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Sunrise with Sea Monsters (Myles Painter)

At the beginning of Glasgow-based Myles Painter’s Sunrise with Sea Monsters, a laptop fails to save files on a LaCie hard disk drive. The dysfunctional drive goes rogue, leaving home, roaming the city streets, visiting museums, discos, cafes and pubs, and traveling around the country from beaches and mountains to jungles and caves. The “eye” of the device—a blue light—blinks all through this odyssey, suggesting a sentient being. Painter ponders on the sleek form of the HDD, reflecting on its “sculptural volume”. As the drive travels the countryside, it indeed assumes a mythical, monument-like quality evocative of the Stonehenge monoliths. But the journey, in fact, is a record of the filmmaker’s various travels with his partner (both of whom we never see). By substituting the HDD for himself in his travelogues, Painter is drawing attention to the function of recording media as physical manifestations of human memory and experience. The drive, in particular, also signals the disjunction that digital media herald in this age-old phenomenon. While photos and films have an indexical relation to the reality they remember, digital media transpose physical reality into another one that can only be understood by species with specific intelligence and capability—a significant risk if the objective is to leave traces for extra-terrestrial or far-future societies.

Though firmly on the side of analogue (the film is shot in 16mm), Painter is curious about digital media and reflects on the spatial (both in terms of size and capacity) and temporal limits of HDDs. The itinerant drive of Painter’s proto-picaresque film gives a lie to the wisdom that we live in the era of dematerialization: the device seems to have a real social existence, with everyone around it giving it resting space but ignoring its presence, just like they would for a stranger. On the film’s soundtrack is a mix of synth music, monologues about the nature of data, the filmmaker’s conversations with his girlfriend and his Skype interviews with scientists, engineers, cinematographers and philosophers. The interviewees touch upon various topics related to the challenge of information archival and storage, and the quest for a limitless, everlasting storage medium. One scientist talks about the intense energy demand that the internet places, threatening our “digital legacy”. Another expert talks about his project of recording the achievements of human civilization on clay tablets stored in Austrian salt mines for intelligent societies in the future. Other researchers discuss data storage in 5D memory crystals and even DNAs. Running through the interviews is the theme of mankind’s obsession with survival and longevity. Sunrise lists a truckload of lofty ideas, but seems to be short of ideas itself. It’s narratively sparse and doesn’t go anywhere in particular. Its humorous, Peter Greenaway-like structuralism soon gives way to monotony, with the images being solely supported by the expert comments on the soundtrack. It would perhaps be more rewarding as a multi-channel installation.

Burning Cane (Phillip Youmans)

The title of Phillip Youmans’ first feature, Burning Cane, is a literal reference to the sugarcane fields set ablaze in the film, but it offers echoes of two other figures: Citizen Kane and the biblical Cain. Like Orson Welles’ ground-breaking film, Burning Cane was made by its author at an impressively young age: seventeen. Like Kane, it presents its story through a range of unusual visual devices: extreme, Wyler-like compositions in deep space, lenses that conversely collapse depth, low-light digital cinematography and canted angles. In one shot, Youmans films a telephone conversation with the speaker in deep space and with the speaker’s son colouring a book in the foreground. In a strongly diagonal shot redolent of Tsai Ming-Liang, a man in the foreground watches a television playing The Jungle Book in the background. A woman obscured in the background passes an object to the man in the foreground, facing away from us, with the distance between them seeming to vanish all of a sudden. These devices, however, don’t exactly come across as gimmicks. Rather, they seem like emanations of a new way of filming the world already familiar to us through cell phone aesthetic. Case in point, the dark shots with a large negative space, which don’t feel like unstable compositions as much as footage taken on the sly with a phone camera. Filming through door gaps and closed curtains, Youmans superimposes a highly contemporary, on-your-face aesthetic on a rather novelistic, classical narrative.

In the first of the film’s three threads, an old woman, Helen (Karen Kaia Livers), speaks about her dog suffering from a skin condition. She talks about various remedies her community members suggest. Set against images of her everyday life, the voiceover, constructed of repeating structures as in poetry, lends Helen a legendary presence. Much like Vitalina Varela in Pedro Costa’s film, she is the lynchpin of this small-town black community whose men are disintegrating into apathy and despair. The town pastor, Tillman (Wendell Pierce in a riveting performance), delivers stirring sermons, but suffers from a lack of faith himself and takes to the bottle. Helen’s son Daniel (Dominique McClellan) is a ne’er-do-well who has lost his job and stays at home with his pre-teen son. Not only does he drink himself to sickness, he also beats up his wife and makes his son drink. Youmans doesn’t really milk the possibilities of this miserabilist scenario; in fact, he elides quite a bit of melodrama and domestic violence. Nevertheless, the script remains rather thin and generic, the characters more abstractions than reflections of real human beings. The cane fields of Louisiana, slicing the frame horizontally and imparting a sense of being closed-in even outdoors, are a welcome change of scenery as are the specific details on the community radio.

Greener Grass (Jocelyn DeBoer, Dawn Luebbe)

Or Just White People Stuff. Adapted from a 2015 short film of the same name, which DeBoer and Luebbe wrote and Paul Briganti directed, the feature-length Greener Grass holds your attention for just as long. What is amusing and funny enough in the short is diluted to over ninety trying minutes, with the two lead actresses also directing this time around. A suburban housewife, Jill (DeBoer), finds her life unravelling after she gifts her new-born to her BFF Lisa (Luebbe). Her elder son becomes a dog, she divorces her husband during a bowling game, her husband leaves, her friend moves into her house, she is rejected from her perfect white community and becomes homeless. The film is a series of absurd sketches about suburban anxiety and conformism. All the characters wear braces over their straight teeth. Jill and Lisa get their husbands mixed up. They become competitive about their children. Jill’s nerdy son doesn’t fit her idea of an ideal child and her stress over him sticking out turns him, as it were, into a well-behaved dog. Jill’s incurable obsession with being nice and winning the approval of her equally neurotic friends ends up alienating her from them. There’s also a serial killer plot shoed in.

The filmmakers underline the superficiality of this life with a candy-coloured palette dominated by artificial-looking primary colours, diffusion filters and a fully daylit cinematography. Like its overused retro aesthetic, Greener Grass trades in ideas about suburban middle-class life already part of the cinematic imaginary. In fact, the film works less as a critique of these values and more as a parody of classical critiques of these values. Make no mistake, this film shares little with David Lynch or Tim Burton and placing it in their tradition would mistake pastiche for vision. The writers cook up one oddity after another, most of which are designed to kindle specific responses. Character reactions are calculatedly mismatched—indifference to big events and overreaction to petty ones. The principle is wholly that of Magritte’s: ordinary elements arranged in implausible configurations. The directors use classical musical cues to elevate banal moments. It recalls Lanthimos, but he employs it for neutral moments whose status as neutral moments is thrown into question by the music. Its use here, on the other hand, is comparable to opera in advertisements. The plot scans as a spoof of women’s pictures à la Sirk or Haynes, but the film is divested of the critical form of those accomplished melodramas. The result is hollow, but not without a handful of successful moments, shots and turns of dialogue.

Ham on Rye (Tyler Taormina)

Where Greener Grass commodifies absurdity for routine pleasures, Tyler Taormina’s Ham on Rye instils the same material with a sense of genuine wonder. The story unfolds, again, in small-town America and follows several groups of teenagers preparing for prom night (?) at a local restaurant-turned-dance floor. The film uses a retro aesthetic similar to Greener Grass: bright yellow Windsor typeface, upbeat music, diffusion filters and backlighting that impart a dreamy, Vilmos Zsigmond-esque glaze. Being a suburban movie, it, too, is focused on the surface of things: boys and girls sprucing themselves up in front of the mirror, McMansions, automobiles, well-kept lawns and yards. But unlike the other film, there’s something lived-in about the details here, the brand names, clothing styles and décor. The first half of the film builds up to the prom night in a mosaic-like fashion, piecing together various groups of teenagers arriving at the venue, Monty’s. There’s a conversation in a schoolyard that’s presented in bits, underscoring that the film isn’t interested in inhabiting this world as much as glimpsing it from a distant perspective. What works so well in the film is that Taormina infuses the banality of this universe with an understated spiritualism. Three primly-dressed girls wander deserted streets and parks like the three graces. One of them reads a postcard from her sister living elsewhere, and they wonder about the mystery of adulthood. As they walk, there’s a tracking shot of the trees, bridging the otherworldly to the ordinariness of this world.

