REVIEWS OF NEW RELEASES SEEN, MAY 2008
All films from U.S.A. unless otherwise specified.
(- seen on video; [v] video piece; [s] short, under 30 minutes; [m] medium length, 30-69 min; * grade changed upon repeat viewing)
[SIGNIFICANT SPOLIERS] The first time I saw this film, I was just flummoxed. Although it was undoubtedly "good" by any meaningful measure, it was clear to me that a great deal of its subtext -- both in terms of its specific themes and its references to cinematic history -- was sailing over my head. I try to be honest about those times when I'm out of my depth, and in the case of La France, additional research only confirmed my suspicion. Mark Peranson's highly illuminating interview with Bozon in Cinema Scope clarifies some of the key cinematic touchstones that provide historical grounding for some of the film's more bizarre formal elements. Alas, I have yet to delve into the Soviet cinema of Boris Barnet, and (true confessions!) I've never seen Raoul Walsh's Objective, Burma! (These are gaps I plan to fill in a.s.a.p.) And, truth be told, once you've read the Peranson piece, there's not that much I can add to your understanding of La France. I try, but there's only so much I can do.
However, having said that, a second viewing did clarify just exactly how powerful Bozon's film really is. From the title's first appearance, a low-lying landscape over which the feminine-gendered name of the "fatherland" appears in the sky, through the slow integration of Camille (Sylvie Testud), in search of her missing soldier husband, into the traveling band of World War I deserters struggling to abandon the battle and retain their basic humanity -- a love of art and philosophy, an untroubled sleep, an ability to love and dream --, it slowly becomes clear that Bozon is making something like a covertly feminist argument about war. Or, more broadly, La France is a bold statement regarding another kind of bravery altogether, the refusal to "be a man" in the dominant ideological sense, following orders and doing some vague, prescribed duty. Bozon wisely avoids overt political statement, but by creating a context of unexpected camaraderie and, in the sudden musical interludes, a breakout of comic folk-cultural expression, he and the film display a "soul," if you will, a countervailing life-energy that is not "what the great war must defend," but what must be defended, in the hearts of men, against the blight of war itself. And in light of this, it is hardly coincidental that the suite of songs the men sing are an ongoing ballad told from the point of view of the lovelorn "blind girl," smitten with men of various nationalities until finally she expresses a desire for "France to be invaded by Poland." The tactics of battle have been replaced by the pleasures of female sexuality. Not unrelated to this is Bozon's glowing, almost magical use of landscape. He calls it an "aquarium effect," an uncanny glow reminiscent of classic 1940s Hollywood war films, when "night scenes" were unabashedly lit with high-key fill lighting. But Bozon also frequently positions his camera at low angles, then going into extreme long shots, always keeping the men enveloped, embraced by the French wilderness. The men of La France aren't moving through the land so much as communing, struggling to extract it from the battlefields and territories into which it's been carved. They're trying to sink it into an Atlantis, or levitate it into a firmament. Formally and philosophically, La France is a radical film. At first, it just seems novel and a bit odd. Then, it rewrites the very idea of the war film, and finally, it registers as a major intervention into our own political moment. Vive La France, indeed.
It probably sounds like a bit of a backhanded compliment to say that this is far and away Craig Baldwin's most focused feature film, since "focus" in itself is not high on Baldwin's agenda. If ever a filmmaker thrived on shards, fragments, braids, strands and spirals, it's Baldwin, whose "collage narratives" rely on dissonant juxtapositions and unexpected clashes of funked-up ideology. But Mock Up on Mu actually functions something like a core sample of the American West, along with a history of the outré occult's strange nuclear mutation at the hands of the military-industrial complex. Baldwin marks through an entire social system, as farce rather than tragedy, by zeroing in on a unique conglomeration of personalities at a seemingly insignificant moment in time, expanding outward from that moment, factually, anecdotally and speculatively. The story of L. Ron Hubbard, renegade rocket scientist Jack Parsons, and New Age spiritualist Marjorie Cameron, and their brief congregation at the Los Angeles "chapter" of Lucifer-worshipping followers of Alastair Crowley, was a one-minute blip in Baldwin's previous film, Spectres of the Spectrum, something the director merely mentioned as part of a larger metanarrative regarding the privatization of airwaves and cyberspace. In fact, most of Baldwin's previous films were more like Spectres, running a mile a minute through a zillion semi-detachable factoids held together less by a firm argumentative rhetoric than by associative thinking and the adrenal glands. Here, it's a bit simpler, and as a result, quite a bit more complicated.
