Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Before the Devil Knows You're Dead

It is rather suprising and more than a little depressing to realize how few American directors seem concerned with the way their films look. After self-conscious aesthetes like David Gordon Green and Todd Haynes, the felt absence of a middle-ground of visually attuned directors presents a very real problem for this country's cinema. Even adventurous filmmakers like Todd Solondz seem surprisingly unconcerned with the visual component of their work. So, it comes as no surprise to see critics completely overlook Sidney Lumet's bland and uninspired visual conception in their rush to bestow undeserved accolades on his latest film Before the Devil Knows You're Dead. It seems aesthetics are no longer a critical criterion, as the working reviewer, forced to sit through so many uninspired film products, has become resigned to an unreedmingly drab vision of the world projected onto the screen and has, as if by special agreement, consented to limit his discussion to the other aspects of a given work. After all, the reviewer can't write the same thing every time out. He must develop a certain critical attitude towards mediocrity that allows him to carry out his quotidian task. Yet, when an American film comes along that is even a slight improvement on the commonplace, it is hailed as a masterpiece. Leaving aesthetic considerations aside, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead is a somewhat absorbing moral drama that falls far short of its epic ambitions. But to suggest that Lumet's latest film is anything more than passable entertainment is to acknowledge the failure of the American cinema by rewarding work that is so far less than the finest the medium is capable of.

The film tells the story of a botched robbery, staged by two brothers (Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke) on their parents' jewelry store, an undertaking that results in the accidental death of their mother, as well as the aftermath of the event, as their insufficiently detailed plans crumble through a series of mounting miscalculations. The film announces its ambitions early on, when the daughter of Ethan Hawke's character acts out the role of Edgar in a high school production of King Lear, a work with which the film seems anxious to draw significant parallels. Apart from the narrative similarities between the film and the play, Lumet here serves notice of his intention to recreate something of Shakespeare's epic achievement. The film aspires to not merely the nihilism of Lear, but to its tragic grandeur as well. The betrayal by one's own children, the central plot pivot of each work is, however, not in itself sufficient to achieve a true sense of the tragic; it is what happens after the betrayal that matters. In Lumet's film, the brothers try desperately to cover their tracks as a series of unexpected complications arise, the most significant of which is their father's discovery that his sons are responsible for their mother's death, a discovery that prompts him towards a filicidal revenge. The problem is that this revenge is neither as shocking nor as devastating as Lumet believes it to be. As the director lingers over the moment, introducing complications to prolong the scene, adding swirling strings to the soundtrack and concluding the scene with a fade out to white, we are asked to view this final action as a gesture of great moral significance, whereas it registers as merely the last in a series of rather absurd complications that follow from the robbery, reminiscent of the similarly absurd entanglements that resulted from the robbery attempt in the director's earlier Dog Day Afternoon. But, whereas in that film, Lumet was able to treat the situation with a certain absurdist humor, here he falters under the weight of his seriousness. The botched robbery is a situation that lends itself far more easily to a comic rather than a tragic treatment and the relative successes of Lumet's two films point up the difficulty of handling such material without a leavening layer of humor (excepting a single scene where an impossibly nervous Ethan Hawke attempts to retrieve a CD he left in a rental car). This is not to say that any material cannot be treated in any number of ways, simply that Lumet's handling of the later film's dramatic unfolding fails to adequately support his larger ambitions.

The film is further hampered by its decision to tell its story non-sequentially, a narrative device that can often add a unique perspective to a work of art, but one that must carry its own justification. Here, the splintered narrative serves only to add a level of suspense to the film, as it forces the viewer to piece together the constituent elements of the plot (presumably this is what some critics meant when they insisted that the film made audiences work), but it would seem to distract from Lumet's true concerns, since the real question the film asks is not what happened, but what significance (or rather lack of significance) can be read into the resultant events. Ultimately, the events are completely meaningless, which is indeed Lumet's point, but this point would be better taken if the narrative was presented unemphatically or set off with a dose of absurdist humor rather than everywhere weighted with a forbidding import. The director's final insistence on the dramatic quality of his material, given ultimate expression in the film's last scene, fails to raise the work to the level of the tragic, but it has the unfortunate consequence of undercutting the director's nihilistic reading of his own film. It is as if he wanted it to have it both ways, to pay lip service to the notion that the world is meaningless and all humanity corrupt, but then to acknowledge a meaning by calling on a conventional attitude to his material that treats the events as constituent elements of a grand modern tragedy freighted with great emotional and moral weight. That King Lear was able to achieve this sense of the tragic in the face of an ultimately meaningless universe is a tribute to the remarkable breadth of vision of Shakespeare's conception. Lumet's attempts to implement something of this contradictory program should not be held against him - after all most directors try for too little - but his inability to fulfill his ambitions combined with his unconcern for his film's visual program mark Before the Devil Knows You're Dead as considerably less than a full-fledged success. That the film is more engaging than the average Hollywood product doesn't make it a masterpiece; it must still be assessed on its own dubious merits.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Winter Light

