REVIEWS OF NEW RELEASES SEEN, FEBRUARY 2006

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)

 

[8]

 

-Worldly Desires (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand) [v/m]

This digital featurette, not quite a companion piece to Tropical Malady but certainly related to it, shows Joe operating at the height of his formalist powers. One of the things I've valued about Weerasethakul's work since Mysterious Object at Noon is his commitment to exploring the traditions of avant-garde cinema while taking those idioms into uncharted territory. While some works by Joe have displayed an interest in bending the strategies of Andy Warhol and Bruce Baillie to the needs of Thai folklore and narrative gamesmanship, Worldly Desires takes a more structural approach. However this piece bears little resemblance to structural film as we usually think of it; if there are specific touchstones for Worldly Desires in film history, they would be those "other" structuralists, so wonky and off the beaten track as to thwart easy categorization. Like Morgan Fisher's early film projects, Worldly Desires is a documentation of the filmmaking process. Within a single expansive jungle location, portions of a Thai soap opera are being filmed by day, and a music video is being made by night. We watch at a significant remove, behind the camera and lighting crews. Multiple views display random bits of business on the periphery, like the craft services table or a playback monitor. However, the stringent day / night rhythmic structure breaks down in the end, the night song (about a woman wondering if she'll be as lucky in love as her mom was -- an Electra Complex with a disco beat) eventually bleeding into the daytime shoot. But more significantly, the relatively austere TV production, whose melodramatic dialogue is mostly heard in disconnected snippets, is contrapuntally offset by the swelling musical numbers. They break up the video, with the unexpected jolt of pure pleasure. Although these sequences recall the musical interludes in certain of Tsai Ming-liang's films, they're shot in the mode of early Hou Hsiao-hsien, dancing girls reduced to tiny figures in a wide expanse, itself engulfed within an intractable master-shot. The rigor / comedy handoff recalls aspects of Owen Land's work, but perhaps more importantly, Joe's visual and conceptual approach displays a sensitivity to the unique qualities of the jungle landscape, a willingness to let the "location" become the subject of the piece. Worldly Desires is a landscape film, one that brings that most mythologically burdened aspect of Tropical Malady -- its deep, dark thicket of the soul -- and allows it to grow wild and overtake the image. At any given point, Joe's camera is at variable distances to the soap opera shoot, but as he moves around the scene one always had to peer through the foliage to see where the human action is. This activity is reduced to an epiphenomenon, and a compositionally confusing one at that. Like trying to follow the story in Ken Jacobs' Tom, Tom the Piper's Son, figuring out the specifics of Worldly Desires' documentary aspect is missing the point. If there is a mystery about this jungle location, it exists apart from its human inhabitants, or any human interpretation. At one point a crew member starts to tell another person about the jungle's magic, but this line of discussion goes nowhere. Similarly, the women in the video shoot are ghostly figures in the dark, like a coven of apparitions, but we know full well that they're just paid dancers. With every new edit, Joe provides a striking view on this particular slice of Thailand, never providing a complete picture. But this only adds to the sense of human intervention (the film crews', Joe's, and the spectator's) being inadequate to subsuming this space under narrative or entertainment. The jungle asserts the "mystery" of its own material existence, and Joe allows it to do so, overwhelming any meaning outside of itself.

 

[7]

 

-The Ister (David Barison and Daniel Ross, Australia) [v]

