Friday, October 10, 2014

Jayuui Eondeok (Hill of Freedom), after two viewings

I wish I could find a good discussion group for Hong Sang-soo's Jayuui Eondeok (Hill of Freedom). I've seen the film twice and suspect that there's still a significant amount of resonant detail I haven't seized upon yet.  It's Hong's nature to throw undigested material pell-mell into the crannies of his movies: he's not interested in integrating it into a schema (in fact, the idea would surely repel him), but the impact of his films lies in the wash of dissonance created by this material, a dissonance that belies the light comedy of the films' surface structure.

The first layer of Hill of Freedom is a puzzle, but not a difficult one.  The story of the ill-planned visit to Seoul by Japanese Mori (Ryô Kase) is told via a bundle of letters that he sent to his romantic object Kwon (Seo Young-hwa), who was out of town while Mori was searching for her.  Before she reads the letters, she drops them, assembling them in the wrong order and losing one page.  Thus the story is told with a jumbled chronology that recalls Resnais's Je t'aime, je t'aime.  At film's end, Kwon finishes the letters and finds Mori on the eve of his return to Japan.  Mori's subsequent narration announces a happy ending, with Kwon moving to Japan with him and the couple having two children.

The events of Mori's stay are, typically for Hong, staged as awkward comedy: a series of encounters that are at best failed connections papered over with good will, and at worst open warfare, with the most notable of the encounters being Mori's affair with the friendly waitress Young-sun (Moon So-ri, wonderfully dotty).  We see almost nothing here of Hong's usual device of giving alternate, incompatible versions of the same event.  The only instance of this familiar gambit that I noticed is not very conspicuous: on two occasions, Mori's outings with his landlord's nephew Sang-won (Kim Eui-sung) are narrated in his letters to Kwon with the same language: "Someone took me to..."  There is a bare suggestion in this language that each of these outings might be the first time that Mori and Sang-won went out together, or at least the first time that Mori wrote about it.  Otherwise, however, it seems possible to assemble all Mori's Seoul experiences (including these outings) into a fairly coherent timeline.  On first viewing, I wondered why Hong had abandoned his difficult-to-process penchant for alternate realities and replaced it with the relatively straightforward modernist tactic of jumbled storytelling.

Everything that I've described so far seems to me merely the film's setup.  If this were all we received, Hill of Freedom would be as slight as many reviewers find it.

But the detail that Hong creates underneath the lightly borne surface structure is amorphous and bottomless.  What makes him a great filmmaker is the effortlessness with which he generates this behavioral material: clearly this is a case of the artist living within the act of creation, with no sense of labor in the way he fills his canvas with disorienting details.

Because Hong has no desire to shape this material into a unity, an unordered list of dissonant elements feels like as good an approach as any:

1) The film's happy ending depends on Kwon having recovered her health in the mountains.  She reports having been cured in her conversation with Young-sun at the Hill of Freedom cafe; and Mori repeats this assertion in his closing fairytale narration.  (Both accounts put emphasis on the weird element of the "doctor who is also a preacher" who oversaw Kwon's mountain cure - no other mention of this fellow.)  But Kwon is clearly still sick.  Her fainting spell on the steps of the language center was responsible for the jumbling of the letters; while she is reading the letters at the cafe, she coughs unsettlingly.

2) Mori's affair with Young-sun is not signposted as a transient event or as a substitute for the desired union with Kwon, and therefore unbalances the emotional progression of the story.  Both of Mori and Young-sun's conversations in bed gravitate toward confessions of love and expressions of desire; Mori does experience a "What have I done?" moment after his first night with Young-sun, but this mood seems to have passed by the time of their next meeting.  The affair as a whole feels more like a beginning of a substantial, if questionable, romance than it does like a dalliance.  (The seven or so different scenes chronicling the Mori/Young-sun relationship are particularly easy to reassemble into a timeline, with fairly clear cues to the sequencing.)

2a) And of course the idea that Mori would write about this affair to Kwon, the object of his desire, is very strange, and casts doubt on the extent to which we can regard the body of the film as visualizations of his letters.  In this light, recall that the last-act meeting between Kwon and Young-sun at the cafe plays out without apparent uneasiness or any sign that the two women know they have been drafted into a love triangle.

3) Mori is beset by a mysterious lethargy in Seoul that makes him sleep the days away and suggests a dissolution of character.  The narration refers to his dreams a few times, but, unless I've missed a cue, none of the incident in his Seoul life is clearly marked as being more dreamlike than the rest, or is impossible to piece into a plausible sequence of events.  The image of Mori waking up after the fairytale conclusion of his love story might suggest that the happy ending is a dream; but, given that the subsequent scene fits neatly into an empty slot in the Mori/Young-sun timeline, it's just as likely that Hong is here depicting the content of the letter that Kwon lost on the stairs, or that Hong simply wants to disorient us by resuming the slicing and dicing of the narrative after the temporal juggling is supposed to be over.

