Reverse Shot: Best of the Decade

Sabin
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Postby Sabin » Thu Dec 31, 2009 1:59 pm

#2 The New World
The Myth Maker
Jeff Reichert on The New World

At the heart of the film critical impulse lies the question, what is cinema for? This is central, even if not asked directly, even if the work at hand seems to hold no loftier ambitions than the avoidance of its own calamitous end. The act of writing on a particular film always points to an alternate work that might have been, one that exists only in the critic’s mind. Imagining a better or different object than the one at hand automatically introduces thorny questions of ideals and quintessentials, which in turn lead to purposes and absolutes. And if such a thing as a definitive “for” in cinema can be defined, captured in a bottle, then we also get closer to explaining that other underlying question of all art criticism: Why do we (critics) do what we do? Why all this watching and writing? If cinema can be said to be for anything, then let it be to offer up transformative experiences like The New World. Because if critics are to be consigned to post-facto sideline analysis of artistic achievements and failures, let us, once in a while witness an audacious, singular triumph. Terrence Malick’s fourth film is a rarity: an end, an absolute, a work of art that can’t be imagined better.

Back at year-end time in 2005, we held the Reverse Shot polls open well into January to give our writers a chance to catch up with Malick’s late-released masterpiece, silently predicting that if enough of the staff saw it, it’d wind up in our top spot. This choice was as much personal as political; at the time, there was urgency around the film—The New World remains an art-film blockbuster directed by one of the medium’s most revered authors, a gift from cinema heaven dropped into our laps. It seems unbelievable now, but The New World wasn’t greatly loved critically. There was no outpouring of mainstream support, the film hardly made a dent in the box office, and it went unnoticed at awards time (that year’s nominees, for the record: Crash, Brokeback Mountain, Capote, Good Night and Good Luck, and Munich). All of Malick’s films have been met with open arms by the faithful, but even some supporters wondered if he’d gone off the storytelling cliff in his trip back to the early days of American colonialism—The Thin Red Line’s hazy panoptic narrative was only a warm-up for The New World. At the time, it seemed a film that might well have been the last of its kind, and Reverse Shot went all-in for it (as did Manohla Dargis, the nascent The House Next Door, and many others). The New World eventually swamped Kings and Queen in our poll, but of course that didn’t stop the film from disappearing relatively quickly from theaters.

The New World is simply more than just a movie. Terrence Malick’s fourth film brings mythology to life, narrativizes it, and by trading away facts and dry specificities for immersion and experience, it ends up an ideal historical object. Even though much of the film, imagined as it is (and this reimagining of America is core to Malick’s project), may not be “true,” that doesn’t lessen the essential “truths” of the film. His floating steadicam and purposeful tracking shots are redolent of intellectual and philosophical clarity. There’s no trickery around the image—Malick’s aims at reframing history are genuine. Perhaps more than any other film on this list, The New World reminds us of the poetry inherent in the realistic, unvarnished image, and by extension, the poetry found at the intersection of history and lore. The film literally opens with an invocation (here, to Mother Earth, but it might as well be to cinema), a welcoming invitation into Malick’s gently rigorous ongoing meditation on humanity and nature. The backdrop of the natural has played a role in all of his features this far, but in this telling of our nation’s birth story, of contact between Europeans and natives in the unspoiled New World, he’d found the perfect setting for his major concern: man’s relation to nature. The film opens with an image of Pocahontas from below, her arms lifted like branches to capture energy from the sun. The last shot is from a similar vantage point looking up at massive trees. Where else could he go next but to Darwin’s Tree of Life?

Never has a film of this budget been so radically edited. You might find more cuts in any number of recent action abortions, but Malick uses incessant chopping to dizzy us (defying the trend toward longer and longer takes and dead time found in most of world “art” cinema), and he cuts to any damn thing he pleases. As the relationship between the film’s two main characters, John Smith and Pocahontas, grows, we might witness them watching lightning strike a far river bank, then see them basking in the sun in the next shot, then find them in the dark by firelight, all in the span of a few seconds. Shots are repeated throughout, signaling memory and emotions the characters dare not speak. This kind of montage isn’t uncommon when employed at the beginnings of films to establish setting, characters, time, or to quickly move through masses of events later on. Malick uses montage as the basis for his stories. He needs so many shots because he’s bursting to show us things—for every image we see, there’s likely four or five more he wishes he could offer; his editing suggests the immensity of the material (and by extension his grand worldview) that’s not included in something so limiting as a single movie. Montage is also mood in The New World: the film’s not unlike a disassembled panoramic time lapse—we’re dropped into it at the crucial moments of its span. However, Malick knows well that he can’t untether us entirely, the radical discontinuities of the image track are tied tightly together by the recurring, circular score by James Horner (paired with Wagner), which runs on its own internal logic, providing one of the best aural assaults of the decade, a proper companion to perhaps the aughts’ most beautiful film.

What other major film of this or any decade casts a real movie star (Colin Farrell) as its lead, and places as his foil a shockingly young actress (the astonishing Q’Orianka Kilcher, seemingly unaffected by the major motion picture being built around her) only to then not have them speak on camera for nearly the film’s first half hour? Malick has always placed emphasis on words by using fewer of them. Instead of presenting characters rattling on banally, he inserts us into their deepest thought wells via voiceover and makes up for the rest with a flood of images. Farrell’s Captain John Smith enters the film via an unassuming close-up: he’s locked in the ship’s brig, the epic landfall is happening around him. Pocahontas (Malick cheekily rejects naming her; later in the film when an Englishwoman tries to utter the legendary moniker out loud, the girl shushes her) is the center of the opening invocation, but the film sidelines her at first in a wondrous swirl of shots. Malick places them as subjects in history, before showing us how their actions join the stream of events and shape its direction. Appropriately enough for a film about contact in its myriad forms, The New World’s heroes, from dissimilar cultures, have to teach each other how to communicate before we’re allowed into their relationship, before we see how their relationship affected history. The two start, appropriately enough, attaching language to elements of nature, then progressing to the parts of the human body, literally, elementally moving from the ground up. They lapse into love rather than fall into it.

Smith’s view of the New World is the mythic one, “a land where one might wash one’s soul pure, rise to one’s true stature. A new start a fresh beginning.” But things are both more complex and more simple than that. Even though The New World features a view of Native Americans that Howard Zinn would be proud of, its story is not all Edenic; Malick’s idealism is laced with pragmatism. Though the society of the “naturals” is set up as an idyll, one of the first signs of their civilization that Smith finds on his trip upriver to trade is a head on a stake. And though the film’s most wondrous when basking in the haze of lovers’ pleasure, there’s always darkness, the threat of violence. When it eventually strikes, it spares no one. The New World is also valuable for dispensing with the old canard of the native peoples’ one-way interest in European settlers. It’s clear that there’s fascination on both sides. By the time Smith’s lived with the naturals and returned home to find a newly walled-in, fetid Jamestown (his voiceover remarks that it’s like damnation), where people are starving while surrounded by plenty, one might wonder which civilization is more advanced. Smith’s travels upriver and indoctrination into that community (a metaphorical, ceremonial birth) neatly mirror Pocahantas’s late-film emergence into proper British society, the film’s most grandiose touch (in some ways these last twenty minutes are the film’s heart, just like A.I.’s radical-break finale). She’s just as curious about the world of London as the English are of her, and Malick’s slowly oscillating camera offers the closest we can come to actually experiencing wonder through another’s eyes. In his reverse shots he makes connections: Pocahontas passes a black man walking freely, sees a raccoon in a cage. This is her New World, and by bringing the film full circle, Malick generously reminds us that we’re all potential “others” depending on circumstance.

*****

We like to think of our masterpieces as complete—the kinds of things you could hang on a wall or put on a pedestal and not touch, safe in the knowledge that the artist “made it that way.” Before the advent of home video, the idea and commercial value of a director’s cut, of cinematic versioning, was largely unheard of outside of studio-director infighting. Malick has taken the idea to an extreme with The New World—there are three different incarnations of this, the best film New Line Cinema ever produced: the original theatrical cut; the recut, shorter theatrical version; and the longest, the director’s cut now available on DVD. I’ve seen all three, and what’s remarkable is how difficult it is to parse the differences. Malick traffics in sense and feel, not narrative, so inclusions or exclusions can only be judged on the degree to which they disrupt or abet the flow of the movie. Each cut has its own rhythm, and all succeed grandly. Malick’s proven himself the consummate digital filmmaker, but not in the sense we’ve come to know the term, with the images it evokes of brash kids waving around toy cameras. His work is version-ready, shave some, add some, no matter. The force of his vision is so strong that I’d watch a nine-hour cut. Hell, I’d live in The New World if I could. It’s a film less watched than bathed in.

Americans who truly came of age (that passage from late teens and early twenties into late twenties and early thirties) in these past ten years found a political situation that disabused us of much of what we’d been taught about our America. Malick’s return to the creation of America makes room for the stinking rot at the core of our national mythology (capitalism, imperialism), but also for the transcendence of sacrifice, love, of the beauty and wonder of existing in nature, the flipside, often un-actualized, potentialities of human history. His view may skew towards the pastoral naive, but it’s rendered complexly enough to be transformative. Smith eventually leaves Pocahontas for further exploration and the promise of glory. The bereft girl, exiled from her people, finds tentative union with John Rolfe (Christian Bale), and the film shifts gears to view another, more rational kind of love. The New World is a film of depths and degrees. Its title is apt, but too humble: there are worlds in it. It’s a shame when a film that always feels like it’s beginning comes to its end, but Pocahantas’s real-world narrative demands The New World’s quick conclusion. Yet we have the film’s staggering grace note to grab hold of. Pocahantas to Smith: “Did you find your Indies, John?” His embittered reply, “I think I sailed right past them.” His ambition to be a discoverer of worlds pales in comparison to her desire to love and be loved. Thankfully, Terrence Malick’s vision isn’t as narrow as Smith’s.


#3 Mulholland Drive
An Affair to Remember
Eric Hynes on In the Mood for Love

A man and a woman passing each other on a dark stairwell; the same man and woman trapped in a bedroom together, chastely waiting for a marathon mah-jong game to expire so they can separate without provoking unearned suspicion; the same man and woman walking down a cobblestone street pretending to be another man and woman, pretending to be in love, pretending not to be in love. These are some of the more vivid memories of Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love I’ve carried around since first viewing it almost nine years ago. It has remained one of the most shattering moviegoing experiences of my life. In my recollection, and that of many others, the film is the consummate tale of unconsummated love.