Winter Light: Rarely has a film been so un-self-conscious in its willingness to debate the problem of God's existence. And yet, by placing its baldly articulated theological discussions at the center of the film, Ingmar Bergman ensures that the work's effect is consciously muted, often leaving the viewer with the impression of sitting in at a colloquium rather than looking at a work of cinema. The film's extraordinary evocation of a barren, isolating world and its unique ability to capture the poignance of ordinary faces in a series of remarkable close-ups, the product of Bergman's keen eye and Sven Nykvist's stark black-and-white photography, establish an apt aesthetic correlative for the film's verbal dialectics, but, at nearly every moment, the work threatens to devolve into little more than a filmed theological roundtable. That it never quite crosses the line into talky abstraction is the result of Bergman's absolute commitment to his material as well the rigors of his aesthetic conception, but this dangerous balance points up the perils of the director's approach.

The film takes as its central problem the silence of God in the face of an increasingly destructive modernity. Forced to confront his own dubious faith when a parishioner brings up the difficulty of belief in a world continually under the threat of nuclear destruction (China's recent announcement of its atomic capabilities standing in for the annihilative instincts of the century), Pastor Ericsson (Gunnar Björnstrand) outlines the problems of faith in a series of discussions with the disillusioned parishioner (Max von Sydow), an ex-lover (Ingrid Thulin) and a saintly hunchbacked sexton (Allan Edwal), the only character who seems capable of a genuine belief. Unable to reconcile his notion of a benevolent God with a destructive and isolating world (a world made palpable through the film's sparse settings and stark cinematography), Ericsson, at the height of his desolation, articulates a desire to accept the non-existence of God because only then would the world make sense, but he is ultimately as incapable of giving in to this lack of belief as he is of fully accepting the existence of a compassionate deity. Forced to struggle from a middle ground between faith and godlessness, Ericsson's position comes to represent something like the universal state of conflicted modern man.

Most of Bergman's films court a very specific type of danger: the director's tendency to let his weighty dialogue do most of the work. This is not to say that he is unconcerned with the visual aesthetics of his films; indeed, he has a strong eye for composition and is especially attuned to the possibilities of expression in the human face. Still, whatever aesthetic achievements his films offer frequently register as little more than a setting for the treatment of the work's true concerns, which are generally conveyed primarily through dialogue. Since the dialogue, for all its seriousness of purpose, is often somewhat less than profound, this creates a genuine problem in the director's aesthetic conception. This problem is certainly one that must be acknowledged in any assessment of Winter Light since, more than most of Bergman's films, it partakes of this dangerous reliance on the spoken word and, ultimately, this reliance is what prevents the film from entering the first rank of the director's work.

Yet, if we evaluate the film within the framework Bergman has created, it offers a number of gratifications: a clearly articulated presentation of the very real spiritual predicament faced by not only outwardly religious figures, but anyone who takes the fate of humanity seriously; a rather stunning evocation of a world stripped bare of adornment and any sense of comfort, with the wide open spaces of the church separating rather than bringing together its parishioners; a series of sharply-defined close-ups that seem to capture the essence of the characters, most famously in an uncut six-minute portrait of Ingrid Thulin, but also in a telling shot of Gunnar Björnstrand that distills the film's essence into one remarkably cinematic image. After Ericsson learns of the death of his conflicted parishioner, Bergman trains the camera on his face, framing him by a window, the screen filled with a neutral white light. Slowly, Nykvist's camera zooms in, coming to a stop as Björnstrand's head nearly fills the screen. The Pastor cries out "My Lord, why hast thou forsaken me?" echoing Christ's famous words, words that will be repeated in a later discussion between the Pastor and his sexton. Having captured Ericsson at the lowest point in his spiritual crisis, Bergman slowly allows the camera to move back from his face, returning to its initial position, isolating the Pastor in a cloud of whiteness. It is this sense of isolation, expressed throughout the film in Bergman's framing, in the wide spaces of the church, in Ericsson's rejection of the possibility of female love, and in the acute spiritual crises of the characters that stands as the inevitable result of the sense of impending catastrophe and the corresponding loss of the ability to believe that afflicts nearly everyone in the director's universe. Only in his conclusion does Bergman offer a measure of hope, but it is his evocation of despair that stays with the viewer. Ultimately, we must take Bergman on his own terms. If we are willing to accept these terms, we are rewarded with a particularly resonant articulation of a uniquely modern sense of crisis that we are able to get from few other filmmakers.