4) Though Mori and Young-sun see only progress in their love affair, Hong bizarrely contrives that the final scene of the letter-driven section of the narrative shows Mori accidentally locking himself in Young-sun's bathroom, waiting despondently for help to arrive.  Such moments made me speculate that the film could be Mori's romantic fantasy punctuated by momentary intrusions of the grim reality of his real life, in the manner of Point Blank.

5) The most startling moment in the film is Mori's appearance with a bruised face in the last guest house scene, as Kwon waits in his room for their long-postponed reunion.  The bruise is explained in dialogue - Mori has just had an altercation with Young-sun's boyfriend Gwang-hyeon (Lee Min-woo) - but hangs over the ending as a Buñuelian manifestation of chaos, much like the boar in the window at the end of Night and Day.  Because no other event in the reassembled timeline is as conspicuously absent as this fight, it presents itself as yet another candidate for the content of the lost letter.

In summary, a different film lurks beneath the ragtag fairytale story that we piece together.  And this not-very-hidden under-film speaks to us, obscurely to be sure, of sickness, violence, dissolution, and bad decisions.

Hong is frequently, and I think reasonably, compared to Rohmer, and Mori's sleepiness and its relation to our spectatorship forges an especially strong link between Hill of Freedom and Rohmer's La femme de l'aviateur (The Aviator's Wife).  If one were to synopsize the similarities and differences in the way the two filmmakers use narrative, one might say that Rohmer creates a contrast between his characters' ability to construct clean conceptual frameworks, and the entropic reality that is always too multifarious to support the narratives that the characters create.  Whereas it is Hong himself, not his characters, who sets up the rickety infrastructure of a decipherable world, all the while feeding in a darkness and surrealism that makes modernist art impossible to sustain.

Friday, April 25, 2014

To Have and Have Not

To Have and Have Not feels like the dead center of the Hawksian universe, even more than the other two films that Robin Wood bracketed with it as “the Hawks trilogy,” Only Angels Have Wings and Rio Bravo. Uninflected by either the will to power that seizes control of the Hollywood machinery in Angels or the craftsman’s desire to regain lost prestige with the perfect object of Rio Bravo, To Have and Have Not simply is, much as Bogart simply appears, without provenance, in the film’s elegant first shot. The 1940s were Hawks’ oyster – he had eleven consecutive box-office hits from 1939 to 1951 – and To Have and Have Not was the pearl at the center, a work undertaken in and executed with as much comfort and confidence as an industry director is ever likely to muster.

Which is not to say that the film is beyond reproach. For a masterpiece, it takes an unusual amount of time to hit its stride, as if Hawks needed to put all its elements in place and bang them around a little before getting comfortable enough to use them unselfconsciously. Scavenging in both Hemingway’s source novel and Casablanca, Hawks and his writers Jules Furthman and William Faulkner are obliged to retool the bits and pieces that they salvage in order to fit them into the director’s world view. Rather characteristically for Hawks, the scene that seems most accurately drawn from Hemingway’s novel, in which Harry Morgan (Bogart) takes an unsavory paying customer, Johnson (Walter Sande), on a fishing cruise, isn’t entirely satisfactory: Johnson is too easy to dislike, Morgan gives us too much of the simple pleasure of witty contempt. In general, the film’s establishing scenes rely heavily on the wish-fulfillment of Morgan talking tough to power, with at least one important scene, the interrogation of Morgan and Slim (Lauren Bacall) by Vichy Martinique’s menacing Sûreté, distorted by giving us this pleasure. Perhaps the most interesting problem with the material is Slim’s elephant-in-the room gotta-be prostitution, which is pushed away not only because the times required it, but also because Hawks is more interested in acquiring a hot rebel girl for his band of outsiders than he is in either enforcing or undermining a social norm. On the Casablanca side, the bluntness of Morgan’s refusal to get involved in the Vichy-Free French conflict announces itself as a genre convention and evolves into a wink to the audience, without ever being taken seriously as psychology (“I don’t know…maybe because I like you, maybe because I don’t like them”). The process of adaptation for Hawks often, perhaps always, mandates a breaking-in period, with the author’s vision first imperfectly assimilated, then simply overridden. One detects here a bit of internal conflict between Hawks’ self-image as a Hollywood craftsman whose job is to put an acquired property on screen, and the innate willfulness of an unreconstructed artist.

