Female Troubles

15 Nov 2013: La Cotta (DVD, 1967, Ermanno Olmi)

Even more than Il Posto this hour-length television feature depicts the sensitive, romantically forlorn young male that appears as prototype for the many subsequent protagonists of Wes Anderson, Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry, surrounding him as those directors do with failure and heartbreak but dark humor and an indefatigability of spirit. Also like these later filmmakers, at least the second two, divergent fantasy becomes a regular refuge for the main character, although here his premonitions of upcoming events – meeting up with his true love, dancing the night away with her – seamlessly continue from the present moment so effectively that one is never entirely sure they are not the actual next scenes until Olmi cuts back to the previous ones. Without caricaturizing or otherwise diminishing the various supporting players – a fog-addled taxi driver, an elder-sisterly party hostess, an elusive girlfriend – he makes them stand out as funny, unique, thoughtful, and personable, with lightness but also just enough gravity to make them real. The small drama of searching for love brings back the allure and pre-jaded excitement of adolescence while resounding as much for the ongoing awkwardnesses of adulthood.

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The Slow and the Mild-Mannered: Milano Drift

14 Nov 2013: Il Posto (DVD, 1961, Ermanno Olmi)

The dreamlike mundanity on offer here harks forward to another Italian, Marco Ferreri, but with more of a focus on cinematography and even more of a locational drift. The camera itself drifts beginning with the opening scene, glacially dollying from one part of the room to another and back, and continues throughout, always with a wide-angle lens to keep the whole scene in focus, giving the proceedings that eerie oneiric feel of casually gliding through large spaces. Compositions present the meek main character within a setting that dwarfs his diminutive stature even further, placing him at the far corner of an executive’s desk or alone and forlorn at a table at a nearly unattended company dance. His peripherality and the ubiquitous meandering of shots lend themselves to one of the film’s peaks, a sudden departure from the boy’s subjective view to a series of apartments in which the idiosyncratic desk jockeys he sees at work are shown at home in the thick of their nocturnal hobbies, pleasures and sufferings. It has absolutely nothing to do with what has preceded or what follows it, but that’s what so fantastic about it, that one can suddenly realize that random looks at wildly divergent subjects provide just as much delight as sticking to a single one. This humor and style anticipate later absurd and quirky works by directors like Wes Anderson yet with less dependence on words and edits to sell laughs and feelings. Not only this, but the drama remains on a “low,” everyday level, exalting subtle emotions and circumstances more than superlative or hyperbolic ones, but resonates just as powerfully and meaningfully as any of Aeschylus’ hand-wringing declamation plays.

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Doctor Soused

13 Nov 2013: Drunken Angel (DVD, 1948, Akira Kurosawa)

Not quite yet at the level of his masterworks of the fifties and sixties, at least as far as editing, pacing, moral exploration and overall scope is concerned – he’s probably still under greater time and aesthetic constraints from the studio at this stage of his career, as well as the American censors of the time (referring to the DVD features) – this strange “genre” piece stands well apart from other films that touch on similar subjects (yakuza, drink and self-destruction, pride, inescapable past etc.). Cinematographically he’s already at a distinct high level, with long dolly shots along a haggard cityscape reflected in a fetid bog, extreme long shots of desolate wastelands, and flamboyantly expressive camera movements and tilted compositions of nightclub dancers & musicians. Obviously aware of limitations as far as the actors’ combat training and lacking computer-generated imagery or other special effects materials, he instead goes for bizarre but effective low-angle close-ups of the two main gangsters in the midst of a messy – both tactically and environmentally – knife fight, as if their thrusts and parries were being executed by their grimacing and contorting countenances rather than their arms or torsos, echoing the panel-based scenecraft of classic comics and graphic novels. (Similar to how limitations on sexual content can lead to more inventive visual devices, this fight is made more intense and novel because of the restrictions imposed upon its depiction.) Also memorable is a dream sequence by the ocean employing slow-motion and dreamlike dissolve effects – evoking the later Kagemusha – to chart the main character’s self-annihilation, the tubercular progress of which is also marked by his increasingly eyeshadowed and corpselike face. This film is described as a noir yet it feels far removed from that genre’s tropes – detectives, intrigue and gynophobia are replaced with outspoken but unheeded physicians dealing with pathetically underwhelming criminals, transparent and death-driven motives and an all-too-masculine ignorance or overlooking of women who care about health and offer a way out of madness and entrapment. The ending’s a little forced and dopey – it’s not the one he wanted – but prior to that the bleakness and honesty on offer presage The Bad Sleep Well and High and Low.

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Accepting a Substitute

6 Nov 2013: Kagemusha (DVD, 1980, Akira Kurosawa)

As either depressing reminder of personal weakness or further testament to the spellbinding hypnosis of Kurosawa’s editing craft or well-matched synthesis of the two, my intention of watching this three-hour film in two blocks over the course of the day sublimated from solid plan to gaseous fantasy shortly before its halfway point. Nary a sequence feels overlong or lends itself to feelings of conclusiveness; this is the rare (though typical for Kurosawa) page-turning propulsion that is not so much an addled eagerness to know what happens next as a stupefied trance within what is already unspooling. Even though some of the acting is ham-handed mugging, like in others of Kurosawa’s samurai works, and even though the story ultimately feels like a minor letdown from its earlier promise – this is not the best of his films – the attention to visuals (Sternbergian flows of soldiers, wildly colored dream segments) and the respect for the viewer (given time and space to see and feel things) make the film monumental anyway. From the first few minutes it is clear that an ocean of directions and meanings for the story is possible, largely to do with the great and well-staged (an opening wide shot of three indistinguishable lookalikes) premise of body doubles that fosters an undercurrent of tense uncertainty as to whom we are really seeing at any given moment and when the twist will occur, something we must debate internally as much as the rival warlords onscreen. Perhaps it’s not fair to judge any work of art for this, but I was somewhat disappointed that this was not explored more and instead dissolved into a fatalistic elegy for dead warriors and a dead past. It’s certainly moving to watch waves of doomed soldiers commanded futilely by an inept and technologically outmatched strategist, and to linger as long as the (overcranked) camera does on the littered battlefield that results, but it’s not quite as interesting as it might have been if pushed further afield. That aside, the film is gorgeous and mesmerizing, with a gravitas and an aesthetic quality worth many hundreds of cinematic releases in recent years.

