Friday, February 27, 2009


The sublime and the mundane run hand-in-hand in Birdsong, Albert Serra's stunningly photographed, intensely contemplative re-telling of the biblical journey of the Magi. Much of the sublimity derives from the film's visuals, superbly tactile black-and-white images alive to the textures of the rocky landscape, which, along with the precise gradations of lighting (each scene seems shot at the one exact moment of day when its creation was possible) and the rustling of wind on the soundtrack, imbues the barren land with a richness of meaning commensurate with the Magi's divine mission.

As the three men make their way across the terrain, Serra devotes huge chunks of time to the simple act of walking, fixing his camera at a distance from the men, turning their routine movements into acts worth contemplating. Much of the film's sense of the mundane derives from the men themselves, three markedly unglamorous individuals (two are quite fat, one is very old) who bicker calmly, but these inelegant creatures also speak with wonder of angels and, like Serra's camera, express their admiration for the latent mysteries of the everyday.

Critical comparisons between the Magi and Beckett's tramps are not inapt, but Serra's men evince a more subdued clownishness. In one scene, they bed down under a shade three, then complain unemphatically about the discomforts of their relative positioning, all the while barely moving. The scene's funny, but the humor derives from such minute visual details - deliberately unemphasized in the fixed, overhead shot - as the way one of the men's faces puffs up as he breathes. Earlier, a mesmerizing bit of underwater photography shot from below the Magi as they pull a boat out into the water starts as a bit of low comedy when one of the overweight men flops around uncouthly in front of the camera before the scene gives way to an unmixed beauty and the exact physicality of the bodies no longer marks the principal point of emphasis.

Finally, the film's sublime spiritual climax - the men arrive in a Bethlehem so abstracted that it's constituted by a single stone structure, then prostrate themselves at Mary's feet, the scene becoming a virtual still while the film's one bit of non-diegetic music, the piercing strings of the title song ("El Cant del Ocells") rip through the soundtrack - is immediately followed by the movie's most deflationary image - an overhead shot of the Magi, stripped to the waist, bathing in a fetid water trough. Birdsong rises to the divine on the quality of its imagery, but it always grounds its spiritual aspirations in an acceptance of the resolutely mundane. Through its long static takes and, with a sole exception, its lack of significant event, the film gives the audience ample freedom to register both sides of the equation, the striving for sublimity and the embrace of the everyday, each of which derive their power from the presence of the other.

Monday, February 23, 2009

New Releases: Must Read After My Death and Examined Life

My latest reviews for Slant Magazine cover a pair of documentaries that might prove to be of some interest. Must Read After My Death is currently playing at New York's Quad Cinema while Examined Life opens on Wednesday at the IFC Center.

Friday, February 20, 2009


Although the film never bears less than full witness to its director’s visual fluency, much of the duration of Katyn, Andrzej Wajda’s WW II–set drama, seems like little more than the perfunctory buildup to the movie’s inevitable conclusion, the titular massacre in which Soviet soldiers shot as many as 22,000 Polish officers, policemen and intellectuals in a forest near Smolensk on direct orders from Stalin. Apart from the unavoidable quality of indifference that arises from the film’s long stretches of cinematic time-marking, the strategy of situating a horrific historical event as some sort of narrative payoff - like a final shootout in an action picture - threatens to trivialize the deaths that the director set out to commemorate, reducing the slaughter of these innocents to the stuff of a crowd-pleasing grand finale. Fortunately, the set piece itself is a thing of wonder, nearly justifying its questionable narrative positioning: rousing without being exploitative, brilliantly orchestrated, but brutally matter-of-fact, it’s something to satisfy the cineaste and the moralist alike.

But even before the final massacre, the film is filled with other moments of comparable, if not equal potency. As J. Hoberman notesKatyn alternates between scenes of tremendous power and sequences most kindly described as dutiful” and when Wajda seems sufficiently roused to stage one of the former, he communicates the impact of historical event with enough visceral force to rescue the events from the harmless confines of the safely past. Wajda’s especially good with crowds; he turns the sheer numbers of bodies on the screen into a felt presence, bringing ample gravitas to the film’s recreations by emphasizing the physical weight of all that soon-to-be extinguished life. From the opening scene, in which hundreds of terrified citizens flee the Soviets across a bridge – a sequence that Hoberman compares favorably to similar scenes in Europa Europa and Schindler’s List – to a later moment where Polish officers crowd inside a POW camp, the camera craning backward to take in the masses of men, then rising to the heavens as they recite a prayer – Wajda’s skilled choreography emphasizes the full scope of the unfolding tragedy by capturing the vast scale of each individual grouping.

