Monday, April 27, 2009

New Releases: Ice People and The Merry Gentleman

This weekend is a busy one for new movie releases: among those films debuting on New York screens are Jim Jarmusch's much anticipated The Limits of Control, Revanche, Nuri Bilge Ceylan's somewhat disappointing Three Monkeys, Eldorado and the two films I reviewed for Slant Magazine, Ice People and The Merry Gentleman.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Tribeca Film Festival: Still Walking and Garapa

My contributions to Slant Magazine's coverage of this year's Tribeca Film Festival include reviews of Hirokazu Kore-eda's highly accomplished family drama Still Walking and José Padilha's bracing hunger-epidemic doc Garapa. Click on the titles for reviews, here for screening information on Still Walking and here for screening information on Garapa.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Treeless Mountain

Writing back in 2007 about So Yong Kim’s debut feature In Between Days, I noted “This is a film that makes a lot of effort to know its characters. If only it had achieved a corresponding aesthetic conception instead of leaving us with a muddled visual mess, [it] could have been among the year's triumphs.” In retrospect, and without having rewatched the film in the interim, it seems that I was chiefly objecting to a certain perennially popular aesthetic, conspicuously present in that movie, that favors close-ups and hand-held camerawork to more carefully composed long shots. But what struck me then as Days’ biggest weakness now seems to me to account for Kim’s latest film’s principle triumph. Treeless Mountain’s no masterpiece, but in keeping its visual perspective closely centered around its two pint-sized protagonists, the picture effectively narrows its consciousness until a world scarcely seems to exist outside of the perceptions of its central figures, at least until it widens a smidge in the film’s final act.

Following 6-year old Jin and 3-year old Bin as their mom uproots them from their urban life in Seoul and deposits them at the suburban home of their “Big Aunt” and later at their grandparents’ farm, the film charts the girls’ day-to-day interactions in a series of uncomfortably tight framings that only let up for the occasional visual interlude, a red sunset or a nighttime cityscape. Most of the rest of the film’s shots contain either or both of the girls and, while there are few direct point-of-views, the film seems at all times closely tied to their perspective. As Jin and Bin look on, the adult world hovers perpetually at the margins, not understood, an alien existence that views the girls as objects of indifference or, in the case of their churlish, tight-fisted aunt, as little more than a nuisance.

But children can be surprisingly adaptable and these two make do with frequent changes. While at their aunt’s house, kept out of school, they spend the day catching and grilling grasshoppers to sell to the local boys, sneaking out to buy a chocolate bun or keeping watch for their mom’s return. Later at the farm, they revel in the open spaces of the fields and the kind attentions of their grandmother. As played by Hee-yeon Kim and Song-hee Kim (no relation), Jin and Bin are cute enough, but the filmmaker shuns any obvious look-at-me adorability, directing her young leads to a near Bressonian blankness, even if at least for one moment (when they gleefully trade large coins to a shopkeeper for a much greater quantity of smaller ones), they prove rather irresistible. Still there’s a limit to what Kim’s approach can achieve. Visually, she’s able to suggest the point-of-view of a single (or in this case, dual) perspective, but we never get the sense that she’s gotten anywhere beneath the surface of her young characters. Given the obvious difficulty of penetrating such an unformed consciousness and with respect to the filmmaker’s more modest ambitions, we should have every reason to be pleased with the movie’s obvious pleasures. Still it’s hard to escape the feeling that this is one project that remains (and is content to remain) a distinctly minor achievement.

Monday, April 20, 2009

New Releases: Tyson and Empty Nest

Opening this week in limited release are James Toback's disappointing portrait of boxer Mike Tyson, appropriately titled Tyson, and Argentinian director Daniel Burman's intriguing psycho-fantasy Empty Nest, a jazzy, progressively surreal trip through the consciousness and sub-consciousness of a Buenos Aires playwright. Links are to my Slant Magazine reviews.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Three Ways of Looking at the Ending of Observe and Report

Ronnie Barnhardt is clearly insane, but is Jody Hill? That’s the question that remains after watching the deeply unsettling conclusion to the writer/director’s squirmy, jet black comedy Observe and Report. Starring Seth Rogen as Barnhardt, a severely delusional mall security guard with an outsized sense of his own importance, a gun fetish and a complete disregard for any outside authority, the film unfolds as a character study of a dangerously unstable individual. Allegedly suffering from manic depression, that diagnosis doesn’t begin to explain Barnhardt’s severe disconnect from reality. Viewing himself as a sort of last gunman - a wild west or Dirty Harry type - the rent-a-cop sets about maintaining justice with a terrifying unpredictability, fingering Hispanic or Arabic mall workers as suspects because he doesn’t like the way they look, cracking skateboards over the heads of loitering teens, meddling in serious police investigations.

