REVIEWS OF NEW RELEASES SEEN, JANUARY 2013
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)
[The following is an excerpt from "The Pixel and the Brush," originally published (in German) in Cargo #17.]
The Extravagant Shadows is a masterwork – open, expansive, intellectually capacious. It is big, and not only because of its length. Like the Byrd series, The Extravagant Shadows is unafraid of delineating an all-encompassing perceptual space for its audience to enter, generating its own “time zone,” as it were, wherein its internal connections demand a radical shift of perceptual expectation. In order that we might live and breathe with Gatten’s highly unique visual field, and the fragmented textual relationships he invisibly conducts across the running time, we need to “get with the program,” as they say. The Extravagant Shadows, somewhat unfashionably, asks us to meet it a bit more than halfway, at least at first. However, as compared with similarly enveloping films, The Extravagant Shadows achieves a kind of placidity, becoming more seductive as it unfolds. It is an open field of relations, not an obstacle course.
But in all this discussion, I have thus far left a vital question unanswered. What is The Extravagant Shadows? In the simplest terms possible, it is a three-hour video of text and paint. More specifically, Gatten opens the film with a close-up of spines of books on a shelf (a fairly direct emblem of his customary work, but here depicted as a surface badge that will not take us “inside” as usual). Almost immediately a pane of glass slides into place in front of the books, and by extension, the camera lens. From this point on, the entire visual field is subsumed by the glass, which Gatten begins using as a surface for the application of paint. The screen is continually painted with color after color of fast-drying latex paint, the filmmaker’s brush applying broad swaths of pigment across the glass / screen / visual field in real time.
As Gatten himself has joked in the press notes, he has taken the opportunity of his very first feature – and his first digital work, at that – to fully instantiate one of the great critical shibboleths of our time (generally attributed to Gene Hackman’s character in Arthur Penn’s 1975 film Night Moves, regarding Eric Rohmer). The new David Gatten film isn’t just like “watching paint dry;” that’s actually what it is. But of course, that’s not all that it is. For one thing, Gatten isn’t simply painting the glass over and over, with a maniacal monochrome intensity. He is generating impromptu colorfield “canvases,” the relation of each subsequent color chosen not only for its stark contrast and vibrancy against the previous one, but for the way in which, during the time of drying, the inconsistencies will produce cracks and fissures between the two pigments, a layered relationship that at times looks scraped, at others like an abstract landscape. In every case, Gatten asks us to observe the differential between the rapid action of his loaded brush and the (relatively) slow motion of the wet paint bonding with the dry, forming a new, somewhat unpredictable expanse.
In the midst of the color application, Gatten uses the digital technology to bring up and fade out full-screen texts. This use of language as both a communicative medium and a visual motif is, of course, very much in keeping with Gatten’s earlier work in celluloid. But again, rather than attempt to replicate the one medium with the other, Gatten explores how digital tools permit him to alter his working method. Whereas in his Film for Invisible Ink series, works seem to come out of the white field of projector light, and them slip back into the three-dimensional space of the celluloid, in The Extravagant Shadows blocks of text, short phrases or sometimes even a handful of single words, gradually come into view onscreen, as if they are “drying” on the glass at the same pace as the paint. Similarly, they disappear from view once the new layer of pigment has situated itself, found its level upon the thick synthetic impasto of the film, making way for the next set of maneuvers.
And what of the texts themselves? Unlike other Gatten films, which have often been explorations of very particular books or sheaves of letters, The Extravagant Shadows is highly circumspect about its sources. The books we see in the beginning and end may provide certain clues – The Count of Monte Cristo, Nicholas Nickleby, Leon Edel’s edited collection of the stories of Henry James, and other key literary tomes –Gatten’s texts (which seem to be an amalgam of original and appropriated material) give the distinct impression that an actual story is developing. That is, The Extravagant Shadows is not just a feature, but it is almost a narrative. And what is it about?
