All films from U.S.A. unless otherwise specified.

(- seen on video; [v] video piece; [p] para-cinema (installation, etc.); [s] short, under 30 minutes; [m] medium length, 30-69 min; * grade changed upon repeat viewing)





-Boarding Gate (Olivier Assayas, France)

The final shot of Boarding Gate features Asia Argento's character Sandra riding an escalator into a hazy sunbleached upper deck, vanishing into the light. Cue credits, scored to the Sparks classic "The No. 1 Song in Heaven (Part Two)." We can perhaps work backward from here, since this benedictory sound / image collision encapsulates a great deal of what's so odd about Assayas's latest film. Sparks are an American band who have virtually no pop profile in their home country, but are revered superstars abroad, especially in Great Britain and France. Part of the Sparks problem, as it's often told, is that their songs are too clever and self-conscious about manipulating cliché, and thus they've often been unfairly denigrated as a novelty band. The usual moral to the Sparks story is that "Americans don't get irony," that as a people we're simple and guileless, or at least like to think of ourselves as such, and so anything in the pop arena more sophisticated than Bryan Adams or Elton John is liable to be lost on us. Not so, of course, our hipper friends across the Atlantic and beyond. This is a neat parable, and even if it's patently untrue that Americans are unsophisticated consumers of pop culture, it's a meme that continues to serve as a guiding principle for those entities that churn out the mass corporate culture our busy snouts get to root around in. But "No 1 Song," like so much else in the Sparks repertoire, isn't just ironic, nor is it overtly sincere. Instead, Sparks plays the uneasy dialectic between the two, demanding an active engagement that often feels like being lost, or wondering if the joke's on you. Like the Mael brothers themselves -- Russell, bopping around the stage with canned frontman gestures, Ron scowling at you like Hitler, the Art Student who opted to join a band instead -- the polarity is the message.


This problem is likewise at the heart of Olivier Assayas 2.0, or the "Wha'happen?" shift that happened, in retrospect, somewhere between 1998's Late August Early September and 2000's Sentimental Destinies. While watching Boarding Gate, it's nearly impossible not to experience a somewhat divided consciousness, as the film and our reception of it toggle uneasily between "Cinemax erotic thriller from Europe" and "theoretical examination of the structures and strictures of the genre known as 'the thriller'." (Think of Duchamp's fountain mounted on a men's room wall, on a spinning bolt, first up as art and then down as bodily release.) There are certain undeniable flaws in Boarding Gate, but the evaluation of those flaws fluctuates with one's shifting assessment of what the film, and Assayas, aim to do. There are minor logical fallacies, gaps in character development wide enough to accommodate a careening 18-wheeler, and a certain Euro-brittleness to many of the dialogues, pointing like neon arrows to translation problems or the perils of an international, polyglot cast and crew. When in doubt, Assayas relies on standard movements and rhythms of the genre, and the first half of Boarding Gate is particularly adrift in these uncertain moments. Talky one minute, glowering the next, with Argento and co-star Michael Madsen seeming smarmy and iconic, and then obdurate and bullet-headed when actual actorly duty suddenly calls, it's next to impossible not to see Boarding Gate, out of the gate, as a bad film. The question becomes, is it a badness that tells us something?


Part of the difficulty of the first part of the film is that it points rather incessantly to a theoretical proposition. Assayas, a former critic, is a true Man of Cinema, and open to nearly anything. Boarding Gate can feel like an attempt to employ an old, if not altogether untrue, critical saw -- that B-pictures, with their "termite" damage and tendency to jot poetically in the margins, will often reveal themselves as radical aesthetic objects on closer inspection. Assayas, then, seems at first to be engaged in a tightassed, quixotic pursuit, like mimicking the provocative sounds of a out-of-tune guitar on a correctly tuned instrument. Even the title announces its projected aims, alluding as it does to liminal non-space and terminal in-betweenness. Everything changes, however, once Sandra returns and corners Miles (Madsen) in his ice-blue po-mo penthouse. Yes, certain plot twists occur at this juncture, and I won't spoil them. But it's something more; Assayas opens up the space between these two former lovers, allowing them to ramble, ruminate, tease and recoil, speak in broken-off sentences. All of this, in essence, provides a clearing in mid-film for precisely the sort of free-flowing byplay that shifts foreground and background in the best B-pictures, allowing random bits of business to emerge like little haikus, albeit ones that smell of whiskey and latex. After this point, Boarding Gate's forward propulsion does continue, but Sandra's character becomes somehow different within it. It's not just that Assayas's staging and editing of action sequences is tighter here, allowing a viewer to actually get lost in its non-cerebral thrills. It's that the relative blankness of Sandra, and Argento's portrayal of her, has now become its own kind of soulfulness, a response to exploitation and expectations dashed. She behaves, in short, like a believer, a kind of Romantic, trapped in a Cinemax thriller. The simulacrum and double-consciousness it provokes are still there. At every moment, we're still watching Assayas thinking about what Roland Barthes might have called "thrillerness." But Sandra is there, colluding with us, in Assayas's larger project, which is an examination of the conditions under which we are made to care, not just about imaginary film characters but about anybody at all, especially under the reign of capitalism. (Note to self: You seriously underrated demonlover. Re-see it immediately.) At this point, Boarding Gate becomes much more than an empty display of film-geek maneuvers. Assayas, the "intellectual," and Abel Ferrara, the so-called "primitive," have essentially arrived at the same destination, all baggage rightfully claimed.


-Eat, For This Is My Body (Michelange Quay, France / Haiti)

Michelange Quay's debut feature is a work of remarkable power and assurance, and while the film is by no means perfect, its "flaws" are forgivable, precisely because the work as a whole represents the type of bold, visionary modernism that is virtually extinct. Essentially an experimental trance film that juxtaposes Voudoun ceremonies with highly abstracted, para-Catholic fantasy rituals of colonialist abuse in an isolated Haiti of the mind, Eat, For This Is My Body returns Maya Deren's ultimately unfulfilled interest in the country and its culture by bringing her cultural strategies -- movement, gesture, distended time, diffused light -- to bear on the Haitian experience, from the other side. Quay eschews clear narrative progression in favor of a slow procession of evocative images which build to cumulative effect. (Among recent films, the only one that even comes close to resembling Eat is Lucile Hadzihalilovic's Innocence.) There is never a clearly articulated argument against colonial oppression, or the psychology that the oppressor attempts to instill in the oppressed. (The closest thing we get to an outright argument comes when Catherine Samie, as the dying matriarch of the chilly, somnambulant school for boys / torture mansion, declares herself to be Haiti, the body unthinkingly eaten by the native "children," those "chimpanzees." It is a hideous speech, Quay leaving nothing to chance.) Instead, Quay gives us the nightmare dimension, all condensation and displacement, treating the Western compulsion to impose abstinence and deprivation (from the Carnival / Lent disparity right up through IMF "adjustment" economics) as the perversion that it is. Not every image connects; some are simply too blatant. After all, this is a debut film. When Quay shows us the young Haitian boys jumping naked into the white milk / alabaster mixing vat, for example, it's a one-dimensional, dunderheaded symbol for forced assimilation, only slightly less inelegant than the animated meatgrinder sequence in Pink Floyd's The Wall. But Sylvie Testud's doe-eyed schoolmarm, coaching the boys (now in matching black suits) on how to properly appreciate their empty dinner table, or the contrast between Samie's unplugged keyboard and the DJ Granny Trio (a triumphant, unexpected metaphor for life vs. death), demonstrate the audacious, raw inventiveness of Quay's cinematic imagination. Yes, some will undoubtedly find Eat unbearably pretentious. But there are moments in this film which can only be compared with the likes of Buñuel, Lynch, Kubrick, Matthew Barney, and Claire Denis. I'll take Quay's "pretentiousness" over the focus-grouped transgressions of most Sundance / SXSW American indie claptrap, any day of the week.


