All films from U.S.A. unless otherwise specified.

(- seen on video; [v] video piece; [s] short, under 30 minutes; [m] medium length, 30-69 min; * grade changed upon repeat viewing)




Symbol (Hitoshi Matsumoto, Japan)

[SPOILERS] Films that attempt to generate entire worlds are deeply unfashionable these days, mostly because they're usually atrocious. This wasn't always the case. The high-modernist period of the 1960s and 70s was a virtual seedbed of visionary cinematic expression. Need I perform the roll call? Kubrick, Bresson, Dreyer, Bergman, Godard, Antonioni, Tarkovsky, Brakhage, Frampton, Tati, Buñuel, Mizoguchi, certain moments of Hitchcock and Spielberg, and you get the point. Now, I have an argument I'm making here, other than some silly, Sontagian "those were the days" whining, so hang with me. The 1980s saw a resurgence of the visionary style, but in a decidely dystopian, paranoid mode, which I suppose is entirely appropriate for a global village in the death throes of the Cold War. So we got Lynch, Gilliam, Burton, Andersson, Sokurov, Monteiro, world-forgers with the post-utopian jaundiced eye. And so, where are we now? Can cinema even hope to construct a coherent cosmology, to produce a vision of the universe whole-cloth? The trouble is, the very urge to do so is degraded. Ironically, as our capacity to actually envision the entirety of our world has increased, the intellectual potential for grasping our current situation, either materially or spiritually, has significantly diminished. Instead, we generally find the movies giving us self-serious but wholly movie-derived "pornotopias," chintzy sub-visionary pap guaranteed to dazzle those with no sense of history precisely because those are the same people who generated said vision in the first place. Gaspar Noé's films are rather idiotic at times, and trade on a lunkheaded assumption that animal urges reveal the truth about "Man." But I tend to like them all the same; at least he can rip off Michael Snow properly. This is much more than can be said for the Darren Aronofsky of Requiem or The Fountain or the Richard Kelly of Southland Tales or the Zach Snyder of Watchmen.


With Symbol, we have something altogether different -- a film that provides a complete vision of the universe, from a few select perspectives, and manages not only to evoke a coherent philosophical attitude toward existence, but to be pretty goddamned funny in the bargain. This film, to say the least, is a major leap forward from Matsumoto's debut, Big Man Japan. That film, while fitfully amusing, had only one gag and generated its few laughs from the director's slurred, shambling performance. This downcast persona is in keeping with the abused funnyman Matsumoto played for years opposite Masatoshi Hamada in the revolutionary Japanese comedy team Downtown. But the nameless human being the filmmaker portrays in Symbol, while clearly a variation on that luckless persona, displays considerably more anger and frustration, representing the overall evolution in Matsumoto's performance style while also giving us permission to find the character's (literal) nightmare scenario amusing, and eventually edifying. Here's what we know. Matsumoto, in pajamas, wakes up on the floor of a doorless, windowless white room. He is trapped, and, following the emergence from the walls of hundreds of naked winged putti in bas-relief, the walls and floor remain covered in their little baby-penises, which operate as switches that make the room do random things (mostly dispensing useless consumer items). In a separate reality, linked by cross-cutting, we see a rural Mexican family prepare for what will most likely be the final match of their low-rent luchador father, The Snail Man (Matcho Panpu). As Matsumoto strategizes, flipping peenie-lever after peenie-lever (sometimes getting a sushi dinner, other times a fart in the face), he becomes a moptopped, Mr. Peepersesque Robinson Crusoe, determined to use the "tools" before him, his native intelligence, and a bit of luck, and puzzle his way out of the fluorescent god-box. Meanwhile, Snail Man's son is in the stands, hoping that pure muscle -- the existential event of simply being that body in the space-time of the ring -- will prove enough to prevail. Matsumoto has forged a perfect dialectic. One space is clean, antiseptic, a conundrum for one. The other is dusty, irregularly paved, porous, teeming with life. What do these worlds have to do with one another? Until the very end of Symbol, it's completely unclear whether Matsumoto even wants to answer that question.


Part of the intellectual magnificence of Symbol is that Matsumoto answers the question in a plethora of ways. As described above, he answers it formally, as a set of filmic opposites that come together at a particular juncture. But from there, this event becomes one spoke in an infinite wheel. The Matsumoto "prisoner" doesn't simply find an answer and escape. He discovers a new set of possibilities, which, if given the most rudimentary interpretation, represents the next level of some cosmic videogame. But it's obviously so much more, since any ontological inquiry worth its salt, be it philosophical, religious, or some combination of the two, involves not the simple revelation of "answers," but the constant reframing of knowledge, the shifting of the very grounds within which questions are posed. That Matsumoto starts us out within the absurd is only fitting. We begin in a mix of fear and stupidity, and, as with the great philosophical absurdists -- Beckett, Kafka, Ionesco -- laughter is both a nervous kick against the bitterness and a genuine expression of pleasure at our abject powerlessness. Matsumoto plays masochism like a Keith Richards riff, transmogrifies it into Zen beatitude, and leads us to a startling discovery. If God exists, He's the biggest wanker of them all.




