Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Histories, Official and Personal: Jia Zhangke's Still Life

Let's start with an image: a middle-aged man and woman huddled in intimate proximity in the corner of a room. In the middle of the screen is a gaping hole, a wall ripped out of a condemned building, revealing a cityscape so static, it could only be a matte painting. But then, as the couple quietly converse, the tallest building suddenly collapses, startling the characters and upsetting the audience's expectation of a still composition. The demolition is part of a project to destroy the city of Fengjie, China in order to build the world's largest hydro-electric power station, the Three Gorges Dam, a project that has displaced two million people from their homes. As the couple, reuniting after sixteen years, attempt to address their personal history, they are interrupted by the forces of official history; this complex interplay of the personal and the political not only provides director Jia Zhangke with one of his most evocative images, it allows him to provide exact visual expression to the paradoxical forces that define life in modern China, a subject which forms the central line of inquiry in his small, but increasingly impressive body of work.

To read the rest of the article, please continue to The House Next Door.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days

Cristian Mungiu's 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days may have sparked a lively critical discussion about recent cinematic attitudes towards abortion, but the film isn't really concerned with that practice so much as with the experience of living in an illogical world where institutional controls severely restrict the possibilities of human activity. In this case, the world is the Romania of Ceausescu, circa 1987, where a thoroughly entrenched black market system dictates the availability of not only abortions, but Western cigarettes, soap and candy. The film may not have anything to say about the choice/life debate per se, but that's not really what it's after. It simply takes a dramatic premise - two women seek an illegal abortion, complications ensue - to its thrilling conclusion, guiding its figures through an appropriately disquieting landscape.

This landscape, which takes us from overcrowded dorm rooms, run-down hotels and middle-class dinner parties through pitch black streets and high-rise Soviet housing, is presented with a certain aesthetic disorientation. From the hand-held camera work and occasional dimness of presentation (shot with available lighting), to a penchant for staging consecutive scenes with 180-degree framing shifts, the film subtly positions the viewer in a world where logical discontinuities dictate the possibilities available to its residents. In presenting the film's central setting, the hotel the women book for the abortion, Mungiu doesn't overemphasize its essential seediness, but he allows its jaundiced hallways to communicate an acute sense of discomfort, especially incongruous with the demands of the delicate procedure about to be performed. The lounge area outside the women's room with its ratty couches and the perpetual flicker of its halogen lights becomes an especially forbidding locale and, serving as the hellish antechamber to the procedure itself, represents the most explicit equation of the film's set design with genuine nightmare vision.

Mungiu's seemingly low-slung aesthetic may have the added virtue of imparting a certain offhand naturalism to the picture, but it's clear he's in total control throughout. Sometimes, this directorial absolutism seems a little too calculated as when he forces his characters to suffer the ultimate indignity (prostituting themselves) in order to pay for the procedure. It's as if Mungiu, having successfully evoked an appropriately foreboding world and manipulated his characters into a sufficiently terrifying situation, still felt he hadn't gotten his point across and needed to resort to that ultimate trump card of the miserabilist filmmaker, sexual debasement. Although such transactions were no doubt plentiful in 1980s Romania and Mungiu handles the scene with a certain restraint, the sequence feels like the director's one misstep, a crossing over into sordidness for its own sake.

But following the completion of the procedure, the film embraces its latent adherence to the thriller form, and Mungiu's contrivances find their ideal mode of expression in the plot manipulations of that genre. Called away from her friend Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) who waits motionless on the hotel bed for the ejection of the fetus, Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) is forced to attend an haute bourgeoise dinner party (or its Communist equivalent) at her boyfriend's parents' house. In the film's best scene, Mungiu fixes Otilia in the center of the dinner table as the family talks around and occasionally (with off-putting condescension) to her. With the only camera motion provided by the occasional jerkiness of the handheld device, Mungiu forces Otilia to submit to its gaze for roughly ten minutes. Unable to respond (to either the camera or her boyfriend's family), letting even the most offensively patronizing remarks pass without comment, Otilia betrays a poorly-hid impatience, but still must hold her position in the center of the table, even when the phone (possibly bringing news from Gabita) rings and no one gets up to answer it.