-My Winnipeg (Guy Maddin, Canada)*

If you're a viewer who's familiar with The Life, Work and Opinions of Guy Maddin, Gentleman, one of the very first things you'll notice when watching My Winnipeg is the voice. In a very literal sense, it's actually Maddin narrating, which is tonally jarring. Customarily there would be the quavering, whiskey-battered tones of a man in his sixties, delivering Maddin's lines as though they were grand oratory from the Land of Nod. Instead, there's something almost deflating, even embarrassingly vulnerable, the moment we here Maddin's own voice, which is reedy, plain, and a little on the high side. But even beyond the literal "grain of the voice," there is the shockingly direct level of address, the still poetic, sometimes abstruse but often quite naked ruminations and observations of the man himself. Granted, any and every sound and image that enters the meat grinder of the cinematic apparatus becomes a form of representation, a thing measured against itself. Only a naive fool would believe he or she has struck the gold of authenticity at any moment when seated inside the AMC Plato's Cave 15. But more than at any point in Maddin's filmography, My Winnipeg provides the sense that we are in communication with Guy Maddin, not "Guy Maddin," or "Egon Ehrlinspiel, Oedipal triple-amputee curling champion and mayor of Medicine Hat."


And, um, thank god. I happen to think Maddin is a flat-out genius, and quite possibly one of the key filmmakers of this decade. His influences are sufficiently internationalist (and poly-historical) that it scarcely makes sense to speak in terms of national cinema, but let's face it: at present, Maddin and David Cronenberg are the most vital creative forces in Canadian narrative cinema; throw in Michael Snow, and we can just say "cinema" and leave it at that. But he has been in jeopardy of falling so far down his own postmodern rabbit hole that the films might eventually become mere demonstrations of his stylistic tics and pet obsessions, endless permutations of the same basic elements which would perhaps become more elegant on their own terms, but would increasingly disengage from the larger world. This danger has been averted with 100% success, starting with Maddin's poignant collaboration with Isabella Rossellini in tribute to her father Roberto, and now, in Maddin's allusive, open-form essay to his hometown, a sort of poison-pen love letter to a midsize Prairie city and its foibles, misguided aspirations, and its resilience in the face of a culture that Maddin characterizes, in terms only he could, as a sort of universal somnambulism. (Chris Stults mentioned Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities as a touchstone, and he's absolutely right.) To live in Maddin's Winnipeg is to be in a gorgeous wintry fugue state, subject to poetic reverie as well as cantankerous, letter-to-the-editor civic pride. (Perhaps all the fine writing the director has been doing for Film Comment and the Village Voice has helped him to lift the mask.) The "My" in the title, of course, points to the absolute peculiarity of Maddin's winterreise -- a "docu-fantasia," he calls it -- but it's also a gesture of reclamation, against bad taste, looters and carpetbaggers, and faulty memory. In this regard, it's also Our Winnipeg. Maddin explicates the city's abuse at the hands of the NHL and various rootless venture capitalists with no connection to the sports culture, or the radical distinction he traces between Winnipeg municipal law, which values history and memory in various ways, and the raze-and-plunder mentality of external forces, laying out his case in an impassioned, but surprisingly straightforward manner.


But these "documentary essay" bits, where Maddin "plays it straight," are only the most conventionally shocking parts of My Winnipeg. Befitting Maddin's first outright attempt at an essay film, he covers a lot of tonal ground, ranging from Chris Marker-like poetic rumination, to rapid-fire, secret-history deployment of found footage and bizarre city facts, a mode that recalls Craig Baldwin's best work. Perhaps the most jawdropping material in the film comes near the beginning, when Maddin comes clean about the Oedipal struggles and "gynocracy" that have permeated his films from the very first frame. We learn about his childhood, and his mother's actual place in his psychological firmament. (That is, we presume Maddin isn't making it all up, which of course he could be. If so, well done.) In a remarkable early sequence, Maddin asks his mother to perform alongside three actors playing himself and his siblings as kids, in a reconstruction of their living room in the actual Maddin childhood home. (The film allegedly features the real Mrs. Maddin in the key role, but Our Man in Manitoba certainly couldn't forswear all dissimulation.) To say more would be to spoil My Winnipeg's best surprises, but after twenty years of deconstructing the entire corpus of film history, including patently fake swipes at autobiography, Maddin is finally turning his laser-sharp analytical acumen on himself and the strange, heavy-lidded world from whose skull he sprang. To borrow a metaphor from the film itself, My Winnipeg is light as a snowflake, but bears the earthy solidity of a fossil.


[SECOND VIEWING: Still brilliant in most places, but not as razor-sharp as it seemed on first pass. The essay form gets a little baggy in spots, and sometimes Maddin tries to bolster the slower or less robust spots with the poetic repetition, such that it loses its encantatory strength and starts to seem a bit mindless. And, structurally, the film as a whole is undeniably ramshackle. This is certainly part of its charm, but it doesn't obviate the feeling of hitting potholes in the transitions from personal to documentary address. Imperfect, but elegant. Imperfectly elegant.]


-The Namesake (Mira Nair, India / U.S.)