But what makes Observe and Report so disturbing is the environment that Hill has created around Barnhardt and that environment’s relation to the security guard. Although most of the film’s other characters treat him as a harmless nut or as an unavoidable irritant, several view him in a considerably more positive light: his underlings look up to him, while a born-again coffee shop worker looks at him with romantic yearning. But even setting these exceptions aside, the filmmaker has crafted a world where it is possible for such an obviously unhinged figure to function, a world where Barnhardt may not be liked, but he’s at least indulged. Working within the comedic genre, Hill has a certain leeway for free play with his film’s sense of reality and the project requires that he provide his character with sufficient room to maneuver in order to maximize a given scene’s comic potential, but it nonetheless remains deeply unsettling when we’re asked to watch Barnhardt – to cite one of many examples – go back behind the counter of a coffee shop, mercilessly beat the manager and walk away unpunished.

It’s almost as if the film shares its character’s delusions. As they become more and more severe, Hill becomes more and more indulgent, even to the point where he seems to buy into Barnhardt’s belief in his own superhuman physical capabilities. In one scene, the security guard, who has aspirations to become a policeman, weasels his way into a ride-along with an unwitting officer and as punishment for his unwanted presence, the cop drops him off at the city’s most notorious crack spot and drives away. Threatened with a gun to the head by a local dealer, Barnhardt manages to not only escape from the bind, but to kill three men and bring in a child dealer on a citizen’s arrest. Again, since the scene is mostly played for laughs, we may be expected to indulge the director in a certain suspension of disbelief, but the action is so farfetched and the film, despite its comic orientation, so darkly attuned to character that this bit of “heroism” seems less like a plausible event in the film’s reality and more a fantasy playing out in Barnhardt’s head.

Which brings us to the film’s conclusion. Fired from his security job, rejected by the police force for failing a psychological test (the film’s sense of reality seemingly catching up with the character’s insanity), Barnhardt turns full-on vigilante in order to nab a flasher that has been terrorizing the mall. Finally catching up with the perp after a long chase (in an uncomfortable bit of comedy, the naked man’s fat flesh and undersized penis are fully visible throughout), he pulls out his pistol and shoots him at close range, although the flasher survives his wounds. Walking out triumphant, Barnhardt heads over to the police department to lord it over the men who rejected him, then happily engages in an interview with a local television station and leaves the scene with a new girlfriend in tow, fully rewarded for his questionable actions.

There are three ways to read this ending, none of them entirely satisfying. If we take it on the surface level – and it is wholly possible to do so – then the film is quite clearly as insane as its lead character. Basically, a civilian man pulls out a gun and shoots a flasher (a rather petty criminal in the grand scheme of things) in the middle of a crowded mall and rather than being arrested for attempted murder, he’s treated as a hero. Even when he goes over to the police station, the officers continue to indulge him, showing him begrudging admiration despite his employment of extreme, extra-legal means. Just when the film was beginning to properly situate Barnhardt in some sort of punitive context, he’s granted instead a form of redemption, through the completely unnecessary and wholly irresponsible discharge of a firearm.

But Hill can’t be serious, can he? Surely, we can’t take this at face value. Even given the film’s elastic sense of reality, the ending seems to strain at the bounds of what an audience is prepared to accept. Which brings us to the second possibility, that the ending – or even the entire film – is a fantasy that plays out in the head of the lead character. Admittedly, there is little specific textual evidence to support such a reading, but the sheer implausibility of the film’s response to Barnhardt’s actions forces us to at least consider that none of what we’ve seen has actually occurred. In one scene late in the film, some 30 cops show up at the mall to arrest the security guard. Barnhardt singlehandedly beats up about 10 of these men (another show of superhuman strength that seems like pure fantasy), before himself being beaten and taken to jail. Next thing we know he’s back at home, his wounds have healed and there are no legal ramifications for his actions. Now clearly, the film suggests a lapse in time as explanation for the change in circumstances, but the suddenness of the ellipsis and the absolute excision of any mention of the arrest from the rest of the film force us to call into question the reality of what we’ve just seen. Then if we read the movie’s final wish fulfillment sequence, with Barnhardt lauded as a hero, against its counterpart in the film’s most obvious model, Taxi Driver, (which Hill clearly intends us to do) it at least suggests the possibility that, as in the ending of Scorsese’s film, the filmmaker has switched over to a subjective presentation of reality, taking his cues from the delusions of his lead character. The difference is that, in Hill’s case, this switch may have been made much earlier.

