AS I WAS MOVING AHEAD OCCASIONALLY I SAW . . . – Reflections on the year in film, obligatory 9/11 rant, etc.
As someone dedicated (almost pathologically so) to the art of film, I had an advantage in 2001. There were more than a few “brief glimpses of beauty” (to borrow Jonas Mekas’s title phrase) to console the loss, anger, and frustration which largely characterized this past year for me. I am certainly not alone in those feelings – in fact, relatively speaking I was spared, witnessing most of the year’s tragedies from a distance – but I wonder about those who didn’t have art as a tool for analysis or understanding, or who didn’t know where to look for it. (For instance, someone I met this year told me she found it useful, genuinely useful in the management of her emotions, that George W. Bush made an official declaration of the end of 9/11-related mourning, the full elevation of flags, etc. “I think that’s the sort of thing leaders should do,” she told me. I cannot imagine taking solace in the political sphere under any circumstances, but especially not now.)
UNITED WE FAIL: Speaking of politics . . . 2002 has started off with an obnoxious confrontation with the government, in the form of jury duty in Oakland. The Oakland Superior Courthouse waiting room is a lot like an airport terminal, with rows of interconnected, uncomfortable seats and ceiling-mounted TVs spewing Regis Philbin and “Good Morning America.” It’s appropriate that the experience begins like an airline journey which refuses to go anywhere, because it culminates in a game show where you don’t want what you’ve won. The clerk basically demands that a random participant “come on down!” and start answering questions about whether we believe we can be unbiased about some sort of tedious personal injury lawsuit. Some of the best performances I’ll see all year occurred in the jury box, people clearly placing themselves at a wonky angle to American ideology in order to be dismissed. (A gruff businessman drew the ire of the judge by firmly stating he didn’t believe in juries composed of the citizenry, and favored the European tribunal approach. A young café owner did a hippie act, explaining that on a sunny day like yesterday, the plaintiff and the defendant should be taken into the forest to meditate on nature, until they realized the basic insignificance of their dispute. A therapist from Berkeley patiently explained that she didn’t believe in the existence of objective facts which could be evaluated apart from a particular viewpoint. An area superintendent of schools got himself excused by waxing exaggeratedly right wing about lawyers and civil trials, loudly declaring the whole thing frivolous and saying he, if anyone, should be paid for “pain and suffering,” not the plaintiff, who looked “healthy enough.” All the while, I’m realizing that all the ammo will be used up by the time I’m called.) One high point in all of this was the opportunity to gawk at the court clerk, who wore a smart black pantsuit and hornrims, and looked for all the world like a slightly younger Tina Fey (from Saturday Night Live), minus the facial scar.
Why are some of my basic beliefs about the world admissible in public only when one has a pressing need to look crazy, unreliable, “biased”? When my time came, would I be able to create a convincing enough performance as myself? And did the fact that I was legally bound to be somewhere I really didn’t want to be change the basic rules of polite social behavior? Several times The Clerk caught me staring at her, and I averted my eyes. I thought, if I were on the subway or in a restaurant, I wouldn’t feel so entitled, since I would never want to be an aggressor who made women feel unsafe or imposed-upon just for being in public by themselves. But in the courtroom, I could convince myself that this would all be part of my “unbalancing act,” making myself appear so devoid of social aptitude that I could not possibly be allowed to sit for two weeks in a jury box with other, more normal human beings. It was as though the state had conscripted my id, offering me one chance to prove myself unfit, improper, unassimilated.
All of this clarified how 2001 had been for me, for many of us. The events of the year, on a very individual level, seemed to put us at a remove from ourselves. We would watch ourselves behaving socially, like we were doubled, one consciousness gauging the comportment of the other for appropriateness and delicacy. The Onion asked, “When will we be able to care about stupid shit again?” But the definition of “stupid shit” seemed to be shifting all over the map, to include any personal trial or tragedy which didn’t impact at least fifty other people. We felt like we needed to be part of a community, just to feel entitled to any individual meaning. And yet, this self-consciousness militated against any true, organic belonging, unless you had the good fortune to be a heartland flag-waver on the right. Could any form of behavior be “right” enough to break the bonds of paranoia? And if I feel this way as a white guy, I can’t even imagine what others must be going through. Even now, I’m not certain that any gesture made in public which is resolutely individualistic or counterintuitive has emerged from the shadowy taint of solipsism. In other words, onto the point at hand: who gives a shit about ten mostly-obscure films I saw last year?