The most fascinating ambiguity in To Have and Have Not is crystallized when Cricket (Hoagy Carmichael) consoles Slim after Morgan has bid her farewell: “Maybe it's better this way, Slim...You haven't known him very long. He's a funny guy.” The statement is unusual, coming from a friend and ally. Morgan is depicted throughout the film as being outside of society’s jurisdiction, a guy who’s “handled quite a lot of gunshot wounds.” The putative central theme of commitment to The Cause is enacted by Hawks and Bogart as an issue of character extremity rather than moral exigency: a number of sympathetic characters plead with Morgan for his help and are turned away with no social accommodation for friendship, shrugging and shaking their heads. Beyond this, Morgan’s acts of aggression and rebellion against authority could easily be interpreted as a ledger of antisocial behavior, even by the individualist standards of fictional heroism. When Morgan insists that the wounded Free French emissary de Bursac (Walter Molnar) be left lying on the deck of Morgan’s boat (“I don’t want him bleeding over my cushions”), or when he threatens to shoot unarmed Sûreté men (“You’re going to get it anyway” - evoking a protest from his allies), it’s clear that, on some level, the film posits Morgan as trespassing against the inscribed audience’s moral standards.

And yet the case for Morgan as antihero is severely compromised by how consistently Hawks uses the character to fulfill his and our wishes. Morgan’s insolence and rebellion relieves our fear that power will be taken away from our identification figure; and his antisocial instincts are often expressed too wittily and with too much composure for us not to respond favorably. From the beginning, each of Morgan’s potential transgressions is integrated into his appealing sense of power and intelligence, making it difficult for us to claim any distance from him - “He’s a funny guy” may be the only moment where we are invited to contemplate Morgan’s strangeness without sharing in his authority. The inevitable result - that the film itself comes to partake of Morgan’s transgressive spirit - suits Hawks just fine. A rebellion against empathy always bubbles under the surface of his movies, and Morgan’s semi-outlaw status gives Hawks the opportunity to charge To Have and Have Not with the thrill of breaking commandments. Its electrifying climactic image, of Morgan shooting through a wooden table to kill a Sûreté agent, pays us off for the duplicity and hiding that we have had to endure throughout the film, and leads directly to Morgan’s only-theoretically uncomfortable act of torturing the remaining Sûreté men in order to reclaim hostages and gain safe passage. The film’s rush of energy at this casting off of inhibitions (“You're both going to take a beating till someone uses that phone. That means one of you is going to take a beating for nothing”) is a definitive rebuttal to the surface schema of an antisocial figure brought into line with the audience’s values.  

To Have and Have Not has no peer among Hawks’ films in the quantity of its dense, atmospheric settings. Hawks’ way with a studio set is a more diffuse application of the principle that governs his approach to acting: he starts with the attractive artifice of studio recreation, then adds detail and immediacy until the environmental load feels a notch more realistic than the setup. The first images of the film, on the docks of Fort de France, are a fine example: the effect of realism out of artifice is obtained not only with good set design, real water, and clever blocking of extras, but also with the way that Morgan materializes in mid-frame on the fade-in, too busy to give the film time to establish anything. Of course, Hawks always invests heavily in the ambiance of bars and nightclubs: here primarily the hotel club run by Morgan’s pal Frenchy (Marcel Dalio), which first becomes vivid to us as Cricket’s band, the drummer folding his newspaper just in time to come in on brushes, invites Slim to guest on vocals on “Am I Blue,” while Morgan looks on from his table behind a barricade of liquor, coffee and cigarettes. But Hawks has just as much fun with the frenetic drum-driven atmosphere of the crowded little bar where Morgan and Slim stop off to recover their composure after their close call at the hands of the Sûreté. As the plot engages, Hawks strings together imaginative artificial settings with an almost Sternbergian density: the early morning meeting with the remnants of the Free French resistance in a Creole shack, with slanting light through the shades and chickens clucking in the front yard; the tense mission to retrieve the de Bursacs, the relentless hum of the boat motor sustaining the sense of danger in Morgan’s subdued demeanor; the superb bullet-extraction scene, all high-key lighting and surgical process; the morning after the all-nighter, with Slim and Cricket holding the fort in the deserted cafe.

The film’s untrumpable trick is, of course, the legendarily effective love story between Bogart and Bacall. Identifying Slim as an adventuress rather than a prostitute removes the interesting prospect of putting the love alliance definitively outside the bounds of societal acceptance, but Hawks no doubt preferred his time-honored fallback position of erecting a wall of bad reputation between the lovers (“One look and you decided just what you wanted to think about me” - a sentiment reprised in Rio Bravo) and then bringing the wall down with raw sexual attraction. The key Morgan-Slim scenes take place in the enclosures of their shadowy hotel rooms, where even the Production Code seems unable to reach them as they perform mating rituals using a stolen wallet as prop, or linger over the sensuality of Morgan’s all-nighter beard abrading Slim’s cheek. The protracted play between the lovers stretches out the film’s structure daringly, with the two ping-ponging back and forth between rooms and conversation topics as long as they and Hawks feel like it - but Hawks will generally sacrifice a shapely narrative line for one more good scene or bit of business, and not many viewers have minded over the years.