When things get really hectic, the director abandons the elegant, often fixed framings of the more peaceful scenes and cuts to a succession of rough, hand-held shots. In a late action sequence – erupting rudely into the film’s mostly staid post-war-set second act – this visual strategy courts incoherence without giving in. Running from Soviet soldiers after defacing a poster, a young rebel tears down the winding city streets, and Wajda’s camera follows, giving us blurry images of his feet and slightly less blurry ones of his pursuers. Remarkably, this self-conscious kineticism – based on the idea that quick pans and quicker cuts can communicate more tension than fully legible imagery – works: even if we can’t make out the content of every shot, the overall narrative progression of the scene is always wholly coherent and, even if the viewer has little emotional stake in the outcome of the chase, it’s a thrilling bit of business nonetheless, communicating – perhaps with a bit too much glee - the danger of living in decidedly uncertain times.

But these remarkable scenes are altogether too few. In between, we get the long, “dutiful” stretches that Wajda accomplishes with consummate skill, but without generating much in the way of dramatic interest. Split into two parts, the narrative deals first with the buildup to Katyn (covering roughly 1939-1940) while the Soviets (and the Nazis) begin to round up Polish officers and then with the aftermath (mostly 1945) while the victorious Soviets occupy the “new” Poland, enforcing a cover-up of the massacre which they insist on blaming on the Germans. Most of the film’s moral questioning comes in the second act, where several characters who lost family members in the massacre come to terms with the Soviet-dictated “peace”; while three of these characters actively rebel against the cover-up, a third accepts it as the inevitable price of rebuilding.

As interesting as this ethical accounting may be to contemplate, though, it finally seems a strictly academic exercise. As conveyed by Wajda, most of the non-action scenes feel too safely historical, too tied up in a specific moment that has long ago passed. In writing about the recent Holocaust picture The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, I noted “the film’s sepia-toned glaze gives the picture the look of a museum piece, so that even as [director Mark] Herman ratchets up the hysteria for a final-bit of on-screen horror, it seems sufficiently removed in time to shield the viewer from any direct engagement with the horrific events being shown.” Let me just say right off that Katyn is a far more accomplished film in just about every way than that shameless death camp weepie and that, unlike Herman’s final set-piece, Wajda’s really does bring home the impact of historical atrocity. But there are certain undeniable similarities in the way the two films look. Like The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, Katyn goes for a dull, brown-dominated color palette that tends to distance the viewer’s involvement with the material on screen. Call it the sepia effect: if it looks like old photographs, then it can be safely relegated to the past and summarily forgotten as soon as the credits roll.

Fortunately Wajda is a skilled enough filmmaker to transcend this misguided historical distancing - at least at times. When he cuts in at last to his climactic sequence, when he gives us hand-held p.o.v. shots of soldiers being led to the execution chamber, taking in the pools of blood on the floor as they march, when we see an endless stream of bodies emerge from the Black Marias used to transport the prisoners, a gun immediately placed to each individual’s head and fired without ceremony, when the camera tracks above a mass grave, a spooky squawk of strings tingling across the soundtrack, then we understand the horror that is so often the missing element from the endless stream of contemporary films about World War II atrocity. While movies like A Secret and The Reader and even parts of Katyn make the viewer feel all too comfortable in the presence of an obviously historical tragedy, then, when finally roused from the workaday demands of his narrative, Andrzej Wajda sets about bringing the Katyn massacre forcefully, inexorably into the viewer’s present.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The New York Press and Armond White

I've not been a great fan of Armond White's work these last few years, but hanging your writer out to dry - as the New York Press has by posting a poll on their website inviting readers to vote for the embattled critic's "worst recent review" - seems to me something that you just don't do. As long as a writer is in the employ of a particular publication, it should be that publication's duty to stand by the writer, provided he doesn't engage in such illegal/immoral activity as plagiarism or libel. And, no, bad critical judgement doesn't qualify as such an offense. If the Press is dissatisfied with White on this last count - as they may indeed have reason to be - then it really isn't fair to either the critic or to their readers to continue the association.