YOU STAND ALONE: The truth is, I think you should care. That’s a bold statement, arrogant even, but keep in mind that I’m not making grand claims for myself as such, my own list, likes and dislikes, etc. I submit the comments below as a contribution to a discussion among individuals, people who disagree, people who like it loud and feel like things are only okay when rancor and dissension is flourishing. The list below, pace Miramax’s claims for Amélie, is just what we need right now, because it’s stridently elitist, cold-filtered through an unapologetically minoritarian sensibility, and has no apparent community-building value. I don’t want to build bridges or locate common ground. I think there’s been more than enough of that, of coming together and showing our collective resolve. My list isn’t really that interesting, or that unique or daring, but it’s mine and mine alone. If we really want to be strong, we should all work to disarticulate ourselves from the American mass and stand by ourselves for a while. And while this individualism flies in the face of my usual feelings of lefty-Marxist community-based action and solidarity – socially, if not aesthetically, I’m a collectivist – the key to any productive political stance is recognizing the landscape now, and making an intervention not on the basis of unyielding dogma but rather a careful estimation of what the present situation is, and how one may best meddle in it. And now is the time for all good men and women to come to the aid of themselves. Gaze at your navels. Masturbate. Spend entire days watching 7 ½ hour Hungarian films with an audience of twelve. Go out to dinner by yourself and spend the meal having a good long private think. Make a top ten list, especially if you’re not a professional critic and have no hope of publishing it anywhere anyone else might see it. Find ways not to buy anything from anywhere. Be a country unto yourself, and let your freak flag fly.
IF IT FEELS GOOD, VIEW IT: THE TEN BEST FILMS I SAW IN 2001:
1. Werckmeister Harmonies (Béla Tarr, Hungary)
I decided I should follow through on my “I love imperfection” philosophy, by actually ranking some 9-out-of-10s above outright 10s on my list. This is an imperfect film, in part because it is so difficult to ascertain its ideological slant, and because its multiple thematic strands are left hanging, like a vague constellation. (Oddly, some people have asserted that the opening sequence lays it all out – I mean, sure, there’s order and chaos, but are all human interventions in the natural order doomed to fail, or have we simply not undertaken the right ones yet?). Werckmeister Harmonies has also been dismissed in some quarters as a footnote to the sprawling, similarly-themed Satantango. In some ways, yes. At a mere two and a half hours, Werckmeister could be mistaken for an after-the-fact sketch, but I think that its economy, its boundedness, and its hints of completion are its long suits. This is as conventional a film as Tarr is likely to ever make, but this too serves as a formal analogue to the issues under consideration – the sense of an ending which can only in fact be a set of vague questions, hanging palpably in the air like a dominant chord. Despite its relative cohesion, this film is astonishing even as a collection of set pieces. The ethnic cleansing in the hospital is matched by Janos’ (Lars Rudolph) encounter with the police chief’s kids, the arrival of the whale truck, and even Janos and the Professor (Peter Fitz) walking into town. Tarr’s direction of these events, in tandem with stunning black-and-white cinematography (by a remarkably consistent six-person team), Ágnes Hranitzsky’s seamless editing, and Mihaly Vig’s expressive minimalist score, achieve something altogether unnerving: a film which applies pure cinema at its most hypnotic and seductive, precisely in order to indict collective hypnosis and demagogic seduction.
