Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Návrat idiota (Return of the Idiot): Walter Reade, October 24 and 27, 2009

No sooner do I discover my all-time favorite Czech director than I learn that he's dropped out of sight. Does anyone know where Saša Gedeon has been keeping himself for the last ten years? He was just 24 when his wonderful short feature Indiánské léto (Indian Summer), an adaptation of Fitzgerald's short story Bernice Bobs Her Hair, was released to national acclaim. He followed in 1999 with the Dostoyevsky adaptation Návrat idiota (Return of the Idiot), which confirmed his star status in the Czech Republic, and even made its way to A-list festivals. Since then, nothing, except for a short segment in the 2004 omnibus film Visions of Europe. He turned 39 this August.

I hope some of you will visit Návrat idiota when it plays the Walter Reade on Saturday, October 24 at 8 pm and Tuesday, October 27 at 4 pm in the "Ironic Curtain" program of recent Czech cinema. In a sense, Gedeon continues the tradition of 60s Czech comedy, with its focus on the inarticulate eccentricity of its characters. But he has an immense gravity that moves his films away from outright comedy and toward a tone of revery and melancholy. Návrat idiota stays close to Dostoyevsky's paradoxical view of human nature, and Gedeon's excellent script maintains the mystery and dignity of a large cast of characters who circle the eponymous, naive hero (Pavel Liška). This is a major work from a director who should be much better known outside the Czech Republic.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Bam gua nat (Night and Day): Anthology Film Archives, October 23-29, 2009

My favorite film of the last two years, Hong Sang-soo's Bam gua nat (Night and Day), is getting a one-week run at Anthology Film Archives, starting this Friday, October 23. It screens each day at 6:30 pm and 9:15 pm, with added Saturday and Sunday screenings at 3:30 pm.

I noted in my previous blog entry on Bam gua nat that Hong had restrained in this film his usual impulse toward narrative doubling, and adopted a more conventional narrative structure. The spine of the story resembles that of Rohmer films like Le genou de Claire (Claire's Knee): protagonist Sung-nam (Kim Yeong-ho) is emotionally committed to his life with his wife Sung-in (Hwang Su-jeong), who is primarily a telephone presence in the film, thanks to Sung-nam's temporary exile in Paris for fear of drug charges. The main focus of the film, however, is Sung-nam's transitory emotional life in Paris, and particularly his intense, dubious passion for young artist Yu-jeong (Park Eun-hye). Therefore the story creates a tension between what matters most to the protagonist (his married life in Korea) and what matters most to the audience (the Parisian interlude which is developed in detail for us). Somewhat surprisingly, Hong diligently follows the narrative rules of this format: the phone calls to Sung-in occur at regular intervals, and give us enough information that we should be able to predict Sung-nam's behavior at the film's climax. Hong also develops the theme of life in exile with regularly spaced observations about cultural differences between Korea and France, and about Sung-nam's reactions to the life choices that face an expatriate. It's odd that Hong should take up an almost literary organization of his material at this stage of his career.

Hong's approach to generating content is much the same as in his earlier films, but the surprises and disjunctions that he loves take on a slightly different contextual meaning here: they are subsumed in Sung-nam's story and reflect the vicissitudes of his inner life, whereas often in earlier films Hong's formal play is from an authorial stance, a manipulation of story lines rather than an acceptance of their confines. As usual, Hong's raw material is so freeform and arbitrary that we suspect that he took the events directly from real life. What's most unusual about the almost random flow of quotidian occurrences is that Hong coaxes out the latent narrativity in each scene, and presents each event with the emphasis usually given to plot points, even though most of these storytelling seeds will fall on barren ground and have no narrative consequences. There's skill involved in balancing the presentation of these micro-events, which can be construed either as bits of characterization or as red herrings in a surrealist mode. For instance, when Sung-nam picks up a Bible after hearing a stranger talk about its life-changing properties, we are getting a droll glimpse of Sung-nam's thought processes, half-inquisitive and half-superstitious; and we are also getting a potential story development. In this particular case, Hong's emphasis on the Bible is mostly red herring: all Sung-nam does with his experience is to use it to strengthen an excuse not to have sex with his former lover Min-sun (Kim Yu-jin). But Hong will generate many such emphases over the course of the film. Some will go nowhere at all (like Sung-nam taking up tai chi); some will develop large-scale story momentum (like Yu-jeong's exaggerated fear of people plagiarizing her art work). All these small but weighty developments harmonize with or reveal the characters' psychology: Hong is a psychologically accountable director. None of the developments, perhaps, affect the narrative deeply enough to change the film's outcome. If we take a long enough view, all these portentous events can be said to be red herrings, and Hong can be placed in a surrealist tradition.

