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

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





The Art of the Steal (Don Argott)

I'm trying something new, putting a link to my Nashville Scene review here on the monthly page as well. Here it is. (There's also a longer, sloppier, more rambling [un]edit under the NYFF09 section, if you feel like scrolling for it.)


Joachim Gatti (Jean-Marie Straub, France / Italy) [s]

Late masters are always tricky business. We become lulled into a false sense of familiarity, start feeling almost chummy with the works, to the point of an obdurate rudeness masquerading as fraternal camaraderie and conspiratorialism. The fact of having followed a filmmaker along his or her journey for a substantial length of time can, of course, allow us to understand certain works in a larger context, and can indeed inculcate much-needed generosity toward long-term projects as they develop at their own pace, one which can sometimes seem like stasis or even stagnation to those more inclined to treat each new film they encounter as an isolated event, the next fuzzy line of coke to be snorted off a mirror that dutifully reflects the "critic" back to themselves, in the midst of a fast thrill. But at the same time, we can indeed get way too comfortable with our grand old men and women of cinema. We can start to feel like we've got their number, that each new work slots easily beside the last like a paving stone. Some ornery old coots refuse to let us get the best of them; Alain Resnais is the best example by far. But not everyone needs to be an absolute wild card, and we let our greatest directors down when we think we know exactly who they are. Rivette and Oliveira, Gehr and Godard, Akerman and Suzuki, Varda and Snow: these guys aren't done with our heads yet.


"Late Straub" is a perfect example of this misprision. His work since Danièle Huillet's passing has become virtually split into two tracks, one more modernist and intractable, the other more in the vein of populist protest art, direct in its aims and in some respects abjuring any obvious engagement with the aesthetic. As is fitting for a dialectician like Straub, this "split" is highly attenuated and in no way absolute, and in fact both modes are considerably more imbricated with one another than it would appear on the surface. The more formalist celluloid works, the recent Cesare Pavese series, are deeply committed works, by an Italian anti-fascist Communist, and their precise formal language is met by Straub's time-based cinematic staging, figures in a wood who speak Pavese, treating the language as material rather than dramatic fodder. In an Adornian sense, this refusal to manipulate Pavese, or cinematic space or time, in order to adjust them to a spectator's expectations for industrialized filmic organization, is a crucial, high-modernist political gesture, but of course one must undergo considerable aesthetic alienation in order to achieve that understanding, to be able to reach and grapple with the verbal thought-objects of the Pavese texts. This alienation, since it is in the aesthetic realm, can function for Straub (as for Adorno) as a laboratory for intellectual experimentation, since (unlike the categorical alienation of capitalist exploitation), the mental disphasure of not (yet) knowing does not hurt, and ideally places us in a receptive position -- creates a desire -- to learn. The sumptuousness of Quei loro incontri, Le Genou d'Artémide, and Le Streghe: Femmes entre elles seduces us into the scene at the very same time that the films rebuff us.


The other side of Late Straub, the video PSA works if you will, are bracingly direct. Europa 2005 - 27 Octobre consisted of a series of pans, depicting the power station where some Arab banlieue youths were chased to their deaths by Paris cops, sparking the now infamous riots. Although largely uninflected on a visual level, the video does make use of subtle shifts in a banal landscape over a brief amount of time, providing both a sense of a flashing warning-sign as well as a kind of crass indifference in the face of institutional power, the police resetting and repeating urban violence like an endless videogame. In Straub's latest short work, Joachim Gatti, made for the online journal Leucothéa, we see a photograph of a young man on the telephone, mounted to a red asymmetrical backboard (possibly just a piece of construction paper) which is in turn either affixed to or set on top of some rocks outside. On first glance, there appears to be no motion whatsoever in the one-and-a-half minute piece, but this is incorrect, and the movement is quite crucial. The sound, apart from Straub's voiceover, is of course the direct sound of the outdoor environment, mostly a gentle wind. As Andy Rector at Kino Slang details (along with providing an invaluable translation of Straub's voiceover text), Gatti is a filmmaker seriously injured by police in a peaceful protest. Straub's Rousseau quotation speaks directly to the problem of the artist or intellectual in his or her customary response to social violence, the niggling question of the general versus the specific. For too many of us, we've come to think of direct action as somehow too limiting or inadequate. But of course that is where the real, live bodies exist, those who are in fact attempting to exercise freedoms which are not merely theoretical. As Straub reminds us, actually getting our hands dirty with the real stuff of the world -- what the philosophers called immanence, and that aspect of Hegel that Marx wisely stood on its head -- is a prerequisite to, and the flipside of, any true aesthetic, any genuine love of the sensual world. The photo of Gatti is surrounded by the texture of craggy igneous rocks, drinking in the shadows, little flecks of moss flapping in the breeze, situating this "image" of a politics, a situation, a human being, in a landscape from which it cannot stand separate. An insect zips by, bisecting the frame and strafing Gatti's gentle image, on the word "assassine." Straub's emergency missive is direct, but it is also somewhat like the Pavese films after all, as we can see. Like those denser films, Joachim Gatti is open to a nature that speaks back to the text as palpably as any human comment.



