Friday, January 30, 2009

Jacques Doillon: French Institute, February 3 through March 31, 2009

For those of you who are interested in the Jacques Doillon retrospective coming to the French Institute on February 3 (and I hope all of you are), I wrote up a sort of scorecard for the series for the Auteurs' Notebook.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

The House of Mirth

As I watched Gillian Anderson and Eric Stoltz sparring in the early scenes of The House of Mirth, I thought of Josef von Sternberg, because of the way Terence Davies exaggerates social behavior into abstraction. But the resemblance is superficial. Sternberg opens up a big space between the characters and the way they behave, and then fills that space with his own awareness. (I used to resist Susan Sontag's categorization of Sternberg as camp, but now it seems to me fairly accurate, if one allows that camp can be a serious business.) Whereas Davies loves the idea of behavior as ceremony, and fully commits his characters to it. The cross-currents and complexities in their personalities may eventually be revealed (more later about how they are revealed), but in the moment the actors represent a central idea very clearly and very forcefully.

The beauty of the careful compositions and the elaborate decor also seems to express the same emotional commitment to surfaces. A fascinating aspect of Davies' artistic personality is that he is willing to undercut all the sources of his and our pleasure: not just the joys of elegance and the love of ceremony, but also any delight to be had in the catfighting power struggles that organize the fiction. Some filmmakers might take a compensating spiritual pleasure in Lily Bart's hardwon but Pyrrhic moral discipline as she approaches her destiny - Davies takes none. Thus the remarkable bleakness in Davies' work: beyond the beautifully dressed women and the opera music, there is only absence and death. Perhaps there is a masochism at work here to make Sternberg's look trifling by comparison.

There is an elaborate psychological schema at work in this movie. Lily is not merely bushwhacked by predatory society: she is deeply complicit in her own downfall, reacting so violently against the part of her that desires social position that she destroys her own ability to cope and survive. This theme is present everywhere in the narrative; it does not require inference. The interesting thing is that this psychology barely manifests in Gillian Anderson's performance: Davies wants from her a tragic and ceremonial demeanor, not tipoffs. It's actually quite hard to tell whether there is a disconnect between the material and Davies' directorial sensibility, or whether Davies rigged the story to express the psychology (he did adapt Edith Wharton's novel, after all) and then suppressed that same psychology on the set.

In many writer-directors, one feels that the writing and the directing are of a piece, that they are aspects of the same process. Davies may be a test case for another paradigm, according to which the roles of writing and directing would be separated, and even opposed.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

2008 Lists (Long Version)

Okay, I'm getting tired of tracking down 2008 releases - it's time to move on. So here's my wrap-up of films that received their first one-week theatrical run in New York during 2008. (I exclude films that were made too long ago to feel contemporary.)

The ten-best list that I published at the Auteurs' Notebook needs modification, because I saw Silent Light a second time and got more excited about it. And also because I guess I'll stop my list at nine.

1. The Tracey Fragments (Bruce McDonald)
2. Silent Light (Carlos Reygadas)
3. Ballast (Lance Hammer)
4. Still Life (Jia Zhang-Ke)
5. Une vieille maîtresse (The Last Mistress) (Catherine Breillat)
6. Nights and Weekends (Joe Swanberg and Greta Gerwig)
7. Woman on the Beach (Hong Sang-soo)
8. Before I Forget (Jacques Nolot)
9. The Wackness (Jonathan Levine)

Any film on this list of honorable mentions (in alphabetical order) could fill the tenth slot: Beaufort (Joseph Cedar), Entre les murs (The Class) (Laurent Cantet), In the City of Sylvia (José Luis Guerín), Leatherheads (George Clooney), Opera Jawa (Garin Nugroho), Paraguayan Hammock (Paz Encina), Poor Boy's Game (Clement Virgo), Stuff and Dough (Cristi Puiu).