There's no point denying that Nair's cinema is middlebrow to the core. But if all so-called middlebrow pictures were as sensitively observed and humanistic as Nair's, cinema would be all the richer. I'll make no great claims for The Namesake, which largely follows a classic template for the multi-generation immigrant tale, complete with inappropriate love interests, grumbling over switched college majors, and the growing pains of assimilation versus holding fast to tradition. What sets Nair's handling apart, beyond her rather surprising ability to cover a whole lot of family history in a decidedly non-epic running time, is her way with actors, and the remarkable open space she affords to ordinary daily life. Even moments which other directors would milk for shameless melodrama, such as a death in the family or a goodbye to friends prior to a late-life return to India, are presented with such muted delivery that their emotional impact is unusually stealthy. In fact, the entire film has a similar slow build, like the gradual unfolding reviewers have identified in Jhumpa Lahiri's source novel. The Namesake doesn't seem like all that much, but it eventually elicits our caring. And, if we accept that this kind of character-based emotional identification is the primary function of most middlebrow art, then The Namesake is indeed an exemplar of that mode. The film demands little, and gives back quite a lot.


-The Tracey Fragments (Bruce McDonald, Canada)

John Hughes and Peter Greenaway walked into a bar and one of them said to the other . . . Okay, not exactly, but one of the truly stunning aspects of The Tracey Fragments (which is an overwhelming experience even on the small screen) is its shockingly appropriate expenditure of experimental visual technique on a story that is absolutely devoted to inhabiting the subject position of a troubled 15-year-old girl. Now, immediately certain viewers will be put on the defensive by the very concept, while others will no doubt find it gratifying that what would be "formal wankery" is some other context has a concrete narrative justification here. Does avant-garde experimentation require a note from the office? Luckily, McDonald and his team are so deft at transforming the source material (a novel by Maureen Medved, who co-scripted with McDonald) into such a meticulously constructed multimedia force-field that The Tracey Fragments successfully treads a razor-thin line. Yes, the presence of a strong performance (virtually a one-woman show) by Ellen Page and certain unrestrained emotional sucker-punches in the story of Tracey "Itz" Berkowitz, social outcast and unusually tortured soul, allow the film to resonate well beyond the highbrow sphere where one would discover the experimental cinema and video art that The Tracey Fragments most resembles. (Late Greenaway, from Prospero's Books onward, is an obvious touchstone, along with image-layerers like Bruce Baillie and Bill Viola, as well as the loop-generating corner of the structural film world, people like Frampton, Sharits, Gunvor Nelson and Peter Rose.) The whole thing would indeed feel like yet another case of watered-down, second-rate avant-garde for the masses, were it not for the spookily unerring facility with which McDonald and his editing team, Matthew Hannam, Jeremy Munce, and Gareth Scales, combine, whittle away, add and subtract, enlarge and reduce single and multiple images and sounds within the frame. One single image will almost imperceptibly grow from the corner outward to fill the frame, while a second set of images slowly fades in like a set of pockmarks. Or, multiples views of the same broken landscape will be arranged on the "page," like a photocollage, destroying coherent film space but actually unifying the depicted space as a mood or an experiential location, a state of loneliness. Or, a single memory will play like a staggered loop, interfering with the present like a jammed transmission. It's true that, in the end, The Tracey Fragments would be powerful enough without placing a central, unspeakable tragedy at its center (one, what's more, that is directly tied to Tracey's sexual shame, a rather cruel bit of narrative overkill). What's more, the film would be that much stronger had it exhibited a tad more restraint over its latent melodramatic tendencies. But the bottom line is that The Tracey Fragments is precisely the sort of film which ought to be insufferable. It not only wallows in the woes of a disaffected adolescent; it orchestrates her angst as a kind of Picasso-Proustian molecular breakdown. Against all odds and every available canon of good taste and good sense for that matter, The Tracey Fragments is not pretentious or embarrassing. In its own deceptively modest way it's actually kind of amazing.


-The Witnesses (André Téchiné, France)

[SIGNIFICANT SPOILERS] While watching The Witnesses, it dawned on me that no major director is making films the way Téchiné does. He's sort of in a class by himself. Granted, this is true of any great master of the cinema, and particularly so since The Witnesses is clearly his best film since Les Voleurs. (Although let me go on record as saying 2001's Loin is sorely underrated.) But the answers Téchiné provides for the fundamental questions of how to put one shot next to another, of how to tell a story or develop a character, are just worlds away from what's come to count as "art cinema" these days, and this in itself made The Witnesses a rather bracing revelation. The camera and editing are just so fleet, so free, and Téchiné seems to effortlessly pour glowing seaside light into every frame, providing even the film's bleakest moments with a tender, enveloping glow. This is worlds away from both the lugubrious tracking shots and fixed frames of post-minimalism and the contrived, pedantic multi-character roundelays that have gummed up the middlebrow cinema in recent years. Instead, Téchiné harks back to the pastoral side of Renoir but with an almost electric frisson, as though there is so much life crackling through every second that the mere tools of filmmaking aren't fast enough to catch it before it evaporates. And of course, this is sort of the simplest explication of Téchiné's main theme in The Witnesses, his retrospective summation of the period just before and after the age of AIDS. In some respects, the fast pace and focus on multiple characters within an extended group of friends and family allows for a more accessible piece of filmmaking, as does a frank, even at times artless writing style. The final chapter, in particular, finds the film almost making an outright hero of Adrien (Michel Blanc), a gay doctor who becomes a researcher on the frontlines of the battle against the virus, and the ignorance and bigotry surrounding it.


Thing is, Téchiné pretty much has Adrien say things exactly like that previous sentence, several times over. What's more, even the private moments from passionate, less overtly politicized relationships -- Sarah and Mehdi (Emmanuelle Béart and Sami Bouajila), Mehdi and Manu (Johan Libéreau), Manu and Adrien -- sometimes have a similarly declamatory writerly style. Some will undoubtedly find this unforgivably clunky, a deal-breaker from the get-go, although often Téchiné's script (written with Viviane Zingg and Laurent Guyot), while hardly naturalistic, is beautifully sculpted. But the power of The Witnesses derives from a strange alchemy by which Téchiné creates an almost novelistic context, wherein thick language, compressed incident, and expansively detailed representation of historical background all coalesce into a work that defeats skepticism and enfolds "flaws" into an overall system of affective meaning. Typically, this kind of context-dependant textual system is the province of melodrama or, worse, soap opera, wherein contrivance is willfully overlooked as part of the game. But here, Téchiné harnesses the speed and agility and emotional openness traditionally associated with those modes for a kind of epic poem, detailing the lives of a few decent individuals struggling together through what eventually revealed itself to be a world-historical juncture (and, as Olaf Möller so aptly put it, a crisis in love itself). The distance Téchiné has gained from the AIDS crisis allows for some fascinating, and in some ways problematic, intellectual processing, all of which make The Witnesses the complex, deeply personal document that it is. Some things are obvious. Téchiné's light-suffused style is, in itself, an act of defiance and, yes, of witnessing. He and cinematographer Julien Hirsch (who most recently illuminated the universe in Lady Chatterley, Notre Musique, and In Praise of Love -- the guy's good) are returning life to memories some would rather forget, especially now. Also, Téchiné can now remind us of how the AIDS crisis exacerbated fissures around identity and identity politics. When one of the very last lines of the film is Adrien remarking, "Maybe gays and straights just can't get along," this is Téchiné reminding us of the deep mistrust and collateral damage it's taken over twenty years for the Left to (sort of) repair.