Essentially a three-hour telecourse on Heideggerian philosophy and its legacy, The Ister is a film whose potential audience is, let's say, a self-selected bunch. But this is only half the story; Barison and Ross have constructed a slowly accumulating artwork that successfully conveys its abstruse subject matter to any interested party willing to give it the necessary time and energy. While not exactly for the layperson going in cold (it certainly helps to have a passing familiarity with Heidegger's work on technology and at least a vague notion of what Dasein is), The Ister elicits cogent, comprehensible discussions from its four featured thinkers -- post-Heideggerian technology theorist Bernard Stiegler, post-structuralist philosophers Jean-Luc Nancy and Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, and über-Germanic filmmaker Hans-Jürgen Syberberg. Given the complex melange of ideas involved, it helps that Barison and Ross have arranged the film as a series of lectures dealing with specific threads of Heidegger's thought, providing sustained meditations that collectively coalesce into a substantial examination. The Ister uses two "texts" as touchstones, giving shape to the project as a whole: Heidegger's seminar on "The Ister," Friedrich Hölderlin's poetic hymn to the Danube; and the river itself, originally called the Ister by the Greeks and Romans. The filmmakers intersperse the interview segments with a visual journey up the Danube to its source in Northern Germany. In doing so, The Ister not only allows viewers to consider the recent history of those nations traversed by the Danube (the former Yugoslavia in particular), but subtly enacts the precepts of Heideggerian thought. If, as Heidegger assumes, history and temporality are the measure of human existence, then what value does the Danube, or any natural feature, have in itself? Is it brought into being only by those human monuments erected on its banks, or does the river itself play some role in shaping that destiny? To their credit, Barison and Ross do not shy away from the more troubling aspects of the Heideggerian corpus and its world-historical legacy. The Ister examines the philosopher's allegiance to the Nazi Party, and his eventual equation of concentration camps with mechanized agriculture (two modes of bending the world to immediate human will, although, needless to say, with a radical disparity in scale which Heidegger finesses). At the same time, these inexcusable moral lapses are not merely bandied about in order to dismiss Heidegger's work tout court, as some rather reductive critics have done. Instead, the grim moral complexity of Heidegger and his work are grappled with, and a misunderstanding eventually emerges.

 

If the Danube's apparent timelessness and natural inevitability are somehow at odds with the shorter-spanning temporality of human existence, perhaps this disparity could productively humble us human beings. Instead, it seems, Heidegger interpreted Hölderlin's poem to be a desire to identify completely with this anonymous, sublime timelessness, and perhaps Heidegger's support for Hitler's dream of a thousand-year reich can be understood as an ache to subsume the finite self within something infinite, an attempt at what Freud would call that "oceanic feeling." If I find The Ister intellectually flawed in some way, it is because I think that Hölderlin, the ostensible inspiration for the project, is largely passed over in favor of direct engagement with Heidegger. Fair enough inasmuch as the philosopher has proven to be the more influential writer. But that aspect of world-historical destiny that Heidegger identified in "The Ister" is tempered and complicated by Hölderlin in ways Heidegger (and The Ister) could not fully countenance. Yes, Hölderlin envied the spatial expanse and longevity, the inhumanity of the Danube, but also recognized that this desire to abandon the self was a fantasy. Hölderlin himself succumbed to schizophrenia, and yet Heidegger followed Hitler's lead in trying to make this fantasy of self-sublation a political reality. As Eric Santner's essay on the poet makes clear, the struggle in Hölderlin is one between identity and difference, and while this dialectic informs Heidegger's work as well, it is only after the defeat of National Socialism that the philosopher can accept that this dialectic (to borrow from Adorno's eventual rendering of the problem) must remain "negative," tensional and permanently suspended. This is something the poet intuitively knew all along. And although The Ister follows the Danube as it silently witnesses human history, even turning human events depicted in the film (e.g., a birthday party, a celebration on Romania's entry into NATO) into a kind of condensed musical shorthand, the film nevertheless seems to regard Heidegger, and Hölderlin along with him, as an exhausted hangover from the 20th century. At least the final assessment Syberberg provides gives that impression, that both thinkers were committed to an idea, "Germany," that no longer exists. This may be true -- Germany certainly never existed in the manner the Nazis believed, and that twisted ideal is even less imaginable in today's multiethnic Europe. But it's possible that Hölderlin has already thought this future through, even if it was against his will. Nationalism becomes a kind of psychological disorder, and to attempt to be the Danube is both a denial of Being-unto-death (that is, a delusional fiction), and an inadvertent embrasure of homelessness, a spiritual drift through uncharted international waters.

