REVIEWS OF NEW RELEASES SEEN, FEBRUARY 2007

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]

 

-Rehearsals for Retirement (Phil Solomon) [v/s]

Ordinarily I attempt to write something specifically for the Hack on every new release I see, even if I'm going to be publishing something longer elsewhere. However, it has been a deeply enriching but thoroughly draining experience grappling with Solomon's latest (along with 2005's Untitled (for David Gatten) (Mark LaPore and Phil Solomon) [v/s] [7]) for an upcoming Cinema Scope piece. I'm sure in time I'll think of things I forgot to say in the longer essay, since these works are incredibly rich, overpowering and, in the end, emotionally shattering. But for now, I'll simply use this as a placeholder for a link to the long-player once it hits the stands. In the meantime, let me just say that Solomon's radical shift into total digital aesthetics -- the two pieces in question are generated from material taken from the Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas videogame -- represents both continuity with and split from his earlier work. These works continue Solomon's exploration of the molecular flux of existence, the agitated state of "unfinishedness" that certain philosophers simply call Being. And yet, they abandon the earlier works' moorings to the material world (even in its igneous chemical substrate) so thoroughly as to be terrifying. All this will hopefully make more sense in the full-length essay, but for now let me just say that Rehearsals is a very important, deeply moving work, although I personally had to undergo and partially overcome significant befuddlement before arriving at that conclusion. It is sure to be generally regarded as a benchmark film.

 

[7]

 

Children of Men (Alfonso Cuarón, U.K. / U.S.)

Often wrongheaded but frequently magnificent, Children of Men is too powerful to be considered an "ambitious failure," but too rife with contradiction for me to fully embrace. Thematically, the film is a début de siècle scream of impotent rage,albeit one in which a small ray of hope is allowed to peer through the clouds in the final minutes. But Children of Men's muddle of ideas delivers a stronger and more timely report on the state of our world (or at least our shifting ideological language for describing it) than would have been possible under more intellectually controlled circumstances. All of which is my convoluted way of saying, this film is a beautiful mess and it probably has to be. What did Cuarón and his collaborators hope to accomplish by adapting a reputedly right-wing Catholic novel by P.D. James? (Sorry, haven't read it. You can get the scoop from Victor Morton here. Scroll down a tad.) By all accounts, the novel uses the idea of infertility as a grand metaphor for Christendom having lost its way, succumbing to the so-called "culture of death" (abortion, euthanasia, and in most accounts homosexuality, although that plays no discernable role in the film). Cuarón's film adopts the overall tone of Christian allegory -- miraculous birth, ushered into the world by an accidental savior named Theo of all things -- but he's clearly aiming for something altogether different: an indictment of Western societies' mistreatment of immigrants, the right-wing culture of fear, and the downcast hopelessness of the left. Usually, liberal humanism shies away from such grand statements, especially in cinema. The preferred mode is the small observational picture, finding in a single life the story of us all. So perhaps Cuarón's bold swing for the rafters required James' global Catholic vision, and the fact that the two were at odds was just supposed to be a niggling detail ironed out later. Instead, we get a film that is parochially specific when its artistic aims demand it to be general, and that is terminally vague when political specificity is required. An example of the former would be the bus ride through the refugee camp, with its direct visual quotations of Abu Ghraib. Are we to think that years later, British officers would torture their charges in a manner that exactly duplicates those horrendous photos? (Ah yes, it's allegory.) An example of the latter would be Children's depiction of post-riot urban blight, a sort of generic brand of designer decay. Granted, most of it is incredibly effective. The closest cinematic cousin to Children of Men's apocalyptic vision is Godard's Weekend, which is all to Cuarón's and d.p. Emmanuel Lubezki's credit. The film is generally miles away from the adolescent,cartoonish posturing of V for Vendetta, although some of Children's too-well-stenciled graffiti and the Big Brother ad campaigns approach that level of silliness.