The San Francisco Cinematheque, through the efforts of co-curator Irina Leimbacher, showcased the animated films of William Kentridge, including the entirety of his “Soho Eckstein Cycle,” a suite of films profiling a white South African industrialist and mine owner, his wife, and the liberal intellectual Felix Tietelbaum, with whom Mrs. Eckstein is conducting an affair. Made between 1989 and 1999, Kentridge’s films are unlike anything else in contemporary animation – frame by frame records of charcoal drawings in the process of evolution as Kentridge draws, erases, and redraws them. Reminiscent of Cy Twombly’s textures and line quality, as well as the cartooned abstraction of Philip Guston or a less ornate Lynda Barry, Kentridge’s images concretize the physical pull of the past. Movements carry the lag-time of memories, which we eventually erase simply by acting in the world. (Interestingly, the physicality of time was also visualized in my #5 film.) Kentridge places the melancholy love triangle within the context of the final years of Apartheid, and in so doing achieves a stunning historical dialectic. The gravity of the political violence outside (we frequently see black Africans gunned down, marching in police lines, or herded into mass graves) counterpoints the domestic drama, but never belittles it. Rather, the personal pain of Kentridge’s protagonists serves as partial explanation (but never rationalization) as to how people who are otherwise capable of deep feeling can cordon off the brutality around them. Like many others, I experienced 2001 as an internal struggle between the anguished helplessness brought about by the attacks of September 11 and the ensuing war of vengeance, and the private realities of my own individual problems. How to negotiate the disparity of scale, the realigned sense of importance? No image coalesced this tension more dramatically than the conclusion of the fourth Soho Eckstein film, Sobriety, Obesity, and Growing Old. Eckstein peers out of his Ivory Tower, discovering Johannesburg in ruins, young black men on chain gangs and mutilated by white police, and in the midst of all this turmoil, he registers at last that his wife has gone into the arms of another lover, for good. As his pet cat tries in vain to reassure him, Eckstein emits a final, silent plea which Kentridge visualizes pealing across the devastated landscape: “COME HOME . . .”
3. The Heart of the World (Guy Maddin, Canada)
One of those that came to my neck of the woods a bit late. All of the anarchic spirit and psychoanalytic acumen of his feature films – the fraternal struggle of Careful, the encompassing contagion of Tales of the Gimli Hospital, the transformative power of the female imagination at the heart of Twilight of the Ice Nymphs. Simply too much eye-popping invention on display. The succinct power of a well-made television commercial, with the modernist gestural economy of Anton Webern. A new breed of postmodernism, wherein it’s not simply “history” or “pastiche” on display, but an artist’s deep emotional commitment to the ideas he’s reprocessing. Between narrative and experimental film, between feature and trailer, silent and sound. Many thanks to Mark McElhattan for bringing it to the Pacific Film Archive in a phenomenal show which also included stunners by Abigail Child and Jean-Luc Godard.
4. Devils on the Doorstep (Jiang Wen, People’s Republic of China) – original 160 minute edit
Jiang Wen’s Rabelaisian World War II epic allegedly ran afoul of Chinese censors, although the exact reasons, as usual, remain unclear. The film appears to have played here and there throughout the world, so the exact level of government suppression of the film is unclear. But through the efforts of one super-savvy and well-connected mofo (departing San Francisco Film Society artistic director Peter Scarlett), lucky Bay Area residents got a look at this near-perfect black comedy. Apparently the film’s French sales agent has produced a shorter edit, hoping to attract North American distributors. (I haven’t seen the short version, but cutting this film down is simply stupid. Length is not a problem here.) The use of fisheye lenses and off-kilter angles isn’t subtle exactly, but it never veers off-course into garishness. Rather, these odd visual disturbances create an atmosphere in which we can feel what it’s like when the world has been turned upside-down – a critical cliché, perhaps, but true. Kusturica comparisons are apposite – gallows humor and slapstick as the only available means to convey inscrutable historical circumstances. And lest this sound like edifying granola, it ain’t. Devils is a nightmare hellride that never slows down, never lets up, and never leaves you bored. The 160 minutes just flew by. The Japanese occupation of China during World War II is presented in the form of absurdist history from below, not as allegory but as non-stop beatdown and mindfuck.
5. Donnie Darko (Richard Kelly, U.S.A.)
Kelly’s startlingly original picture reconsiders the end of the Reagan Era (sort of) as a wrinkle in time, with a schizophrenic high schooler (Jake Gyllenhaal) organizing what we see through his Messiah Complex. Or else, the film depicts a fantasy world in which one young man is the connective tissue between possible worlds, the existential interface between choice and coincidence becoming visible to him alone. Even at its heartbreaking conclusion, Donnie Darko wisely leaves the fundamental question open: what exactly are we seeing? Is this world alive with science-fiction and supernatural possibilities (á la E.T. or Back to the Future)? A paranoid delusion? Or even a retroactive making-sense of the senseless, turning accidents (aeronautic ones, as well as accidents of birth) into God’s will? A bit like a brilliant Twilight Zone or Amazing Stories episode – let’s call it “The Adventures of Young Danny Schreber” – Darko is a beautiful film which regrettably failed to find its audience. Perhaps on video, echoes of the bunnyman will reverberate into 2002.