 

Final thought: I watched The Ister on home video rather than theatrically, and this is the rare instance in which I'd characterize this as an advantage. It allowed me to pause, rewind, and consult my library. You'll want to at least have a volume of Hölderlin's poetry handy. And if a viewing experience like this seems anathema to you, that's cool. To each his own.

 

[6]

 

-Bubble (Steven Soderbergh)

I'm sure someone has already put forward an allegorical reading of Bubble, which is every bit as expressive of its material circumstances as, say, Ocean's 13. Whereas that big-budget sequel conveyed nothing so much as Soderbergh and his rich friends marveling at their own good fortune in the world, and larkily building a pseudo-film around their Italian vacation, Bubble also speaks to its own status as a class-based artifact. Most of the media attention has focused on Magnolia Films' "day-and-date" release strategy, issuing Bubble on DVD just days after its theatrical release and showing it twice on multimedia billionaire Mark Cuban's obscure HD cable channel (somewhere in the 800s on my dial, although I don't have high-def anyway). But let's think about this: Bubble is a resolutely ordinary story of working-class Ohioans living in Belpre, a town miles away (both culturally and geographically) from arthouse cinema. Soderbergh's film could be read as a gesture parallel to the ostensible populism of the day-and-date release. I mean, for all practical purposes I'm living in a frozen suburban wasteland right now, and all I had to do to watch Bubble was pick it up at Best Buy. At the same time, some of the awkwardness of Bubble speaks to the complexities of this problem. The geographical divide can be pretty easily bridged, but the cultural one may be another matter. It's not just that one of Hollywood's insiders (although a uniquely liminal one) has teamed up with the owner of the Dallas Mavericks to produce million-dollar folk cinema. That's too easy, and ignores Bubble's substantial accomplishments. The patient observational style of Bubble and its committed focus on its non-professional cast do provide a lyricism and factory breakroom pacing that most cinema could care less about. Soderbergh taps into a wellspring of fidgety mannerisms, thick silences, and corporeal presences so deeply lived-in (not "authentic," mind you, but unsculpted and inhabiting a more practical type of self-consciousness) as to make moments that most of us have in fact occupied -- dead moments, drifting time -- seem heavy with expectation.

 

But at the same time, Soderbergh doesn't seem to completely trust this aesthetic of absence. It's not just the unnecessary shaping of all this useless beauty into a murder plot (albeit a rather graceful and unconventional one). Even touches that I'm sure seemed "organic" on paper, like a guitar score by fellow Ohioan Robert Pollard, come across as leaden and half-thought-out. And perhaps this is the cultural divide at work. It's not just that most non-urban Americans won't really care about Bubble, whether they have access to it or not. It's that Soderbergh, a Southerner gone big-city (not unlike myself), finds his honest appreciation for Belpre life mixed in with a dread he and his film recoil from. It's not clear just how much he's aware of this. Some passages of Bubble find the director actively engaging with his material, from his own hybrid subject-position. The factory segments in particular demonstrate a sensitive, open examination of the mechanics of doll production, the gestures of the men and women who perform this labor. But these images also show without a doubt that they are being intellectually absorbed by a man well-versed in the films of Eisenstein and Vertov. This is as it should be; Soderbergh's compromised authenticity should be in dialogue with the compromised "earthiness" of these performers and environments. But at other times (especially the wide-angle pivot shots of the suburban exteriors of Belpre) Soderbergh puts up a defensive distance, examining this world as if through a microscope. However, even at these moments, Bubble is grounded by its cast. Although Dustin James Ashley's Kyle is a muttering cipher, he embodies a particular truth of rural masculinity -- articulateness is suspect, brusqueness implies power through restraint. And while Misty Wilkins (Rose) actually comports herself like a natural small-town actress, calling to mind a considerably less coached version of Funny Ha Ha's Kate Dollenmayer, Soderbergh's real triumph is his having found Debbie Doebereiner while pulling around the drive-thru at KFC. It's no wonder Soderbergh can barely resist just training "Peter Andrews'" camera on her weathered visage. Like so many performers in the films of Rob Nilsson (whose work Bubble resembles somewhat) or certain figures in Bruno Dumont's work (especially L'humanité's Emmanuel Schotté), Doebereiner radiates sad charisma precisely because the rules of society practically defy us to so much as look at her. That this becomes the upshot of Bubble is clever if overly explicit. And the film's fascination with Doebereiner certainly opens the project up to charges of red-state fetishism that, in its complex double-consciousness, Bubble does not entirely avoid. Nevertheless, it seems to be that the pitfalls of Bubble are preferable to the dictates implied by many of the film's critics -- that we all have some sort of responsibility (cultural, ethical, and for The Hollywood Reporter above all economic) to stay on our side of the fence.

