REVIEWS OF NEW
RELEASES SEEN, OCTOBER 2009
All films from U.S.A. unless
piece; [s] short, under 30 minutes; [m] medium length, 30-69 min; * grade
changed upon repeat viewing)
aliquot light (grained time vol. 1) (Kazuhiro Goshima, Japan) [v/s]
Sort of a multi-pronged riff on Hollis Frampton's classic film Lemon, Goshima's second grained time video begins by depicting white 3D forms on a white background, such as spheres and cubes. As in Lemon, the light source is moved, casting a shadow at different geometric angles to the object itself. However, where Frampton moved the light in a continuous circle, creating a motion intended to overtly mimic the diurnal, Goshima's shifts in light are discontinuous and sudden, producing jagged, angular flashes of Expressionist shadow around the various forms. Over the course of aliquot light, Goshima moves from simple volumetric objects to model cities and other small-scale sculptural objects, subjecting them to the same multidimensional light exposure. But each time, the different exposures become more and more rapid, coalescing into a single digital-hybrid image that appears to be a composite of all of the previous images. These hybrid exposures are rather unsettling, for reasons difficult to describe. While they seem to depict the central object (much like uncertain camera) as a kind of drawing, composed of intersecting tension lines surrounding it in all directions, the unique character of this "impossible light" is uncanny. There is a washed-out, snowblind aspect to it, while at the same time the object seems to be illuminated from within. Goshima's video-drawings resemble nothing so much as solarized burn-ins, images etched through some sort of para-photographic radiation process. While I think it certainly places too much pressure on Goshima's essentially abstract art to venture interpretations based on his national origin, it is extremely difficult to observe aliquot light's blasted-out forms emerge onscreen without considering that Goshima hails from the one country on earth with an atomic cataclysm as an integral part of its recent history. Nevertheless, on a purely formal level, Goshima impresses simply by his ability to draw preternatural illumination out of the digital medium, in some ways fooling video into behaving like a chemically-based photosensitive process. While aliquot light, like uncertain camera, suffers from an overall lack of organization -- much like Olivio Barbieri, Goshima is a process-based artist whose works do a "thing," and each piece is a series of iterations of that specific process -- he is certainly someone taking experimental video in exciting new directions.
Fish Eyes (Zheng Wei, China / South Korea) [v]
I'm not unbiased. This first theatrical acquisition by Benten Films, a tony arthouse label owned and operated by two acquaintances for whom I have a great deal of respect (that would be critic / bloggers Andrew "Filmbrain" Grant and GreenCine's Aaron Hillis), is in many ways exactly the kind of small-scale gem that only film critics would think to salvage from the endless torrent of new films each year, so as to shine a little much-deserved light on it. Wei is a remarkably assured talent, and even though the ultimate destination of Fish Eyes may in some ways betray a slightly immature vision (more on that below), there is a confidence in his use of duration and framing that goes well beyond the typical "Asian house style" of festival / art cinema. His specific formal interventions don't seem flashy or overworked; instead Wei uses them to arrive at a fresh way of looking at his world. In its barest terms, Fish Eyes is what the trades call a "three-hander." An elderly man (Gu Xing-hong) lives in a desolate patch of Mongolia with his son (Shi Pei-liang). The father controls a dirt road apparently used for the transportation of construction materials, opening and closing a barricade (and possibly exacting a small toll). The son, meanwhile, is involved in small-time gang activity (no sleek Triads out here), skimming money off the top. At the river while fishing, the old man happens upon a young female stranger (Shen Ming-yao), silent and demure. After a misstep, the son runs into trouble with the gang at around the same time his dad is bringing the girl into the family home.