But in its depiction of the AIDS era as a battleground, possibly the most complicated (and maybe controversial) aspect of The Witnesses is its choice of the fallen comrade. It's Manu who contracts the virus and dies. Manu is the young gay man who cruises for sex in the parks. He has sex with bisexual Medhi, many, many times. But the impression is that Manu only fucks Medhi once, maybe a few more times, and that Medhi almost always fucks Manu. Medhi doesn't contract the virus, which means that he doesn't infect his heterosexual lover Sarah. (Adrien, whose relationship with Manu is chaste against his will, remains uninfected in a less problematic fashion.) It would be incredibly easy to interpret this from a conservative standpoint, that Manu the "real" gay man, who is promiscuous, is somehow the "appropriate" AIDS victim, and that heterosexuality somehow inoculates Medhi and Sarah. (Adrien's anger at Medhi, which is explicitly about cheating and deception, seems like an as-yet-unarticulated rage at Medhi's heterosexual privilege somehow extending into the realm of the scientifically impossible.) What is Téchiné doing? Blaming the victim? I think it's actually more subtle than that, but to get it, one has to be so far inside the history of AIDS discourse that this move represents a kind of echo-chamber blunder on the film's part. The scenario depicted in The Witnesses, of Manu the promiscuous gay man serving as the "bringer of death," was the prototype for understanding the virus not only among conservatives but even a certain segment of the gay community. Téchiné seems to be engaging with people like Randy Shilts, and looking back on the whole wave of heteronormative behavior a crass misreading of AIDS provoked. After all, The Witnesses seems to mourn the collapse of a fluid exploration of sexuality that, despite the pain it might cause, allowed for a radical reimagining of the meaning of family, of sex and kinship, and of identity itself. From twenty-plus-years' distance, Téchiné seems to be returning to this moment, but without the need to refute the "Patient Zero" stereotype propagated early on by Shilts and his conservative adopters. Yes, the film seems to say, in the beginning, we lost our Manus, and the straights dodged a bullet or two. But not for long. So again, only in the context of a very specific project of revision can this aspect of Téchiné's film be differentiated from the scapegoating it (and, within the film itself, Adrien) intend to erase. Granted, this doesn't exactly work, because this would require an effort so subtle and precise that in order to accomplish it with no ambiguity, The Witnesses would need to focus here and nowhere else. And, if this issue lands up in a kind of intellectual knot, it's likely because, as the film's many virtues amply demonstrate, Téchiné best accomplishes his politics through poetic images or fleeting gestures that accumulate into an only semi-rational, full-bodied crescendo of loss.




-Before I Forget (Jacques Nolot, France)

A very interesting film that sort of meanders into something else, Before I Forget marks a noteworthy evolution in the Nolot project. Here, the writer-director-actor has made that project shockingly explicit -- the documentation of a specific gay male milieu on the wane. To call it "in transition" would be misleading, since, as per Nolot's diagnosis (here, as well as in the earlier Porn Theatre), his 50-something to 60-something generation of gay men is disappearing, along with the culture they propagated: long-term hustler relationships, semi-kept-man status, pre-AIDS promiscuity, and perhaps above all (although Nolot leaves this subtext down in the margins) a pre-queer gay identity, insular and non-fluid and operating by its own inculcated rituals. In a way, Nolot's film structurally dramatizes his own dilemma, although the extent to which this is intentional is an open question. Beginning with a white field marred by a black dot that slowly irises-in to fill the screen (death? glaucoma? the rectum? simply the passage of time?), Nolot takes us into an almost unperceivable opening sequence, all darkness and deep shadow, barely discernible figures groping in the dark. Over time, and with the vital assistance of a soundtrack film with coughs and grunts, we learn that Pierre (Nolot) and his favorite young hustler Marc (Bastien d'Asnières) are having sex, but the physical limitations of Pierre's aged body make certain things difficult for him. (Breathing through fellatio is one. At a later point, Pierre drives down to Pigalle for some action the day after some vigorous anal; upon securing a parking place, he promptly shits himself, and dejectedly heads home.) This opening scene prepares the viewer for a deeply visual film, bathed in states of twilight befitting the subject matter. In fact, much of the rest of the film consists of evenly-lit straight shots in Pierre's apartment, and in various other interiors. Before I Forget becomes a very talky film, virtually realizing Pierre's statement that since he can't perform any longer, he sublimates. (And actually, for a film of such stasis, Before I Forget is pleasingly shot. Nolot's crisp medium-angle interiors have a solidity reminiscent of Rohmer.) The frustrating thing is that, as Pierre re-encounters a former hustler just out of prison, and learns second-hand of his older sugar-daddy's recent passing, the film becomes preoccupied with money, property rights, inheritance, and the base material elements of existence. This is understandable, especially since for gay men, especially those of Nolot's generation, this is a political issue. Still, the early moments of Before I Forget were compelling largely because Nolot was able to keep many ruminations and a life's worth of concerns circling one another in the air, and by the end, when the film's last key setpiece consists of the auctioning off of artwork that rightfully belonged to Pierre, Nolot's film started to seem discomfitingly monomaniacal, like the work of a man literally leaving his will on film. All the same, the narrative arc of Pierre's character may have required that he get this materialist baggage out of his system, since the extended last shot finds him daring to play out a sexual fantasy, at Marc's urging, that before he had found to embarrassing to pursue. In truth, as Nolot stages it, it is quite beautiful precisely because in any other context it could in fact by somewhat risible but, by journey's end, can only be understood as a hard-won triumph. Even after AIDS, disinheritance, and cruising with Roland Barthes, Pierre's still standing. He's one tough old queen.


