REVIEWS OF NEW RELEASES SEEN, APRIL 2011
All films from U.S.A. unless otherwise specified.
([v] video piece; [s] short, under 30 minutes; [m] medium length, 30-69 min; * grade changed upon repeat viewing)
NOTE: Films I previewed for the Nashville Film Festival are reviewed on a separate page. They can be found here.
Art History (Joe Swanberg) [v]
Somehow, I knew that if I kept at it, it was bound to happen. And happen it has: a Swanberg film that I genuinely like. I would like to attribute this to some form of epiphany on my part -- a magic lightbulb suddenly allowing me to see what respected colleagues like Dan Sallitt and Craig Keller found so bracing in Nights and Weekends and Hannah Takes the Stairs. (It's stuck in my craw a while.) But I think what has happened has more to do with significant changes in Swanberg's own work, a noteworthy combination of relaxation of the narrative drive and an increased formal rigor. Now, it may strike some to claim that Swanberg's work, organized as it has been by romantic couplings and lengthy conversational negotiations, could do very little to "relax the narrative drive" of his films, but in Art History the relationship inklings and off-timing flirtations very quickly attain equal footing (or better) with the difficult work of shooting and editing a no-budget independent feature. Swanberg does show us the complex interactions of himself and his cast and crew -- Sam (Swanberg) is interested in Juliette (Josephine Decker) but Eric (Swanberg axiom Kent Osborne), with whom Juliette is performing a sexually explicit scene, makes his move. (Indie-horror director Adam Wingard and Joe's wife Kris Swanberg round out the cast.) While Swanberg has long shown a sometimes irksome penchant for letting conversations veer into the ambient, their um's and uh's mutating into a kind of reverse-thruster non-language, Art History finds Swanberg succeeding in allowing the unspoken gaps within awkward, tentative speech (to say nothing of sexually frustrated passive-aggression) to flourish. Strange group rituals, odd, half-retracted bodily gestures, and particularly the assertion of labor -- the strategic deployment of the locked-in, "I'm working" time as a justifiable rebuff -- all speak far louder than any self-conscious logorrhea. But perhaps what makes Art History most exciting is Swanberg's increasingly developed visual sense. Confession: I recently started corresponding with Mr. Swanberg. (Gotta say, nice guy, and strangely cool about the fact I've never liked his work.) He has indicated a renewed interest in experimental film, Brakhage in particular. While Art History is by no means Brakhagian, Swanberg is in control of a seductive new color palette, working with some heretofore untapped potentials of his HD tools. The "off-set" areas are especially rich. (Art History, like the film being shot within it, is all contained within a single house.) The reddish-brown of the common area finds Swanberg's video drinking in the saturated amber of nighttime lamplight, whereas the night swimming interludes pierce the frame with a backlit cobalt blue. The pool is not only a formal refrain. It's a place where Swanberg's not-so-young American bodies swirl around one another like ambivalent angels, suspended in profane, late California stained glass.
Although it isn't exactly a "review" in the conventional sense, the piece that Jim Ridley invited me to write for the Nashville Scene, on the occasion on the Belcourt Theatre's rep screening of the Michael Curtiz / Joan Crawford MIldred Pierce, gets at plenty of my feelings regarding Haynes' HBO telefilm. Haynes is sometimes taken to task for being too cold or chilly, or for being (god forbid) an analytical or academic filmmaker. One of the go-to brickbats that his detractors wield against him is his scholarly background (Semiotics, Brown '87). But this is something that I, as a booster, find myself pointing to just as readily, whether or not it's entirely fair. Mildred Pierce 2011 is a dialectical work in many respects. First, ironically, it's a film that explores the Romanticist myths of creative genius, over and against the presumed vulgarity of labor. For Haynes, this is a dichotomy that cloaks itself in complete autonomy from market forces but is in fact completely enmeshed with them. So, the Veda / Mildred split could be read as parallel to the "Haynes problem" itself. Does the critical establishment demand raw, primitive "vision," or will it tolerate the deep structural analysis that, in the end, can only come from actual work performed on the signifiers before us? What's more, Haynes' Mildred, and his and Winslet's Mildred, are creations that stake out positions within fields of operations that are practically visible. This is not just about the Depression and the choices that a youngish single mother must (or can) make, although that's part of it. We also witness Mildred's maternal and her sexual desires, not bursting forth from an unfettered wellspring of feminine psychology, but negotiated within the terms available. Mildred "feels," but not as a free agent whose desires are the driving force of her personality. She is an emergent upper- bourgeois subject, but she must redirect her drives, because they are always channeled through middle-class strategy and aspiration. This isn't just about pleasing Veda, either. When Mildred learns that Monte thinks her "kitchen legs" are sexy (because they're déclassé), it's as though she is given permission to occupy her own body as a lusty, desiring subject. Haynes has always been a filmmaker who is deeply concerned with body-politics, but unlike, say, David Cronenberg, who works on the Deleuzian / phenomenological side of the street, Haynes is a true Foucaultian. Bodies are made legible through signification. And so his Mildred Pierce -- which is, of course, a multiply-framed film historical representation as well, with the "original" Cain novel being more "faithfully" adapted, but only through the preexisting lens of the earlier film, and the Sirk System, and the Fassbinder System, and twin economic crises -- is first and foremost a study in how women attempted to form community, take control of their own sign systems, only to find that Capital is the only alphabet that ever truly allows us, even for a moment, to read ourselves.
Poetry (Lee Chang-dong, South Korea)
My Nashville Scene review, which (especially at the beginning) shows signs of schematism, not knowing quite what to say or how to tackle this film (as well as trying to avoid what seemed like spoilers). I've come to the conclusion that I'll never really embrace Lee. I don't know if it's his literary provenance, the sense that his plots and characters always feel like conceits that would carry more persuasiveness on the written page. Or if he just seems rather bland and functional in his modes of visual communication, seldom providing much in the way of a truly surprising (much less astonishing) image. Nevertheless, I must confess that I'm finding myself more and more disengaged from popular opinion where Korean cinema is concerned. It's as though, now that the "wave" has subsided, we're left with some rather efficient masters who are unwilling to push imagination to the limits. The fact that some observers deride Hong Sang-soo for "making the same film over and over," but enthuse over prim technocrats like Lee, Bong Joon-ho, and Park Chan-wook, is a touch confusing.
Do I have more to say about this than I did here? Not really, except that, yes, as an objective exercise in acting, cinematography, editing, etc., this is more of a  than a . But for crying out loud, this film is just so goddamned emotionally dishonest. It's like Bier and Jensen are so burdened by their sloppy, ill-conceived thesis that they're forced to jury-rig every aspect of the film's character or event structure, just to make sure it all lands up where they "need" it to. At least Iñárritu and Arriaga used to throw in some flash-paper and razzmatazz when they did this kind of crap.