Monday, March 31, 2008

The Flight of the Red Balloon

There's such fascination in watching Hou Hsiao-Hsien stage each of his exactly calibrated shots - masterful long takes in which he expertly shifts his characters around a tightly controlled cinematic space - that it goes a long way towards making up for his latest film's somewhat indifferent treatment of both setting and character. If each of Hou's previous features managed to capture some essential correspondence between the film's total environment and the figures that populate it - the alternating languors and sudden bursts of motion experienced by the petty gangsters drifting through Goodbye South, Goodbye, the insistent throb of the techno beat that defines the young couple's lives in Millennium Mambo - then The Flight of the Red Balloon fails to achieve the same knowing intimacy. With the settings lacking the fullness of lived-in spaces, there's a certain sketchiness to the whole thing, a sense of the film's world as ultimately static and lifeless. Without a smooth integration of place and character, of emotion and technique, we're left to marvel of the film's formal qualities while regretting the lost opportunity to experience a cinematic Paris as comprehensively imagined as the director's Taiwan.

"Freely adapted" from Albert Lamorisse's The Red Balloon, the largely non-narrative film follows the daily lives of three Parisians: a harried mother (a terrific Juliette Binoche, getting down the frenzied agitation of single parenthood), her young son (Simon Iteanu) and their film-student nanny (Song Fang). If Lamorisse's film provides a framework for the current undertaking, though, it's rather a sketchy one. The images borrowed from the earlier work register more as occasional intrusions - both the presence of a balloon itself floating around Paris and a film-within-a-film which seems a much more literal remake of Lamorisse's picture than Hou's framing narrative - rather than consistent presences. These elements suffer from a somewhat imperfect assimilation into the film's overall design, disappearing for large gaps of time only to reappear for lengthy, isolated stretches - but, given the film's generally loose structure, this spotty integration doesn't prove overly distracting. Either way, the result is a lovely series of images, most fully realized in the film's closing sequence as the balloon floats over a spread of Parisian rooftops. The work's other contextual borrowing, a treatment of the Chinese puppet theater, may seem no more organically integrated into the film's world, but it too provides several of the picture's finest scenes, most notably the orchestration of an eye-popping chiaroscuro staging, with the camera investigating the backstage space during a performance, picking brilliantly lit figures out of an otherwise total darkness - all set to Juliette Binoche's spirited narration and the occasional rumble of a baritone saxophone.

Although the film makes occasional forays into the streets and cafés of Paris, a good majority of the work is confined to interiors, and particularly to the apartment that forms the central setting. An old-fashioned duplex gone slightly to seed, the apartment allows Hou and cinematographer Mark Lee Ping Bing to exert complete control over their principal stagings. Working variations on a theme, a large number of shots begin with two characters sitting at the breakfast table, framed by a door on one side and an out-of-focus kitchen recessed into the background on the other. With glowing yellows highlighting the principal figures, Hou moves his characters from their initial positionings to various locations around the scene, his camera trackings slowly opening up fresh views of the apartment. In a final tour-de-force staging, the film's principal narrative strands come together in one long take, while a blind tuner works away at the family's piano, seemingly oblivious to the screaming and crying taking place around him. Brilliantly shifting attention from one corner of the apartment to another as the action progresses, all the while maintaining a sense of the setting as an utterly coherent space, Hou provides elegant proof of the beauty of the sort of intricately crafted staging that is increasingly rare in contemporary cinema. That this staging is primarily of interest for its own sake means that the film hasn't, perhaps, succeeded on a fundamental level, but given the opportunity to watch this kind of formal mastery, we would certaintly be unwise to pass it up.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Nathan Lee at the Voice: A Selection of His Best Writing

If I've occasionally had my problems with Nathan Lee's critical approach in some of his writing for the Village Voice, I've always looked on his reviews as welcome provocations. So, like many others interested in the state of contemporary criticism, I have great cause to regret his unfortunate dismissal from the paper (quite apart from what the move reveals about corporate attitudes towards the relevance of distinctive, individuated film coverage). Aside from his witty, exuberant prose, what stood out most about Lee's writing was his generous coverage of lesser-known, but important directors, as he used the Voice's wide readership to bring directors like Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Pedro Costa to a larger audience.

Below, I've assembled a series of links to some of Lee's best pieces from his tenure at the Voice, trying to retain a sense of the diversity of writing that he contributed to the paper. The entries are arranged chronologically.