Monday, October 22, 2007

On the Bowery

Lionel Ragosin's extraordinary 1957 film On the Bowery (which screened Saturday evening at the Anthology Film Archives) makes nonsense of the customary distinction between fact and fiction. An uncommonly revealing portrait of a group of alcoholic men living on the streets and flophouses of New York's then-notorious slum, the film overlays a thin narrative structure onto a documentary framework that provides unique access to the intimate details of the Bowery residents' lives. With the exception of the lead actor (Ray Salyer - and his claims to having worked as a professional actor are largely apocryphal), the cast is comprised entirely of real-life Bowery residents who more or less play themselves, but their experiences are given shape by Ragosin's script, which builds chunks of dialogue into coherent speech while retaining the unique verbal mannerisms of the speaker and affixes a sliver of a plot to the proceedings. The film is crafted in such a way that it is difficult to determine where the documentary footage leaves off and the fictional segments begin, but such considerations are largely irrelevant. The fictional framework imposes a structure on the documentary footage, resulting in a unified conception that allows for a more vivid presentation of setting and grants greater potency to Ragosin's singular cinematographic essay than would be possible relying solely on one or the other mode of exposition.

Ultimately, it is the film's masterful evocation of place, a place drawn with exact specificity, that makes the work so compelling. Ragosin gets down an extraordinary amount of detail. In the opening sequence, a montage of quick, fixed images set to a jazzy background, we see a row of men passed out in the midday street beneath the 3rd avenue el, police taking drunks away in a paddy wagon, the signs atop a city block, mostly advertising flophouses. As the camera moves inside a bar and focuses on a specific group of figures, we take in the faces and verbal patterns of the area's inhabitants. Salyer's smooth face and faint Midwestern accent serve as a foil to the well-worn countenances and gruff voices of the other men, the flesh hanging loosely from their faces, the eyes hollowed-out and vacant. The men speak unhurriedly, only occasionally breaking out in a drunken excitement. The words are garbled, heavy with outmoded slang ("plugged nickel"), ultimately unemphatic. The film takes us inside the various destinations of the neighborhood, the flophouses, where men pass the night if they haven't spent their last bit of change on drinks (in which case they sleep on the street), the Mission, which offers free bedding and showers in exchange for enduring an insipid sermon and pledging a commitment to sobriety and, of course, the dives where the men spend most of the day. Although the predicament of these men is by no means an isolated phenomena, the film is very specific in its evocation of place. The segments that detail the Bowery's various locales are composed largely of documentary footage, but there is more to articulating a specific setting than merely running a camera over a carefully selected environment (a lesson lost on many contemporary non-fiction filmmakers). With his unmistakable eye for detail, Ragosin is able to capture images that get to the heart of these settings: men playing dominoes or reading the newspaper in a flophouse lobby, a drunk going to sleep on a tiny flophouse bed, his bottle of whisky set off to the side, men laying newspaper on the Mission floor to sleep on.

What narrative the film contains details the arrival of Salyer, his introduction to the locals, his attempts to get clean at the Mission, his relapse into drunkenness, his getting robbed and his eventual attempt to leave the city, an attempt whose potential for success (the film ends with him waiting for the bus out of town) is called into question by a character's knowing insistence that "he'll be back." By using the narrative device of an outside observer (who becomes a participant), the audience is invited to see the Bowery from a certain objective distance, picking up on the unique details that are too much a part of the other men's lives to warrant comment, but which Salyer inevitably observes. Ragosin is content to milk the narrative for any cinematic usefulness it can provide, but he is equally likely to leave it aside for long stretches of time and focus on footage of the locals going about their daily business. Throughout the film, Ragosin favors fixed shots which allow the scenes to unfold in their own time with a seeming lack of directorial interference. This sense of "documentary objectivity" is of course patently false, since we know most of the dialogue is scripted and the shots are perfectly lit and carefully arranged. In fact, this artifice, so expertly employed, marks Ragosin's film as one of the most beautiful film treatments of so ugly a subject. This beauty doesn't distract from the miserableness of the images, but it allows for a certain appreciation of the men as people, even as they go about their daily humiliations. An extraordinarily vivid portrait of a unique place and time, Ragosin's On the Bowery remains one of the forgotten gems of American cinema.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