The Secret of Kells (Tomm Moore & Nora Twomey, France / Belgium / Ireland)

It's a bit funny, after having seen this film, that I was concerned even for a moment that it might periodically lapse into Christian propaganda. If anything, I'd guess that the devout would bristle very distinctly at Moore and Twomey's ecu-mystical vision, wherein Christendom itself is protected by mysterious (and expressly forbidden) Celtic paganisms. In short: the stern Abbot Cellach (voiced with a stentorian rumble by Brendan Gleeson) can only think of one thing, and that is to build, build, build a massive wall around the abbey of Kells, in order to ward off the Viking hordes whose invasion is imminent. In the midst of this singleminded Doozery, Brother Aidan (Mick Lally), a legendary artist of illuminated manuscripts, arrives at Kells, seeking not so much protection or even a safe workshop from which to complete his masterwork the Book of Iona. No, he simply wants the book itself to be saved for humanity, and he needs to pass this work down to a worthy heir. This would be young Brendan (Evan McGuire), the abbot's nephew, whose curiosity, not only about art and spirituality but about the very world outside the abbey walls, is a thorn deep in Cellach's side. Thematically, The Secret of Kells could scarcely be more transparent. Protagonist Brendan has two father figures, each emblematic of two ways of life. Is mere survival reason enough for human existence? Or does the power of art, the heightened vision of things that it can inculcate when it, and we, are at our finest, challenge us to take great risks? As many others have noted, the visual design of The Secret of Kells is meticulous and hypnotic, one moment displaying a kind of Windsor McKay angularity showing Brendan's offbeat perspective of things in and around the abbey, the next moment sending Brendan and us into a labyrinthine geometrical talisman of golden design, into the ravishing emeralds and scarlets and interlocking line gestures of the medieval style, a world that generates the mysteries of the ages as if they were the soul's very architecture. This is, simply, a gorgeous piece of cinema, with colors you're more likely to see in stained glass than on a movie screen. But more than this, The Secret of Kells impresses not really in spite of but to some strange extent because of its dogged earnestness and unambiguous purpose. Our world is littered with text and images, and we spend most of our time trying to block them out, hoping for a respite from all the junked-up stuff of so-called civilization. But here we have a tale from a very different moment in our shared human history, when civilization itself -- the very idea of knowledge being passed from one generation to the next, or from one people to another -- was in great jeopardy. Protecting a book really was tantamount to saving the light of the world, or at least some significant part of it, and The Secret of Kells is a small, gemlike paean to the lighthouse keepers of History. And, perhaps most significantly for our times, the film declares the building of barriers to be the wrong way for us to truly protect anything.




Alice in Wonderland (Tim Burton)

While there seems little question that Alice in Wonderland as we find it is no success, can we perhaps agree that it's an interesting failure? I have to say I'm a little nonplussed at the blanket dismissals, especially those claiming that Burton has been somehow tamed or even defeated by Disney. What we have here is, as the 70s Cahiers team used to say, a "cracking text," a film pulling in so many directions that it buckles under its own weight. But this isn't only about the need to serve multiple masters; Burton's approach to the Lewis Carroll material is muddled precisely because he overthinks it, which is a mistake, certainly, but hardly a damnable offense. Purists were never going to be happy, given that any attempt to combine major motifs from both Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass could result in little more than a greatest-hits album, populated by celebrity-voiced avatars and the latest fey Johnny Depp frightwig. Going too Alice would indeed be "too Disney," but an all-Looking Glass film would abandon brand-name status and well-nigh boggle the minds of poorly read Americans. That, to all intents and purposes, would be a full-on British film, which Burton's Alice almost is. Given the situation, Burton is actually quite honorable in owning up to the two-in-one bowdlerization by concocting the adult-Alice frame story, even though, again, it simply doesn't work. There's nothing remotely "feminist" about Lewis Carroll's worm's eye view of girlhood, and Burton clearly felt that something outlandishly counter-Victorian had to be lacquered onto this material. (This could simply be due to Burton's tendency toward championing the marginalized, as seen throughout his work. But it could also be a reaction, conscious or not, against the widely-held belief that Carroll may have been a pedophile, and that the Alice books were some sort of encoded outgrowth of this perversion.) Making grown-up Alice a turn-of-the-century captain of industry, really, is as much of a fantasy as a talking mouse or a vanishing cat, and not nearly as satisfying in its p.c. overdetermination. And let's not even talk about "the 3D problem," whereby Hollywood's new favorite gimmick is shoehorned into films whether or not it can add anything of value to their overall aesthetic experience. The need to disrupt otherwise logical formal compositions and narratively dictated spatial relationships, in order to send some random piece of junk out along the Z-axis to "pierce" the screen, continues to plunge film after film into complete risibility. The old "SCTV" sketches, featuring John Candy's Dr. Tongue presiding over "The 3D House of Stewardesses" or what have you, thrust things into "space" about as well.