Rather the publication seems to want to have it both ways: to retain White because of the circulation that his name still brings to the paper, but to simultaneously acknowledge their understanding of the declining quality of his work. But if, as the poll seems to suggest, the only reason to read White's reviews is to poke fun at them, then what self-respecting paper would continue to run them? Given the critic's long tenure with the Press, the importance of the writing he did for the paper in the '90s and the respect that should be accorded a figure with his standing in the critical community, the least the publication could do is to allow this once influential writer to go out with a shred of dignity. When newspapers get desperate, apparently they resort to desperate measures, but humiliating your own writer should never have been an option.

The editors of the Press have changed the wording of the poll to "which Armond White review did you disagree with the most?" while offering a brief explanation of their decision to post the survey in the comments section.

Saturday, February 14, 2009


Less glamorous and more invigorating than many an American mob flick, Matteo Garrone's Gomorrah trains a jaundiced eye on several organizational levels of the Camorra crime families of Naples, Italy, deconstructing the gangster mythos while still generating enough cinematic excitement to fill out the film's ambitious narrative structure. Drawing on Roberto Saviano's best-selling exposé, Garrone cuts back and forth between five stories, ranging in subject from the lowest rungs of the power ladder (the pre-teen initiates) to those involved in ambitious macro-level activity (a man who engineers the dumping of poisonous materials - a somewhat obvious metaphor for the noxious influence of the Camorra), which he smartly refrains from linking together through the sort of screenwriting contrivances so common to the multi-strand narrative.

But if Garrone's skill as a storyteller ensures that the film never lacks for narrative thrust, then his insistence on de-glamorizing the activities of his subjects means that the picture takes on a certain dry, emotionless cast which tends to blunt its overall impact, even as the brutally matter-of-fact slayings begin to pile up in the film's second act. Gomorrah's most memorable characters are a pair of ambitious teens who go from playing at Scarface in tenement halls to stealing drugs and guns from the big boys. But these kids are so arrogant and finally so stupid that we have little to do with their story but wait out their inevitable demise with minimal personal investment in the proceedings, even if Garrone concludes the segment with an image of such stark precision that it endows the kids' lives with a retrospective sense of felt waste.

For the most part the director is less concerned with evoking a specific sense of place than in imparting an atmosphere of scuzzy Euro-squalor. If his visual strategy - a lot of close shots often arranged in carefully choreographed hand-held sequences, a penchant for leaving backgrounds conspicuously out-of-focus - ensures that we have little in the way of concrete detail to glom onto, it instead imparts a disorienting cast to the proceedings which, combined with glimpses of bombed-out apartment buildings and the thud-thud of the disco-pop on the soundtrack, situates the viewer uncomfortably in a suitably squalid milieu. Never cutting away from this self-contained world, avoiding self-consciously beautiful imagery, Garrone refuses to offer the possibility of alternatives, either visual or narrative. At one point a character says "I don't think I'm cut out for this line of work," but in the world that Gomorrah posits there is no other line of work to turn to: the whole economic and social system is predicated on crime. If Garrone's evocation of this claustrophobic universe ensures that his critique draws sufficient blood, though, it also leads his film to a certain impasse. Exposing the rotten heart of the system, decrying the waste of life that it entails, the film then simply ends, bringing with it neither any kind of emotional resonance nor any sense of possibility beyond its own bleak conclusions.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Great Speeches from a Dying World

Essential viewing for our economic hard times, Linas Phillips’ documentary Great Speeches from a Dying World offers an intimate look at the lives of nine (mostly) homeless men and women on the streets of Seattle, nearly all of whom once had stable employment. But neither a cautionary tale nor an explicit critique of the failure of a social system, Phillips’ film instead focuses on the daily routines of his subjects (selling newspapers or flowers on street corners, bedding down at a shelter) as well as their often heartbreaking backstories, allowing any wider social implications to emerge at one remove.