Hoagy Carmichael, launching a nice little side career here as a supporting actor, is the first musician to take a substantial role in a Hawks film (though Gene Krupa had a memorable specialty act a few years earlier in Ball of Fire), and Hawks profits from the authentic casting, letting Carmichael illustrate the songwriting process by performing a discarded (but lovely) early draft of “How Little We Know” with completely different lyrics and mood. Lending his music to the cause of Hawks’ playful reflexivity, Cricket announces his ability to step outside the diegesis early on, scoring the discovery of Johnson’s body with ironically maudlin music: “Cut it out, Cricket,” says Morgan, trying to repress a grin. Morgan will later whistle the “How Little We Know” theme on his boat - a musical-comedy trope at the beginning of one of the film’s darkest scenes - and, when the action is over and Hawks needs an eight-bars-and-out ending, he has Cricket answer Slim’s final interrogatory line of dialogue - “What do you think?” - with a jazzed-up version of the same theme, cueing the audience to reach for their coats.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Study aid for those seeing an unsubtitled version of Tomás Gutiérrez Alea's Historias de la revolución

I recently went to the Havana Film Festival to see Tomás Gutiérrez Alea's 1960 Historias de la revolución (Stories of the Revolution), the director's first feature, and the first feature film released in Cuba after the revolution. My expectations were quite low, but the film is astonishingly good, maybe great. It was clearly made under the influence of Rossellini's Paisa, and the resemblance is more than skin deep: Gutiérrez Alea (who seems to be a bit of a chameleon - none of his best-known films resemble each other much) shows a Rossellinian knack for working out strong dramatic premises through an observer's view of the particulars of the place and time in which he is filming. The extraordinary action sequences, especially the recreation of the battle of Santa Clara that provides the film's climax, manage to use long-shot topography to unify cause and effect while at the same time making virtuoso use of editing to depict warfare by attrition.  Remembered primarily by Cubans as a memento of its moment in history, the film may well play better to today's film culture than it did to its contemporaries.

It's possible to see the film if it falls off the back of a truck near you, but such versions have no English subtitles at this time. Certainly one loses a great deal by not understanding what is said, but much of the film is dialogue-free, so it might be worth a go anyway. For those who wish to try, the following notes are not a synopsis, but rather a laundry list of places in the movie where understanding the dialogue is crucial.

Part One: "El herido (The Wounded Man)" 

The dialogue here is not distinctive or closely linked to style. In the first part of the story, as the revolutionaries take refuge in the couple's apartment, it's important to know that the woman revolutionary, Elena, is friends with Miriam, the woman in the apartment, who says to her husband Alberto a few times "I can't tell them to go." Alberto, on the other hand, insists repeatedly that Miriam tell the revolutionaries to leave, and leaves the apartment himself because she won't eject them. At this point in the film he seems unsympathetic.

As Alberto arrives at the hotel, something phony about his story arouses the suspicion of the hotel clerk. Then, as the police interrogate him, it's important to know that he never gives anyone away, lying repeatedly, baldly, and ineffectively. The police find his home address in his papers, and insist on taking him there, though he tells them it's an old address. As the police drive up to the apartment, one of the revolutionaries says that Alberto has given them away; Miriam insists that he wouldn't have done so. The matter is not discussed further.

At the end, Alberto asks the milkman to help him get away. The milkman's first reaction is to say that it's too risky.

Part Two: "Rebeldes (Rebels)" 

This is the segment that is most damaged by not understanding the dialogue, as the various conversations the revolutionaries have as they wait in the woods are not strongly plot-motivated: they often address themselves to the central dramatic point of the segment, but can't affect it much.

The group leader examines the wounded soldier and tells the others not to put him in the hammock that the leader had earlier instructed them to make: "It will only cause him needless suffering" to move him. Later, in conversation, one of the fighters says that the leader has had a lot of experience in such matters.

One important aspect of the dialogue is that the revolutionaries don't seem nearly as worried about the government troops as one would expect. (It's established that there are about 100 government soldiers against the six revolutionaries.) There is a streak of deadpan humor in their lack of concern: at one point a scout reports that the government soldiers are shooting at the trees, and no one reacts much. Apparently the government troops are known to be incompetent, though their eventual advance on the revolutionaries' position will still be fatal if the revolutionaries don't leave their position in time. Otherwise, there are few comments about the enemy, and politics is not much discussed.