10 Items or Less (November 21, 2006)

Zodiac (February 20, 2007)

Grindhouse (March 27, 2007)

In Between Days (June 19, 2007)

Colossal Youth (July 24, 2007)

Inland Empire DVD (July 31, 2007)

New Directors/New Films: Water Lilies

As part of The House Next Door's coverage of the New Directors/New Films series, I reviewed Céline Sciamma's debut feature Water Lilies (Naissance des Pieuvres). To read the piece, please continue to The House Next Door. Water Lilies is the second review from the bottom.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Toute la Mémoire du Monde

With its long tracking shots through cavernous library hallways and its skeptical corresponding text (courtesy of writer Rémo Forlani), Alain Resnais' short essay film Toute la Mémoire du Monde imagines the Bibliothèque Nationale as a forbiddingly inhuman landscape in which man attempts to imprison "knowledge" in an effort to counter the limits of his own memory. Only in the act of individual selection - a single patron choosing a specific text - is there hope that this undifferentiated mass of knowledge can be redeemed, as the reader makes discriminating use of the collective national memory for the fulfillment of a constructive individual purpose.

Stylistically anticipating Last Year at Marienbad, Mémoire finds Ghislain Cloquet's graceful camerawork traversing a landscape every bit as static as the resort in the later film, while Maruice Jarre's score, built on ominous drumbeats and lyrical woodwind passages, plays behind the text with as much sense of foreboding as the feature film's famous organ charts. Then, the figures adopt similarly stylized poses to Marienbad's peripheral characters. When human movement does occur, it's confined to the mechanical gestures of library workers carrying out routine tasks, so that even two workers passing in the hallway walk by without any form of mutual acknowledgment. As in the later film, every hint of animated behavior is eliminated in favor of a flat, mannerist set of gestures, suggestive of a distinct effacement of personality.

Resnais maintains a tight correspondence between text and image throughout. As the narrator intones, "confronted with these bulging repositories, man is assailed by fear of being engulfed by this mass of words," the camera passes through endless piles of newspapers and manuscripts stowed away in an underground passageway which seem to defy any attempt to bring order to such an overwhelming mass of material. Then, Resnais manages to make the Bibliothèque seem at once immense and tightly constricted, as in a recurring image where he tracks in reverse through a series of doorways, all surrounded with wall-to-wall books. The endless number of identically claustrophobic rooms gives us both sides of the equation: the attempts of man to "imprison" (or more generously, organize) knowledge and the sheer mass of texts which make such a comprehensive task impossible.

Only in the film's final sequence does Resnais hint at any kind of redeeming function in the Bibliothèque's mission. He begins by following a library worker as he locates a specific title and delivers the book to the reading room, taking the viewer "through the looking glass" from the cramped stacks to the relatively airy public sections of the library. As the camera tracks overhead past a cross-section of humanity, a palpable sense of life creeps into the film for the first time. As the narrator notes, the book is redeemed "from an abstract, universal, indifferent memory," through the act of individual selection. If Resnais views the broader claims of the institution with some skepticism, at least on an individual level, he's willing to acknowledge the usefulness of the mission. As he passes across the roomful of readers and fixes his camera for the last time on a bookshelf, he gives final expression to the possibility that with knowledge redeemed at last from its prison, we are allowed to "catch a glimpse of a future in which all mysteries are resolved." That the Bibliothèque emerges from the film with all its mysteries intact means we're a long way from such a future, but it also means that Resnais has succeeded in giving cinematic expression to the irresolvable contradictions of France's great national institution.

Friday, March 14, 2008

La Tête Contre les Murs

Much of the framework of George Franju's 1959 madhouse picture La Tête Contre les Murs (Head Against the Wall) now seems overly familiar in the post-Cuckoo's Nest landscape. The rabble-rousing young hero who's committed because of anti-social behavior rather than any medically certifiable insanity and whose very presence in the institution represents an act of social commentary. The inflexible authority figure whose interests lie in the assertion of power rather than the welfare of the patients. The repeated attempts at escape. But where Franju's film differs is in the director's complete indifference to establishing the social order of the institution and defining the day-to-day life of its inmates, concerns which generally comprise the principal content of this type of picture. What we have instead is a series of lyrical segments involving his main character, Gérane (Jean-Pierre Mocky), in a romantic attachment with a regular visitor (Anouk Aimée) and a friendship with a clinically depressed inmate (Charles Aznavour in one of his first screen roles), offset with a run of surprising imagery with which Franju hints obliquely at the horror of confinement.