-Chop Shop (Ramin Bahrani)

An intensive character study that could easily be mistaken for a piece of committed social drama, Chop Shop does very little besides zero in on the tightly-wound psyche of young Alejandro (newcomer Alejandro Polenco), an street kid determined to scratch out a living at all costs. Bahrani first introduces Ale as a subway candy-kid, but before long he's working in the titular auto shop in Jamaica, Queens, taking apart cars doing body repairs, and with the boss's permission holing up in a tiny plywood room at night. His older sister Isamar (Isamar Gonzales) comes to join him, reluctantly takes a job at the adjacent roach-coach, and the two plan to save up to buy a clapped-out old ice cream truck so they can sell empanadas of their own. Trouble is, Isamar's turning tricks, and Ale wants to try to get her to stop. Basically Bahrani is a bit of a booster himself, stealing the hubcaps off the Dardennes' Rosetta and The Son; this is a stripped-down story of one seriously driven kid's attempt to stay employed and keep his head just above water. But whereas the Dardennes tend to slowly bring out the class analysis implicit in their characters' lives and milieus, Bahrani seems much more content to drink in the surface details of dirty shop floors, Dominican record stores, a greasy plate of enchiladas, or the subway lights at night. He's also not as formally demanding a filmmaker, using more conventional pacing and editing schemes for a much smoother ride through the urban jungle. This means that we're not implicated by Chop Shop in any way, and come away from it much the same as we went in. Granted, this isn't a dealbreaker, since not every film about poor people can and should be radical in conception. But it does mean that Chop Shop feels urgent when it's before you, and almost immediately dissipates. Actually, this resonates with the final shot, which I won't reveal. But this final shot suggests a kind of Heisenberg-by-way-of-de Certeau view of the social world, that atomized individuals can become temporary aggregates at a brief, specific moment in time, and then almost immediately disperse. (People they come together, people they fall apart, we are all made of stars...) The film doesn't really operate this way, though. Family's permanence is too central for it to be so. Bahrani's potent concluding metaphor hints at the far more intellectually acute film Chop Shop might have been. One final thought: somewhere in the middle of Chop Shop, maybe the second time Ale was running around a highway overpass, it occurred to me that someone with some money should edit together one huge panoramic film out of a bunch of these "follow one errant New Yorker" movies. Like, what if the girl in Day Night Day Night was attempting the bombing the same day William Keane was wandering around looking for his daughter, and Ale's running around doing his car stuff, and Gretchen's riding the subways doing her crosswords, all for like, seven hours? Intolerance on the F Train.


-Jar City (Baltasar Kormákur, Iceland / Germany / Denmark)

[SPOILERS] Essentially another semi-high art, existential gloss on the murder procedural, Jar City is a film that starts out with a propensity for wobbly visual metaphor, settles into its own compelling if not earthshattering groove, and finally impresses, largely due to what it manages to accomplish with such modest means. Seemingly set in present-day Iceland, the film is nevertheless stranded in a kind of twilight of time and place, all things held captive in an icy blue finish and even the most contemporary accoutrements (cars, hats, elevators) seeming somehow "off." This is no doubt intentional, Kormákur's way of conveying the enveloping sense of despair that has Det. Erlandur (Ingvar Sigurdsson) almost imperceptibly bouncing like a pinball, from a Dirty Harry mode of law enforcement, to a world-weary sense of defeat, and eventually to a dedicated insistence on putting things right. All the same, a good deal of this otherworldly mise en scéne doesn't wash, especially in Jar City's first half hour. By the fifteenth low-angle shot of a stark modernist highrise against a menacing purple sky, scored with the synthesizers of melancholy doom, it's tough not to think Kormákur has an inflated sense of Jar City's importance, and his own talent. As the investigation necessarily dominates the screen time, and the film's main theme begins to emerge -- the intersection of deliberate human action vs. the ticking time bomb of our genetic makeup -- Jar City succeeds as a kind of Scandinavian "C.S.I." Only a few minutes after the conclusion did it begin to leave a bitter taste in my mouth. It becomes clear, but is never remarked upon, that at the root of all the death and misery in the two interconnected stories (to say nothing of the bleak prospects for Erlandur's grandbaby) we find the sexual choices of young women. The prospect that they might become mothers, it seems, should be enough to steer them away from casual sex, and once they do become mothers, their only avenue for self-preservation is to cry rape. I don't think this film has the slightest idea just how reactionary it is.


-The Unknown Woman [La Sconosciuta] (Giuseppe Tornatore, Italy / France)

Here's a film that most likely wouldn't even be receiving a (tiny) commercial release in the U.S. were it not for the fact that it somehow netted an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language (. . . all together now! "beating out such obviously superior films as 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, Persepolis, and Silent Light!"). But actually, I think The Unknown Woman is a rather interesting film, both in itself and for what it says about the specific constituencies that have embraced it (middlebrow Oscar-voting grayhairs; the Italian film industry; white Europe). It pretty much cries out for symptomatic reading. The story itself is yet another agonized rehash of the Western European anxiety over Eastern Europe's barbarism, particularly as scrawled across the splayed naked body of ex-Soviet women. We've seen this treated as both a labor issue and as a feminist issue, just in the past few years, by filmmakers as diverse as David Cronenberg, Ulrich Seidl, Lukas Moodysson, Michael Haneke, Ken Loach, Fatih Akin . . . Even Once is sort of about this, although in the most neutered manner possible. There have been umpteen-thousand ways to address the issue, but more often than not, liberal concern for the oppressed is inseparable from a nervous confusion about the shifting terms of what the New Europe will look like. Hardnosed leftists like Seidl and Haneke can provided analysis that transcends the limitations of well-meaning liberalism, and in so doing they wisely forego many of the narrative pleasures to which audiences have come to feel entitled. Akin, god bless him, seems to want to beat the game by heading in the other direction, dealing with the "problem" by trying not to acknowledge that it's a problem at all. Instead, let's all have a booze-fueled multi-ethnic fuckfest. Naive, but admirable, and, I think, likely to mature into an intelligent, culturally useful viewpoint.


Giuseppe Tornatore, master of Italian nostalgia, has decided to treat the Ukrainian sex-slave trade as a kind of film noir. Now, I will admit that this is the first Tornatore film I've seen all the way through, having watched only bits of Malena, The Legend of 1900 and Cinema Paradiso. But with La Sconosciuta (literally: "The Unknown"). the man sort of lays his cards on the table the way a better auteur simply wouldn't. And in so doing, he gets to the heart of the crisis of liberalism. We watch as Irena (willowy, tousled Ksenyia Rappoport) uses her ex-hooker street smarts to insinuate herself into the home of a wealthy Italian couple whose daughter may hold a secret from her past. Also, Tornatore shows us graphic PTSD flashbacks of Irena's sexual humiliation, bondage, and violation, tying them to her moments of failure in the present. By any meaningful criteria, The Unknown Woman is not a good film. It's a lurid piece of pulp, with one of Morricone's most preposterously jagged, nick-of-time! string scores, and garish, forced-perspective cinematography that even Russ Meyer would have laughed off the screen. What Tornatore offers, however, is a kind of forbidden pleasure that strict liberalism forbids in these filmic scenarios, and as a result, an ugly, unpopular truth. Why are powerless women systematically abused? And how are we culturally complicit in this process? When Tornatore shows us an image as perverted and as exquisitely framed as Irena being beaten and kicked in the snow by two Santa Clauses, he begins to provide an answer. Sexual sadism is fun. Humiliating the weak is a turn-on. That's why it's big business. If it were joyless, no one would do it, and certainly no one would pay top dollar to do so. Naturally, Tornatore cops out somewhat by the end, giving Irena something of a happy ending (although not nearly as much of one as you'd expect -- her point of view, and as a result, ours, is surprisingly faulty in this film). But even this points to the ambivalence of perverse desire, the pleasure in knowing you shouldn't enjoy seeing Irena oiled up and rolled in the garbage, a pleasure for which a liberal must immediately atone. Now, naturally, one shouldn't necessarily stop here. The aesthetic of guilty indulgence has its obvious pitfalls. But it frustrates me to no end how self-congratulatory filmmakers and audiences can embrace grim, feel-bad documentaries and social-realist fictions, and so frequently reject the two modes most likely to implicate us as spectators -- the Apollonian rigors of modernism (the refusal to capitulate to our baser instincts) and the Dionysian / Sadean mode of orgiastic excess. Could Tornatore, that old softy, actually be discovering the Gaspar Noé lurking within?




