Thursday, May 31, 2007

Audio in Hou's Millennium Mambo

For all his (justly) celebrated mastery of the visual aspect of film, Hou Hsiao-Hsien's 2001 picture Millennium Mambo gains much of its power from the director's strong understanding of the audio component of the medium. The two primary elements of the film's audio conception, a techno score and the narration of the lead character, alternate to create a hypnotic, repetitive effect. The film itself concerns the aimless life of a young woman, Vicky (Shu Qi) who lives in a Taipei apartment with her jealous boyfriend Kao Kao (Tuan Chun-Hao) and later becomes involved with a paternal gangster (Jack Kao). She alternates her time between disco clubs, the hostess bar where she works, and her apartment where she withstands Kao Kao's constant verbal grilling.

The techno soundtrack (provided by DJs Yoshihiro Hanno and Lim Giong) which runs throughout the picture creates the detached, dream-like atmosphere that defines the lives of the young characters. On one level a mood piece, the film gains much of this mood from the endlessly repetitive music. The wordless circularity of the score echoes the film's non-narrative structure and the drift of the characters' lives. Hou's shots often seem like an accompaniment to the music from which they take their cue, instead of the reverse. As Fergus Daly writes in his essay "On Four Prosaic Formulas Which Might Summarise Hou's Poetics," "Techno is so tied to the present, its function is precisely to take over the dancer's body, turning it into an automaton who exists in a pure 'thereness'". Whether dancing or staying at home, Hou's characters seem stuck in an eternal present and the music emphasizes this atemporality. The soundtrack is organically integrated into the work since the characters spend much of their time at disco clubs and while at home, Kao Kao's chief occupation seems to be DJing on his personal turntables.

Although the music plays frequently throughout the film, it alternates with many quieter moments. During many of these moments, the soundtrack is taken up by an ongoing narration which, while referring to Vicky in the third person, is read by Shu Qi and whose voice seems to belong to the protagonist. Hou underlines the aimlessness of Vicky's life by having her read the lines in a non-emphatic manner that suggests the lack of volition in her choices. As she explains how she ended up in her present situation, a description which stresses the lack of any conscious decision on her part, her even-toned voice-over emphasizes the passive drift that defines her life. The narrative itself often repeats certain phrases, such as her description of how she continually returns to Kao Kao and plans to leave him once she spends all her money, a description which opens the film and is repeated verbatim in the middle section and which further underscores the circular nature of her existence.

The film's conclusion takes place in a snow-filled landscape in Hokkaido, Japan, a setting that Vicky visits twice during the film and which provides a contrast, both in climate and mood, from her Taipei existence. The disco beats are largely absent from the Hokkaido segments, as a quieter aesthetic sensibility dominates the sections, suggesting an alternate path of existence for Vicky. In addition, the Hokkaido scenes take place largely out of doors, providing further contrast to the relentless interiority of the Taipei sections. (The Taipei scenes as well rely largely on a "hot" color scheme, taking advantage of reds and yellows, while the Hokkaido sections are dominated by whites and browns). As Hou fixes his camera on an unmoving snowscape, Vicky begins her final narration. As the narration repeats some of the verbal motifs of her previous voiceovers, suddenly the score returns, although in a more subdued manner. The narrative repetitions and disco beats bring the film full circle with the audio preserving the film's aesthetic unity and retaining its circular structure, even as the concluding visual image contrasts strongly with much of the rest of the work.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

The List in Film Criticism

Ours is a list obsessed culture. From popular publications like Entertainment Weekly to more reputable organs like the New York Times, lists and rankings abound. Too often these lists tend to replace any form of valuable discussion about art or culture and instead satisfy readers with a facile ranking that can be easily digested and does not require any active engagement on the reader's part. The obsession with rankings also reflects an increasingly competitive culture (mirrored in the proliferation of award ceremonies) in which a winner must be declared (although not all lists include rankings). In the world of film criticism, lists are especially prominent. Every publication from the popular tabloids to alternative newsweeklies like the Village Voice and the Chicago Reader offer their end of the year ten best lists, as well as numerous rankings throughout the year (see Time Out New York's 20 Best New York Movies for a recent example). The most useful of these lists, like Jonathan Rosenbaum's, offer not only a detailed discussion of the films selected but outline the difficulties inherent in the selection process itself.

In the film world, two lists are especially prominent: Sight and Sound's decennial list of the ten best films of all time, compiled from the rankings of various distinguished critics and last published in 2002, and the American Film Institutes's list of the top 100 American films of all time. The latter list is especially harmful to critical thinking. Designed for mass consumption, the list refuses to challenge the viewer's expectations by including only films that are already widely known to the general public and failing to include any genuinely challenging films, except for those already subsumed under the mainstream press' narrow canonization. In addition, the list deliberately courts confusion by suggesting that the included pictures are the 100 best films ever made, and not merely the 100 best American films, a difference easy enough to discern for the intelligent reader, but potentially (and dangerously) misleading to the uninformed public who are further dissuaded from encountering the cinema of any other countries.* The Sight and Sound poll, conducted every ten years since 1952, has the advantage of drawing on a wider and more intelligent critical base and ends up acknowledging a much more diverse set of films than the AFI list (for one thing, it doesn't limit its range by nationality). The magazine's web site allows for the searching of individual voters' ballots as well as including a list of all the films voted for, so the poll can serve as a tool for the interested reader to gain exposure to a wider cinematic compass. Still, the survey has many of the same disadvantages of the AFI list. Although the rankings have changed somewhat over the years, the Sight and Sound poll is still essentially conservative in its inclusions. As in the AFI rankings, Citizen Kane holds the top spot, a position it has enjoyed in all but the first poll. Certainly one of the great films, Kane's stranglehold on the top spot nonetheless is too often seen as a given, an incontrovertible fact that cannot be challenged. Likewise, the rest of the top ten is filled out with old standbys such as Vertigo, The Godfather, and Tokyo Story, great films all, but hardly deserving of top ten status. This points up one of the chief disadvantages of such lists, a predilection for repeating established conclusions instead of a provocative re-assessment of the canon. To be sure, certain film lists are more esoteric and deliberately resist the traditional choices (see Slant Magazine's 100 Essential Films, also a response to the AFI list), but even these lists tend to replace discussion with the simple accumulations of names and numbers.