What grants the film its singular impact is chiefly the director's ability to conjure up any number of visual correlatives for the experience of the inmates. In one particularly striking scene, he films a group of patients holding hands and moving around in a circle. When they're forced to let go of each other's hands, they lose confidence and suddenly stop moving. Franju's camera fixes the inmates' faces, crippled with confusion and despair, before they're allowed to rejoin hands and continue their circling, resulting in a sequence alternately hopeful and horrifying and powerfully suggestive of the full range of experience felt by the confined patients.

While Gérane's interactions with his female visitor are largely constricted to benches, his friendship with Aznavour's melancholy patient is cemented through a series of movements around the hospital grounds (the inmates are given surprising freedom of mobility). In an odd recurring image, the two men ride a miniature train along a narrow track that cuts through the institution's fields, building a warm feeling of camaraderie and enjoying an approximation of a longed-for, but clearly unattainable, liberty. In Franju's conception of the experience of confinement, even the moments of tender lyricism are played against images of grizzly horror as when a church service with a haunting solo from pinch-faced Edith Scob segues into a suicide or when the film's romantic consummation gives way to the final seizure of the hero, filmed in overhead from the top of a staircase and brought home through the shock of a dramatic switch in lighting and the sudden surrounding of the hapless Gérane by a swarm of hospital attendants.

Less insistent on its social commentary than either Cuckoo's Nest or (articulating an entirely different set of concerns) Shock Corridor, La Tête nonetheless offers both a critique of bourgeois society and an interesting running dialogue on the social function of the mental hospital. From the start, Franju casts his hero as a figure of defiance. Son of a wealthy lawyer, expected to follow in his father's path, we first see the young man dangerously navigating an off-road course on his motorcycle behind the opening titles. When in short succession, he steals money from his father, burns an important legal brief and hits the older man, the latter responds by having him committed. Although Gérane's actions are not intended as a conscious critique of bourgeois society, but are instead expressive of the youthful rebellion common to young men of strict upbringing, the equation of non-conformism and insanity and the social implications of that equation nonetheless remain, despite their constant iterations in the years since Franju's film, a rather powerful set of conceits.

More interesting, perhaps, is a running debate on the proper function of the mental institution that passes between the inflexible head doctor, Varmont (Franju regular Pierre Brasseur) and the humanitarian-minded Dr. Emery (Paul Meurisse). For Varmont, the primary responsibility of the institution is the protection of society from the criminally insane, a function he fulfills by asserting his absolute power. Emery, concerned chiefly with rehabilitation, provides a far more inviting environment for his patients, reasoning that such a gentle approach is more likely to counter the effects of insanity. In the central exchange between the two doctors, shot against the backdrop of an outdoor aviary, with the birds straining at the boundaries of their cage (the metaphorical implications are clear), Varmont argues that it's far better to keep the mentally ill locked up than risk inflicting an imperfectly cured patient on society. Emery counters that it's preferable to attempt a re-integration of patients rather than to risk an inmate's death by keeping him locked up in inhumane circumstances. This running dialectic grounds the film in a recognizable social framework and offers, through Emery's perspective, an alternative to the horror experienced by the majority of the inmates. Of course, at least in the case of Gérane, it's Varmont's approach that wins out, an approach which forces the young man to repeatedly attempt a series of dangerous escapes, and, in a final moment - the imagery mirroring his initial entry to the institution, as he's driven once more through an ominous landscape and into the gates of the hospital - to acknowledge the inevitability of his own perpetual confinement.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

J'entends Plus la Guitare

Phillipe Garrel's extraordinary 1991 film J'entends Plus la Guitare, currently enjoying its American theatrical debut in New York, is a work of a singular strangeness. This strangeness, dictated by the film's unique narrative and aesthetic strategies, follows directly from Garrel's collapsing of both time and space, an approach which forces the viewer to seek out fresh means of orientation. And yet, by substituting an elliptical open-endedness for a time-sensitive narrative and a relentlessly focused visual aesthetic for a defined sense of place, the film offers a certain heightened sensitivity that brings us in more intense contact with the people fixed by Garrel's camera than would be conceivable in a more familiar cinematic framework.