Taormina focuses on the minor rituals of this teen community, rituals that assume a religious flavour. Through the vaguely oriental musical score, he superimposes an international consciousness on this small-town isolation without condescension. The first half culminates in a slow-dance sequence that turns into a veritable spiritual communion. An Ozuvian montage of night-time suburbia signals the film’s shift to its second movement. Night falls and the tone becomes darker, almost funereal. A listless barbecue follows in which disengaged adults engage in silent card games. A group of disaffected, college-age youth knocks about the town in their car. The communion of the first half is replaced by an undefined void at the heart of the community. Like The Last Picture Show, Ham on Rye is a portrait of those who stayed back, of lives in stasis. Taormina’s film is, however, shot through not with a bittersweet nostalgia, but a mournful anxiety about having been left behind. A girl calls out in vain to her two absent friends while another boy cries out in the vicinity. As she sits alone in a park full of toddlers, who no doubt will traverse the same alleys of life, the film whittles itself down to her perspective. Like in Bresson’s L’Argent, Ham on Rye appears to intertwine two time periods, the contemporary cohabiting with the past. I was equally reminded of Hou Hsiao-hsien’s films, especially Goodbye South Goodbye, in its depiction of youth without youth. But Taormina’s approach is the diametric opposite of Hou’s master-shot style: a framing that focuses on hands performing gestures, an odd decoupage that arranges closeups in faint spatial relations (there’s a very funny edit of a plastic pig being tossed away), attention to minor details of the mise en scène and transitions dominated by fades, wipes and superpositions. A strong, promising work.

Real Winner of the Tours Festival, Isn’t Among the Awardees

Arts no. 754; 23 December 1959.

Baldi told me later that I’d described his films exactly like the way he conceived them. He offered to produce a short film for me. It was Capito? (1962).

My first three films were produced at the initiative of filmmakers I had lauded. Do not see any craftiness on my part there.

Three films dominated the fifth international short film festival of Tours: Il Pianto delle zitelle (1958), La Vigilia di mezza estate (1958) and Via dei Cessati Spiriti (1959) are all the works of Gian Vittorio Baldi. A pilgrimage to Abruzzo at an altitude of thousand and eight hundred meters, the celebration of St. John’s Eve in a small village, prostitution in a specialized street in Rome—this diversity clearly shows that Baldi isn’t involved any more in religious propaganda than communist propaganda. He is a documentarian first and foremost, doesn’t exactly belong to any neorealist group and has more affinities with the Rossellini of India than with Zavattini-De Sica.

Critics at Tours sneered before the processions filmed by Baldi, who had a bone to pick with the censors for his film on prostitution. Unfortunately, it seems that very few people understand what a really documentary, objective and impartial cinema is. Baldi films reality and Il Pianto is a pitiless report on mystic madness as well as a hymn to God. […] Baldi shows what he sees: some sequences in his films are shot on the spot, with almost no preparation, as though they were news items. One can’t help but improvise while filming a real procession. But if we French are sensitive to the documentary value of Baldi’s work, the Italian Rouch, we are nevertheless less sensitive to its remarkable formal beauty, perhaps because some typically-Italian details go over our head.

 

Rediscovered simplicity

Baldi’s crew must’ve done an extraordinary work on colour—Baldi only shoots in colour. Normally so mediocre, Ferraniacolor produces stunning effects thanks to an expert colour matching. Even when there’s improvisation, it almost always gives the impression of an extremely rigorous and concerted composition. It’s Visconti, say some. But Baldi denies all influence. The blacks and the reds of Pianto are as beautiful as those of Minnelli’s Some Came Running; the yellows and the greens of La Vigilia, whose admirable final shot evokes Mizoguchi and Anthony Mann at once, are nearly as beautiful as those of Chabrol’s À double tour.

In the first shot of Via, we think we are dealing with black and white. Some seconds later, we think it’s a sepia or colour print. At the end of a minute, we realize, as we do during the river sequence of La Vigilia, that these are colours of the night, which slowly converge to an admirable pale green when a candle is lit. After the ceremony of the procession, we have the ceremony of the whore, who calmly takes out the tools of her trade one by one. Upon reflection, these gestures of an artisanal intelligence seem unbelievable in a prostitute, but the composition is remarkably balanced by the simplicity of improvisation. No matter, since the gestures, the gait of the girl have a beauty we will find only among the whores of Mizoguchi.

Comparing it to the great mediocrity of other films, I’m perhaps overestimating Baldi’s work. It’s nevertheless a cinema that I’m personally inclined to hate, a cinema based—regardless of Baldi’s intentions—on the notion of perfection foreign to the purest of arts, that of a Griffith, Fuller, Renoir. But perhaps the search for perfection is justified in the documentary, which shouldn’t rely on the vagaries of actors’ performance and should only strive to overcome technical difficulties of colour.

 

[From Luc Moullet’s Piges choisies (2009, Capricci). See Table of Contents]

[From my column on studio-era Hollywood films for Firstpost]

“All through Lubitsch’s film is an osmosis between reality and artifice. In the film’s first scene, a street corner in Warsaw (itself recreated on a studio lot) is visited by Hitler behind whom a shop window closes like theatrical curtain. A while later, it’s revealed that this Führer was simply one of the troupe’s actors in disguise. A Gestapo interrogation scene turns out to be a scene from a play, while the bombing of Warsaw is described as a “show” put up by the Nazis “without a censor to stop them”. As the play is interrupted by real world events, the troupe finds itself converting real world into a play, transforming the theatre into a fake Gestapo office, scripting plot lines to fool the real Gestapo, writing new roles on the fly, and rehearsing their great escape. Running away from the spotlight, the professor dies on stage in a dramatic fashion. Lubitsch’s film, in which Americans masquerade as Europeans, is a battle of appearances, where Jewish actors masquerading as Nazis try to outwit a Nazi masquerading as a Jew.

This interplay between theatre and politics has an intellectual coefficient. “The logical result of Fascism is the introduction of aesthetics into political life”, wrote Walter Benjamin, and “all efforts to render politics aesthetic culminate in one thing: war.” The Nazi ideology, with its supremacist racial theories, its cult of beauty, its romanticisation of destruction and its eugenic researches, was at its heart aesthetic. It’s significant that To Be or Not to Be climaxes in a theatre where the Nazi top brass attends a play while the troupe attempts to sabotage it by mounting a little theatre outside the theatre (a scene that’s the direct precursor to Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds (2009)). Shakespeare serves as a thematic backdrop to the film, embodying the noblest impulses of mankind in contrast to the fascist project. Hamlet’s eponymous monologue becomes an existential question for the Jewish actors, the answer to which lies in the “Hath not a Jew eyes?” monologue from The Merchant of Venice they use in one of their ‘skits’.”

 

[Full article at Firstpost]

Unstill Life

Arts no. 709; 11 February 1959.

The majority of documentaries seem artificial in comparison to numerous works of fiction. Boredom takes over when no human emotion is able to blend in with a landscape, even if it’s endowed with the greatest beauty. “Nature is a good director”, a text here full of easy literature tells us, which we have a hard time agreeing with: how dull are the many reportages on and under oceans and on the most backward regions of the globe!