Wei's approach is subtle but operates on two complementary levels. His camerawork emphasizes incongruities and unexpected relationships. The first third of Fish Eyes, for example, generates a number of spatial paradoxes by riffing on the motif of a large mirror. Its movement and manipulations result in dislocations within the frame, gentle but decisive articulations that separate the old man's realm from the gray-market, New China atmosphere that has come to envelop him. Likeiwse, Wei's use of duration and focal length often serves to distance the punishing landscape from the vehicles that zip through it. What's more, where Fish Eyes delineates its themes in space, it also redoubles these ideas within its overt narrative action. Wei sets up social incongruities in the relations between the three principals. He communicates pairings and inequalities with admirable economy, especially during the recurring dinner table shots, presented in a classic frontal shot. (Ozu is a touchstone, but Wei stages the scenes with even less fuss.) The father and girl form a tentative duo enacting "Chinese tradition," in manners and inward comportment, and the son, when he's around, is the free radical, the uncertain future. But Wei makes it equally clear: the old man is an inappropriate match for this young woman, and she and the young man are, in some way, supposed to form an alliance, even if only under the auspices of heterosexualized film syntax. On a distinct but related ideational track, the girl's silence and submissiveness, while "traditional," are also exaggerated to the point of absurdity, if not sexist insult. Fish Eyes behaves as though it's going down the Mute Girl-Object road we've seen time and again in too many Kim Ki-duk films, but (without giving away too much), Wei is going for something else entirely. As a result, his conclusion is complex, if problematic. As I mentioned above, there is a sense of unwelcome foreclosure in Fish Eyes's ending, as if Wei felt the need to drive certain points home or to end on an "appropriately" bittersweet note. It feels forced. Nevertheless, what Fish Eyes leaves us with is, of course, an implied future that is untenable at best -- moribund, sterile, and probably insane.
uncertain camera (grained time vol. 2) (Kazuhiro Goshima, Japan) [v/s]
The experimental video work of Kazuhiro Goshima is a very intriguing recent discovery for me, although I suspect others of you may well have been in on the secret much earlier. Goshima's grained time pieces are interesting in that they begin by capitalizing on digital video's almost unnerving clarity of image, and then immediately set to work breaking down that clarity. Uncertain camera is a short work that consists of a series of static views around a college campus, all essentially still lives -- chairs in a cafeteria, classroom desks, a pushpin in a bulletin board, etc. Goshima organizes him shots around a single focal point placed dead-center in the image. Clearly he is compelled by the history of Western camera optics, a technological development that privilege clear central images at the expense of hazy or distorted edges. What Goshima does is to generate a freakishly violent movement of the space around the still central image. For instance, the chair will remain still while the surrounding room jerks about in multiple Cubist-style angles, each the approximate result one would achieve if one were to move the camera, say, a centimeter relative to the object of focus. The result is a kind of St. Vitus dance of perspectival noise. The movements accelerate, and then, in post-production, Goshima superimposes the various time-space fragments into a blended final image. His manner of doing this, the relative lightness of individual iterations and the lessening of internal volume in favor of overall outline, results in a sort of vibrating line drawing that radiates out from the main object, part Futurist motion study, part Spirograph. Using video's unique plasticity of time, Goshima is able to render the essential energy not only of negative space but of entropy at bay, the sheer force that keeps solid objects from flying apart into an atomic rage.
Carcasses (Denis Côté, Canada)
[SIGNIFICANT SPOILERS] A curveball, high and outside. Côté is a filmmaker I've been curious about for a while now, ever since his feature-length video Nordic States won the Golden Leopard at Locarno in 2005. Carcasses certainly indicates that my curiosity was warranted; Côté is obviously a talented film artist with an idiosyncratic formal and intellectual approach. Carcasses' every move is highly considered, and even its clearly spontaneous moments emerge within a firmly defined framework. Côté's chief subject is Jean-Paul Colmor, a hard-bitten senior whose life is dominated by an expansive junkyard / scrapping / pick-&-pull / repair operation he runs on a spacious wooded encampment outside Montreal. He lives alone, works endlessly at a "job" that melds seamlessly into his overall lifestyle, and adheres to a basic daily routine. (On the way back from town after selling scrap, for instance, he always stops at Burger King for a soup. That sort of thing.) In a series of fixed medium close-ups we meet Colmor as he is literally chipping away at an old half-missing chassis with a screwdriver, trying to dislodge some usable parts. Côté's way of depicting Colmor and his life is fascinating because in its simplicity, it avoids all ethnographic pitfalls. Carcasses's saturation with a crisp, otherworldly Northern sunlight, occasionally replaced by an almost palpable overcast grayness, situates Colmor and his self-arranged mise-en-scène within a flat, mundane ambiance. But on occasion, Côté and Colmor will "find themselves" (again, nothing's really left to chance here) within a keenly sun-dappled forest, or before Colmor's clutter-stuffed breakfast table, with its every sheaf and sparkplug in immaculately sharp focus.