 

As for Children's formal style, I found that it mostly managed to avoid the immaculately gritty end-of-the-world chic it could have so easily fallen into. (And I write this as someone having been prepared to at least partially condemn a film that seems willing to spend large amounts of cash in order to simulate social ills that might've been better served by a more direct application of the production budget. Sort of a 21st century "Art Rebate" project?) I'd been warned by Mike D'Angelo about the use of long, stunningly "impossible" mobile takes, I found that they blended seamlessly into the film's overall narrative fabric. I was looking for The Long Shots, but I usually didn't notice them until about a minute or so in, and pace MD'A, I didn't find myself prompted to wonder how they were accomplished. Perhaps I'm not the sharp viewer I once was, but none of them jumped out as out-and-out stuntsmanship to me. Overall the film is a formal success, as well as an emotionally convincing, nerve-jangling experience. But it seems that Cuarón and company thought that the way to intellectually intervene into the contemporary geopolitical scene was through religious imagery magically transubstantiated into fascist nightmare. Is this informed by the Latin American tradition of "liberation theology," the Marxist-Christian doctrine that God wants His children free on earth as in heaven? Is this really the only avenue available to us? Well, no, since the Zapatistas offer a very different set of strategies right in Cuarón's backyard, ones with which he might have productively engaged. (As it stands, Children's "Fishes" group is a mockery, vaguely analogous to Peru's Shining Path, I suppose, but really just another unspecific allegorical trope that tells us, well, violent revolt is bad. Okay. I'll buy that. What next?) At any rate, the vagaries of Children of Men demonstrate the pitfalls of ecumenical thinking. Sometimes bedfellows simply remain strange and we cannot overcome the strangeness. Cuarón's attempt at a liberal refurbishment of conservative Christianity simply doesn't gel. It does prove intermittently thrilling, as it often does when opposing ideas find momentary juncture at moments of great distress. But as a sustained worldview, Children of Men can only really make sense if we accept our leaders' vision of total, permanent anxiety. In that case, of course, any solution will do, which is precisely the problem.

 

-Destiny Manifesto (Martha Colburn) [s]

Until seeing Destiny Manifesto, I never really felt like I "got" Colburn's films. Their crudeness was clearly deliberate, but I found their visual style so offputting that I usually wasn't able to see how complex they are. (In other words, some re-viewings are in order.) Manifesto succeeds by taking a rather daring approach; it's an overpoweringly complicated exploration of an idea so simplistic it's almost too silly to parse. Manifesto postulates -- get ready for it -- that the U.S. neo-imperialist project in the Middle East has commonalities with the eradication of Native Americans during westward expansion. (Our president is even a self-styled cowboy!) But what Colburn does here is to take this little lefty meme and work it to death, turning it into something visceral, mind-scrambling, palpable. The key is that Colburn never stops moving. Not only does her animation style turn found images and photo cut-outs into quavering, paint-and-ink encrusted force fields -- sort of an id-splayed cousin to Robert Rauschenberg's canvases. Colburn actually organizes her film around an accelerated form of traditional cinematic decoupage, hinting at something we should be able to follow grammatically but that bombards us instead. Manifesto often employs something like a "master shot," a dominant field of action in which grotesque figures twitch and dangle while the camera zooms in and out, rapidly pans and re-pans, throwing the spectator's attention into crisis. So, we have headdress-wearing Native Americans popping up in the Afghanistan desert, fatigued (in both senses) servicemen and women morphing into gunslingers, or in some cases getting picked off by them, and vice versa. Men, women, horses and camels are painted over so as to show their insides -- blood, bones and meat -- before disintegrating completely. See, it sounds entirely too facile, but it's in the watching of it, in the eye's frantic, relentless penetration by images of great ugliness, that the concept is elevated into a potent, even revelatory antiwar gesture. Another cliché redeemed! [Destiny Manifesto can be viewed online here.]

 

-Light Work I (Jennifer Reeves) [v/s]

I had to miss this one at Views 06, and I'm glad to have been able to catch up with it, even though I'm sure that watching it on my computer doesn't do it justice. LWI is a beautiful film that partakes of certain experimental film traditions but spins them into something unique. Reeves begins with found footage of industrial machines from what looks like the turn of the last century. It's very Vertov, but Reeves interweaves the images of this first movement with what look like lozenge-like objects placed directly on the filmstrip. (The program notes indicate that Reeves has applied pharmaceuticals to the image.) These points of light are connected by a thick braid of scratches, and the layering of the images provokes an uncanny visual sensation. As the machines churn on, the abstract thread appears to emanate from them, as though the film is producing itself. With its combination of organic forms and intricate patterns, LWI recalls the recent "skein" canvases by Brice Marden. Shortly after, these sequences give way to second amd third movements comprised mostly of encrusted paint and crackling fixer, with some superimposition of bubbling liquid color. Given that Reeves studied with Stan Brakhage, comparisons are inevitable, and Mothlight's filmstrip collage technique is an obvious touchstone, as are the "roiling" films of Phil Solomon. (Reeves' use of digital media makes her image surfaces quite a bit different than Solomon's, however -- patchier, yet more precise.) But more than this, LWI struck me as a worthy heir to Mare's Tail, the gargantuan, seldom seen hybrid film opus by David Larcher. Like Larcher's film, LWI is a series of dense patterns of abstraction held together by surface rhythms, the movement of tactile emulsion across the strip of the celluloid. What's remarkable is that Reeves' use of digital video actually adds depth to the film material rather than flattening it out. Quite an accomplishment. [Light Work I can be viewed online here.]

