Archive for February, 2012

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Yellow (Peterson, 2006)

February 29, 2012

I was made aware of this gem’s existence curtesy of my friend Adam at Reel Time. He rightfully likens it to Ozu, with its occasional pillow shots, static interior compositions, and heeding of the quotidian, the film bears not just the Japanese master’s influence but at times overtly nods in his direction. What sets it apart is its cold inertness that betrays a more contemporary sense of awkward humour (think Roy Andersson or Ming-liang Tsai) where Ozu’s protracted scenes and inserts were warm, filled with a tipsy pleasantness or swelling melancholy -which is precisely what Claire Denis so beautifully captured in her 35 Rhums. I don’t mean this is a fault, indeed Yellow works stiltedness and its shoestring budget admirably to its advantage. This is where I should mention that it is also a musical. Thus it engages with that “most Japanese” of filmmakers and that quintessentially Hollywood genre to elucidate just how removed it is from both poles. The bittersweet family dynamics of Ozu are absent, indeed as with most truly independent American movies of this new century it features young adults messily relating to one another. Their comparatively high degree of unguided romantic freedom leads to uncertainty and procrastination.

But rather than mumble these characters deliver arch, scripted dialogue when they’re not singing their feelings in (almost) true musical fashion. The difference is the singing was recorded on camera rather than prerecorded and mimed, so one can forgive the frequently out-of-key wavering though it’s admittedly unpleasant at times. That the performers achieve the dialogue/singing fluctuations in such long takes is commendable enough, but they also possess a keen sense of mannerism and timing. And unlike classical musicals, rather than melodramas of betrayal or a complicated plot keeping lovers apart, here the two come together with relative ease and then suffer the banalities of attraction and lack thereof. Not to mention the amount of same-sex hookups and flirting present throughout, including a delightfully nonchalant revelation about one major character. Instead of mimicking Hollywood production values and coming up short, Peterson astutely plays what he’s got against those expectations, his affected but carefully designed mise-en-scene is comfortable and charming. And though Peterson certainly has room to grow, his is one of the more striking debuts in recent memory.

January 2012

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I Am Cuba (Kalatozov, 1964)

February 26, 2012

Impossibly formally astonishing; I don’t believe it contains a single boring composition, manoeuvre, or sound. It penetrates its mythic environ not violently but as if the air was liquid and the camera a fish in awe, invisible but presence felt and occasionally catered to by the citizens on display. Movement aside, even the quality of light is sublime; apparently the makers used infrared film stock, which accounts for the luminous, utopian whites. Silhouetting becomes a motif, particularly of the variety pitting figure against sky at a very low angle. The most arresting feature of the film for a time is the sense that it can do anything, cinematically, narratively -certainly by the time the fish shares in a farmer’s teary-eyed flashback of foolish optimism, consisting of no dialogue it feels like silent cinema reborn. Like the vignettes of Rossellini’s Paisan, it attempts various approaches to cover a specific place and moment in time, and certainly the injustices and heroics deemed as such by the communists. In my eyes it is yet another propaganda picture –The Man With a Movie Camera, À propos de Nice, the work of Dovzhenko -that is first and foremost avant garde brilliance, an artfulness perhaps rendering its politics inert (granted the opposite applies to the Vigo’s anarchy). Its propaganda simplifies the film a fair bit, but it’s surprising that it doesn’t always abort the turmoil of the featured characters: the silent but clear misery of the girl who prostitutes herself to “Americans”, the moral anguish of the would-be assassin, and so on. Even the US sailors are shown to be patriotic buddies, to stop chasing a local girl where a totally ridiculous film would have had them rape her into oblivion, harshly lit underneath in extreme close-up laughing maniacally and sweating onto the lens. And though it never gets that ludicrous, the sequences of revolt towards the end of the film aren’t as captivating as the less obviously political ones, despite an essayistic line of “argument” necessarily preventing the film from repeating itself over again; it’s coherent for such a sprawling movie.

October 2011

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3 by Raoul Ruiz

February 24, 2012

Requiescat in pace, you wonderful man.

