Tuesday, July 17, 2007


There's no doubt that George Ratliff, the director and co-writer of Joshua, has a distinctive and exciting sensibility, and I'm looking forward to his future work. I could quibble with his formal instincts, which I don't find impeccable; but his sense of characterization is extraordinary, and he creates a satisfying psychological model of family life that can be picked up and looked at from any angle. Perhaps he and co-writer David Gilbert started with a script problem: why might parents have difficulty loving their child? Their first step could have been to create a plausible problem child: brilliant, weirdly inexpressive, devoid of spontaneity, always watching. Layer on the parents' issues: the father is an easy-going jock with a devilish streak, by nature an antagonist to the uptight child, forced to mouth ineffective parent-like homilies and to keep his aversion to himself. The mother is edgy, wired, fundamentally unnurturing but driven to succeed in the maternal role. And the child cried a lot as an infant.... Then move on to the supporting family members: the jock's parents are middle America and fiercely Christian, and yet are needed to take up the parenting slack created by the mom's psychological fragility. But the jock is a lapsed Christian, and his wife is a Jew, with a very gay brother. The child's spiritual life therefore becomes a battleground. The mom's brother, seemingly the most disposible character, connects to the weave in ways that become increasingly important: not only is he the mom's best support system, but he is also a musician, and the child is a gifted pianist. Ratliff and Gilbert never betray any of the premises of this complicated family arrangement, and in fact they elaborate the structure in satisfying ways as the film progresses, whereas many commercial filmmakers helplessly jettison characterization when the plot comes calling.

Joshua is not just a character drama, however: it is a suspense film. After a strong first hour, the suspense format becomes dominant in the last forty-five minutes; and, though the characters remain more or less coherent, the movie's back somehow breaks anyway.

I think that Ratliff and Gilbert overestimate the flexibility of genre. Plot comes with a lot of artistic concomitants, and the plot mandated by the suspense genre - mysterious child becomes a mysterious and powerful threat - comes with an identification structure that is at odds with the shifting dimensionality of the character web. In its final movement, Joshua necessarily becomes a movie about the fear and distrust that parents might feel for a child, and necessarily throws us into a position of identification with the beleaguered parents: the multiple perspectives of the first section shrink to a single perspective. (And even that perspective becomes suspect as the child's powers grow more superhuman, in accordance with genre demands.) It's not as if we lose the ability to study the parents' foibles, nor that we lose our suspicion that the stunted child is somehow the most sensitive member of the family. It's just that those ideas can find no expression via the plot, and therefore are overwhelmed by other, plot-amplified perspectives.

Noir et blanc (Claire Devers)

Claire Devers' first feature, Noir et blanc, won the Camera d'Or in 1986 and attracted the attention of cinephiles. Since then, she has kept a low profile on the international film scene, though she has made several features and TV films; and even her debut is little remembered today.

For years, I would do a double-take every time I'd hear about a Claire Denis screening, hoping for a film from the other Claire D. I'm starting to make my peace with the talented Mlle. Denis, after years of not appreciating her at all - but, having revisited Noir et blanc on VHS last night (thanks to Zach Campbell for the loan of the tape), I'm still baffled at how a filmmaker as assured and expressive as Devers could have vanished from our collective consciousness.

Noir et blanc is not only about the relationship between a black and a white, but it is also shot in black and white (by one Daniel Desbois, with Christopher Doyle also receiving a camera credit). Under cover of the retro choice of film stock, the filmmakers create an odd, dusky lighting plan, starting with washed-out grays on grays, and gradually moving to more abstract images that look as if they were shot in some eternal twilight. Devers' visual style is predominantly calm and naturalistic in the Nouvelle Vague tradition, but she has a taste for crowding the foreground of her frames, Fritz Lang-style, so that space seems to open up behind a foreground figure who is presented with a hint of visual urgency. Her editing is elliptical almost to the point of comedy, and the droll fragmentation of her storytelling goes hand in hand with the reserved, withholding acting around which the movie is constructed.

Though Devers films with attention to ambience, her story (adapted from Tennessee Williams, without credit) is a dark fable, like the subjects that Marco Ferreri favored. The movie starts in digression and slow accumulation, eventually focuses on a sexual obsession that might give pause even to the most libertarian viewers, and follows the concept by logical steps to an unthinkable conclusion.

All the elements of Noir et blanc that I have discussed in isolation are integrated from the first frame with relaxed confidence. Surely a filmmaker of such authority must have done other interesting work - why is her career so submerged?

