REVIEWS OF NEW RELEASES SEEN, FEBRUARY 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)
Raya Martin, who up to now has been primarily known for highly experimental narrative films exploring the history (cinematic and otherwise) of The Philippines, has produced an extremely short non-narrative film (commissioned as a trailer for the 2011 IFFR / Rotterdam) that, to my eyes, falls fully within certain traditions of the avant-garde. Ars colonia is a materialist film, engaging with the specific parameters of not one but two distinct imagemaking media; it also treats found footage as both an occasion for direct engagement with the surface of the filmstrip and a consideration of the historical content captured within / upon it. This silent, ultra-brief but replete film (just over one minute) begins with a rain of blue and green "static," vertical hashmarks from the top of the frame down to the bottom in a kind of pyramid formation. These painterly forms resemble TV fuzz, or Brakhage mark-making (Brakhage is a primary presiding spirit in Martin's film), but above all the "temple ceiling" canvases of Ross Bleckner, a touchstone I suspect to be a mere coincidence aside from the fact that both Bleckner and Martin are employing light, color and gesture to imply a firmament. Seconds later, Martin introduces Ars colonia's primary motif -- a helmeted man (a conquistador, it appears), crossing a beach in medium close-up. He crosses in front of a broad island expanse, dark trees melding with his features. We see the sea and the sky, with a large dark rock in the background. Scale and perspective in the image essentially equate the rock (the new land) and the colonist's royally-appointed head. (Not to put too fine a point on it, Martin scratches into the emulsion of the scene, placing hashmarks of cartoon radiance - a halo flash - around the soldier's head, and then around the summit of the rock.) Throughout this brief passage (only about seven seconds), Martin paints the sky in magentas and tinged yellows; colors pop in and out, and squiggly outlines define, for split seconds only, the contours of the island and the galumphing Spaniard's head. The unstable movement of the fields of color (seemingly applied with permanent markers rather than paint) adds to the nervous activation of the scene(s). At the 40 second mark, a red sky and a green-black sea give way to solarized / negative forms and the pure dot-gestures of fireworks. However, Martin has drained these shots of their expected color, so we see only darkened, circular mandalas of negative emulsion (reproduced in video, it appears) superimposed on bold, shifting color fields of blue, green and red. This "structure," then, goes haywire, and all manner of animated line / dot formations -- rain swipes; Robert Breer-like pastel polka dots on clear leader; competing felt-tip marker fields; swarms of celluloid scratches in skeins of raw color -- get swept up in the image-collapse of bad VHS. Tracking lines and stuttering vertical hold bars "eat up" the pure cinema, "colonizing" it. The last "image" we see (apart from Raya Martin's super-quick signature, again quite Breer-like) is a Man Ray style black and white reversal, black buckshot on a pure white field, a sort of gunfire ejaculation of reversed light. It's celluloid's feeble last stand, but a bang nonetheless.
It's taken me awhile to grapple with this video by Leventhal, partly because I suspected (and further investigation confirmed, to an extent) that while it's a strong, compelling work, it's also one that makes more sense when understood in the overall tapestry of Leventhal's project. I am a relative novice with her work. For a truly satisfying analysis of Leventhal and what makes her videowork unique, I strongly suggest you consult Chris Stults's excellent essay in Cinema Scope 47. As Stults notes, Leventhal is one of those artists who films constantly, drawing material from the nonstop ebb and flow of the quotidian. However she's not a "diary filmmaker" in the usual sense (Jonas Mekas, Ross McElwee, Richard Rogers, Robert Huot) in that she treats the collected material semi-objectively, breaking the linear tyranny of lived time into sculptural shards organized according to shape, rhythm, color, mood, or sometimes an imperceptible "hook" that Leventhal herself perceives in the "stuff" that we, at least on a viewing or two, may not. Chris is right on -- Leventhal shares certain formal affinities with Nathaniel Dorsky in terms of locating deep structures within and between the shots, but it's the late Warren Sonbert who is the most direct forebear. Like Sonbert, Leventhal treats directly-experienced personal material as something other than "autobiographical," forging connections like an active mind. Montages allow Leventhal to leap across geographical distances from shot to shot; formalist dramas based on ever-shifting facets of a theme or set of themes (a kind of Cubist approach to meaning-making) are orchestrated in miniature, through small links.