But now, revisiting the film after several years, this memory doesn’t fully match with what I see before me. It’s not that In the Mood for Love is any less heartbreaking than I remember it being. I’m as shattered watching it today as I was the first time. Yet the nature of the film’s central relationship is more ambiguous (and perverse) than I’d recalled, and the society within which it suffers doesn’t seem nearly as repressive. In memory I’d reduced the film to its essentials, which, as it happens, is similar to what Wong does within this mother of all memory machines. I remembered thwarted romance drenched in primary colors; in turn, Wong approaches the era of his young parents as a love song (full of escalating sentiments and looping refrains) to glamorous, corseted passions. In each case memories willfully simplify larger, more complicated truths at the margins. Missed opportunities, ill-timed ambivalence, vanity, cowardice—these are made tolerable through refractions of nostalgia. What I hadn’t fully realized about In the Mood for Love was the extent to which Wong fringes his devastating beauty with self-critique. Glamorizing the past is another feeble attempt at controlling what can’t be controlled, yet it’s a human impulse that’s as reliable as heartbreak. I can think of no movie that better or more elegantly embodies this futility than In the Mood for Love. By its very design it only cuts deeper as it ages—and as I age.

“That era has passed. Nothing that belonged to it exists anymore.” With that title card, coming near the film’s conclusion, Wong fast-forwards from principal action in 1963 Hong Kong to 1966 Cambodia, where shots of ancient ruins imply that the society we had been watching for most of the film was already as ancient. Perhaps, but the sentiment really has less to do with objective moments in history than with vanishing points in life. Memories, especially of love, grow mythic over time—achieving a quality that’s both vague and precise, diffuse and saturated, ineffable and fetishistic—just as Wong’s conception of the early Sixties era of his parents is mythic. But as with Mad Men, another early Sixties time capsule, the flower-printed past still resembles a reality we live in, weighted by perennials of loneliness and regret.

Mrs. Chan (Maggie Cheung) works for a travel agency, yet she’s grounded, constitutionally incapable of flight. Mr. Chow (Tony Leung) is a mess of contradictions. His career as a sedentary, patient typesetter is contrasted by the newsroom’s hectic transience, and his droopy resignation hides the ambitions of a closet writer. They’re both comfortably, if not happily, repressed, content within restrictions even as they rebel against them, and they adhere to dated moral codes even as the culture subtly changes around them. Though it may feel like it, they are surely not imprisoned by the time and culture of early Sixties Hong Kong. After all, infidelity is everywhere they look. Mr. Chow’s co-worker visits prostitutes and hits on anything in heels. Mrs. Chan procures two sets of gifts for her boss: one for his wife and another for his lover. And not only are their spouses cheating on them, they’re doing so with each other—a realization that both brings them together and, wedded as they are to a cuckolded position of moral superiority, keeps them apart.

Although her nosey landlord chastises her for going out too often and coming home too late, it’s Mrs. Chan’s own shame impulse that calls forth guilt and terror, not some societal-level threat. Her identity is largely formed by propriety and self-abnegation, from her meticulous manners to unfailingly formal attire (“She dresses like that to go out for noodles?” whispers a neighbor). She suffers, but like a masochist she also derives pleasure from that suffering. She’s beautiful in her misery, and that’s at least part of her allure to Mr. Chow. Consummating their desires could break that spell, something of which she’s at least unconsciously aware. Once Mr. Chow confesses his love, Mrs. Chan’s masochism transforms into sadism.

“You won’t leave your husband,” he says. “So I’d rather go away.”
“I didn’t think you’d fall in love with me.”
“Feelings creep up just like that. I thought I was in control.”

They’d wished to transcend desire, to “not be like” their weak, immoral spouses, but here he ditches that narrative. He went from policing his feelings to copping to them. But she sticks to the self-sacrificial storyline. When she visits him at a hotel room, a supposed writing retreat clearly meant to give discretionary cover for an affair, she mixes her signals.

“I didn’t think you’d come,” he says.
“We won’t be like them,” she responds, a non sequitur that puts the genie, painstakingly summoned, right back in bottle.

Freer in fantasy, her desires are safely expressed only within role-play. In another time or place, Mrs. Chan might have secretly stashed stilettos and subscribed to John Willie’s “Bizarre.” They come together to acknowledge their spouses’ infidelity, their shared cuckoldry. “I wonder how it began,” she says, and their walk home veers into playacting. Along an alleyway that resembles, and is lit like, a studio set, they perform scenes. He makes an aggressive move, grabbing her wrist. She recoils and breaks character—it’s not something her husband (who she’d called a smooth talker) would do. They try again, and this time she flirts with him, running a finger along his tie. But each take ends in tears, with her running to the bars of a window. Her safe zone is a prison.

Nearly every shot is framed, refracted, bisected. Mrs. Chan and Mr. Chow are distanced from themselves, each other, us. But the camera is still active, hanging back in realistic remove before tracking and panning in languorous slow motion. Two different cinematographers are at work—Christopher Doyle and longtime Hou Hsiao-hsien DP Mark Ling Ping-bin—but their styles play as two sides of the same dream. All of the images burn, then all too quickly expire. The most seemingly distanced shots reveal emotions at their most raw. The camera slowly pans back and forth behind them as they face a three-part mirror, each acting out the other’s marriage and break-up, sublimating their own affair, and yet the reflection hints at intimacy, domesticity. Faced away from us, their bodies seem slacker, more at ease despite the artifice, despite the starched, stiff clothing, despite their reluctance to even face each other. External music even keeps us from hearing them, granting them this passing grace while limiting our access to it. But even a hint of joy is enough to come crashing through the screen as ecstasy. She sings, and he claps out a beat for her.

Did Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan actually consummate their affair? I now think so. On one particular night, after an exhausting charade in which they pretend to be their philandering spouses, Mrs. Chan rests her head on Mr. Chow’s shoulder in the back of a cab and says, “I don’t want to go home tonight.” It’s hard to miss the implication here, even if it comes within a playacting session. Whatever follows is fully elided, but rather than teases, Wong’s ellipses are essential. Whether or not Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan slept with each other once, repeatedly, or at all is less important than the fact that they separated, that they forsook a chance at love and shared happiness, and that they were haunted by these events. The lost loves, the missed opportunities—these linger and take on weight as memories. And time conspires to put distance between where we are and what once was, or was close. Wong keeps the camera and the viewer at different points of remove—refusing establishing shots, tucking us around corners or behind doorways, keeping us from seeing expressions in full, keeping the characters laced, zipped, bunned, pomaded behind smokescreen. Time strengthens and fixates on barriers, and is the most intractable one of all.

Memories nest inside of memories, and then blend together. He invites her for a final night together before he leaves the country—a move made with the dual purpose of sparing him from further romantic torture and perhaps provoking her to action—but she keeps him waiting, and then arrives after he’s departed. Her ensuing tears fall harder than ever, yet also signal a profound pleasure in misery. She then becomes as a ghost, appearing at his Singapore apartment while he’s at work, leaving slippers under his bed one day and then taking them back another, phoning but never speaking into the receiver. These scenes are implausible but emotionally sound, love unrequited writ as a haunted pas de deux; An Affair to Remember or All That Heaven Allows without cathartic restoration. Ethical and emotional barriers advance to geographic ones, and then give way to passing months, years. Doomed love is both foremost and symbolic of things lost, misplaced, regretted.

Wong dispenses with slow motion, his ellipses cover bigger and bigger gaps, and then he leaps forward three years, veering off to Cambodia. History invades via newsreel, and tasseled lamplight toggles to afternoon sun. The future comes too quick. Recalling an earlier anecdote in which Mr. Chow talks of ancients carving holes in trees for the outpouring of whispered secrets (“What a pain, I’d just go get laid,” says his co-worker), Chow walks purposefully through desolate Cambodian ruins and locates a dark divot in a stone wall. He leans forward and cups his hands around the hole and his mouth. We’re not privy to the sound he makes. The string quartet on the soundtrack—which had previously played a seductive, violin-led waltz—now rumbles, tightly attending a mournful cello. As Wong hangs briefly on this shot of concealed confession, the only thing moving is Chow’s quivered Adam’s apple. After so many strangled emotions and denied catharses, that almost imperceptible movement functions as the film’s tearjerker. So delicate and lovely, yet so removed and pathetic, he speaks secrets into the void. It didn’t have to be thus, but time leaves unsatisfying options for the unresolved. Wong never insists on the dimensions of his film, deliberately hinting at other paths and interpretations. Among infinite possibilities (many of which Wong explored through years of shooting, rearranging, editing) he made a certain shape out of time, and fixed it there to represent a receded past. Memories are uncontainable, and therefore we must try to contain them. Before walking away, Mr. Chow plugs his secret with a fistful of earth, hardly enough to prevent it from escaping, but perhaps buying a little time.
"If you are marching with white nationalists, you are by definition not a very nice person. If Malala Yousafzai had taken part in that rally, you'd have to say 'Okay, I guess Malala sucks now.'" ~ John Oliver

Sabin
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Postby Sabin » Tue Dec 29, 2009 6:29 pm

#4 Before Sunset

This Time
Chris Wisniewski on Before Sunset

At the beginning of Richard Linklater’s Before Sunset, Ethan Hawke’s Jesse answers questions at a book signing in Paris. He doesn’t realize it, but Celine (Julie Delpy), the radiant Frenchwoman with whom he spent one enchanted evening in Vienna some nine years ago in Sunset’s predecessor Before Sunrise, watches him from a corner. Jesse shares an idea he has for a novel that takes place during the span of a single pop song: A thirtysomething father watches his five-year-old daughter climb onto a table to dance, and he’s transported back to the night he lost his virginity at the age of 16. He sees his girlfriend dance to the same song on the roof of her car and realizes then that “inside every moment is another moment happening simultaneously,” that “time is a lie.”

As Jessie waxes philosophical about the illusion of time, Linklater cuts to images of Hawke and Delpy from the previous film, moving between then and now with seamless elegance. These flashbacks make it clear that Jesse is partly right and partly wrong. This moment in the bookstore does indeed contain the earlier moment inside of it; it is pregnant with the past. Though he's never been the sort of director to indulge in too much temporal trickery, Linklater's well aware of the power montage has to twist our perception of time: A series of cuts, fades, and dissolves can compress and extend time or take us forward or backward through it. Despite the flashbacks, Before Sunset mostly unfolds in a series of long, sequential takes that give the impression of real time. Here, the most pointed cutting in the film—and, perhaps, Linklater’s entire oeuvre—doesn't transport us back to that earlier moment so much as it draws our attention to the nine years that stand between then and now. Hawke’s weathered face and Delpy’s thin, knowing beauty are physical evidence of the time that's passed. When he finally notices Celine, Jesse becomes distracted, and he seems less sure of himself. Her presence betrays an irrefutable truth: time isn’t a lie after all.

