion, driverless, and continues its directionless journey until the end of the film, when the dwarfs push the truck into a ravine. The circular path of the truck mirrors the narrative arc of the rebellion and the film itself, since the picture's first scene shows one of the dwarfs being booked in a police station, indicating the ultimate failure of the rebellion and implying the return of the dwarfs to a state of institutionalization.

The rebellious dwarfs amuse themselves by engaging in a variety of antic behaviors involving the truck which take on an increasingly destructive nature. The dwarfs begin by placing objects in the truck's path and pelting it with eggs, neither activity able to deter the vehicle from its circular motion. The dwarfs then set up a feast near the truck's path. Herzog places the bottle-lined table in the screen's foreground, directly in front of the truck's circle. The feast soon degenerates into a food fight, and the dwarfs pelt the truck with bottles and plates, giving vent to their frustration at the ultimately futile nature of rebellion, expressed by the truck's endless circles. The truck's journey is occasionally intercut with images of chickens engaging in cannabilistic behavior, which culminates in the staging of a cockfight. This behavior is indicative of a world that has lost its balance, and the unnatural behavior of the chickens foreshadows their dancing and piano-playing counterparts at the end of Herzog's Stroszek. Finally, just before disposing of the truck, the dwarfs set fire to a row of flowerpots placed near the vehicle's path and lead a procession next to the truck carrying a monkey nailed to miniature cross. This grotesque imagery further suggests a world where absurdity reigns over any kind of human-imposed order. So potent are the images of fire and crucifixion that Serbian director Emir Kusturica would appropriate them 26 years later for the powerful climax of his film Underground.

Werner Herzog's 1977 film Stroszek details the journey of an ex-mental patient (Bruno S.), his elderly friend (Clemens Scheitz) and his prostitute girlfriend (Eva Mattes) from Germany to rural Wisconsin, where they attempt to establish themselves. At first they meet with some success, but by the end of the picture, the bank has foreclosed on their home, Eva Mattes has fled with a group of truckers and Bruno S. and Clemens Scheitz, broke, rob a barber shop for $32, which leads to the latter's prompt arrest at an adjacent convenience store. At the end of the picture, Bruno prepares for suicide, having found a similar level of futility to his life in America as during his long confinement at the institution in Germany. As he says earlier in the film, "in the reformatory, it was just like here [America]". He parks his truck in a parking lot and sets it in circular motion, similar to the dwarfs' vehicle in Herzog's earlier picture. As the truck continues its circular path, Bruno, who like the dwarfs, found no more fulfillment in freedom than in institutionalization, walks off, leaving the truck to express his feelings of futility.

Bruno next wanders into an abandoned entertainment arcade, where the attractions include a coin-operated dancing chicken and a piano-playing chicken. The chickens, forced to perform unnatural tasks, are suggested by their cannibalistic counterparts in Even Dwarfs Started Small, and parallel Bruno's fate, a man who bemoans the spiritual degradation he encounters in America, where he is forced to live contrary to his inclinations. Bruno makes his way to the back of the arcade, which opens onto an abandoned ski lift. He sets the switches in motion and boards the lift. Significantly, the back of Bruno's lift is covered with a sign which reads "is this really me?" further suggesting the displacement of his identity in America. The ski lift (an image appropriated by Bela Tarr in the opening scene of his 1988 picture Damnation) leads Bruno on a circular journey, as he rides the transport in a continual ellipse, until the lift's insistent circularity is abruptly halted by a gunshot, and Bruno commits suicide. As soon as the gunshot is heard, Herzog cuts back to the truck in the parking lot, now on fire and no longer in motion. As Bruno's circular journey through a futile existence comes to an end, the truck too stops. Only the dancing chicken and other performing animals continue, and the film's final shots linger on these creatures and their unnatural activities.

Emir Kusturica's 1995 epic Underground details the friendship and later animosity of two men in Belgrade from 1941 through the Balkan conflict of the 1990s. Blacky and Marko (Lazar Ristovki and Miki Manojlovic), along with their community are forced to live in an underground bunker during World War II. After the war's end, Marko convinces the members of the community (Blacky included) that the war is still going on and keeps them in the bunker for several decades, where they manufacture munitions which Marko sells to amass a personal fortune. Finally, Blacky and the other denizens of the bunker arise from the underground into Milosevic's war torn Serbia.