La Chinoise

Halfway through Jean-Luc Godard's 1967 film La Chinoise, a student radical quotes Mao on the necessity of "attacking on two fronts," an address to the artist that demands he pursue both revolutionary content and radical form and an admonition that became something of a mantra to the post-Weekend Godard. In response, another student expresses the impossibility of acting simultaneously, using the example of the difficulty of processing words and music together. In the film's own radical form, it is precisely this simultaneity of comprehension that it asks the viewer to undertake. The film's rapid cutting and constant barrage of information create an unassimilable wealth of content that the viewer cannot process in its entirety. For example, he is often asked to follow a detailed conversation on the interrelations of art and politics or the nature of language, while reading texts printed simultaneously on the screen, requiring committed engagement on both the audio and visual level (or if the viewer cannot understand French and is reading the subtitles, on two visual levels). Often before the viewer can fully process the information, Godard has already cut to the next image, one of a vast visual catalogue that takes in comic books, archival photographs, printed texts and the director's own artfully arranged compositions. Godard's radical form, his attempt to incorporate a vast array of texts (both audio and visual) into his free-form film essay and ask the viewer to process an impossible amount of information represents a break with even the director's earlier work. For all Godard's prior formal innovations, an attentive viewer was always able to assimilate the entirety of his films' content, for no matter how much information was presented, it was never so relentlessly simultaneous. Here Godard melds a more radical aesthetic strategy to his more radical content and challenges the viewer to keep up.

The efficacy of the student radicals in the film is everywhere undercut and yet, Godard shows a certain affection for his characters that results in a surprisingly warm undertaking. Unlike the pure cynicism of his earlier Masculin Feminin where he coolly paints the male radicals as sex-obsessed dilettantes and dismisses the potential for involvement in any of the female characters, La Chinoise allows for the genuineness of feeling that results in a committed engagement, even if it is only temporary. One long scene in particular serves as a deflater to the claims of radicalism made by the students. In the scene (which also provides a respite from the constant barrage of information), Véronique (Anne Wiazemsky) discusses the revolutionary project with her professor (Francis Jeanson, her real life mentor) as they ride on a train through the countryside. Godard has Raoul Coutard fix his camera on the two as they sit facing each other, in a medium shot with the evolving landscape visible through the window between them. As Jeanson sounds Véronique on her program, he exposes a certain naivete on her part, evidenced in a lack of direction in her planning and a dangerous unconcern with the consequences of her actions. Although she is unable to adequately respond to Jeanson's arguments, the commitment with which she espouses her revolutionary rhetoric indicates a genuine belief in her project, a level of conviction that comes across as wholly admirable. When she does finally take action, though, deciding to kill a supposed "reactionary", the scene is played for farce, and represents the film's comic high-water mark, undercutting the seriousness of the radical project. Véronique's ultimate lack of direction is revealed in the film's final scene in which we learn that at the conclusion of the summer holidays she disbanded the Maoist cell and went back to college. The voice-over which has the last word in the picture, though, suggests that, while she may have abandoned her revolutionary program, her flirtation with radicalism still served a valuable purpose in her development, even if it was pursued with a certain youthful aimlessness. In the end, Godard is willing to treat his part-time radicals with a gentle indulgence unavailable to their counterparts in Masculin Feminin, an indulgence that probably results from the (at least temporary) authenticity of feeling with which they approach their radical project.

That the students are playing at being radicals is everywhere emphasized, as Godard stresses the essential theatricality of their performances. In one sequence, a member of the cell (Juliet Beto), dressed as a Vietcong and her face streaked with blood, calls for help as a toy United States Army plane hoisted on a string "attacks" her. They play at education as well, turning their apartment into a makeshift classroom, while they take turns lecturing the others. The slow, even pans that Godard employs in these sequences, which run back and forth between the "teacher" and the "students", emphasize the formal and ritualized elements of the project. In addition, Godard calls constant attention to the fictional nature of his own creation. In one sequence, he stages a mock-interview with Guillaume (Jean-Pierre Léaud), one of the radicals who identifies himself as an actor. In the interview, the subject repeatedly emphasizes his vocation as a peformer and seems to be speaking simultaneously as character (Guillaume) and actor (Léaud), the dual role serving to blur the lines between reality and fiction. This blurring is furthered by Godard's decision to interrupt the interview to show Raoul Coutard behind his camera, filming the sequence, and the sound man recording the audio, images that further dispel any pretense of fictional objectivity. Even the consequences of the radicals' actions aren't real. The botched assassination that forms the one instance of narrative intrusion in the film is quickly dismissed, no penalties are extracted, the students free in the end to return to school. This theatricality need not preclude genuine enthusiasm for the project, but it probably rules out a sustained commitment to the cause.