So, what it is about these lists that fascinates? Is there more to it than the facility with which they convey information to the reader without the impediment of intelligent discussion? I think so. They allow for an organization of our culture's (or an individual's) feelings on a particular topic. With the sheer number of films released every year and the number of reviews written, the list is a way to contain this information in an easily accessible format. It allows us to grasp what is important from the chaos of cinematic production and to assign cultural value to those works we feel transcend the mere enjoyment of a momentary entertainment. The best lists are intelligently selected, provocative, and accompanied by an intelligent discussion of why the selected films were chosen. By allowing us to single out what is truly valuable and isolate this value in a single place, the list (as long as it supplements good critical discourse and doesn't replace it) has shown itself to be an important tool in the critical apparatus. To be sure, it is frequently misused and its ubiquity, especially in unintelligent applications like the AFI's list, can be culturally harmful, but it should not be dismissed out-of-hand. Clearly a bit of discretion is required.

*Those interested in a further analysis of the deleterious effect of the AFI's list are directed to Jonathan Rosenbaum's excellent article, which also includes an alternate 100 films, located here.

Monday, May 28, 2007

The Boss of It All

A typically cynical offering from director Lars von Trier, The Boss of It All transplants the director's bitter worldview to a comedic format that, for all its laughs (and the film is quite funny), can't help but leave the viewer with a lingering unpleasantness. The film's premise is simple and rife with comic possibilities. Ravn (Peter Gantzler), the owner of a small Danish IT company is selling the business to an Icelandic buyer. When he founded the company, he created a fictional boss, safely inaccessible in America, on whom he could blame all his unpopular decisions while, under the guise of a regular employee, earning the affection of his colleagues. Now, the Icelandic buyer demands to negotiate with the real owner, so Ravn hires Kristoffer (Jens Albinus), an out-of-work actor to play the role of the fictional "Boss of It All".

As Kristoffer spends a week at the company, he draws out the resentments (as well as the sexual attractions) of the company's employees. Much of the film's humor derives from his lack of understanding of the company's functions, accurately pointing up the disconnect between employer and employee in the modern workplace. "IT?" Kristoffer says to Ravn. "That's impossible to understand." In addition, von Trier assembles a surprisingly effective comic gallery of quirky employees, from the woman who is terrified of the copy machine to the bellicose provincial. Eventually, Kristoffer catches on to the cynical workings of Ravn's impending sale: the whole company will be left without jobs at a moment's notice and will get nothing for its development of the company's system. The second half of the picture chronicles the burgeoning conscience of the actor as he attempts to use his newfound understanding to sabotage Ravn's project. Still, the flippancy of von Trier's ending in which this conscience is instantaneously tossed aside is out of keeping with the rest of the film, but perfectly in line with von Trier's methods, recalling the (intentionally) melodramatic twists in his more successful Dancer in the Dark. In one of the director's several voice overs, he underlines the importance of sticking to the rules of the comedic genre, but he gleefully overthrows the film's comic framework to affix an unexpectedly cynical ending, as if he had at last lost patience with directing a straightforward comedy and could no longer refrain from injecting an unmixed dosage of his characteristic bitterness.

The film is mostly confined to the claustrophobic interiors of the office building, where the narrow hallways necessitate constant interaction between co-workers. The relentless grays of the interiors, mirrored by the snowfall outside the windows, emphasize the drab nature of day-to-day office life. The film is shot in accordance with a new technique developed by von Trier known as Automavision. Von Trier programs his camera to take the best possible shot in each scene and leaves the shooting in the machine's hands, the human input ending with the programming. Such an approach may seem appropriate given the technological nature of the company (the technique further emphasizing the depersonalization of technology), but it proves rather distracting to the viewer. The camera changes shots too frequently and many of the images are awkwardly framed. Still, von Trier is one of the few filmmakers so devoted to trying new techniques and new approaches to filmmaking, an experimental restlessness much to be admired. Von Trier's body of work assures him a place among the world's most important filmmakers, even if his pessimistic vision is off-putting to many viewers and critics alike. Still, his is a wholly legitimate worldview, and even if it fails to benefit a work like The Boss of It All, sucking much of the enjoyment from the comedy, it ensures his continuance as one of the most committed artists working today. The Boss of It All is a minor, but welcome addition to his oeuvre.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Andre Bazin in the 21st Century

Reading Andre Bazin today, one is struck by his insistent definition of cinema's function as the recreation of reality (in his famous formulation "cinema is objectivity in time"), a definition seemingly at odds with prevailing contemporary interpretations of the medium's objectives. To this end, he largely decries the use of montage, the various techniques for cutting in between different shots that disturb the spatial unity of a scene and introduce artificiality to a medium designed to capture reality. Needless to say, nobody today thinks of cinema in such pure, organic terms. The artificiality inherent in the medium is frequently embraced and even made the subject of certain films. What value then do Bazin's formulations hold for 21st century cinema, and which filmmakers working today aim to capture Bazin's filmed reality without recourse to such "artifical" methods as montage?

In his 1945 essay "The Ontology of the Photographic Image," Bazin traces the history of the plastic arts which he dates back to the Egyptians' embalming of mummies, art as preservation of life in death's despite. Bazin traces this function of art through painting and sculpture, which aimed to capture their subjects for all time, and finally into photography which allowed for the objective capturing of reality and freed the other arts from their mimetic duties, allowing them to delve into abstraction. The invention of cinema is the next progression in this development of an art of objectivity, an advance over photography since it records the temporal element as well as the visual. Any further development in the technology, Bazin reasons, such as the introduction of sound, automatically improves the medium since it allows for a greater reality to be fixed.