These textual fragments are preoccupied with two key elements: emotional connection and various methods of communicative transmission. Two figures are trying to make contact with one another, and we are receiving a highly attenuated, semi-epistolary modernist story about lapses in the media that are supposedly in place to allow us to convey our thoughts and desires across time and space. (If there is a work in Gatten’s filmography to which The Extravagant Shadows bears direct comparison, it would be his highly idiosyncratic 2007 film How to Conduct a Love Affair.)We read of the mails, the telegraph, the selection of books, the distance between nations. Eventually, the speaker (or speakers) seem to doubt the efficacy of writing altogether. As the film enters its third hour, we read the following: “I am not frightened of the truth. I am not afraid to tell a secret. But until now, words have been frailer and more cunning than I would have liked. I know this guile is a warning; it would be nobler to leave the truth in peace.”
Gatten, of course, never gives up on the struggle of his interlocutors to find both the language and the conduit by which to make the necessary connection. (Gatten has indicated that The Extravagant Shadows was in part inspired by his university teaching, which afforded him the opportunity to engage more deeply with experimental narrative cinema, the films of Jacques Rivette in particular.) There is no resolution to their interwoven narrative conundrum, just as the painterly frankness of The Extravagant Shadows’s visual track permits of no logical finality. But as we emerge, like Gatten, on the other side of this three-hour journey into fragmentary meaning and radiant visual simplicity, we have found that the medium itself has been rather thoroughly explored. Video’s electric flatness has found an analogue in the quick-drying latex paint, which lights up the pixels and then allows them to slowly dim, at a regular and observable pace. And the narrative, if that’s really what it is, adheres to digital media’s nonlinear, database organization (the open field of meaning) while also, in its overt content, engaging with the very question of the materiality of media, and how they condition or even thwart our most precious interpersonal missives.
Here's my review for The Scene. Obviously there's a lot in this film that I simply didn't have the ability to wedge into the review, but probably the most notable element I left unremarked upon was the Bernal character's relationship with his estranged wife Veró (Antonia Zegers). She is an outspoken radical whose political commitments, we're led to believe, have taken her away from her husband and young son. Perhaps this was an attempt on her part to spare them the anguish of seeing her repeatedly beaten and arrested by Pinochet's thugs. One of the things that makes No such an incisive film is the fact that Larraín presents this family situation, and Veró's choices in particular, objectively and without judgment. They are just some of the difficult choices ordinary people were forced to make during a time of escalating crisis. In fact, very little is judged in No. History itself takes care of that.
I had the good fortune to discover Arraianos when I was asked to cover it for the First Look series at the Museum of the Moving Image. (I also wrote about Thomas Arslan's In The Shadows, but I've covered that film extensively elsewhere on this site.) It's wonderful to see what Enciso is able to accomplish while working within a template that, in recent years, has become ever more common in recent years -- the fiction / ethnography hybrid. Individuals portraying versions of themselves, displaying collaboratively constructed representations of their daily activities and folkways, all of this has evolved into a particular stock-in-trade within a niche festival scene over the past decade and a half. However, lest anyone be too quick to lob the C-word at auteurs exploring this methodology (that being "cliche," of course), we must remember that any genre is only as flexible as the imagination and vision brought to fill in (or overrun) its rough outlines. Enciso wins handily on that score.
When it comes to film analysis, there aren't many bigger copouts than describing something as "dreamlike." It's almost the same as calling something "weird," except that typically the latter is meant as a vague pejorative, the former as a hollow note of praise. Not many films are actually constructed according to anything approximating concrete dream-logic, even within the avant-garde. Only the Surrealists and a few apt pupils, like Maya Deren, actually achieved anything like a cinematic visualization of the Freudian unconscious. This is mainly because film, even in its non-narrative dimensions, unspools in linear time, whereas the unconscious (at least as charted by Freud) is an atemporal, nonspatial proposition, a field of looping and stasis, overlapping and conjunction, reversal and doubling. Dreams themselves may attain something like a mappable chronology in retrospect, as we work through them. But the experience of dream-time tends to be one of exquisite flotation. I've had a difficult time trying to find an angle of approach for Upstream Color, Shane Carruth's remarkable second film, because it is a rare and exquisite bird (or pig) indeed, an undeniably narrative work that engages with the deep structures of experimental cinema throughout. Avant-garde elements are not added like spice or window-dressing for Carruth. Rather, there is a treatment of time and the image as concentrated, self-sustaining elements working in tandem with (and at times retarding) the plot development of Upstream Color.
