Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The Art of Not Seeing Films

“The Art of Not Seeing Films”
by André Bazin, May 6, 1944
translated by Stanley Hochman

excerpted without permission from Bazin, André. French Cinema of the Occupation and Resistance: The Birth of a Critical Esthetic. ed. François Truffaut, trans. Stanley Hochman. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., Inc., 1981.

The lean kine succeed one another. I am speaking, alas, figuratively. During the last two weeks, I have been unable to bring myself to go to the movies. Between La Collection Ménard and Le Bals des Passants, there is unfortunately little to choose.

Last year, along with several friends from the cinema group of the Maison des Lettres, I had seen the filming of a shot from La Collection Ménard at the Francois Premier studio. Just one—and not a very significant one—but the entire style of the film was implicit in this wretched shot: the vulgarity of the dialogue, the stupidity of the scenario, the lack of conviction on the part of the actors who had embarked on this commercial galley. So true is it that most films can be judged by very slight elements—sometimes by their titles (though there is Les Anges du Péché) and almost always by a simple still—that the criticism we had made a priori coincides exactly with what is now being said about the film by “the” competent columnists.

A rapid examination of the advertising still outside a movie makes it possible to eliminate many films from consideration. A bad film can almost always be spotted by using this criterion alone. About 75 percent of film production could be judged without appeal this way. Try it. It requires less application than graphology. A basic characterological study of the film showing in your neighborhood theater requires only a little judgment and psychology.

The actual technical quality of the photography provides a first indication. One can use as a point of departure the principle that idiocy is homogeneous (I naturally except Abel Gance, a dazzling proof of the rule). A good photograph is also an intelligent photograph. At least it assures that even if the film is bad, it will not sink into silliness. This was, for examples, true of Serge de Poligny’s Le Baron Fantôme.

The actors are another indication. Beware of the multiplicity of stars; it almost always reveals the poverty of the scenario. The conjunctions of Raimus, Fernandels, Michel Simons, Jules Berrys, Jean Tissiers, etc., is a priori a bad sign. Of course, from time to time there is a Carnet de Bal. But don’t worry; the news about it spreads fairly quickly. Also examine closely what the characters look like. Here too psychological falseness and stupidity are linked. It’s easy to spot if the actors have adopted sentimental stereotypes, or, what is worse, the stereotype of their character as star. The decor too provides information about the taste and honesty of the director, about the style of the film. The pointlessly sumptuous salons, the bedrooms as big as railway stations, the double-winged marble stairways, often reveal, along with other signs, the esthetic demagogy, the inflation of what are intended to be external signs of beauty.

Eventually you will distinguish even more subtle elements. With some film-going experience, you will sense just which family of flop the film whose still you are analyzing belongs to. Naturally, a little intuition doesn’t hurt. This cluster of basic observations, along with information about the credits and the reading of one or two carefully chosen critics, will allow you 75 percent of the time to choose with certainty. There will be disappointments enough in the other 25 percent, but at least you will be spared losing your time with films that are no more worthy of comment than your grocer’s picture calendars or bathing beach chromos are worthy of comparison with what is merely an ordinarily honest painting.

[1] Directed by Bernard Roland from a scenario by Jacques Viot.
[2] Directed by Guillaume Radot.
[3] Le Baron Fantôme (1942). Director: Serge de Poligny Scenario: Serge de Poligy. Adaptation: Serge de Poligny and Louis Chavance. Dialogue: Jean Cocteau. Actors: Alain Cuny, André Lefaur, Alerme, Aimé Clariond, Claude Sainval, Marcel Perez, Jany Holt, Odette Joyeux, Gabrielle Dorziat, and, in the role of the phantom, Jean Cocteau himself.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

The Rover

Australian minerals. American dollars. Chinese hegemony. 2008, but worse. A thriller, but slow, tense, minimalist, hypnotic as the desert itself. Its formal virtues are so many, it is worth seeing for them alone.

Not enough people saw The Rover, though. I don’t know why, the trailer was incredible. It had a limited release, and even I missed it. Like the characters in the film, I was on the road.