Bazin also offers (in his composite essay "Evolution of the Language of Cinema" written between 1950 and 1955) a historical reading of cinema which begins in the late silent era. He contrasts two strands of filmmaking, that which relies on montage, fancy lighting and other cinematic trickery and that which is more concerned with verisimilitude. Interestingly enough, Bazin includes Murnau and Dreyer in the latter category, despite the fact that each relies on heavily impressionistic elements to achieve his cinematic effects. The highly manipulated images in Murnau, such as the shot of Mephistopheles towering over the town in Faust or the numerous discontinuous cuts in Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc would seem to contradict Bazin's assessment. On the whole, however, Bazin's shrewd reading of the divergent strands of filmmaking in the silent era is largely accurate.

Bazin considers the early sound cinema (the films of the 1930s) to be a step backward in the medium's development since it largely relies on a heavily manipulative system of editing which unnaturally alternates a series of close-ups with long and medium shots. Interestingly enough, this system has come to be considered the classic Hollywood method. By the 1940s, however, particularly with the development of such democratizing tools as deep focus photography which eliminated the need for montage, cinema was once again freed from its reliance on dishonest techniques. For Bazin, the Italian neo-realists of the 1940s and 1950s were the pinnacle of this strand of cinematic achievement and the fullest expression to date of the capabilities of the medium in capturing reality. Bazin died in 1958, just before the birth of the French Nouvelle Vague that he inspired. For all his influence on the movement, however, one wonders what he would have made of, for example, the films of Jean-Luc Godard which make a virtue of their own artificiality. Godard was a knowledgable reader of Bazin and adapted some of the older man's theories to fit his own aesthetic, but watching one of Godard's pictures we have the feeling we are a long way from Bazin's objective cinema.

In the time since the Nouvelle Vague, cinema has seemingly moved further away from his ideal. This is especially true of Hollywood cinema which seems to prize superficial effects over any meaningful depiction of reality, but even iconoclastic directors like David Lynch, with his highly impressionistic works, seem to have left Bazin behind. So the question remains: what applications does Bazin's work have in today's cinema? Interestingly enough, many of the best filmmakers working today have gone back to a cinema of spatial unity, though whether or not their methods serve to create increased verisimilitude is debatable. Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Bela Tarr, the Dardenne brothers, Abbas Kiarostami and Tsai Ming-Liang, among the most important directors working today, use extended takes and, in the case of the Taiwanese filmmakers (Hou and Tsai), primarily stationary cameras. Does the seeming objectivity of these techniques serve to heighten the films' reality in the Bazinian sense? The vision of these directors is so distinctive that it is difficult to lump their works under the heading of a single theory. Still, it can be said to some degree that these filmmakers, along with many of their peers, allow for a capturing of a reality unencumbered by cinematic trickery. The reality they capture, however, is largely the subjective reality of the filmmakers' distinct worldview and not Bazin's "objectivity in time". (Which is not to say that Bazin denied his director an individual voice, simply that the filmmaker was required to present his vision without an undue insistence on showing his directorial hand.)

From the haunting black and whites that conjure up a world on the brink of collapse in Tarr's The Werckmeister Harmonies to Hou's masterful intercutting of different time periods (while maintaining temporal and spatial unity within individual scenes) in Good Men, Good Women, the works of these filmmakers expand rather than narrow the possibilities of film. One need not take a formalist approach or fall back on camera trickery to achieve a distinctive and highly personal cinema. While the writings of Andre Bazin may strike the contemporary reader as too limiting (we are unused to prescriptive criticism today) and he undeniably excludes some important works from his filmic worldview, Bazin's vision of cinema is finding new applications among the best filmmakers working in the 21st century. Far from limiting their own directorial voice, these directors are offering their own subjective take on Bazin's cinema of reality.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

How Tasty Was My Little Frenchman

A minor comic gem, Nelson Pereira dos Santos' 1973 film How Tasty Was My Little Frenchman is one of the best known (and easiest to see) works to come out of the influential Cinema Novo movement that rejuvenated Brazilian film beginning in the 1950s. Santos' picture takes a comical look at questions of national identity in 16th century colonial Brazil by charting the complex interactions of four distinct groups, the French, the Portuguese, and two rival Indian tribes who each align themselves with one of the European powers. In the film, an unnamed Frenchman (Arduino Colassanti) is captured by the Tumpinamba Indians and, mistaken for a Portuguese, is granted eight months to live before being eaten in a ritualistic act of cannibalism in revenge for the Portuguese's killing of a Tumpinamba chief. Despite the Frenchman's repeated insistence on his true national identity, the Indians either don't or deliberately choose not to believe him and proceed with their plans to eat him.

The film is purposively slippery on notions of historical accuracy and national identity, continually subverting the viewer's expectations. From the beginning, Santos keeps the viewer off balance by having the narrator read a quotation from a letter by the French colonialist Villegagnon, while deliberately contradicting the narration through a series of contrary images. For example, the letter details an attempted mutiny by mercenaries against the French party. According to the narration, after the mutiny was suppressed one mutineer threw himself into the sea. The image, however, shows the mutineer being pushed into the sea by the party, contradicting the narrative account which whitewashes the actions of the colonial power. If we are forced to rely on such historical documents written by the European colonists, it is unlikely, Santos suggests, that we are granted an accurate view of history. The director announces his intention to skewer a traditionally Eurocentric view of the material he treats, even while relying on European documents (according to Lucia Nagib's The New Brazilian Cinema, the picture's primary source is a German travel narrative, Hans Staden) for the film's historical grounding.

