REVIEWS OF NEW RELEASES SEEN, JUNE 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)
This is one of those rare and delightful instances in which an esteemed colleague, Shelly Kraicer, has so thoroughly crystallized my thoughts about the film in question (along with providing a great deal of cultural and historical context that I would not have been able to) that my remarks are virtually redundant. I will say that I'm surprised to be impressed with The Grandmaster since, around the time of its world premiere at this year's Berlinale, I managed to "acquire" an unsubtitled copy, which I watched in order to get a feel for the film's formal parameters. (Sadly, I don't speak either Cantonese or Mandarin.) On that pass, I was concerned with Wong's incessant cutting, the fact that shots were seldom allowed to hold the screen for more than a second or two. Not only did this strike me as distracting in and of itself (compared to the lush, hypnotic pace of Wong's best films), but it also seemed to contravene a basic if unwritten rule of martial arts cinema. You want the camera to step back, let the film roll, and allow the unalloyed athleticism of the performers hold the "stage."
But upon second look (with subtitles), I started to see exactly what Wong is up to. As Kraicer explains, The Grandmaster is a significant departure for Wong. It's the first film he's made that actually organizes time historically, rather than as looping memory or as a modernist problematic of motility vs. stasis. In a purely formal sense, Wong's take on (a small portion of) the life of Ip Man (Tony Leung) could be considered a kind of extended postscript to the epilogue in In The Mood For Love. Where the "real time" of history and politics is a shocking intrusion in that film, crashing through to break the hypnosis of Wong's romantic idyll, The Grandmaster deals in layered and indistinct timeframes. The hard, concrete progression of history (particularly the Japanese occupation) asserts itself and recedes. But the incremental development of Ip's school of kung fu, and the various competing schools, comprise the dominant plot of the film, and as Wong unfurls this tapestry through both fight scenarios and political machinations, we observe the discontinuous, underground development of Ip's unified wing chun method.
If we are literal in understanding Ip's key statement, that kung fu is but "two characters, one horizontal, one vertical," then we get it: someone stands while the other fighter falls. But this motto also alludes to the progression of time. Uneven development means that there are always at least two histories, the short-term dominant regime, and the attenuated stretch of deep time. (Raymond Williams called this "the long revolution," Fernand Braudel and the Annales School the longue durée.) And if we read this back into The Grandmaster's structural organization, perhaps Wong's impressionistic treatment of kung fu makes sense as a unique approach to the very meaning of "fighting" in Asian cinema. (It's even a notable revision of what the director did in Ashes of Time, which was given to abstraction but maintained a general spatial integrity.) These tight close-up shots, isolated and assembled as units in a pictographic lexicon, convey motion as well as stillness, the horizontality of thrust and the verticality of resistance. What Wong shows us in these fragments is not just the hit but the movement of air, the fact that a punch that doesn't connect is still a rearrangement of elements, a force. We see water beads, dust particles, even shafts of light take on jagged, differential jabs and parries throughout The Grandmaster, to an extent that actual body contact is almost superfluous. For Wong, as for Ip Man, these anti-matter "impacts" reflect the forces of history we can never see.
On its surface, the latest film from Baltimore's Matt Porterfield represents what we could call a refinement of aesthetic terms, or at least a decision to train a refined aesthetic on a new set of targets. Given that there is more immediate continuity between the plot and characters of Darker and Porterfield's earlier films Hamilton and Putty Hill, it could seem as though the director was choosing to produce a more direct or accessible statement of his thematic concerns -- a film as plainspoken as his usual subjects. This isn't exactly the case, however, because the further away one gets from Darker, the more diffuse and impressionistic is feels. Like a town receding in the rearview mirror in a dream, its apparent concrete facticity only comes together in fragments: the amber light of a living room furnished with out-of-date furniture, or the tree-lined neighborhood street that even in summer tends to impress upon you how it will look once it's covered in snow once more. It's certainly true that Darker differs from Hamilton and Putty Hill in terms of focus. Both of Porterfield's previous features was a portrait of a distinct part of town, the class of people who inhabited it, and how social circumstance and geography helped shape but did not determine the web of lives held therein. And each was a dispersed, multi-character affair, observing ripples from some axial event as they pooled out across a select social group. In Darker, that "group" is a family, which means that it's more difficult to see how space and location conspire to form these individuals. And yet it is domesticity (as worn glove or as straitjacket) which clarifies the location of each member of the family, and allows middle-aged bohemian / collegiate suburbia to assert itself as more than a cliche. The father who has put his musical aspirations aside in favor of family life, versus the mother who refuses to give up, give in, or give out, form a kind of force field, calling on an unseen but palpable history which is personal, generational, and geographical -- as uniquely American a story as Linklater's "Before" films (which are all the more so by highlighting French sensibility). Here, Porterfield doesn't need long takes or tracking shots because the story of "small Baltimore" has gone indoors. Whether this is shelter from the storm, or a tense confinement to be clawed against, is the matter at hand. A more conventional film? A more conventional life? Whether this logical pairing strikes you as progress or retrenchment says everything about your own place within the tale Porterfield has told.