6. The Jesus Trilogy and Coda (Stan Brakhage, U.S.A.)
2001 was a very good year for avant-garde film. If I felt like anyone on earth would give a rat’s ass about my Top 25 or Top 50 or whatever (and really, I have no reason to expect anyone to care about this meager 10), you’d find great films and near-masterpieces by such luminaries as Abigail Child (Surface Noise, a hilarious blender-paced found footage DJ assault), Nathaniel Dorsky (Love’s Refrain, a shimmering conclusion to his anti-associational montage cycle, this time with a clamshell food container appearing in the role of the Safeway bag), Henry Hills (Porter Springs Four, a rhythmic down-home-movie as avant-garde Hee Haw episode), Michael Snow (The Living Room, his version of the family sitcom, with Freud and Heisenberg presiding), and Scott Stark (whose video SLOW used transitional wipes to blend different temporal views of single spaces, creating staccato comedy and recalling artists as disparate as Ken Jacobs and John Woo). In fact, for most of the year, Stan Brakhage’s almost feature-length ocean film, The God of Day Had Gone Down Upon Him, was ensconced on my Top 10 in progress. Not surprisingly, only Brakhage himself could top Brakhage. It becomes hard at times to talk about his films, to really see them, because the myth can get in the way. (In fact, for this reason I feel like a disclaimer is necessary here, lest a reader think I’m being lazy by making Brakhage a kind of standard-bearer for the American avant-garde on this list. Not so.) Brakhage, especially at this stage of his career, is a paradox. Cinema can barely contain him; his art is on par with the greatest achievements in visual art of the last century, and he just keeps evolving. And yet, who could be more of a film artist? Separating Brakhage from the whole of film culture makes about as much sense as disqualifying Schoenberg as a composer or Cézanne as a painter. That is, it would involve closing our eyes to the fact that the rules have changed for good.
So, after all of these glittering generalities, what is it that makes The Jesus Trilogy and Coda so remarkable? Brakhage’s ongoing explorations of abstract painterly film – colors and textures applied directly to the celluloid, and sometimes manipulated through optical printing and other artist-supervised labwork – have produced an unceasing variety of images, which have recalled painters as diverse as Giotto, Pollock, and Sam Francis (in last year’s Water for Maya). But just when you think you have his number, and you understand the basic parameters of his work in this area, Brakhage comes correct with mind-blowing new techniques, variations, and optical ecstasies. The Jesus Trilogy is the most sculptural of the hand-painted Brakhage films I’ve seen, almost appearing to be composed of colored slicks of reflective vinyl. The clearest reference points are European: Lucio Fontana, Hans Hartung, and especially Antoni Tàpies. Bits of jagged, quilted light pulsate, at times violently, as though sewn directly onto the screen. Jesus, inasmuch as he is the ostensible subject here, exceeds mere representation; he is present as energy alone. Only in the Coda does Brakhage hint at traditional religious iconography. The screen is mostly white, and in the center is a whirling cruciform ink drawing, perhaps hinting that only in corporeal death – that is, in his humanity – can the idea of Jesus momentarily be grasped.
7. In The Mood For Love (Wong Kar-wai, Hong Kong)
This film is just what I wanted – for Wong to slow down a bit and let me savor the shots. I can do “urban ennui” up to a point [see Chungking Express and its superior cousin Fallen Angels], but I guess I’m more of a “heartbreak of perpetual longing” kind of guy. ITMFL is without a doubt the most beautifully shot film of the year (with the Tarr film a close second); I wholeheartedly concur with all the critics’ awards Christopher Doyle and Mark Lee Ping-bin are racking up right now. From start to finish, no film was sexier. Dear Maggie and Tony, last night was incredible. Please, call me anytime. Love, Michael.
