Monday, December 27, 2010
The Way Back (Slant)
Biutiful (The L Magazine)
The Red Chapel (The L Magazine)
The Sound of Insects (Village Voice)
Wednesday, December 22, 2010
Monday, December 20, 2010
A problem with so much of recent American cinema is an insistence on that old Creative Writing 101 saw, “Write about what you know.” Whether it’s the insular mumblings of filmmakers like Joe Swanberg, the privileged wallow of Lena Dunham’s overpraised Tiny Furniture that makes a virtue of its deliberately narrow world-view or the wave of look-at-me-and-my-family first-person docs, our national independent filmmaking has become practically synonymous with what often feels like a round of glorified vanity projects. Critical responses to such self-reflective films have ranged from ambivalent pieces like Dan Callahan’s consideration of Coppola and Dunham’s efforts (he finds the latter promising, while disliking the former) appropriately titled “On Rich Girl Cinema” to Richard Brody’s ample praise of a strain of filmmaking that allows sheltered youth the privilege of self-expression, a position most clearly articulated in his consideration of the recent book of essays What Was the Hipster?. Taking to task the book’s chief contributor Mark Greif for chiding middle-class whites who focus on “their struggles for their own pleasures and luxuries… rather than asking what makes their sort of people entitled to them”, Brody counters by praising the art being made by “young people” that “depicts themselves and the specifics of their own lives,” including “their economic circumstances, the places in which they live, the assumptions on which their choices are based.” Brody’s own assumption seems to be that all subject matters are uniformly valid, and that Greif’s prescription is essentially anti-democratic.
But are all subjects equal? Just because you’re white, middle- (or upper-) class and apolitical does that make your story any less valid than those of less privileged people? (Certainly if a film’s focus on working-class life consists of an unholy mix of sentimental heroics and class contempt like David O. Russell’s The Fighter, it doesn’t). But whether dealing with Coppola’s filthy-rich movie star, Dunham’s wealthy recent college grad or the aimless twenty-somethings of Joe Swanberg's and Kentucker Audley’s films (presumably the latter two examples are what Brody has in mind), I would say that the answer is that these films' subjects are simply not terribly interesting objects of study. Not everybody’s life is.
As a young, white, middle-class (by lifestyle if not income), though hardly apolitical person, I wouldn’t think of turning my life into a film; it would probably be the dullest thing ever committed to celluloid. But at least I can say this: Unlike the protagonists (and directors) of most American independent films, my interests extend beyond my own daily existence. In reading my Tiny Furniture review one can take me to task for putting my set of cultural references above Lena Dunham’s and asserting my superiority to the filmmaker and her character. My response would be that my interests aren’t more valid because they’re more highbrow, but because they don’t begin and end with the specifics of my personal existence. As someone interested in the cinema (like Dunham’s character), I don’t try to limit myself by declaring a blanket dislike of “foreign films”, but try to engage with all forms of movies. And rather than assert that my social life is more important than the larger issues facing the world (impending climate catastrophe, growing wealth inequality, endless wars abroad - or the politics of sexual inequality that play out daily in less dramatic theaters), I freely admit my personal insignificance. In the final analysis, what’s ultimately lacking from the vast majority of independent American films being released to groundswells of critical acclaim is any kind of political awareness.
Wednesday, December 15, 2010
Monday, December 13, 2010
Tuesday, December 7, 2010
This year’s Up in the Air, but bleaker, without the leavening humor. Also, (see the title) more male-centric. In theory, there’s no subject unfit for cinematic treatment, but the chastening and redemption of an obnoxious corporate player forced to adjust to a less gilded lifestyle (George Clooney’s professional downsizer in the Jason Reitman picture; Ben Affleck’s sales exec in John Wells’ current feature) puts that theory rather severely to the test. Unlike Clooney’s charmer, Affleck’s Bobby Walker is pretty much all asshole, defining himself by the luxury life (Porsches, Patriots season tix) that he can barely afford on his middle-class salary. When he gets the axe in a round of corporate downsizing, he can’t pay his mortgage, suffers a crisis of class-sliding dread and is finally forced to take a job hanging drywall for his contractor brother-in-law. Ennobled by his brief contact with the working class, he’s (spoilers ahead) free to rejoin the white collar world, netting a more ethically responsible position, albeit at half his old salary. As if there was any question of Affleck’s character ending up a full-time laborer.