-The Brothers Solomon (Bob Odenkirk)

I have to admit, I didn't fully appreciate Let's Go to Prison the first time around, mostly because its premises are so lame that by the time you've waded through them, the jokes at the end of the ditch don't necessarily seem worth the effort. But alas, after the third or fourth viewing on Cinemax, when all that nonsense can be tuned out, the good stuff really rises to the surface. I can't imagine that'll be the case with The Brothers Solomon, which really does feel like an overlong "Saturday Night Live" sketch pitched to the preening, boy-howdy persona of Will Forte, who wrote the film. It does have a few choice moments (the diaper sequence, in particular), and yes, it's "subversive" in the sense that it's clearly a gay love story between two brothers, even more so than the Farrellys' Stuck On You. But mostly it trades, over and over and over, on the toothy, plastic 1950s optimism of Forte and Will Arnett vs. a jaded, uncomprehending world. I'm beginning to think that's really all Odenkirk has as a comic signature, since Arnett does seem to operate as his slightly younger stand-in. Beyond that, I can't think of much else to say, except shame on a film that manages to minimize the comic genius of Kristen Wiig. She's window dressing here, and considering the similarities, it sort of begs the question of how much better Knocked Up would've been with Wiig in the Heigl role. Ah, but listen to me! I'm asking film-boys to put Art ahead of the fulfillment of their own childish fantasies!


-Frownland (Ronald Bronstein)

[SOME SPOILERS] A superb performance almost completely torpedoed by slipshod filmmaking, Frownland is one big fat stinky ball of conundrum. Bronstein, clearly not one to mince words or dabble in poetically allusive images, begins the film with Keith (Dore Mann) in his junky apartment, watching a Frankenstein movie. [NOTE: Neil Young tipped me off to the specific origin of the clip, which is Terence Fisher's 1974 film Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell. Thanks, Neil.] The humanoid is unthinkingly, almost instinctually smashing something, as is his wont, and Keith just laughs. So, the stage is set for Frownland's piece by piece observation (never "examination," really) of a barely functional twenty-something NYC margin-dweller who starts the film a few millimeters inside the lines of sanity and concludes just a few millimeters over that line. The creation that is Keith, which I presume to be a collaborative effort between Bronstein and Mann, is indeed one of a kind, the sort of figure Cassavetes would have hustled out of the background of some feature in order to craft an entire project around him. As a film presence, he is, I think, sui generis, although his closest cousins would have been found in the New York underground scene of the 50s and 60s. Keith is Taylor Mead, but with all the charm and goofiness siphoned off and replaced with a mind like an engine that won't turn over. He also recalls Jack Smith, but not the one we know from the films. Instead, he's more like the Smith of unpleasant stories, an angry, irrational man whose sputterings can register only in small bursts. But unlike Smith, at whose core there was in fact an undeniably razor-sharp insight and grand aesthetic cohesion, Keith is a remarkably empty figure, a man who deals with his (apparently underage) girlfriend's crying jag by stammering at her about how he could never cry as a kid, over and over, and then jabbing himself in the eyeballs to simulate tears while she's inside a service station paying for gas. The man is a barely functional sociopath, possibly an Asperger's case, but in any event, bad, bad news.


Trouble is, Bronstein's filmmaking cannot even begin to match the power or acuity of Mann's performance, and it's unclear whether the director really even tried. I've complained quite a bit about the blatant lack of cinematic imagination displayed by the Mumble Cong, but with ideas like Bronstein's -- slow zooms into Keith's panicked face, or chintzy synth-horror music recalling the cultish B-pictures "MST3K" liked to mock -- we may be better off just letting these guys videotape their stagy talkathons. Although Frownland (god, that horrible title!) was shot in 16mm, which does allow for some low-light sequences and a certain twitchy, bird's head bobbling apropos to the subject at hand, very little is done with the unique textures of the medium. Granted, the film is, means to be, and most likely has to be hideous, and there could well be a degree of integrity in Bronstein's anti-choices, as opposed to the outright laziness of, say, Joe Swanberg's. But mostly the film's style just feels negligible when it isn't actively hamfisted. In terms of its macro-construction, Frownland fares no better, since it follows neither a traditional character arc nor a discernible formal logic. It's built in scenes like little nodules, the best of which (the roommate showdown, in particular) clear a space for Mann to articulate the fragmented Keith psyche. Other moments just feel haphazard and pointlessly digressive, in particular the segment following roommate Charles (Paul Grimstad) into an LSAT session, as though this most claustrophobic of films has suddenly decided to widen its social frame. Given the disconnected, episodic nature of the film, it's no surprise Bronstein has no real way to end it, and relies on more of the same, only amped up to fever pitch. Moments in the culminating Keith freakout are indeed scary and thus compelling, but the sub-Warholian party conclusion is not only a complete copout, telling us nothing about anything. It reveals a mean streak that has been latent in the film all along, showing that underneath it all, Frownland enjoys humiliating this mentally ill loser for our dubious pleasure, so much so that anonymous, indecipherable cruelty is but a logical big finish. Plus, it shows just how lame it is when Bronstein attempts all-enveloping "atmosphere." The quavering, spittle-flecked face of Keith is the only space he ever really needed to explore, but it's also a space that the director's frame can hardly contain.