 

-The Science of Sleep (Michel Gondry, France / Italy)

This is a film that is adolescent, often irritatingly so. Its protagonist Stéphane (Gael Garcia Bernal) is a cry-baby and a whiner, and although his felt-and-pipe-cleaner fantasy life is teeming with "whimsy," it's just as often cloying and rinky-dinky. Actually I found the first thirty minutes of Science of Sleep ping-ponging between irksome and lackluster and almost didn't finish it. But I'm really glad I stuck it out, because Gondry is actually onto something here. Science of Sleep is a gutsy film, one that doesn't just examine male psychopathology and arrested development. It embodies it on the level of its construction and characterizations. Gondry's camera set-ups between fantasy sequences are sloppy and negligible, but this ultimately makes sense, since Stéphane is noncommittal to the point of blindness when it comes to the real world. Gondry's overbearing childishness risks rubbing the viewer the wrong way, and often does, because Science is about emotional stuntedness, being stranded inside your own head and making everyone out to be your co-stars. (A film like this isn't surprising coming from a man whose autobiographical DVD supplement is called I've Been 12 Forever.) This film is maddeningly inward, so thoroughly disengaged from traditional communicative gestures that it may as well be sitting indian-style in the corner spinning a plate. And yet, like the male dysfunctions of Cassavetes (although the comparisons end there), Science of Sleep's absolute commitment to its darkest, ugliest tendencies represents an integrity that, in the final analysis, I found compelling, edifying, and at times quite moving. Gondry's film comes on with the wide-eyed wonder of a precocious child, but leaves the room wizened, damaged. It's like arts and crafts hour at the nursing home, Elmer's glue pooling in the center of the sequins on a handmade bookmark, before loss and futility bring trembling hands to a sad repose.

 

[ADDENDUM: I wrote the original review quickly while preparing to leave town, and over the weekend I gave more thought to the film's formal agenda. Make no mistake, Science hardly represents Gondry's finest work. The relative negligence with which the film's diegetic "reality" is staged and photographed coincides with certain tendencies in Gondry's music video work (e.g. Chemical Brothers' "Let Forever Be," Beck's "Deadweight"). But of course in those contexts, we're spending mere seconds in the "ugly world." As a narrative feature, Science is quite different, and admittedly not as satisfying as the videos' short bursts of creativity breaking through the daily murk. Nevertheless, Science has a cumulative power that ultimately compensates for its moment-by-moment frustrations. This is a deceptively playful film, because it's actually quite angry.]

 

-Who's Camus Anyway? (Mitsuo Yanagimachi, Japan)

Ah, that strange species: the film I admire, and even intermittently enjoy, but about which I have fuck-all to say. Luckily, Camus's been intelligently parsed by Mike D'Angelo, who's a far bigger fan of it than I. He's absolutely right that what seems like it's going to be a silly, even snarky spot-the-reference game soon becomes thick with dread, since the film students who populate the (ostensible) diegetic world of Camus possess genuine emotions but have no access to them, or means to express them, other than second- and third-hand cinematic and literary gestures. The film-within-the-film, "The Bored Murderer," looks like a Kiyoshi Kurosawa parody, but I think Yanagimachi's larger point is that stylish horror cinema holds a certain appeal for, um, young friends of film precisely because it seems to rebel against accepted morés. But dig deeper, and the inadequacy (and possible moral dubiousness) of cathartic film violence to express the most important human feelings becomes apparent. In short, Camus is about being stuck in a stifling world of "Cool." This postmodern disaffected streak will be achingly familiar to anyone who's been to film school, or taught at one. Same goes for Yanagimachi's spot-on use of campus locations as a microcosm of the larger world -- the student union as emotional axis mundi. Still, I can't entirely get behind a film so circumscribed and navel-gazerly, even though that's what it's "about." The thesis makes sense, but there's a certain poetry missing. Yanagimachi demonstrates his ideas with a cynical detachment that lets itself off the hook, since the film is "about" cynical detachment, or the loss of self in the hall of mirrors / anxiety of influence. Just as all the film references are as irksome as anything in The Dreamers ("Name your three favorite murder movies," whatever....), the cast is genial enough to put it over most of the time: the cast of "Fame" presents "Peachy Nietzsche and His Eternally Returning Revue." So yeah, it's good, but chilly, and even its moral-pinnacle conclusion was better accomplished by Mohsen Makhmalbaf in A Moment of Innocence. Overall, Who's Camus Anyway? successfully satisfies the Lohan Ethical Injunction, and as such gets my lukewarm thumbs-up. As they say in the biz, "worth a rental."