Eventually, freeing herself from the party, Otilia returns to the hotel to check on her friend and dispose of the fetus, and Mungiu increasingly manipulates both Otilia's and the audience's expectations to create a pitched level of suspense. Walking through near total darkness (even in the night scenes, the director relies on natural light), strange figures approach, but are revealed to be harmless; Gabita doesn't answer the door of the hotel room - it turns out she's just gone downstairs to the restaurant. If these manipulations sound like crude narratological tricks inappropriate to such a "serious" story, they serve to enhance rather than diminish the sense of dread necessary to the film's program. If the thriller form plays with the viewer's anticipation of the continual possibility of misfortune, then adapting that genre's strategies to the world of 1980s Romania, a world that forces its citizens to live in a state of perpetual existential uncertainty, registers as a particularly apposite gesture on the director's part.

Towards the film's conclusion, when Otilia finally walks up the darkened stairway of a high-rise apartment - the screen registering complete blackness before Mungiu's camera emerges with a striking composition - woman, garbage chute and a handful of trees visibly arranged against the dark - and disposes of the fetus, the film seems finally to resolve some of its tension, suggesting a measure of conclusion to its tortuous scenario. But then Mungiu throws us right back into his dread nocturnal world, building a fresh scene of suspense before ending his picture on a note of striking irresolution. The women may agree never to speak of their ordeal, but Gabita's complaints of a fever and Otilia's worries that she may become pregnant suggest a continuance of dangerous possibility well beyond the film's diegetic scope. Ultimately, Mungiu suggests, in the world of Ceausescu's Romania - and perhaps in the world as a whole - there is no escape from the strictures of official control and the nightmare of human uncertainty is bound to continue indefinitely.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Damnation: The Power of Vision

The films of Béla Tarr provide the clearest evidence of the transformative power of cinematic art. Taking as his subjects the most desolate, impoverished landscapes (barren fields, crumbling buildings, all cut through with a perpetual rain) and a correspondingly ugly cross-section of humanity, Tarr turns these unlikely filmic elements into objects of keen aesthetic contemplation, producing some of the most powerful images this side of Tarkovsky. Unlike that filmmaker, however, Tarr voids his storylines of any redemptive elements (his would-be prophets - Irimiás, the Prince - all prove false), but offers instead a different form of redemption, located squarely within the physical world which he transforms from desolate patches of ground into aesthetically rich landscapes, offering the viewer new ways of looking at his own surroundings.

In his 1988 film Damnation, Tarr foregrounds the subject of aesthetic contemplation by highlighting his characters' direct participation in the self-conscious act of seeing. The film begins with a long shot of an industrial lift, transporting buckets of coal back and forth from the town's factory. Cutting across an empty field, the lift registers as an anomalous presence and Tarr's lingering camera forces the viewer to reflect on the sheer strangeness of the image (aided by a perpetual squeak on the soundtrack). After several minutes of fixity, the camera slowly pulls back, revealing first a window and then a man's head looking out. What we took to be an objective framing is now revealed to have been a subjective shot from the point of view of Karrer, the film's principal figure. Thus, we are instantly identified with the character in the act of seeing which, Tarr reminds us, is the central act of the filmgoer and an act which has the power to transform a seemingly irredeemable world, if only we look at it the right way.

Throughout the film, the viewer is continually identified with Karrer's gaze. From the character's perpetual contemplation of the coal lift (a running motif) to his surreptitious peerings around hidden corners, Tarr privileges Karrer's vision by allowing it to repeatedly define the audience's visual frame of reference. But if Karrer sees nothing but hopelessness and vanity from his "years and years" of looking through windows, Tarr redeems this vision by offering the viewer something quite different. It is significant that while the viewer's range of vision is often associated with Karrer's, we are given few shots directly from his point of view and rely heavily on objective framings which pointedly disassociate our vision from Karrer's. His gaze may be a necessary structural device, but it has the potential to be misleading. If we associate too closely with his subjective vision, we risk restricting rather than expanding our capacity to see.

