REVIEWS OF NEW RELEASES SEEN, FEBRUARY 2012
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)
Or, Phantasia phor the Phallen Phallus: Guy Maddin is an artist who has become so associated with a particular style, one so unique and highly articulated, that his work inevitably produces somewhat unusual reactions. There are those who occasionally complain that Maddin does the same thing over and over, even though that's patently untrue. (Hong Sang-soo shares a similar critical misfortune, but for slightly different reasons.) There are others still who are so enamored of a particular Maddin mode, or at least what they perceive that mode to be, that they balk at any apparent change in the program. I mean, let's just break it down: there are those who mistakenly think of Maddin as a snarky po-mo wiseguy and refuse to take him entirely seriously, even though he is quite obviously one of the best filmmakers working today and, along with Cronenberg, English Canada's very finest. And by the same token, there are others who are so committed to a particular mode in Maddin's work, be it the silent film pastiche, the comic melodrama, or the high-density montage aesthetic, that deviations from this mode are met with a degree of skepticism. ("No! Do The Heart of the World again!") It's not encouraging to see this kind of fandom, which veers into the territory of brand loyalty.
Keyhole is one of Maddin's very best films, and it marks a shift away from overt playfulness and historical reference into a more straightforward, albeit modernist, dramatic mien. Its jagged rhythms, which play off of an unlikely alliance between film noir and the avant-garde, do take a bit of getting used to at first, simply because this particular genre splice, on first blush, seems so counterintuitive. Gangster Ulysses Pick (Jason Patric) brings his gang into the abandoned home where he once lived with his wife and family. The place is surrounded by cops, and a couple of men in the group are killed during the break-in. As one of the gang points out, it makes very little sense that their boss has asked them to risk life and limb to shoot their way into a siege situation. But this is only the first of the fundamental reversals that Keyhole enacts upon the noir / gangster movie template. As it happens, Pick's family home is haunted by the presence of his wife Hyacinth (Isabella Rossellini), locked in an upstairs bedroom with her father (Louis Negin) chained to her bedside. He also serves as a narrator or sorts, and as a hybrid Calypso / Caliban figure. Ulysses' oldest son, Manners (David Wontner) is his father's prisoner, dragged about the house as Ulysses investigates the lurking shards of the past. But the father does not truly recognize his own son, tied to a chair and treated as a hostage within this abstract caper of personal exorcism.
The house, then, is an indeterminate diegetic space, one which Keyhole never firmly establishes as real, psychological, or spectral. In part, Maddin is working within the parameters of the Strindbergian dream play. Characters are made present by their mere mention; their unlikely discovery (i.e., Ulysses' youngest son Brucie [Reegan McCheyne] randomly found masturbating in an under-stairs water closet) prompts backstory but no direct narrative involvement. Are they ghosts? As members of Ulysses's gang expire, they are told to go outside and submerge themselves in a lake in the yard, but their actual death is highly Brechtian, as if they were being tagged out of a game of Red Rover. All of this designates the house as a liminal space wherein conventional notions of "living" and "dead" do not apply. Maddin, for his part, generates a highly unusual hybrid style which maintains many of the gestures and cadences of film noir or hardboiled gangster fiction with the hypnotic, temporally disorienting attenuation of the avant-garde trance films of Maya Deren and Kenneth Anger. These departures from conventional depiction of time and space, including step-printed imagery, freeze-frames, bursts of pure light, as well as the introduction of unmappable, psychometric spaces within the house (e.g., Hyacinth's otherworldly locked room; the close tunnel-hallway with penis-like wall fixtures), combine with the Keyhole's seemingly more straightforward genre elements, to reveal their uncanny underbelly. We know that film noir is a highly abstract, psychoanalytically uncertain space -- from Double Indemnity through Kiss Me Deadly to Chinatown -- but Maddin actually churns its cauldron to introduce the anxieties that such cinema was, in its own way, developed to help quell. When Hyacinth is warned that Ulysses is coming to kill her, she retorts, "Is he alive enough to do that?" Keyhole uses the logic of high modernism, with its presumption of absolute masculine failure in a godless universe, to explore the parameters of film noir's American vernacular modernism, which in its own way was a recurring dream, a restaging of originary trauma, a proving ground where phallic potency could struggle and fail over and over again. You see, where there's undeath, there's hope.