It's a sci-fi Western of sorts, told in thirteen chapters. Hubbard (played, in what will certainly be the year's most inspired bit of casting, by filmmaker Damon Packard) has colonized the moon, now known as space-base Mu. Calling himself "the Commodore" (shades of Altman's Popeye!), the corpulent fuck prattles on to the assembled masses about his Thetan nonsense; the film sets out the basics of Scientologist theory as a kind of hyperbolic bullshit theatre, conjuring visions of Orson Welles and MST3K. Hubbard needs an airstrip in Las Vegas (long story) and strikes a deal with space-weaponry kingpin Lockheed Martin (Berkeley activist / street-theatre loudmouth Stoney Burke), after Martin has been suitably blackmailed by one of Hubbard's slinkier operatives, an AWOL soldier (Michelle Silva) whose memories of her more radical past have been wiped by Scientology's latest techniques. (The "mocking up" of the title refers to Baldwin's fictional postulation of a future, high-tech Sciento-psychological "clearing" method whereby a subject's long-term memories are called forth and remade to order in the split seconds prior to their protein reconstitution, thereby permanently altering the basics of the personality.) In time, her assignment to go back down to earth to seduce Jack Parsons (Kal Spelletich) goes wrong, since he manages to help her recall who she is -- Marjorie Cameron, visionary priestess slash hippie sex magician.
Baldwin maintains his usual breakneck pace, for the most part. (Chapters 10 and 11, comprised of monologues by Parsons and Cameron, do drag a little.) And as usual, the documentary material flies fast and furious. And although Baldwin has experimented with diegetic fictional constructions in the past, most notably with Spectres, Mock Up brings this "conventional" aspect of Baldwin's filmmaking to a new level of formal and intellectual sophistication. To ape a metaphor from the world of Spectres, it seems having a narrower band of concerns has allowed the explosively inclined Baldwin to fine-tune his signal-to-noise ratio in surprising ways. The most dramatic instance of this is Baldwin's continual interruption of his original performance-footage segments with clips from other narrative films (noirs, potboilers, melodramas) which find the actors in the exact same positions. Through careful editing and spatial ingenuity, Baldwin not only infuses his "real" diegesis with collage material. He also points outward, providing concrete evidence that even as we become invested in the plight of Mu's characters, they are stand-ins, "mock-ups" of their own kind, existing as terms in an ever-available syntax. Similarly, Baldwin's use of Hubbard's alien mythology -- the idea that Thetans or "sticky figments" glom onto our thinking and interfere with the true trajectory of our lives -- is both called up and critiqued by Baldwin's film form. Every scrap of found footage, whether we've seen it or just something like it, calls up some kind of narrative resonances. In Hubbard's logic (or that of a certain humorless stripe of Cultural Studies scholarship), these images yank us into the rearguard realms of nostalgia and kitsch. (Bad, bad! We must attain mental clarity!) But as we watch, we see just how vital and present and polyvalent these images are, how they in no way imply any specific narrative purpose. Baldwin, who considers his work a form of "media ecology," is in effect turning the "Reactive Mind" of cultural detritus against itself. And in fact, as Mock Up moves further and further away from the dark regions of Hubbard and Lockheed, and into the far more vivid worlds of Parsons and Cameron, the images become rarer, more beautiful, and usually more austere. Baldwin does end up with a bang, but it's a very different bang, one whose spiritual tenor is perhaps conditioned, in part, from the relative meditative placidity (for him, anyway!) that came before. Significant passages of Mu represent a concentrated study of the California / Nevada landscape in all its parched, impervious glory. As the script makes explicit in its final moments, the good guys win (for a change). But, perhaps more shocking for a Baldwin film, the good images win, too.