Funny Games [U.S.] (Michael Haneke, U.S. / U.K. / France / Austria)

I must admit to some hemming and hawing on the grade (high 5 / low 6), since it is indeed difficult to evaluate FG 2.0 from a purely technical standpoint, trying both to hypothetically imagine what it might be like to experience this film as a series of unspoiled shocks and to recognize that the repetition, in some perverse way, is part of the point. Then, of course, there's also the whole "what's the point" question, which I think is sort of off base, or at least built into Haneke's project. After all, even if the new film were an exact duplicate (which it's not), the added factor of time's forward march is the one free radical that isn't under the director's control. If Funny Games looks tame or irrelevant in the age of Saw and Hostel, that's the point. If Funny Games appears as though it's supposed to comment on the Iraq War but comes up empty, that's the point. If remaking your own artsploitation horror flick after intellectual accomplishments like Code Unknown and Caché spits in the face of the idea of an artist's natural maturation and development, that's the point. And above all, if any and every reaction or justification is already built in, and to go anywhere near Funny Games is to throw oneself into a kind of critical deadlock, well, there you go. It's like we're playing some dusty old first-person shooter game, for nostalgia's sake. The trouble is, Funny Games required the otherworldly, hypnotic cruelty of its original pair of Austrian home-invaders, along with the tense banality of the original cast. In remaking the film, Haneke has made the mistake of looking at the original and thinking to type, mentally placing "the right actors" in the English-speaking roles, such that very little in the way of acting every really happens in FG:US. True, Watts is put through quite the physical wringer, but Roth is too clearly telegraphing recessiveness, and Michael Pitt in particular is just being Michael Pitt, demonstrating Haneke's thought process in action -- so-and-so is "perfect" for such-and-such a role. And, as is the case if you ever try to forge your own signature, or keep up your end of a conversation you're not really paying any attention to by saying something "typically you," the roteness allows little flaws to seem disproportionately inconsistent. (Pitt's Brechtian asides are so "sly" as to be virtually muffled, almost unnoticeable if you weren't looking for them.) Likewise, the replica made me notice cracks in the original's precision, things I might just as well have observed if I'd watched FG 1 again. (Getting George Jr. out of the house is rather clumsy, for example. And overall, this film displays early Haneke's slight awkwardness with outdoor scenes as compared with his total control over interiors.) Basically, I wasn't expecting to be bored, but I kind of was, which tells me that FG: US may well be a fine piece of conceptual art, but one that works just as well or even better in theory.


-Love Songs (Christophe Honoré, France)

[SPOILERS] After three films, I'm beginning to lose my patience with Christophe Honoré. As I think I've said before, his films evince an undeniable intelligence, and this is very much the case with Love Songs, even, one could argue, to a fault. Honoré's project is clear from the outset, as he begins with dynamic images of Parisian street life stamped with big, blocky, surname-only credits á la Godard. As with his last film, Dans Paris, there's even a comically choreographed reading-in-bed sequence, with each of the three (yes, three) partners holding some snarkily indicative book, each tome held precisely level to the other. What's more, this one's a musical, one that enfolds complicated plot points and even more complicated emotional entanglements right into the music, pop-opera style. This includes making space for some melodramatic shifts which, while rather jarring, are not altogether out of place. So, yes, Honoré is at least implying a Demy homage. But, ever the intellectual, Honoré is also working to subvert these sources. Turning Godard's 60s fetish for fops and gamines into an explicitly ambisexual roundelay is, on paper, a good idea, although Honoré's handling of "outlaw" desire is oddly bloodless, rather like a postgraduate essay on identity politics from the 1980s, albeit a rather racy one. But, far more perverse, really, is Honoré's decision (presuming it was in fact conscious) to eviscerate Demy's exquisitely modulated melancholy, handing in what has to be the most clinically depressive musical the cinema has ever witnessed. A dubious achievement, certainly. But more than this, it's difficult to discern what Honoré hopes to achieve with this downcast tone, which isn't so much communicated to the viewer as it is embodied in the film form itself. That's to say, Love Songs, in its very construction, seems to actively discourage emotional engagement, without replacing it with a different set of principles -- formalism, say, or social criticism -- that would compensate. All that's left is a sense of Honoré's cleverness, and in fact, the closer one examines Love Songs, the less its provides even superficially. A neo-nouvelle vague trifle like this, under typicaly circumstances, may well end up as a poor musical with less than stellar songs. It's a major drawback, but a rookie error one could foresee. But at least it should crackle in the editing, provide a palpable environment and a highly plastic sense of space. Love Songs doesn't do any of this, and eventually I got the distinct impression that Honoré, ever the junior achiever, was just in too great a rush to get his great ideas out into the world, craftsmanship be damned. The man clearly has it in him to be a major light of the French cinema, on par with Assayas and Desplechin, but he'd better show me something really soon.


Married Life (Ira Sachs)

Someone remarked a few years back that Forty Shades of Blue, Ira Sachs's Sundance Grand Prize from 2005, "would have been in the New York Film Festival if [he] was Taiwanese." Not a very generous assessment of the NYFF's selection process, but I guess word got around, because how else to account for the NYFF's inclusion of a film as painfully undistinguished as Married Life? I was no fan of The Delta, Sachs's exceedingly earnest but oddly hollow debut feature, what with its grungy realist "authenticity" and its rather schematic approach to race and sexuality, all of which purport to hover in a kind of poetic open-text. Admittedly, after three false starts I stopped trying to watch Forty Shades, at least for the time being. From what I observed, the film seemed bizarrely jiggered to thwart the power of Rip Torn. (Maybe he builds a head of steam later in the game.) But Married Life seems calculated to mark a dramatic break, to display versatility or to perhaps exhibit some "lighter side" to Sachs's directorial sensibility, while retaining the basic humanist insight that underpins his oeuvre. Don't you figure that's what someone would want to read after making a shift like this? But what sensibility? There's an almost strident emptiness to Married Life, so much so that when it aims for anything resembling pathos, it's more insulting than anything. Here's a film whose sense of sophistication appears to have come from its makers having watched too many episodes of "Bewitched." It's not even self-conscious enough to put the pedal to the metal with art direction, like Down With Love. Sachs and co-writer Oren Moverman just soak it in whiskey and seal it off like a smoker's rotunda. The film is, despite itself, never less than watchable, and that's entirely due to its cast, all of whom seem trapped in some kind of cruel dinner-theatre purgatory. In particular, is there any project Chris Cooper and Patricia Clarkson couldn't elevate? They can't make Married Life good, but their every scene together allows for the creation of little momentary replicas of good cinema. But don't worry. No one's going to lose any sleep back in Taipei.