Santos plays as well with notions of national identity, reducing the very concept of nationality to the level of absurdity. The Frenchman is mistaken for a Portuguese, but Pereira dos Santos suggests that there is hardly a difference. Both represent unwanted colonial intrusions, so the question of which power is doing the intruding is hardly essential, especially if, as the director suggests, the Indians realize the man's true identity as a Frenchman, but pretend to believe he is Portuguese so they can eat him anyway. (The Tumpinambas are on trading terms with the French). Santos' equal opportunity irony extends as well to the Indians. The Tumpinambas are no less warlike than their European counterparts, swearing destruction to their sworn enemies, the Tupinaquins. The director shows a genuine flair for battle scenes, and the blunt and bloody showdown between the two groups that forms the film's climax is expertly staged, as the hordes of Indians engage in brutal hand to hand combat against a lush natural backdrop of greens and the blue of the ocean. Santos here shows the Indians to be as brutal and as divided along tribal lines as the Europeans. As the different groups in the war sequence quickly become indistinguishable, the significance of these tribal differences becomes increasingly absurd. The presence of the Europeans only intensifies the local conflict and makes it more deadly, since they bring with them gunpowder which the Indians use to more efficiently destroy their enemies.

As the Frenchman waits out his eight months before execution, he makes the best of his situation, while keeping one eye on escape. He is granted a "wife", the lovely Seboipepe (Ana Maria Magalhaes). He makes gunpowder to help the Tumpinambas in their war with the Tupinaquins. As the impending act of cannibalism lingers over the proceedings, Santos takes a flippant attitude towards the practice, playing the idea for laughs. In one scene, the Chief explains to the still living Frenchman which members of the tribe will be eating his various body parts. Seboipepe briefs him on how the ceremony will proceed as the man mimics the gestures he will make during the proceedings and the two share a laugh. Only when the woman sabotages his last chance at escape does the seriousness of the situation become central and the film abruptly proceeds to its finale in which the man is finally sacrificed (and eaten by a gleeful Seboipepe) before the Tumpinambas are attacked (and eventually wiped out) by the Portuguese.

Santos' comic colonial fable effortlessly offsets such serious issues as genocide and cannibalism with a light comic touch. The delicate balance that it carefully maintains between levity and horror grant the picture its unique appeal, sustained throughout by the film's offhand humor which continually underlines the absurdity of the colonial project. Ultimately the film makes a mockery of notions of national identity, divisions which are useful only insofar as they give groups of people an excuse to exterminate other groups.

Friday, May 18, 2007

2006 Cannes Award Winners Reconsidered

The 2007 Cannes Film Festival kicked off two nights ago with 2006 jury president Wong Kar-Wai's first English language film My Blueberry Nights. With roughly half of the 20 films that vied for the 2006 Palme d'Or having made their way over to American theaters so far, including all the major award winners, it is now possible for the average filmgoer to at least partly assess the work done by Wong and his fellow jury members in handing out their prizes. Unfortunately, Wong and his peers have in most cases opted to award films that privilege the immediacy of the viewer's reaction by appealing to a primarily visceral response and ignored more carefully crafted films that entail greater ambiguity and demand more active participation on the viewer's part, odd considering that Wong's own works fall squarely in the latter category.

Apparently an unanimous selection among the jury, the Palme d'Or went to Ken Loach's historical drama The Wind That Shakes the Barley, which detailed the early days of the IRA and the fracturing of the Irish Republican movement which led to the Irish Civil War. The latter conflict is dramatized by having two brothers (Cillian Murphy and Padraic Delaney) fight on opposite sides of the cause. Although directed with passionate intensity by Loach and benefiting from strong performances from both leads, the film ultimately is too simplistic in its presentation to generate sufficient interest. Having two brothers fight against each other does not create enough ambiguity in the conflict to sufficiently complicate the narrative, especially since Loach's sympathies rest fully with Murphy's character who remains committed to an uncompromised independence from England. Technically assured and occasionally rousing, The Wind That Shakes the Barley is ultimately too simplistic to justify its receipt of the top prize at the world's most prestigious film festival. Responding to the film's undeniable passion, the Cannes jury, as well as art-house audiences who have granted the film a modest commercial success, have elevated an average picture well above its merits.

Still, Loach's picture is worlds better than the film that took the best director prize, Babel. Like 2005's hit picture Crash, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's film is an overdetermined attempt to imply importance by assaulting the viewer with unpleasant situations and manipulating characters to fit together in contrived situations that arise, not organically, but out of the director's need to weight his film with unearned significance. If Crash limited its focus to Los Angeles, Babel is determined to take the whole world as its canvas. Characters from as far afield as Japan, the Middle East, Mexico, and the United States are connected in ways that are so unnaturally forced that they border on the ridiculous. Like the hollow ciphers in the older film, Gonzalez Inarritu's characters are granted no autonomy as individuals and are more or less interchangeable. The fact that the film received Oscar nominations for its acting is ludicrous, since no characterizations were required of the actors; simply running around frantically was sufficient. Furthermore, Gonzalez Inarritu's forced connecting of his characters serves little purpose. Yes, he implies, as residents of an increasingly connected global community our actions affect people in remote parts of the globe and vice versa, but beyond that conclusion, hardly a revelation in itself, Babel leaves the viewer with no insight into our world. Still, the Cannes jury, not to mention Oscar and Golden Globe voters, were wowed by Gonzalez Inarritu's pyrotechnics, his insistent maximal style of filmmaking whose combination of frenetic camerawork, overacting, and heavy-handed plot manipulations neatly obscure the hollowness of his project.