Semi-upbeat ending aside, this is a world of corporate double-crosses, humiliating employment agency exercises, suicides and small businesses that can’t break even, where anyone above the age of 30 is seemingly unemployable, a state of affairs that emerges through the stories of the other “company men” of various levels of seniority also terminated from Walker’s company. Bloated CEO pay and outsourcing are the culprits according to the film’s endlessly reiterated talking points, but for all its attempts to speak to our moment and address the larger picture of economic failure, this is one more redemption-of-corporate-man melodrama, in this case effecting the ethical deliverance via a dubious embrace of the purity of working class labor, a “lower” world which it eventually discards as beneath its white collar characters.
The Temptation of St. Tony
A mourner at a funeral reflects that everything in the world is evil. A priest denies a feeling of any connection with God. A sinister figure of occult power mocks notions of goodness and laughs at protestations of love. And they all live in a bleak Estonian landscape of rocky expanses dotted with the occasional ultra-modernist structure (the incongruity of post-Soviet capitalism). Against such a backdrop, the semi-ironically nicknamed “Saint” Tony (Taavi Eelmaa), a factory manager with a cheating wife, a recently deceased father and a pitying love of dogs, searches for something like redemption (or at least some alternative to the void). The priest, a man blessed with superhuman omniscience, tells Tony the only thing he believes in is individual accountability, a lesson not lost on the industrial manager. But no matter if he’s reporting the discovery of a pair of severed hands to a provincial policeman only to narrowly escape ill treatment from that petty bureaucrat or trying to save a comely factory worker’s daughter from a sinister network of sex slavery for which he nearly suffers far greater punishment, Tony proves a perennially impotent figure. Whether or not one is inclined to take all this as allegory (at one point a nearly naked Tony wraps himself in the Estonian flag and runs across a snowy field), Veiko Õunpuu’s stunningly photographed second feature (shot in tactile black-and-white by Mart Taniel) presents a sardonically bleak picture of man’s existential, and Eastern European man’s political, state (though not untempered by ample doses of black humor). If the film works best in individual moments, there are few in the recent cinema as memorable as a posh dinner party where the guests go from discussing swinging to dancing drunkenly in various male-female-female combinations or, better, the climactic Eyes Wide Shut-inspired set-piece which takes the notion of the hidden sinister farther than even Kubrick (or Arthur Schnitzler) could have imagined.
Saturday, December 4, 2010
Monday, November 29, 2010
Everything in Wellman’s film is seen at its terminal stage: the family, the frontier, history itself. Set at the earliest in 1896 (the date of an inscription glimpsed in a book of Keats poems), at least three years after Frederick Jackson Turner famously declared the western limit of American expansion achieved, Track of the Cat focuses on an extended clan that plays like a grotesque parody of familial values. While Bible-spouting Mom (Beulah Bondi), along with her favorite son, the domineering Curt (a well-bearded Robert Mitchum), solidifies her power over her offspring, her husband (Philip Tonge) comically stumbles around in a perpetual drunken stupor, endlessly searching out the bottles of whisky he’s hidden in any number of spots throughout the house. Rounding out the picture are Curt’s siblings, the mystically-inclined Arthur (William Hopper), the deeply unhappy Grace (Teresa Wright) and the cowering, ineffectual youngest brother Harold (Tab Hunter), constantly ridiculed by Curt in front of his intended bride Gwen (Diana Lynn), the latter the recipient of filthy-sounding innuendos from her future brother-in-law.
While this clan’s passions either get repressed or simmer hotly in their isolated home which, for all Curt’s claims as to having built up the surrounding valley, seems situated at something like the end of history if not the world itself, a specter comes to haunt the land that may itself be a reminder of that now-conquered past. A panther has been attacking the local cattle and, after Arthur is killed by the animal, Curt embarks mid-snowstorm on a perilous journey to bring in this beast. Writing about Wellman’s later films, critic Richard Combs notes that the director’s style becomes “more introverted… his subjects tilted more interestingly toward allegory.” But Combs goes on to dismiss Track of the Cat as a “very thin abstraction,” complaining that the “cat of the title” is reduced “to a wholly unseen, metaphorical threat.” While it’s true that the “painter” (as he’s referred to in the characters' western-speak) is never glimpsed on screen and serves a largely symbolic purpose, the exact nature of that purpose is by no means a simple question. Like the white whale of Moby Dick (or the gold doubloon which Ahab offers to the man who first spots that leviathan), the cat has a different meaning for each character.