Before Sunrise was a swooning, late-adolescent romantic fantasy—sweet, lovely, and perhaps a little necessarily contrived. As Jesse and Celine first reunite in Sunset, wandering to a small café for a late afternoon coffee, their mildly playful flirtation portends more of the same. They joke of American imperialism and horny monks. She reflects on her teenage travels to communist Warsaw, expressing a reserved fondness for the intellectual clarity her gloomy surroundings brought her. He winningly mocks her for the hint of nostalgia she expresses for the Eastern bloc. At first, Before Sunset has the casual feel of a welcome retread, an opportunity to spend a few more hours with these two hyper-intellectual, hyper-articulate neurotics as they meet-cute again, this time in Paris on a beautiful sunny day. The movie revisits and essentially reenacts the romantic fantasy of Before Sunrise, delivering the simple pleasures we crave—updates on what happened to the characters after their first encounter, smart and jaunty banter, and a crisp, intoxicating sexual and romantic energy. At the same time, it reveals itself to be something far more meaningful and wholly unexpected: a melancholic contemplation of missed opportunity and an ambivalent reflection on what it means to get older.

In what's basically one extended 80-minute conversation, Sunset's acutely self-aware and believably damaged protagonists execute an elaborate pas de deux. Jesse and Celine progress from superficial catching-up about careers and New York living to the more intimate territory of sexual frustration, romantic disillusionment, and death. As they talk, it's obvious that Jesse desperately wants her, and Celine appears to feed off of his naked desire, baiting him and then pushing him away, letting her guard down a little more after each push. In a typical exchange, she asks what he would do if they learned they had only one day to live, and he suggests an afternoon of love-making. A few minutes later, she subtly rebukes him for his come-on by matter-of-factly mentioning that she read about his wife and child (the first time we discover this as viewers), diffusing the lingering erotic energy with disconcerting—and obviously premeditated—cunning.

Theirs is a delicate power struggle. He's written a best-selling book about her and come to Paris married and a father. Despite her warmth and good humor, she appears to resent the way he's co-opted their shared memory and spun it into literary success, admitting that she was both flattered and disturbed to read a book about herself. She undermines the novel with tepid praise ("It's very romantic, and I usually don't like that . . . but it's very well-written"), then a half-serious attack on its veracity, asserting (falsely) that they never had sex in Vienna. He buys more time with her—insisting on a coffee, then a walk, then a boat ride, then a car ride, and, finally, a trip up to her apartment. Each time he suggests another activity, Celine reminds him that he needs to get to the airport. For most of the film, the characters are performing for each other—he, to win her over with his honesty and affection, she to demonstrate the extent to which she doesn’t need that affection, without betraying how much she still cares. Celine only fully drops the pretense after he exposes himself completely by confessing that he doesn't love his wife.

Though Hawke and Delpy retain the effortless chemistry that made Before Sunrise such a joy, their characters have lost the naive romantic optimism they had in the earlier film. There is something rather sad in the way Jesse and Celine obsess about their night in Vienna. Each has turned the other into an idealized memory and a symbol of the elusive romantic love they both fear they've outgrown. "I remember that night better than I do whole years," Jesse admits. "Me too," Celine responds. Rather than letting the night go, treating it as at best a missed opportunity, at worst an illusion, they've both channeled it into their creative work: He wrote a book about it; she made it into a song. Their reunion doesn't dredge up the past so much as it lays bare their loneliness and their cynicism. Yet the connection between Jesse and Celine remains palpable, and it seems to stir residual hope that their story together isn't finished, that they can somehow reclaim whatever it is they've lost through their intense connection with one another. This is what makes Linklater’s relentless real-time approach so effective. As they bask in the pleasure of each other's company, we, as viewers, are constantly aware of time slipping away from them. Jesse will get on a plane. Celine will go back to her day-to-day. Once their time together is over, they'll return to the reality of their adult lives.

In this sense, the ending of the film doesn't resolve the questions it poses. They climb the stairs to her apartment, sip tea, and listen to Nina Simone. "Baby, you are going to miss that plane," Celine tells him. "I know," Jesse concedes, as Before Sunset fades to black. It's exhilarating, because they get a reprieve. Because we don't have to see it end. We can freeze them in a moment where they're still hanging on to the fantasy that their Parisian reverie can last forever. And it's a relief, because neither they, nor we, need to deal with what comes next, the complications and repercussions of their adulterous indiscretion. The moment is pure and perfect, a gift to the film's characters and its audience, but it is also fleeting. Time, as Linklater has spent about an hour and a half reminding us, marches on.

Linklater's interest in time is nothing new. His long takes and elegant tracking shots reflect his longstanding preoccupation with the concept of cinematic realism, and he previously experimented with a real-time narrative in 2001's Tape. Here, though, Linklater's theoretical interests align perfectly with his film's premise. In its technical precision, its loose, meandering dialogue-heavy structure, and its focus on self-conscious, aging Gen-Xers as they grapple with issues both mundane and profoundly philosophical, Before Sunset may be the perfect Linklater movie. But it isn't his alone. The movie belongs as much to his co-screenwriters Hawke and Delpy, who even seem to draw on their own biographies for each of their characters (Delpy, like Celine, went to NYU; Hawke, whose Jesse finds himself in a loveless marriage with the mother of his child, would go on to divorce then-wife Uma Thurman shortly after the film's release). "Isn't any [work of art] autobiographical?" Jesse wonders at the beginning of the film, perhaps preparing the audience for the raw confessional honesty of his and Delpy's performances. Linklater's long takes give the two of them the space they need to play off each other, to establish a propulsive rhythm with the film's heady dialogue and to react to one another physically. In one shot, Hawke pulls Delpy to a park bench and sets her on his lap, a sweeping gesture that suggests everything both endearing and pathetic about his character—his adoration and his desperation. At first she smiles, but then she stiffens, making plain her attraction and her reticence in a magnificently precise bit of physical acting. Later, while riding in a car, Jesse tells Celine about his nightmares. He doesn't realize it, but she reaches out to touch him, then pulls her hand away. It's a devastating moment. Hawke lets himself emote; Delpy, whose performance in this film is nothing short of sublime, lets herself respond; and Linklater has the good sense to just let the camera roll.

Thanks to the improvisational feel of its central performances, there's a deceiving spontaneity in Before Sunset, but the movie is no less technically rigorous than the more self-consciously deliberate and controlled films by the Dardenne brothers and Alfonso Cuarón that have also made this best-of-the-decade list. Too often, even the finest realist films, despite the theoretical commitment and the exacting formal stringency of their makers, come off as calculated. In stripping away techniques and elements that produce the impression of artifice, the greatest of neorealist masterpieces can still end up drawing attention to those few artificial details that remain—a contrived plot twist, a symbolically loaded element of mise-en-scène, an actorly performance. Writing about Bicycle Thieves, André Bazin famously asserted that everything in the film seemed to happen by chance—Ricci could easily get his bike back, in which case, the film would simply end. But of course we know that's not the case. Bicycle Thieves must unfold as it does, otherwise there would be no film—it must, inevitably, feel a bit "written." Before Sunset may or may not be worthy of the comparison to De Sica's masterwork, but it does have that elusive quality Bazin described: thanks largely to Hawke and Delpy, Jesse and Celine seem to be authoring the film’s reality themselves. In the hands of less charming or committed performers, their exchanges would seem solipsistic. Instead, the movie achieves something to which almost every realist film aspires and few attain: emotional authenticity.

*****

Before Sunset may be the most written about movie in the still-brief history of this publication. Since many Reverse Shot writers are just a few years younger than Jesse and Celine, the reasons for the film’s galvanizing appeal are rather obvious. We were old enough to have appreciated the earnest intensity of Sunrise and its protagonists when that movie came out but young enough to buy into its starry-eyed idealism. And Sunset, with its jaded, desperate longing, expressed with expert grace, speaks directly to a generation of cinephiles who now find themselves with both feet planted in that strange and terrifying territory called adulthood. Like Jesse and Celine, we clung to our idealized memory of their night together and the romantic hope for the future it seemed to hold, but they—and we—grew up.

For me, the film's become a personal touchstone. There were other movies this decade that touched me more deeply, or felt more significant and accomplished. But none means more to me. As I've made my way through my late twenties, experiencing romantic love and unexpected death for the first time, the film's clear-eyed view of adulthood has grown more resonant. In describing his writing process, Jesse concedes, "We all see the world through our own tiny keyhole." He might as well be talking about the experience of reading, listening, or watching.

I revisit Before Sunset at least once a year, usually on Valentine's Day. My partner and I are aware of the irony of commemorating a day that celebrates the idea of romance with a film that deconstructs that ideal, even as it valorizes it. Every time I watch Before Sunset, though, the irony seems more pronounced. Movies don’t change, but people do. When we come back to a film, we remember our first impression—what it meant to us then and why—but we also reconsider it. We triangulate. The first time I saw Before Sunset, I was ecstatic, punch-drunk on a Parisian love story that restored my faith in the possibility of connecting with another person. With subsequent viewings, the movie's gotten sadder. Jesse's still trying a little too hard. Celine's still resisting a little too much. They still want so badly to recover something that they've lost. They want to make their time together last forever, but the moment is always slipping past them, just out of reach.
"If you are marching with white nationalists, you are by definition not a very nice person. If Malala Yousafzai had taken part in that rally, you'd have to say 'Okay, I guess Malala sucks now.'" ~ John Oliver

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Postby Sabin » Mon Dec 28, 2009 10:20 pm

#5 Syndromes and a Century

Light of the Century
Genevieve Yue on Syndromes and a Century

“There are two trees. One represents my father’s story. The other represents my mother’s story. They grow together, and other stories grow out of them too.”
–Apichatpong Weerasethakul

The English translation of Syndromes and a Century’s Thai title, Sang sattawat, which means “light of the century,” sounds atypically grandiose for humble filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul. It’s a reference perhaps to the illuminating presence of cinema, which corresponds roughly to the beginning and end of the 20th century, or maybe the medium’s digital successors that cast their own kind of light onto an uncertain 21st. If anyone should carry this torch, there’s none better than Weerasethakul, who, at 39, has already crafted a body of films that easily rank among the most important of recent years, if not decades, and whose own hybridities and seeming contradictions—a Thai sensibility mixed with American film school, a love of syrupy pop ballads combined with an appreciation for experimental film masters like Andy Warhol and Bruce Baillie, and the cache of an international art phenom who returns time and again to his country boy roots—speak to the ever-shifting conditions of a globalized, but in no way homogenized, world. The film’s English title, meanwhile, suggests something different, something more elusive. The word “syndromes” registers as indirect and circular, the wafting effects of a malady rather than its core affliction. In this way Syndromes looks around more than it looks directly at; set in hospitals, the film contains multiple scenes of diagnosis and treatment, with doctors and patients alike tending to each other’s troubles and aches, and trying everything from chakra channeling to talking cures to ease their collective burdens. Syndromes of and for a century: ailments, perhaps, but also a form of cinematic light that brightens a shared condition, a dimming past we leave behind, and a faint glimmer of what lies ahead.