Although the film’s subject matter entails a certain amount of brutal detailing – and Phillips doesn’t shy away from highlighting his subjects’ susceptibility to physical attack or their struggles with drug addiction – the director refuses to turn his project into an out-and-out miserabilist undertaking. For one thing, with a few exceptions, all of which are glossed over fairly rapidly, the individuals profiled in the picture hardly seem to be the most indigent of possible subjects. Although many struggle to keep off crack or alcohol, most seem in good mental health, have something of a range of social connections and, as the film traces their progress over a few years, several are able to find housing. In addition, the subjects regularly offer each other assistance, checking up on one another, dispensing advice and generally making their situations more bearable. It’s this last aspect that emerges as one of the film’s moral touchstones, not - of course - because it allows the viewer to feel that homelessness isn’t as bad as he might have thought (although, to some degree, it does), but because it further humanizes the individuals that Phillips profiles and because it recognizes the imperative of a common humanity.

As a structuring device, Phillips has each of his subjects recite a classic text – the “great speeches” of the title – with which they feel a personal connection and spaces these recitations out across the film. Drawing on the oratory of Sojourner Truth, Jesus Christ and John and Robert Kennedy, Phillips’ subjects recontextualize these works, endowing the mostly overfamiliar speeches with (at least in theory) fresh meaning. For the most part, however, the device seems an unnecessary hook, as if the director didn’t trust the individual stories he collected to provide a sufficient basis for a feature-length film. But although I don’t think the “great speeches” angle works in general – despite the thematic relevance of the texts to the lives of the individuals who recite them, the subjects don’t seem to really respond to the project – in two cases, the approach has real resonance. In one, a man who just survived a near-fatal staph infection recites Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” speech from his hospital bed, the words taking on new relevance since the subject, who has attempted suicide seven times, has lapsed into a fresh despair and seems to be contemplating, like the melancholy Dane, whether or not to continue his life. Later in the film, a wheelchair bound Vietnam vet, his words slightly garbled because of a stroke, recites the Gettysburg Address; as he echoes Lincoln’s words, the thought that a war might be fought to ensure that “all men are created equal” comes across with cruel irony when conveyed through this combat-scarred man’s shattered voice, even as his determined recitation provides a note of inspired uplift.

In any non-fiction film, but especially one where the subject is the dispossessed, the question of the proper relationship between filmmaker and subject becomes a central issue, a point that Phillips himself acknowledges at the beginning of the picture when he expresses guilt over going home to his warm bed while leaving his subjects to sleep on the streets. But although Phillips spent several years getting to the know the men and women in his film and, we’re told, became friends with at least one of them – the film’s central figure, a garrulous, generous HIV-positive man named Tomey who struggles with a lingering crack addiction – his method as a filmmaker seems to be to maintain as objective a stance as possible. So Phillips films his subjects begging for money, but we never see him offer them any financial assistance. He shows us a man struggling to move his wheelchair over a speed bump, but the director remains off camera throughout, refusing to help. He does dispense some advice to Tomey, telling him to be careful not to spend his social security check on drugs, and offers some flattering comments to the film’s most down-and-out –subject, but for the most part, he seems determined to document rather than interfere.

Another important issue that Phillips addresses is the question of ethical representation. How much of the less palatable aspects of his subjects’ lives is it permissible to show in order to give an accurate account of their daily travails without crossing over into exploitation? Although the director generally avoids showing his subjects at their most debased, he does film them smoking crack and, at one point, in voiceover, expresses regret that he included footage of Tomey that was shot while the latter was high. The proper positioning of the filmmaker in regards to his subject is an important question, perhaps the key question, for the documentary filmmaker and it’s one that Phillips acknowledges without obsessing over. But in the end, he seems to strike the right balance. Without condescending to the men and women of his film, and with only the occasional lapse into questionable inclusion, Phillips does right by his subjects, bearing due witness to their struggles, while allowing them to maintain their essential dignity.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Two Reflections on First Looking Into Kore-eda's After Life


In Hirokazu Kore-eda's 1998 film After Life, which takes place entirely in a realm beyond death, the newly deceased arrive at what that looks like a partially dilapidated boarding house, spending a week there before passing on. During that week they work with a specially trained staff to select one memory from their life that they wish to keep with them for all eternity, which the staff then set about re-creating in the form of a short film based on the subjects' descriptions. The narrative span of Kore-eda's film runs just over a full week, confines its actions (with one exception) to the buildings' grounds and doesn't speculate as to what the next stage of eternity might look like beyond the fact that the deceased will be able to repeatedly view their filmed memories.