 

[6]

 

Casino Royale (Martin Campbell, U.K / U.S. / Czech Republic)

This film is so formally unhinged, you'd really just need to throw in some dance numbers and it's practically its own Bollywood remake. From the opening parkour chase (which is rather lame compared to the real thing), through its silly faux-tension poker sequences, the car chase, the plunging Eva Green necklines, the baroque shotput-on-a-string torture interlude, and on and on, Campbell abjures anything like conventional craftsmanship or tonal control. Instead, it's all canted angles, brazen noir lighting, propulsive music, sort of Michael Bay channeling Eisenstein through a crack pipe. And it works, largely because Campbell has his secret weapon. The film is a mess, but who cares, since Daniel Craig's charisma is the glue holding all the pieces together, even as they continually threaten to fly apart. (This, I think, is how most Shahrukh Khan vehicles work, too.) It's too silly to take seriously, but at the same time, Craig brings a grim, damaged, altogether more lived-in reading to the Bond character. (Granted, it's the "origin story," so Mr. Shaken Not Stirred isn't fully formed yet.) The film, even more than most Bond films, edges toward electric camp in terms of construction, but never tips over into the usual smug tuxedo-swagger. So, in terms of both the action and the overall tone, Casino Royale never stops risking it all. (Or, if you must, "going all in." [Groan.]) Also, every so often there's talk of a "gay Bond" film, and Casino Royale practically obviates any such need. There's precious little Bond-Girl flesh (which makes Green's presence all the more tantalizing), but man oh man is Craig's body ever on display. It's Beefcake Central up in this bitch. Enjoy.

 

[5]

 

-Dong (Jia Zhang-ke, Hong Kong / China) [v/m]

Dong, Jia's documentary companion film to his meditative and ultimately overpowering fiction feature Still Life, begins promisingly. After a brief ferry ride with painter Liu Xiao-dong, we find ourselves on the banks of the Yangtze as Liu inches precariously along a pile of debris, scouting out a location for a panoramic landscape canvas. The shot recalls the so-called "rubble films" or postwar Germany, Liu carefully traversing the bricks and reminding us from the outset that, like Jia, he is an artist dead-set on capturing Chinese life in transition, in particular the rapid reengineering of the built environment. This shot, like a later one in which we see Liu painting a group of shirtless workers in (staged) breaktime repose, finds Jia panning ever so slowly to take in the scene, but arcing his camera in the process. The result mirrors Liu's canvases, capturing flattened expanses, while emphasizing the greater play of depth and movement in time that cinema permits, and painting generally does not. Hopes were high, since Jia, true to form, displayed in these early shots a deep sensitivity to his medium and the problematics of conveying a different medium with it. Watching Liu work up-close, I was reminded of great documents of art's in-progress creation, particularly Emile de Antonio's Painters Painting and Victor Erice's The Quince Tree of the Sun. Sadly, Dong goes downhill, largely because Jia eventually forfeits the distance and objectivity evinced in these early sequences. (The title of the film, which I presume to be the name Liu's friends call him, should have signaled the work's buddy-buddy intimacy.) Thing is, Liu isn't a particularly enlightening verbal explicator of his own work, or of aesthetic matters in general. Jia follows Liu around as he spouts the usual platitudes regarding the difficulty of capturing truth, the artist's struggle, etc. This might have been forgivable were it not for a sequence at about the 35-minute mark, when Liu visits a worker's family to deliver some photos he took of the young man before his death on the job. It's a kind gesture, but Jia lingers over these people in their grief, and over Liu looking sad but stolid, the perfect aesthetic anchor for changing times. It's just exploitative, and it made me dislike Liu the man and Dong the film. The second half, when the artist lines up young female sex workers in Bangkok for a group portrait in pink ("Of course I had to have the mattress"), only further ratified my suspicions of Liu. But apart from any ethical qualms I may have with Dong, its most damning trait is its inability to make Liu or his art come to life. Should Dong best be considered not as a true companion piece, but as a study for Still Life, a sketch before the near-masterpiece? Perhaps. Because in those opening shots, I see Jia working out his spatial engagement with the Three Gorges area, and those sequences -- the ones most directly related to Still Life -- are Dong's finest aspects. The rest could have been accomplished by anyone with a mere fraction of Jia's talent.