During the Yugoslav War, Marko continues selling munitions, while Blacky takes charge of a company of Serbian soldiers. As Marko negotiates weapons sales, his retarded brother Ivan (Slavko Stimac), suddenly appears to take his revenge on Marko for his years of imprisonment in the bunker. As Marko, now wheelchair bound, maneuvers away from Ivan, his brother delivers him a series of mortal wounds with his cane, before commiting suicide in a nearby church. Marko's wife Natalija (Mirjana Jokovic) arrives on the scene, and Marko, still alive, famously says "a war is not a war until a brother kills his brother". The statement, whose literal interpretation refers to Ivan's caning of Marko, also has larger implications for the Balkan Wars in which members of the former Yugoslavia engage in brutal warfare and genocide against each other. As Slant Magzine's Ed Gonzalez notes in his review, "the familial war... is the war between Bosnia and Serbia." Kusturica thus links the fate of his country to the personal warfare between brother and brother.

Finally, Serbian soldiers come upon Marko and Natalija, and radio their commander, Blacky, to find out what to do with the two "war profiteers". "Profiteers? Shoot them," says Blacky, unaware of their identity. Blacky, who had long enjoyed a familial relationship with his old friend Marko, thus becomes the second "brother" to account for Marko's death, as the soldier's bullets, on his order, deliver the coup de grace. The soldier then sets them on fire. Later, viewing the passports, and realizing the identity of the profiteers, Blacky proclaims "Marko, my brother".

When he finally arrives on the scene, he is confronted with the film's most powerful image. Marko's wheelchair, set afire, traces a circular path around a cross with a figure of Jesus hanging upside down. The image, clearly inspired by its counterparts in Herzog's films, evokes the horror and the futility of modern Serbian history. As Marko's wheelchair runs in its endless circle, Blacky can only look on and bemoan the fate that has caused such a familial rift in his personal history as well as that of his nation. The upside down Christ, recalling a similar perversion of the crucifixion imagery, the monkey in Even Dwarfs Started Small, suggests the inadequacy of religion to provide salvation in the face of history's horrors. As in Herzog, the fact of the circle embodies the redundancy of the characters lives. Here, the circle also suggests the patterns of history, which the film shows repeating throughout the 20th century, in World War II, the Cold War, and finally in the Balkan conflict. When brother kills his brother, the world has truly become perverse, and nowhere is the sense of repeating futility better evoked than in Kusturica's circular symbol.

Monday, April 2, 2007

Death, the Fly, and Dickinson

In Emily Dickinson's Poem 465, the narrator famously hears a fly buzz at the moment of her death. As family gathers around, she wills away her belongings and prepares for a moment of revelation, when suddenly the fly appears "With Blue - uncertain stumbling Buzz." Dickinson's synesthesia allows the unexpected visitor primacy in two senses, sight and sound, coincidentally the two senses that cinema engages. Many films have taken up Dickinson's example and used images of flies or other insects in connection with death. In the following brief discussion, I will take a look at three films that explore the correlation and offer their own variations on Dickinson's poem.

The most explicit cinematic reference to Dickinson occurs in the second episode of Krzysztof Kieslowski's Decalogue, where the image of an insect, in this case a bee, manages to reverse the situation of the poem. The episode concerns a woman (Krystyna Janda) whose husband is in a coma, and who is pregnant with her lover's child. She begs her husband's doctor to tell her whether he will live or die. If he will live, she will have an abortion; if he will die, she will have the baby. The doctor refuses to commit to an answer and spends most of the episode rejecting the woman's repeated entreaties. When he finally accedes and tells the woman her husband will die, he is quickly proved wrong.

The husband (Olgierd Lukaszewicz) soon awakens and the first image he sees in the dim lighting of the hospital room is a bee perched on a spoon in a glass of fruit. He also hears the buzz. In the reverse of Dickinson's "and then/I could not see to see," the husband's eyesight suddenly returns and he is granted his "revelation". As in the poem, the insect, an element of banality, here further emphasized by its association with a spoon, an everyday object, intrudes on a momentous occurrence, where an image of great import is expected. Whatever the metaphorical associations of the bee, it is the intrusion of this unexpected element, an element so at odds with the proceedings, that grants both scenes their enormous power.

In the famous opening sequence of Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West, the fly disturbs a tense scene of waiting that is understood will result in death. Not an explicit reference to Dickinson, the scene nonetheless offers an interesting variation, illustrating the unexpected appearence of a fly in a scene where mortality dominates.

