Friday, October 31, 2008

Off Camera Aftermath

Here are a few links to me-related articles that appeared during or after the Off Camera Independent Film Festival.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Good Dick: Sunshine Cinema, Now Playing

I met Marianna Palka at the Off Camera festival in Kraków, where both our movies were screening; but I didn't see her Good Dick until it opened in NYC on October 17 at the Sunshine Cinema. I told Marianna I'd write her with my reactions - but, instead of clicking the send button, I decided it would do no harm to post the email here.

Cześć, Marianna! (I miss Kraków in the worst way.) As promised, here are my reactions to Good Dick; sorry I didn't write earlier, but I imagine you've had enough business to attend to this week.

I enjoyed your film quite a bit. I appreciate films that move into sexual areas that we still find uncomfortable, and still relate the sex to our public, everyday selves. (I'm not talking about the abuse theme, which I think audiences actually know how to relate to; but rather the casual use of sex language and gesture in a mundane, non-eroticized context.) And I like the sense of mystery in the writing, the willingness to bring up material that is never developed, that points to a fuller world outside the world of the movie. One example I really liked is the brief argument about whether the boy is interested in the girl's money: it's resonant and could have been exploited further, but I like it better because it's shown as just one more defense mechanism. Likewise, it's cool that you don't return to the subject of the boy's past drug habits: most filmmakers couldn't have resisted.

I have one reservation about the film, which is more a question at this point than a hardened reservation. I felt as if there were two different emotional currents in the film, two different ways of orienting ourselves to the sexual subject matter. I actually liked both currents - there wasn't any point in the film where I wasn't enjoyably engaged - but I'm not sure whether the two currents work together smoothly.

One current is a contemplation of the mystery of the way sex expresses itself in the characters' personalities. This current easily lends itself to comedy, and in fact a lot of the pleasure that the film gives is in the comedy-tinged strangeness of your character's presentation: she seems so unknowable at times that we throw our hands up. One aspect of this current is that it easily generalizes to a view of the human condition in general: after a while we begin to see ways that we are like the character instead of different from her, and our comic reaction to her is connected to an acknowledgment that all sexual expression is mysterious and potentially disorienting. Another aspect of this current is that it is easy to turn the same light on Josh Ritter's character. His dogged persistence in trying to overcome the girl's extreme reluctance is so unusual that it seems a little pathological; and his love leads him to an unusually passive and subordinate sexual mindset (or perhaps is the result of such a mindset). And of course we note his junkie past, his homelessness, his dysfunctional secrecy among his group of friends. Your character is not the only damaged one in that relationship.

The other current is a therapeutic one, in which the character's sexual difficulties are seen as the result of trauma. The motion of the film in this current is the characters summoning the strength to confront their problems and arriving at a healthier (and presumably less sexually complicated) place. I found the scenes in the last part of the film quite moving: the big confrontation of your character with her father has an admirable compression that is the result of your using tiny details to suggest major emotional themes that could have taken up big chunks of another movie. And the lovers' reunion on Santa Monica Blvd., with its simplicity and lack of demonstration, gets its power, not from big emotionality, but simply from having no precedent in the couple's previous relations.

Still, I haven't recomciled the two currents completely. The pleasure I get from seeing the couple's sexual problems as representative of the human condition, and in a half-comic light, is hard for me to square with the pleasure in seeing those problems as an illness to be healed. And the therapeutic current also focuses pretty much entirely on your character, which left me with questions about whether the boy needed a bit of healing as well. Will he like the girl as much if she sheds some of her psychological symptoms?

I hope my admiration for your film comes across despite my having framed this discussion in terms of these questions. Have you ever seen Hitchcock's Marnie? It's the closest film I can think of to yours, in terms of theme and character structure.

Trzymaj się!
Dan Sallitt

Friday, October 17, 2008

Bam gua nat (Night and Day)

I’m not quite ready to write anything substantial about this wonderful film, but I’d like to get the word out, even though I don’t believe it has an American distributor yet. Hong Sang-soo is the kind of director who, though generally lionized by the critical community, is in danger of being neglected on a film-by-film basis, because none of his films is so different from the others as to constitute an event. This is a risky game for a critic’s director: after two or three “Ho, hum, another excellent Hong film” reviews, the critic feels an irresistible impulse to change the pace with “Lacking Hong’s usual inspiration” or “Stuck in a rut.”

I think that Night and Day is Hong’s best film, and I’m worried that no one is going to notice. There’s been a quiet style shift in Hong’s recent career, and I think the new forms are coming together into something special.