But with The Devil’s Blast, it’s necessary for us to acknowledge the basis for this postulate for once. Haroun Tazieff, a passionate volcanologist, gives us a report of his descent into the eight or ten most remarkable craters chosen across five continents. Now, of all manifestations of nature, volcanos and their eruption are the ones that contain the most life. The fall of rain, the movement of snow, wind and oceans, by their routine, confine us to immobility. On the other hand, volcanoes rumble, spit, destroy and transform themselves with the only constant being improvisation, which governs the domain of the artist as well. Their hybrid form of a hollow mountain concealing another world underneath the real world has long fascinated, obsessed a Romantic like Richard Wilson, the painter of course, not the filmmaker. And in Stromboli, and even more so in Journey to Italy, Rossellini could even discover the essential foundations of an entire life through seismic manifestations.

Let’s not try to renounce, on the vain pretext that man hasn’t yet laid his hands on them, our admiration or, better, our emotion before the spectacle of lapilli or of the miniature craters of Pompeii, before these still-moving rock deserts and these enormous lava streams.

Isn’t that minimizing Tazieff’s contribution? I don’t think so, and one could even criticize him for not effacing himself before his subject. Looking for dramatic interest above all, he hasn’t been able to decide between an amateur filmmaker’s reportage and a professional’s essay. To be sure, the lens is damaged at one point by the eruptions and the colours are not of Technicolour surety; but why then these sociological angles, these reconstructions of the crew’s exploits, which makes the documentary lose some of the truth that an artificial clumsiness—that of an Alain Bombard, for example—could’ve shown with more eloquence?

 

[From Luc Moullet’s Piges choisies (2009, Capricci). See Table of Contents]

Adoor Gopalakrishnan in conversation with Maithili Rao

Adoor Gopalakrishnan is not much of a speaker. He has written the screenplay of all his films and composed several books on cinema, but the spoken language is something he appears to steer clear of. So it’s perhaps fitting that the two-day masterclass he conducted at the Bangalore International Centre on November 23-24 began with a screening of Kathapurushan, the story of a writer who suffers a speech impediment. It’s also perhaps the reason that the masterclass was conceived simply as a series of moderated Q&A sessions instead of a monologue supported by film extracts. While the moderators, film critic Maithili Rao and writer-filmmaker Basav Biradar, provided useful interpretive frameworks to give shape to the discussion, Adoor’s comments proved rather tangential, veering into generalities in response to specific questions, preferring to dwell on personal authorship over collaboration and remaining focused on the films’ literary aspects when probed on formal choices. But as with all significant artists, we are glad to receive whatever we get.

Adoor describes Kathapurushan (The Man of the Story) as an “incisive look” at himself. Spanning forty years, the film charts the life of Kunjunni (Vishwanathan), the scion of a feudal household who suffers from a stuttering problem. Kunjunni’s personal story—his legend-like birth, his fatherless upbringing, his relationship with the working-class family employed at the house, his blossoming into a young intellectual, his imprisonment and his eventual “cure”—is set against larger events from the history of Kerala. Like many of Adoor’s characters, Kunjunni is a barometer of the upheavals that saw social relations transition from feudalism to communism. His stutter goes just like it came: in reaction to a specific institutional violence. Adoor constantly jumps in time with ellipses that arrive unannounced. These vast temporal leaps are in contrast with the real-time sequences that populate the film. In Kathapurushan, the filmmaker accentuates his characteristic editing style that involves intervals of dead time bookending action or dialogue within a shot.

In the exchange that followed, Adoor touched upon the co-production offer by NHK, Japan, and described how he was urged by the film critic Tadao Sato to take up the offer even though he had no story idea at that point. Speaking about the colours in the film, he recounted how he wanted to shoot the film between rains in peak monsoon in order to capture the various shades of green proper to Kerala. He insisted that he storyboards his sequences beforehand, with the cinematographer responsible primarily for the lighting. This explains the stylized shot division of the film’s most memorable sequence: a raid at Kunjunni’s revolutionary press shown entirely through close-ups of typesets, pamphlets, strewn paper, marching feet and cuffed hands. This manner of synthesizing shots against continuity recalls the work of Sergei Eisenstein, as does the use of actors. Especially in Kathapurushan, the actor’s work is objectified into individual packets of information—gestures signifying discrete ideas like crying, grieving or rejoicing—whose purpose is to support the wider thematic scaffolding.

If Kunjunni represents the first type of Adoor protagonist, the individual who rises above the station his situation consigns him to, the principal characters of Vidheyan (The Servile) are wholly products of their environment. Both Patelar (Mammootty), the malevolent feudal relic who runs roughshod over a village in Dakshina Kannada, and Thommi (M. R. Gopakumar), a migrant settler who becomes his trusted vassal, are products of a social structure that has no legality anymore. Right from the first shot of the film, where Thommi is interpellated by Patelar’s humiliating call, the two are bound in a master-slave dialectic in which each derives social-existential legitimacy from the other. If Vidheyan remains Adoor’s supreme achievement towering over the other films, it’s perhaps because, here, his style finds a subject matter that’s an organic extension of it, inherent to it: the shot divisions, the backlight and the use of off-screen space all become emanations of the central idea.

Talking about the genesis of the script, Adoor said he changed the Patelar character from a serial killer in Paul Zacharia’s original short story to a naïve being out of step with the times. He also revealed that he had offered the short story to his friend and fellow filmmaker K. G. George. The latter, it appears, turned it down as he was more interested in the social politics of migrant Malayali settlers in Mangalore, in place of this abstract meditation on power. Adoor also rejected the moderator’s proposition—after Suranjan Ganguly—that his films were about outsiders, maintaining that they were only about individuals. Discussing his casting of Mammootty as the antagonist, Adoor said that he doesn’t differentiate between novices and professional actors and usually casts actors in small roles before giving them meatier parts in subsequent films. That this was his third production featuring Mammootty made the star comfortable in portraying as repulsive character as Patelar.

If Patelar and Thommi are products of a system, Basheer, the protagonist of Mathilugal (The Walls), rejects all isms and asserts his irreducible individuality. Adapted from Vaikom Muhammad Basheer’s autobiographical novella, Mathilugal, in fact, centres on the dissolution of an institution, namely the police force, into individuals. The story is set a few years before independence in a Travancore prison where Basheer (Mammootty) is held for writing against the state. At the facility, he gets a preferential treatment, with both jailers and fellow-prisoners willing to provide him with his indulgences. Basheer, in turn, is not only brotherly towards them, but affectionate to the plants and small animals on the premises as well. He thinks of a jailbreak, but the romance he develops with a woman prisoner across the high walls of the prison makes him rethink the meaning of freedom. Mathilugal is a tender film for Adoor, gives in as it does to the vagaries of human desire and behaviour instead of putting it under the microscope.

Adoor remembered his collaboration with V. M. Basheer with great fondness and respect. He described how the author was sure the film will turn out well when he learnt that the sole woman character in the story will not be shown, but only heard. Adoor spoke about the authenticity of the period details and the prison set that was built with brick and mortar. He stated that the central challenge of adapting the novel was to turn the ‘I’ of the novella into a flesh and blood character. Answering the moderator’s question about the casting of the Mammootty as Bashir, he said that, in his writings, Basheer had a lofty self-image, which he wanted to bring out through the image of the handsome actor. In the film, Basheer perambulates the prison corridors, amusing himself at first but soon descending into a marked depression—a change in tone that Adoor mapped to the Basheer’s real-life spells of schizophrenia.