Part Three: "Santa Clara" 

Near the beginning of the segment, Julio, the revolutionary who has returned to Santa Clara, shows a woman a photo of the woman he loves, Teresa, asking about Teresa's whereabouts. Gutiérrez Alea cuts directly to Teresa, working behind the battle lines. During the victory parade after the battle, Julio sees a friend and asks again about Teresa's whereabouts. Other than this, the action doesn't depend on dialogue much, and the voiceover merely gives us information about the battle of Santa Clara, facts we have mostly seen enacted.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Pema Tseden

(The 2014 Punto de Vista International Seminar in Pamplona, Spain, which began today, includes a retrospective of the formidable Tibetan director Pema Tseden.  Below is a 3500-word essay on Tseden, titled "The Spiritual and the Mundane," which I wrote for the festival's program book.)

Pema Tseden’s misfortune is that he will likely be pigeonholed for the foreseeable future as the most important Tibetan filmmaker; whereas he required only a few films to establish himself as one of the best and most confident filmmakers anywhere in the world. His first feature, The Silent Holy Stones (2005), presents all the elements of Tseden’s style in mature form: a weighty compositional sense that combines spectacular depiction of landscape and a precise deployment of his human subjects; the use of strongly conceptual material in which the central concept is overstated and reiterated, both for comedy and as a distancing effect; a humorous use of repeated actions and fixity of behavior; a figural approach to performance that renders the difference between actors and non-actors immaterial; and a pessimistic vision of the frailty of spiritual values in the face of worldly desire. 2009’s The Search follows The Silent Holy Stones in its focus on the role of fiction and storytelling in our lives, but the later film veers away from conventional narrative and adopts an abstract, cyclical structure that seems at once primitive and experimental. After this feint toward the boundaries of narrative, Tseden’s most recent film, Old Dog (2011), unexpectedly applies his approach and concerns to an elemental drama that, through the dogged, minimalist cadences of Tseden’s story construction and the grandeur of his compositions, acquires the force of mythology.

Tseden’s first film, the twenty-two-minute short The Grassland (2004), is primarily valuable for the light that it sheds on the filmmaker’s attitudes toward religion and moral redemption. A parable- like story of a chieftain named Tsedruk (Anam) journeying to another community with the far more forgiving elderly woman Ama Tsomo (Ama Lhardo) to track down the thieves who took her sacred yak, The Grassland is easy to relate to Tseden’s later works, which also anchor their visual plans in stunning images of Tibetan mountainscapes, and make frequent use of cutaways to images not related to plot. Yet, even on the stylistic level, Tseden has not quite found his voice in The Grassland. The images of landscape, generally shot from low camera angles and with longer lenses than Tseden would later use, seem less designed around the foreground figures and therefore more illustrative; sweeping tracking shots seem a bit grandiose for their lack of motivation; the editing is noticeably more jagged and less precisely timed than in the later films. Even Tseden’s use of cutaways seems more conventional, typified by shots of birds and landscape interpolated into sequences of prayers and ceremonies. (By contrast, cutaways in Stones to landscape shots are used primarily to elide scenes of characters watching television, and take on a reflexive aspect; whereas cutaways in Old Dog to elements outside the narrative, like a goat watching a paper lantern blow down the street or a solitary toddler on the sidewalk, create unresolved mystery.)

The purity of the theme of The Grassland drives Tseden’s spiritual orientation out into the open. The grim Tsedruk is possessed less by a desire for vengeance than by a moralistic fixity and a refusal to be taken advantage of. The opposition between Tsedruk and Ama Tsomo is expressed repeatedly and ritualistically: Tsedruk says “I’m not a pushover,” “I don’t need anyone telling me anything”; Ama Tsomo urges Tsedruk “Let it go – let’s turn back,” “We will be blaming innocent people.” A cappella traditional Tibetan songs on the soundtrack and elements of Buddhist ritual – interludes of chanted prayer, and the ceremony in which the accused thieves proclaim their innocence – punctuate the movie at regular intervals and give it a ceremonial rhythm. The story pivots – without much dramatic emphasis, as if the outcome is foretold – on the mysterious change of heart of the thief, Juga (Drolma Kyab, who also plays the son Gonpo in Old Dog), the village leader’s son who has heretofore escaped suspicion. As Juga leaves his father’s home to confess the crime and return the yak, a Buddhist prayer swells on the soundtrack: “May all beings be endowed with happiness and its causes/May all beings be free of suffering and its causes.”