The aesthetic program that Godard employs throughout the picture was the first step towards a new kind of politically-committed filmmaking that he would pursue through the rest of the 1960s and early '70s, his attempt to radicalize both form and content and an approach that resulted in a more extreme experimentation than in the present work. That his commitment was ultimately not much-longer lived than that of the students in La Chinoise hardly matters. What matters is the level of intensity and invention he brought to the project. The result, at least in the present instance, is a radical, challenging and surprisingly warm cinematic creation that employs unique formal strategies for engaging the viewer and stands as a simultaneously maddening and deeply satisfying work of art.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Lust, Caution

Ang Lee's Lust, Caution is a slick piece of cinematic entertainment weighted with a significance that derives mostly from its turbulent historical setting, but why such a formula need automatically exclude a satisfying visual program is a question that has too frequently needed to be asked. It has become the function of the "well-crafted film" to smoothly transport viewers from one plot point to the next, taking in the gravity of the subject matter with ample consideration, while ignoring such "lesser" concerns as aesthetics. Writing in 1996, Jonathan Rosenbaum noted, "take Apollo 13, Leaving Las Vegas, Dead Man Walking and six others of this year's Oscar winners, and I doubt you'll find a hint of... aesthetic liftoff anywhere." Lest the reader reject the comparison, noting that the films Rosenbaum cites are Hollywood prestige pictures and Lee's movie is a Chinese-language art-house picture, it should be noted that Lust, Caution, despite its arty trappings and its director's Taiwanese provenance, is every bit as slickly-crafted as any mainstream American picture and every bit as much designed for the viewer's easy delectation, provided that delectation is based on considerations of pacing and historical gravity and doesn't demand a correspondingly gratifying visual conception.

Still, Lee outdoes most of the Hollywood crowd at their own game, which is why Village Voice critic Nathan Lee's poorly-considered objections to the film on the grounds of boredom are especially surprising (he describes the "yawns [being] stifled" in the screening room). The film is deliberately crafted to exclude the possibility of boredom. Every trick in the entertainer's bag is discharged. When the action threatens to drag, Ang Lee brings in the comical antics of an amateur theater troupe turned would-be revolutionary outfit to neutralize the threat of a too immodest insistence on his own seriousness. When a certain setting has served its purpose, Lee smoothly cuts forward several years in time, shuttling his story between Hong Kong and Shanghai and keeping the action fresh and immediate. The film is expertly paced, smoothly modulated and effortless in its shifting between modes of exposition (suspense, high drama, low comedy) and it is in these qualities, rather than in any aesthetic pleasures, that the viewer must look for his sustenance. Ang Lee reminds us in every scene that he is one of the most successful screen entertainers working today.

In her review, Manhola Dargis objects that the film "feels at once overpadded and underdeveloped: it's all production design and not enough content." I suppose it depends on what one means by content. If it's a question of a sharply defined narrative, a specific and clearly evoked historical setting and characters sketched with enough complexity to carry the film convincingly, all arranged into a seamless narrative conception, then Lust, Caution has no shortage of content. If the film lacks the "psychological depth" that Dargis requires and it is, perhaps, a little obtuse on questions of character motivation, we can't fault it too much on those grounds, since the complex psychological portrait is one rarely achieved in the cinematic medium, a medium that requires, at most, a convincing presence on the actor's part that gives the illusion of psychological coherency, but can never hope to capture the complexity of a corresponding treatment in more expansive forms such as the novel. No, film must seek its artistic triumphs elsewhere.

Ultimately, then, the film's weakness is not one of narratological content or characterization, but one of aesthetic conception. Dargis notes the film's heavy emphasis on "production design" and, indeed the settings, whether exterior (the streets of Shanghai and Hong Kong) or interior (the lavishly appointed residences of the film's wealthy characters), seem thoroughly studied, but Lee's unexacting eye for composition renders these settings continually flat and lifeless. In the film's opening sequence, he seems impatient to move his camera as frequently as possible, indulging in a series of lightning quick pans between the constituent elements of his mise-en-scène. Later, he settles down and shows less anxiety to move the camera, but even when he holds it in place, he fails to convincingly frame his images, preferring a drab and seemingly arbitrary scenic arrangement, as if a too artful composition would detract from the insistent demands of the film's plotting. The filming of character interactions hew strictly to shot/reverse-shot conventions and never does Lee seem interested in departing from any of the standard techniques common to the commercial filmmaker. But what is most disappointing is that, even within these conventions, Lee does not know how to properly view his characters within their settings and leaves us instead with a series of uninspired compositions which miss the aesthetic possibilities that the film's content continually opens up.