The third way of reading the ending, and perhaps the most plausible, is as something of a hybrid of the two earlier possibilities. We can take the actions we see as having actually occurred, but as refracted through the sensibility of the lead character. So when Barnhardt brawls with the police officers and is finally taken in, we can understand that yes, he really did put up a fight, but Hill probably exaggerated the effect, drawing on the character’s subjective understanding of the scene to increase the violent effect and impart a troubling ambiguity to his project. At the end when Barnhardt walks off in seeming triumph, it’s up to the viewer to take what he’s learned about that troubled individual and read the conclusion according to that understanding. Although it is possible to take the ending quite literally, it’s the responsibility of the attentive filmgoer to apply a certain skepticism, born of the film’s consistent presentation of character, to his response. And yet, even if we accept that Hill has shown us enough of Barnhardt’s dangerous insanity throughout the rest of the film to sufficiently call into question his own conclusion, even if we realize that this conclusion has been colored by the character’s own subjectivity, there’s still no way to quite explain it away. We are still presented with the spectacle of an extremely violent man being celebrated for indulging in his most lethal tendencies, a spectacle whose deeply unsettling dramatization no amount of intellectual justification can explain away.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Borrowed Endings: On Allusion and Appropriation in the Cinema

Since at least as far back as the Nouvelle Vague, filmmakers have been making ample use of quotations from other films, calling on the medium's history not only as a reservoir from which to draw stylistic and thematic inspiration, but as a source for more specific allusions as well. These allusions can serve many purposes from, at the most basic level, simply paying tribute to a favorite film (the Tarantino tactic), to commenting on a genre or mode of filmmaking practice, or confirming the continuity of film history. At its best, this approach can take on the complexity and seriousness of purpose of the best film criticism, but even when falling short of such lofty aims, it often rewards attentive viewers by drawing useful parallels between a more recent work and a cinematic touchstone. (Contemporary example: the men throwing bottles at Solo's cab in Goodbye Solo makes reference to a similar scene in Taxi Driver, Ramin Bahrani calling on the racial subtext in Scorsese's film to comment on William's own attitudes toward his black driver.)

These quotations typically serve a relatively minor role when seen in the context of the larger film; even movies built on a system of allusion - like many of Godard's - generally achieve their effect by accumulating a catalogue of references rather than centering the work around a single instance. But some filmmakers have taken things a step further, not simply referencing another film, but lifting wholesale that work's climactic sequence and then using that sequence to conclude their own film. In his 1980 picture American Gigolo, Paul Schrader infamously copped the ending to Bresson's Pickpocket, quoting the earlier work's famous final line, "Oh Jeanne, what a strange road I had to take to find you" (changed only to reflect the differences in the women's names), and jailhouse setting to suggest a similar redemption for its own lead character. But in Schrader's film this redemption rings false. By relying on the jarring, incongruous introduction of Bresson's dialogue to carry the weight of Julian's transformation, the filmmaker overestimates the ability of allusion to paper over his film's own deficiencies. In this failed effort at appropriation, the Pickpocket reference serves only to point up the superiority of the earlier film.

While this wholesale quotation of a classic film's ending may seem an unforgivable presumption on the part of a filmmaker, in theory there's no reason why a movie couldn't benefit from such a device, provided the work was strong enough in its own right that it wasn't forced to rely on the appropriation for the bulk of its meaning. But despite the great difficulty of pulling off such an approach, it does seem to exert a certain hold on the imagination of contemporary filmmakers, at least when we look at the evidence of two recent films, Christian Petzold's Yella and Carlos Reygadas' Silent Light, both of which structure their conclusions around content lifted from earlier works and both of which seem to place too much responsibility on their allusive strategies to put across the film's final meaning.