Some of Leventhal's longer works, like Draft 9 and Skim Milk & Soft Wax, tend to function in a much more concentrated, discomfiting fashion, examining (respectively) the varieties of life and lifelessness in the animal kingdom and the impossibility of "reading" a foreign culture from its surface. By contrast, there's a playfulness to Hearts Are Trump Again that speaks to Leventhal's movement through variegated visual and sonic spaces with a curiosity that edges toward detachment but never settles there. The first shot, appropriately enough, is a cards'-eye view of a game of bridge. (A player utters the title phrase, with a slight air of weary disbelief.) In addition to various off-kilter views of interiors and landscapes, there are a few key motifs Leventhal weaves through the piece. There are musical interludes, usually truncated performances which serve as breakers of the aural space. In the midpoint of the video, there is an extended shot of a broken window of an old building (looks to be a warehouse) which is a portal for pigeons; Leventhal's framing makes this co-opted nest into a kind of membrane through which the screen itself is penetrated by fidgety natural "forms." And Hearts' centerpiece is a German café scene with a friend who tells Leventhal about having been impregnated by a sperm donor. "Did you pay him?" Leventhal asks. "No! Why should I, Dani? It was just some sperm." Although Hearts is not as tightly organized as earlier Leventhal videos, this is clearly by design -- an odd "gap" in its approach to the image-world that threw me off on first (and second) viewing, and took some time to register as a coherent aesthetic intervention. (This is why it took me so long to review Hearts.)
Seen in the context of Leventhal's other work, the somewhat looser, shambling structure matches many of its themes: the milling birds, the shots of uncertain travel, the open-form use of music, and even the implied imagery of teeming sperm cells. Hearts Are Trump Again engages with the less-apparent forms of organization derived from fractal movement, multiple elements zipping around a system that is, ultimately, closed and functioning according to a logic. The bridge game is the most concise reflection of this attitude in its pre-chaotic form. What could be more logical than a card game? But our accidental narrator expresses doubts about that logic, that the law of averages is slightly off. Leventhal opens and closes Hearts with a title card that features -- blink and you'll miss it -- an arm popping up from the bottom of the frame, giving a hand signal. It's a counting sign, but it's delivered like an offhand gesture. Is it the interpretive passkey for the entire video, or just a blip?
One never wants to be in the position of damning with faint praise. But Repo Chick, one of several near-homemade quickies that Alex Cox has produced in recent years since his virtual exile from the film industry, is simply not as bad as its critical drubbing would indicate. Although Cox has been at pains to distance Chick from the similarly titled classic Repo Man ("not a sequel!" "not a remake!" "not really related in any way, shape or form!"), the comparisons are inevitable, and the newer film suffers. This is chiefly by dint of Repo Chick hardly being a "film" at all. Instead it's more of a lark, a green-screen driven video-whatsit in which a spoiled heiress / reality-TV wannabe / Paris Hilton manqué called Pixxi De La Chasse (Jaclyn Jonet) is forced to get a job when her spending habits and unwillingness to abide by her snotty family's California Republican rules results in a hasty financial cut-off. Enter Arizona Gray (Cox regular Miguel Sandoval), who takes her on as part of a scheme. Her new job: to manage "repos" for defaulted mortgages. Yes, Pixxi is supposed to evict immigrant families to do her bit for the housing crisis. Before long, she and her friends con their way onto a rolling-seminar train, which lands them in the middle of a typically Coxxed-up conspiracy regarding real estate fraud, FBI shenanigans, and a faux-green pseudo-anarchist anti-golfing initiative. (Oddly enough, Lars Von Trier has apparently taken up the anti-golfing cause in his new film Melancholia.) The tone is general goofiness, "lefty but unsystematic," as an old professor of mine used to say. It makes no sense, and it does get tedious at times. But there is a pleasure (at least to me) in Cox's on-the-cheap, rinky-dink weather-map aesthetic, which Variety's Leslie Felperin quite accurately described as a combination of Michael Moore and "Lazy Town." Taken on its own terms, or as a benchmark in the Cox oeuvre (that is, against Walker or Death and the Compass), it's a bellyflop. But -- and here's a thought experiment -- considered as an alternate-universe Southland Tales, made by someone much smarter who takes himself way less seriously, it's at least a mitigated success.