Garrel builds his film from a series of isolated sequences - generally confined to one or two characters - each separated from the next by a temporal gap of indeterminate duration. What limited narrative the film offers details the on-again off-again relationship between Gerard (Benoît Régent), a Parisian artist and Marianne (Johanna ter Steege), his heroin-addled German girlfriend (based on Velvet Underground chanteuse Nico). They talk about love, split up, reunite and separate again before Gerard gets married and fathers a child in a half-hearted stab at domesticity. But the film is not really concerned with the actions of its characters; it's focused instead on the moments in between. The characters, all given to a certain intellectualizing, prefer to talk through their situations, and Garrel gives us a lot of heady disquisitions on love, happiness and success, enlivened with a penchant for subtle wordplay and graced with a certain melancholy by the sense that for all their talk, the characters have come no closer to solving the basic problem of how to live.

Garrel's most consistent narrative strategy is to confine the bulk of the film's linear development to off-screen space. We learn of Gerard and Marianne's latest separation or reunion as a matter of course: in one scene, they've broken up, in the next they're back together. This elliptical structuring grants each sequence a certain self-contained insularity, but viewed consecutively, the individual moments give the impresion of comprising a remarkably vivid continuum. The film may end shortly after Marianne's death, a likely point of conclusion for a story focusing on her relationship with Gerard, but as the latter proceeds with his daily affairs, pursuing another romantic encounter, engaging in domestic quarrels, the film proposes a continuance for its characters' lives well beyond the scope of the film's plotting, a continuance which makes any narrative endpoint seem arbitrary. By eliminating any sense of a calculable time-frame, Garrel offers instead a string of individual moments which produce a certain cumulative potency in a way that would be impossible in a film presenting a smooth progression of temporally connected sequences. Separate, the scenes may seem disconnected, but taken as a whole they add up to something like an unusually concentrated mass of life.

Garrel matches his atemporal narrative structure with an aesthetic approach that seeks to eliminate space from the viewer's perception. The director films nearly the entire picture in medium-close and close-up, shooting against largely neutral backgrounds, a gray wall, a white bed, an out-of-focus window. His deliberate withholding of visual information makes it impossible for the viewer to orient himself spatially. Within any given scene, our visual framework is largely restricted to faces, with Marianne's half-wounded smile, her pale, freckle-spattered skin and the wild red frizz of her hair registering with a singular capacity for expressiveness. In dialogue, Garrel often positions his two speakers in a standard over-the-shoulder reaction shot, but then leaves the camera on only one figure for the duration of the exchange. Rather than cutting up the scene for maximum ease of comprehension, he forces us to focus intensely on one individual face. Then, too, the characters speak very quietly - occasionally inaudibly - and when they're not speaking, the film is often silent, refusing the comfort of audible ambient sound. (Although the silence is periodically interrupted by Faton Cahen's powerful score, employed more as occasional punctuation than consistent background).

By removing any familiar aesthetic reference point, either visual or aural, Garrel forces us to bring new reserves of attention to the individuals he's placed in front of us. That we never learn anything more about these individuals than what we glean from surface impressions hardly matters; in the surface is their essence. In watching them interact, attempt to intellectualize their problems, endure loss and ultimately give in to a certain solipsistic cynicism, we get an unusual sense of these suffering figures as extraordinarily human individuals, an achievement which marks Garrel's film as a work of art of the highest order.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Meta-Criticism and Blog Culture

To critique the work of another film writer is to engage in a dialogue that has the capacity to re-invigorate a stale critical climate, but it's also to risk giving into an ugly vindictiveness which reduces the role of the critic to childish name-calling. Much of the best film writing has responded in one way or another to the writings of other critics, from the famed exchanges between Sarris and Kael to the meta-criticism that enlivened Jonathan Rosenbaum's Chicago Reader reviews. No one would accuse any of the above writers of playing entirely fair, but their exchanges involve close readings of the texts in question and generally advance our understanding of film culture rather than arrest it. Today, when anyone has the ability to interject his opinion on personal blogs or online forums, a less incisive brand of meta-criticism, built on strong reactions but little close analysis, has emerged alongside more measured discourse and has negatively influenced the judgements of some of our more accomplished critics.