The last screening was that of Elippathayam (The Rat Trap), arguably Adoor’s most academic, but also most rigorous film. Another chronicle of the response of the powerful classes to disempowerment, the film follows a landed family living in an ancestral house: the entitled, lazy-to-the-bone patriarch Unni (Karamana Janardanan Nair) and his two sisters, the suffering Rajamma (Sharada) and the self-absorbed Sridevi (Jalaja). Unni’s incurable fear of change eats Rajamma away and prompts Sridevi to flee the house in a gesture of self-preservation, while he remains locked up in the house like a trapped rodent. Elippathayam is a highly abstract work like Vidheyan, and Adoor gives each character in the film a single defining trait. Every shot, sound and detail of the mise en scène has a fixed place in the film’s meticulous structure and serves to illustrate the thesis. Adoor’s characteristic, Platonic attention to objects vested with social significance, such as ancestral furniture, saturates the film with meaning and intellectual heft.

Adoor mentioned that Elippathayam was a film about “sharing”, about our reluctance to respond naturally to change. He detailed the reasons why the film was shot in colour: the Moraji Desai government, having gotten rid of licensing limitations for the import of film stock, enabled the flourishment of colour stock in the country to the detriment of monochrome. The highly coded colour choices of Elippathayam were thus a virtue made of necessity. He asserted that films, whatever else they are, must function at least as social documents, pointing to the authenticity of the way of life depicted in Elippathayam. For all its ills, he added, the feudal system fostered a more intimate relationship between the landed class and the tillers, as well as between the tillers and the land—something that vanished with the disintegration of joint families and ancestral homes.

The four films screened at the masterclass, all of them Bluray projections, offered an excellent cross-section of Adoor’s body of work. Even with Adoor’s limited commentary on them, it was evident that they stake a claim for the filmmaker as one of the true modernists of Indian cinema. The novelistic, classical quality of his script—personal stories set against historic transformation like in John Ford—are given a critical edge by the self-conscious form, the countless doorways that double frame his shots and the carefully curated panoply of ambient and artificial sounds. In all the four sessions, Adoor reflected on the long periods of inactivity between his films. He explained that the hardest part is for him to be convinced that an idea is worthy of a feature-length production; the rest follows. It’s good to get stuck working on an idea and return to it after a while, he went on, instead of compromising the idea. He said that he constantly asks himself why the audience should see his films, that nothing will change if he doesn’t make films. The last thing the seventy-eight-year-old filmmaker wants to do is to repeat himself.

 

[A shorter version of this report was published in Film Companion]

The Cellular Tree (Saint-Jacques… La Mecque)

Cut no. 19; March 2007

Foreigners often have a more clear-sighted perspective of French cinema than us.

That’s why America was the first to recognize one of our best filmmakers in Marcel Hanoun. It’s in Italy that the only book on Paul Vecchiali appeared. It’s in England (which rescued Casque d’or from oblivion) that the first monograph on Coline Serreau, written by Brigitte Rollet, has been published while her last work Saint-JacquesLa Mecque released here to general critical indifference and a disappointing commercial performance (720,000 viewers), considering the sizeable financial investment involved. On the other hand, there were 10 million tickets sold for Trois hommes et un couffin, a film made on a small budget.

To be sure, we could criticize this new film for its commonplaces:

  • The will with odd clauses, an old scriptwriting trick;
  • The three children, representing the most opposed classes of society;
  • The excessive stereotyping (the drunk, womanizing loser with a heart of gold, the naïve Beur, the stressed-out CEO);
  • The assimilation of Islamists with the Catholics, just like that of Arabs with the Jews in Oury’s films.

But commonplaces, which point to a theatrical aesthetic, can be very productive when they are presented as such by the filmmaker, voluntarily and not unwittingly. They reassure, they make us laugh, they situate the action in time immemorial since, by definition, they belong to the past. They prepare the ground for the shock of the new that is to follow. A healthy and new dialectic of the conventional and the contemporary, of cliché and Café de la Gare, of cinéma verité and Cabiria: Serreau’s genius is based on a violent clash between the two extremes of these dialectics.

These dialectics place the modern within the classical in a roundabout way that kindles the audience’s interest.

And there’s quite a bit of the modern, the contemporary in the film:

  • The lampooning of Catholics, racists, the lazy, the cunning. The cherry on the cake: none of the nine who undertake the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela is Christian. There are even three Beurs. And Serreau, while using their spectacle, mocks sumptuous, empty rites (the giant incensory, the echo of the most profane words in the church): pilgrimage as alibi, springboard, McGuffin;
  • The complexes of cancer patients;
  • The quirky character of the chubby teacher, atheist, jaded, but addicted to her profession all the same;
  • The comparative analysis of the methods of literacy;
  • The work of postmen summarized in one minute and fifty shots based on transitions through brief, expert pan shots;
  • The sending up of the sportive, posh, compulsively-lying, perfect little postman;
  • The irony towards the invading, consumerist foreign hordes (the Dutch here, like the Americans of Dix-huit ans apres, a little too caricatural);
  • The cult of cellular phones (with its new, unusual choruses—lot of chorus effects in this film: I’m thinking particularly of the admirable long shot of the to-and-fro of the callers who take over the frame from each other, all the more striking in the middle of an over-edited film, à la Eisenstein, with close to two thousand shots).

The old trick of a bizarre will is set in contrast with these digressions in which fictional characters summarize, in long, over-the-top, exhaustive and unbelievable speeches—with jump cuts as in television interviews, giving the illusion of live telecast— their general view of the world and of the problem at hand, like Lapin at the beginning of Serreau’s doubly eponymous play: “Now I’m going to deliver a monologue.”

Also commonplace is the principle of the microcosmic small group—an old Fordian motif—with Serreau’s nine (together in the frame whenever possible) resembling the nine of Stagecoach, the Seven Women, the thirteen of the lost patrol, and in the no-less-Fordian principle of nine silhouettes on the horizon, backlit and on top of the frame. Many clichéd images too (sunsets with lens flare), but all of it is swept away, swallowed, absorbed, magnified by a machine-gun-like editing, two seconds where Kurosawa, Jarman, Boorman, Malick and other resident impostors show off while the public has had time to study the art of framing. I will always remember the shot of the mother who has just hanged herself from a tree in Chaos. Her body is very far from the tree as from the ground. It’s absolutely impossible that she could kill herself in the conditions shown. The unbelievability introduces a certain humour which makes this drama go down better within the framework of a comedy. The shot strikes us with its beauty, its neatness, its abstraction and especially its brevity, which imparts it a nobility and a coherence. It gives the impression of the filmmaker’s superiority over the viewer. We are frustrated, we resent that it wasn’t longer. What would be bad over thirty seconds becomes brilliant over thirty images. We are carried away by the lyrical blow of the editing that allows for all excesses, erases their profound illegitimacy. Serreau squanders and splashes on us her lightning-quick effects that unfold faster than our perception. Certain brilliant dialogues go unnoticed…

Serreau summons Hopper and Kitano, King Hu and Henri Rousseau, Magritte and Godard. She works on colours a great deal. A genuine painter’s film, by a possessed demiurge, à la Fritz Lang, constructed with colours leaning towards the florescent, towards lively tones—notably the trash, the medicines and the creams with in-your-face packaging, as shocking amidst nature as the hodgepodge of relics on the supposedly Catholic, Nepalese-style altar (here Christ = Mohammed = Buddha).

As it often happens, cinema is worthy because it loathes—the modern gloss here, the speed of the CEO’s psychotic action (like the hero’s in Chaos), matched nevertheless by the brilliant, delirious speed of editing—like religion in Buñuel, violence in Fuller, extremes in Vidor, the industrial world in Antonioni.

Serreau’s palette favours a single, dominant, invasive tint in every shot, the light red of Castilian Meseta, the green or awesome yellow of the high plateaux with one or many human silhouettes, a magnificent, lone, “cellular phone” ash tree (probably planted there). We appreciate the funny blend of golden sunset, close to the Biarritz sea, and the soon-to-dominate yellow of the post-box. A Serreau film is first and foremost a symphony in yellow, with its entire range of shades, from the apartments of Trois hommes et un couffin and Chaos to the natural amber of this new work.