In these moments, Carcasses works, because it locates the poetic or the hieratic within the overall texture of the ordinary, not according to some preordained thesis statement, but through the object lesson of Côté's dialectics. Several reviews have compared Carcasses to the work of Lisandro Alonso, particularly his debut feature La libertad, and this isn't incorrect. Colmor's self-selected isolation and integration of labor into the totality of his lifestyle does resemble that of Misael the woodcutter, although with regard to the performativity of his subject, Alonso really only tipped his hand in the final shot, whereas Carcasses operates in this mode throughout. By contrast, Alonso's second feature, Los Muertos, cloaked its documentary subject within a more complete narrative frame. Côté is certainly in Alonso's ballpark, but this unique auto-ethnographic hybrid work, wherein filmmaker and subject(s) collaborate to produce aestheticized yet fundamentally truthful portraits of themselves and their milieu, is a wider trend, encompassing recent work by Ben Russell, Ben Rivers, and certain recent efforts by Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Jia Zhangke, Ulrich Seidl, and José Luis Guerín. Carcasses is a fine addition to this developing trend, but at the midway mark, Côté pulls a bizarre move that I honestly do not know how to interpret. I will say, however, that this second-half shift absolutely recodes everything we've seen up to that point, in terms of our assessment of Côté's representational strategies, his attitude toward Colmor, and Colmor's participation in the Carcasses project.
Up the road and into the junkyard stroll four backpackers (three young men and one young woman) with Down's Syndrome, and a shotgun. They seem to be out for fun, and at first they threaten Colmor, but he simply ignores their weapon-brandishing bravado. They sit around, wade through the junk, check the place out, break into Colmor's place but don't exactly ransack it. Near the end of the film, they enjoy some brief, friendly interaction with Colmor, mostly of a nodding, nonverbal sort. But most significantly, one of their group shows signs of illness, such as a wrapped leg and a general lethargy. He mostly sits in a shopping cart, where he spends the night. Eventually he lays out on some trash and the girl finds him dead. His three friends bury him under some trees in the junkyard as Colmor watches. He then comes over to lend a hand.
Who are these backpackers? Why are they here, in Colmor's junkyard but, more importantly, in this film? Is Côté playing a joke with his (presumed) festival audience, regarding tolerable vs. discomfiting outsiders? Is his point that, if we appreciate Carcasses for Colmor's "authenticity," then we should really get our art-film rocks off on these utterly unselfconscious non-performers? Or is Côté challenging the very notion that Down's Syndrome would in itself compromise these non-professionals' capacity to "perform" themselves, as Colmor does?
What's particularly strange about Côté's maneuver is that Crispin Glover's film What is it? already posed some of these questions, although it did so by making performance and impairment its very subject. Needless to say, Glover was roundly rejected as an exploitative poseur. Is it Côté's demonstration of his full cognizance of festival-film procedures and shibboleths that makes Carcasses a more obviously "humane" endeavor? It must be said, Côté does provide certain clues. Right up to the death and burial, Carcasses tends to maintain a relatively objective stance toward its subjects. We learn about them through observation, but the film doesn't purport to give us access to their inner lives. This shifts abruptly, as we observe both Colmor and the three surviving backpackers in very conventional attitudes of contemplation, the alpha-male staring into the distance, Colmor lying awake in bed or shown deep in thought at his kitchen table in a chiaroscuro halflight. This inexplicable series of "events" has taken us into the realm of narrative, even "acting," in a way. Côté's final shot, however, is Colmor alone again, clearing bits of tire tread and other detritus from a muddy field in his junkyard. He exits the frame foreground-left, and all we have is the landscape, no longer simply a social fact but now a space of buried secrets. By the time Carcasses ends, the land itself, it seems, has now been colonized by narrative meaning. The film ends with a slow fade, this area becoming subsumed by memory.
[NOTE: My first draft of this review failed to acknowledge the death and burial of the ill backpacker. This element is absolutely clear in Carcasses, but somehow I missed it on first viewing. But it's so unmissable that I don't think "missed" is the correct word. It is more like my brain simply blotted it out. But I do apologize for the inaccuracies of the previous posting, and thank Adam Nayman and Darren Hughes for bringing the omission to my attention.]