 

-The Lost Domain (Raoul Ruiz, France / Italy / Romania / Spain)

Lots of international filmmakers have brief moments in the sun -- invites to festivals, traveling retrospectives, small-scale commercial distribution of their work -- only to fall back into relative obscurity with the cinephile establishment. There's always some exciting young director on the horizon, or so the assumption goes. This has happened a few times to Raoul Ruiz (the 'o' is optional, and seems tied to whether he's working from France or not), and The Lost Domain is a truly bizarre artifact of this lack of widespread scrutiny. In this situation, some filmmakers will dig in their heels and give vent to their most abstruse private visions, while others will bend their work towards the expectations of the mainstream arthouse marketplace. But The Lost Domain seems to move in both directions at once. Bookended by an enigmatic introduction and a plodding conclusion seemingly designed to dispel all remaining mystery, Ruiz's latest spends the majority of its running time hovering in a state of tantalizing indecision. This has been part of the Ruiz m.o. for quite some time. Possibly our most Borgesian filmmaker, Ruiz has exploited otherwise untapped potentials for cinematic storytelling, using looping time, repetition, character shifts, and circling, ethereal camerawork to defeat (or at least suspect) the built-in materiality of the photographic film image. His style treats the physical world as raw material for the dream-work, subjecting it to endless displacements and condensations. The Lost Domain is a treatment of subject matter perfectly suited to this approach. One of Ruiz's only films to directly address the Chilean coup that sent him into exile, it shifts between two registers of the past: World War II and the rise of Pinochet's junta in the 70s. These are two different moments in the life of Maximo (played by Gregoire Colin in the distant past, Christian Colin in the 70s segments), an Air Force officer stationed in Britain during the war and, although a Chilean citizen, a man steeped in French culture. In short, Max is in part a fictional stand-in for Ruiz, and the personal nature of The Lost Domain is one of the picture's most remarkable strengths. Whereas a documentarian like Patricio Guzmán captures the hard facts and grand human toll of the deposition of Allende and installation of fascist rule, Ruiz documents the private psychological effects of losing one's country and one's larger place in the world. In part the story of a battalion of fighter pilots, The Lost Domain features a repeated motif of men moving model airplanes through the air, practicing evasive actions before they become necessary. Ruiz's camera functions similarly; its swirling motions turn ordinary moments in daily life into indeterminate, groundless impressions, and his repetition of snippets of dialogue imply that Max's life has the quality of an endless dress rehearsal or a perpetual aerial maneuver, with the promise of terra firma always deferred. This airy, memory-flux aspect of Domain can get frustrating at times (an interlude at a "ghostly" masked ball seems misplaced, just a chance for Ruiz to get his Russian Ark mojo going), but even though it lacks the textual grounding of Time Regained (Ruiz's biggest U.S. hit), there is a poetic and political exigency to Ruiz's technique. He's depicting homelessness and exile, the imprint they leave on the mind, the fact that time itself -- even the ability to narrate one's own life -- is compromised when severed from space. Sadly, the film is almost scuttled by the aforementioned coda, wherein elderly, present-day versions of the two main characters reunite for the benefit of narrative closure and an almost insulting thematic summation for the gray-hairs in the cheap seats. The fact that grounded pilot Antoine (François Cluzet) and Max (G. Colin) look like Martin Short and Dustin Hoffman in their wigs and wrinkly prosthetics only gives off an added air of desperation. After circling the earth with free-floating metaphor, why a Hail Mary pass worthy of The Notebook?