Noir et blanc was released on videotape in several countries, but not on DVD as far as I can tell; and it looks as if the video is out of print. You can find copies by poking around the Internet, but some of them are expensive.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Drama/Mex: IFC Center, Now Playing

I wish that Drama/Mex, which I saw last year at Toronto, were a little bit more about something. But Gerardo Naranjo is a natural filmmaker: he writes very funny dialogue, still manages to keep his characters plausible and human, and above all has a great eye. The trailer deceptively makes the film look like a slam-bang action fest, but even there you can get a glimpse of Naranjo's beautiful hand-held widescreen tracking shots, which maintain a closeup-based visual plan while giving equal attention to the city and beachscapes of Acapulco.

Rohmer, Rossellini, etc.

One of the odd things about the blogging life is that interesting material gets buried in comments sections for aging posts. Anyway, Daniel Kasman and I have been writing about possible connections between Rohmer and Rossellini, as well as some abstract ideas about narrative cinema, in the comments to his recent post about Le Rayon Vert. The discussion touches on ideas about storytelling that came up in my post on Lady Chatterley last week.

Monday, July 9, 2007

Pietrangeli Revisited

Now that I've had a chance to refresh my memory of Antonio Pietrangeli's Io la conoscevo bene (I Knew Her Well) at BAM's Friday screening, I'd like to upgrade my formerly tentative recommendation and urge you to catch the director's equally rare La Visita (The Visitor) at BAM on July 26.

The subject matter of Io la conoscevo bene is a bit reminiscent of Chabrol's Les Bonnes Femmes, with the childlike, winsome Stefania Sandrelli bearing all the hardships that Chabrol distributed among his ensemble. Though the material is thoroughly pessimistic, Pietrangeli's filming is ecstatic: each moment of the protagonist's disoriented and disorienting life is a glittering mosaic tile, a graceful movement through a visually inviting space. While the script connects data points and comes up with a descending line, the direction harmonizes the gliding camera with the character's hopefulness and capacity for joy.

I do wish that Pietrangeli had been more willing to capitalize on the essential artiness of his style, that the film had been less overt in pointing us to themes and less determined to fit its heroine's Brownian motion to a story arc. Still, we need to make a place for Pietrangeli in the history of 60s European cinema.

Friday, July 6, 2007

Ivan's Childhood

Ivan's Childhood is built around the contrast between Ivan's idyllic dreams of his pre-war past and his grim wartime existence, and I wondered if maybe this structure would be a problem for Tarkovsky, whose visual style could be said to be all dream all the time. His shots are generally designed to feature some uncanny and beautiful element, while still maintaining the integrity of space and the legibility of the image.

But the effect is in fact quite beautiful. Working in an old-fashioned storytelling mode that he seemed eager to leave behind after this project, Tarkovsky is knowing enough to emphasize the surface divisions between fantasy and reality that make the conceit work, even if he remains committed at a deep level to the fantastic. For Tarkovsky, war is lights falling out of the sky.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Lady Chatterley: Cinema Village and Lincoln Plaza, Now Playing

If you haven't seen Lady Chatterley yet, you should get a move on: it lost two of its five US theaters in its second week. And, to my surprise (because I was so-so on director Pascale Ferran's first two features), it's amazing. In a way, it's got the typical structure of a character-based movie, in which a character begins at state of mind A and winds up at state of mind B after experiencing a series of events. And it's also got the typical M.O. that accompanies that structure, where the audience is expected to project its direct experience of those events onto the character, as an aid to understanding how the character might plausibly change. What's not typical is that the events are sex scenes, and that the sex scenes are paced and graded accordingly, as if they were the battle scenes in a war movie or the heist scenes in a caper movie. The film's 168 minutes go by quickly, thanks to what I think of as the Rio Bravo principle of construction: the running time is covered by only a few scenes, each of which is concise in conception but contains a number of small elaborations that protract the scene without losing narrative focus.

Lady Chatterley is an idealized vision of sex so good that it transforms life, and it could easily have insulted our intelligence. But Ferran's depiction of sex is remarkably devoid of prurience, and it's exciting to see characters who are at the same time shy about carnal matters and yet direct in their expression of desire. And Marina Hands gives one of those astonishing performances that are so ingenuous that one can't imagine the actor apart from the character.

Monday, July 2, 2007

Traces of Love (Gaeulro)

Once in a while I see a film and think, "Boy, I wish there was a functioning auteurist movement these days, because here's a film that could use that perspective." The last time I thought this was yesterday, at the New York Asian Film Festival at the IFC Center, apropos the Korean tearjerker Traces of Love. Perhaps the auteurist connection is in my mind because contemporary Korean tearjerkers bear considerable resemblance to the ones that Hollywood used to turn out in the 50s, right down to the liberal use of classical piano music.