But there is one aspect of Burton's Alice that has been unfairly lambasted, partly because I'm not sure anyone quite knows what to do with it. The Mad Hatter character has been given far greater prominence, both in terms of narrative function and psychological import, than he has in either of Carroll's books, and while it would be easy to chalk this up to Burton and Disney simply acquiescing to the demands of A-list capitalism -- Depp is the marquee name here, with Anne Hathaway (the White Queen) and Helena Bonham-Carter (the Red Queen) quite a ways down the pecking order -- this is to miss what Depp and Burton do with the Hatter. Yes, he "breakdances" at the end, which is....weird. And, in a Hollywood realpolitik sort of outlook, creating a male co-lead for relative (female) unknown Mia Wasikowska was just good business. But Alice doesn't stop there. The film genuinely pairs Alice and the Hatter as doubles, in a classic literary sense. They reveal necessary aspects of one another which would otherwise remain hidden, and shift the emotional stakes of the "nonsense" that is the stuff the tale is made of. While the adult-Alice bracket story fails on the level of its impact on the Alice in the real world, it does connect in terms of the question of memory lost and gained, and the shaping and reassemblage of an incomplete subjectivity. Burton is very wise not to raise the issue of "repressed memory" with respect to Alice, who (mistakenly, or not) thinks that her adventures in Wonderland are all just dreams from childhood, and is slowly getting them (and a crucial part of herself -- her independence and bravery) back as the "reality" of the dreams resurfaces. (This "reality" is undecided. It could be a material reality for an actual "Underland," or simply that these dreams emboldened her and had a palpable impact on who she is, that in those dreams began responsibilities.)


The Hatter, by contrast, depicts the less protected, less managed side of memory. Most of the time, we and Alice see him as another loveable Depp eccentric, fluttering about in a daffy but perhaps less-than-accessible mode, given to disconnection and aphasia. Like the semiotic side of psychosis as described by Freud and Lacan, he fixates on the sounds of words rather than their meanings, spinning off into rhymes and other nonsense. But in a manner genuinely shocking both to those within the film and those watching it, Depp's Hatter slips into horrifying moments of lucid rage, speaking with a clipped Irish diction (I was reminded of Brendan Gleeson), making forceful demands of Alice and spewing venom in the face of what he'd seen in his lifetime at the hands of the Red Queen. In the film's most jarring sequence, the Hatter and Alice are crossing a field, and he recalls what happened there when the Red Queen's army, using the Jabberwocky as a kind of napalm bomber, decimated an outdoor festival, of which he was one of the sole survivors. We witness this flashback at length, and discover that the Hatter is not recounting the event to Alice. He has slipped into a state of catatonic reverie. And so, later on, when, through the Hatter's death-defying assistance, Alice is set to fight the Jabberwocky, she mentions once more in passing to her double, the Hatter, that "this is all my dream." In another moment of anguished lucidity, Depp's Hatter looks away, asking, " I part of your dream?" Although Burton and Depp cannot clear away the clamor and E-ticker nonsense enough to allow it to fully register, their Alice in Wonderland contains a rather bracing inquiry into the nature of trauma, and how memories both assimilated and inassimilable dictate who we are, and who can function as a legible subject within the social order. Burton, never really a particularly political artist (Depp, another story) seems to be reaching for an allegory, a timely one for two nations embroiled in wars that, for those who are sent to fight them, become the shattering, inexplicable Other Worlds that we on the home front cannot or will not fully comprehend, a parallel time that operates alongside every mundane moment of present, non-remembered existence. For the rest of us, fortunate enough to understand Iraq and Afghanistan as pictures on television or the Internet, these wars are like a troubling ongoing dream. Other people are living our bad dreams. And it's time to let them wake up. Death to the Red Bloody Queen.