Kings Ransom (Peter Berg) [v/m]
This documentary featurette from ESPN's 30 for 30 series wasn't something I'd planned to review, but Berg's treatment of the material has really stuck in my craw, so I may as well jot down my feelings about it. Kings Ransom is an examination of a sports story with about as many rich cultural resonances as anyone could possibly ask for. On August 9, 1988, the NHL champion Edmonton Oilers traded the greatest player in the game, Wayne Gretzky, to the L.A. Kings, for two players, three first-round draft picks, and $15 million USD. "The Trade" was a blow to Edmonton and Canada in general, and Kings Ransom goes a little ways toward explaining this. And, to Berg's credit, he provides a platform for the architect of The Trade, then-Oilers owner Peter Pocklington, to explain himself, a noble gesture since he has long been singly vilified for something that Gretzky himself agreed to. But Berg simply drops the ball (or, I guess, the puck) at every opportunity when it comes to providing anything resembling larger cultural context, historical insight, or just penetrating filmmaking. In Ransom's most irksome refrain, Berg and Gretzky chat about the experience while playing golf in the warm Cali sun, chummy and minimally reflective, indicating that Berg is coming to the project from his position within posh celebrity culture, virtually incapable of understanding what losing Gretzky meant to working-class Edmonton. What's more, the Gretzky trade continues to have present day repercussions that were completely unforeseeable to those involved in 1988. The Kings' massive outlay of money for a star Canadian essentially set the stage for the U.S. hijacking of the NHL, a massive controversy not only in sport culture but in Canadian culture more generally. One can trace events such as the loss of the Winnipeg Jets in 1996, and the NHL's freezing-out of Canadian expansion teams in favor of the American South and West, directly to the Kings' moneyball maneuver. Poaching Gretzky became the beachhead for a systematic stealing of hockey from Canada. But Berg doesn't seem to notice or care, ending Kings Ransom as he does with a glib title care about the NHL's California expansion in the 90s. And even beyond hockey, this trade demonstrated an American approach to cultural imperialism in buying our way into sports dominated by the rest of the world. The L.A. Galaxy's purchase of David Beckham from Real Madrid is in many ways an exact replay of the Gretzky poach, an irony utterly lost on Berg, who is too busy hamming it up on the links with Wayne to make, you know, a documentary, with actual analysis. In the end, Kings Ransom is little more than a symptom of the smug, blinkered appropriationism that makes so many Canadians think of us like the loudmouth uncle you try unsuccessfully to avoid at family reunions.
Written by (Wai Ka Fai, Hong Kong)
[SOME SPOILERS] For years, Wai has been the mad genius of the Milky Way organization, going for Baroque in his wacked-out solo efforts and throwing a heaping helping of anarchy into his collaboration with the far more choreographically-minded Johnnie To. To borrow the title of a non-Wai Milky Way picture, we've come to "expect the unexpected" from Wai, and with good reason. But I think the last thing I expected was a lugubrious slog crippled by its own self-importance. Sort of a nth-generation Charlie Kaufman project imbibed in a mirthless but singularly unenlightening obsession with mortality, Written by sets up its basic premise rather quickly. A family of four is decimated by a car accident. The father (Lau Ching-Wan, most recently seen on these shores in the title role of Mad Detective) is killed instantly. Mom (HK superstar Kelly Lin) and young son Oscar (Chung Ying-kit) suffer minor injuries, but teenage daughter Melody (Mia Yam) is blinded. As part of a plan for helping the family (especially her distraught mother) move on, Melody decides to write a novel about their tragedy. However, she creates a fictional world with a different outcome: the three survivors die and her father lives, although blinded. (Three fates get heaped onto one imaginary body. In Freudian language, this is called "condensation.") What's more, in this other, presumably better world, Dad can see the family as ghosts and maintain limited interactions with them. Wai does get into Adaptation. / Malkovich / Synecdoche territory here, nowhere more so than when the semi-material family ghosts magically move Dad's apartment (sans walls) to the middle of a forest, so as to avoid prying eyes wondering why the dead have suddenly returned. Basically, a sylvan stage set becomes a Synecdoche-esque replica of Dad's old life. Now, apart from Written by drawing on the ridiculous (and offensive) trope, all to frequent in the movies, that blind people are infinitely susceptible to being fooled, the main problem stems from the fact that Wai is, in essence, setting up a kind of contract of narrative form. Somehow, the internal organization of these worlds, and their overlap, need to be consistent, or else Written by has no heft or gravitas. It's just a tricked-out, half-assed disquisition on the pain of mourning, profoundly bereft of original insight. An additional death mid-film allows for a Job-like "why me?" shake of the fist, but ultimately Wai has delivered a film with a patchy outline of serious art but none of the actual effort -- rumination, design, originality -- that art demands. If Wai's "point" is that our fates are "written by" God, please, Lord, call in David Koepp for some rewrites.
An Education (Lone Scherfig, U.K.)
This is what I wrote for The Nashville Scene, and I don't have much to add. I will say, however, that unlike many other commentators who've (rightly) rejected this painfully banal film, I actually kind of liked Lone Scherfig's Italian For Beginners. It was a modest little middlebrow effort that displayed a generosity towards it actors and even made room for some minor-league questions of faith. This film made no such concessions to quality.