And yet, there is something eerily oneiric about the manner in which Carruth articulates these visions, the way that fragments of story are left hanging tantalizingly out of comprehension's reach. What we know: a woman, Kris (Amy Seimetz) has what appears to be an ordinary life as a successful upper-middle manager of sorts until she is kidnapped by "the Thief" (Thiago Martins) and subjected to psychotropic poison. This poison, together with his ritualized brainwashing techniques, thoroughly erases Kris's sense of identity, allowing the Thief to manipulate her into clearing her bank accounts, signing over her property, and then being dumped out in the world with no real memory of what happened. In time, she meets Jeff (Carruth), who seems to think that this has happened to him as well. As the film progresses, the details of plot become less exact, arguably dispersing into crystalline fragments or, better yet, oozing into a genuine "stream" of consciousness like an intellectual reagent dropped into an aquatic flow. We observe the workings of the Sampler (Andrew Sensenig), who is both an experimental sound artist and a renegade biological researcher. We are led to believe that somehow, Kris and Jeff's subjectivities have been transferred, or are being (temporarily?) incubated, inside live pigs, hooked to complex life support machines. We also see, before and after the kidnapping, that the Thief and the Sampler are part of a larger process, the Thief's serum being extracted from worms which are sustained by orchids, both men controlling the human victims with (micro vs. macro) horizontal dirt-dwellers, knocking evolved consciousness down to size, as it were. And, as a textual digestif, the largely wiped Kris and Jeff are obsessed with Thoreau's Walden, the Western primer (sic) on rationalizing nature as Man's ultimate trajectory.
But as I said, none of these aspects of Upstream Color ever comes to dominate in such a way that it could constitute a "theme," much less a plot. In fact, the experience of watching the film owes much more to the force of Carruth's images, the otherworldly acting and line readings ("Each drink is better than the last..."), and the awkward impression one feels at the junctures of moments, recalling how an utterly unexpected event somehow managed to remain tonally consistent, never provoking the whiplash of an all-too-common, showboating surrealist mode. It's not the Walden fixation but the sight and sound of Jeff and Kris splayed around a swimming pool, in an anxious yet eroticized distress, that sticks with you, or the fully-clothed pair in a spent, fragile embrace in a dry bathtub. Carruth's impeccable use of lighting and framing can recall avant-garde masters like Dorsky and Beavers at times; the glass pitcher of water with the spinning ice, backlit in deep amber, represents a fleeting moment of perfect ambient local color, the sort that shocks us into registering our everyday surroundings as having an aesthetic dimension. But more than this, it does what dreams do, and what Kris's altered condition has done -- to make a religious fetish out of a banal object, to invest it with magical meaning. "The water before you is somehow special," the Thief advises her. "When you drink it you feel revived and full of energy. It is better than anything you've ever tasted." Upstream Color is a film in which Carruth has similarly infused the otherwise normal world. But as we see the Thief's endgame, might we also observe an element of self-critique on Carruth's part? Cinema is beautiful hypnosis, and as such it can also be a dangerous poison.
A rare short film (non-avant-garde division) that actually manages to be clever, reasonably sophisticated and just the right length of time to achieve its rather modest aims. Catnip is extremely straightforward and even one-dimensional, but it's quite funny and very accomplished as a formal parody, much more exacting as a piece of retro-mimicry than the hypothetical Funny Or Die effort one could imagine being created from the same idea. Willis clearly spent some time studying those old LSD-panic films from the 60s and absorbed their language, instead of doing what most young comic artists do -- just look at older parodies, which takes us further and further from the subtleties of the form. Nice job. But hey, judge for yourself.
In truth, this edition of The Big Ones for Fandor is a broad survey of all of Apted's "Up" films, none of which I'd seen before this month's binge viewing. But it also serves, I suppose, as a fairly decent review of 56 Up, or as close to one as I'm going to write, so what can I tell you? Apted has gotten entirely too chummy with his subjects, all of whom are pretty deeply ensconced in the British upper-middle class at the point. Even Neil, the once-homeless, drifting outlier, has gotten enough grounding to become legible to a British television audience steeped in mugging and stoicism. Everything, from the lighting to the sets, even the pacing and Apted's faux-blokish jocularity, smack of latter-day daytime chat shows like Oprah and The View (or their U.K. equivalent). I guess everything that began with a brash, Old Labour sting has long since been retrofitted for the big Blair / Brown / Miliband shuck-and-jive, and the "Up" program is no exception.