In one scene, Karrer peers out over a muddy courtyard and sees his lover's husband park his car and exit with his daughter. If this plot point represents the central event from Karrer's perspective, to the viewer it registers as little more than a minor detail in the mise-en-scène. Tarr asks us to direct our attention instead to the overall landscape which dominates the screen. The courtyard may consist of little besides a mud-caked expanse, an asymmetrical grouping of buildings, all in various states of decomposition, and a heavy and continual rain, but framed in Tarr's deep-space composition and captured in Gábor Medvigy's stark black-and-white cinematography, the filmmakers transform this desolate space into one of the more striking creations in contemporary cinema. If Karrer sees only hopelessness in the landscape, the viewer is granted something like the reverse, a great aesthetic liftoff that empowers him with the transformative power of proper vision, a liftoff granted, not only throughout Damnation, but in each of the director's subsequent films. Ultimately, Béla Tarr teaches his audience how to see its own world. After a sustained engagement with the director's work, the viewer cannot regard his environment with the same indifference; he comes to look on the world as pure aesthetic object.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Woman on the Beach

In Woman on the Beach, director Hong Sang-Soo dissects the complex geometry of romance with true mathematical precision. A typical scene: a woman and two would-be lovers seated around a table in a seaside motel, the woman facing the camera, the men to either side. As the men attempt to win her favor, the conversation turns to the question of her former lovers during her time studying in Germany, a question that triggers a series of irrational, jealous fears in the suitors and results in a dismissive response from the woman. But the psychological messiness that Hong exposes in his characters is countered by a streamlined formal control. Having framed his figures in a tightly composed medium shot, the director confines his camera movements to three moderate-tempo, even-handed zooms (two in, one out) that he employs at regular intervals throughout the sequence and which cleanly subdivide the physical space even as Hong begins breaking down the illogical attitudes that play such a large part in the romantic process.

No sooner has this initial triangle been resolved - with the woman, Moon-sook (Hyun-jung Go) sleeping with one of the men, Joong-rae (Seung-woo Kim) - then the latter grows tired of his conquest and, the film, skipping ahead two days, offers a second grouping of romantic hopefuls, this time with Joong-rae at the crux of the triangle. Conflicted over his rapid dismissal of his recent lover, he takes up with a second woman he meets at the seaside town, a woman whose appeal paradoxically rests on her resemblance to Moon-sook, only to find his first lover returning to the scene, making desperate demands on his attention. What allows Hong to effectively modulate all this intricate geometry is his understanding of the ways in which individuals act out of a range of unclassifiable motives and his refusal to saddle his characters with the simple motivational explanations of basic causality (or any more complex psychological readings, for that matter). And yet each unexplained action is wholly convincing. From Joong-rae's outburst at the perceived rudeness of a waiter at a sushi restaurant to the decision of a minor character to abandon his lover's dog by the side of the road, each gesture is endowed with the knotty ambiguity of life. But, for all this uncertainty of motive, Hong's total control of his material and his formal rigor - his fixed shots, flawless composition and mathematically precise zooms - ensure that the presentation of these largely irrational acts is effected with complete clarity and remains utterly exact in its articulation.

The central presence hovering behind all these complex groupings is the beach of the title, significantly not a sunlit summer beach, but a nearly deserted winter seascape, the sky, ocean and sand scarcely differentiated shades of gray. With the exception of the opening scene, which takes place in Seoul, the entire picture unfolds at this seaside setting, a tightly circumscribed world that, through its limited variety of locales, ensures the constant meeting of its characters in a way that would be impossible in a city milieu. The same backdrops are repeated: a motel room, a restaurant, a grocery store. But it is to the beach that the characters constantly return; it is the setting which cements Joong-rae's relationship with both of his lovers, but it is also, in its denatured color scheme, clearly suggestive of a sort of generalized spiritual malaise.

At the film's conclusion, having made a final break with a temporarily repentant Joong-rae, Moon-sook drives her car on the beach one last time, only to find her wheels sticking in the wet sand. Aided by two young men who rush to her assistance, she succeeds in disentangling her vehicle. Suggestively, she insists on offering the men a reward for their efforts, but they refuse and, extricating herself at last from the beach, she drives off to resume her life in the city. Whether or not she has been able to effect any alteration in her disjointed amatory patterns (and her interactions with the two young men suggests she may easily fall back into the same habits) is an open question, but a return to the narrow world of the seaside and its central feature - the gray beach, with its patina of erotic frustration - seems to be a possibility that Moon-sook, for all her unresolved romantic attitudes, no longer feels the need to consider.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Genuine Experience: The Top Ten Films of 2007

It seems a little strange to call Tsai Ming-liang the filmmaker of the year when he hasn't debuted a single feature in the past twelve months, but the dictates of the ten-best list force us to consider a temporally diverse set of films as a single year's work, provided they all had their American theatrical debut sometime between January 1 and December 31, 2007. After all, some objective standard is needed. Tsai's 2005 film The Wayward Cloud, an unquestionable masterpiece, and his generally excellent 2006 offering I Don't Want to Sleep Alone both debuted in New York theaters this year, and no other filmmaker has made a comparable offering in the same time frame.