Three gunmen wait at a Western train station. Although the audience is not sure exactly what they're waiting for, the quiet menance of the setting and unscrubbed, jagged faces of the gunmen, as well as their abusive treatment of the station agent, quickly presage a scene of impending fatality. After waiting for several minutes, a fly appears on the bearded chin of one of the gunmen (Jack Elam). Leone keeps his camera fixed in close-up on Elam's face. Elam unsuccesfully attempts to blow the fly off. Finally, he swats it away, only to see it take up residence on the bench where he's sitting. In a single violent gesture, he swings his weapon onto the fly and traps it in the barrel, causing it to buzz horribly. At this moment, a train enters the station and Elam releases the fly. The object of the wait has arrived, and the victim of the dry run is no longer needed. The Man (Charles Bronson) appears behind the train and quickly guns down the three killers. Elam's gunman may have gotten the best of the fly, but in the real event he is unable to escape death. The intrusion of the fly serves to heighten the tension of the approaching showdown; the annoyance of the visitor foreshadows a much more dangerous encounter.

Finally, in Stan Brakhage's The Act of Seeing with One's Own Eyes, the fly appears after the moment of death. The film, which consists entirely of footage taken from autopsies, reduces human life to the level of decaying flesh. The flaps of skin peeled back, the brains sliced open, and the various indistinguishable organs are all that remain of the inanimate beings. The clinical mercilessness with which the incisions are made is mirrored in the image of the fly, which makes its brief appearence early in the film as a body is being prepared for autopsy. The fly (buzzless this time, since Brakhage's films feature no audio) lands on the corpse's foot and explores a little before the camera cuts away. The fly, in its idle play, embodies the supreme indifference of nature to human life, in a film in which humanity is reduced to its most basic elements. Embracing a more pessimistic view than Dickinson, Brakhage, through the happy accident of the fly's appearence, is able to appropriate her image to his own worldview. The intruder here appears well after death has occurred, the moment of revelations long past. There remains only for the body to be cut open and the doctors to deliver their verdict.

Sunday, April 1, 2007

Killer of Sheep

One of the major cinematic events of 2006 was the first American theatrical release of Jean-Pierre Melville's 1969 French Resistance thriller Army of Shadows, which enjoyed a long run at the Film Forum. So poor was the film's reception on its initial French release that it had to wait thirty-seven years for its U.S. debut. When it finally appeared stateside, critics were falling over themselves to praise it and it figured prominently on many year-end top 10 lists (coming in at number eight on this critic's list). The Film Forum will try to duplicate their success by screening another lost Melville film, Le Doulos, this summer, but the major rediscovery of 2007 is likely to be Charles Burnett's 1977 film Killer of Sheep, currently enjoying its American debut at the IFC Center.

Killer of Sheep, an episodic slice-of-life centering around an impoverished black family in 1970's Los Angeles, was shot as Burnett's thesis at UCLA's film school and was never intended to see theatrical release. The film nonetheless screened on the festival circuit, winning a prize at the 1981 Berlin Film Festival, and became an acknowledged classic of American independent cinema. However, Burnett's decision to use an extensive soundtrack of blues and jazz pieces without obtaining the copyrights prevented commercial screenings for many years. Now on the film's 30th anniversary, audiences finally have access to the film, and are treated to a newly restored print, blown up to 35mm from the film's original 16mm stock.

The film centers around Stan (Henry Gayle Sanders), the head of a small household who works at a slaughterhouse as the titular killer of sheep, a fact that's mined for all its metaphorical import. Completely worn down by his numbing routine, Stan walks through life in a zombie-like trance. Unable to sleep, no longer interested in sex, Stan is caught in a cycle of futility. As New York Press critic Armond White, who introduced the film at the March 31st screening, indignantly reminded the audience, this is not an optimistic film. It is, however, a beautiful one, and captures brilliantly, with only the merest hints of violence, the desperation of ghetto life.

One sequence in particular illustrates the sense of futility that pervades the entire picture. Stan and a friend decide to buy a second-hand car engine. The film follows the entire odyssey of the purchase. After receiving his paycheck, Stan cashes it at a liquor store, drives to the home of the seller, haggles the price, scrapes together fifteen dollars and buys it. Stan and his friend then carry the unwieldy object out to Stan's truck. As they wind their way down an old, twisted staircase, the camera follows them slowly, emphasizing the strenuous labor involved in moving the massive engine. Finally, exhausted, they heave the object onto the bed of the pickup truck, only to see it tumble into the street and break irreparably the second the truck moves. Like the engine, like the sheep being led to slaughter that Burnett's camera lingers on, Stan is being killed by the force of his circumstances. Although this may not be a film about the triumph of the human spirit, as White made clear, it is nonetheless a film that depicts a hopeless situation with honesty and with great beauty.