 

-Wedding Crashers (David Dobkin)

David Dobkin! That's right, pal, David Dobkin. Cinephiles of all stripes but auteurists especially tend to be on the lookout for unique directorial talent toiling away in lowly genres like rom-coms or 90-minute sex comedies. Well, based on Wedding Crashers I submit that Dobkin is one to watch. Even though this film peaks ridiculously early with a startlingly original, tightly crafted montage of the crashers in action (set to "Shout" by Otis Day and the Knights) -- a sort of Slavko Vorkapich interlude, with tits -- there's still quite a lot else to recommend about this film. Most of it is contained in Vince Vaughn's high-strung performance; I've never been entirely convinced by this guy until now. He's the real deal, a major comedic talent whose shtick (playing the funny guy as slow-burn straight man struggling to maintain) is simple enough on paper but dynamite when coupled with the right material. His dialogue in this film possesses an almost sculptural quality, trading not only on rhythms but on tiny deployments of negative space. (I'd compare it to David Mamet, but I think we all know what happens when he tries to be funny.) Vaughn is in the zone throughout, but when paired with Isla Fisher's childishly exuberant sex machine, Wedding Crashers crackles. We're talking doubled-over, rolling-on-the-floor comic agony. Unfortunately, this film is way too long, and its final act has not one but two rom-com genre machinations it has to work through -- the guy getting the girl back, as well as the lost buddy. Hetero-paces, homo-paces . . . yawn, just bring the funny, folks. Also, the Butterscotch Stallion? Way sick of the dude.

 

[5]

 

-Haze (Shinja Tsukamoto, Japan) [v/s] [20-minute version]

This is the second piece by Tsukamoto I've seen, and I'm guessing he's just not for me. (I still plan to check out the highly-regarded Tetsuo: The Iron Man and his recent feature Vital. Never let it be said that I give up easily.) While Haze is quite competent at provoking the viewer to recoil at the stark, outer-limits torment of an anonymous human form (Tsukamoto himself), other Asia Extreme auteurs are capable of eliciting similar responses while also composing unique or arresting images, or creating more meaningful contexts for the carnage. Here, Tsukamoto's ECU use of video and his gray-and-crimson palette are a muddy mess . . . well, a haze, I suppose. And although I doubt the premise is much more rewarding at full length (this segment in an Asian omnibus presentation was edited from a 60-minute video featurette), I will say that I was surprised not only by what the situation of our protagonist actually was, but how matter-of-factly this state of affairs is disclosed. (Viewing at home, I rewound the DVD just to make sure I didn't miss anything.) There's an almost humanistic quality to Haze's (anti-) reveal, and in this sort of context, I suppose that's one way to shock.

 

-Mardi Gras: Made in China (David Redmon) [v]