I haven’t revisited many of Hong’s films: I’m looking forward to watching everything again in chronological order when the first Hong retrospective arrives. If my memory is accurate, Hong’s first five works rely largely on a stationary frame, within which events play out without much response from the camera; pans in these films are generally used to reframe the actors. This objective camera posture lent itself to a kind of droll humor: the form of the film was not altered by the characters’ eccentricities and absurdities. This deadpan camera style is not Hong’s alone, of course, and it is not the only sign of his directorial presence, or even the most prominent. At the risk of being fanciful, sometimes it seemed to me that the proliferation of twinned plot threads in Hong’s films, the undercutting of the narrative’s authority by refusing to clarify the relationship between the alternate stories, was a mischievous, surrealist rebellion against the simplicity of the camera’s gaze and the implicit pretense of objectivity.

In A Tale of Cinema, Hong began playing with the zoom lens; the effect seemed odd at first, at odds with the Asian master-shot style that Hong had more or less signed up for. Woman on the Beach continued the zoom experimentation, and its story was less bifurcated than usual for Hong. In Night and Day, Hong takes the zooming one step further, combining it with an interest in mobile pans. Far from simple reframes, the pans and zooms are frequently wedded to a look or an expression of interest on the part of the characters. Hong’s camera suddenly seems strangely liberated and curious, freely taking up the characters’ concerns, which are, as usual for Hong, often slight and transitory, not strongly tied to the spine of the story. The effect is partly subjective and partly objective: the camera briefly follows a character’s gaze (or, more accurately, mimics it) then returns to its pedestrian duties. Because the pans and zooms are usually motivated by the characters, they lack the didactic qualities of Rossellini’s camera play or the gravity of Rohmer’s, and instead have a lightness that easily turns comic.

Night and Day sticks more or less to a single story line, and I feel a connection between Hong’s move away from narrative doubling and his adoption of a looser camera style. It’s almost as if Hong has been feeling the need for a tool that would let him dart in and out of objectivity, and, having found it, no longer needs to use dynamite to destroy classical narrative. (I’m using strong metaphors – but there’s something weirdly unsettling about twinning a narrative, about using “two” where most people use “three or more.” I registered this penchant of Hong’s as a kind of violence.) Now that Hong is goofing on a single narrative line rather than multiplying narratives, his surrealist qualities become more apparent, and the storytelling wanders into blind alleys and generates red herrings with a distinct sense of the absurd. For the first time, I noted a Buñuelian cast to Hong’s humor. And the film’s biggest narrative trick, the rather upsetting, out-of-the blue digression that sets up the ending, makes the comparison to Buñuel unavoidable, not only in the drollness of the exploit, but also in its unusual brutality that the film only pretends to make a joke of.

The reason that I don’t feel ready to do a good analysis of Night and Day is that so much of what makes it exciting has to do with Hong’s choice of material. His inspired digressions deserve to be considered in terms of their content as well as their storytelling function. Just as an example: there’s an amazing scene where the film’s protagonist, a writer, is blocked from walking down a Paris street by two pretty young production assistants with walkie-talkies who are guarding the perimeter of a film shoot. As the protagonist waits, the attention of the threesome is drawn to something on the ground near them, which turns out to be a baby bird, fallen from its nest. Still having the same slight difficulty communicating in French as when they negotiated for use of the street, the PA’s and the writer pick up the baby bird, comfort it, spot its home, contemplate options. The PA’s were not exactly hostile to the writer when they were blocking his way, and they are not exactly his friends when they join forces with him to help the bird – there is only the slightest movement across the line that separates people in public spaces. The scene ends before the baby bird is restored or friendships are formed. Though the protagonist’s general interest in women is a motif, nothing that occurs before or after this scene relates to it. Who else would dream up such an interlude?

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Nights and Weekends: IFC Center, through October 16, 2008

The first think I noticed about Joe Swanberg and Greta Gerwig’s excellent Nights and Weekends is that the ups and downs of the central romantic relationship are presented to the viewer in a somewhat jumbled fashion, and certainly not in an order that illustrates the trajectory of the relationship. After an opening scene full of ambiguous signs – long-distance lovers Mattie (Gerwig) and James (Swanberg) pull each other’s clothes off just inside James’s doorway, but their sexual hunger is qualified by a dozen small practical difficulties that make the coupling anything but zipless – the lovers quickly devolve into a period of edgy quarrelling that acquires a threatening momentum, and then subside into gentleness and affection near the end of Mattie's visit.

I once compared Swanberg's style in Hannah Takes the Stairs to Pialat’s, and we see again in Nights and Weekends the same Pialat-like storytelling gaps and sense of entropy. But Swanberg/Gerwig are much more centered on characterization than Pialat, and the structural gaps in their films are largely generated by their concern with the problem of the actor. Pialat, less drawn to the inner life of his people, has to range more widely to find elements to disrupt the filmmaking process and create the illusion of randomness that both filmmakers arrive at.