Is there any other type of Australian film than the road film? Or than the post-apocalyptic road film, for that matter? Especially out West, what is the difference between Australia and post-apocalyptic Australia? What isn’t different—the rocks, the heat, the sun, the dry earth, the cruelty, the trucks, the trains, the dusty roads, the only buildings gas stations and police stations and dilapidated bush homes and trailer parks and mining facilities—is as striking as what is. Australia’s founding catastrophe was the desert. Its second was the white man.

We never find out what the collapse was or how it happened, but we can deduce it was of the global economic variety and that it was both total and partial. This is the film’s crucial insight: the coming disaster will not wipe the slate clean. The rich and the powerful will save themselves. The mask will fall. Might will make right. Apocalypse for some, freedom for all. There are already many such places on the earth.

There are still State forces of law and order, and if anything they are more present and oppressive than today, in full body army, zooming through the desert in armed humvees and convoys of black SUVs. They shoot first and ask questions never. They are indistinguishable from all the other armed killers on the road—gangs, mercenaries. It looks a lot like images of US-occupied Iraq.

What is gone is legitimacy. I’m not gonna kill you, says the policeman who arrests the protagonist. We’ve got to have convicts to send to Sydney or they’ll start wondering what they’re paying us for. I don’t care what they do with you—kill you, let you go, bribe your way out, or whatever it is they do out there these days. I’m doing this for me.

Doing what for you? asks the protagonist. The policeman has no response.

The film is full of such silences. It is not just a matter of arthouse good taste. It is the silence of animals.

When not trying to kill each other, people are entirely indifferent to one another’s presence, in a manner that recalls, but exceeds, the mutual indifference of animals with no direct relationship on the food chain. There is communication but no inter-subjectivity. If you ask a person a question—usually, How much?—the answer leaps out of their mouth without thought, but there is no glint of recognition in their eyes, no perceptible modulation in body language tied to things like desire or differences in social status, because those things don’t exist anymore. It’s a dystopian egalitarianism: Every human life is equally worthless, equally dangerous, equally unmotivated. Everyone’s movements are lethargic. It recalls the apathy of survivors of mass bombings, but here the ruin is entirely social.

A lot of people are murdered, and only one of them in the whole film even sees it coming. Otherwise, people put each other down like dogs. They kill without malice, because they are paid to or because they want something and killing is the most convenient way to get it. Sometimes it’s not even clear who is being killed or why. When life has no value, neither has killing.

If only there were a punishment forthcoming which would give it all meaning. Back during the collapse, the protagonist committed a crime of passion, but, because of the general chaos, no one came after him. You do something like I did, that oughta mean something, he says. When killing has no value, neither has life.

Those who don’t steal work in mining or in selling things essential to mining and the social infrastructure, such as it is, that supports it—food, medicine, gasoline, weapons, drugs, sex. Mining is how the country made it through 2008 relatively unscathed, and that’s how it will make it through the apocalypse.

Chinese is subtly ubiquitous. A broken old sign for a carnival is in both English and Chinese—it probably dates from between our real life present and the narrative present of the film. Shipping containers on trains guarded by armed mercenaries are stamped with Chinese text. On pop music radio, we hear the DJ and a caller speaking Chinese. But we don’t see any Chinese people. It’s a strictly economic hegemony. Probably because of that, what people want is American dollars.

Every merchant in the film asks for payment in USD. Fed up, the protagonist asks, What’s wrong with Australian money. They’re pieces of paper, they’re worthless.

But of course the US dollar survives, of course it flourishes. It is the purest form of the purest commodity, and the commodity fetish will survive the apocalypse because it is already of the apocalypse. It’s as if money, like the Terminator, had been sent back in time to crush resistance to its future. When neither life nor death has any value, the value of money will be absolute. The resemblance of the world of The Rover to Hobbes’ state of nature reveals Hobbes to have been theorizing the end, not the origin, of history.