What's interesting about the film's central conceit is that it privileges the individuals' subjective memory over the objective reality of the selected events. The re-creations are forged entirely from the descriptions given by the subjects even though, as we learn later, the organization possesses a complete set of tapes documenting the activity of each person's life and could easily base the films on this presumably objective evidence. But these subjective memories, as they finally come back to their subjects, are then filtered through another (inevitably subjective) layer, the particular sensibility of the filmmaking crew charged with re-creating the events. So how does this intrusion effect the subjective experience of the particular individual reliving the memory? Kore-eda doesn't tell us. Those subjects that he shows watching the films seem perfectly pleased with the results and the question is never really raised. Given the clarity with which the director sketches out a complex operation, we can't fault him for not satisfying our every curiosity, but it's still worth considering how this further layer of filtering might complicate the objective/subjective dichotomy.


But what happens if one of the newly dead either can't or won't select a memory? During the week in which the film takes place, the staff deals with several such difficult "clients," most significantly an older man who views his life as so uniformly unsatisfying that he is unable to locate a single moment that rises above the general mediocrity and a young man who defiantly refuses to comply. When finally pressed as to his reasons for not choosing, the latter cites his need to "take responsibility," a charge that may mean, among other things, that he refuses to acknowledge a single peak of happiness as constituting the entirety of a life. By failing to pick a memory, the young man prefers to rest in a limbo where he can assume responsibility for the totality of his existence. His older counterpart, for his part, finally hits on a memory, and, in a final reflection, decides that this one recalled event justifies the entire life. For some, a person's existence may be defined by its singular moments; for others this conception represents a betrayal of what it means to be human.

The objections raised by the young man, though, have the feel of - I hesitate to use the term bad-faith - but a narrative manipulation of at least a somewhat questionable propriety. Here Kore-eda has created a fanciful situation that has no relation to any existing set of circumstances and then brings in a character to criticize the situation. Perhaps the young man's objections are valid, but those objections are made in reference to a situation that (barring a most unlikely turn-of-afterlife-events) could not possibly exist. Yes, we might say, I too would object to living with only one memory for all of eternity, but that's not really a question that need concern us. None of which is to say that the young man's stance has no significance beyond his specific set of circumstances - indeed his objections hint at the larger question of what constitutes a life - but being so entirely dependant on the film's internal narrative reasoning for its expression, the plot manipulation finally rings false. At such moments, Kore-eda seems locked so heavily into the logic of his self-contained world that he can't see his way out.

Monday, February 2, 2009

New Releases: Shadows and Memorial Day

Based on the other reviews I've read, it seems I may be the only person who actually liked Milcho Manchevski's ghost story, Shadows. An admittedly flawed piece of work, the film (currently playing at New York's Cinema Village) offers enough visual pleasures to reward any viewer willing to put up with a shopworn story and a poor grasp of narrative. The same can't be said for Josh Fox's Memorial Day (opening this Wednesday at the IFC Center) a pointless, brutalizing take on both Abu Ghraib and spring break which posits a tenuous link between the two, then places the blame for the former squarely on the shoulders of the average grunt.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Mister Lonely

A Buckwheat look-alike bathes a Pope impersonator in a stand-alone tub in a forest clearing. Two nuns in blue pastel habits sneak a cigarette and then, like the “tennis-playing” mimes in Blowup, feign a game of volleyball. And somewhere beneath the endless layers of precious imagery and affectedly offbeat dialogue, Mister Lonely offers up something resembling a look at the tenuous constitution of human connections and the fragile nature of identity, but, given the filmmaker’s taste for an insistent fetishizing of the unusual, it takes most of the film’s running time to cut through the quirk to get there.

A solitary Michael Jackson impersonator living in Paris, Diego Luna’s character (who is referred to only as “Michael”, as if defined entirely through his assumed identity) struggles both financially – when he’s not performing for spare change on the streets, he’s playing retirement homes – and socially – his inability to speak French and his natural timidity significantly limit his contacts – until he meets a Marilyn Monroe impersonator (Samantha Morton) who whisks him off to join her community of celebrity look-alikes in the Scottish Highlands. As in any congregation of outcasts, these impersonators rally ‘round their difference, creating an atmosphere of open acceptance – reflected in the enthusiastic reception accorded the newly arrived Michael – if not quite warm camaraderie. But a community who defines themselves by their isolation from the rest of society – and the fantasy nature of their existence is made clear by the fact that the impersonators are nearly always in character – inevitably lives under quite a severe strain.