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A Light Sublime

12 Nov 2013: Limelight (DVD, 1951, Charlie Chaplin)

Much more melancholy and morose than earlier silent-era Chaplin, even when he deals with the soul-destroying industrial horrors of Modern Times, this film counterintuitively feels more inspirational because of it by truly acknowledging the serendipity but also the bittersweetness of success. One of the best things this film shows, which I can’t remember seeing anywhere else, is how quickly and completely two people in a relationship can reverse emotional roles and poles as appropriate to different situations, “hypocritically” taking up the mantle that the other has championed for support in despair but temporarily forgets when enmeshed in his own problems. One can sense that Chaplin really feels the end is near for him, not only in that he is handing off fame and love to a younger set of people and that he dies at the finale, but most immediately in his willingness to show his character’s painful stage performances – making it obvious to the viewer repeatedly near the film’s beginning, and then making that viewer sit through one of the previously failed acts again towards the end as the audience laughs because they have been directed to, which hurts even more (like a fake smile) the second time around. Apart from the film’s thematic resonance – or rather united with it – is a still-keen visual sense that thankfully refrains from chopping up the many performances (even when they’re hard to watch) and glides with dollies and pans across streets and through bedrooms to link objects and subjects. For every scene of apparent hopelessness (hope can be done without, anyway, as Chaplin’s comedian claims, if one lives for the moment) there’s a counterpart with an unusually forceful and convincing affirmation of following love and dreams: the film is just not so dopey that it pretends everything will be smiles and rainbows as a consequence.

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Capital Conclusions

8 Nov 2013: Capital (Appendix: Results of the Immediate Process of Production, 1867, Karl Marx)

This is a bulky and somewhat protean “chapter” (more like a bonus feature, really, it seems) that recapitulates and restresses many points already made in the text above. Perhaps the part that feels the freshest, regardless of the extent to which it has already been discussed, is Marx’s lengthy emphasis on the substance of capital as profoundly greater and broader than the machinery and raw materials with which it is superficially associated: the entire social relations of production must be taken into account, for it is these (i.e. the selling of wage-labour and the reproduction of the worker-capitalist interdependence) that truly distinguish capital from other economic modes and themselves generate the enormous instruments and myriad materials which so mystify this proper understanding. There’s an important acknowledgment of the linguistic and conceptual ways that truth is hidden by a political economy that takes simple explanations at face value rather than contextualize them within history (e.g. people have produced commodities in the past, people have used tools in the past, people have held property in the past, all without these things being capital, though they are commonly identified as such now even in undergraduate textbooks). One can see the applicability of this thinking across other disciplines as well, and better understand how deep Marx’s influence – albeit now largely uncredited – is upon philosophy and social science on the whole. Can cinema, for instance, really be isolated as film or digital tape and cameras, and lighting and editing equipment and projectors and screens, etc., or is it rather an entire social relation reproducing a duality between passive consumption (with relatively inactive, routine, banal life circumstances for the viewing populace) and stylishly packaged ideological manufacture? Can you or I, for example, really be defined as that which resides within the biological limits to anatomy, or are these living conceptions mere illusions perpetuated by an economic individualism that denies an interdependence not only of human upon human but also of body upon air and environment and sensory input and freedom? These wonderings obviously diverge a bit from the specific point about economic categories that Marx is making, but they illustrate just how fecund his text can be. Among other things, Marx brings up again points about piece-wages as illusion for time wages, differences in national wages, Malthusian population myths and the idiocy – as he would have you believe – of Proudhon. This work is monumental.

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Massacres and Wiseacres

7 Nov 2013: Salvador (DVD, 1985, Oliver Stone)

Anti-intellectual bickering and bantering loutish American men are the viewer’s designed point of identification for this film, until the tragic circumstances these men encounter or the random conversations they have with military officials transform them instantly into morally upstanding and courageous heroes, making the whole endeavor sadly feel more false than illuminating. Knowing Hollywood, this naturally comes as a complete surprise. Cartoon characters who are pure thug or pure nobility, steamrolling the supposed objects of concern with the petty romantic problems of white people, utterly implausible behavior, a uniform mode of absurd “wise-guy” idiotic discourse, a simplistic and decontextualized view of history and its actors – all of this is so foreign to American cinema that seeing it here is as shocking as an electrical cord made out of wood. One might think it would be refreshing anyway to see a big-budgeted film discuss issues of foreign policy and American involvement in distant atrocities, but instead it only feels more disheartening in its sloppy manhandling of people and events, in its disconnected array of half-baked suggestions about deeper reasons for things being the way they are in El Salvador, in its unconvincing desperation to glorify patriotism and checks to power even with the US-backed death squads running the show, in its insistence on desacralizing journalistic small-talk even in moments of horror like a mountainful of unburied corpses in the countryside. Hollywood cameras here, to throw in some apropos Marxian commentary, are historical instruments of capital, objectifying living struggles of real people into the appropriated dead and mangled cinema of its monolithic, disinformative and dehumanizing storytelling mode.

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