Miscellany: The music is amazing, even if the film is a bit overscored. Guy Pearce gives one of his best performances, but Robert Pattinson, whose turn towards the arthouse I otherwise admire, fails in an in any case worthless role. For the love of God, I wish Scoot McNairy would stop it with the stupid accents. The film loses steam and develops serious pacing problems in connection entirely unnecessary bro-deep dialogue scenes between Pearce and Pattinson. It's overstated at times, thin over all, yet it might have been more ambitious—it has the chops.

Monday, September 29, 2014

A Dyspeptic Leftist Review of Snowpiercer

Snowpiercer, the English-language debut by Korean director Bong Joon-Ho, is an allegory for capitalism. I know because he said so, through a translator. However, Snowpiercer portrays capitalism as a giant train speeding through a post-apocalyptic ice world, and capitalism is clearly not actually a giant train. What's more, climate change is making the world hotter, not colder. And for that matter, the future hasn't even happened yet. That's three strikes already.

That's not even a real train on screen; it's a digital simulacrum. And the characters--they aren't even real. They're made up. Lies, lies lies. Even though this film seems like the best, most lefty big budget film since Children of Men, it's actually its the most right-wing film since Batman vs. Occupy, and I say that despite my usually vehement objections to the idea that the far Left and far Right are in any way proximate or confusable with one another.

But before we get more into the politics of it, this movie is just bad. The acting is bad, the special effect are bad, the editing is bad, the dialogue is bad, Chris Evans is bad. I could spend an entire article in the Los Angeles Review of Books reiterating this one sentiment over and over: It was bad. And when I say something is bad, you know it’s gotta be true. I know what I’m talking about because I recognize Tilda Swinton, that unimpeachable emblem of good taste, from other movies.

Snowpiecer has a simplistic haves vs. haves-nots narrative that is anti-historical and ineffective. In the movie, the poor people are just poor. That's not how capitalism works, and I'm pretty sure that's not how trains work either. Capitalism has a working class, and they (and only they) are the good guys. Or will be. Eventually. I swear. The characters in the film aren't a working class, so how can they be a subject of History? There's no room in the equation for parasitic lumpens or the millions of people filling earth’s ever expanding cities who do not fit into traditional conceptions of an industrial working class and who are effectively excluded by neo-apartheid from productive and political life, living under a paradoxical state of abandonment and brutal control.

The haves vs. have-nots thing just doesn't work as propaganda either. Unless you're educating the audience on the fine details of how the wage-form disguises the extraction of surplus value or the difference between the (sacred and correct) labor theory of value and the (false and wicked) marginalist theory of value or explicating the paradoxical position of the proletariat as a self-negating subject, you're part of the problem. The last time propagandists tried reducing the complex conflict between labor and capital into a simplistic narrative of the haves versus have-nots look what happened: the Russian Revolution, the mobilization of rural masses in China, Vietnam, Africa, and South America, welfare states--nearly a century of more than half the earth's population living under some form of communism or socialism! And even though you may think that this film got you pumped to kill rich people, I assure you are an idiot.

This film is racist, btw. Like, it's all about how some charismatic white man is gonna save us. I mean, he's apparently Captain America for chrissake. (I kept the ‘apparently’ in there so that you’d know I’d never see those sorts of films and have only learned about them second hand.) And all these characters, they love their leaders, the poor as well as the rich. Why do all these people think they need a leader? Or rather, why is the film insist again and again that people need and want leaders? History shows us that leaders are not important and that there is no practical value, especially in times of war, of hierarchical structures of organization. Even though at the end of the movie Ed Harris tells Captain America that the myth of the white hero only serves the interest of ruling powers, that doesn't count. That is just the movie having self-regarding little chuckle at its own cynicism, not a twist that retroactively changes your perception of everything that came before it.

While we're on the topic: the end of the movie. I didn't like it. What am I supposed to think? Like, damn, that’s some hard shit, I can’t believe that instead of taking the Phyrric victory of reforming the System while ultimately keeping it in place they had the courage to gamble big and derail the entire thing even at catastrophic costs to innocent human lives, would I do that in their shoes? Or like, oh look, the train derailed, everyone's dead, that's what you get when the rabble take over, all revolution is doomed to failure? Coz I think it's the former, but I'm worried that some people won't get it. And that's the standard we should hold ourselves to: the lowest. If you can't take an exit poll and measure whether the film was good for the Cause, why are you even making art? What is art, after all, but a technology for manipulating affect in the service of political ends?