Well, for starters, here's the capsule I wrote for the Nashville Film Festival: "Canadian director Denis Côté is one of the most exciting young talents on the current festival scene. Each of his last two films — the isolationist character study Carcasses and the homicidal black comedy Curling — looked as if it would be his breakthrough. Maybe three's the charm with this exquisite observational documentary about animals in captivity. Beginning with art students drawing a stuffed deer, and settling in for its extended middle third at a Quebec zoo, Bestiaire is a sly meditation on a complex conundrum: Humans need animals in order to truly see ourselves." Given the limited word count, I couldn't go into a lot of concrete details, of course. However, while there are indeed some very significant concrete details that bring Bestiaire to life and elevate it over more standard docs on the topic (cf. Wiseman, Philibert), Côté has really delivered more of a mood piece. Taking off, in some respects, from the somewhat sad (but are we projecting?), soulful-yet-dead-eyed "gaze" of animals we see in a lot of Bill Viola's work (especially I Do Not Know What It Is I Am Like), Bestiaire mostly observes, spending time in the company of various animals. Doing so only shows just how ambiguous and non-indicative that time spent really is. Do they care that we're thinking about them? Is asking such a question -- and making zoos in order to contemplate it -- the height of human narcissism? The Quebec Zoo's hard metallic surfaces provide an architectural correlative to this philosophical issue, the oddity of creatures and their organic forms jumping out like sore thumbs in the space we supposedly made for them. With all this in mind, the taxidermy only emphasizes the human anxiety. A tree is best measured when it's down, they say, and these beasts can become subjects of our mastery once the spark of life has left them.
Oddly enough, my first encounter with the cinema of Alain Cavalier was this, a roundly disliked bit of improvisational political theatre that appears to have been either a long-simmering pet project between the filmmaker and his friend, actor Vincent Lindon, or some sort of larky lunchtime dare, tossed off over a couple of weekends. Thing is, the final result, Pater, is the kind of rambling, semi-fragmentary videotext whose form makes it well-nigh impossible to tell. Is this the result of a very long discussion regarding the state of the Republic over a few too many glasses of wine? Have the two men (and it seems fair to credit Lindon as co-creator of the work) adopted an open, yet stuffy approach like a political version of reality TV -- behind the scenes of the upper echelons of power, in kitchens and sitting rooms, over vino and expensive herring snacks -- to imply that real presidential muscle is exerted in villas and limousines, places we the people never see? I fully understand that Pater is a deeply frustrating experience for many, if not most viewers. It's not actually the sort of thing I can freely recommend. (And I will say, Le Fremaux and his merry band of pranksters did Cavalier no favors by placing it in Competition, I mean jesus...) It ebbs and flows, it is repetitive, and manages somehow to get deeply specific about policy issues in contemporary France while also remaining maddeningly vague. (The primary object of discussion, between Cavalier's President and Lindon's Prime Minister, is a proposal to limit the upper limit of CEO salaries by tying them to a percentage rate of the lowest-paid corporate employees. Lindon floats this, but the specific meaning it would have in the French economic and political context is not fleshed out. So it's just an Occupy-era meme and little else.) I sympathize with those who find Pater maddeningly opaque. However I think it managed to wander into a few of my own personal intellectual sweet spots. For one thing, I am almost compulsively interested in the parliamentary structures and machinations of other nations, mostly as an antidote to the isolationism that the American system inculcates in its subjects. There is an inevitable wobbliness to Pater's approach, since Cavalier and Lindon's contention that Realpolitik occurs in villas and on porticos results in a kind of high-minded reality TV. But for me there was sufficient appeal in both the exotic and the pedagogical realms. For another thing, Pater's rhythms and improvisational play is quite familiar from video art -- Vito Acconci, Sophie Calle, and Francoise Romaine come to mind, in tone if not in content. Having the two leads / makers essentially making up their conceptual act as they go along, with the dead-space as a key component of the composition, did not seem problematic to me, mostly because I didn't really take Pater as a "film" so much as an inquiry or an experiment. And on those terms, even Cavalier's obsession with nice suits, as an element in "being presidential" but also as a nondiegetic aspect of his own personality, something that seems to bemuse Lindon (and "Lindon"), is as revealing as anything else. Put this one in the vault, bring it out again in five or ten years, and it'll look much better to everyone, I'm sure of it.