 

[4]

 

-Gardens in Autumn (Otar Iosseliani, France / Italy / Russia)

Iosseliani's film begins with a pre-credits prologue in which three of the film's characters fight over a handcrafted coffin, the argument partly hinging on whose body is best suited to the upright box. This scene proved more confusing, not less, upon having reached the end of Gardens in Autumn. Is Otar intentionally planning career suicide? Seeming to serve as an oblique commentary on the 2005 banlieue riots in Paris, one that becomes less and less oblique as the film slides into outright reactionary politics, Gardens is a film I really tried to hang with, grapple with, afford the benefit of the doubt, before finally throwing up my hands. Following Monday Morning, Iosseliani's joyous, life-affirming ode to truancy, Gardens solidifies claims made by the filmmaker's detractors and even sometimes reluctantly allowed by his fans -- that he is an old white European man solely concerned with the bourgeois quest for individual freedom. Here, we follow the fragmented, ambling journey of Vincent (Séverin Blanchet), a government minister forced into resignation by some unspecified political gaffe. (The TV set and the gates beyond the ministry office are seething with angry protesters whom Iosseliani depicts with a level of disdain that would be comparable to that which Rohmer lavished on the sans-culottes, were it not so flippant.) In one of the film's only noteworthy sight-gags, the first proper scene finds Vincent visiting what appears to be a zoo but is in fact an unspecified African nation, hobnobbing with diffident, almost childlike dignitaries. The respect Vincent shows these people is meant to tell us from the outset what a great guy he is. Later, after he's kicked out of his official home, his clotheshorse wife leaving him for his bald, beefy political advisor, Vincent ventures through the city and into the village of his youth. He finds it a hotbed of squatting, uncouth noir immigrants, and nearly twenty of said invaders have commandeered his vacant apartment. The cops are called in to clear the place out, but Vincent is more concerned with making sure some nice paintings exit the premises unbesmirched by the rabble. After all, they empty their chamber pots out the second story window and onto the street, once even dousing Vincent with West African piss.

 

Recalling that Iosseliani is himself an immigrant, I actually toyed with the idea that all this nonsense was tongue-in-cheek, like a conceptual rethink of Amélie with the winsome gamine replaced by the fat, smug Old Worlder she covertly represented. But as blithe sexism and racism continue to alight on Iosseliani's palette throughout the film, it becomes clear that a conservative streak has been lying there all along. Other, earlier films pit modernity and traditionalism against each other like opposing chess pieces and, like Otar's master Jacques Tati, asked us to enjoy the game, consider the loss of the old ways while acknowledging the ultimate virtues of change. Here, as if mortified by all those angry blacks and Arabs who haven't shown adequate courtesy to their adoptive "host" country, Iosseliani takes the gloves off, fairly trumpeting the superiority of gentile European civility and camaraderie, the chummy confidence that people are reasonable, or at least should be, and that everything can and should be hashed out over a nice bottle of burgundy. Iosseliani has long been considered something of a philosopher-filmmaker, and Gardens reads like a blinkered Habermasian response to the rise of the oppressed. Chill out, we'll talk about it, but for God's sake, calm down! And, if by and large other commentators are not taking the same lessons from this film, it could be due to Iosseliani's technique, usually deft and effortlessly masterful but crude and unformed here. Scenes are staged in slack, shambolic ways; nothing seems to link to anything else, but not by any abstractionist design. Gardens evokes Renoir, certainly another of Iosseliani's governing spirits, but the open frame and airy, anti-deterministic mise-en-scène that defines Renoir's cinema here becomes a hovering, tentative miasma -- the cinema of pussyfooting. From moment to moment, it's hard to discern where individual scenes are going to go, much less grasp the overall action plan. But this isn't an "open text." Instead, it uses modernist techniques -- roving camerawork, ever-so-stylized performances, spatial discontinuity -- as avoidance strategies, to dollop its questionable content out like light meringue, so that the viewer can't find firm enough footing to dissent. This may be by design, or it may be that formally speaking this the weakest, most half-assed Iosseliani film I've ever seen (this time, even the great William Lubtchansky seems asleep at the wheel), but the result is a sort of amiable, avuncular cloud of cigar smoke. It took me the full two hours to realize that I couldn't breathe in it.