And don’t even tell me that the end of the film implies that human civilization will be refounded by two people of color because, look, that polar bear is going to eat those kids. I know it. I'm pretty sure that's what that swell of inspiring, triumphant music at the end of the music is supposed to suggest, and despite my vehement objections at every turn hitherto to the film's lack of literalism (and despite the obvious fact that it’s just a fucking fantasy), it's here that I will take the film's imagery at the face value: That's a polar bear, not a symbol of hope, and it's going to eat those kids and send a message to all the people stupider than me who see the film that all rebellion is doomed to failure.

What really worries me about this film is, what if I cared? It's the problem of the taint: I don’t want to be part of the same whole as David Denby. If I were to enjoy this film, I know that my enjoyment of it would be virtuous because I am virtuous. But what if someone unvirtuous enjoyed the film in an unvirtuous way—would not my virtue thereby be tainted? It gets so bad, sometimes I can’t even tell the difference between my spontaneous emotional reaction to a film and my anxiety over how imagined others might be spontaneously reacting to the film. But I know whichever it is, it’s right—my response to the film, or what I imagine those of the reactionary masses to be, reflects an objective property of the film itself.

Whatever a film shows it also necessarily implicitly endorses and naturalizes. A film that shows a train crash also necessarily endorses that train crash and implies that the train crash was inevitable. And if that train crash comes at the end of an allegorical representation class struggle, it means that the film is counterrevolutionary. There is no room in a fictional world for things like chance or whimsy, for unrealized possibilities or for things to have ended up differently (even though that would appear to be the basis of narrative suspense). It’s inconceivable that, within the fictional world of Snowpiercer, the train crash could not have happened, because it did happen, I saw it, and there are no other versions of Snowpiercer where it doesn’t happen.

The value of a fiction cannot possibly lie in its distance from reality but only in its being a merely coded version of reality, which is to say, not a fiction at all. Fictions exist to be deciphered, not enjoyed. Because there is not a tight one-to-one correspondence between the plot of this film and my personal diagram of how capitalism works, Snowpiercer is a bad movie.

You might say that artists face concrete choices and that one work of art can't be every work of art. You'd be wrong. You can't just make one movie. You have to make every movie. Or rather, every movie should be the same movie--a coded version of academic Leftist wisdom about the logic of capital--and cinema itself, nothing but the endless repetition, ad nauseum, of this wisdom.

The problem, ultimately, is art. With art, a symbol can be exchanged with many possible meanings, which means a symbol is like money and art is therefore capitalist. Whereas the Truth can only be possessed by me.

At least there's one silver lining, in which we may all find some relief: I did not make the same mistakes Bong Joon-Ho made in making this movie. Nor did I make the same mistakes you made in liking it.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Under the Skin

Under the Skin, dir. Jonathan Glazer, 2014. BAM. Friday, April 11, 2014.

This entry is done by request. There will be spoilers.

Woah, dude, what if, like, men were women, and we were the ones who had worry about getting raped on the street at night!

This thought experiment sums up Under the Skin, which is technically about a fembot from outer-space, played by Scarlett Johansson, who prowls the streets of Scotland in a windowless van, seducing men and leading them to their doom in abandoned warehouses full of black goo. The film's facile gender-swap premise brings to mind that issue film White Man's Burden starring Harry Belafonte and John Travolta in which the black people are white and the white people are black (Can you believe it?!)--a film I've never seen because I have too much fun imagining how awful it must be.