A film all the more lovely due to its willful imperfections, Sita Sings the Blues represents exactly the type of animation project that ought to be proliferating in the digital age. Granted, few filmmakers (and far fewer animators) are as intelligent as Paley, who has the rare ability to use elements of memoir (in this case, the basic outline of the events leading to the end of her marriage) to open up the frame onto the larger universe of lived experience, rather than the usual tack of spiraling down the solipsistic k-hole. Sita is a film that operates on three tracks, and in three distinct timeframes. As a kind of connective tissue throughout the film, Paley intersperses brief glimpses of her own breakup (abandonment, really), rendered in a kind of anxious line-drawn style which finds blobs of moving color barely contained by minimal curved outlines of the face and body. In contrast, the backdrops of San Francisco, New York, and India are presented as substantial forms. This deeply personal thread, which serves almost as bumper material, alternates with Sita's two main strands. One is the telling, in a highly geometrical graphic adaptation of classical Hindi painterly style, of the myth of Sita and Rama as told in the Ramayana. Sita, a faithful wife, is kidnapped and kept apart from her husband who, upon rescue, treats her as damaged goods and rejects her. This portion of the film is narrated by three shadow puppets, voiced by three friends of Paley's -- filmmaker Manish Acharya, film critic Aseem Chhabra, and computer expert Bhavana Nagulapally. They provide an extemporaneous running commentary that both delivers the particulars of the epic and subjects it to a kind of from-the-hip cultural studies critique. In many respects, this Hindi Greek chorus is the highlight of the film. These individuals are actively performing the difficulty of cultural translation, highlighting both the improbability that the Ramayana would speak directly to 21st century Western concerns and the necessity of forging that contemporary understanding, since they, the speakers themselves, live the process of East / West cultural translation every day. (And, to some extent, Paley's autobiographical segments are a bit self-indicting, giving the sense that she wasn't quite able to adapt to Indian cultural norms, and so delving into the Ramayana is a way of performing a postmortem on that lapse.)
The third timeframe, the 1920s, arrives in the form of the blues songs of Annette Hanshaw, her hazy, forlorn voice providing the ideal temporal wormhole connecting Sita's loss with Paley's. These segments find Sita re-"vamped," if you will, her visual representation more Art Deco, tricked out like a Hindi Betty Boop. (Her breasts, for example, are two perfect circles improbably hovering right below the neckline.) Sita "sings" Hanshaw's blues, the numbers appropriately stopping the show but also indirectly alluding to where we are in the overall trajectory of the myth. If Sita has any overt flaw, it's probably an over-reliance on the Hanshaw sequences, which do tend to fall into a plugged-in sameness by the end of the film. But conceptually, they're vital, since linking c. 500 B.C.E., 1920, and 2008 is precisely how Paley makes sense of the trauma of [SPOILER] being dumped by her husband via email. She doesn't minimize her own hurt, but instead takes a step back and examines it within a transhistorical, transcultural framework, and this results in a feminist analysis, although Sita doesn't need to announce itself as such. By the same token, Paley's animation style emphasizes movement and juxtaposition, connections at the speed of thought, not shackled to the plodding pace of traditional narrative development. Within the firm, music-like refrain structure of the film as a whole, Paley uses the digital format like an electronic copy stand, sending flattened objects and images through the frame, moving them together and apart, always retaining a 2D orientation that drives home a basic anti-illusionism. Paley's work subtly reminds the viewer that we are watching an artist working out problems. Earlier avant-garde animators, like Harry Smith and especially Lawrence Jordan, applied this sense of live, flat juxtaposition, and Lewis Klahr carries this torch into the present. But few have adapted this method to the feature-animation realm, despite the fact that the tools of digital imagemaking would seem to invite it. Sita Sings the Blues is funny, lighthearted, and a bit sad at times, but for these reasons one doesn't immediately notice its formal rigor. As with its cross-cultural agenda, Sita doesn't hector you about the possibilities of collage modernism. It just does what it does, and has fun doing it. And this aspect of the film, the unremarked-upon tendency to forge unlikely links between disparate things, is where Sita succeeds most dramatically. It is a "small," modest film, almost by design. It never looks as though it is striving for greatness (every Hanshaw song ends with an almost apologetic, "That's all"), but this is why the film resonates, sneaks up on you. Cultural critic Chandra Talpade Mohanty has written, "It is the job of hegemony to keep things apart," and in a sense Sita Sings the Blues is an effort to put things back together again. As one relationship ends, Paley forges a whole new, intellectually suggestive set of relationships in its place.