With the exception of Pedro Almodovar's terrific character-based drama Volver which won the best actress award for its ensemble cast, all the major award winners were notable for the immediacy of their visceral impact. Only one, however, Bruno Dumont's Flandres, which won the Grand Prix and which opens commercially in theaters this weekend, was worthy of its prize. I have discussed this film elsewhere (see entry of March 28), but a few words will not be out of place here. The film contrasts the mundane existence of a group of young men and women in the rural Flanders region of France (even sex is treated as a matter-of-fact activity with little erotic appeal) with the horrors of an unnamed war in an Arab country which involves all the film's male characters in horrific acts (whether on the giving or receiving end) and shows them abandoning their characteristic passivity for the first time. Only at the end, after having passed through the barbarity of war and returning to Flanders, can the main character acknowledge the possibility of love. Dumont's static shots emphasize the quotidian ennui in the film's first section while intensifying the horror of the war in the second through the camera's brutal indifference. An excruciating but ultimately cathartic film, this is one visceral work that justifies its assault on the audience as well as its prize.

2006's competition films were not a terribly strong lot. Still, it would have been nice to see Wong's jury exercising more judgment and not limiting itself to those films that had the most immediate impact without considering the weaknesses (often glaring) inherent in those works. They might, for example, have found room for Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylon's wonderful film Climates which depicts the breakup of a relationship between an arrogant academic and his younger girlfriend against three different seasonal landscapes. A much quieter film than the award winning pictures, it is also much better, and indeed much more powerful, though in a less overt way. The beautifully captured images in Climates linger in the viewer's mind much longer than any of the razzle dazzle visuals in Gonzalez Inarritu's film and its observations about human lives, although much less ambitious, are also much more true. This year's crop of competition films, including new works from Alexander Sokurov, Wong Kar-Wai, Catherine Breillat, Gus Van Sant, and Emir Kusturica, as well as Bela Tarr's long anticipated followup to his masterful The Werckmeister Harmonies, should be much stronger than last year's. The jury is headed by Stephen Frears, and includes the new Nobel Laureate for Literature, Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk. Hopefully, they will exercise more careful judgment than their predecessors.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Day Night Day Night

A matter-of-fact presentation of the terrorist act, Julia Loktev's Day Night Day Night follows an unnamed young woman as she prepares to detonate a nail bomb planted in her backpack in the middle of Times Square. The first half of the film focuses on the minutiae of her preparations, offsetting the seriousness of the impending act with the banality of the prelude. Sequestered in a New Jersey hotel room with the shades tightly drawn, the woman (Luisa Williams) bathes, cuts her nails and brushes her teeth. Eventually three men clad in hoods arrive and drill her on the fine points of the operation, but even these questions of procedure are interrupted by the mundane as the woman stops to eat a pizza. Eventually satisfied with her responses, the men leave and she is driven to a warehouse where she's equipped with a bomb before making her way to Manhattan.

Loktev wisely eschews any specific details about the organization or their motives. Such information is beside the point. In the hotel room, the woman, toting a gun and wearing a clip, appears in a video that supposedly explains the group's ideology. Loktev spends several minutes filming the men setting up the video, outfitting the woman, adjusting the gun, changing the background. When the men's cameras start rolling, however, Loktev ends the scene, leaving the nature of the cause intentionally vague. What matters is the personal commitment shown by the woman. Seen conversing with an unnamed God, she has clear intentions of meeting her deity face to face. Whatever the cause, it is one in which the woman not only believes, but from which she expects to receive, if not some kind of divine reward, at least some recognition from her God. Soft-spoken and unfailingly polite, the woman may seem like an unlikely terrorist, but her divine beliefs, vague as they are, compel her to action.

Luisa Williams, a screen newcomer, acquits herself admirably. As unemphatic as her verbal expression is, she makes up for it with her face. All angles, high cheekbones and sunken cheeks, her face is unusually expressive. By turns steadfast, confused and terrified, Williams stands out amid the blur of Loktev's hectic hand-held camera. When she first enters the bustle of Times Square after the calm of a day spent in a quiet hotel room, she captures the confusion of a woman who has never been around that many people before. As she acclimates herself to her new environment, greedily devouring junk food and working up the courage to consummate the act, Williams imbues the unnamed terrorist with a child-like vulnerability that doesn't obscure her marked determination. While her characterization is intentionally sketchy, the actress fills the sketch with a disarming sensitivity and enough low-key charm to skewer audience expectations and complicate the viewer's sympathies.

The woman's entrance to Times Square is deftly handled by Loktev. Her handheld camera captures the sheer mass of people as they pass by a bewildered Williams, while picking out individual details, such as a couple holding hands or a man scratching his head. The audio catches the variety of sounds that assault Williams' ears, snippets of conversations picked up, the hawk of street vendors. Up to this point, the film had been relatively quiet, with no more than a single voice heard at a time. More jarring than the visual component is the sudden onslaught of multiple voices. As the scene progresses and Williams comes closer to pushing the button, the film takes on the tension of a thriller. The banality of the picture's first half which downplayed the horror of the act, gives way to the gravity of the second, when the actual undertaking can no longer be avoided even as Loktev continues her verisimilitudinous treatment of the material. By seeing the act through the point of view of a shy, polite, but determined young woman, the audience is forced to contemplate the actual process of detonation not as the abstract machinations of a terrorist, but as an immediate action of a scared young woman. While this is hardly a revelatory proposition, it is handled with great skill and surprising warmth by the young director. The film may offer no great insights into the mind of the terrorist, but this is not what it's after. Instead, it adroitly presents the banality of the process that underlies the horror of the act, offering something new to the post-9/11 artistic exploration of terrorism.

Friday, May 11, 2007

I Don't Want to Sleep Alone

Tsai Ming-Liang's latest film I Don't Want to Sleep Alone introduces some changes to the director's well-established cinematic universe. For starters, Tsai sets the film in the urban squalor of down-and-out Kuala Lumpur in his native Malaysia, rather than his usual Taipei, trading his customary lower-middle class anomie for a more rough and tumble existence. Tsai also splits his main character (played as always by Lee Kang-Sheng) in two and intercuts two competing realities. In one reality, a beat up (and long-haired) Lee (identified as Homeless Man) recovers under the care of a Bangladeshi construction worker, while in an alternate reality a bald Lee (identified as Paralyzed Man) remains in a catatonic stupor and is cared for by a young waitress (Chen Shiang-Chyi) and her lascivious mother. The waitress also appears in the other reality which, given the fact of Lee's consciousness, is granted the majority of screen time. All this is not to say that Tsai has abandoned his cinematic grounding altogether, simply that his fascinating new film adds some intriguing new wrinkles to an already well-established milieu.