Scarlet Johansson’s performance is all right. There is a touch of Brent Spiner's Data in the way she twitches her head, widens her eyes, to convey "LOADING." Her character is not a lip-licking succubus. She has no appetite, she doesn't even know what appetite is--she can't eat cake, and she can't use her cunt. It's simply: seduce, destroy, repeat. She's like an angler fish, attracting prey with a lure that means nothing to herself, the appeal of which she is not even cognitively equipped to understand--she just knows, through habit, that it works. That is certainly the way I understand sex! But seriously, what's at stake in this characterization? Is it a sex-negative representation of sexual attraction as a blind, physical force exerting an irresistible and destructive power over human animals? Or is it more about allegorizing the impersonal nature of systemic violence, of sexual violence as an social system? It does not matter to Johansson's whom she rape/kills. It's a lottery.

Of course we know from the internet that the film itself was something of a lottery--many of the scenes were filmed candid camera-style, with Johansson actually just chatting up strange men on the sidewalk and trying to get them to step into her van. This is one aspect of the film’s gender-swap premise that I think is kind of creatively done because of the way it appropriates a familiar fantasy from pornography—that of the “Bang Bus," a reality-TV style porn in which a group of men drive around in a van and offer “real” women (actually paid performers) money for sex. By fictionalizing the real exchange of money for sex that goes into its production, this type of pornography produces a more fundamental fantasy about what all women “really” are: whores. The viewer is not necessarily supposed to believe that the encounters seen on screen are “real,” in the sense of not being staged. Rather, the viewer is supposed to pretend to believe that they are “real,” is supposed to take pleasure in this act of make believe, and, by taking such pleasure, thereby effectively does believe in the deeper "truth" of the porn's fantasy: women are whores, whores are bad, women are bad. Under the Skin inverts this process at each step. We are not supposed to believe that Scarlett Johansson really trapped all those guys in black goo, but our knowledge that some of her encounters were unstaged allows us to pretend that she might have, indeed to know that she could have, really, if she had wanted to, and in savoring this possibility, we accept the film’s message about the deeper truth of men: they are all sex-obsessed brutes who’s total lack of fear of being sexually predated upon is conditioned by their own freedom to prey upon others--therefore they are all potential rapists.

But what sort of men? Neds. Whatever is suggested about class and geographical antagonisms in the contrast between Johansson's London accent and the nearly unintelligible speech of her Scottish victims is undermined by the film's relentless anti-chavism. All her victims are urban, hoodie-clad scumbags or greasy club guys who basically have it coming—there’s even a scene of a youth gang attacking her car—whereas the one good guy in the film is tasteful, middle class, and suburban. This is much more damning of the film than the no-duh quality of it "critique" of patriarchy and rape culture, which was well intentioned even if it was clumsy.

That said, I liked all the dicks. It was almost hard to believe that we got to see so many erect penises in a mainstream, commercial film. Good for them. As my roommates pointed out, the dicks were filmed in a way that made the male characters seem vulnerable: “No matter how buff you are, you still have a stupid pink little puppy dog dick.” This was also a good movie in which for Scarlett Johansson to go, for the first time, in the buff on screen because that’s “meta.”

Under the Skin begins as a rape-revenge film. Why doesn’t it end as one? Recall the film starts with Motorcycle Man collecting an apparently dead female or fembot body from the side of the road, and ScarJo has this “I will avenge you” moment the corpse. We don’t know exactly what happened, but we know what the score is: Men, 40; women, love. Scarlet Johansson goes around abducting and murdering dudes until she develops a conscience and falls in love with a Nice Guy. (It’s unfortunate that as she becomes more humanized, she also becomes more conventionally feminized—passive, helpless, dependent on men. It seems to cut against the film’s aspirational gender politics.) After that Bad Guy tries to rape her in the woods, shouldn’t she realize that men deserve to be destroyed? Shouldn’t she then resume her planetary killing spree, starting, for extra tragic pathos, with Mr. Nice Guy? Why isn’t that the way this movie ends? Does it tell us something about the times we live in that it doesn’t end that way--something about the way things have slid backward? Does the film deserve credit for that?