Much has been made about the film's sex scenes, the series of graphic encounters between Tony Leung and screen newcomer Tang Wei which famously earned the film an NC-17 rating. How, then, do these scenes register with the viewer? They are brutal, impassioned and absolutely essential to the film's program. The film's plot revolves around a young revolutionary, Wong Chia Chi (Wei) who insinuates herself into the household of Mr. Yee (Leung), a brutal and high-ranking member of the Chinese collaborationist government during World War II. By gaining sufficient proximity to Yee's person, an access that can only be obtained by becoming his lover (Yee is notably cautious and never allows himself to be placed at a disadvantage), Wong plans to assassinate the traitorous official. Apart from the important role they play in the unfolding narrative, the scenes drive home the pure physicality of the sex act (particularly in the sadistic touches that Yee brings to the proceedings) and allows the viewer access to the intimacy that Wong is forced to enter into with her victim, an intimacy which ultimately complicates her feelings for Yee and undermines her project. The graphic depiction of sex, in all its contortions, is the only way to successfully illustrate the potency of the act, which has too often been taken for granted as a character motivation in the cinema, while remaining entirely off-screen, relegated to the viewer's imagination. If sex, especially when pursued with such intensity, inevitably alters one's perceptions of the other party, then only by giving ample expression to that act are we made to feel the necessity of such an alteration, most obviously in Wong, but also, to a lesser degree, in the seemingly impassive Mr. Yee. In these scenes, Ang Lee finally comes alive and it is only here that he seems concerned with providing aesthetic satisfaction. If his compositions are still generally uninspired, his choreography makes up for it. These scenes, which don't make their first appearance until roughly two-thirds of the way through the picture, are the only sequences which transcend the pure entertainment of the rest of the work and stand on their own as fully realized set-pieces. If Lee could have brought that sense of cinematic exploration to the rest of the film, he might really have created something worthwhile. As it is, he delivers a slickly-crafted entertainment that only occasionally threatens to become anything more significant.

Friday, October 5, 2007

On Some Dismissive Formulations Which Prevent Educated Viewers From Earning an Appreciation of Contemporary Cinema

A recent issue of New York Magazine featured a lead article on the New York Film Festival. On the cover, arranged in an awkward cascade and shot in profile, were the faces of Joel and Ethan Coen, Noah Baumbach and Wes Anderson, above the headline "the New York Wave". Inside the magazine, the articles were centered around the theme of the "return of the New York auteur," a claim based on the abundance of New York filmmakers represented at the current festival, regardless of the quality or relevance of the films being presented by these directors. By singling out this New York contingent, the magazine may have adopted an approach calculated to appeal to its core audience, but it betrayed an entirely misleading apprehension of the event. While many New York filmmakers are screening their work at the festival, and indeed these directors are disproportionately represented in the festival's more high profile pictures, the filmmakers that the magazine elected to discuss are very much peripheral to the important work being done in the world cinema. That many of the directors who are central to this world cinema are also featured at the festival only throws into relief the misguided critical emphasis of such "sophisticated" mainstream publications as New York which choose to highlight quirky, but unchallenging middlebrow fare in place of films by directors such as Béla Tarr, Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Alexsandr Sokurov, Jia Zhang-Ke and Carlos Reygadas, all of whom, like their less talented but more heralded New York counterparts, are showcasing their latest films during the next two weeks at Lincoln Center.

Why then is it so hard to sell educated viewers, many of whom are no strangers to the art-house environment, on such international fare, even though most of these films, for all their foreign provenance, have more to say about 21st century America than the latest hip posturings by Wes Anderson and the Coens? Much of it has to do with certain conventions of the filmgoing public that tend to favor the familiar and unchallenging to anything that might make the audience uncomfortable. In order to both cement and justify this attitude, the viewer has developed a certain dismissive vocabulary which transfers the blame for his dissatisfaction from himself to the filmmaker while demanding the least possible analytical effort on his own part. All he has to do is repeat one of an established catalogue of trite formulations. Below we will take a look at a few of these dismissive statements that keep educated audiences locked in their comfortable viewing habits and show how they prevent a true appreciation of what is important in the world cinema.

1. "Nothing happens in this film."

This comment reveals the persistent belief that a film consists primarily of its content and that any questions of form or style are almost completely irrelevant, since form only exists as a vehicle to deliver the film's content. As such, viewers continue to insist on the primacy of the narrative, so that, in their view, any film that deviates from this plot-heavy formula is violating an essential property of the cinematic medium. Most of the popular indie hits of recent years (Little Miss Sunshine, Pan's Labyrinth, Little Children) adhere unquestioningly to this belief in insistently chronological filmmaking. The truth is that narrative-centered filmmaking with its corollary, the psychologically coherent character, is only one conception of the cinematic process and is not an absolute condition of the medium, but only an arbitrarily imposed convention. Many of the most significant filmmakers working today, while not entirely eschewing the narrative/character matrix, are more interested in other cinematic possibilities and achieve much more significant work than would be possible if they confined themselves within a more conventional framework. The primacy of the image in the films of these directors as well as the unique formal strategies they employ to create their vivid cinematic worlds result in a much more interesting and, ultimately more rewarding, filmgoing experience. Nor do these alternative aesthetic formulations reduce these pictures to mere formal exercises. The films of Jia Zhang-Ke, for example, use slow-developing narratives, long takes and a visual conception which pays special attention to single evocative images to present the lives of Chinese men and women caught up in an ever-changing post-Communist world in which they are forced to make their way despite the lack of a familiar cultural and political framework. No filmmaker is more attuned to the 21st century global society than Jia, and he is only able to achieve his remarkable presentation of this society through an aesthetic approach which places the focus elsewhere than on traditional narrative development and which forces the viewer to take an active role in the proceedings and to seriously reflect on his own place in the world.