And rather than create a workable alternative community, drafting a superior mode of living from an acknowledgement of the shortcomings of the society they’ve abandoned, the community in Mister Lonely seems founded on a denial of the reality principle. But that principle comes back with a vengeance, first symbolically, in a sheep blight which forces the congregation (in the persons of Larry, Moe and Curly) to euthanize its flock, then through the same petty jealousies that seem to pop up in any form of social organization, and finally in the indifference of the outside public, who the impersonators, like any artists, find they have need of after all, if only as an audience. The film’s central conflict crops up when Michael and Marilyn get a little too close for the liking of the latter’s jealous Charlie Chaplin-impersonating husband (the great Denis Lavant, largely wasted here) who retaliates by deliberately sabotaging his wife’s big moment, failing to wake her from her sunbath, thus ensuring she appears horribly burned when the impersonators stage their talent show.

This last event is probably the film’s highlight, even if director Harmony Korine scarcely gives his talent enough screen-time to shine. If impersonating famous characters marks these people as woefully out of place in real life (and more than a little irritating to the film’s audience), then here they are very much in their element. Lavant, in particular stands out, doing a Chaplin routine involving a sagging tight rope that provides one of the film’s few laughs. But after the performance comes a heartbreaking cut to the audience, five or six people seated on wooden chairs, bathed in the infrared glow of the stage lights and clapping lamely. Their self-worth reflected in their reception, the performers walk away disheartened, before low spirits give way to the film’s inevitable tragedy and Michael leaves to seek for his identity in another place and under a new guise.

In fact, much of what’s interesting in the film occurs in this final segment, from the doomed performance through Michael’s eventual return to Paris, in which, abandoning the Jackson look, he loses himself in a street parade, seeking a renewed sense of self in the anonymity of the indifferent crowd. For the rest, Korine seems principally interested in perpetuating a self-consciously offbeat vibe that tends more often than not toward an unpalatable preciosity. Even the film’s wonderfully delicate conclusion can’t entirely avoid this tendency, as Michael’s final path is determined by a conversation with a group of painted eggs which come to life with the faces of the impersonators in order to dispense advice. And they sing too.

Actually Korine’s method is classic surrealist juxtaposition, combining incongruous elements in unexpected ways. But while these combinations may indeed be unexpected, they’re certainly far from being inspired. The last thing we need is another instance of the elderly acting foolishly youthful, but that’s what we get when Michael performs his act for a group of old-folks, the audience clapping their hands in their wheelchairs, while the radio blares something about “pussy” and Diego Luna grabs his crotch. Then there’s the assortment of impersonators, a collection of offbeat types who, when placed together in one room, overwhelm with their sheer accumulation of quirk. Abraham Lincoln drops the word “fuck” into every sentence, while the aforementioned Buckwheat rides around on an undersized horse talking something about the correlation between chicken breasts and woman’s breasts.

And that doesn’t even get to the film’s subplot, an unrelated bit about flying nuns that gives Korine a chance to bring in one more found object into his surrealist stew, film director Werner Herzog, who plays the commanding priest with his typically wry gusto. Actually, despite having nothing to do with the film’s main thrust, the sequences with the nuns are rather more successful than much of the rest of the work, the director achieving some of his happier visual moments when the sisters, miniature figures set against a sky flecked with jet-exhaust, float around in delirious circles. But while the film has an appealing looseness, which makes possible the introduction of such an incompatible narrative thread, it’s probably a mistake for the director to allow himself such a free hand. Written in tandem with his brother, Avi, Korine’s film doesn’t so much get away from him as allow him to indulge some unfortunate tendencies - an addiction to quirk, a lack of proper discernment - which may be, finally, intrinsic to his art. That he’s nearly able to pull everything together at the end is, no doubt impressive, but given that the nature of the project seems geared specifically toward those propensities that Korine should probably be trying to downplay, if not avoid entirely, Mister Lonely never really had much of a chance to begin with.