Tseden’s concern with issues of conscience and inner spiritual movement continues through his career (though he has not expressed it so directly after The Grassland) and suggests an affinity to the work of the Dardenne brothers. Yet, though Tseden’s notion of the spiritual in conflict with the worldly is expressed with more comedy than the Dardennes have ever attempted, it is a darker vision, in which the spiritual impulse seems overmatched in its struggle with our mundane nature. The Silent Holy Stones, Tseden’s most comic work, could be seen as a Tolstoy-like indictment of the power of art – in this case storytelling, particularly as it is embodied in television serials – to rob people of their higher aspirations. The protagonist, “the Little Lama” (Luosang Danpei), a student monk at a Buddhist monastery, is shown, within minutes of his introduction, taking a covert interest in the monastery’s TV and deceiving his Aka (the monk who instructs him) about his motives. The siren call of television is heard by all, even by the Aka and the young Tulku, a reincarnate Lama who eagerly compares notes with the Little Lama on their entertainment options. When the Little Lama’s father introduces him to a trashy TV action show based on the culturally approved legend of Tansen Lama and the Monkey King, the Little Lama’s fascination with entertainment begins to tip over into obsession, and he exploits the nominally Buddhist subject matter of the show to transform the monastery briefly into a multi-venue screening facility, all the while wearing a Monkey King mask at every possible opportunity. The boy’s rebellion against authority when he is inevitably separated from the Tansen Lama VCDs is muted, but registers clearly through the stare of Tseden’s impassive camera and through the Little Lama’s erratic movements within the careful compositions. (Here as elsewhere, Tseden’s use of gestures and stage directions to convey emotions physically makes it possible for him to employ unprofessional actors without handicap.) Ending on a Monlam ceremony conducted by the monks who were glued to the TV a few hours earlier, the film further tips its pessimism with the symbolic character of the Little Lama’s uncle Zoba, a hermit who carves mani, the holy stones of the title, and who dies alone in mid- story before the stone he made for the Little Lama could be delivered.

The Search plays down the moralist themes of Stones, but they reappear with a vengeance in Old Dog, a clear-eyed, nearly Bressonian vision of evil consuming the world. The (real-life) craze among mainland Chinese bosses for Tibetan mastiffs has driven up the price of the dogs and created a semi-criminal trade on the Tibetan plateau, with shady dealers eager to buy or steal the few remaining mastiffs among the rural nomads. The old sheep farmer Drakpa (Lochey) refuses to part with his mastiff at any price, and goes to great pains to reclaim the animal when his shiftless son Gonpo (Drolma Kyab) sells it on the sly. Generational decline is a motif: the henchman of the dog dealers is the son of a late, great nomad hunter. The avarice of modern culture even reaches into Drakpa’s home in the form of television, as the old man and his family passively endure an endless, hysterical, hectoring, static-filled jewelry infomercial that makes the cheap action heroics on display in The Silent Holy Stones look contemplative by comparison. A small moral victory – Gonpo eventually realizes on which side he stands, and is jailed for his retaliation against a dealer – does not dispel Drakpa’s growing awareness that he and his way of life are doomed. First the old man sets the dog free; when that strategy fails, he kills the animal with his own hands, a thunderstorm gathering as he walks away from the site of the deed. The nomad’s terrible victory is a kind of suicide.

This grim account of the film’s themes does not convey how funny all three of the features are. (The Grassland’s lack of comedy is another reason that it feels like an apprentice work.) Tseden’s sense of humor is generally expressed as exaggeration of or excessive emphasis on the central concept of the project. By establishing his organizing concepts immediately, then overstating them via repetition, he turns the conceptual overload into a kind of shared joke with the viewer. In The Silent Holy Stones and The Search, where the central concept is storytelling and fiction itself, Tseden pushes the built-in self-referential aspect of the material through the roof by circulating the same stories through different media, as well as the same reactions through different characters. In Stones, the traditional story of Drime Kunden (which will become the Holy Grail of the search in The Search), first seen on TV in the monastery, is staged live in the Little Lama’s home town when he returns for a visit, giving Tseden ample opportunity to riff on the way fiction is received and used. Rehearsals of the Drime Kunden play are public events that are subject to frequent interruption, with the child actors in the piece playing ball in front of the stage when not on it. The actual performance is not much more formal: when the Little Lama interrupts the show to ask his actor brother to lend him money, he is rebuffed – “Can’t you see I’m acting?” – until the audience intervenes on the boy’s behalf, laughingly evoking Drime Kunden’s legend of self-sacrifice: “Give them some money – Drime Kunden, be kind.” The youthful cast modifies the production of the traditional play, concluding it with a boom box and loud dance music that drives away the otherwise engaged elderly attendees. In an ominous development mimicking the larger movement of the culture, a nearby ramshackle theater showing a Hong Kong action film causes some of the younger audience members, and even one child actor, to desert the play.