Miscellany: The scene with the deformed guy was great, and it’s too bad there weren’t more scenes like it in the film because dialogue is one of Glazer’s strengths and the whole silence thing didn’t quite work out. The images in this film were often beautiful, in a vacuous, Apple-smooth kind of way. It had an excellent color palette--muted hues for the Scottish countryside, Easter-egg pastels for night lighting, stark, vivid, laser lights for the more sci-fi moments, and many variations on the color black. There seemed to be a suggestion that Nature was in on it with the space aliens, that ScarJo was the embodiment of some deeper cosmic doom, but it wasn’t really fleshed out. The film’s most accomplished aspect was the manner in which it moved through space and time, particularly the way the world fell away in the abrupt transitions to goo-land and how music gave continuity to the experience. If I ever see the film again, it will be for that. Ultimately, I guess I liked the music video for Bjork's "All Is Full of Love" better.

Thursday, April 24, 2014


Saturday, September 21, 2013

Useless - dir. Jia Zhangke. 2007. Lincoln Center.

A documentary clothing and China. Divided into two ha(l)ves: the haves and the have-nots.

I find the better a film is, the less I have to say about it. Speech seems superfluous.

Jia Zhangke is by reputation one of the greatest filmmakers working today. He is of the so-called Sixth Generation of Beijing Film Academy graduates. (Mainland Chinese film history tends to be divided up by decade-long blocks of graduates from this, the main film school.) He makes slow-paced, moody, nearly non-narrative films with gorgeous, patient tracking shots about youth, alienation, and China Today. Equally skilled at documentary and narrative, which he usually intermixes in any case. He began as a hardscrabble independent filmmaker and now makes foreign-funded prestige art films, alternating between pictures that can and can't be distributed in the Mainland's state-censored system. He's not a total fucking sell-out yet, but there is some worry that he's on his way there. Some of his films I have found the most moving and indispensable works of art of our time (Still Life, which was distributed in the Mainland, is my favorite). Sometimes I find his observationalism a little too on-the-surface. Useless is somewhere in between.

The first half consists of footage of Chinese garment-making factories and luxury fashion stores interspersed with an interview with a young Chinese fashion designer, Ma Ke, whose brand, "Useless," gives the film its title. Jia could film anything and make it beautiful. He makes the rough seem smooth; the crude, elegant; the hot, cool; the raw, finished. He looks upon the upheavals of History with the placidity of Time. He films the garment factories with love, taking in the faces and hands of the workers, and he films the luxury stores with mild derision, focusing on objects rather than people. Jia's ability to make something out of nothing is the beginning of the implicit parallel between himself and Ma Ke.

Ma Ke says that China makes most of the world's clothes but doesn't make any Chinese clothes, in the sense that there are no Chinese clothing designers of note. Ma Ke wants to make her mark not just for herself but also, to an extent, for China--a wounded nationalist sentiment that, even where it seems in certain respects justified, is suspiciously consistent with the ideology of state power. She says that mass produced items have no soul, no story to tell, which is why all her products are hand-made on old-fashioned looms. She buries some of her clothing in dirt to age it--never has "authenticity" seemed more conceptual. She regards her work as a kind of "protest," although really she is just a petite bourgeois capitalist in a necessarily limited, boutique market. The first half of the film concludes with the presentation of her more artsy work at Paris Fashion week, where models cover their skin in paint that looks like mud and wear her very medieval-looking, burlap-like clothes.

The film transitions into its second half in what appears to be a staged sequence in which Ma Ke drives out to the country. She says something about needing to get inspiration from the people there. We see her car drive over a wooden bridge and pass a leather-faced old coal miner. Rather than continue to follow Ma Ke, the camera stays with the coal miner, who watches Ma Ke drive away and then walks off in the distance towards what seems to be a mining settlement. The rest of the film is about that mining settlement and the shitkickers who live there, centering around the tailor's shop.

My readings and viewings--though not really my personal experience--have informed me of the existence of many different types of oppositional rhetoric in China. Chin Kwan Lee's Against the Law acquainted me with the tendencies among older people to invoke Mao and the broken promises of traditional state communism, and among younger people to use the rhetoric of human rights and rule of law. The writings of Wang Hui generally and Verso's roundtable of the Chinese New Left, One China, Many Paths, did much to inform me of the broad spectrum of ideological positions in China which, compared to the CCP line, may count as dissent: voices calling for liberal democracy and social democracy on the left, and voices calling for neconservativism and laissez-faire economics on the right. The daily news tells me that there is separatism inspired by ethnic and religious sentiment among the Uigars and the Tibetans, and the half-sincere, half-contrived Falun Gong phenomenon.