Films with a lot going for them: Alexandra (Alexander Sokurov), Burn After Reading (Joel Coen & Ethan Coen), Ne touchez pas la hache (The Duchess of Langeais) (Jacques Rivette), The Edge of Heaven (Fatih Akin), Encounters at the End of the World (Werner Herzog), Good Dick (Marianna Palka), Hamlet 2 (Andrew Fleming), Milk (Gus Van Sant), My Brother Is an Only Child (Daniele Luchetti), Romance of Astree and Celadon (Eric Rohmer), Shotgun Stories (Jeff Nichols), The Silence Before Bach (Pere Portabella), Son of Rambow (Garth Jennings), Summer Palace (Lou Ye), Take Out (Sean Baker & Tsou Shih-ching), Waltz With Bashir (Ari Folman), (Naissance des pieuvres) Water Lilies (Céline Sciamma).

Films with something going for them: Alice's House (Chico Teixeira), Appaloosa (Ed Harris), Be Kind Rewind (Michel Gondry), Beauty in Trouble (Jan Hrebejk), Brick Lane (Sarah Gavron), Canary (Akihiko Shiota), The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (David Fincher), Elite Squad (Jose Padilha), Flight of the Red Balloon (Hou Hsiao-hsien), Four Christmases (Seth Gordon), 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (Cristian Mungiu), A Girl Cut in Two (Claude Chabrol), Happy-Go-Lucky (Mike Leigh), La Question humaine (Heartbeat Detector) (Nicolas Klotz), I Served the King of England (Jiri Menzel), Let the Right One In (Tomas Alfredson), Love Songs (Christophe Honoré), The Man From London (Bela Tarr), Mukhsin (Yasmin Ahmad), My Blueberry Nights (Wong Kar Wai), My Winnipeg (Guy Maddin), Paranoid Park (Gus Van Sant), The Pleasure of Being Robbed (Joshua Safdie), Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind (John Gianvito), Reprise (Joachim Trier), Roman de gare (Claude Lelouch), Slingshot (Brillante Mendoza), Standard Operating Procedure (Errol Morris), Stuck (Stuart Gordon), Warsaw Bridge (Pere Portabella), Wendy and Lucy (Kelly Reichardt), Wonderful Town (Aditya Assarat), Yes Man (Peyton Reed).

Films that some people liked but I couldn't get into: Baghead (Jay Duplass & Mark Duplass), Che Part I (Steven Soderbergh), A Christmas Tale (Arnaud Desplechin), Frownland (Ronald Bronstein), Diary of the Dead (George A. Romero), I've Loved You So Long (Philippe Claudel), JCVD (Mabrouk El Mechri), Jellyfish (Shira Geffen & Etgar Keret), La France (Serge Bozon), Liberty Kid (Ilya Chaiken), Married Life (Ira Sachs), Mary (Abel Ferrara), Momma's Man (Azazel Jacobs), My Father, My Lord (David Volach), Noise (Henry Bean), Of Time and the City (Terence Davies), The Other Half (Liang Ying), The Pool (Chris Smith), Rachel Getting Married (Jonathan Demme), La Graine et le mulet (The Secret of the Grain) (Abdellatif Kechiche), Snow Angels (David Gordon Green), Synecdoche, New York (Charlie Kaufman), Taking Father Home (Liang Ying), Tehilim (Raphael Nadjari), Times and Winds (Reha Erdem), WALL*E (Andrew Stanton), The Wedding Director (Marco Bellocchio), The Wrestler (Darren Aronofsky), XXY (Lucía Puenzo), Yella (Christian Petzold).