The Territory (1981)

Ruiz is tougher to peg down than most filmmakers. Certainly he seems to be interested in unusual narratives, or conventional narratives made complicated, often by the surreal. I get the impression he likes to spin his films, and his joy is in the spinning. He investigates, but it’s often (always?) beside the point that he find answers, if he does. Whether all this is an accurate pigeonholing of an artist who rather seems to avoid just that, I don’t know as of yet. So what is The Territory? It’s not much of an investigation, but there are signs and symbols, and some mystery. As for its narrative, it’s a linear progression of events deranged skillfully by its surrealism. Considering the stagnant nature of the premise, in which our hikers become desperately lost inside a sort-of metaphysical forest, the film appropriately (and maybe at times tryingly) stagnates as well. By this I mean it formally compliments, or should I say it accentuates, the maddening dead-endedness of the situation. The situation itself is harder to discern. Maybe there’s nothing supernatural about the forest and their forever searching a way out follows The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie‘s endless road to finding somewhere to eat. Thus, it may simply be a narrative ploy to mount this bizarre tale of group dynamics and human morals in disarray. The aesthetic becomes poisoned over time with colourful overlays further removing us from the comparatively sane (but still unsettling) first act. The acting must be mentioned. It’s just as odd as anything else in the movie. It’s certainly “bad” in the traditional sense, but it’s also so, so right. What’s striking is that one of the actresses delivers a genuinely great and unexpected monologue towards the end full of insecure nuance. Ultimately, I’m still not sure what The Territory is about, but I liked whatever it was.

City of Pirates (1983)

Even more surreal than The Territory, this picture certainly possesses a larger focus on imagery than that film, and to my mind (and eyes) is more creative and rewarding in that respect. There are some really playful, perplexing compositions throughout. There is one scene largely made up of shots with objects in the extreme foreground, countering a figure at a different depth. It’s unrelentingly composed. The shots don’t so much support the drama as they are just surreal to be surreal. It’s probably fruitless searching for meaning in a surrealist work, that is to say inferred intentional meaning, so it’s more a matter of enjoying the ride. Which I did. Not exponentially so, as is usually the case with me and surrealism, but I certainly appreciated its oddities and filmmaking. The score, too, is worth noting. As with that of The Territory, the music works in an ironic fashion not unlike, for instance, the way Godard uses scores. Though in Contempt for example Godard stops and starts the music, Ruiz here repeats and repeats it in a way that could hardly be considered synchronised to the dramatic energy, and thus does not work as a traditional score does. The cast is not on the B-level of the previous film and is generally strong, including a young Melvil Poupaud and a woman who looks like Rebecca Hall. Delightfully and mesmerisingly difficult to make sense of.

Genealogies of a Crime (1997)

Less surreal than earlier Ruiz films, Genealogies of a Crime is nonetheless rife with the unusual, formal trickery, motifs, and total ambiguity. It has enough regular plotting almost to resemble the Hollywood neo-noirs and psychological investigative dramas of the time, but where those predictably make a big deal of the case facts, twists and turns, and reach logical conclusions, Ruiz’s film playfully spins along with disregard for clarity, and in fact adds more ideas as it progresses. It’s brought up at one point that Deneuve’s lawyer character has difficulty choosing between objects in front of her, and this makes for a remarkable scene in which Ruiz contrives objects jarringly into the mise-en-scene not unlike those shots in City of Pirates. But until the end of this, she is not choosing -we are. The people and the innocuous objects are emphasised equally and our gaze is split and at unease. Similarly, the scenes in which she and the accused murderer roleplay, one as the other, are a psychological jumble of revealed meaning and are difficult to keep up with; more unease. Things are further complicated by the parable narrated to us initially, so we look for parallels, and the idea of the geneology of stories, tales that can shape our life narrative, be inherited somehow. The aforementioned parable shapes the film proper, just as Deneuve’s lawyer mirrors the murder victim (also played by Deneuve), as presented through flashback. It’s all very abstract and seductive and requires more viewings. Damn good.

December 2010