In Tsai's films, Lee Kang-Sheng's character (usually identified as Hsiao-Kang) is notably non-communicative, drifting through his world with little verbal comment and reaction. Here he is reduced to complete silence in both his incarnations. As Homeless Man, his silence may be because he, a Taiwanese man, cannot speak Malay (his whole presence in Malaysia is unexplained) or he may in fact be mute. Perhaps to make up for his verbal deficiency, his actions seem more aggressive. His aim is as driftless as before, but he pursues romantic interest (both with the waitress and her mother) with more vigor. Eventually, a dusty haze (an environmental event similar to those that afflict Taipei in Tsai's other works) overtakes the city and people are reduced to walking around with dust masks. When Lee and Chen finally attempt to consummate their budding attraction, they cannot kiss without breaking into coughing fits. The pseudo-apocalyptic touch, in this case a bi-product of urban life (and blamed by the government on immigrant construction workers) prevents genuine human interaction.

As important as the relationship between Lee and Chen is the third part of what becomes a triangle (if we include Chen's mother, the geometry gets more complicated), the Bangladeshi construction worker, played by Norman Atun. As he slowly nurses Lee back to health, they began to share the same mattress and, although they never embrace and no words are spoken between them, the extent of the attraction (at least for the Bangladeshi) soon becomes clear. Atun turns in an especially fine performance, limited to acting, like the others, almost exclusively with his face. In his strongest moment in the film, when he confronts Lee with his perceived betrayal, he begins the scene with a yellow plastic bag over his face (to prevent dust inhalation). Forced to communicate with only his eyes, he manages to convey genuine anguish even before tears start to form. Finally, the bag is pulled away and Atun is allowed the full range of facial expression. If one of the primary advantages of the cinematic medium over arts such as theater is the ability to focus on the human face, the forcing of the actor to express himself visually and not verbally, then Tsai and his actors use this advantage to full effect, even as the director's inarticulate characters remain mostly mute.

Tsai's visual style is noted for its brilliance of composition within long, static takes. Here, with the exception of one hand-held shot that wavers slightly, the camera remains stationary during the entire film. The sureness of the director's eye allows each scene to hold the audience's attention throughout their rather lengthy durations, the perfection of the composition and the wealth of visual details generating continual interest, whether Tsai is filming a group of men carrying a mattress down the sidewalk from the other side of a busy highway or lensing more intimate shots of Chen or Atun washing a comatose Lee. Some of the film's most striking shots take place in an abandoned construction site that has become flooded with water. In one shot, the camera focuses in close-up on a moth as it comes to rest on Lee's arm. The next shot, a medium shot, reveals Lee fishing in the flooded area with a makeshift pole, while the moth leaves his arm and flits around behind him. The moth flies wildly, seemingly without purpose, but as it comes to a rest, Tsai's camera fixes the frozen moment, one of the many moments of beauty that intrude in a directionless world. Tsai's achievement, here as elsewhere, is to capture both the lack of direction and the beauty.

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

The Sacrifice: Tarkovsky's Extended Take

The penultimate scene in Andrei Tarkovsky's final masterpiece, 1986's The Sacrifice, is one of cinema's great extended takes, a six-minute unbroken shot that finds the lead character, Alexander (Erland Josephson), having just made the sacrifice of the title by burning down his house, moving throughout a landscape of muted colors as the bright red of fire looms in the background and his family and two medics attempt to subdue him. Giving himself up at last, Alexander enters the ambulance, completing the sacrifice and bringing the film to a breathtaking conclusion.

The Sacrifice takes place at the country house of Alexander, a retired stage actor, as his family joins him for his birthday. The celebration is interrupted by a rattle that shakes the house and the announcement on the radio that a nuclear war has begun. Alexander prays to God that the crisis be averted and in exchange he agrees to give up his contented life with his family. The sacrifice is consummated as Alexander goes to visit the witch-like servant Maria and has sex with her. Following their intercourse, all mentions of the war have disappeared and the nuclear crisis has never occurred. Fulfilling his promise, Alexander gives up his comfortable existence by burning down his country house and waiting to be taken away by ambulance to a mental institution.

The six minute take begins after Alexander sets fire to the house. He tentatively steps away from the building and the camera frames him against the landscape. The colors of the landscape, the green of the grass and the trees and the gray of the sky, are intentionally muted, in contrast to the bright red of the fire. The grass is also covered with large puddles of water which the characters repeatedly step in. The whole landscape suggests a world in need of regeneration, an idea further suggested by the efforts of Alexander's young son, in the following scene, to water a seemingly dead tree that he had planted with his father. The bright red of the fire, the product of Alexander's sacrifice, represents the possibility of renewed life through its strong affirmative color. Sven Nykvist's camera perfectly captures this contrast in the film's color scheme.

As Alexander backs away, four figures emerge from the background and run towards him. As the figures, Alexander's family, approach him, he begins to explain his action. "I've done something very important," he starts, but then says no more. "No. Silence," he concludes. By refraining from explanation, Alexander makes sure his beneficiaries are unaware of his divine covenant, making the depth of the sacrifice all the greater since he eschews the possibility of personal recognition. With the sound of the house collapsing audible in the background, Alexander's wife embraces him on the ground. Told to "say nothing, ask nothing" she comforts her husband, unaware of the sacrifice he has made. The entire scene is shot in medium distance, intentional in its refusal to grant close-ups to individuals who matter little in the scheme of the universe.