This ambiguity – are the disjunctions merely a reflection of the disorder of real life, or are they sabotage of good storytelling practice? – is at the heart of Hong's style. If he were not a faithful recorder of the messiness of human behavior, his rather hostile play with form might not be very interesting; if he didn't use narrative tricks to create absurd story shapes, his insights into people might be less compelling.

NYFF/Toronto Podcast

John Lichman and Vadim Rizov invited me to participate in a podcast about the Toronto and New York film festivals for's movie blog. Among the most discussed films are Tsai Ming-liang's Visage (Face), Bruno Dumont's Hadewijch, and Jacques Rivette's 36 vues du Pic Saint Loup (Around a Small Mountain).

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Chelsea on the Rocks: Cinema Village, Now Playing

A very pleasant surprise. Abel Ferrara's documentary on the Hotel Chelsea is an inside job, as the director is a former resident, and clearly upset with the hotel's slow transformation from an artists' asylum to a more conventional for-profit business. His interviewees, ranging from famous figures to bohemian characters, add up to a pleasing picture of a New York subculture that is thinned by time but still going about its business and hanging on to its 400 square feet. What's wonderful about the film is how unerring are Ferrara's instincts for how he should insert himself into this tapestry. No invisible interviewer, he irrupts into conversations from the other side of the camera with opinions and obscenities, probably much as he would under any circumstances. Eventually he shows up in the frame, playing a song in Dan's Guitars or delightedly showing a crew member the secret passageway from El Quijote to the Chelsea lobby. Yet there is no sense of Ferrara stealing the show: he is more than generous to the parade of aging hipsters on display, and has a witty way of balancing his sense of showmanship with his pleasure in revealing the filmmaking mechanism. Though former Chelsea proprietor Stanley Bard is the hero of the film, Ferrara does not cut away from the residents' occasional negative reminiscences of him; nor does he excise his own weird outburst at one point. Beneath Ferrara's persona of filmmaker-as-curmudgeon is a powerful and by no means simplistic attitude toward how to be a filter and how to be a mirror. Chelsea on the Rocks is currently at the Cinema Village, with shows daily at 5:20 pm and 9:55 pm.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Al Momia (The Night of Counting the Years): Walter Reade, Friday, October 9, 2009

A fixture on lists of the greatest Arabic films, rarely screened in the US, Al Momia (1969; released here in 1975 with the lovely title The Night of Counting the Years) is the only completed feature film by one Shadi Abdel Salam, who had previously served as an art director and costume designer in the Egyptian film industry. Set in the 1880s, the film is based on the real-life story of a Egyptian rural community who survive by raiding ancient tombs and selling the antiquities to foreign black-marketeers. Roberto Rossellini, who employed Abdel Salam as set designer for his Mankind's Fight for Survival TV series, is said to have helped the director find backing for the film; but its contained compositions, striking use of shadow and light, and stylized performance style (the actors are obliged to use classical Arabic) place Abdel Salam more in the tradition of Murnau. If you can't make it out to the Walter Reade for Al Momia's screening this Friday, October 9 at 6:15 pm, you can find English-subtitled versions of the film on Google Video (parts one and two) and at the Internet Archive.

Life During Wartime: New York Film Festival, October 10 and 11, 2009

I'll be writing about a number of Fall 2009 films in my Toronto wrap-up for Senses of Cinema, so I don't want to scoop myself. But, if you've ever liked Todd Solondz (that should weed a few of you out), catch his new film Life During Wartime (a sequel to Solondz's 1998 Happiness) at Alice Tully Hall on Saturday, October 10 at 9 pm or Sunday, October 11 at 11 am. It's my favorite among the New York Film Festival slate so far.