Syndromes is like the fever dreams of an illness, or, perhaps more fittingly for Weerasethakul’s films and installations, the flushed cheeks and rampant fantasies of a love sickness. It’s structured by the overlapping stories, spaces, and times of its central figures, Dr. Toey (Nantarat Sawaddikul) and Dr. Nohng (Jaruchai Iamaram), who we see meeting twice over in hospitals in rural Khon Kaen and the sprawling Bangkok metropolis. These are portraits of a sort, characters caught in glimpses from around the corners of long corridors or in the suspended passage of an elevator. Weerasethakul has described the film as an imagined reconstruction of his parents’ lives in a time before he was born. The first half, which takes place in a country hospital and focuses on the dalliances of Toey, is dedicated to his mother, while the second, set in contemporary Bangkok, loosely traces the paternal through Nohng. Radiating out from each of their stories are the wanderings and desires of various people they encounter. A gesture, a glance, a few words: it doesn’t take much to draw the camera’s eye, which seems always ready to follow someone new along one of the film’s many detours. As Nohng admits to Toey in the first of their job interviews, he wants to work at her hospital “to see faces come and go,” and the film shares this same longing to see not only the story of the future couple’s meeting but everything that happens around them.

While Syndromes is ostensibly about Weerasethakul’s parents, it also concerns itself with many images that depart from this main thread: a wild and root-tangled orchid filling up the backseat of a car, pleading looks from not-so-distant admirers, a nearly limbless man dragging himself with his single arm across a sterile white floor, and furtive sips of liquor taken from a bottle hidden in a prosthetic leg. The deliberateness of cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom’s slow tracking shots, particularly pronounced in the second half, masks the film’s promiscuity; in one of the most quietly astonishing scenes, the camera fixes on Toey, Nohng, and a hospital colleague as they walk down the hall, gossiping idly. Instead of following them into the depths of the basement, however, the camera changes course, or rather steers forward, drawn to the open balcony view of lush green fields and the jungle just beyond it. The audio track, meanwhile, keeps pace with the doctors until they finally break character and joke about the number of takes they’ve already done, “playing the same scene over,” and admitting they’ve forgotten to take off their microphones. The reflexivity of this moment isn’t simply about Brechtian distanciation or postmodern glibness; instead, as the film’s title is unobtrusively layered onto the landscape, it recognizes the filmmaker’s own desire to experience the fullness of the medium’s sensual pleasures, here offered to the viewer as a resplendent gift.

Each of the film’s diversions leads to another, but Syndromes is hardly a weightless dérive. As a twice-told tale, it is split down the middle, the break occurring almost exactly at the film’s halfway point, but it’s also more than that, with echoes and anachronistic artifacts, repeated phrases and flashes of primary color woven through each section to suggest myriad connections hidden beneath the surface. Those that complain that the film is without plot could not be more mistaken, for Syndromes is replete with narrative. Aside from Toey and Nohng’s burgeoning relationship, there’s Toey’s timorous suitor, Toa (Nu Nimsomboon); a meandering and unresolved memory of Toey’s former love interest, the orchid grower, Noom (Sophon Pukanok); Nohng’s petulant girlfriend, Joy (Jarunee Saengtupthim) who urges him to move to an industrial complex; and a sweet flirtation between the dentist who moonlights as a country singer, Dr. Ple (Arkanae Cherkam) and Sakda (Sakda Kaewbuadee, previously seen in Tropical Malady), a young monk who sometimes wishes he had become a DJ. Scenes fold over each other and repeat, and with each accordion crease another story is drawn in, recrudescent symptoms blossoming, new worlds opened.

As with Weerasethakul’s earlier films, Syndromes includes references from his prior work: the sunlit Khon Kaen examination room is the same as the one in Blissfully Yours, and the ecstatic mass aerobics sequence at the end recalls a similarly energetic exercise in Tropical Malady. Perhaps the most significant interlocked moment between Syndromes and the latter is the story of the two farmers in the jungle, who, visited by a mystical monk, are given a harvest of silver and gold. In Tropical Malady, their greed is met with their riches turned to toads; in Syndromes, the monk’s visit coincides with a solar eclipse, and the farmers are eventually murdered for their wealth. “This is a powerful place,” breathes Pa Jane (Jenjira Pongpas), the limping servant who tells the story to Toey during her visit to Noom’s farm in another of the film’s narrative digressions left unresolved. It’s clear that the jungle is fertile ground indeed, Weerasethakul’s natal home and the source of his imagination, the place where stories emerge and then fade back into darkness.

Weerasethakul often chooses the phrase “conceived by” over “directed by” for his credits, and though that’s not the case with Syndromes, the film takes on a more pointed meaning of conception all the same. Its palindromic structure—“a mirror in the center that reflects both ways,” as Weerasethakul has said of Tropical Malady, whose narrative is similarly cleaved—extends to the inverse relationship he sets up with his parents. Just as they conceived him, so too does he conceive them, and lovingly conceive of them. Like “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities,” Delmore Schwartz’s midcentury story of cinematic imaginings around the circumstances that led to the author’s birth, Weerasethakul returns to and inhabits the places that preceded and shaped him, namely hospitals and jungles, as well as the times, from the 1970s of his early childhood to the present day of his adult life. Where Schwartz’s narrative drives to its anguished, overdetermined outcome, however, Weerasethakul keeps the spaces of his filmmaking open, inviting chance and collaboration in his signature blend of fiction and documentary. Accordingly, his first feature-length film, Mysterious Object at Noon, follows the structure of the exquisite corpse, a surrealist party game where successive parts of a story are fabricated by a series of tellers, each unaware of what came before. From this, unforeseen connections emerge in Mysterious Object, namely transformation, magic, and animal spirit possession, and these not only complete its narrative daisy chain but also pervade Weerasethakul’s later works. In life, “we always change course,” the filmmaker has remarked, and his films demonstrate an unusual willingness to travel headlong down forked paths to their shadowed unknowns.

As with Tropical Malady’s narrative metamorphosis from a human romance to a supernatural fable about a tiger, Syndromes trafficks in its own reincarnations, from the remorse an elderly monk expresses over his boyhood torture of chickens who have come back to haunt his dreams (Toey counsels him to stop eating so much poultry), to Dr. Ple’s certainty that Sakda is the manifestation of his deceased brother, to the recurrent situations and characters that feel at once predetermined and improvised. Even the twinned dialogue represents a form of rebirth created through incomplete repetition and slight variation. With the psychological tests Toey conducts in each of the film’s beginnings, for example, Nohng is caught off-guard with the question of what “DDT” stands for. “Do we have to know that here?” he wonders, then guesses in English, “Destroy Dirty Things.” (According to Weerasethakul, this is a response his father actually gave when asked the same question.) As Toey writes in her notebook, Nohng leans in and offers up another possibility: “Or is it Deep Down To You?” The second time, in Bangkok, Nohng pauses again. “Destroy Dirty Things,” he says, now close-up, and looking directly into the camera. This time around he seems more certain, and the cut to Toey’s face, also close-up and immediate, shows an expression of mild surprise and bemusement, and within that, the subtle hint of recognition. With these series of questions the film gives birth to itself midway through; it starts over, but not without a vague sense of what’s come before. Instead of narrative causality or rigid linearity, however, Syndromes moves in both directions across its two-way mirror, each traversal slightly different from the last, the traces of which have mostly vanished in a forgetting that causes even the viewer to sometimes second-guess a character’s sudden and unexplained re- or disappearance. It would be easy to imagine these crossings in binary terms splitting city and country, past and present, or science and folklore, but Weerasethakul resists the substitution of one extreme for another. Instead he mixes together and multiplies the dualities, less concerned with rupture or dis-ease than of living with and through difference.

It is ironic, then, that such a generous, capacious cinematic vision has drawn as much controversy as it has in Thailand, where upon the film’s release the government demanded the excision of four scenes. Two of these involved monks either playing a guitar or flying a toy spaceship, and the others depicted a doctor drinking on the job and another doctor kissing his girlfriend in his office. While such moments hardly reach the indignity of monks being chased by ghosts in mainstream Thai horror films, or reports of their sexual misdeeds and drug abuse in the popular press, Syndromes was singled out as the first film to be actively censored by the state, which was then under control by the military following the 2006 coup d’etat. Weerasethakul also made history as the first filmmaker to refuse to cooperate with censors, and chose instead to remove his film from circulation in his home country. After launching the Free Thai Cinema Movement to protest the censorship of Syndromes, he participated in a government-sponsored seminar to discuss the new Film and Video Act then under consideration, which, among other measures, proposed the nation’s first-ever ratings system. Weerasethakul’s disappointments with the bill, which has since passed, were severe. Lamenting the government’s expanded power in determining what movies upheld nationalist pride and “moral decency”—the state could now officially ban a film— he concluded that his participation had been merely that of a “referendum puppet,” and that with the institution of the bill, “we are making a pact with the devil.”

Though deeply attentive to political issues such as illegal immigration (Blissfully Yours) and the nation’s military past and present (Tropical Malady and Syndromes), Weerasethakul wasn’t a vocal activist until the storm surrounding Syndromes; his subsequent works, notably the Unknown Forces installation and the multiplatform The Primitive Project, have been more explicitly polemical. The former questioned the unthinking cheeriness of Thai cultural attitudes while pitting those views against the tenuous existence of day laborers in the country’s northeast region. Meanwhile The Primitive Project, a collection of installations and short films, takes place in Nabua, Weerasethakul’s ancestral home and the place where, in the 1960s, soldiers plundered the village on suspicions of communist activity. Those that survived the brutal attacks fled to the forest and disappeared. Reading backwards, the historical dimension of short films like A Letter to Uncle Boonmee, part of The Primitive Project, adds a darker, more urgent strain to Weerasethakul’s various retreats to the jungle, and possibly also the ambivalent sanctuary of the hospital, the site of both sickness and healing, and a place where so many people enter and exit this world.