The 5/10 grade is almost accidental, because despite Redmon's assumptions about his subjects, they manage to be surprisingly frank and humane before the camera. So Mardi Gras: Made in China ends up being educational and worthwhile in ways that have little to do with Redmon's intent. In most other ways, this film is precisely what you'd expect, and possibly even a less accomplished version of said 'what.' Redmon contrasts drunken revelers at Mardi Gras with the abused, underpaid Chinese factory workers who toil to make all those gaudy plastic beads that, back in Nawlins, are (were?) "exchanged" for bare boobies. Redmon's persona is that of a curious fellow with a camera, a shtick he lifted from Michael Moore or even Nick Broomfield; the piece feels like something Moore would've done in a ten-minute "TV Nation" segment, padded out to feature length. If there's a single major problem, it's tonal. Despite his folksy demeanor behind the camera, Redmon pretty much embodies the humorless, hectoring leftist. Why Mardi Gras? Well, what could be more exemplary of American waste, gluttony, and causal sexism? (One slo-mo sequence showing a young woman doffing her top for the chintzy beads is depicted the way Resnais depicted Auschwitz, as the absolute nadir of humanity.) I mean, sure, he has a point, but his cheap-shot approach (complete with "Jay-Walking" style drunk-asshole-in-the-street interviews) made me reflexively sympathize with the frat kids. And even within the do-gooder framework from which Redmon is operating, his disgust with Mardi Gras and the people who populate it detracts from his larger point about globalization and the circulation of cheap commodities. Think about it. If he'd documented the shelling of cashews, he'd have to grapple with the fact that they're food, and therefore potentially nourishing to the consumer. If he'd documented the molding of latex dildos, he'd be forced to treat this "subversive" commodity with a degree of subcultural respect. But the beads are the symbol of useless wasted crap for Redmon, which misses some key elements in this scheme. For one, he could have examined them as a token in multiple economies, including the sexual economy of Mardi Gras. How do worthless objects become invested with fiat power? He also could have deepened his analysis, and justified his anger, by considering the process of Mardi Gras's commodification, its lurch from subversive carnivale to beer-and-tits marketing event. (Again, Mardi Gras as Redmon depicts it is mostly white and collegiate, and the black interviewees display considerably more social concern than their white counterparts. Would Redmon have been as free to, say, critique Freaknik?) Anyhow, one a technical level, Redmon errs, making his villains (Roger the Chinese factory owner) and dupes (Pearl, the leathery "bead whore") more interesting and individuated than his victim-heroes. (What do we learn about the factory girls, other than they are sending money home and don't like being punished for work infractions?) And, as if the final edit of MG:MiC weren't enough of a stacked deck, reports from Sundance 2005 indicate that an earlier edit profiled an artist who make sculptures from the beads. No! They are worthless garbage, made by exploited Chinese labor, and anyone who thinks otherwise is a tool of Global Capital. That I am in almost 100% agreement with Mr. Redmon's politics and still found his film objectionably forced and easy, not to mention sadly under-theorized, is a mark of its failure. Final thought: Could the polarity MG:MiC sets up between Chinese work and American play maybe be a bit more complicated? From a Deleuzian standpoint, the Americans' drunken shenanigans are just as much "labor" as the Chinese girls' beadwork, since the consumption end of the cycle is every bit as important to the circulation model. In fact, we might say that the partiers' labor is even more alienated, since what they do (consume for the good of the system of exploitation) has been sold to them as fun. But this takes matters in another direction entirely.

 

[3]

 

Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World (Albert Brooks)

Okay, help me out here, folks. Is the joke here that the film (and the U.S. government as portrayed within the film) operates on the assumption that Westerners are funny and Muslims aren't, but then Albert Brooks (both in the film and as the writer / director of the film) provides an object-lesson in American unfunniness? By extension, is this a critique of American foreign policy -- that "we" flatter ourselves as being rational pragmatists working overtime to understand and negotiate with "crazy" radical zealots, when in fact we Americans are the insane ones? Or are we simply dealing with a washed-up comic auteur, poking fun at his washed-uppitude, but even doing that badly? (A Penny Marshall joke? Who cares about Penny Marshall anymore?) Brooks' stand-up shtick in New Delhi (reportedly based on some very old material of his) rounds a corner of meta-meta-meta bullshit, wherein performing the conventions of stand-up incorrectly, and displaying "contempt" for the audience (note those scare-quotes?), moves past Andy Kaufman's conceptualism (hilariously "unfunny") and edges back into lazy, flat-out, almost defiant unfunniness. Also, this film's too half-assed to be considered racist or offensive. This thing is barely even a movie. What a complete waste of time.