If Jonathan Rosenbaum has devoted much time to critiquing the work of his peers, he's focused primarily on the most powerful critics (Janet Maslin during her tenure at the New York Times, David Denby) and exposed the ways in which they use their enormous influence to restrict the possibility of readers' cinematic discoveries by flippantly dismissing (or altogether ignoring) work that falls outside the middlebrow purview of the Times and New Yorker film sections. In his review of Irma Vep, for example, Rosenbaum brilliantly dissects a particularly offensive paragraph of Denby's critique of that film in which the latter deplores the state of the French cinema, neatly passing over the wealth of excellent recent French films that he hasn't bothered to review. In addition, Denby makes broad generalizations about envious French attitudes towards American films which Rosenbaum easily contradicts based on his own (much more extensive) experience with French culture. Rosenbaum's attack on Denby may or may not play out a personal resentment, but it serves a valid critical purpose. It exposes the false assumptions and intentionally limiting viewpoint of an influential critic. If the average reader of Denby's piece is encouraged to ignore a French film industry that he's told "lies in ruins," then Rosenbaum's reader is offered a useful corrective, a rebuttal of Denby's absurd claims and a list of recent French films to prove it.

With the nearly unlimited word count he enjoyed at the Chicago Reader, Rosenbaum had more than enough room to analyze specific critical passages at length and still offer detailed discussion of the film he was reviewing. But, seizing on the less formal (and much briefer) blog format, Rosenbaum recently launched a far more poorly considered attack against the New York Times. Instead of taking on one of their regular critics, he singled out freelancer Jeanette Catsoulis for her 200 word review of the Indonesian musical Opera Jawa, a review which he characterized as "ugly" and "xenophobic". To be sure, there's a certain amount of flip exoticism in Catsoulis' review, but the piece is hardly as disrespectful of either the film or of Indonesian culture as Rosenbaum's entry indicates. I admit to a particular aversion to Catsoulis' brand of writing - a style which often seems more concerned with displaying the writer's cocktail party wit than contributing any useful cinematic discussion - but, considering its brevity and general invisibility (as Rosenbaum notes, it's "buried at the bottom of the fifth page of the arts section"), the review hardly seems anywhere near as injurious as the significantly higher profile pieces the critic used to tackle in the days of Janet Maslin. Rosenbaum is right to call attention to subpar criticism, but, perhaps encouraged by the less stringent guidelines of the blog format, he seems to have miscalculated, directing a disproportionate amount of venom against a relatively impotent and ultimately harmless target.

But at least Rosenbaum's objections are based on a close reading of the text in question. The meta-critical efforts of Premiere Magazine critic Glenn Kenny are far less carefully considered. I'm no more fond of some of Village Voice critic Nathan Lee's juvenile indulgences than Kenny is, but I don't see the usefulness in devoting a sizable portion of an already brief anti-Lee rant (recently posted on Kenny's blog) to the description of an odd personal fantasy wherein Lee is forced to recant his enthusiasm for Southland Tales while "standing in a two-lane bowling alley," particularly when Kenny hasn't offered any insight into that critic's writing beyond noting that his use of the word "boner" is rather immature. In the end, Kenny concedes Lee's right to affect any style he pleases, but the whole piece leaves us wondering: what has Kenny accomplished apart from the mean-spirited airing of personal grievances. If he wanted to criticize Lee, he might have turned this desire to more constructive use by taking a close look at the ways in which his less elevated writing subverts a more serious critical purpose, an approach I've attempted myself in looking at that critic's work (see here and here).

Unfortunately, this is hardly the first time Kenny's indulged an ugly vindictiveness within the permissive framework of the personal blog. And while his meta-criticism is generally more carefully-considered than in the Lee entry, he often takes a mean-spirited joy in the flippant (and under-argued) dismissal of the object of his displeasure, a dismissal he knowingly refers to as, "hav[ing] my little petty jollies." Petty is right, since Kenny's censure generally serves little critical purpose apart from satisfying his own capacity for venomous expression. Still, some might argue, in considering the far more casual medium of the blog entry, we have no right to expect the same level of careful analysis as in a paid print article. But therein lies the problem. While the format offers the unique possibility of combining quality critical writing with an open and genuinely useful discussion, the lack of any sort of editorial guidelines that marks the blog as the most democratic vehicle of expression also makes it far too easy for even the more restrained critic to toss off ill-considered and virtually useless commentary.