The title Traces of Love is for English-language audiences; the Korean title is Gaeulro, which, I read, translates roughly as Towards Autumn. The director is Kim Dae-Seung, whose bizarre but interesting Bungee Jumping of Their Own caught my attention a few years back. (I missed Kim's second film, the historical drama Blood Rain, which played at last year's Asian Film Fest.) Somehow the wacky aspect of Bungee Jumping had obscured its style in my memory, and I wasn't expecting much out of Traces of Love. But Kim must now be taken seriously.

Traces of Love is a poor title, because the love that is cruelly extinguished in the film's first act lives on, not in trace quantities, but as a tidal wave that overwhelms all other psychic activity in the present. (Whereas the film does indeed contain a lot of autumn scenery.) There is nothing restrained about the film's sentiment: the characters exist only as vehicles of their passion; all other components of their psychology are excluded from consideration. The unthoughtful and maudlin aspects of the melodrama are real, not just apparent. That's why Traces needs auteurist support.

If Kim's limitations are obvious, so are his virtues. Traces of Love is visually stunning from beginning to end: not just when it photographs its characters against the vistas of the scenic island that is the film's capital, but even when one of them descends a flight of stairs in an urban walkway or crosses a cafeteria. Inseparable from the serenity of the widescreen compositions is Kim's love of stillness, his willingness to suspend the film in lengthy, contemplative passages that simply register the characters walking through air and light, the landscape shifting quietly behind them, a murmur of natural sound the only thing on the soundtrack. What makes Traces more than a stylistic exercise applied to inadequate material is that the eerie calm of the direction envelops the universal sentimentality of love and loss, turning the movie into a strange, heightened vision of afterlife rather than any kind of depiction of everyday psychology.

There are a number of short clips of Traces of Love on YouTube that manage to convey the film's weird and pellucid mood. Unfortunately, the clips cut off the edges of Kim's 2.35:1 compositions. A Korean DVD of the film with English subtitles is available, and is supposed to contain a 2.35:1 widescreen version.


Morocco is my favorite movie, and I've visited it on a regular basis over the last 35 years. When a movie becomes so much a part of one's life, one watches it differently: it becomes a psychic space to explore, and whole viewings might be devoted to coaxing details out of the background, or creating a new schema and seeing how extensively one can apply it. One of the things that makes film buff culture important to me is that many such movies are held in high collective regard, and we all have our own maps to these private worlds that we can access and compare at a moment's notice.

Here are a few new things that occurred to me about Morocco after seeing it on Saturday at MOMA:
  • The extras in the film really take up psychological space: hunching over tables in robes and turbans, fanning themselves silently in sweltering heat, impassive and unknowable. Unlike most extras, they are powerful, heavy, substantial.
  • For a film in which von Sternberg claimed that he tried to avoid any resemblance to reality, Morocco contains a fair amount of plausible detail. We hear characters speak Arabic, French, and Spanish, all languages that are prevalent in Morocco. French is spoken by aristocrats in the film, and Spanish by the peasant women who are the prey of the Legionnaires: I wonder whether this class distinction reflects a real-world stratification, as seems plausible. Many of the Legionnaires are German and speak with a German accent, which Wikipedia tells me is historically accurate. There is at least one piece of music in the film (for the erotic dance in the cafe in the film's penultimate scene) that sounds like European Orientalism, but perhaps this cafe caters to Europeans; one scene previous (Amy Jolly's visit to the hospital), we hear an authentic Arabic song and singer.
  • Many have noted how Sternberg's characters are forever playing idly with objects, with an air of detachment that suggests that their minds are on some abstraction even as their hands make a random connection to the physical. For some reason I had never noticed how this penchant makes one of the most powerful moments in the film: Tom Brown's proposition to Amy in her dressing room, the first of three times when Amy's conscious reservations about Tom blow away like smoke when reality tests her. After the proposition, and before she accepts, Amy hits the rim of the glass in her hands twice, as if testing to see that she is still in the material world.
  • All three lovers are used by love in different ways. Tom's realization that he is in love, his becoming "decent," means to him that he must avoid Amy: his conversion is partial, he still doesn't see himself as a fit partner. Amy is surprised by love again and again: though she acts like a madwoman on several occasions, she cannot get it through her head that she is now powerless. And for la Bessiere, of course, love is neither self-abnegation nor compulsion, but service.