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Stellet Licht: Film Forum, through January 20, 2008

Amid the first wave of response to Carlos Reygadas's remarkable Stellet licht (Silent Light), I seem to have been primarily interested in structural issues when I wrote about the film in my 2007 Toronto wrap-up in Senses of Cinema:

"Mexican director Carlos Reygadas' Stellet licht (Silent Light) is one of the acclaimed Cannes titles that has already received extensive coverage - and yet commentators have had difficulty finding a conceptual framework to integrate such hot-button aspects as its conspicuous borrowings from Dreyer's Ordet (1955), not to mention the seemingly self-sufficient virtuoso tableaux that begin and end the film. It's becoming increasingly clear that Reygadas skews more postmodernist than modernist, and perhaps his suggestions of a unified aesthetic enterprise (like the clock that is stopped early in the film and started again after the climax) are red herrings. The extraordinary physicality of his camera style, and his fascination with large-scale systems (natural, organic and mechanical), serve largely to defamiliarize the world; and his visuals can be seen as an attempt to remove camera movements and compositions from their traditional interpretive role, and to invest them with a weight and a physics that renders them autonomous."

After a second, exciting viewing at Film Forum last week (and after a year to get over the shock of Reygadas's nervy appropriation of the Ordet ending), I am less inclined to regard the "autonomy" of Reygadas's images as an aid to postmodernism, and more inclined to regard it as a stylistic end in itself. No matter how structured or unstructured a story he might work with, the impact of his cinema will always reside at the level of the image, of the moment. For some filmmakers, one would need to show an entire movie to provide evidence of their greatness; for others, a scene or a stretch of dialogue; for others, a juxtaposition of elements. For Reygadas, a single image, almost any image, will do. The power of his films does not have to accumulate.

If, as I wrote in Senses of Cinema, Reygadas uses shot duration and editing to ensure that his images are not the servants of the narrative, this can probably be attributed to an instinct for purification. Having attained an exceptional imagistic power, Reygadas prefers to simplify around this power in order to showcase it, rather than to complicate it by an accrual of effects and purposes. As a result, even when a cut in his films is noteworthy, the individual shots on either side of the cut have a sufficient existence of their own; editing in Reygadas does not create sequences that are more than the sum of their shots.

What's going on in these self-sufficient shots?

  • Unlike many contemplative directors, Reygadas likes short lenses. When he films a thing – a person, or an animal, or a piece of machinery; the same effect obtains in all cases – he gets the slight but palpable effect of space bending around the thing, as if the thing exerts a gravitational force that appropriates the image.

  • Reygadas cares about placing the thing within the visual context of the world: the landscape or the background is almost always clearly depicted in the shot. But the dominance of the foreground thing in the composition is increased by the short lens.
  • The stature of the foreground things is often given an added monumental quality by camera angles, both upwards and downwards.
  • Having given such weight and physicality to the foreground thing, Reygadas then sustains the shot longer than needed to convey information. Often he suspends the movie in a contemplation of the thing, without other compelling narrative interest. He conveys powerfully the feeling that every object he films merits solemn consideration.
For me, the power of Stellet licht isn't necessarily a function of how engaging the story is, despite Reygadas having swiped one of the most compelling story resolutions in the cinema. One of my favorite scenes in the film is almost abstract: an extended sequence of the family's children bathing in a swimming pool, with only a small connection to the story established near the end of the scene. The contrast between the children's easy improvisation and their imposing, otherworldly mass in the frame is uncanny.

Reygadas doesn't take much from Ordet except for the ending. Interestingly, the story of Kaj Munk's play and Dreyer's film is essentially about faith, whereas Reygadas's story is essentially about love and commitment. The ending of Ordet is more of a piece with themes established earlier; the ending of Stellet licht is a more of a radical transformation of the story that went before.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Assorted Screenings in NYC: January 2009

While NYC film buffs await the French Institute's Jacques Doillon retrospective in February and March, they can distract themselves with a few interesting items on the January special screenings circuit.

1. The four-film Teuvo Tulio retrospective that played BAM in November is moving over to Anthology Film Archives in mid-January. And this time I know which ones to recommend: The Song of the Scarlet Flower (Thursday, January 15 at 6:45 pm; Saturday, January 17 at 2:45 pm, and Sunday, January 18 at 8:30 pm) and The Way You Wanted Me (Friday, January 16 at 7:15 pm, Saturday, January 17 at 7:15 pm, and Sunday, January 18 at 4 pm). Scarlet Flower, which I wrote about in November, is my favorite, and the only one that could be described as arty; The Way You Wanted Me is closer to straight melodrama.