For the family’s Native American servant Joe Sam (Carl Switzer) who, after having most of his family wiped out by U.S. soldiers, suffered the loss of his wife and child at the hand of the panther, the beast represents something like pure evil or, according to Arthur, the only member of the family with whom the he speaks freely, it “stands for the whole business of being run out by the whites.” Thus having lost the battle to save his land, the American Indian is reduced to working for his vanquisher while transferring the weight of his past onto the shoulders of a semi-mystical creature. For Curt, the stakes are not so simple, but pursuing the beast single-handedly with dogged purpose, it’s clear it’s tied up with claims of patriarchal authority, a reading enforced both by a discussion with his mother about mounting the beast on the wall (where it would serve as a symbol of his masculine power) and his continued taunting of his brother’s intended Gwen about making the pelt into a blanket for her wedding bed, thus asserting his sexual privilege over the young woman and linking domestic control with dominance over primal nature.
If history – along with that bedrock of “civilized” society, the family – is at an end, then Curt would seem to be its winner while Joe Sam, reduced to spouting mystical nonsense, is its obvious loser. But for all his arrogance and his bragging about having tamed the valley, nature is not finished with Curt. Introduced wearing a blood red poncho cut through with a bold horizontal line of black, Curt trades his top for a less assertive black and white-spotted outfit that mirrors the monotone of both the wilderness and the family’s home. In making the switch, Curt seals his doom by forgetting to transfer the food from the pocket of the old garment to the new. As the days go by and his older brother inches closer to death, Harold begins to assert himself as the only viable male figure left in the household. That this assertion consists of telling his fiancée what to do rather than demurring to her wishes and then setting out on Curt’s path to kill the panther himself suggests that instead of overturning his brother’s cruel authoritarianism, he might well develop a similar bearing in order to stabilize an increasingly degenerative household.
Although it’s Harold and not Curt who ultimately shoots the panther (the action hidden by a well-placed tree) and thus asserts his right to both his familial and sexual inheritance, the victor lacks his brother’s arrogance and promises to be a more benign patriarch as he prepares to take control of the household from his increasingly impotent (and remorseful) mother. Still, at film’s end, the last symbolic vestige of threatening wilderness has been killed, the frontier has been definitively closed and the stage is set for the increasingly revisionist western of the mid-1950s to give way to the final apocalypse that brought the genre to a close in the next two decades. The wild land may be tamed, but the wilderness at the heart of man – represented via the rottenness of his deteriorating organizational modes, the family and the larger society – is primed to take center stage.
Wednesday, November 24, 2010
Wednesday, November 17, 2010
Made in Dagenham (Slant)
Today's Special (Slant)
Family Affair (Village Voice)
Tuesday, November 16, 2010
To read the rest of this article, please continue to Bright Lights Film Journal.
Wednesday, November 10, 2010
Friday, November 5, 2010
Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer (Slant)
Outside the Law (Slant)
Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench (Artforum)
Jews and Baseball: An American Love Story (Time Out New York)
A Marine Story (Time Out New York)
Thursday, October 28, 2010
Welcome to the Rileys (Slant)
A Small Act (Slant)
Walkaway (Village Voice)
Jolene (Time Out New York)
Sunday, October 17, 2010
Monday, October 11, 2010
It’s no coincidence that Zoo contains the most on-screen video and still photograph cameras of any of the director’s 15 films I’ve had the pleasure of screening – clear stand-ins for the directorial presence even if they function in a largely different manner from Wiseman’s own apparatus – as well as the most disturbing series of surgeries and naked carnivorism. (The filmmaker’s animal-themed films tend to be the bloodiest). In an early sequence, an on-screen camera tracks along with a group of lions as they move across their zoological enclosure, while one crew member holds up a piece of flora in front of the lens, manipulating the image into suggesting that the shoot took place in the animals’ native habitat, as opposed to a “fake” setting of captivity. By showing us the falsehood inherent in this act of image-creation, Wiseman calls upon the viewer to question the director’s own choice of material. While his approach obviously aims for a less altered view of “reality”, it’s clear that any endeavor that strives toward a sense of the objective is no less shaped by a selective process and by authorial prejudices, even if Wiseman’s subjects never call attention to the camera’s presence. (This last fact always strikes me as vaguely unsettling when watching his films.)