The outlook for independent Thai cinema may be bleak, but Weerasethakul builds a space of resistance within his own films. When in 2007 I interviewed him about Unknown Forces and the censorship of Syndromes, he was working on a still unrealized project provisionally entitled Utopia, a journey through a wintry landscape linking futuristic sci-fi exploration to a beating prehistoric heart buried under the snow. Utopia is a fitting title; between past and future, fiction and reality, Weerasethakul again positions his viewers in a space of optimism, or at least its humanistic aspiration. It is not a stretch to say his films imagine better worlds, yet they do so not by ignoring the existing one, but by alerting us to the potentialities that lie within its bounds. I know of no other filmmaker who is so generous with space, granting his audience the freedom to move about, look around, linger where they may, and pass on through.

Here may be where Weerasethakul’s training as an architect is most powerfully realized; as with the enveloping screens of his installations, he invites his viewers into the room, but does not demand they surrender to its images. His films breathe—like the wind that moves through the tall, gently swaying trees in Syndromes’ first images or the arboreal metaphor he uses for the film’s branching narratives. In the end, the stories that grow out of Syndromes’ central pair include our own. As Dr. Neng (Apirak Mitrpracha) remarks to Nohng during their descent down the stairs of the Bangkok hospital, the camera trailing them in a rare handheld shot, “The basement is reserved for military patients: war veterans and their relatives.” “Everyone is a relative,” Nohng remarks, and Neng laughs. “I know, small country, huh?” More than the oppressive state apparatus that looms over every aspect of Thai life, or the afflictions and phantom limbs nursed in this subterranean vault, we are all, in Weerasethakul’s cinema, touched by the same longing: seeking to recover something that’s been lost, or reaching for something that’s still to come, in the next life, a new body, another twist of the tale. It’s not always clear what shape our shared lives will take—Toey and Nohng’s love affair, after all, has yet to begin—because that’s something left for us to determine. Syndromes is much more about providing ample ground for its narrative seeds to take hold and sprout, as when Toey stands at the window, a framed black-and-white photograph of a woman on the bookshelf behind her, and a view of the green fields outside superimposed onto her pensive face. Like so much of the film, the scene is captured in a long take which allows us to not only see what’s before us, but to look around and feel out its contours. Here in this moment of extended bliss, we see in and we see out, forward and back, from the hospital to the jungle, to the world beyond, a new world: the shining light of the century.
"If you are marching with white nationalists, you are by definition not a very nice person. If Malala Yousafzai had taken part in that rally, you'd have to say 'Okay, I guess Malala sucks now.'" ~ John Oliver

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Postby Sabin » Sun Dec 27, 2009 1:19 am

VALIDATED! -- and check out Reverse Shot's Listings of the 20 Greatest Films of the first decade of this new century.

#6: A.I. Artificial Intelligence

The Human Kind
Jeff Reichert on A.I.: Artificial Intelligence

The first decade of the 21st century, even with all the technological changes that have greatly expanded knowledge of our origins and pointed towards our potential futures, holds no monopoly on the great unending debate of what the word “human” means. But this troubled decade may well have produced one of the purest artistic examinations to date of what makes us us. Steven Spielberg’s A.I.: Artificial Intelligence only seemed truly landmark to a few hardy souls back in the naive summer of 2001 (as an aside, if it weren’t for A.I., a true cinematic rallying point for myself, my co-editor, and several other Reverse Shot writers, this journal itself might not exist). Here in 2009 it seems downright prophetic, but not for the obvious reasons. The film’s speculative trappings—the rapid onset of global warming that drowns coastal regions, the walling off of industrialized nations into fortress-islands against human migration, advances in robotic technology approaching what some label “the singularity” (that moment when robots outpace human intelligence)—speak to a holistic prescience that films like The Day After Tomorrow, Terminator Salvation, and An Inconvenient Truth can only bite off in pieces. A.I. skips over the sum total of these films in a few minutes of prologue narration. No, the worth of Spielberg’s greatest achievement to date lies not in its frightening accuracy, but in how it uses its future setting to divert our attention back to those most basic and eternal of existential questions in a manner as emotionally devastating as it is intellectually searching.

A.I. has its share of passionate defenders and detractors, and it feels an unlikely candidate for wholesale reconsideration and wider appreciation years down the road, so intensely have the debates about its worth already played out. Instead, it’s more likely that its partisans will become further entrenched, each side will court initiates, and the film will be continually debated, admired, and loathed by turns. (Luckily, this is what great art is for.) From the position of a staunch defender, those who view the film with disfavor do so because they view inflexibly. Spielberg shifted gears somewhat in the Nineties, offering a trio of serious and deadly earnest historical dramas (Schindler’s List, Amistad, and Saving Private Ryan, none of which has aged particularly well) consciously and conspicuously planting a stake in the realm of what is generally considered grownup filmmaking. At the same time he tossed off two incursions to Jurassic Park, generated several mints’ worth of revenues, and practically invented CG. By 2001, Spielberg owned Hollywood on all fronts—king of the popcorn movie and lauded (if unsuccessful to these eyes) chronicler of collective histories. For most observers, his narrative was clear: like Griffith, perhaps his closest in kin, Spielberg would make some for him and some for the studios. Who would have expected that his next move would be to fuse these two tendencies in a dour work of science fiction (a genre with the most obvious connection to philosophy that’s often denigrated as frivolous—we’re more comforted by where we’ve been than where we may be headed) with the mother of all twist endings? Oh, people knew a film was coming, knew how Stanley Kubrick initiated the project and handed it off to Spielberg before he died, but I doubt anyone truly anticipated this film.

It must have been off-putting, to say the least, for the expectant to find that A.I., after its brief stage-setting prologue, opens with a lecture. William Hurt’s Professor Hobby, head of “mecha” manufacturer Cybertronics, exhorts his designers to best their own work and create a robot child who can love. It’s a long, oddly jocular scene, members of his team call out during his speech and crack jokes, some seem to only be paying attention on the margins. The atmosphere seems light, but take note: Hurt may deliver his challenge with a genial smile, but this is the first time the film introduces a definition of what it means to be human, and in a casual phrase, “this child will be caught in a freeze frame,” Hobby also sets up the entire premise of the film. It’s not uncommon for Spielberg to stop a movie cold to deliver explanations—see also John Quincy Adams in Amistad, John Hammond in Jurassic Park, Indiana Jones—but there’s something different here; even as he’s setting the scene, inviting us into A.I., the filmmaker unsettles. In the wake of the cataclysmic information shared by the prologue, the warmly lit, book-lined room conjures a sense of calm and safety. But we know that the world these designers inhabit has irrevocably changed, continues to crumble. Their well-meaning project is, at best, a stopgap to prevent further collapse, a mass-produced balm—isn’t there a more appropriate way for them to spend their time? Or is this actually the best course in the face of certain defeat? Spielberg’s science fiction begins just where it should, in the realm of philosophy.

The result of their work is David (Haley Joel Osment, in his best role), first viewed as a smear of shadow bathed in light through a lens whose focus is dialed extremely soft, as if emerging from some afterlife his robotic soullessness would prohibit him from ever reaching. He’s come to the home of Henry and Monica Swinton (Sam Robards and Frances O’Connor), a couple whose child is being kept cryogenically frozen to prevent his death of infection; he’s alive, yet not. Monica initially rejects the “boy,” she’s amazed at his verisimilitude, but can’t help being a little unnerved by him—he moves oddly, acts strangely, laughs a little too loud, doesn’t eat or blink. Even so, Monica, lonely, desperate to be a mother again binds herself to the boy using the factory-provided instructions. Immediately after the process, David begins calling her mommy, exhibiting his programmed affections, and the transformation in Monica is immediate and miraculous. O’Connor’s part in establishing the conflicted aching soul of A.I. often goes unremarked upon, but her transition from upset to discomfort to maternal warmth is a marvel. (The changes all happen in her face and eyes, notably the areas in which David’s expressions are least human.) The designers at Cybertronics might have been right: all you need (to be human) is love. Monica’s found a new son, but should we be happy that technology’s opened up the possibility for motherly affection to be displaced onto a non-living being? Or should we be frightened at how quickly David exposes the desperation underlying much of human love?

Spielberg would go on in Minority Report to completely dismantle the nuclear family so familiar and so threatened in many of his films (though most often returned to stability in his conclusions) and replace it with the digital, endlessly reproducible one. Identity, existence, origins, and knowledge have been at the heart of Spielberg’s aughts—we see these questions playing out in various ways across Catch Me If You Can, The Terminal, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, and all of them are seeded in A.I. His first film of the decade marks a turning point, in which Spielberg, quite conscious of his unique role in American popular cinema, began going back over his body of work, reinventing it in a more cynical vein. So then, Munich turns the besieged Jews of Schindler’s List into morally suspect avenging angels to show how violence continually begets violence; War of the Worlds dismantles the good war righteousness of Saving Private Ryan by waging total war on American soil; The Terminal updates the foreigner trapped in American bureaucracy narrative of Amistad for the era of displaced globalization; Catch Me If You Can fully realizes the quandaries of identity effacement only hinted at in Hook; Kingdom of the Crystal Skull corrects and complicates the B-movie naiveté around origin narratives of the early installments from the winking perspective of age. If the guiding mythology of A.I. is Pinocchio (Monica reads it to David before bedtime), the guiding mythology of Spielberg’s last decade of filmmaking is Peter Pan.

I remember someone telling me of A.I. that they “loved the Kubrick parts of it, hated the Spielberg parts,” as if a collaborative effort like a film could be reduced to bits and pieces. There’s an irreducible complexity to a work of art, and many of A.I.’s reviewers wasted precious space trying to pry open the film and figure out who was responsible for what—given that Kubrick worked on the scenario before passing the torch to Spielberg, there was a tantalizing sense that one might be able to dissect the film in this fashion. This excavation project came with no small amount of snobbery. Given the reverence surrounding Kubrick, it wasn’t uncommon to find A.I.’s less-liked parts chalked up to Spielberg’s alleged sentimentalizing, while Kubrick’s harrowing vision was praised. Spielberg, for his part, admonished writers for mostly getting the who-did-whats of it wrong. But even he missed the point: A.I. can’t be broken down this way because the resulting work is so fully his from the very opening sequences. The hollow, airless silence at the core of the Swinton home is reminiscent of the similarly vacuumed-sealed apartments of Eyes Wide Shut, yet no one but Spielberg would have bathed it all in that signature otherworldly glow. And if at times, the oddity of David’s intrusion into the home chills like The Shining, it’s only because we so desperately want the warm comforts of E.T. What follows in A.I. wasn’t Spielberg wrestling with Kubrick; it was Spielberg wrestling with himself.