Let’s commend here a work that knows how to give grandeur to a landscape almost unknown to French cinema (except V. Gaudissart’s Céleste and Un roi sans divertissement by Badal, Letterier and Giono), that of the hills that Serreau loves, that of inner France of Massif Central, the knolls of Cévennes, Aubrac, Margeride, Velay, while our filmmakers lazily settle for the Côte d’Azur, Étretat and the Alps. Serreau has become our Dovzhenko, our Sjöström.

This recent orientation towards landscape was already evident, after a first period set entirely in apartments, with the Drômois mountain of La Crise and the Australian desert of La Belle Verte. It coincides with a return to the family, the couple, the mother and especially the grandmother as a foundation, replacing triangular and quadrangular relationships of the first period.

Serreau’s work as a creator of forms, always doped with the dazzling rhythm of an inspired editing, becomes all the more evident in the dream sequences. If she borrows landscapes from Les Camisards, she reprises the principle of another René Allio film, Rude journée pour la reine, based rather unconvincingly on the description of the imaginary of the average Frenchman, of popular art, and so of pop art.

Luxurious dreams, in the line of Metropolis, suffused with a kitschy or surrealist vein, reflect the fantasies of the nine contrasting heroes and demonstrate an astounding creative power relying on special effects and animation (Serreau’s Quisaitout et Grobêta was itself a play full of effects, like Molière’s and Corneille’s Psyché). Animation intervenes frequently in recent French fiction as well (cf. the films of Lvovsky, Canet etc.). We can’t forget the long, dark, Murnau-like cloud that invades the top of the image, looming over the characters, and the infinite theory of shaven heads, evoking chemo, Holocaust and Falconetti at once.

The first dream, presented as though it were that of the ghastly, alienated CEO, turns out to be that of the illiterate Beur1. Either that Serreau felt during editing that the Maghrebi’s dream was more striking than the businessman’s to inaugurate the series of dreams, to better characterize them as such, to better emphasize the shock of extremes (and the audience is not upset by this inversion), or that—a less evident hypothesis—she wanted to collectivize the dream, given that the utopia finally attained in the film is based on perfect mutual understanding within this heterogenous group. And then, the truth: all these naïve dreams are Serreau’s own…

It’s one of the rare comedies founded on the Great Form, on a heavy, significant formal organization, along with The Ladies Man (Lewis), Mon Oncle, The Wild Cat (Lubitsch), All These Women (Bergman), while the masters of comedy generally rely on actors, gags, situation, dialogue and often forget about colour and composition, except when they bring about a gag.

Serreau also borrows from musical art. Like in Bitsch’s L’Homme des couloirs, the brilliant Hugues Le Bars surprises us with his audacities and especially the soft, singsong voice of an unknown origin which, among other things, underlines the large Claire’s impulsive reactions whenever someone uses the word “big”2.

This chronicle of modern life owes a lot to the odd premise that enables it, the pilgrimage, which is quite an unusual device these days. There’s just Buñuel’s La Voie lactée and David Lodge’s book Therapy (not to mention the blueprint, Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress) on the Santiago de Compostela side of things and, on the Mecca side, Ferroukhi’s magnificent Le Grand Voyage, Wajda’s Gates to Paradise and Jasny’s Pilgrimage to the Virgin Mary. We expect pious kitsch, or settling of scores with religion, and we find ourselves with a cross-section view of contemporary society smuggled into this road movie.

Like Serreau’s previous films (the nice cops of Pourquoi pas? and Trois hommes et un couffin, the passive extras of Qu’est-ce qu’on attend pour être heureux! who suddenly turn rebellious, the CEO Romuald who marries the black maid from a large family, the mute lady-killer Grobêta, the old woman of La Crise in perfect love, the Arab woman of Chaos driven to the streets, turned femme fatale, turned stock market speculator), Saint Jacques plays on the bizarre metamorphosis of the CEO linked to the System, who plunges abruptly into solidarity and ecology, recalling the Edward Arnold of You Can’t Take It With You, and regains familial sentiment after taking various ritualistic steps in discontinuous straight lines. Transgression, inversion, distortion, and at times cross-dressing, with the permutation of sexes (Lapin Lapin). Besides, in L’École des femmes, she plays Arnolphe herself.

There is here a gesture towards utopia, which must not be taken literally. It’s there to provoke the viewer, to present reality to him in a new, roundabout and arresting way. The utopia has to do with the bird’s eye view of things embodied by the naïve Beur as by the heroine of La Belle Verte (uneven movie, too dependent on its premise that misfires: the surprises of a Martian on Earth), and which keeps the Voltaire-like, Montesquieu-like 18th century tale alive3.

Therein lies one of the film’s most important narrative devices. For Serreau’s art is an art of narrative forms, varying from one film to another. In Mais qu’est ce qu’elles veules? it was the interview form, in Chaos a photo-novel, a comic pasted over money matters. La Crise was about its amazing, Hawksian rapidity of dialogue (reprised here at times), the inversion of Romuald.

Clear advantage over other great filmmakers like Jancso, Syberberg or Angelopoulous whose narrative form hasn’t changed a bit in thirty years.

 

1 In fact, there’s a brief shot of a sleeping person in between, but we don’t know who it is.

2 With the marvellous gag: we also hear the soft voice underlining Claire’s reaction when a character talks about “big responsibility” without referring to Claire.

3It’s amazing to see the same influence at work in another master of contemporary cinema, Jorge Furtado. In this regard, I quote Brigitte Rollet who, in her study on Serreau (p. 90), refers to Lapin Lapin (“I see everything that happens with the eyes of a foreigner”), compares La Crise with Montesquieu’s Les Lettres persanes and advances that “it’s tempting to define another link between these two texts: Serreau made her film at the end of another political reign (Mitterrand’s) which was seen by many as being reminiscent of that of the Sun King.”

 

[From Luc Moullet’s Piges choisies (2009, Capricci). See Table of Contents]

That Which Does Not Kill (Alexe Poukine)

That Which Does Not Kill does not label itself beforehand, nor does it reveal its modus operandi right away. What it does offer is a series of talking heads, men and women, young and old, black and white, straight and queer, in intimate, homely décor, captured in simple, shallow-focus camera setups. In the first interview, a very soft-spoken girl of about twenty describes her memory of an assault: a man forces himself on her, yet she goes back to his house and they sleep together, and again a third time. The girl is soon revealed to be an actor and her testimony, a text given to her by the filmmaker for preparation. This text serves as a foundation for the rest of the film and the interviewees, all of them actors, narrate details from it as though from personal experience. The women interviewees speak from the perspective of the girl while the two men in the film stand in the shoes of the aggressor. We never know what part of their testimonies comes verbatim from the text, what is imagined and what is a direct expression of the actors’ own experience. Some of them evoke very specific memories, like particular colours or sounds, and some others break down. They step out of character at times to talk to the filmmaker behind the camera, but even so the boundaries are blurred. We aren’t quite sure where the text ends and personal memories of trauma begins.

At the heart of the text is the conundrum of why the girl responded positively to the man’s advances, why she went back to his house after the assault, and why she slept with him a third time. The question baffles the actors at first too, but getting into their role and approaching it through the prism of their personal experience, they understand her actions as a way of returning to a primal scene in order to set a derailed life straight. They characterize this as a shift from feeling shame (of being a victim) to identifying guilt (on the part of the aggressor). The testimonial text, consequently, moves from being a site of mistrust to a space for trust and solidarity. In doing so, the film probes the limits of empathy, conceiving it as a quality that’s not innate, but learned through performance and an active task of interpretation and imagination. An unmistakably post-MeToo film, That Which Does Not Kill problematizes the sureties surrounding sexual violence and trauma. It invokes involuntary excitation, proposes voluntary bondage as a reversal of powerlessness and acknowledges the inevitable contradictions in the memory of trauma, while also asserting the impossibility of forgetting such a corporeal experience. These are issues already part of the discourse, and perhaps the film breaks no new ground there, but it deserves credit for the way it frames the question of public response to survivor testimonies.