Petzold's film, whose ending derives from Herk Harvey's 1962 horror classic Carnival of Souls, probably achieves the more successful appropriation, but even here the suddenness of the quotation and the retrospective understanding it casts on what we've previously seen feels a little overburdening. But at least Yella, despite its surface dissimilarities to Harvey's movie, displays a tonal affinity for the earlier work, which makes its choice of reference seem somewhat logical. In Petzold's film, a young woman (the titular Yella) fleeing an abusive and suddenly penniless husband in the former East Germany makes her way west toward Hanover in order to start a new job. Unwisely accepting a ride to the train station from her spouse, the car winds up in a river after the man flips out and drives off a bridge. Seemingly surviving the crash, Yella gets up, boards her train and travels to Hanover only to discover her boss has been fired and her job no longer exists. Befriending a businessman she meets, she then becomes his assistant, accompanying him as he negotiates morally dubious takeovers, excelling in her new role and eventually becoming the man's lover.

As Petzold films it, Hanover registers as an eerily depopulated world of steel and glass structures where no one but the principal characters in a given scene is ever glimpsed. As in Harvey's film, where another young woman takes a new job in a new town, Yella evokes an atmosphere of quiet menace, a vaguely unsettling aura where the viewer is never allowed to feel quite comfortable. This sense of unease is further intensified through a series of scenes which suggest the mental instability of the lead character with Petzold crafting a subjective sound design - filled with high pitched tones, the sounds of water and wind - to mirror Yella's slippery sense of self.

But despite the director's success in building atmosphere, Yella can't help but feel a tad slight. Intentionally downplaying the presentation of character and narrative, Petzold leaves us with a rather simple statement about German capitalism and East-West relations and a certain icy elegance, but little else besides. So when we get to the twist ending and we find - as in Carnival of Souls - that the character actually died in the crash and the bulk of the film's narrative occurred only - where exactly? in the character's head, in some form of afterlife? - it does little to deepen our understanding of what's come before. When, in Harvey's film, the main character is fished out of the river, the revelation goes some way toward defining the liminal space in which the rest of the film transpired. But in Yella it seems oddly ineffective, a jarring narrative shift that, while in keeping with the eerie atmosphere of the film's setting, registers as little more than a belated attempt to add some retrospective significance to what amounts to a pretty thin piece of work.

Most of the appeal of Carlos Reygadas' 2007 Cannes hit Silent Light lies in the film's stunning visuals and its sophisticated sound mix. But unlike the film's model, Carl Theodor Dreyer's equally striking but comparatively restrained Ordet, the more recent film aims to overwhelm with the sheer splendor of its aesthetic design. And overwhelm it does: the film's bookending establishing shots, a slow pan down from a starry sky to a barren field, time-lapsing from night to an impossibly sun-streaked day in the opener, the same process in reverse for the conclusion, are ravishing, but they're merely the tip of the aesthetic iceberg. Everything from the grand splendor-of-nature visual set-pieces to the picking out of intimate details - a bead of sweat on a post-coital face - to routine stagings around the breakfast table is perfectly calculated for effect, the unerring eye of Reygadas and cinematographer Alexis Zabe taking in the sublime and the mundane with equal precision. And the aural design is equally impressive, the filmmakers isolating each individual sound against a generally silent backdrop, bringing to the front of the audio mix the banal thud of footsteps or the bleating of barnyard animals as the situation requires.

But for all the care Reygadas takes in establishing his aesthetic program, his presentation of narrative and character remain, like those of Petzold, too diffuse to be effective. Set in a reclusive Mennonite community in Mexico, the film centers on the crisis experienced by Johan, a married man in love with another woman who, despite coming clean with his wife, is beset by guilt and sadness, feelings no doubt exacerbated by his strict religious adherence. Johan's struggle is hashed out through a series of largely inarticulate dialogues and an unconvincing crying bout in the film's first scene, but Reygadas seems little interested in engaging fully with the man's emotional crisis nor in exploring the ramifications of an unquestioned faith suddenly confronted with the realities of life. Instead we get a lot of pretty shots framing the impassive protagonist against an indifferent, if lovely, nature and a narrative that stretches on past the breaking point.

So perhaps that's why Reygadas' appropriation of Dreyer's ending seems like such a miscalculation. As in Ordet, Silent Light's matriarch dies only to be magically restored to life. But in the Danish film the director has prepared us for such a bold gesture, crafting his narrative as an inquiry into the role of both faith and organized religion in the lives of his characters that, despite its skepticism, nonetheless maintains the possibility of a divine presence. So when Johannes, calling on the pure faith of a young girl, restores his brother's dead wife to consciousness, it's a shocking moment, but one that never feels out of keeping with the rest of the work and one that, thanks to Dreyer's layered presentation of character, registers with a devastating emotional force.