2. "Alright, I get the point already."

Said in reference to a shot held for an uncomfortably long time, no matter how evocative the image being shown. Some recent examples include Tsai Ming-Liang's lingering takes of the movie theater's exterior as it turns off its lights for the last time in Goodbye, Dragon Inn and, from the current New York Film Festival, Béla Tarr's lengthy closeups on Ági Szirtes' face in The Man From London. The problem with this comment is that it misunderstands the nature of the image, as if it only existed to have a single, easily discernible "point" and was included in the film only for the purpose of advancing our understanding of plot or character. This objection, however, is perfectly valid for traditional Hollywood message movies or for the new breed of films (Crash, Babel) which strain for a false significance by assaulting the viewer with an ever changing barrage of images and with trite formulations about the state of our society. We don't have to worry about Alejandro González Iñárritu holding a single image for too long. He knows his images are too poor to warrant such a strategy and is quick to switch to the next one before the viewer can notice.

3. "The film is boring."

In 1965, defending the art of Antonioni and Beckett against this very claim, Susan Sontag wrote, "the charge of boredom is really hypocritical. There is, in a sense, no such thing as boredom. Boredom is only another name for a certain species of frustration. And the new languages which the interesting art of our time speaks are frustrating to the sensibilities of most educated people." This may sound like a disagreeably elitist attack on conservative middlebrow sensibilities, an attack which blames the audience for their inability to understand an esoteric artistic conception, but in reality it reveals a disturbing unwillingness on most viewers' parts to accept the challenge of a new "cinematic" language and a readiness to reject as boring an approach that they have refused to engage on its own terms. To be sure, many of the "new languages" of the films of the 1950s and '60s have been absorbed into the everyday aesthetics of the 21st-century art-house picture, so middlebrow audiences today have no problem accepting the innovations of an Antonioni or a Godard (at least the Godard of Breathless), but the cinema didn't stop at the end of the '60s. These same people are unwilling to engage the "slow-moving" films of Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Jia Zhang-Ke or Béla Tarr, raising the same objections as audiences in the '60s raised to Antonioni and Resnais. What is truly "boring" in cinema are films that assume a tired aesthetic approach, that haven't moved beyond the innovations of 40 years ago and that rely strictly on wholly assimilated cinematic ideas to achieve what minimum of interest they are capable of arousing.

4. "The film is pretentious."

Often said with an air of definitiveness, as if no further comment is needed. Since the film is "pretentious" (so the argument runs), any aesthetic accomplishments it achieves are invalid since they only exist in the service of this supposedly abhorrent but hopelessly abstract quality known as "pretentiousness". The Oxford English dictionary defines "pretentious" as "characterized by, or full of, pretension; professing or making claim to great merit or importance, esp. when unwarranted; making an exaggerated outward show; showy, ostentatious". The primary characteristic of "pretentiousness" then seems to be a contrast between a seemingly significant exterior and an ultimately hollow interior. When applied to a work of art, this judgement assigns a false primacy to the "interior" (which is defined as a work's content) and slights the "exterior" (or form) as a mere adornment. As we have already shown, this is a misapprehension of the nature of art, a judgement which aims to separate form from content and then grant almost exclusive valuation to the latter. The biggest problem with the word "pretentious," however, is that it closes off conversation. The word has come to take on an almost unassailable quality: it represents the ultimate in judgment to which no objections can be raised. "Why didn't you like the film?" "It was pretentious." "Say no more." I would ten times rather a film risked pretentiousness than settled for the usual trite strategies that keep most of the art-house cinema locked into its perpetual rut. Educated viewers love to complain about the declining quality of the cinema. The truth is, hiding behind their dismissive formulations and willing to accept the same unnourishing middlebrow fare as the best the medium has to offer rather than risk being exposed to "pretentiousness," the average viewer is just not seeing the truly excellent work being done in the cinema. The New York Film Festival offers audiences the chance to see the latest features from many of the world's most important filmmakers. If viewers are able to look beyond the Coen Brothers and Sidney Lumet, here is their chance to catch up.