Building on the exciting developments witnessed in Martin's super-short Ars Colonia but taking them into the realm of the full-length feature, Buenos Noches, España is as difficult to parse as it is to fully grasp on a single viewing. This is partly because, as a sort of armature for his formal explorations, Martin has concocted a narrative of sorts, one that is characterized by altered-consciousness perceptual flooding and an overall geographical drift. In truth, I suspect one could watch and appreciate BNE as a purely visual / aural tone poem (with or without, um, chemical enhancements), but this would be to miss a subtle point that Martin is making about our relationship to art and culture, in particular its place in the recesses of our memories. The film begins with its two putative protagonists ("two drifters, off to see the world...") sitting on a couch staring at a TV. Eventually the TV screen overtakes the film image, and we are to understand that the young man and woman, Andrés Gertrúdix and Pilar López de Ayala, have entered the television set, crossing over into another world. (That this premise is cribbed from a low-budged, Z-grade John Ritter comedy, Changing Channels, only makes the trippiness all that much more fathomable.) They enter a Spanish landscape of nondescript country-highway nonspace, rendered by Martin in blown-out, saturated video colors: high chroma-key reds, blues, yellows and greens that situate the image somewhere between the electric painterly neon on Warhol and the contrasty video imagery in later Godard. The journey is winding, and permits of a great deal of gamboling through nature, albeit in its less noteworthy guises (i.e., spare forest settings that appear to be just off the highway). Eventually, the pair end up at the Museum of Fine Arts of Bilbao, where they knock about (accompanied by cartoon sound effects) until they're transfixed by the artwork of Juan Luna, the 19th century Filipino artist and revolutionary. For Martin, it is almost as though everything Gertrúdix and López had done in the film up to that point -- the druggy haze, the lovers' adoration, the seemingly directionless travel -- was designed to lead them to this moment of clarity. Nevertheless, BNE does not deliver this epiphany in the manner of a narrative payoff. Rather, it is an instance of painterly action coinciding with revolutionary action, which prompts reflection on whether the film, in its color play and genial aggression, might be an example of the same. [NOTE: Sometimes someone has more, and better, things to say about a film than I do. This is one of those times, and that someone is Phil Coldiron.]
There are films that I look back on liking and I feel like a big old sucker. It's not just because so many other people I respect didn't like them. While I am susceptible to counter-arguments regarding films I like, and am open to considering aspects of a movie that I may have overlooked, I'm also fairly secure in my tastes. But mainly it's because in certain cases, the films in question are by directors whose other work, both prior and subsequent, has left me cold or even irked me. Was that one film I liked just some sort of anomaly? Or was I in a particularly good mood that day? Or (my fear) was I simply too naive at that point in my viewing to fully appreciate just how flawed the film in question really was? Had I not yet attuned myself to Said Director's irritating tics and habits, his or her smug little ways of zeroing in on mundane details of the planet, things that we'd all noticed a million times, in order to hold them up as evidence of his or her unique wisdom and sensitivity, examples of the artist's refined philosophical observation? Point being, I find it hard, twelve years later, to wrap my head around the fact that I really admired Nanni Moretti's Palme d'Or winner The Son's Room, given that everything else I've seen by him, from his earlier, classic essay film Caro Diario to his more recent The Caiman and his latest, Habemus Papam (retitled We Have a Pope in North America) has moved me to eyerolling irritation. (Even his short subject Kiarostami tribute, The Opening Day of 'Close-Up', struck me as opportunistic rather than humble, the inverse of an honest homage.) Needless to say, when I find myself in this awkward position with a film, I am far too neurotic to go back and watch it. I don't like to be reminded of my jejune sensibilities; I try to keep moving, like a shark who eats its own hot air.
So, Habemus Papam, after a fashion, is Moretti's utterly limp riff on a Marco Bellocchio film, although neither it nor Moretti evinces any cognizance of that fact. Set during and immediately after a papal conclave, during which an underdog French archbishop (Michel Piccoli) is improbably elected pontiff on second ballot, rather than any of the obvious frontrunners, the film ostensibly uses the man's crisis of confidence as an occasion for a showdown between religious and secular theories of subjectivity. Moretti plays a leading Italian psychoanalyst, secretly brought in to talk the new pope down off the proverbial ledge, even though officially the Catholic Church has no confidence in the black arts of Freudianism. But nothing is really made of this potentially fruitful confrontation. Moretti, ever the goofball, is more interested in focusing on what happens when the other archbishops, stuck in the conclave after Piccoli goes missing, have to kill time amongst themselves. You see, for Moretti, the thuddingly hapless comedian, there is nothing more amusing that the sight of bishops playing volleyball in full regalia, or the men in their quarters working out on treadmills listening to iPods or working crossword puzzles. Because, like, look at them! They're bishops!! Ultimately, Moretti's film is too simpleminded to even lambaste for anti-clerical bigotry. To do so would be to give it the credit of having an intellectual viewpoint that it certainly arrogates to itself but never, ever earns. Actually, now that I think about it, perhaps it makes sense that The Son's Room would actually be his best film. It's about his own character's grief following the death of his character's son and the effects it has on his own character's family. That is, the film is an exercise in solipsism. That's what all of Moretti's films are, really. But most of them think they open onto the world. That's the problem.