2. Terence Davies gets a short retro at MOMA in mid-January. (The showtimes that were first posted on the MOMA web site have been changed – check the site or the calendar for the new times.) I'm always up for another chance to see the wonderful The House of Mirth (Friday, January 16 at 7 pm and Saturday, January 17 at 4:30 pm) and Davies' grim trilogy of early short films (Thursday, January 15 at 6 pm and Saturday, January 17 at 2 pm).

3. The Global Lens series, at MOMA in the second half of January, seems to me to be mainstreaming a bit in recent years, which is a shame. But I'm still planning to investigate a few titles, and at least one of the films, Sandra Kogut's Mutum (Saturday, January 17 at 4 pm and Friday, January 30 at 8 pm), is terrific. I wrote about Mutum in my 2007 Toronto wrap-up for Senses of Cinema:

"Another assured work from the Directors' Fortnight, Sandra Kogut's Mutum is an adaptation of a classic Brazilian novel by João Guimarães Rosa about the life of a poor family in an obscure rural area, and particularly about the lively, inquiring consciousness of one of the family's male children (Thiago da Silva Mariz). Kogut has a flair for evoking the natural environment, and Mutum grabs attention with its compelling visual and aural depiction of quiet sunlit afternoons and violent rainstorms, gently contrasted with cuts across time. But even more striking than her sensitivity to ambience is Kogut's remarkable achievement in leading a group of non-actors to a simple, full-bodied acting style that shows no sign of either camera-consciousness or staginess: a far cry from the just-say-the-line-and-stand-there approach favored by art filmmakers in the post-Bresson era. Always considered somewhat peculiar by his own family, the young protagonist's real issues are illuminated only at story's end, in a beautiful sequence that plays to Kogut's strengths as a filmmaker of the senses."

4. I imagine that readers of this blog do not need to be urged to attend Anthology's Stahl/Sirk series on January 28-February 1. Stahl's When Tomorrow Comes (Wednesday, January 28 at 7 pm and Saturday, January 31 at 4:30 pm), the best film in the series for my money, is incredibly rare – as far as I know it hasn't even shown on TV in America since the 80s. (I wrote about it a few months back.) Sirk's remake Interlude is quite rare also, but my recollection is that it's far from his best. The two versions of Imitation of Life in the series are generally thought to be superior to the corresponding versions of Magnificent Obsession, which is really a tough story to put over. But I'm going to see everything.

5. I always have a hard time convincing people that Larry Clark is a major director, and I used to assume it was because everyone thinks he's a dirty old man. But Clark's artier provocations Kids and Ken Park have at least some critical following, whereas his superb genre films Another Day in Paradise and Bully are pretty much ignored in the US. Maybe Clark's deromanticized, participatory egalitarianism bores people more than his unabashed interest in sex offends them. Anyway, Another Day in Paradise plays the Walter Reade on Saturday, January 31 at 9:15 pm and Wednesday, February 4 at 3:45 pm as part of a "Positif Celebrates American Cinema" series. Apparently a longer European version of the film will screen.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Naruse films on French Television

During the life-changing Mikio Naruse retrospective at Film Forum in October-November 2005, I started the Google group NaruseRetro, where a group of regulars compared notes on the series as it unspooled. NaruseRetro has been mostly inactive since then, but Michael Kerpan and I organized the writings as best we could for easy access by film title, and over the years I continue to post all my Naruse-related thoughts there.

In 2008, the French cable network Ciné Cinéma Classic screened a number of previously rare Naruse films, with French subtitles newly created for the occasion. Copies of four of the films are floating around the cinephile community, and I can read French subtitles well enough. I've posted short reviews of Whistling in Kotan (1959), Evening Stream (1960), As a Wife, As a Woman (aka The Other Woman) (1961), and A Woman's Story (1963) at NaruseRetro.