Monday, October 1, 2007

The Man From London

The Man From London is the first film from Béla Tarr that threatens to devolve into a mere formal exercise. Tarr's films were always first and foremost about their formal elements, but in pictures such as Damnation, Satantango and The Werckmeister Harmonies the interest was not confined to Tarr's matchless staging, lighting and camera movements, but was extended to the resultant creation of a narrative, an atmosphere, a self-contained world, all intrinsically enthralling, whose achievements were inseparable from the formal elements that allowed for their conception. In Tarr's latest film (which made its American debut yesterday at the New York Film Festival), the director's masterful manipulation of his materials deftly builds an evocative atmosphere of dark, damp menace but, with its cursory narrative and impenetrable characters treated as a mere formality, the film's interest is confined almost exclusively to the realm of the aesthetic. Still, when Tarr operates at such a high level of formal achievement, the result is a certain breathtaking power unavailable to any other working filmmaker.

Tarr's mastery of the cinematic medium extends to all aspects of production, from lighting (here represented in a pitch black visual conception cut through with occasional swathes of brightness) to arranging the constituent elements in a given mise-en-scène, but nowhere is this mastery more evident than in his choreographing of the elaborate series of camera movements which characterize nearly every sequence in his films. Tarr subtly manipulates his camera to slowly encompass all the spatial components of a given setting, moving invisibly between interiors and exteriors, navigating corridors with ease, leaving one set of characters to follow another, all in unbroken takes lasting up to twenty minutes.

The film's opening scene, which is repeated nearly verbatim towards the end of the picture, establishes Tarr's operational methods. As Maloin (Miroslav Krobot), a harborside railroad switchman, watches from the windows of his switch tower, a boat docked in the harbor discharges its passengers who then board the nearby train to the city. At first, the overhead shot, filmed from the vantage point of the tower, seems to be static, but soon, we realize it is composed of a subtle pan from behind the tower's glass which fixes the scene below in immobility, but allows for the camera's progression (in the screen's foreground) past the panes of glass, with the smudges on the glass and the bars between the panes the only indication of movement. How Tarr achieves this trick (moving foreground, seemingly stationary background) is unclear, but its creation of a queasy simultaneity of motion and stasis is markedly unsettling and introduces a distinct current of unease to the proceedings. After the passengers board the train, the camera swoops down through the glass and follows the train on its initial journey, before stopping and pulling back up into the window. As the shot continues, the camera returns to the window and again pushes outside the watchtower's boundaries, this time coming to rest on the dock by the boat, where Maloin glimpses the film's precipitating action (a squabble over stolen money which leads to murder) and the narrative formally begins. This long segment (and its subsequent repetition near the film's conclusion), apart from illustrating Tarr's technical mastery, notably retards the introduction of the film's plot and indulges in an aesthetically satisfying and (from the point of view of narratological demands) unjustifiable technical showcase before granting reluctant acknowledgment to the chronological necessities of the narrative filmmaker.

As skilled as Tarr is at engaging in carefully manipulated flights of cinematographic fancy, he is equally content to fix his camera and let it linger on a single image, either allowing the audience to take in all the details of a multilayered composition or to absorb the infinite pathos in a single evocative face. He seems particularly fascinated by the face of Ági Szirtes which, while seemingly unremarkable, proves to be capable of great expression through a minimum of exertion. As the wife of a wanted criminal, she is questioned by the police inspector, a long scene that Tarr shoots in a fixed close-up on the silent Szirtes as she listens to the inspector's solicitation of her efforts to locate her husband. The scene begins as a typical traveling shot with the camera roaming through a café before locating the two characters seated at a table, the inspector facing the camera, Szirtes with her back to the viewer. The camera then circles around the actors until it comes to rest firmly on Szirtes' face where it remains for the duration of the scene. As the inspector outlines the parameters of a potential agreement, the actress' deadpan face attempts to maintain its neutrality of expression, but betrays its agitation through the slow accumulation of tears, which eventually stream down her cheeks forcing her to wipe them away. The obvious reference point for this shot may be Falconetti in La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc but, unlike the French actress, Szirtes' air of sadness is more subdued, her face less intrinsically expressive. It is a sadness expressed reluctantly, not freely given into as in Dreyer's film. The sequence is one of the masterful moments in Tarr's picture and, if it fails to carry a real emotional weight (the character was just introduced and her fate would seem to be an matter of indifference to the audience), it is nonetheless a remarkable aesthetic achievement, one of a countless number which constitute the film's great substance.

Perhaps Tarr has finally outgrown the traditional framework required of the narrative filmmaker. In a sense, this may be a regrettable development, since, when his technical mastery is used in the service of a fascinating, self-enclosed world peopled with singular individuals, the director has been able to achieve his greatest work. But, perhaps a new direction in a more experimental vein, where he would be unencumbered by those elements (plot, character) he seems to have outgrown, would better suit Tarr's current filmmaking orientation. The Man From London is in many ways a remarkable film, but its uneasy insistence on combining an essentially non-narrative approach with a underdeveloped narrative framework marks the film as one of the director's least satisfying works. Fortunately, a lesser effort from one of the world's truly great filmmakers still qualifies as a major cinematic event.