Movements of a Nearby Mountain (Sebastian Brameshuber)

Cliff (Clifford Agu) has an eye for old cars. He lives and works alone in an abandoned warehouse in the outskirts of a mining town somewhere in Austria. Like a hunter disembowelling his prey, he dismantles turn of the century models in his warehouse, selling refurbished units for cut rate to local customers or shipping spare parts to Nigeria. Sebastian Brameshuber follows Cliff’s life over several months, observing him working at length, cooking, fetching water, washing clothes, bargaining with customers, chatting with a Nigerian friend of his and driving into town to spot old cars to place his visiting card in. Cliff’s customers are invariably immigrants from Turkey, Bulgaria, Hungary or Romania. Neither Cliff or his clientele speaks proper German, and communication happens through a mixture of broken German, English and sign language. While Cliff’s warehouse lies in the penumbra of modern European Union, the shipment of spare parts from Germany to Africa traces a reverse movement of goods in globalized economy. Cliff’s is a life on the margins of capital, in the shadow of the wealth inequality that enables a thriving automobile black market. Even so, he says to his friend that things aren’t as good as they were ten years ago when he moved to this country, and reflects on the possibility of returning to Nigeria to ply taxies.

            Movements of a Nearby Mountain recalls Wang Bing’s Man with No Name in the disengaged manner in which it describes a life in solitude. Like Wang’s modern caveman, Cliff leads a very functional life revolving around business and sustenance. His only social life is in the conversations, perhaps imagined, he has with his Nigerian friend, with whom he observes the paintball arena opposite his warehouse. But unlike the man with no name, he seems to be free of aesthetic or sexual needs, outside of a comment about a pretty girl here or a song hummed there. He feeds a cat in the facility and shaves, but that’s all the outward-oriented gesture we see. More than Wang’s, it’s Flaherty’s Nanook that serves as a reference point here. Brameshuber, however, is confident that Cliff’s situation is self-explanatory and needs no description or context. Though there’s no interaction of the subject with the camera, his film is clearly collaborative and fictionalized, as is evidenced by the decoupage in which Cliff walks into spaces in which the camera is already setup. Besides, the filmmaker has Cliff narrate a legend about the region in which a water sprite promises the inhabitants an endless supply of iron ore in the surrounding mountains. Whether or not the promise was true, Cliff’s dwindling prospects seem to suggest a glass ceiling on the ladder to prosperity.

No Data Plan

No Data Plan (Miko Revereza)

Miko Revereza’s No Data Plan opens with the shot of a train pulling in to a station. The large crowd waiting for this trans-American Amtrak train is mostly coloured. Texts, written from the filmmaker’s perspective, appear on screen. We are told that Revereza’s mother has two phone lines, one without a data plan, in order to steer clear of immigration authorities. We learn that Revereza has been living in the US without papers and is bound to be shipped back to the Philippines if arrested. The entirety of No Data Plan consists of Revereza’s journey on this train over the next two days, even though we never know why he’s undertaking it. The “narrative” unfolds on two fronts. The images are resolutely anti-picturesque, anti-expository. Revereza focuses on the textures of the train: used trays, ketchup sachets, candy bars, sweaters, sunshine and shadows, promotional posters, seat covers, the space under the dining table, assorted luggage, dirty windows and the logos on them. He gets down at every station, filming passing trains or people waiting to receive visitors. There are bits of ambient dialogue captured, and Revereza makes a couple of phone calls and talks for a bit, but there’s no interaction with any of the other passengers. The focus is not on the bounty of the American landscape or the cross-section of the American population on the train, but on the banality of the transit, on Revereza’s disaffected drifting across states in anxiety about the border patrol showing up for an ID check.

The on-screen text, on the other hand, tells the story of the filmmaker’s mother: her past as an immigrant housewife with no life outside home, her affair with a taxi driver, her eloping with him to Nebraska with Revereza’s knowledge, and her current life on the road. The text and the images work dialectically, producing a portrait of (paperless) immigrant life. Like Revereza’s noteworthy short film, Disintegration 93-96, No Data Plan is a film about losing one’s roots, and Revereza’s seemingly purposeless transit scans as the fallout of a disintegrating family. Other obvious points of departure are J.P. Sniadecki’s The Iron Ministry and Albert Maysles’ In Transit. But the thrust of Revereza’s less sensual, less sociological film—a low-key elegy for a paradise lost—is existential. There’s always the risk of exhibitionism when a filmmaker plants himself so firmly at the centre of his work as Revereza does here. This looming authorial presence in No Data Plan, however, is closer to Jafar Panahi’s This Is Not a Film than, say, Kim Ki-Duk’s Arirang. Revereza’s decision to document his life as an illegal alien, to upload it onto social media and make films out of it is a choice that serves to assert a selfhood that official documents deny.

Searching Eva (Pia Hellenthal)

When Searching Eva opens, we hear ASMR-like reading of chatroom messages about sex, abuse and guilt: some of them grateful and appreciative, some others judgmental. The voice is that of the addressee, Eva. She looks twenty-something, but that’s about everything we can determine about her, for Eva defies definition: she is nothing fixed. Eva has a widely followed online presence, which serves as a rallying point for people feeling alienated from social, sexual norms. On the voiceover—presumably addressed to her followers—Eva recounts events from her life: modelling at the age of 13, her neglectful parents, her sexual exploitation by boys and old men alike, her part time sex work, her desires and diary entries. These chat sessions, seen on screen from time to time, alternate with intimate vignettes from her life: Eva in the shower or in bed with men or women, running free on the subway, moving houses, drifting from one European city to another, going to parties or taking drugs. The generally affectionate images are in contrast with the sordid details of her life. Eva spends time back in Italy with her mother, who takes pictures for her Instagram. She has a warm dinner with her father and his new family. The contradiction makes us wonder whether what we hear in the voiceover is the truth.

The answer is immaterial since, for Eva, identity is malleable, self-determined and entirely arbitrary; a prison to be escaped. Throughout Searching Eva is a suspension of the distinction between performing and being. Eva believes that you are what you pretend to be. She hails from a working-class background, but rejects the idea of fixed work or career, choosing to engage in an activity that will help her survive as long as possible without worrying about money, namely sex work. This sex work is just another facet of what she is, not something that defines her. Looking for apartments, she casually tells one of the current occupants that she’s a sex worker, to her interlocutor’s total disbelief. She services men as part of her work, but sleeps with women “in real life”. In her thorough rejection of biologically, socially determined identities, she inspires her followers (in remote European towns) who feel trapped and suffocated by their body, their sexuality, their past, their environment, their work. The film too never quite fits into the traditional documentary mould. Though leading a transparent, publicized life, Eva is continuously aware of the camera’s presence and sends our voyeuristic gaze back to us. But despite its stark self-reflexivity and multi-mode exposition, Searching Eva doesn’t forestall the feeling that it takes some self-congratulatory pleasure about its own open-mindedness, that if Tumblr had a movie version, this would be it.

A Serene Nihilism

Le Nouvel Adam no. 11; June 1967.

Antonioni bores me to death. But when a mediocre or overrated filmmaker makes a good film (or the opposite), I say so frankly. I practice fair-play, even when it comes to tennis.

Hence this article on Blow-Up, which, in my opinion, is one of the rare defensible Antonionis, along with The Red Desert and Identification of a Woman.

The reason for this amazing miracle: this filmmaker is really at ease only in colour film.

Blow-Up, Antonioni’s second English film after his sketch for I Vinti (1952) and his second great colour film, is a series of images, of moments, where a number of important things sometimes happen, but which don’t seem to have been chosen. We get the impression that they could’ve been different, that it could all take place as much in Buenos Aires or Paris as in London—like in Julio Cortázar’s Les Fils de la vierge, the original novella the film is based on—without much change. Blow-Up stretches the last ten minutes of Eclipse (1961), which came at the end of a story and forgot all about it, to over two hours.