In one sense, Wiseman’s 16mm camera operates in similar fashion to the various film crews and tourist photo shoots that he captures on screen. But what separates his method is the access he allows to far more privileged moments of the organization's inner workings, offering a larger context for his images and, with it, a definite authorial perspective. This point of view places the audience in an uncomfortable position in relation to the animals (which it’s likely to regard with the same voyeuristic urge as the zoo’s visitors), the visitors themselves (who tend to come off somewhat less than flatteringly) and the behind-the-scenes activities performed by the zoo’s staff. Though clearly enamored of the animals they tend to, these workers nonetheless engage in acts that to the viewer unaccustomed to such operations can only register as unnecessarily brutal.
These squirm inducing sequences comprise a good portion of the film’s running time: In one heartwrenching scene, a rhino gives birth to a still-born child, the mother registering a look of sad resignation (in so far as it’s possible to project human emotion onto an animal’s face) as she regards her deceased offspring. Later, that dead animal is chopped up into pieces, some to be sent to scientific research centers, the rest discarded in an incinerator. A lizard is fed a meal of dead birds; when he’s finished, a speck of plumage clings cruelly to the corner of his mouth. A wolf is castrated while the doctors deadpan lines like “out they come”. After a tour guide explains to visitors that most offspring at the zoo are raised by the mothers, we watch workers steal a crocodile’s newly hatched eggs for observation.
While part of this brutality is inherent in the feeding process, it seems all the more pitiless for being performed in an artificial manner necessitated by the animals’ removal from their native environments. Some of the other acts can be justified as furthering the aims of science (the egg removal) or, more dubiously, as being in the general interest of “education”, a vague term that a tour guide vaguely throws around. It’s clear, however, that the real purpose of the zoo is to indulge the voyeurism of its paying customers, a voyeurism in which Wiseman implicates both himself and the viewer by showing us shots of animals that are undeniably striking, even if he later undercuts our visual pleasure by exposing the bluntly executed processes behind the operation.
Two late sequences give us some of the wider context of that operation, starting with a board meeting in which the zoo’s administrators discuss the negotiations involved in obtaining komodo dragons for their menagerie. Since they have to deal with the Indonesian government (then run by the U.S.-supported military dictator and genocidist Suharto), discussions lead to tricky economic, as well as moral, questions. This sole look at the administrative process of the institution (less than we’ve come to expect from such near contemporaneous Wiseman films as Near Death and Central Park), is particularly telling: After our immersion in day-to-day process, we’re finally granted a glimpse at the wider decision-making that allows for the zoo’s continued operation. The price of that continued operation is further emphasized in the film’s final sequence, a gala benefit, crudely entitled “Feast with the Beasts”. Under a full moon, VIPS dressed in black-tie cavort with elephants and dine on cooked meat that in the dim light reminds one of the flesh burning in the incinerator that reappears like a bad conscience throughout the course of the film. While the chefs at the feast cook up fancy steaks, the daily workers perform a far less glamorous act of flesh-frying. These two acts – fund-raising and disposal of the dead – represent the twin poles of activities necessary to the maintenance of the institution. But whether or not that institution deserves this upkeep is a question that Wiseman’s film continually, fascinatingly leaves open to interrogation.