To read the rest of the article, please continue to The House Next Door.

The "Existential" Quest: Two-Lane Blacktop

Nearly everyone who has written about Monte Hellman's 1971 road-picture Two-Lane Blacktop has fallen back on the term "existential" as his central descriptor. Although that term has become somewhat of a critical catch-all for a diverse range of films - largely from the late '60s and '70s - which feature drifting protagonists and a general sense of aimlessness, it is, in the present case, not without its uses. Still, we must be cautious in its application, lest it obscure what Hellman is actually up to in his presentation of the film's three primary characters.

It's pointless to apply the term, for example, to the Driver (James Taylor) and the Mechanic (Dennis Wilson), a pair of car enthusiasts who drive their custom-built Chevy across the country, challenging other car enthusiasts to race for money. Although, in Hellman's world, characters may not be defined by any sort of a priori essence, the director has already settled the question of the pair's identity before the start of the picture. As GTO (Warren Oates), the film's third major character, notes, the two only exist in so much as they race (and fix up and talk about) cars. What little dialogue they speak is devoted entirely to the intricacies of car culture. (As Oates delivers his assessment, Hellman cuts to a shot of Taylor and Wilson talking - their words inaudible, Taylor pantomimes the turning of a steering wheel). Even the Girl who accompanies them on their travels is a matter of relative indifference; she exists only as a means of providing the necessary relief of the men's sexual urges. The film's final scene finds the pair challenging yet another car to a race, but Hellman ends the picture as soon as the race has begun. For the Driver and the Mechanic, the result is not important; the process is all. In their limited way, they have solved the problem of existence.

It is, instead, GTO (defined, at least in terms of nomenclature, by the car he drives) who fills the role of the existential seeker. Where the identities of the Driver and the Mechanic are fixed but simple, GTO's is complex and constantly shifting. Like that pair, GTO drives across the country (against Hellman's and cinematographer Jack Deerson's lovely widescreen roadscapes) with seeming randomness, but, for him, the drive itself is not the point; he may suggest a variable set of destinations (New York, Washington, Florida), but it's clear he has some sort of goal in mind. One of his final gestures, a suggestion to the Girl that they head South and start a new life, is his clearest articulation of a desire for a domesticated end to his existential wanderings. As GTO puts it, in what amounts to a sort of definitive statement, "if I'm not grounded pretty soon, I'm gonna go into orbit."

As he makes his way across the country, picking up hitchhikers, he tries on an evolving set of identities. With each passenger a new audience, his identity becomes a blank slate, one he fills in with a shifting series of backstories and outlines of future plans. With his final hitchhiker, he appropriates the circumstances of the Driver and Mechanic, explaining that he had originally driven a custom-made Chevy (the car driven by that pair) before winning the GTO and spent his time crossing the country, challenging the local drivers. By identifying with the two racers, we can perhaps say that GTO is suggesting some sort of longing for their fixed notion of identity in place of the constant questing that he subjects himself to. Then again, it may be useless to read too much into his latest attempt at self-definition. It is, finally, just one more possible identity that GTO tests out, and there is nothing to suggest that it fits better than any of the others. In the end, he takes off in his car with no more certain destination than at the film's beginning. As the Driver and the Mechanic continue to look for challengers, GTO resumes his endless wanderings, questing after some obscurely-defined, but deeply-felt purpose. So, if one were inclined to apply the word "existential" to that character's explorations, he probably wouldn't be too far off the mark.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Welcome to the Eagle

The Eagle, a single-screen theater specializing in popular Indian ("Bollywood") films, is located at a busy intersection in Jackson Heights, Queens. Half a block from the borough's central subway hub, the Art-Deco theater formerly known as the Earle (and serving as a porno house in its previous incarnation) is just a quick express train ride away from midtown Manhattan. Last Sunday night, when I attended a screening of the new Hindi-language comedy Welcome, though, there didn't appear to be too many slumming Manhattanites in attendance. The local crowd was modest, filling less than a quarter of the Eagle's 600 seats, but was in refreshing good humor throughout. I'm told that for hotly anticipated debuts, raucous filmgoers pack the house, loudly singing along with the picture's musical numbers but, on the night I attended, except for the continual laughter occasioned by the film's genuinely comic presentation, the audience was notably subdued, its presence scarcely felt.