It is thanks to the remarkable MoMA series Chinese Realities/Documentary Visions and the film scholarship of people like Chris Berry that I can place Jia in a milieu of socially concerned artists--including Wang Bing, Liu Jian, Zhao Liang, Wu Wenguang and his acolytes--whose work reflects not coherent ideological positions but the disaffected individualism of people unable or unwilling to compete in the neo-Darwinian free-for-all of contemporary China. Jia and his generation focus on the experiences and problems of individuals, or of pseudo-coherent, internally fragmented, irreparably broken, marginalized, doomed, hopeless, soon-to-be-erased communities of individuals. (Re: communities: I’m thinking of Wang Bing’s West of the Tracks, Zhao’s Petition, Jiang Yue's The Other Bank, Xu Ruotong & JP Sniadecki’s Yumen). The work is more personal than political, with an awareness, but not necessarily an insistence, that the personal is political. Sometimes this individualism manifests in punk-ish expressionism, as in the earlier work of Ai Weiwei and his scene. In the case of film, this individualism has more often manifested itself in a kind of empiricism. In lieu of analysis, observation. In lieu of ideology, no comment.

I sometimes find myself dissatisfied with this approach and have to work through the inevitability of my dissatisfaction and in order to get beyond it. As a Western Leftist, or something like one, I am inclined to voice my dissent using the rhetoric of Marxism and communism. My imaginary counterparts in China have been situated in and by history such that the very same rhetoric that appeals to me is unappealing, unpalatable, or ineffective for them. The individualism and empiricism of the kind of cinema in question, it’s lack of overt ideological posturing, is on the one hand a survival strategy, not just for evading the wrath of the CCP, but possibly even for just existing in today’s China, for trying to carve out a pit of personal autonomy in the absence of any larger, credible, at hand meta-narrative of resistance. On the other hand, individuals/empiricism also has a concrete tactical usefulness. It allows some degree of social criticism to be slipped in under the guise of “seeking truth from facts,” a slogan that has shaped CCP rhetoric and policy in the post-Deng era. Which is cool.


Thursday, October 3, 2013

Redemption - dir. Miguel Gomes, 2013.

I don't mean to brag, but this film is my other blog, If You Can Read This, You're Lying.

This 26 minute-long short film consists of the following four segments of found footage with voice-over narration:

1. Documentary-seeming footage of the lives of white children in Africa in the 1960's and 1970's with the Portugese voice-over of a young boy reading a letter to his parents. The boy grew up in one of Portugal's African colonies and is currently in boarding school in Portugal. He's implausibly precocious. "Portugal is a very sad place and it will also be so." He was raised to believe that Portugal was the font of civilization, so his discovery that Portugal is actually just "a bunch of poor people leading on skrawny oxen, unable even to feed themselves" has not only disappointed him but retroactively robbed his childhood in Africa of its charm. His family will soon be kicked out of the colony by "evil people" interested in "revolution." But he has already lost the idea of home.

2. Footage seemingly lifted from Italian Neorelist films of Italian modernity--factories, telecommunications centers, printing presses, hospitals with all the then-latest technology, crowded piazzas. A voice-over, in Italian, of a man reading a letter to his lost love, Alessandra. The voice we hear seems seems younger than the author of the text, who says that he has lived a long, full life, which has naturally earned him the envy of others and the persecution of authorities. He has loved over a thousand women--this is "a public fact"--but no one really knows him, he says, unless they know the story of his true love. When he was a boy during the post-War period, he threw a rock through the window of the home of a fascist family. The family was chased out of town, and the daughter, Alessandra, was his true love. He's never gotten over her. What happened to you, Alessadra? Do you have children? Do men whistle at you? "Did you vote for me?"