Saturday, October 9, 2010
New York Film Festival
Old Cats (Slant)
Other Film Reviews
Letters to Father Jacob (Slant)
Make Yourself at Home (Time Out New York)
Thursday, September 30, 2010
New York Film Festival
The Strange Case of Angelica (Slant)
Boxing Gym (Slant)
Other Film Reviews
Nine Nation Animation (Village Voice)
Speed-Dating (Time Out New York)
Saturday, September 25, 2010
New York Film Festival
Festival Introduction (Slant)
Of Gods and Men (Slant)
Le Quattro Volte (Slant)
Other Film Reviews
A Mother's Courage (Village Voice)
Tibet in Song (Time Out New York)
Philip Roth's Nemesis (The House Next Door)
Wednesday, September 15, 2010
Jack Goes Boating (Slant)
The Freebie (Slant)
Fantômas: The Complete Saga (DVD) (Slant)
Music Makes a City (Time Out New York)
Wednesday, September 8, 2010
Latinbeat Film Festival (Village Voice)
Who is Harry Nilsson? (Village Voice)
Race to Nowhere (Time Out New York)
Wednesday, September 1, 2010
Wednesday, August 25, 2010
Change of Plans (Slant)
Make-Out with Violence (Village Voice)
Daniel and Ana (Village Voice)
Tuesday, August 17, 2010
Wednesday, August 11, 2010
Peepli Live (Slant)
The People I've Slept With (Time Out New York)
Wednesday, August 4, 2010
Cairo Time (Slant)
The Disappearance of Alice Creed (Slant)
Brotherhood (The L Magazine)
Last Letters from Monte Rosa (Village Voice)
The Kid: Chamaco (Village Voice)
Patrik, Age 1.5 (Time Out New York)
Wednesday, July 28, 2010
The Dry Land (Slant)
Who Killed Nancy? (Slant)
Enemies of the People (Village Voice)
Helen (Village Voice)
Smash His Camera (Time Out New York)
Thursday, July 22, 2010
Tirador (Village Voice)
Countdown to Zero (Slant)
Wednesday, July 14, 2010
The Contenders (Slant)
Two Films by Yasujiro Ozu (DVD) (Slant)
Henri-Georges Clouzot's Inferno (The L Magazine)
Racing Dreams (The Village Voice)
To Age or Not to Age (The Village Voice)
Saturday, July 3, 2010
Questions of bias and inaccuracy have long dogged such leftist filmmakers as Oliver Stone and Michael Moore and, while one can easily question the conspiracy theories unleashed by the former in films like JFK, it’s less easy to dismiss the slanted reportage of the latter. Yes, Moore engages in a selective arrangement of facts – as well as a gut-punching rhetoric that often seems like he isn’t playing fair – but no more than his counterparts on the right, and unlike them his presentation gets much nearer to the truth in its active engagement with progressive change that will benefit rather than harm the average citizen.
All of which is why I can’t agree with my colleague and good friend Keith Uhlich who considers Stone’s new work of Moore-style infotainment, a docu-profile of left-leaning South American presidents, “near worthless as reportage” in his Time Out New York review. South of the Border may be “as distorted and evasive as the Fox News footage it so often demonizes,” as Uhlich notes – though not quite: nothing’s as distorted as footage Stone includes of Fox News reporters calling democratically-elected presidents “dictators” when the real dictators are the ones that the United States installed in place of democratically-elected Latin American presidents throughout the twentieth century – but with a key difference. While the extreme right’s take demonizes these leaders for their understandable anti-American bias, Stone, despite his omissions and obvious untempered enthusiasm for each of his subjects, emphasizes the most important fact about the state of South American politics: that after a century of being in thrall to the interests of North American and European corporations who pilfered the countries’ most valuable resources while leaving the people in states of extreme poverty or subject to torture, they’re finally being run by nationalist-minded presidents who are turning the nation’s assets to the benefit of the people.
Any other concerns pale in comparison and while the viewer may surely want to follow up with some additional reading for a more rounded picture, Stone’s film succeeds in contrasting the reports of the American right-wing media with something that approaches a more essential, even if only partial, truth. Once the viewer accepts these conditions, it’s easy to enjoy watching Stone schmooze with best-bud Hugo Chavez as he talks over the failed (American-sanctioned) coup attempt on his presidency or chew cocoa leaves with Bolivian leader Evo Morales. Or at least it would be if the unctuous director didn’t insist on putting himself at the center of every scene. As presented by Stone, the presidents are a varied and sympathetic gallery of personalities, from the fiery Chavez to Paraguay’s soft-spoken leader (and ex-bishop) Fernando Lugo; it’s only the filmmaker himself whose presence grates. Asking leading questions and insisting on his privileged position with his subjects, Stone’s as unbearable a presence as ever. For the rest, his film’s an engaging and, yes, informative look at a new trend in global politics that anyone who takes the word “democracy” to mean something other than American hegemony ought not to dismiss as quickly as the shit-spinners from the so-called "fair and balanced" media.