What’s the connection? It’s a famous photographer from London—photography is a means of combatting nothingness, wrote Cortázar. Antonioni seems to have chanced upon his hero at the beginning of the film, but he accompanies him until the end. Then begins a semblance of a plot, first presented like one of the film’s many moments quickly abandoned for others, so as to not make us wary: he photographs a pair of lovers in a park. The woman tries to get the negatives from him by any means, without clearly-defined reasons. He makes blow-ups after blow-ups, observes them, seems to discover the traces of an attempted murder, comes back, finds a corpse, returns to the place, finds nothing. Every episode remains very chaotic, every blow-up a little fuzzier, every meaning is destroyed by the following one right away. Dream or reality? The answer seems—there are only semblances in this universe—to be of no importance. Visually, the film is bright, but its logical meaning slips irreversibly into obscurity. Every time a character does something, tries to love another, loves another, there is no rhyme or reason.

It’s the death blow to psychology, the perfect vegetative film. There is no certainty, not even that the previous certainty has been undone. It’s really a supreme disdain for meaning, quite like in Cortázar. Antonioni has borrowed only two ideas from him, the couple caught by surprise and the blow-up, but he takes his nihilist spirit along. The importance given to physical love could stir discussions about materialism. But materialism itself is a form of affirmation. It’s chance rather than desire that seems to drive relationships here. And dream and reality are always on the same footing, except at the end, which is more clearly unreal: masked characters play tennis without a ball while pretending to have one. The photographer agrees to play along, go collect the ball fallen outside the court and throw it back.

Nothing exists, but we must act as though something exists. At the end of this sequence that concludes and summarizes the film, this gesture, a little too meaningful, diminishes the general impression of absence. It short-changes the viewer and especially the critic too easily. Blow-up is a film that shouldn’t have ended and it was necessary for it to give the impression that it will not. But the film as a whole, following Borges and Cortázar, belongs to what I’d call the “Midi fantastique” as opposed to “Minuit fantastique”, a fantasy based on light and not on darkness, on the mundane and not on old tricks of the trade.

The difference from Antonioni’s previous films, from L’Avventura or The Red Desert, is the serenity. The characters in the earlier films were tormented and constantly spoke about being tormented. The hero of Blow-up is silent. He is overworked, he isn’t tormented by anything profound, and the filmmaker even less so. This is what distinguishes him from Godard, whose approach Blow-up evokes to an extent. Everything takes place calmly here.

The film is relaxing, pleasant to watch. Perhaps it’s an ablation of conscience or alienation, but if it’s alienation, it’s not so bad. What surprises us is that the hero and the filmmaker can remain indifferent and calm before so many oddities and enigmas, so much rage. The rhythm, the colours, the atmosphere contribute to give the impression of acceptance and appeasement. Antonioni makes us hear the wind in the forest like we never have. He brings out the multiple tints and settings of the most technical of modern lives through the photographer’s studio and apartment. These tints are so new to the screen that, under the shock, we aren’t able to decide whether Blow-Up is a beautiful film. It’s a film that’s evidently very rich on a plastic level and it’s this aspect, I think, that accounts for its enormous commercial success in the United States, with its picturesque, stereotypical images of contemporary England. London life in summarized in clichés worthy of a vulgar tourist.

But Antonioni seems to have wanted to say, most of all, that there’s nothing beneath it all, and to not crank up the commercial aspect of the film, in which the public can get caught even though they are not harnessed. Blow-Up’s visual style holds another pitfall: it’s likely to keep from those who admire it the most difficult and most important aspect of the film, contained in its approach and its meaninglessness. It would be a serious misinterpretation, a serious “mis-non-interpretation” rather, to believe that the film is an exercise in style.

 

[From Luc Moullet’s Piges choisies (2009, Capricci). See Table of Contents]

[From my column on studio-era Hollywood films for Firstpost]

“For a film that was made at a time when the wider public was wary of bankers and fat cats in general, Gold Diggers shows no resentment against the institutional power that Brad stands for. All anxiety about the Depression dissolves into a lukewarm comedy involving bumbling billionaires, shrewd showgirls and a cloying true romance. The film confirms Lawrence’s perception of showgirls as gold diggers all the way till the end, when their machinations are justified by profession of love. For the girls, on the other hand, the rich men represent a ticket out of the poverty permeating their lives. Like Hopkins’ show, Gold Diggers monetizes the Great Depression, but it offers hope and cheerfulness as the guiding response to economic problems. Like other contemporary backstage musicals, Gold Diggers is about people in need helping each other out. In its narrative of creative folks coming together to produce something beautiful amidst gloom and hardship, the films functions as an expression of the optimism that characterized the New Deal era.

The narrative, though, is little more than an excuse for Gold Diggers to chain together its main draws: the four musical sequences directed by legendary choreographer Busby Berkeley. Trained as a military choreographer, Berkeley had an unmistakeable style that directly or indirectly influenced scores of choreographer-filmmakers across the world, including Sanjay Leela Bhansali, Ashutosh Gowariker and Prabhu Deva. His orchestra of human bodies often involves an army of young men and women marshalled into striking geometric or organic patterns, supported by disproportionate, flamboyant props and stage design. Individual performers in these pieces are subsumed into a larger scheme made of repeating motifs, captured by a gliding, craning camera, which regularly pulls back or hovers above to record these formations.”

 

[Full article at Firstpost]

Nothing About My Mother

Unpublished

I am well-regarded by publications interested in cinema.

Even so, this article was rejected everywhere.

I already had a hard time getting my revaluations of Powell and Deleuze through.

There was a time Leenhardt could yell:

“Down with Ford!”

Truffaut took down Clouzot and the “tradition of quality”. Rivette insulted Pontecorvo. Positif dragged Hitchcock and Bazin through the mud.

And nonetheless, this frankness—well-founded or not—paved the way for a healthy dialectical reflection.

Impossible today: everyone sticks together.

Today, everyone’s so nice and kind. The result is that every filmmaker is face-lifted to the same level: the oblivion of the crowd… Impossible to discern who will be the great filmmakers of tomorrow, or even today!

Spain suffers from a handicap: it’s not cut out for cinematic mise en scène. It’s a handicap that it makes up for largely with the richness of its pictorial expression. Similarly, the Germanics are strong in the realm of music while they remain impermeable to comedy and humour.

This Hispanic deficiency is all the more manifest because its little neighbour, Portugal, demonstrates an exceptional cinematic verve.

A cruel paradox: a Spanish filmmaker is really interesting only when he moves out the country (Buñuel, Arrieta, Coixet), which recalls the case of Hitchcock and England. I know well that there was Franco, but it’s a lame excuse: he’s been dead for more than thirty years.

The problem is that in most countries with a production that’s limited or of reduced interest, there is always ONE flagbearer filmmaker, Bergman, Dreyer and then Von Trier, Moretti, Kaurismaki, Wajda, Jancso and then Tarr, Pintilie, Kusturica, Angelopoulos, Van Der Keuken, Oliveira, Ben Barka, Lakhdar-Hamina, Boughedir, Hondo, Sembène, Ouédraogo, Cissé, Cronenberg, Alea, Sanjines, Ripstein, Solanas, Gitai, Omirbaev, Kiarostami, Chahine, Satyajit Ray, Weerasethakul, Brocka etc. It’s very convenient: the bulk of state funds goes to a single film rather than twenty. Neat savings… National representation at festivals is always assured, the selectors needn’t waste time searching. And the cultivated viewer believes he’s seen everything a country has to offer when he savours the work of the Chosen One. A particularly questionable, elitist system, especially when the filmmaker in question heads the local Centre for Cinema himself—frequently the case in Africa—and doesn’t give a damn about others or the future.