-Cochochi (Israel Cárdenas and Laura Amelia Guzmán, Mexico / U.K. / Canada)

Although this is the kind of ethnographically oriented debut film that virtually reaches a hand out of the screen and jots the word "sensitive" down on your notepad, it also strikes me as the sort of movie that sends curious civilians running from festival audiences, unlikely to take a chance on an unknown-quantity foreign film for a long time. I admit, it's rather crass to slag Cochochi on the basis on its presumed failure to win over the uninitiated, so let me be clear. Despite the fact that it's a film awash in the finest of intentions, gently tickling your consciousness like underbrush, it's also a deeply flawed debut effort by first-timers Cárdenas and Guzmán, one that stakes nearly all its aesthetic chips on a few key elements and has little else to pony up when they fail to deliver. The tiny wisp of a story follows two brothers, Evaristo and Tony Lerma Batista, non-professional child actors seemingly playing slightly deadened versions of themselves. They are indigenous Mexicans in the northwest who graduate primary school, have to take medicine to their great aunt and uncle. Their grandfather forbids them to take a prized horse, but they do anyway, and it is promptly stolen. The brothers are then separated as they wander the countryside far from home looking for the horse. They reconnect and make their way home. Naturally, a story this basic and elemental relies for its power on the filmmakers' ability to exploit its simplicity. Without the distractions of conventional plotting, the character of the landscape might have come forward, or the film could have been a subtle character study, using the brothers as focal points which allowed the more general ambiance of the surrounding culture to take on greater specificity of meaning. Films examining young people in transition are particularly well suited to such poetic minimalism; I'm sure you can think of three good ones right off the bat. But there is no poetry in Cochochi. Cárdenas and Guzmán treat the land like a purely functional through-space, paying no close attention to it as a unique filmic space. This is bizarre, considering the relative importance of the brothers' bicultural existence, a conflict written on the land. What's more, the performances, as well as all of the surrounding anthropological human "detail," is almost perversely flat, as though Cárdenas and Guzmán confused the inauthentic manipulations of drama (that which they apparently sought to avoid) with any degree of interest level, or with any compositional element standing out from the drabness (the actual experiential effect of Cochochi). For a film that was obviously conceived by the filmmakers as a response and a tribute to a discovered corner of life, Cochochi is remarkably, disconcertingly dead.




-Blind Mountain (Li Yang, China / Germany / Hong Kong)

Here's a question. What is realism? And just in case it seems like this is little more than a tedious intellectual exercise (figuratively or literally -- some of you may think you've addressed this issue as Film Theory Final Exam Essay Question #2), a film like Li Yang's Blind Mountain comes along every now and then to show that this is actually aesthetic as well as political ground that, unfortunately, we have to keep tilling. By nearly any surface code of film communication that we've been trained to accept, Li's film is realistic. No sets or costumes, no non-diegetic music, handheld camera, no showy mise-en-scène or deliberate framings, brisk but functional editing rhythms, plainspoken, non-poetic dialogue (so far as the subtitles provide a reasonably faithful translation), and acting that spikes between Method extremity (at crisis points) and casual, uninflected delivery (during quotidian sequences). But Blind Mountain's depiction of a backwards rural China in which families purchase kidnapped city woman and force them to be slave wives, a story which does have some basis in documented truth, is so decontextualized, and dramatically pitched to the point of melodrama, that it borders on the Kafkaesque. After Bai Xeumei (Huang Lu, one of the only professional actors in the film) graduates from college, she is tricked by one of the least-convincing scams ever, led to a rural outpost to sell some bumpkins some pharmaceuticals. (A female college acquaintance, in on the human-traffic scam, may as well be twirling a fake mustache when she tells Xeumei, "I just like helping people.") In most other contemporary films, Xeumei would wake up one kidney short, but here she's been sold to Degui (Yang Youan) and his dirt-poor farm family.


Her every attempt to escape is thwarted because everyone, from the village counsel right on down to the postman, is in cahoots with the wife-buying scheme. But since Li never offers any larger social or political context for the events we see, Blind Mountain only asks us to chalk it all up to genre demands and available stereotypes: women in peril, Chinese gray-capitalist venality, and general redneck savagery. (By the time Li shows us a discarded newborn infant girl floating dead in a lake, I started to wonder whether he'd go all the way and have Degui's family pop a Lhasa Apso into the oven, or maybe put pee pee in Xeumei's Coke.) Li's debut film, Blind Shaft, managed to find a balance between the particulars of individual tragedy and corruption on the one hand, and the larger social circumstances that gave rise to them on the other. But here, he chooses instead to create an all-encompassing vacuum in which Xeumei is the lone sane human being, thrust into a topsy-turvy world of barbaric servitude with no rhyme or reason, all the better for the film to create instant visceral rapport with the audience which is naturally on her side -- that is, the side of freedom, that considers women as human beings. But with a deck this stacked, Li merely offers self-congratulation instead of analysis.


Consider Blind Mountain in comparison to Lars Von Trier's Dogville, a film despised by the very humanists most likely to embrace Li's film. Both films focus on a total world of female slavery, right down to an ambivalent male character who believes himself to be more enlightened than those around him, reaching out to the damsel in distress but really only using her in a slightly different way. Say what you will about Von Trier, but he forces you to recognize that Dogville is an imaginary, allegorical place, a kind of laboratory for human behavior, and not a slice of ethno-realism.


Or, consider Blind Mountain in comparison to Ousmane Sembene's Moolaadé, another film dealing with a backwards tribal practice (in that case, female genital mutilation) from a critical standpoint. If anything, Sembene erred on the side of generosity to all parties concerned, but what he accomplished with his capacious worldview was the grounding of a problematic tradition in a specific time and place, and an immanent critique of that practice from a located point of view. We came to understand why certain African sects held onto this barbaric rite, and why modernity, with all its pros and cons, had to prevail, for the good of all. Sembene was not interested in heroes and villains, but this in no way prevented him from adjudicating right and wrong.


Or, consider Blind Mountain in comparison to Jia Zhang-ke's various films, from Unknown Pleasures to Still Life. Granted, some of Jia's earlier works were a bit heavy-handed in their effort to balance the plight of individual characters with the large-scale social upheaval surrounding them. In my opinion, with Still Life he really strikes the perfect balance for the very first time. But most commentators would probably consider Li more of a "realist" filmmaker than Jia, who is without a doubt more formally adventurous and stylistically aware. But isn't it more "realistic" to acknowledge that human beings are living in, and to some extent shaped by, the history we live through? Jia is a realist in the classic Brechtian sense, in that he doesn't merely copy the surface effects of reality. He uses cinema as a tool for exploring reality, explaining it, putting things together and taking them apart.


This couldn't be of less interest to Li, apparently, and this is made crystal clear in the last few seconds of Blind Mountain when film and director conclude what, by inverse, has been an extremely flattering portrait of its presumed audience with one final gesture, a Big Sop that lets anyone and everyone off the hook. How wonderful to be able to simplify the world by actually incarnating Evil, and then vanquishing it! Forget cinema. Li Yang might have a future at the State Department.