Talentime (Yasmin Ahmad, Malaysia)

I wound up incorporating the majority of my thoughts on Yasmin's final film intothis long-ish article for Moving Image Source, but there are a few remaining aspects of this lovely film worth addressing and, given that MoMA is giving it a well-deserved week-long run, I thought it merited a stand-alone review. In his writing about Yasmin's work following her passing, Amir Muhammad made reference to the concept of "throw behavior," those little inconsistencies of action that, retrospectively, seem to foreshadow someone's death. (Of course, all events seem inevitable in retrospect. Historians call this phenomenon "backshadowing.") Naturally Amir addressed the irrational aspect of this thinking but likewise noted its lure, and lest it seem merely superstitious, let's recall that nearly all auteur-based film discourse has a special way of talking about last films and late films, the degree of appositeness with which they provide a capstone for the career they conclude. (A Prairie Home Companion: perfect "final film." Family Plot: inappropriate "final film." Eyes Wide Shut: jury's still out.) All this by way of saying, Talentime is a pretty wonderful film with which to end a career that was cut terribly short and was by no means approaching a natural conclusion. What Talentime demonstrates about the trajectory of Yasmin's work, and where it would most likely have continued to go, is that certain defining aspects of her artistic personality were becoming not only more confident, but more extreme. One of the most notable signatures of Yasmin's film work, especially in the Orked films, was the unexpected and sometimes rocky articulation of serious family and social drama with a sharp, spunky irreverence. Yasmin's humor, often delivered by young women acting as her onscreen avatars, could be pointed and even bawdy, and the presence of these ooh-snap! moments had an unusual impact on the films' depiction of tragedy. Drama suddenly seemed both more realistic (because it was woven into an overall tapestry of things, inconsistent though it may be) and more melodramatic (thrown as it was into pointed, semi-Brechtian relief) and therefore more visible as a kind of direct emotional appeal.


Talentime, a true "late film" (again, though, who knew?), puts the pedal to the metal. The framing device of the talent competition carves out performance space for three of the four principals -- Melur (Pamela Chong) with her "Angel" song; Hafiz (Mohd Syafie Naswip) with his rockabilly number; and Kahoe (Howard Kon Kahoe) playing the erhu. This, together with the racial, friendship, and romantic conflicts (especially between Melur and deaf-mute Mahesh [Mahesh Jugal Kishor]), and the interstitial business with the teachers, keep things bouncing along at a whiplash pace. Weaving in and out of this, of course, are the tragic bits: a family murder, a terminal illness, and eventually a Romeo and Juliet scenario based on racial prejudice. While it's true that Gubra was a complex number, augmenting (some have said muddying) the entire Orked plot with a secondary story in no way related to the main narrative, and that (as I argue in the long piece), as open diegetic mode is nothing new in Yasmin Ahmad films, the introduction of "the cinema of attractions" as Eisenstein and Gunning liked to call it -- the wholly non-narrative display of internal performance within a cinematic work -- is a new, complexifying piece of the puzzle, and brings Yasmin's organizational mode closer than ever back to the advertisements (in terms of pacing and self-containment) than her fiction work has ever been. This is fairly radical, and it indicates the beginning of a new consciousness about the plasticity and multivalence of filmic time within a single work. The rehearsals have their own stop-start pace, Mahesh's mother and her depression and eventual rage moves (or doesn't) at its own stymied rhythm, the slow death of Hafiz's mother (as ushered by the Angel of Death) is moving at its own pace, etc. Granted, all events sort of resolve themselves by film's end. Except for the lives of the kids, which, being the future and all, have to keep on fumbling after the display is over. As if to emphasize this point -- that the young generation won't get its happy ending inside a movie or a playhouse -- Yasmin opens Talentime with a series of static shots of the lights coming on in the empty hall, and ends with those same lights going out. The film, and whatever hopes and fantasies it may promulgate, empties itself out before us. Yasmin's art was clearly moving into a fascinating new phase, making her passing all that much more of a crushing loss.