By “the problem of the actor,” I refer to an intrinsic paradox in the filmmaking process that all filmmakers must confront in one way or another: films are planned to a greater or lesser extent, and tend to arrive at a state that was foreseen by the filmmaker; and yet actors characteristically conceive of their role in terms of open-ended exploration, and are hindered by having to arrive at a predetermined destination.

We tend not to think of films like Nights and Weekends as actor-centric, because they are part of a wider trend in independent filmmaking to make films with non-professional actors, and to create circumstances in which amateur performances can be effective. Nonetheless, I’m having trouble thinking of any other film where the reactions of the actors to each other are so much the substance of the fiction, where we can see so plainly the actors processing information that they have received from each other. To some extent at least, the unusual front-loading of Mattie and James’ relationship crisis seems to emanate from the actors, who for whatever reason have crisis on their minds and keep steering each other into treacherous waters. The sense of discontinuity in Swanberg/Gerwig’s films comes not only from actual elisions in the story (which are not particularly radical), but also from the way the peaks and valleys of the actors’ interaction fall across the elisions in unexpected ways.

Swanberg/Gerwig’s acting improvisation is striking in the extent to which it evokes intelligence rather than awkwardness. They seem to want to stand clear of a common strategy (used heavily by Andrew Bujalski, to choose a familiar point of comparison) in which the awkwardness of actors working without a script is intended to simulate awkwardness between the characters. Because the actors here are very intelligent people, and no doubt because of careful editing room choices as well, the improvised dialogue in Nights and Weekends creates an unusual sense of awareness and responsiveness between the characters. It’s a pleasure to see a contemporary movie where improvisation is a challenge to the filmmakers to create more complex characters, rather than a way to finesse the need for acting chops.

After the contrapuntal emotional rhythms of its first half, Nights and Weekends charts a more emotionally steady course in its second half, which jumps a year to show Mattie and James in post-relationship mode, making tentative connections again during an impromptu, casual reunion. Here the film courts danger by becoming much more emotionally direct, with Mattie wearing on her sleeve her sudden, powerful desire for sexual reunion. Still, I found the second half as compelling in its clarity as the first half was compelling in its contradictions. Gerwig the actress is up front and center here, and she is something of a phenomenon. I think that the naturalistic style of the mumblecore movies, and their well-known reliance on amateur performance, makes it difficult for us to grasp that one of the important actors of the moment has emerged from them. Certainly Gerwig’s expressiveness grows from the documentation of a real-life personality, which seems to combine charm and intelligence with a lurking darkness and solitude. But most great cinema acting is based on such documentation. Gerwig’s ability to jump to high levels of emotionality while rooting her performance in mundane detail makes me wonder what she would have been like in the hands of a director of revelation like Cukor or Bergman. Probably not that much different…

Perhaps the clear emotional vectors of the second half are a setup for the movie’s startling climax, which uses sex as a pathway back into the conflicts and contradictions of the unconscious mind. The discomfort of this messy but authentic sexual encounter hangs in the air, casting its shadow on the couple’s stark farewell scene (which gives a final, unexpected flip to the romantic balance of power), and following us out of the theater. Could it be that the ongoing sexual revolution in international cinema isn’t likely to be a source of pleasure to audiences? Here at last we have an American film that portrays sex without indirection or self-censorship, effortlessly connecting it back to our emotional lives, dodging the usual pitfalls of simplification and sentiment, and we don’t seem to know what to do with it.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Frivolous Lists: Poland

In honor of my recent trip to Kraków for the Off Camera Independent Film Festival, here is a list of my favorite Polish films:

1. Iluminacja (Illumination) (Krzysztof Zanussi, 1973)
2. Wojaczek (Lech Majewski, 1999)
3. Matka Joanna od aniolów (Mother Joan of the Angels) (Jerzy Kawalerowicz, 1961)
4. Czlowiek na torze (Man on the Tracks) (Andrzej Munk, 1957)
5. Smierc prezydenta (Death of a President) (Jerzy Kawalerowicz, 1978)
6. Walkower (Walkover) (Jerzy Skolimowski, 1965)
7. Gdy spadaja anioly (When Angels Fall) (Roman Polanski, 1959)
8. Nóz w wodzie (Knife in the Water) (Roman Polanski, 1962)
9. Kung-Fu (Janusz Kijowski, 1979)
10. Przypadek (Blind Chance) (Krzysztof Kieslowski, 1987)

Of course, I haven’t seen a great many celebrated Polish films, classic and recent. I note that some of the directors I mention above did their best work outside of Poland: I’d probably choose Chinatown (1974) over Polanski’s Polish films, Deep End (1970) over Walkower, The Garden of Earthly Delights (2004) over Wojaczek. (However, my minority opinion is that Kieslowski’s early Polish work is superior to his later international productions.)