3. Super 8 home movies of a father playing with his children accompanied by the French voiceover of a man reading a letter written to his daughter on the eve of him quitting his job. The daughter is still a child, but the letter is clearly meant to be read when she is an adult. The father begs for forgiveness for how absent he was during her childhood. He makes extravagant "promises of future love"--to connect her with the top instructors in Europe if she wants to be a ballerina, with the European Space Program if she wants to be an astronaut. Just do not resent me if you remember back to when you were a child, playing in the park, and you find me absent at your side, he says. Do not blame me that I wasn't there for you to ask me what my favorite color was, what my favorite animal was. I no longer had a favorite color or a favorite animal, and I don't know when I stopped having one, he says. Like in the first segment, this is a story of loss twice over.

4. Footage of weddings and lovemaking in the 1970's superimposed with images of scientific experiments and physics equations, accompanied by the German voiceover of a woman reading what seems to be a diary entry made on her wedding day. "Today is the happiest day of my life." She is marrying the man she loves. Her parents are pleased. Senior members of the University of Leipzig and and the Deutsche Demokratische Republik Communist Party will be there. But her happiness is imperiled by a song stuck in her head: the prelude to Wagner's Percival (which plays, gloriously, on the film's soundtrack). She recalls the time she saw Percival live in a trip to West Germany--a trip she only got to go on, she says guiltily, because of her father's connections. She felt conflicted for loving Wagner's music even though she'd been taught he was a fascist. She thinks about the pair of jeans she brought back to the East and feels guilty. Everything suddenly feels false. It's not just that she feels as though she has somehow unconsciously betrayed the revolution, but that she knows that the revolution has already been betrayed by the corruption and impotence of the East German leadership, the very guests at her wedding.

As the prelude to Percival climaxes, a text appears on the screen listing the authors of the above-described voice-over narrations:

1. Pedro Passos Coelho
2. Silvio Berlusconi
3. Nicolas Sarkozy
4. Angela Merkel

A few shots from home movies of a man pouring a glass a champagne, and then another text:

All texts are the products of the imagination of the filmmaker.


Monday, October 7, 2013

Real - dir. Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2012. Lincoln Center.

Protagonist must rescue lover from coma, metaphysical peril by entering lover's mind using a sci-fi dream machine.

Blissfully zany, wild nonsense. As you might guess from its title and premise, the main action takes place on different planes of reality and the film constantly keeps us guessing as to what plane we're on. It has like four fake-out endings, one of which comes about half-way through the film. Each fake-out end initially seems annoying but then What Happens Next ratchets the film up a whole 'nother level of crazy. I think it would spoil the fun to say too much more about the plot.

Kiyoshi Kurosawa is one of my favorite filmmakers. He is well known for having worked in an astonishing variety of genres. I've seen yakuza films (The Revenge, Serpent's Path), horror films (Seance, Cure, Pulse, Retribution), a screwy comedy (Doppleganger), family dramas (Bright Future, Tokyo Sonata), pink film (The Excitement of Do-Re-Mi-Fa Girl) and unclassifiable combinations of all of the above (Charisma). Real is another genre-masher, equal parts love story, sci-fi, and horror.

One never knows what to expect in Kurosawa's films. With the exception of the terrifyingly tight Cure, they are all strange yarns, unrolling haphazardly in odd digressions, bizarre twists, slow burns punctuated by the baffling. They may sometimes be thin on substance. What holds them together is mood, feeling, atmosphere. His comedies seem to trot on the air. His horror and gangster films are suffused with dread and melancholy. Anything might happen at any moment--usually something frightening. He's a master of the obliquely-framed, blurry ghost in the background, the shot that lingers just a little too long, the subtle slow camera lurk. And behind it all there is usually some kind of philosophical attitude or social concern.  Seance uses ghosts to explore mid-life crisis and childless marriage. Pulse uses ghosts to talk about anomie and suicide. Cure and Charisma use psychism to explore alienation, aggression, and apocalyptic yearnings that lie under the surface of the everyday. Doppleganger is happy existentialism, The Revenge is a bit more nihilistic on that count. Real is about, what? Love, probably. But mostly a good time.