Unlike E.T., who’s finally able to return home peaceably, David, too soon after his “birth,” is irrevocably ripped from his. The Swintons’ cruel son, Martin, revives unexpectedly, and after nearly being accidentally drowned by David (Osment sitting lifelessly at the bottom of the family’s pool alone, unblinking and confused, is one of the film’s most indelible images), the family decides to cast him out. The scene is wrenching: Monica leaves him in the forest and drives away tearfully. Here, the robot boy learns a new, painful lesson: to be human means to experience the pain of loss and separation. Monica’s last words to him, “I’m sorry I never told you about the world,” portend the drastic changes the film undergoes in David’s exile. A.I. leaves David alone in the woods, breaking away from his narrative to pick up the immaculately coiffed pleasure mecha Gigolo Joe (Jude Law) just as he’s framed for the murder of one of his clients. All of a sudden A.I.’s gone Blade Runner-noir, evoking science fiction cinema’s past on the way to creating its future. The cut to Joe is abruptly clean—Spielberg is something of an unheralded master at splitting narrative threads in order to tie them together later, and he does so here in one of his darkest set pieces: when spotted by mecha hunters hiding in a decoy balloon in the shape of the moon (a deconstruction of the logo for his own Amblin Entertainment production company, taken from E.T.), Joe and David are captured and taken to the terrifying Flesh Fair, in which rabid humans cheer the public, near-medieval torture and destruction of outdated machine servants (Spielberg again predicted reality: the sequence reminds of a demolition derby crossed with a rally for Glenn Beck or Sarah Palin). But here David learns another lesson: though he’s been revealed as definitively not human by the fair’s organizers, his cries for life from the ring soften the audience, and the crowd shouts for his release. Perhaps, then, only some semblance of verisimilitude paired with a desire for continued existence is all one needs to be human (by A.I.’s midpoint it’s already offered more definitions than handfuls of films).

Their adventure continues. David, weaned on Pinocchio, demands they seek out the Blue Fairy. His quest: to become a real boy and win back his place in Monica’s heart. This bildungsroman takes the pair to the garish Rouge City, a mixed-race blend of CG and sets, the seamless apotheosis of available filmmaking technologies of the turn of the 21st century. A.I., for all the forward thinking in its creation and philosophy reveals itself here as something of an artifact. As David and Jack beat a hurried escape from Rouge City, David climbs into a helicopter and attempts to make the thing work. The contraption lifts awkwardly off the ground, begins spinning around and bobbing off its vertical axis like a top. Spielberg’s camera rotates in the opposite direction, catching David frantically banging the controls through the cockpit window. His next shot pulls back to see the craft itself in real physical space, David inside, stuntmen jumping out of its way. It’s a small moment in a film full of big statements, one that certainly wasn’t meant to open up grander meanings, but after a decade of advances in the realism of images that can be created from massed series of 1s and 0s in a machine, seeing a big, bulky prop shaking around a physical set whose very reality to us is determined by digital establishing shots feels akin to watching that train captured by the Lumière brothers roll into the station; from a small narrative beat, Spielberg provides a transformational moment in filmmaking. Eight years later, when even the most mundane of images are retouched into weightlessness (though the decade’s FX avatar, Michael Bay, has done an admittedly impressive job of reinvesting CG with a sense of weight in Transformers 2, hopefully this portends better), this real, constructed chopper bobbing in space feels a wondrous throwback to the kind of cinema that Spielberg practically invented.

At the end of his road, a tower in the lost, submerged city of Manhattan, David stumbles into his own worst nightmare. He meets himself, another David, a perfect doppelganger who insists on his own David-ness. The David we’ve been following has clearly learned and grown through his travels, his passion and expressiveness set him apart from the stone-faced robot he now confronts—another miraculous bit of acting created almost entirely with facial muscles. Our David asserts his own “I”-ness (is to be human to demand ultimate individuality?), destroying the copy, and smashing its face off before Hobby arrives to shift the film into its final act. David’s quest is revealed by the robot-maker to be the result of an experiment, no less grand than the one that caused his being. Once David had developed an unprogrammed desire and set out on that mission, the Cybertronics team sat back and watched, only manipulating the game slightly to get him to Manhattan (their arrival to the underwater city features some of Spielberg’s grandest visuals, one shot even catches a glimpse of the Twin Towers poking out of the water, a real-life absence the film could never have foretold). After Hobby explains his provenance, and tries to convince the boy of how his desire and yearning made him truly “real” (yet another definition), David’s horror and despair only increase: in the Cybertronics lab he comes across more copies, boxed up and ready for shipping, and more frightening, his own spare parts waiting to be assembled. In another of the film’s most genius shots (Spielberg is too often given credit merely as a nimble storyteller without credit given to the perfection of the individual images he uses to advance his narratives), the “living” David looks through a lifeless copy of his own face just waiting to be animated. Of course by now we already know from glimpsed photographs the true reason for the boy’s being—Hobby’s anguish over his own lost son, David, now spun by a guileless megalomania into a product for world distribution. His interest in David isn’t one of kindness but one of zealous pride in his own creation. But we also know that these new Davids will not be the David we’ve come to empathize with. Something has changed.

It’s then that David’s actions further inscribe him as human: he chooses self-abnegation. The once-robot, now almost-boy flings himself from the Cybertronics tower into the swirling waters below, his fall captured in one of Spielberg’s most graceful shots: David’s reflection in the chopper glass, overlaid on Joe’s face in extreme close-up, falling down his cheek, a tear he could never cry. At the bottom of the ocean, David finds his Blue Fairy, but is wrenched away from it, back to the surface. Joe’s “saved” him, but he can’t save himself as the police arrive and spirit him away. Spielberg ups the existential ante yet again: the pleasure mecha’s final words, “I am...I was,” are about as profound a statement as can be found in American screenwriting, pointing toward a continuation of none other than Descartes. Here’s another essential signpost towards humanity, another competing definition set against the many we’ve seen thus far: the ability to love, the ability to feel loss, the ability to impersonate, the ability to demand individuality, the ability to desire, the ability to choose death, now the ability to have been.

How many films are bold enough to seemingly finish their narratives only to jump two thousand years into the future? After returning to the sea floor to pray endlessly to the Blue Fairy (Spielberg’s spiritual inquest), David freezes along with the rest of the Earth. He’s dug out two millennia later by a race of sophisticated robots, curious to learn about the lost human race they have outlived. David, with all of his memories of the world that was, is their greatest find. In return for aiding them, the boy makes a single demand: bring back his mother for a day using a lock of her hair. They agree, and the day David shares with Monica is magical, but utterly sad. Some refuse to read the melancholy of this sequence, the fragility of the tone Spielberg conjures, choosing to see instead bland sentimentality, the overbearing hand of the man who’d expertly brought on the tears so often throughout his career finishing off a dark movie in grand fairy tale style. But if there’s a reason why A.I. belongs on this list, it’s due to this odd, disquieting epilogue, which suggests that all David needed to become truly human was to exist beyond us. We are a race smart enough to create David, but not smart enough to outlast him. Whose intelligence is artificial, then, and whose is real? David’s now human (he even cries), for all intents and purposes, but at the same time he’s also immortal, decidedly not alive in the most crucial of ways. The concluding frames of A.I., in which the creation of man lives on long beyond him, when the full scope of the film’s inquiry is laid out, always makes me feel small and fragile. What we are as human is precious, but by the same token not unique, not above mimicry. Perhaps, in the end, what makes being alive most special of all is our ability to fade into bittersweet end.


#7: L'Intrus

World Tourist
Leo Goldsmith on Flight of the Red Balloon

Second Helpings
Adam Nayman on L’Intrus

After I resolved to write about about Claire Denis’s L’Intrus for this round-up, I decided it might make sense to start with my piece on the film from 2005, when it placed sixth on Reverse Shot’s list of the year’s best films. That it has leapfrogged all but one of the titles ahead of it from that year for this best-of-the-decade reckoning probably speaks to some prosaic matters, like an influx of new writers and a general reshuffling of the auteurist deck amongst this critical circle (Denis’s stock has gone up, as evidenced by the recent Reverse Shot retrospective on her career). But it also suggests that, for all its utterly enveloping, immediate sensory pleasures, L’Intrus holds up to and gains considerably from multiple viewings (something I’m not sure could be claimed for, say, A History of Violence, 2005’s number four with a shotgun bullet).

My main concern was that my original essay—filed, I say not by way of excuse but in matter of fact, in a jet-lagged haze from the media lounge of the Rotterdam International Film Festival, where I was serving as a juror—would not prove nearly so durable. I thus thought that it might be useful for me to take another look at the film by revisiting and appending my original take. I’m surely not second guessing my admiration for L’Intrus, which, if anything, has only increased. My hope is that by foregrounding the shifts and gradations in my account of it, I might better do justice to its contents—and to the truth that the films and filmmakers that we love are always and quite necessarily changing right along with us. The selections from my 2005 review appear in bold; the new material follows in plain type.

L’Intrus, which has been routinely described as impenetrable (including by myself after my first viewing) in the year and a half since premiering on the film festival circuit in 2004, is best analyzed in light of its creator’s twin preoccupations.

Which, for those of you keeping score at home, would be 1) the human body and 2) postcolonial anxiety. Denis’s uncanny ability to frame and follow the human form, which makes her one of the cinema’s great sensualists, is complemented by a tendency towards an oblique political critique: think of Beau travail’s shirtless, hapless Legionnaires, who function simultaneously as erotic objects and avatars of French occupation in Africa. No doubt that L’Intrus, with its border-crossing motifs and focus on physicality, reflects and refracts back across Denis’s filmography, but I should add that in the interviews I’ve done with her since—on the occasion of this film, and also 35 Shots of Rum and White Material—she firmly rejects the idea that she has “preoccupations” as such. Standard operating procedure for festival-circuit interviews, and yet I truly believe that Denis took an intuitive, exploratory approach to the material. Which is why, despite its abundance of resonances, rhymes, and echoes, L’Intrus seems to be finding its shape for most of its running time. Hence a few of its early emphases—like the erotic game instigated by Grégoire Colin for his border-guard wife, a visualization exercise centered on a forest not unlike the one prowled by Louis—end up feeling a bit weightless, while something probably equally throwaway to Denis’s overall conception, like the ecstatic final shot of Béatrice Dalle driving a group of sled dogs through a newly Louis–free winter-scape, gives an impression of being Very Important. (My guess: not so much). Repeated viewings have completely destroyed the sense of “impenetrability,” of course, and when I’ve watched it with somebody seeing it for the first time, I’ve found myself getting unaccountably frustrated with their (quite honest) bafflement—even though the first thing I said to my partner when we stumbled out of the TIFF ’04 screening was “What in the holy hell was that?”