It Came From Kuchar (Jennifer M. Kroot)

If we stipulate that (a) no one in the avant-garde has gotten the exposure they deserve (which is true); and that (b) despite the recent spate of DVD releases of avant-garde films and videos -- probably about half as many in the last ten years as were ever officially released in the entire existence of VHS -- there are still many more films to be rented on 16mm and sought out at cinematheques than simply Netflixed; then we can agree that the boom in avant-garde filmmaker documentaries (on which I've already remarked here) is, in general, a good thing. [And there's your lede!] Even if these docs tend to be a little less creative than their subjects' work, they spread the gospel and get some clips out there into the world, a little taste of avant-crack where the first one's always free and hopefully some adventurous souls will keep ducking down the alleys for more. But Kroot's Kuchar film offers unique pleasures and opportunities that set it apart from the Brakhage film, the Deren film, et al. It's not just that the Kuchars' early output, on 8mm, is hard to see even by avant-garde standards. (Thankfully, Anthology Film Archives and the National Film Preservation Foundation have been transferring some of the classic 8mms to 16, and they look succulent.) One of the unique and amazing things about the films of George and Mike Kuchar is their aesthetic debt to Hollywood forms, particularly melodrama and horror. They brought a Bronx sensibility downtown (where it meshed with surprising ease with the Jacobs / Smith / Mekas underground), and one of the things that Kroot accomplishes here is a side-by-side taxonomy, actually seeing the Kuchars's efforts directly alongside Sirk and Butterfield 8, or watching George's video art influenced / Roger Corman-style production at the San Francisco Art Institute and then seeing the finished product.


Likewise, Kroot does a fine job or articulating the ways in which as the twins' interests and working methods diverge. We spend a good deal of time in George's always pleasuable company, watching him discuss classic films like Hold Me While I'm Naked and The Devil's Cleavage as well as less-well-known but equally worthy efforts such as the Weather Diaries. But perhaps more importantly, Kroot allows us an all-too-rare chance to spend some quality time with Mike. We glimpse Mike's underrated and underseen solo work in the context of interview clips which, although clearly difficult for the introverted filmmaker to provide, offer invaluable perspectives on his work, both on its own terms and in its stark differences from George's. (Mike's films and teleplays are more rigorously classical in their adherence to Sirkian construction and performance values, and immeasurably more frank in their sexuality. I've found that audiences steeped in George's approach come to Mike's work and often misread his tone, mistaking him for a social comic like his brother. He most certainly isn't.) If It Came From Kuchar misses an opportunity -- and this is something that, even as an a-g aficionado and Kuchar lover, I've never entirely grasped to my satisfaction -- it's in providing a satisfactory explanation for the brothers' specific place in avant-garde film history. The Kuchars did, absolutely, make a space for themselves within the New York experimental elite, although they never acted the part of the snooty artistes and abjured fame and fortune at every turn, as this film makes clear. But how exactly did their goofball sub-Hollywood, sincere-ironic termite-parodies link up with, say, Ken Jacobs's "Baudelairean" cinema, Jack Smith's Maria Montez / Von Sternberg fetishes, Jonas Mekas's diaries,Kenneth Anger's gay Lucifer worship, et cetera? You'd never exactly know from this film the extent to which George and Mike were accepted as integral parts of this crazy world, and in some ways that acceptance barely makes sense. (Read Sitney's Visionary Film and you'll find no mention of the Kuchars.) But it made perfect sense to the filmmakers who comprised that world. (At Michael Snow's very first screening of Wavelength, for a handful of friends in an apartment, one of them was George Kuchar.) So it would have been a great service had Kroot helped to explain fonce and for all. how the capacious category of "avant-garde" made room for two of the most whacked-out kitchen sink melodramatists the cinema has ever spawned.




The Human Centipede (First Sequence) (Tom Six, The Netherlands)

What? No breakdancing? A perfectly god-awful piece of filmmaking that seems to defy criticism, since it -- wink wink! -- knows just exactly how awful it is, and plays that camp aspect to the hilt, Six's Human Centipede can at the very least boast a baldly declarative, Snakes on a Plane-style moniker. Paying customers know precisely what they're going to get: a psychotic German surgeon, Dr. Heiter (Dieter Laser, whose maniacal mugging makes Udo Kier look like Bob fucking Newhart), who used to separate conjoined twins, now wants to link a bunch of people into one long thing, asshole to mouth. ("Surgically accurate!" the ads proudly trumpet, as if that made a damn bit of difference. My suggested tagline for Iron Man 2: "Based on the periodic table of elements!") The concept is sickmaking, and segments (ha! segments) of Centipede are certainly harrowing to watch. Seeing a crypto-Nazi in a semi-sterile operating theatre [SPOILER!] slice a chunk out of a young woman's buttocks so someone's muzzle can be sewn way up her anus, well, that's something you'll never forget unless you go fight a war. But it must be said, the centipede itself, once completed, is a total letdown. Six hedges his bets on the body-horror. Most of the post-op conjoinment is wrapped in gauze and therefore left to the imagination, for which I suppose we should be grateful. But this nightmare-creature, as a result of Six's "discretion," mostly ends up looking like an anilingus conga line. Minor director Akihiro Kitamura, appearing as the understandably furious lead segment Katsuro, does what he can to lend some spray-on gravity to the hogwash, but there's little that can be done. It's all just varying degrees of stupid and repulsive, and anyone making a Cronenberg comparison on this one needs to get out more. (If you saw your parents fucking, would you think of Videodrome?) Anyway, here's anAT40 extra for you.