In Silent Light, however, the same sequence - and Reygadas films his resurrection very like Dreyer, situating the coffin in the middle of a similarly neutral, "spiritualized" space - seems like so much puffery. Lacking Ordet's emotional buildup and without a sufficient exploration of what faith might mean in the compromising context in which the film's characters live, Silent Light's introduction of the miraculous comes off as little more than an empty gesture, a failed attempt to poach some of the significance of a considerably more accomplished film. That the same could be said of most films that appropriate the ending of an another work illustrates the difficulty of successfully incorporating wholesale quotation - especially when drawing on such an iconic screen moment as Reygadas does - but that doesn't mean that it can't or that it shouldn't be done. Still, it's clear that any filmmaker brave enough to make the attempt needs, at the very least, to rethink the approach of his precursors.


My review of Lymelife has been posted at Slant Magazine.

Friday, April 3, 2009


As a portrait of a singular landscape Tulpan is illuminating. As narrative, it's warmly engaging. As a work of cinema combining the two modes, it's inspired. Set amid the alien (at least for Western viewers) terrain of the Kazakh steppes, Sergey Dvortsevoy's feature debut would play as something like a dispatch from another world, if it weren't so grounded in the recognizable particularities of human experience. Affixing a sketch-like narrative to a documentary foundation, the filmmaker deftly integrates the story of a family of herders into a precisely recorded detailing of the surrounding land, heightening the meaning of his distinctive setting by making the individual circumstances of the characters' lives inextricable from the specific features of their environment.

And some environment: dusty flatlands extending to infinity, camels and sheep roaming free over the cracked terrain, the whole thing brought to life as much by the film's layered sound design as by Jolanta Dylewska's vivid cinematography. The varied eruptions of the animals and the constant rush of the wind make up the perpetual sounds of the steppe - jacked up in the mix to near assaultive levels - and form a fit audio counterpart to the dust and thunder storms and sheer sense of expanse that render the landscape so spectacularly forbidding. When, late in the film, Dylewska's camera pans left, moving to a long shot of a single camel traversing a near empty terrain, the environment emerges fully - a beautiful void - the grunting animal (along with a single yurt) the only visible presence as the surrounding land rolls back to the horizon.

But of course it isn't a complete void because people live and work and strive here. Focusing on Asa (Askhat Kuchinchirekov), a young man returned from the Russian navy who lives with his sister's family, the narrative turns on his semi-comic efforts to secure a wife (a first step toward a longed-for economic self-sufficiency) as well as his more serious conflicts with his brother-in-law. Arranging a meeting with the parents of the only available young woman in the area (the titular Tulpan), Asa regales his would-be in-laws with enthusiastic tales about warding off octopuses, while the prospective bride watches unseen through a curtain. Finally rejected by Tulpan because his ears are too big, he returns for a second meeting armed with a picture of Prince Charles, a man whose even larger auditory organs have not prevented his own worldly and romantic success. These scenes are funny, but never at the expense of the characters; Dvortsevoy is careful to avoid taking a superior stance to his subjects, making good use of Kuchinchirekov's low-key charm and his character's sudden bits of garrulousness to ensure that the sequence plays out according to a warm, humanist orientation.

Unfolding in episodic fashion, Asa's story pauses to take in the details of family life: a young boy's recitation of the daily newscasts he picks up on the radio, his sister's constant singing, the difficulties of herding sheep. In Tulpan the narrative and non-narrative elements always serve to enhance one another, the plight of the characters gaining its meaning from Dvortsevoy's careful detailing of the environment with which they have to contend. So that when we finally get to the film's centerpiece - the famed single-take rendering of a live sheep birth - the scene may be remarkable in its own right as an act of documentary filmmaking, but it takes on added power from its placement within the narrative. In the midst of a blight that causes the central family's flock to give birth to stillborn offspring, Asa decides to leave the yurt and strike out on his own. Coming across the birthing ewe, he pauses and helps deliver a healthy lamb, breathing life into the little thing with an urgent bit of mouth-to-mouth, not only signaling the potential end to the pox, but suggesting for Asa a hard compromise with the lifestyle that represents his cultural inheritance but for which he had shown little aptitude. As he collapses in exhaustion on the ground, arms spread out cross-like, he's accomplished something of value for the first time since his return to his family. An uncertain future may await, his dreams may remain deferred, but in the world of the Kazakh steppes, the world whose vivid evocation stands chief among Dvortsevoy's triumphs, this counts as no small achievement.