It’s all fine when the lucky laureate is called Ingmar Bergman. But it borders on tragedy in Spain. This country has found nothing better than choosing its champions among the creators of a pretentious and empty body of work, earlier Bardem, then Saura, today Almodóvar1, to whom our Cinematheque has dared to dedicate a retrospective…

His roaring, blustering, warrior-like surname sounded good to my ears: the strangeness, the strong ending, like in Guadalquivir. I’d have wanted to like Almodóvar so much. Names matter. I’m convinced that it’s primarily because of his name that Apichatpong Weerasethakul became a hit.

My first contact with Almodóvar was thanks to Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. I was quite amused by the application of the laws of Hollywood screwball comedy to a modern, hip Madrid milieu, which was a first. The Screenplay Award at Venice seemed justified to me. But it didn’t go any further than a Blake Edwards comedy.

Then I started watching Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! Even tied, I couldn’t have remained on my seat: an Almodóvar film is foremost a tedious litany of vaguely lewd lines, à la Michel Audiard, haphazardly assembled. It’s a catalogue of somewhat perverse sexual fantasies, spoken about more than shown. A catalogue of no great interest. It’s true that it’s funny for five minutes… It’s Russ Meyer lite, or more exactly a poor man’s John Waters. Waters’ superiority over Almodóvar is that he knows to remain within his natural limits, that of pure fun and play, while Almodóvar reaches vainly towards much loftier horizons.

Live Flesh is constructed mostly on oblique and unusual framing, pretty but gratuitous. We are midway between Vadim and Albicocco.

I then began understanding why the first six Almodóvars were systematically rejected by festivals. Nothing has changed since then in his films, if not for the birth of a certain snobbism. It’s the same with Guédiguian: first limited to a restricted circulation and then sought after by everyone, even though he hasn’t changed his refrain one bit, the difference being that the filmmaker from Marseille is on a much superior level than the man from La Mancha.

I systematically avoided Almodóvar’s productions after that. Out of curiosity, I went back to him when good things were being said about his two new films.

All About My Mother ostensibly quotes Mankiewicz’s All About Eve, while Almodóvar’s practice, as we will see later, is diametrically opposed to the psychological analysis so dear to Mankiewicz. It’s as dishonest for him to call his film that as for me to start naming my films The Genius Line or New Sunrise. There is a pile of gratuitous film references in Almodóvar (Night of the Hunter, Gena Rowlands, Fellini, Pasolini, Bergman etc.) that are present to attract the complicity of critics and cinephiles. Anyway, let’s forget the title. It’s enough that All About My Mother be named Manuel and Esteban for my criticisms to fall flat.

All About My Mother grabs our attention, as does the subsequent work, Talk to Her, through various colour choices within the image: a colour on the left, another on the right, a third one at the centre. But it remains purely decorative.

Special attention is devoted in this film, and in Talk to Her, to the ill and the handicapped, to the hospital setting, which Almodóvar’s friends—victims of AIDS, which he’s perhaps afraid of—must’ve gone through. Let’s note the film’s best moment (along with the nice verbal digression on the cost of plastic surgery). I mean the camera movement that runs along the tube of the drip. Still life in Almodóvar’s films is always more interesting than the characters (cf. the windmills of Volver). It’s true that it appears at the very beginning of the film. There are numerous filmmakers with a short-lived inspiration who put in some effort into the first shot of the film (such as the windswept graveyard with its choir of cleaning women in Volver), but are likely to disappoint in the next five hundred…

We can certainly give some credit to this film which seeks, through a stream of dialogue more mundane than usual, to bring to life and humanize characters of strange comportments, to say the least: there is a desire here to turn homosexuality—gay or lesbian—and bisexuality, often marked by transvestism, into majoritarian, universal and indispensable values. But this effort is contradicted by the caricatural, fantastic aspect of the paradox, more capable of being expressed in comedy—which allows for all fantasies—than in the drama presented here: two or three deaths.

The realist treatment of the film doesn’t make for a good choice.

It’s impossible to believe in it, to surrender to emotion, since none of the particular sexual attitudes repeated endlessly through the film, none of the considerable behavioural changes (why does Lola shuttle constantly between heterosexuality and transvestism? Why does the young woman sleep with “him”?) is deepened, harnessed or justified. All things considered, Nothing About My Mother would have been a more appropriate title for the film. What remains is the provocative and gratuitous bizarreness of the sexual acts.

Helped by a rather endearing Boccaccian flavour, Talk to Her marks a slight progress into an interesting trajectory. But it remains too long for a story that shouldn’t have moved beyond the short film stage. A male nurse in love with a comatose patient makes her pregnant. Besides the fact that we realize what’s happening much before Almodóvar explains it to us in great detail, Talk to Her disappoints us with its touristy, “Spain in ninety minutes” aspect, with bullfighting—a female matador, just to be fashionable—and a ballet show thrown in for free. Matarazzo (Il Tenente Giorgio), Kleist and Rohmer (The Marquise of O) were much more inspired on the subject of blind or lethargic coitus than this mediocre codicil.

Bad Education turns out to be even worse. It keeps ramming down our throats the idea that, under Franco, all priests were faggots. Which, made in 2004, seems to us to be appallingly banal, especially given that it’s drawn out to feature length. I couldn’t hold on till the end here too.

Besides, there is a contradiction between the systematic criticism of this paedophilia—a very universal attitude today and thus rather opportunistic—and the tolerance and sympathy that Almodóvar demonstrates towards all forms of homosexuality.

When all is said and done, it seems that Spanish cinema has held on only thanks to Francoism, by trying to undermine it from within until the death of Caudillo, or by denouncing it very explicitly later. Which, thirty years later, seriously limits our view of Spanish cinema, as though French cinema still revolved around Resistance or anti-Gaullism.

The beginning of Volver nicely surprised me. There is here a charming chronicle based on the observation of places and mores in La Mancha, which borders on caricature but remains pleasant.

Alas, returning to Madrid, Almodóvar lets himself be run over by the mechanics of a plot that’s at once banal and very complex, too farfetched to be able to bring out the pathos of the characters and their emotions. The choral aspect of the film breaks the emotion sustained by the melodrama, which generally relies on the viewer’s identification with the central character and thus on a not-too-unbelievable context. Note the enjoyable ease with which the protagonists move in an unusual, hardly believable universe. But that’s not enough to reverse the trend. Despite some good gags (the sounds of kissing, the winds of the mother from under the bed), the mechanical parade of plot twists leaves little place for humour, which would’ve been really valuable in such a storyline. The film is always midway between an umpteenth TV sitcom and its parody. Almodóvar juggles with all facets of a scene and loses every time in this little game. He is always caught between two stools and lands on his ass. It’s not good, especially in cinema, to begin on a high note and go downhill from there. The opposite would’ve been better. Almodóvar’s problem ultimately is that his films are badly conceived, badly organized, off-centre, unbalanced and half-assed.

All said, what’s positive about him is that he unwittingly enabled—thanks to the similarities of their surnames—the growth of Amenábar, a filmmaker more worthy of interest and who constitutes, with Coixet, Alvarez, Rocha, Serra, Rosales, Alvares2 and especially Victor Erice (from whom Almodóvar stole the title of Spain’s best), the true Hispanic cinema of today, much more certainly than the bon mots and Banderillas of the windbag from La Mancha3.

 

1Earlier, a comparable snobbism glorified Ken Russell, Jean Delannoy, Serge Bourguignon, Rex Ingram, all of very ephemeral value…

2These names prove that Iberian film art (cf. Buñuel, Arrieta, the Portuguese) necessarily involves the experimental.

3On the other hand, the success of our filmmaker has, alas, forced the majority of Spanish filmmakers to do Almodóvar.

 

[From Luc Moullet’s Piges choisies (2009, Capricci). See Table of Contents]

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