The film itself, essentially a romantic comedy which finds the central couple beset by an increasingly absurd series of complications occasioned primarily by the woman's familial ties to the mob, is perhaps rather simplistic in its staging, but proved to be funnier than any American picture I saw all year. A series of comic set pieces, the film eschews the sort of verbal, character-driven comedy increasingly favored in even the most lowbrow domestic yukfests and which reached some sort of apotheosis in the recent critical/commercial triumphs of Judd Apatow. In contrast, the humor in Welcome is situational and slapstick and the film remains defiantly stupid until the end. Partaking of a fast-paced music video sensibility which allows it to wear its two and a half hour running time lightly, another gag (or musical number) is never far away. The film's first hour reaches its peak with a wonderfully humorous car chase whose comic presentation begins when the hero suddenly finds the steering wheel of his vehicle coming loose from the dashboard. From there it's just a matter of time before the rest of the car disassembles; the roof is shortly removed from the car's top but, without becoming entirely disattached, it trails behind the vehicle, serving as an extra seat for a startled passenger. Later, the filmmakers stage a lengthy sequence with the characters trapped in a house which teeters (à la The Gold Rush) back and forth on the edge of a precipice. But, whereas Chaplin's presentation is relatively compact, in Welcome, the scene aims for complete exhaustion of every comic possibility and, in its thoroughness, is many times as long (if not quite as inventive) as its model.

What is perhaps most interesting about the picture for an American viewer unfamiliar with Indian popular cinema is the film's narrative structure. Whereas mainstream Western films follow a more or less linear narrative, Welcome is structured as a series of circular movements. No sooner is the possibility of romantic fulfillment (in marriage, naturally, the film is nothing if not moral) approached, then a series of complications arises to prevent such an easy consummation. The obstacles overcome, the marriage again appears to be near at hand, only to have, without any logical preparation, a new set of barriers introduced. These barriers may take the form of whole new characters (an imposing Italian don), sudden changes of orientation on the part of existing characters or terrible misunderstandings, but they are always injected into the narrative with no advance warning. With the introduction of the new obstacles, the circular pattern begins again, an endlessly repeatable strategy which allows the filmmakers to extend the picture indefinitely, filling out a remarkably thin premise with enough plotting to sustain the lengthy running time expected by Indian audiences. Unlike mainstream American comedy, in which the diminution of obstacles to the characters' desired outcome or the approach of an imminent ritual that the audience understands to be the film's climactic event signals the film's conclusion, there is no sense in watching Welcome as to when the picture might end. Its stopping point is completely arbitrary. While it may be understood that the wedding of the romantic leads is the central event with which the film must conclude, it is not an event contingent on any temporal considerations. It will happen only when (that is, if) all obstacles to its consummation are eliminated. And since the film's structure depends on the perpetual, systematic introduction of new obstacles, the work is, in a sense, endless.

Despite these narratological differences, the film translates easily across cultures. There is no possibility of the film's physical comedy posing any difficulties of comprehension to American audiences. Then, there is nothing in the picture for the fetishistic Westerner to treat as "exotic," since the film's conception of modern Indian culture is more or less the same as the Western culture represented by American mass media. The obstacles that prevent the couple from marrying, the mutual distrust of their families and a series of absurd misunderstandings, are not intrinsic to any one culture and in fact are the stuff of such Occidental cornerstones as Romeo and Juliet. In the end, Welcome is a compendium of more or less amusing gags that, while Indian in setting and uniquely structured according to Bollywood conventions, is perfectly accessible to Western audiences; in other words an ideal vehicle for not merely the theater's primary Indian-American clientele, but for any filmgoer interested in accomplished comic entertainment.