Each and every new Resnais film is treated like a valediction, or some sort of definitive statement on death. This can be taken playfully, as in Wild Grass ("Sugar, We Are Going Down"), or it can be so purely formal that many viewers don't seem to notice. (I wrote several years ago about how disturbed I was by Not On The Lips, a film whose surface text was a featherweight farce but whose mechanized presentation, like whimsical automatons from the distant past, spoke to me in blaring subtext about the foreclosure of history and the inevitability of all our follies running smack into the brick wall of Dasein.) Admittedly, You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet has an explicit "final film" pall to it, unlike anything I've seen since Altman's A Prairie Home Companion. But alas, Resnais has completed a new one, Life of Riley, so there! (Perhaps you have to make it to the ripe young age of 105 before concerned cinephiles take you off of permanent deathwatch.) You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet's very title is a kind of dare against mortality, or a thumbing of the nose at its supposed finality. Resnais and co-writer Laurent Herbiet adapted the script from two plays by the French modernist Jean Anouilh, a major figure of proto-Existentialist drama and a controversial individual. His works are now generally understood to have been subtly anti-Vichy, but because he pled for clemency for collaborationist intellectuals (Robert Brasillach among them -- see also Godard's crypto-defense of this writer), some argued that Anouilh was himself a Nazi sympathizer. None of this has any relevance to Resnais's use of the Anouilh texts (Eurydice and Dear Antoine) in YASNY. However, it can be said to "shadow" or complicate the manner in which the film's fictional playwright, Antoine d'Anthac (Denis Podalydès), exists only as a deceased "invisible man," whose wishes and legacy must be served and determined in retrospect. (Does this speak to some anxiety on Resnais's part as well? Does the director fear that, once he is gone, his political legacy will somehow be found wanting?) In terms of plot alone, the "reading of a will" results in a gathering of all the major actors and actresses who worked with d'Anthac at his home, for what becomes an evaluation of a video of a young theatre troupe's "street" adaptation of d'Anthac's Eurydice. Is it good enough? Should his estate award the performance rights? This leads to a screening room audience of middle-aged to seasoned, autumnal actors becoming drawn back into the reverie of their own performances, and the pairings and interactions and byplay that those performances created. That is, an audience becomes a kind of free-floating performance space, where multiple iterations of the same text are spontaneously called forth as per the (joyous / painful / romantic / nostalgic) tug of memory. As different performers from different stagings from different periods alternate and overlap, this "audience" becomes an overlapping field of collapsed temporalities, and enfolded desires. The loss of the one man who connected all of these professional artists across decades, and through multiple plays, allows for a sort of text-based seance event. All their "thens" merge, like smoke, into a potent, heady now. And needless to say, Resnais's staging of this event is not only "the film," a kind of virtual confrontation of audience with audience. (Cf. Kiarostami's Shirin or Lockhart's Teatro Amazonas.) It is also his own proleptic direction of his wake. And since it is committed to film, even those who might conceivably expire before him can "be there." Unlike theatre, cinema is always a resurrected past, an image embalmed in pixels, "death at work." Is this maudlin? Not really; true to his puckish nature, Resnais got his "last film" out of the way so he could keep making movies. He'll bury us all.
Some reviews just aren't very good, and I'm afraid this is one of them. I found myself tasked to write quite a bit more about this Alex Gibney documentary than I really had to say about it. It being a Gibney doc, its methods and viewpoint are straightforward and even a bit crude. (I should note, I rather liked Taxi To the Dark Side, but when compared with Laura Poitras' very similar The Oath, there's simply no comparison. Poitras is both a journalist and an artist; Gibney's neither.) Furthermore, given that I have rather impassioned views on the Bradley Manning case, I ended up ignoring We Steal Secrets and using the review as a broadside for ranting about Manning. All in all, not a very illuminating read. But we all strike the occasional sour note, yes? You can judge for yourself, as the Nashville Scene was gracious enough to run the piece and pay me for it as well.
All hail the Ethan Hawke Renaissance! I guess... Although I have many, many issues with this film, I'm not entirely sorry to see such a low budget, non-blockbuster mega-sequel make a killing (har har) in the current marketplace. If I were inclined to be generous, I could say that The Purge is a horror-thriller "of ideas," and that sets it apart somewhat. But let's face it: those ideas are painfully half-baked, and I'm not convinced that a stupid chop-'em-up isn't preferable in some ways to a "thoughtful" film that flatters its audience, feeds the beast, and leaves no one any better for having undergone the ritual. It's all just a bit too self-congratulatory. Not unlike Iron Man 3 or Despicable Me 2, except here, liberal smugness is the toy in the Happy Meal. Anyway, here's my write-up for the Nashville Scene.