19 Sep 2013: Animal Kingdom (DVD, 2009, David Michôd)
Nothing much new to see here – lumpen criminal family, the comically inept blended with the darkly insidious, backstabbing and revenge and plot twists – but it’s constructed tastefully and earnestly enough that it registers less as a cheap knockoff than as a decent genre piece. Frequent deployments of slow motion and ambient mood music lean a little heavy on the sustain pedal (a bit like a New Age version of a pop song) but do allow reflective emotions to surface where most similar action films choose to steamroll over them, an almost purely biological pleasure whereby the eyes may linger on images and the ears on tones to which the mind (and the body, and the whole person) may build up an actual response. The actors are permitted space to fill out their roles with clearly distinguished characteristics – the sullen son, the overbearing matron, the slovenly brother, etc. – without forcing them into unrelenting (and uniform) internecine imprecation exchanges á la Scorsese. Again there is very little to latch onto as far as lighting schemes or shot decisions – i.e. things which elevate cinema above the mere faces and words and actions of television – and there is little to make this story more worthwhile than the many others it recycles, but maybe it’s the first time this sort of thing is internationally distributed with an Australian milieu, that (as well as already crossed-over actors like Guy Pearce and Joel Edgerton) probably being sufficient reason to cash in and produce it.
18 Sep 2013: Winter’s Bone (DVD, 2010, Debra Granik)
The Sundance Film Festival, I become more and more convinced every time I see its recent products and prize-winners, is a place where mise-en-scène goes to die, where not only all tripods and dollies are strictly forbidden but also all expressive (in-camera) lighting schemes and original shot compositions. Acting must always be low-key and seemingly non-professional – authentically of the people, however inarticulate or banal their words may be – but delivered by (non-Hollywood) professionals, and never step outside of a particular tight box of emotions and sentiments. This has the effect that, even when a movie like this one comes through with a decent story and a relatively unique setting and ensemble of characters, it still feels like a slapdash trifle destined to be forgotten well within the short timeframe economically required of “indie” filmmakers (scare quotes because the distribution houses are generally subsidiaries of the same large studios that define bigger-budget Hollywood) to produce the next feature. There’s a pervasive sense of careerist apathy throughout such films, or perhaps simply a shortsighted (ahistorical) inability to reach for deeper and more provocative forms of visualization and storytelling that have a response to masters like Fritz Lang and Jacques Rivette, or, staying stateside, even Orson Welles and Monte Hellman. Winter’s Bone has a certain moral code to it not seen very often, along with its Missouri landscape and its rural inhabitants, but such newnesses – however effective the performances – don’t quite register as much as they could against a stylistic and formal backdrop indistinguishable from hordes of other films produced with similar budgets and equipment and showing at the same festivals.
17 Sep 2013: Stalker (DVD, 1979, Andrei Tarkovsky)
Though words like “ponderous” and “glacial” are seldom used to describe positive aspects of artwork, one has to note that glaciers are often mesmerizing and gorgeous and that a certain type of ruminative heaviness can be germane to the elevatingly profound. In this film, like his others, Tarkovsky gives nearly every shot – often slow dollies across the sets – the quality of slowly unfolding, as if sheets of silk were falling to the floor from a great height in half-g gravity, with a devotion to time and space bordering on the mystical, something the superbly eerie krautrockish electronic score intensifies in the aural domain. Most lengthy takes in cinema both past and modern are yet filled with dialogue (Before Midnight, Winter Light, The Player) or constant movement (Touch of Evil, 4, Elephant), and it’s extremely rare to see a movie so willing to trust in stillness and meditation to tell a story, or rather or to not need to tell a story, to let the story emerge from the contemplating viewer. Also is it rare to allow for discussion of philosophical ideas, for intelligence and thought to penetrate a narrative that visually and conceptually alone has more going for it than much of mass-market science fiction already. The unsettling look to the black-and-white/sepia-toned cinematography stands almost completely alone – evoking only lesser-known animated works like Metropia – in presenting a world as sapped of its reality and wholesomeness as of its light and color. The Zone is where life resides, and yet where no man dares to risk his earthly position, the sort of Kafka’s-Trial threshold beyond which all refuse to pass even as the way forward is unobstructed, and metaphors are seldom as existentially realized as they are here.