Leopold is an exceptionally talented director, but the first twenty minutes of Wolfsbergen indicate that she might be a formalist radical on par with Claire Denis. The film, which is a multi-character family drama with a somewhat unconventional central dilemma, comes out of the gate as though it's going to upend every last syntactical cliché of the contemporary, fixed-frame "festival film." Leopold's opening salvo is, in the classic Derridean mode, deconstructive. She gets inside the typical, rather hackneyed grammar of the family drama, with its insistent cross-cutting between the various family members, first by way of introduction and then eventually in order to forge and seal the connections that will, presumably, comprise the film's emotional logic. (Think of virtually any mid-period Woody Allen film.) Basically Leopold presents this cross-cutting as a rapid-fire slide show of largely disconnected moments. Well into Wolfsbergen's first reel, key relationships remain unclear, but the narrative is in fact opening up.
After a gorgeous, highly ambiguous first shot of sunlight shifting through still trees (you later discover it's actually wallpaper), we see eldest sister Maria (Catherine ten Bruggencate) securing an austere apartment for her widowed father Konraad (Piet Kamerman), then reading a letter on an airplane, then suddenly making an appointment at a professional conference, next having a doctor mark her thighs for cellulite removal, then finally sitting gingerly on her bedside. All of this occurs over the course of about four minutes, at which point we are thrust into the lives of Marie's dentist husband Ernst (Jan Delceir) and middle sister Sabine (Tamar van den Dop) as they play racquetball, although there is as yet no indication of who they are, either in relation to Marie or one another. Cognitively speaking, Leopold throws us in the deep end, but even more than simply not knowing where we are or what's going on, the formal economy and slicing exactitude of these first twenty minutes promise a truly Cubist narrative cinema, set free from the bathetic humanism typically paraded under such a banner -- the six-degrees, everybody's connected emotional circle jerk of Crash and Babel. Wolfsbergen looked like it was aiming to shake off the torpor of the 21st century arthouse and make real demands of the synapses.
No such luck. Wolfsbergen settles into a much more familiar temporal groove, delineating character relationships and emotional entanglements across the bounded space of the family unit. It really becomes precisely the sort of film that it looked like it was critiquing. what's more, Leopold's chilly directorial distance and her clean, subdued, almost Bergmanian treatment of acting are painfully at odds with several of the plot's more contrived maneuvers. Performers remaining suitably downcast cannot disguise the fact that a good deal of Wolfsbergen is embarrassingly pulpy, resulting in a soap opera as it might look were it channeled through the grim, measured demeanor of a Eurimages grant panel. Now, I must say that these intra-familial shenanigans actually make Wolfsbergen more "accessible" as these films go. It's rather ridiculous, and indicative of our chilly economic / cultural climate, that no U.S. distributor has nabbed this film. (This is the sort of film Sony Classics would have gone with circa 2003.) But it's hard not to feel as though, from an artistic point of view, Leopold was either hedging her bets with a tricked-out screenplay well beneath her facility with mise en scène, or that she just has highly questionable taste when it comes to the depiction of actual human behavior. The second choice would not be unheard of, since there has been a strain of cheap melodrama running throughout a lot of recent Dutch cinema (cf. Paula van der Oest, Erik van Looy). Leopold is probably the best new Dutch auteur to emerge in quite a long time, but this doesn't exempt her from certain tendencies that scuttle her national cinema's artistic value, and one of these is the capacity to depict recognizable life apart from genre affectation. In this regard, it's well worth remembering that of the three greatest filmmakers The Netherlands has produced, two were documentarians (Joris Ivens and Johan van der Keuken) and the other (Paul Verhoeven) took the problem head-on, abstracting human comportment to the level of the Baroque.