[L’Intrus] is a movie about Louis, an aged soldier of fortune (Michel Subor, resplendently craggy) whose body appears to be breaking down. He brokers himself an under-the-table heart transplant and then tries, at great expense, to reconnect with his estranged son, who may or may not be in Tahiti. That’s a thumbnail sketch of the film’s objective chronology, although truthfully, this description is akin to saying that Mulholland Drive is a film about an actress who has her sometime lover murdered and feels really, really bad about it. Like Mulholland Drive, L’Intrus obliterates the literal-figurative binary: the real and unreal coexist at a single level of narrative reality. One example: Louis lives, with several beautiful dogs, in a cabin in the woods on the French Swiss border. He is subject to occasional attacks by masked intruders, whom he fends off in brutal style. As far as I can tell, this is literally happening, but these anonymous interlopers with their popping guns and furtive, swarming movements also seem representative of Louis’s encroaching heart condition. When he murders one of them, the act can be read as an act of internal defiance: His body is staving off failure.

One of the odd things about L’Intrus is that its crystalline moment-to-moment details recede in memory so that, no matter how many times I’ve watched it, there are always key bits that I’ve forgotten. Thinking of the film now, I wonder how I could have failed to mention the “audition” held in Tahiti, in which a parade of young men vie for the “role” of Louis’s absent son. This scene is interesting in that it introduces a semi-documentary quality to the film—the men, all locals, don’t appear to be “acting”—which is nevertheless subsumed into the overall waking-dream texture. Leaving aside the little magic-realist curlicues around the edges of Friday Night—which unfortunately led one friend to compare it to Amèlie (!)—Denis has never really staged “fantasy sequences”: rather, she focuses so intently on individual subjectivity that the resulting abstraction of a surrounding reality plays as a kind of enchantment.

Looking back on my comparison to Mulholland Drive, I think I may have understated L’Intrus’ accomplishment. Lynch at least acknowledges the presence of a “real” Ground Zero from which the nightmare version of Betty’s life springs. There’s no such orienting point in L’Intrus, which starts, progresses, and ends in a fugue state. And yet the film also feels more controlled and “realistic” than Mulholland Drive—and obviously far more connected to “real” world issues than Lynch’s typically (and appropriately) apolitical Hollywood pop-up epic. If you wanted to read Louis as an avatar of encroaching Occidentalism, buying his way across the world in attempt to make himself whole, that works just fine, even if Denis never moves the action west of the GMT; where a roughly comparable French auteur like Bruno Dumont gestures towards and even journeyed to the U.S., Denis always uses it as a structuring absence (I think that the only scene in any of her films “set” in America is when Vincent Gallo looks down at the blinking lights of Denver en route to Paris in Trouble Every Day).

L’Intrus represents the apotheosis of Denis’s odd brand of naturalism. Beau travail and Trouble Every Day were attempts to convey interior struggle through external observation, but L’Intrus is almost hysterically ambitious; the lead character remains totally unknowable except via external observation. Subor’s performance doesn’t give us much—his features are impacted, and what little dialogue he has is spoken tersely. But in a brief, wordless scene, when we see him making love with his pharmacist girlfriend, the black spots on his back line up with the freckles on her face in a way that seems revelatory—Denis suggests they’re a mottled match.

“Naturalism?” Really? In my last year of undergrad, I wrote a paper in which I tried to group Denis, Bruno Dumont, and the Dardennes under the admittedly vaporous rubric of “French-language naturalism,” and I always felt—now more than ever—that she was the odd girl out in my study. No question that observation figures into her aesthetic, but L’Intrus seems more obviously a work of cinematic Impressionism, or, given the clear influence of Paul Gaugin’s South Seas canvases on its final movements, postimpressionism. Denis gives us the glory of natural forms buoyed by a sense of perpetual motion. I’m hard-pressed to think of any shots in L’Intrus that feel still; the few static set-ups describe all manner of shifts and fluctuations within the frame (like the amazing shot of streamers ruffling at a cruise ship’s christening). In fact, a lot of reviews (including mine) fail to really communicate the speed of the storytelling. Louis’s campaign to obtain a new heart is structured as a kind of cloak-and-dagger intrigue with the exposition scooped out, and, as in Trouble Every Day, Denis seems to be slyly kidding certain genre-movie tropes (i.e. the shadowy network that procures Louis’s new heart).

Denis’s script is adapted from an autobiographical novel by the French philosopher Jean-Louis Nancy, who wrote about his own heart transplant as a metaphor for “intrusion”—the new organ as unwelcome visitor. L’Intrus is about the alienating effects of Louis’s heart transplant, but it’s also about the kind of intrusions that appeared in Chocolat, I Can’t Sleep, and Beau travail: strangers in places where they don’t belong. Louis’s journey to Tahiti includes a layover in Korea, where he bonds with a drunken businessman over the lyrics of an Elvis Presley song: pop as the great common denominator. Louis’s feral intensity is out of place in Korea, but by the time he boards a boat for the turquoise frontiers of Tahiti, he might as well be an alien. It’s suggested that Louis had spent time there as a young man, and that he is returning, at the end of his life, in search of personal closure, but this paradise doesn’t really want him: the key image of the film finds Louis carrying a mattress through shallow ocean waters, an indelible image of humanity imposing a need for personal comfort within untenable environments.

That’s still the money shot for me, and one that came to mind while watching Jim Jarmusch’s (vastly inferior) attempt at fugue-state cinema, The Limits of Control: in fact, I wonder if his image of a claw-footed bathtub being lugged across the street (introduced by Tilda Swinton waxing dully philosophic about the ineffable quality of great movie scenes) is a reference to L’Intrus (it would fit given another seeming visual quote, of Pedro Costa’s Colossal Youth). In my first stab at the film, I didn’t really discuss the implications of the film’s Soderberghian gambit wherein old footage of Subor, taken from Paul Gégauff’s 1965 adventure drama La Reflux, stands in for flashbacks to Louis’s original arrival to the island. Besides foregrounding film’s indexical nature, etc., it gets at something I’ve had reason to think about lately with regard to Denis: the way her films reach back through the French canon without being especially referential or reverential. But Denis’s appropriations nevertheless force the viewer to consider her within the ebb and flow of French cinema. The most explicit example, of course, is Subor’s participation in Beau travail, which ostensibly finds him reprising his role from Jean-Luc Godard’s Le Petit soldat—locating him three decades after that film’s shattering ending. The suggestion in L’Intrus that Louis Trebor has his own free-standing (cinematic) past creates a sense of continuity within the film and also inside Denis’s filmography, with its recurring actors (Subor, Colin, and Dalle, but also Katia Golubeva and Alex Descas, both featured briefly in L’Intrus), all of whom always feel as if they “belong.”

There’s no question that L’Intrus is challenging, and that dissenters come by their aversions naturally. But Claire Denis comes by her ellipticism naturally, too: there’s nothing in L’Intrus that suggests obfuscation. In keeping with her past work, it’s a movie about the vast spaces that lie between countries and within people, rendered as a slowly oscillating fever dream of conflicting moods: it’s at once languorous and terrifying, erotic and impassive, monumentally distanced and yet finally intimate in a way that is, to my mind, without recent cinematic precedent.

A lot of adjectives there, to which I would add: singular. Four years on, I still haven’t seen anything quite like L’Intrus—from this decade or any other.


#8: Flight of the Red Balloon

World Tourist
Leo Goldsmith on Flight of the Red Balloon

Somewhere in the middle of Hou Hsiao-hsien's Flight of the Red Balloon, the film’s protagonist, Suzanne, is sharing a quiet train carriage with her son’s Taiwanese nanny, Song, and the puppet master Ah Zhong, who has just given a lecture on Chinese puppetry techniques. Suzanne, who has been gazing out of the window absently, suddenly pulls a postcard from her scrapbook. It’s a gift, she tells Song to translate to Ah Zhong, an image of something she saw at the British Museum in London when she was working there as a nanny. It is deeply personal to her, she explains, but also something she feels is quintessentially Chinese—“la Chine profonde”—and so she feels Master Ah Zhong should have it.

This scene is a typically offhanded moment for Hou—his films nearly always pile minute, equivocal sketches into unexpectedly rich compositions of everyday life. Like his best films, Flight of the Red Balloon has many such scenes—a flashback to a child's day out with his sister, a non sequitur story about a piano mover’s injury and rehabilitation, a minor disagreement about the use of a kitchen. In any other film, a French woman telling a Chinese character through a Chinese translator what she believes is quintessentially Chinese would stick out like a sore thumb, likely as an outright indictment of the French woman's blinkered provinciality. But as usual, Hou is after something far subtler, a simple marker of the intersection of East and West that calls attention to the dovetailing processes of translation and adaptation in which the characters are involved. Just as Hou's film, the Taiwanese director's first wholly European production, is a pseudo-remake of Albert Lamorisse’s 1956 film The Red Balloon, which Song is also adapting as a student film, Suzanne is engaged in an adaptation, a translation to puppet theater of the traditional Chinese story of Zhang Yu, who tries to reach his lover across the sea by boiling it away. In his essay, “The Task of the Translator,” Walter Benjamin remarked, “Languages are not strangers to one another, but are, a priori and apart from all historical relationships, interrelated in what they want to express.” Flight of the Red Balloon embodies this concept, seeking different ways—languages, cultures, artistic media—through which to express the same emotions and themes of contemporary life Hou’s been exploring all along.