The remainder of the scene consists primarily of camera pans to the left and right to follow the movements of Alexander. He runs to the left, passing the burning building and embraces Maria, the woman who allowed the sacrifice to occur. His family, uncomprehending, pulls him away. Nykvist's camera then pans right to reveal an ambulance. Two attendants come out of the vehicle and attempt to subdue him. In Moby Dick, Melville wrote that "man's insanity is heaven's sense" in reference to Pip, a man who falls overboard, loses his reason and becomes a kind of holy fool. Alexander, like Pip in tune with heaven's sense, must appear outwardly insane, an assessment suggested by the arrival of the ambulance. His refusal to explain his actions coupled with his eventual submission to the ambulance attendants (following a few false starts, as he still clings to his old life) means that Alexander accepts the world's judgment as part of his divine pact. As the ambulance drives off, the house finally collapses, completing Alexander's sacrifice and the scene comes to an end. It only remains for his son to water the dead tree, continuing the faith shown by his father, the only force capable of bringing regeneration to a dead world. Tarkovsky, sick with cancer as he shot the film, leaves the world with an image of hope as he draws his film and his astonishing career to a close.

Monday, May 7, 2007

Father and Son

One of the oddest and most beautiful films of recent years, Alexander Sokurov's Father and Son treats the familial relationship of the title as unabashed eroticism, notwithstanding the director's claims to the contrary. What matters most in the film is the visual presentation, the relentless yellows with which Sokurov washes his subjects, relieved only by the occasional blue of the sky or sea; the glistening muscles of the father as he works out in a courtyard; or the homoerotic tangle of bodies as the men wrestle. Shot in Lisbon, though ostensibly taking place in Russia, the winding streets and ancient buildings add to the film's dreamlike atmosphere and count as one more visual pleasure in a film already full of them.

The film's first shots consist of the intertwined limbs of two apparent lovers. Only slowly do faces emerge. Later, we realize the bodies belong to father and son and the embrace, for all its eroticism, is strictly paternal. The sexual identification between the two characters is aided by the youth of the father who, we are told, is nineteen years older than the son but looks much younger. Throughout the film, the son attempts to simultaneously break the hold of the father (represented by the older man's grasp in the opening shots), forging a separate identity for himself, and to jealousy guard the father's love against any potential threats. The son repeatedly compares a father's love to a crucifixion, but admits that it is the son who allows himself to be crucified. Whether or not the film bears out such an extreme association is debatable, but the image points up the intensity of the struggle.

The shifting relationship between the titular characters plays out not realistically, but symbolically, often bringing into play the realm of the unconscious. Two dreams begin and end the film. The opening dream, belonging to the son, finds him alone in a field next to a tree. In listening to the retelling, the father asks whether he is present in his son's dream. "No," the son replies. At the end of the film the situations are reversed. It is the father who stands alone and the son who is not present. Ultimately, the father and son must seperate as the younger man begins his own independent life (even as he follows in his father's footsteps by pursuing a military career). The film's extraordinary visuals, particularly the omnipresent wash of yellow, accentuate the symbolic, dreamlike treatment of the material. Cinematic poetry rather than coherent narrative, Father and Son is a stunning look at the pull and repulsion of filial love, strangely cloaked as it is in erotic trappings.

Sunday, May 6, 2007

Reviews in Brief - Asian Cinema

Early Summer
As fine a film as any ever created, Yasujiro Ozu's mid-period masterpiece Early Summer (1951) details the full scope of family life in post-war Tokyo. Taking in three generations of a middle-class family, as well as an assortment of friends, the film's primary focus is unmarried 28-year old Noriko. As played by the brilliant Setsuko Hara, Noriko hides behind her omnipresent laughter as she rebuffs continual efforts to find her a husband. When she does pick a husband, a childhood friend who has just taken a job in the provinces, she meets with the family's temporary disapproval and precipitates the breakup of the large family unit, reflecting modern living arrangements in an increasingly Westernizing country. The film's moderate pacing, while maintaining total interest throughout, gives weight to all aspects of family life, from the young boys and their train sets to the grandparents, whose time alone provide the film with some of its most beautiful images, as when the elderly couple sit on a park bench and watch a stray balloon disappear into the sky. Ozu's films are noted for their static camera work and precisely composed scenes. Here, the cinematography achieves a rare perfection, whether framing familial scenes or capturing the surrounding landscapes. The film itself, in its breadth, the level of detail of its observations and its unmatched artistry is one of the treasures of the world cinema. Not as celebrated as the director's Tokyo Story and Floating Weeds, it is nonetheless worthy of inclusion in that select company and demands to be seen by anyone interested in the capabilities of the cinematic medium.

Rebels of the Neon God
One of the more auspicious debuts of the 1990s, Tsai Ming-Liang's 1992 film Rebels of the Neon God, while not reaching the heights of his later works, establishes his milieu of alienated youth in modern Taipei and brings into play several of the director's recurring motifs. The opening scene sets the tone as a couple of petty criminals break into a payphone and steal money on a rain-drenched street, while nearby Hsiao-Keng (Lee Kang-Sheng) studies at his desk, continually distracted by various insects. The film is about the drift of lives. The characters ride around on motorcycles, half-heartedly pursue romantic interests, and above all play video games at the local arcade. Hsiao-Keng, enrolled in a local cram school, drops out and uses the refund money to continue his aimless drift. He barely speaks and only shows any propensity to action when he vandalizes the motorcycle of one of the two petty thieves. The film's final scene finds Hsiao-Keng at a dingy phone dating center, where he enters a booth and receives phone calls from various women, the first of many Tsai protagonists to search for consummation in licentious possibilities. Unable even to take the step of picking up the telephone, he finishes his drink and leaves, to continue his endless search for fulfillment in modern Taipei, a search that will be picked up and continued in the director's subsequent films.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Morality and Meaning in the Films of Woody Allen

When Woody Allen released Match Point in 2005, it was mystifyingly declared a departure from his previous body of work. Despite the London setting and the lack of a stand-in "Woody Allen" character, the film continues Allen's thematic line of inquiry into the nature of morality and the meaning of existence that he has been exploring since at least as far back as 1975's Love and Death. Allen's fullest prior presentation of his world view had been in 1989's Crimes and Misdemeanors, but Match Point trumps even that work by presenting its nihilistic outlook untempered by any mitigating elements.