Tuesday, June 29, 2010
Thursday, June 17, 2010
Stonewall Uprising and 8: The Mormon Proposition (The L Magazine)
Let it Rain (Artforum)
The Nature of Existence (Village Voice)
45365 (Time Out New York)
I Am Love (Slant)
The Killer Inside Me (The House Next Door)
Thursday, June 10, 2010
The A-Team (Slant)
Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work (Slant)
Reel Injun (Village Voice)
Tuesday, June 1, 2010
Friday, May 21, 2010
John Rabe (Slant)
Holy Rollers (Village Voice)
After the Cup: Sons of Sakhnin United (Time Out New York)
Tuesday, May 11, 2010
Wednesday, May 5, 2010
Mother and Child (Slant)
Gravity was Everywhere Back Then (Slant)
Floored (Village Voice)
Friday, April 30, 2010
Give Six credit for crafting a memorable central image. Even granting my rather severe ignorance of the state of the modern exploitation flick, I doubt there’s much out there to compare to the site of the trio crawling around on their knees, struggling to move in synch, while the horrible stitches in the mouth of the centipede’s “tail” ooze with puss. Or when the “head” confesses in subtitled Japanese which none of the other characters can understand that he’s sorry, but he’s gotta shit and we see the horrified face of the woman in the middle while their captor coos the word “feed” to his creature. Slicker and tauter than you’d expect, Six’s film is still nothing but cynical grindhouse nihilism. Deliberately unpleasant, as free of subtext as an Eli Roth gorefest, Human Centipede can’t be said to be entertaining, but it is compellingly watchable.
At least for fans of the next thing, the seekers of the extreme. The only difference is the film isn’t being tucked away in some grindhouse ghetto (well, actually these don’t seem to exist anymore), but touring the arthouse circuit thanks to a distribution deal from IFC films, so that it plays next to such innocuously genteel fare as Mercy. An interesting juxtaposition and one which has earned Six’s film more attention from the press than it would have received say, thirty years earlier, when it wouldn’t have been heard from outside the insular precincts of 42nd street. And, despite my now adding to that press, more attention than it deserves, since such perverse creativity as Six possesses is a dubious object of celebration. And after giving cinematic birth to his six-legged monstrosity, the only possible way to bring his project to an end is in an orgy of nihilism, which is precisely what Six does, the final tell of a cynicism that delights in repulsion for its own sake.
Wednesday, April 28, 2010
Tribeca Film Festival
The Killer Inside Me (The House Next Door)
Open House (The House Next Door)
Please Give (Slant)
The Good Heart (Slant)
Monday, April 26, 2010
While I can't label Pang Ho-Cheung's Dream Home an unqualified success, it makes for a productive comparison - and serves as an instructive counter-example - to Open House, one of the festival's weakest entries. Like Andrew Paquin's film, Dream Home is a gory slasher flick about (a) character(s) who commit(s) crimes in order to fulfill his/her otherwise unachievable real-estate dreams. (Note the "house"/"home" in both films' titles). But whereas Paquin's movie is a dull mixture of tensionless plot mechanics and unimaginative slayings that leaves the characters' sense of economic discontent unexplored in favor of a stale psycho-sexual dynamic, Pang's work fully embraces its relation to the world around it, particularly the difficult real estate climate and rapid urban development of its Hong Kong setting - as well as showing a bloodily vivid imagination light years beyond the Open House director's dim reckoning.