In The Search, a director (Manla Kyab) and his film crew drive across rural Tibet, looking for actors from local theater troupes to play Drime Kunden and his wife Mande Zangmo. Even before plot is introduced, stories within stories sprout and multiply, beginning with the Scheherazade-like tale of lost love told in installments in the car by the group’s business partner (Tsondrey). The film crew encounters a promising young actor and actress who introduce a new layer of drama into the film: A Je Drobe (Lumo Tso), the actress who plays Mande Zangmo, insists on accompanying the film crew as they make the long trip to find Kathub Tashi (Kathub Tashi), the actor who plays Drime Kunden and who was once A Je Drobe’s lover. On the trip, the businessman’s story, frequently revised due to memory gaps, is stage-managed and critiqued by the director, who spaces out the story for maximum entertainment value, or admonishes the businessman: “When you tell it, try to mention only what is relevant.” The impassive A Je Drobe, sitting in the back seat with her face covered, appears indifferent to the sad story but always remembers the exact point where it was interrupted. Gradually the expedition to find and audition indigenous performers turns the movie into a floating talent show, filled with interviews and performances that have little apparent connection to the film crew’s stated mission. At film’s end, Tseden allows himself to make explicit the absurdism that lurks beneath his reflexivity, and undercuts the authority of the director whose vision has driven the plot. “Don’t believe him. Who could ever make so many films?” says the businessman to the last of many performers to whom the director has promised film projects of their own.

The more dramatic and straightforward story of Old Dog relocates Tseden’s humor and conceptual play into the realm of structure and form, with powerful results. From the film’s first shot, a reverse-track two-shot of Gonpo and the mastiff on their way to town, Tseden’s visual presentation of the material is overtly thematized: each shot an illustration of an idea, and many shots an illustration of the same idea. (Drolly, Tseden fades to the “Old Dog” title card after we have stared at the old dog for a sufficient time.) The dog’s axiomatic role in the opening sequence is highlighted when Gonpo takes a break from his mission to play pool with some locals on an outdoor billiard table, and Tseden cuts to an overhead shot of the pool game, with the composition carefully selected to include the dog frisking about while tied to a nearby post. As the story develops, Tseden chooses at nearly every point to underline its repetitive aspects instead of minimizing them. Discussing his unauthorized sale of the dog, Gonpo predicts his father’s angry reaction, and when the confrontation occurs it plays out exactly as foretold; Tseden then cuts to a reverse tracking shot of Drakpa riding his donkey into town to annul Gonpo’s transaction, evoking the similar earlier shot of Gonpo’s journey. Later, when Drakpa all but forces the reluctant Gonpo and his wife Rikso (Tamdrin Tso) to visit a doctor to investigate the couple’s childlessness, Tseden mines deadpan humor from the lengthy and unproductive visit by using the same composition of Drakpa sitting in the doorway, watching Gonpo and Rikso’s motorcycle in the distance, for both the couple’s departure and their return. The emblematic mastiff, who can be seen nosing around in the background of this shot, functions in the film like an obtrusive and comical version of the earrings in Madame de…, and Tseden loses few opportunities to make room for the shambling animal in his compositions: the funniest result of this persistent signification is the unexpected shot of the dog jumping out of the police van and back into his familiar yard after Drakpa freed the dog in the mountains.

Tseden’s visual style, largely consistent through his three features, nonetheless adapts to the films’ subtly different conceptions. The Silent Holy Stones establishes Tseden’s baseline visual approach, with its reliance on deep-focus, pictorial long shots of people and terrain, often deriving droll humor from our distant visual perspective on the characters’ reactions. On the infrequent occasions when Tseden abandons master shots and resorts to conventional editing patterns, it is generally to emphasize dramatically important moments: for instance, when Kathub Tashi hears that A Je Drobe has journeyed to find him in The Search, or when Gonpo stares at the mastiffs caged in a truck (presumably the moment of the character’s change of heart) in Old Dog. The emphasis added by these more traditional edits is sometimes exploited for humor, especially in Stones, where cuts to medium closeups of the impassive Little Lama give us no additional information, even before the boy begins wearing his Monkey King mask continuously. Tseden’s wittiest joke about cinematic conventions occurs in The Search, when the film crew’s camera operator is shown zooming in on Kathub Tashi at a dramatic moment, while Tseden’s own camera, for which a zoom is unimaginable, maintains its deadpan detachment.

The Search’s cerebral concept, and its wispy narrative that is driven less by story than by the announced desires of the director within the movie, push Tseden to an artier visual approach that sometimes seems to mimic primitive cinema techniques. As a rule the long-shot frame in The Search is fixed, with characters entering and exiting it as if it were a proscenium, sometimes with their comings and goings announced in advance; in the car sequences, the camera tends to stare out the windshield, with complicated actions orchestrated to give us only partial views. The talent auditions that are staged for the film crew are filmed in blank long shots that do nothing to help the performers put across their songs or recitations; as the film proceeds, the same frame is increasingly used for multiple auditions, with performers stepping one at a time into center frame. At times the obduracy of the frame creates strange and extreme effects: in one scene, the film crew’s guide enters and exits a building multiple times to fulfill the director’s requests, with the camera waiting outside the building with the director during each foray; in another, a lengthy interview with a villager proclaimed as “a real Drime Kunden” is conducted from a fixed camera position behind the villager, whose face is never seen.