Although ostensibly a straight comedy, Allen's riff on Russian literature, Love and Death, is one of the director's earliest attempts to come to grips with the indifference of the universe. Allen takes a playful approach towards questions of God and the afterlife, but ultimately offers no reassuring belief in the existence of a useful divinity. Confined to jail after an unsuccessful attempt to kill Napoleon, Allen's character, Boris Grushenko, like Pierre Bezukhov in War and Peace, is visited by an outside force and told his life will be spared. He glimpses an angel who appears as a shadow on the prison wall. Told that the Emperor will pardon him at the last moment, Boris exclaims "then there is a God. Incredible." Allen quickly makes a mockery of Boris' assertion by having him shot to death regardless of the angelic messenger. In Tolstoy's conception, where God is granted a central place, Pierre's message proves to be accurate and his life is spared at the last moment. In Allen's atheistic world view, divine providence is not granted. As Boris concludes, "if it turns out that there is a God, I don't think that he's evil. I think that the worst you can say about him is that basically he's an underachiever." Despite the humor of the quotation, Allen's quote reveals a genuine belief in the inability of a divine power to provide salvation to humanity.

Allen's 1989 Crimes and Misdemeanors continues his probing into the nature of morality. Ivan Karamazov's assertion that "if God does not exist, everything is permitted" becomes the central proposition of the picture and ultimately expresses the world view of the lead character. Allen, however, provides dissenting voices to mitigate this view and place human responsibility at the center of man's moral life.

In the film, Judah Rosenthal (Martin Landau), a successful ophthalmologist, finds the tranquility of his life jeopardized when an irate lover threatens to inform his wife of their affair. He arranges to have a hit man kill the lover and at first is distraught about his action and nervous at the possibility of legal recriminations. As time goes by, however, he is not caught and soon finds himself perfectly content with his situation and free from any guilt at the killing.

The film's final scene takes place at a wedding, in which Rosenthal finds himself talking to Cliff Stern, a filmmaker played by Woody Allen. Under the guise of pitching him a story, Rosenthal relates his experience having his wife killed. Stern objects to Rosenthal's story, saying that the killer cannot dismiss his conscience so easily. Although Rosenthal is able to subscribe strictly to the restrictions of judicial law (since he was not apprehended, he is free from any blame), Stern admits the presence of a higher (though strictly humanistic) morality, his voice providing an alternative to the nihilistic viewpoint espoused by Rosenthal. As Stern says, "in the absence of a God, [man] is forced to assume... responsibility himself." Rosenthal would seem to justify Karamazov's assertion. For him, God does not exist, and everything is indeed permitted. Stern, while not admitting of God's existence, posits human conscience, perhaps the closest thing to God in Allen's world view, as a mitigating factor to sheer amorality. In Stern's world, everything is not permitted.

Allen grants the final word in the film to Jewish philosopher Louis Levy (Martin S. Bergmann), whose theological and moral commentaries the director intersperses throughout the work. As images of the wedding and previous scenes from the film play, Levy's voice over echoes the message of Cliff Stern in his rebuke to Judah Rosenthal. "Human happiness," Levy says, "does not seem to have been included in the design of creation. It is only we, with our capacity to love, that give meaning to the indifference of the universe." The universe may be indifferent to humanity, but it is up to man to create his own meaning and to assume his own responsibility.

In Match Point, the moral order becomes merely a question of luck. Without a mitigating voice such as that provided by Cliff Stern or Louis Levy in Crimes and Misdemeanors, the director is free to give full expression to his increasingly nihilistic viewpoint. The 2005 picture uses a similar set up to the earlier work. Chris Wilton (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) finds his ambitions to marry into a wealthy family endangered by a hysterical ex-lover (Scarlett Johansson) who threatens to expose their affair. Like Judah Rosenthal, Wilton takes murderous action, this time killing the lover himself (as well as an interfering neighbor) with a shotgun. In contrast to Rosenthal, Wilton seems to experience little remorse from the start. His primary concern is with the possibility of getting caught. Even as he is visited by hallucinations of his victims, he seems little concerned with having caused their deaths, casually dismissing their rebukes.

Although suspected by the police of committing the crime, Wilton is spared from arrest through a chance turn of events. After the murder, Wilton disposes of incriminating evidence by throwing it in the Thames. The last item he throws, a gold ring, hits a rail by the river and bounces onto the pavement where it is later collected by a homeless man who is indicted for Wilton's crime. The ring's trajectory mirrors the flight of a tennis ball bouncing off the net in the film's opening. Like the ball at the moment it hits the top of the net, the ring reaches a moment where it can fall on either side of the rail. It is not divine providence, however, that determines on which side it falls. As Wilton intones over the image of the tennis ball in the opening, "people are afraid to face how great a part of life is dependent on luck." It is purely through this luck, and not any divine pattern, that the ring falls on the pavement where the blame shifts away from Wilton and he is free to achieve his ambitions.

With no mitigating factors, Allen's ending is pure nihilism. It is not so much immoral as amoral. Wilton commits murder and is punished by neither arrest nor a guilty conscience. In Allen's film, neither God nor morality has any power over human life. In Crimes and Misdemeanors, human responsibility was affirmed as a counterbalance to immorality, but by the time of Match Point, moral human behavior no longer seems to be a possibility in Woody Allen's world. Only chance, the complete randomness of the universe, determines the world's outcomes. In Dostoevsky's world God exists but in Allen's everything is permitted.