Starring Josie Ho as Chen Lai-sheung, a young woman lusting after the dream apartment of the title, a modern complex occupying the once-impoverished neighborhood where she grew up, Pang's film follows its hero as she works multiple jobs to save up for her new digs. Finding the apartment still out of reach, she begins brutally slaying the building's bourgie inhabitants, driving down the desirability (and price) of the location. While Nicole Holofcener's Please Give (another Tribeca 2010 entry) pats yuppies on the back and tells them not to feel guilty about how they acquire their wealth, Dream Home makes members of that same class the victims of hilariously brutal slayings, while painting its biggest real-estate obsessive as a psychotic mass murderer. While the film relies too heavily on elaborately art-directed killings for my taste, I found myself reluctantly admiring the cleverness of their staging (chuckling while one disemboweled man tried to take a last hit from his joint only to find it no longer lit), and, less reluctantly, the level of the critique with which they're charged.
The White Meadows
I suppose when living in a country like Iran, where citizens are subject to seemingly random punishments from a totalitarian government, it helps to have a well-established sense of the absurd. Arrested a month and a half before the Tribeca festival along with fellow director Jafar Panahi, Iranian filmmaker Mohammad Rasoulof builds his latest film The White Meadows out of a catalogue of images of incomprehensible ritual and absurd acts of punishment. (As of this writing, Rasoulof has been released on bail, but is unallowed to leave the country; Panahi, who edited the film, remains imprisoned). When, late in Meadows, we see a shot of a painter trapped up to his neck in sand because he stubbornly claims that the sea is red and refuses to paint it any other color, it's impossible not to read the scene as a commentary on the Iranian government's treatment of "subversive" artists. But while The White Meadows is certainly a political film, it should not be taken as a basic allegory, a simple matter of easy correspondences.
At once too abstract and too richly expressive for reductive interpretation, Rasoulof's film follows an aging man who paddles his boat from island to island in a salt-filled Iranian sea, landing on tiny masses of land to extract tears from the islands' inhabitants which he then collects in a glass jar. The meaning of the ritual is never explained and it's always accompanied by a ceremony specific to each island. While some of these ceremonies (as one where the participants symbolically place their troubles in a cloth bag) seem designed for healing, most have sinister overtones. In an image composed in equal measure of beauty and horror (neither of which are in short supply in Rasoulof's film), the inhabitants of one island send a young girl adrift on the sea to which she is to be "married". Pushed off on atop a makeshift bed, she floats past countless pans of fire also drifting in the water, the smoke forming an irrepressible black smudge at the top of the screen. Later, our intractable painter is forced to climb a three-rung ladder suspended in the middle of the sea and stare into the sun, an absurdist image of impossible striving and forceable blinding that stands at the heart of a film in which ritual - with its potentially positive connotations of tradition and wholeness - gives way to the palpably ridiculous which, in Rasoulof's vision, becomes not only an apt approximation of life under an oppressive regime, but of life in general in a world not designed for our ready comprehension.
Thursday, April 22, 2010
Tribeca Film Festival
Lola (The House Next Door)
Travelogues (The House Next Door)
Red Birds (Village Voice)
Behind the Burly Q (The L)
Oceans (Time Out New York)
Thursday, April 15, 2010
Death at a Funeral (Slant)
No One Knows About Persian Cats (Slant)
The City of Your Final Destination (Slant)
When You're Strange: A Film About the Doors (Slant)
La Mission (Slant)
NoBody's Perfect (Village Voice)
Wednesday, March 31, 2010
Teza (Village Voice)
The Greatest (Slant)
Letters from Fontainhas: Three Films by Pedro Costa (DVD) (Slant)
Tuesday, March 23, 2010
The Oath (Artforum)
The Father of My Children (Slant)
Down Terrace (Slant)
Every Day is a Holiday (Slant)
Wednesday, March 17, 2010
City Island (Slant)
Shutterbug (Village Voice)
Sunday, March 14, 2010
ND/NF introduction (Slant)
Last Train Home (Slant)
I Am Love (Slant)
How I Ended This Summer (Slant)
La Pivellina (Slant)
Wednesday, March 10, 2010
Our Family Wedding (Slant)
Severe Clear (Slant)
The Exploding Girl (The L Magazine)
Tuesday, March 2, 2010
Brooklyn's Finest (Slant)
Kinatay (The House Next Door)
The Time That Remains (The House Next Door)
Harlem Aria (Village Voice)