The sometimes offputting primitivism of Tseden’s camera in The Search gradually creates a sense that the world through which the film moves, and the seemingly unlimited supply of creative talent that springs unbidden from the landscape of the Tibetan plateau, are the film’s true frame of reference, with the narrative relegated to little more than a winking pretext. Near film’s end, Tseden crystallizes his priorities in an astonishing two-and-a-half-minute take that deprecates the narrative even more ruthlessly than the last shot of Antonioni’s The Passenger - so much so that it’s possible to see The Search multiple times without even realizing that the climax of the story is occurring. In the yard of the school where Kathub Tashi teaches, Tseden stages a folk dance on a vast scale, with several large circles of student dancers arrayed from near the foreground of the shot to the extreme background, all moving to the sound of music broadcast throughout the space by mounted speakers in the yard, so that the music is partly obscured by distance, echo and chatter. On the right side of this magical vista, far away from the camera, the long-awaited meeting between A Je Drobe and Kathub Tashi finally occurs, midwifed by the film crew; one at a time, both the young people exit frame right, giving even the most focused viewer no more than a bare sense that the reunion did not result in a romantic clinch and a happy ending.

Old Dog moves Tseden to a more classical integration of visual style and drama. The director’s knack for finding a visual balance between foreground figures and background vistas, combined with the mystery built into the elemental plot, gives a symbolic weight to the characters: the strong, silent Drakpa and the prodigal son Gonpo would nearly be at home as mythic figures in a Western. Tseden tells the story of Old Dog with a visual clarity that borders on comic exaggeration: typically, a scene in which a character walks out of a static frame with a clear announcement of his or her destination is followed by an instant cut to the destination. This mimicry of simple cinematic forms sometimes resembles low humor – as when Drakpa’s demand that Gonpo undergo a medical exam is cut together with the shot of Drakpa on his front steps watching Gonpo drive to town – and sometimes is stylized into Kaurismaki-like absurdism – as when Tseden cuts between Rikso’s clinic visit and repeated shots of Gonpo on his motorcycle, watching the minimal activity on the village’s main drag as he waits for his wife. Tseden occasionally treats himself to visual experiments in Old Dog, but these ideas tend to hew closely to story – like the somewhat Wellesian shot in which Rikso and her sister Shamtso (Pema Kyid) give Gonpo the results of the clinic visit, photographed with the conversing characters reflected in a shop window, so that each of the women is shown directly only when she is not participating in the discussion.

What is surprising about Old Dog, and what augurs so well for Tseden’s filmmaking future, is that he easily converts to dramatic purposes the same elements that he exploits for humor. The shambling mastiff and the obdurate Drakpa accumulate tragic stature through repetition and symbolism – and if these qualities are the basis of Tseden’s visual jokes, they are associated at the same time with the growing sense of a world out of joint. As the film’s climax approaches, Tseden’s visual plan is increasingly keyed to long shots of the old man and old dog out in the fields, with the sound of the dog’s panting used to track its distance from the camera; the predatory dog dealers sometimes invade the pasture and sometimes motivate the action despite their absence, but the mood of the idyllic setting is always inflected by the existence of evil in the world. The film’s most stunning effect occurs after the young henchman appears at Drakpa’s pasture with his thuggish, silent boss to make a sizable cash offer for the dog, which Drakpa rejects as unhesitatingly he did all other offers. After the dealers leave, Drakpa pauses for a moment’s reflection – during which, we later learn, the dog’s fate is sealed – and then leads the dog into the background of a vast landscape shot. During the more than three minutes of the shot’s duration, the sheep swirl around the shepherd and his dog, slowly falling into formation with them and following them into the mountains. A lone straggler sheep, unable to reach the herd because of a fence, makes repeated efforts to jump the fence wire, coming closer and closer to the camera; finally the straggler turns away from us, finds a gap under the fence and follows its brethren, the old man, and the dog toward the composition’s vanishing point.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

2013 Manhattan One-Week Premieres

Took me a while to see everything I'm likely to see, but here's a list of my favorite films that played at least one week in Manhattan for the first time in 2013.

In order of preference:

1. Old Dog (Pema Tseden)
2. All the Light in the Sky (Joe Swanberg)
3. The Wall (Julian Pölsler)
4. Il Futuro (Alicia Scherson)
5. Exit Elena (Nathan Silver)
6. Porfirio (Alejandro Landes)
7. Before Midnight (Richard Linklater)
8. The Great Beauty (Paolo Sorrentino)
9. Viola (Matías Piñeiro)
10. You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet (Alain Resnais)
11. Paradise: Love (Ulrich Seidl)
12. Paradise: Faith (Ulrich Seidl)