8. Tuvalu (Veit Helmer, Germany)
Finally given a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it release by Indican (and in fact, most of my friends did miss it), Tuvalu shone brightly in a year where higher profile films achieved praise for their forced whimsy and self-satisfied storybook imagination. Where respected auteurs basically made commercials for themselves, Helmer, a director of commercials, made a film. First of all, a crucial distinction must be made. Unlike such art-directed-to-death claustrophobia-fests as Amélie and The Royal Tenenbaums, Tuvalu is a fanciful pantomime which engages with a real space – a dilapidated bathhouse in Sofia, Bulgaria – and explores its potentials both theatrically (through silent film performance, especially Denis Lavant’s unflagging athleticism) and filmically (Emil Hristow’s crisp photography, beautifully tinted according to spatial and thematic codes borrowed from Griffith). Yes, it is cartoonish, and given to Rube Goldberg contraptionism. But it manages to be light and airy while also containing passages of haunting poetry. Eva (Chulpan Khamatova) swimming with her goldfish, and the father’s aquatic funeral accompanied by a Bulgarian women’s chorus, are among my most cherished cinematic memories from this year. Unlike the films of Jeunet, Gilliam, or works by other fantasists to which Tuvalu has been compared, Helmer’s film has room to breathe. It’s frustrating that a film so remarkably alive seems to have slunk into theatres DOA
9. The Stranger in Apartment 9F (Mike Kuchar, U.S.A.) [video]
Too long in the shadow of his equally talented brother George, Mike Kuchar roared into Berkeley’s PFA (well, roared with a fair degree of self-deprecation) with a triumphant collection of video works and “teleplays” from the past six years. Taken as a whole, Kuchar’s program was the most fun I’ve had in a movie theatre in years. His tapes work on too many levels. First, they are aesthetic marvels, demonstrating that people who make flat or washed-out video works just don’t know their way around the medium. Kuchar’s intense saturated colors match film in their power, and surpass it by creating moods which veer from candy-coated Spanish-language TV artifice to tele-noir. Second, Kuchar’s writing and direction of actors is stunning, and demonstrates why John Waters considers the Kuchar brothers to be his masters. The performers, a collection of differently-photogenic friends and fans, manage both to nail every punch line, and to shock the hell out of you with genuinely affecting pathos and sincerity. The Stranger in Apartment 9F was the best of a powerful lot, returning Sirkian values to a soap opera structure. Every apartment contains a story of heartbreak, along with a hard-boiled philosophical insight to wash it down. Attending this great program was like watching Barry Bonds’ 2001 season – an artist at the height of his powers, hammering them home with authority. All you can do is cheer.
10. Audition (Takashi Miike, Japan)
Only a filmmaker as fundamentally lawless, as oblivious to the canons of quality and good taste, as Takashi Miike could make a filmgoer feel like a stodgy conservative for loving Audition the best out of the five (!!!) pictures he released to North American theatres and the festival circuit. While I quite enjoyed the yakuza-implosion of Dead or Alive and the mother’s milk teorema of Visitor Q (but was less impressed with Ichi the Killer and still haven’t caught up with DOA2: Birds), Audition stands apart, precisely because it exhibits an uncharacteristic formal control which Miike soon reveals to be the year’s biggest ruse. Kindly widower Aoyama (Ryo Ishibashi) is encouraged by his teenaged son to take a new wife, and meets the submissive Asami (Eihi Shiina) through an audition for a nonexistent TV movie. Putting along at the middling pace of Aoyama’s life, as well as that of an Ozu-lite Miramax midlife charmer, Audition suffers a midfilm crisis, kicking into another stratosphere where Asami is the boss. Because Miike orchestrates serenity for both character and audience so well for so long, the second-half’s exploration of the fundamental attraction / repulsion of the sexes attain a chilling resonance. By contrast, Audition makes a gorefest like Ichi look quite literally like a pile of slop. (No guts, no glory, I suppose.) Nevertheless, the consistency of Miike’s themes (masculinity under threat and under revision, the dissolution of traditional codes of behavior) and his grindhouse work ethic (“How does he do it? Volume!”) make him a director whose every yakuza melodrama and high-viscosity geek show is a must-see when it blusters into town.
A DOZEN RUNNERS-UP:
Camera (David Cronenberg, Canada)
Eureka (Shinji Aoyama, Japan)
The God of Day Had Gone Down Upon Him (Stan Brakhage, U.S.A.)
I’m Going Home (Manoel de Oliveira, France / Portugal) [the would-be #11, hopefully to be released in 2002]
The Long Holiday (Johan van der Keuken, The Netherlands)
Memento Mori (Kim Tae-yong & Min Kyu-dong, South Korea)
Mulholland Drive (David Lynch, U.S.A.)
SLOW (Scott Stark, U.S.A.) [video piece]
Smell of Camphor, Fragrance of Jasmine (Bahman Farmanara, Iran)
Surface Noise (Abigail Child, U.S.A.)
The Widow of Saint-Pierre (Patrice Leconte, France / Canada) [which contained the finest performance of the year, by Daniel Auteuil]
With a Friend Like Harry. . . (Dominik Moll, France)