16 Sep 2013: That’s Life: Vittorio De Sica (DVD, 2001, Sandro Lai)
This documentary is warm and amicable but feels far too much like one of those standard-issue featurettes that fill DVDs from distributors of much lesser esteem than Criterion: not much time for details, plenty of time for hohum fellation of its subject. The archival footage of De Sica consists of publicity materials rather than much in the way of reflection or critical conversation, and dutifully proceeds through the major films of his career by showing red-carpet assemblages and awards ceremonies without much insight into motives and circumstances from collaborators or friends. Made for TV and produced and financed by the government (if I remember right), it’s the kind of pap-laden hagiography that smooths over any existential crises, career problems and subversiveness in its portrait of the artist as a national treasure – i.e. something by which the nation may profit and defend its legitimacy without any real honest credit given to its creators.
15 Sep 2013: Umberto D (DVD, 1952, Vittorio De Sica)
Prior to this I would not have associated refined cinematographic language too much with neorealism – even my memory of Bicycle Thieves for instance does not call to mind any particularly striking images – but Umberto D abounds with distinct and augmentative compositions, from uncentered close-ups on the title character to high-angle views of the pensioners’ protest that opens the film. There’s complexity to its seemingly simple story, too, in that resonant moments of joy and ambiguity and quotidian languidness disrupt a narrative otherwise rather dour and miserable – the aged title character is desperate for cash to pay his frigid (and laughably aspirational) landlady so that he’s not thrown to the streets, but he shares many tender conversations with the youthful apartment cleaning lady as well as his dog. Similarities appear with the previous entry as to the low-key nature of the drama and its economic circumstances, but the difference here is both in the artfulness of the presentation and the depth to the characters, who speak not just in jargon-patter and petty arguments but have individual voices and actual things to say with them about the world they live in. The landlady as a self-imagined high-society type who dresses smartly and practices opera, always flanked by men in business suits who say nothing except for shaking their heads with disdain at those who are worse off, makes for a great symbol for a particular class’s picture of itself as cultured and elite even as this comes at the full expense of people too busy doing their time or paying their dues to impress anyone else.
12 Sep 2013: Chop Shop (DVD, 2007, Ramin Bahrani)
An exemplar of contemporary Sundance/”indie” filmfare in its literally and thus figuratively shaky cinematography – by now, due to ubiquity of its usage and of its user upstarts, an assertion of artifice more than honesty – and its scrappy but cheery cute-kid underclass underdogs wholly inoffensive to middle-class “liberal” sensibilities (they’re dirt-poor and cheated, but they’ve got loads of colorful friends and they’re always working hard to make their way out – see also Gimme the Loot and Beasts and the Southern Wild, for two). The characters are fine and nice but ultimately as bland and indescriptive as each of those commonplace adjectives – it’s not especially unpleasant to be in their company for an hour and a half but it’s not especially enriching either. A looseness in either story or atmosphere or personalities or aesthetics or intellect can readily be compensated for by some tightness or insight in one or more of the other arenas, but films which are loose in all categories quite expectedly have no staying power, only the fleeting sensation of a light brush across the skin of a garment falling to the ground.
11 Sep 2013: Sweet Movie (DVD, 1974, Dušan Makavejev)
Like The Model Couple (above) and other similarly spirited films from the 70s this film has a good-humored lightness and a liberation from the smooth forms and stylistics of typical dramas that enhance its unleashing of sex and behavior from social norms. Sex is not employed as some enviably impassioned romantic device for massaging out the lust of the viewer, but rather freed from such straight-faced eroticism for awkward moments between strangers (sometimes with disturbing age differences), vulgar physical comedy and inhibitional release as used by a commune not far from the imagination and vision of Pasolini, and more mundanely shown as the future of advertising and television (as in a program where an industrial magnate selects the candidate from a pageant of potentials whose vagina most impresses the inspecting gynecologist – one seated contestant turning to stare at the camera as though performing in a porn video). This movie seems to aim less for metaphoric message – though these abound in short form all throughout – than ecstatic barrier breakdown with its hypnotic, mystical extended sequences that though unsettling and shocking are not played so much for horror or disgust as for fascination unto release, which is probably not all that different in content and result from the infamous “2 Girls 1 Cup” video and others like it.