For many Western critics, Hou's act of cultural translation comes up short. The charge that crops up most frequently in negative reviews of the film—other than that it is “boring,” a common descriptor for any Hou film—is that it is “touristy.” Hou “brings a tourist's sentimental eye to bear on Paris,” claims Richard Brody of the New Yorker, which is to say that the film too clearly represents the perspective of one regarding a culture foreign to him without the clarity or depth of engagement of one native to that culture. (Interestingly, Charles Mudede of Seattle's The Stranger applies the term as a compliment, and Kurt Loder—yes, that Kurt Loder, writing for MTV.com—complains that the film isn't touristy enough.) It can’t have helped that Hou's film was released in New York within a month of a much higher-profile Western art-film by a Chinese director, Wong Kar-wai's My Blueberry Nights. Wong's film is intended as a much more immersive experience than Hou's—it represents a direct translation (or transposition) of situations common to Wong's films into an American setting and idiom—but negative appraisals of both films were similar, suggesting that each filmmaker was not just out of his element, but out of his depth. The films of these directors, to some, simply didn't work outside of their native contexts; they don't understand the West as they do Taiwan or Hong Kong. Something had been lost in the translation, if it was ever really there at all.

Of course, this decade was not going to be an easy one for Hou Hsiao-hsien from the start. Being named the Director of the Nineties in a critics' poll conducted by the Village Voice and Film Comment just before the turn of the millennium would be a blessing and a curse for any filmmaker, but in this case the critics seem to have conferred the title as a rallying cry as much as an honorific. Writing in Film Comment in 1999, Kent Jones defied those who might find Hou's films too rarefied, too arty, too “difficult.” (The scare-quotes are Jones's.) Naturally, Jones understands, “no matter how deep an affinity Westerners develop for Eastern culture, the moment always arrives when the conceptually unfamiliar impedes the flow of pleasure, and the bridge to ‘universal meaning’ must be crossed with intellectual effort.” Even if his films “require a bit of brainwork from the viewer” or don’t conform to “Western standards,” it nonetheless behooved the viewer to make that effort.

Jones spins this difficulty as a problem of the Occident regarding the Orient, of Western audiences and critics recoiling at the apparent impenetrability of an Asian artist. But in spite of the inspirations Hou has professed to draw from traditions in Chinese ink-painting, the challenging poetics of his films are not purely “Eastern” ones, “la Chine profonde.” Indeed, the narrative opacity that Jones finds in his films is as much a European as an Asian one, self-conscious difficulty being something that filmmakers and critics all over the world adore, often or especially when other viewers do not. So much for films that don’t conform to “Western standards”: by Jones’s rationale, Hou's purported Asianness might have made him a success at home and a mere curiosity abroad, but it’s rather more the opposite. “I have 20,000 viewers in Taiwan, and 200,000 in Paris,” Hou said in 1999.

In his native country, Hou had divided audiences and critics throughout the Eighties with his increasingly open-ended ways of telling stories and addressing issues of Taiwanese identity. He gained critical and popular success both locally and abroad with City of Sadness, his groundbreaking 1989 film about the “White Terror” and the February 28 Incident, but many Taiwanese critics still complained about his indirect handling of this important and never-before-filmed moment in the island nation's history. And the films that immediately followed it, a trilogy addressing Taiwanese history with a still greater emphasis on the act of history-telling itself, solidified the perception of Hou as a difficult art-film director: an international auteur, not an essentially Taiwanese or Asian filmmaker, much less a commercial one. 1993's The Puppetmaster and 1995's Good Men, Good Women are fragmentary narratives that initiate dialogues between past and present: the former interpolates historical reenactments with present-day scenes of puppet plays and interviews; the latter alternates scenes from the life of a film actress with those of the actress playing a historical figure. With 1996's Goodbye South, Goodbye and 1998's Flowers of Shanghai, Hou refocused his attention to space itself, emphasizing a cohesive spatio-temporal cinematic environment within which the spectator must find many of those same earlier themes, still challenging the spectator's attention span and capacity to retain and relate small details, privileging depth of field as much as depth of character.

Rather than typify Asian poetics, the increasingly rigorous style of these films made them ideally suited for an international art-film community, the circuit of film festivals, and the diaspora of filmmakers, critics, and industry professionals of which both Jones and Hou are a part. So it seems natural that Hou's work since the Nineties has widened his scope beyond his native country, making him a spokesman for Taiwanese cinema at home and abroad. Opening SPOT-Taipei Film House in 2002 and producing films through his company SinoMovie, Hou has been engaged in a project of cinema advocacy explicitly modeled on Wong Kar-wai's globalized art cinema, and this endeavor parallels the increasingly international reach of his films. Beginning with 2001's Millennium Mambo, his own films have been wandering too, both in their settings and in the circumstances of their production. Like Vicky in that film, Hou has drifted from contemporary Taipei to various other points in time and place, and back—escaping to rural, snowy Yubari (site of a sadly now-defunct silent film festival, no less) in Millennium Mambo, down to Tokyo in the 2003 Ozu tribute Café Lumière, and traversing three disparate eras of Taiwanese history in 2005’s Three Times.

While Café Lumière was a wholly Japanese-funded production (the Japanese have been big supporters of Hou since the mid-Eighties), Mambo and Three Times were both co-productions between Hou's 3H Productions and two French companies that had also funded Wong's 2046. Flight of the Red Balloon brings Hou fully into France, with a production paid for by Canal+ and the Musée d'Orsay. As a purported adaptation of Lamorisse's beloved children's classic starring Juliette Binoche, perhaps the single biggest French film star in the world, Hou's film might have been expected to be a full expatriation, but it's somewhat jarring to contrast the euphoric (if mildly terrifying) ending of The Red Balloon with the opening of Hou's pseudo-remake. At the climax of the original, a rainbow cluster of balloons carries aloft Lamorisse's young protagonist, swooping over the rooftops of Paris. But when we first see Hou's analogous character, he is earthbound in a sea of traffic, chasing a solitary red orb.

Lamorisse's film gently, almost wordlessly enters the interior world of young Pascal (played by the director's own son of the same name) and follows his intimate and rather lonely relationship with the titular inflatable through a crumbling, distinctly postwar Paris. In retrospect, it's easy to recognize this as more of a movie Paris than a real one, a romantic, peach-grey city of ornate lamps and wistful decomposition that invokes Marcel Proust and Gene Kelly—but it is not Hou's Paris. In place of Maurice Leroux's score, the honks and wheezes of traffic congestion accompany the opening credits of Flight of the Red Balloon, and when these end, we are plunged not into a child's interior world, but into the automotive melée around the Bastille Métro, where Hou's young protagonist, Simon (Simon Iteanu), calls out to the red balloon overhead. The effect is reminiscent of Three Times' breathtaking transition from the delicate and dialogue-free world of Dadaocheng, 1911, to the gritty, bristling urban freeway of Taipei, 2005: the spectator is pulled out of silence into a hectic and disorienting modern world. We are no longer in the movie Paris of Lamorisse, much less in a conventional tourist's Paris, but in smoggy, bustling real Paris, and the only redolence of film culture is the movie posters for the slasher-horror parody Severance and Children of Men that obtrude the frame's center. In keeping with his surroundings, Simon is shrill and precocious—not the taciturn cherub that is Lamorisse's son—attempting to bribe the balloon to be his friend until, incognizant, it drifts above the trees.

I am told that this prologue—and the young protagonist's performance, in general—is the sticking point for many francophone audiences, and part of the reason that Hou's homage, or translation, of Lamorisse's film has been received in France with little more than a nonchalant Gallic shrug. Curiously—and perhaps pointedly—this scene also seems out of step with the rest of the film, which soon matches the balloon's rhythms rather than the traffic's. Next we’re on an open-air Métro platform, and we watch quietly and at length as cinematographer Mark Lee Ping Bing's framing and focus intently follow the balloon's strange, jerking movements in the wind. Soon we see that Simon, no longer the anxious, grabbing child of the previous scene, is also patiently watching these movements. And though he's in nearly every other scene in the film that follows, Simon is thenceforth only an observer, receding largely into the background. He shyly answers the questions of his nanny Song (Fang Song), fiddles with her video camera, dashes off to his bedroom for a nap, or plays with his Xbox, but his early precocity remains absent in the rest of the film, and afterwards he seems, as he does to Song, “gentle.”

As Simon recedes slightly into the background, protected from the anxiety and disorder around him as in a kind of bubble of maternal care created by Song, his mother, Suzanne, negotiates the trials of single-motherhood and what she calls the general complexity of adult life. Played by Binoche with frazzled, bleached hair, an eclectic wardrobe (jeans and a skirt), and mounting frustration, Suzanne is a heroine like others in Hou's work since the Nineties. Similar to Vicky in Millennium Mambo and Yoko in Café Lumière, she leads a somewhat sophisticated urban life that's nonetheless marked by a niggling, low-level chaos, the messiness of relationships and responsibilities and busy schedules. Each of these films is about modern love in the modern city, an attempt to map the sanctuaries of tenderness within an indifferent urban landscape (literalized in Café Lumière by Yoko’s friend Hajime’s computer graphic of a womblike network of Tokyo train lines and cars). It's no accident that the protagonists of these films are all women: Vicky, a teenager beginning to wise up; Yoko, a young single woman soon to be a mother; Suzanne, a single mom trying to maintain a semblance of order around her son.

The role of protector, or keeper of the peace for Simon, falls to Song. As an outsider, an observer, a tourist, she also serves as an educator and especially a mediator—both between cultures, as a translator, and within the structure of Suzanne's family. She connects mother and son, and functions as a sympathetic surrogate—getting his snack, taking him to play pinball, involving him in her film. (I suspect this is in fact what the film's prologue is—a scene from Song's film, not Hou's—which might account for its slightly off-key rhythm in contrast to the rest of the film.) Hou does not show us the precise way in which Song involves him in her film, but as we see Simon toying with Song's camera we sense that it too has become part of his secret world, one nurtured and enclosed by various mother figures (Suzanne; Song; Anna, the piano teacher; Louise, the “pretend sister”).

By this logic, and if we are to follow the symbolism of Lamorisse's film, the red balloon might represent companionship, a partner to the boy's loneliness. Like Hajime's image of the railway fetus, it is itself womblike in shape, and might suggest the protective tissue formed around the young Simon, like the red-curtained main room of his mother's inviting, organically cluttered flat, (Or, indeed, the muscle in the piano mover's neck that he says saved him from catastrophic injury.) Though Simon is not the film's primary focus, Hou nonetheless expresses a deep concern for the effect of experiences on children as he does in a few of his earlier works (A Summer at Grandpa's and A Time to Live and a Time to Die, in particular). The film's more breathless and harried scenes—scenes of grown-up complexities, tiffs, and disjunctions—do not seem to weigh on Simon until the end, when he retreats into his small atelier bedroom for a nap.

But once we are given to understand that the balloon is at least partly an invention of Song for her film—Song even discusses the green-screen technology that her film uses—the balloon seems less circumscribed, less determined. As such, the red balloon is beautiful, but empty. Its movement fascinates and seduces the camera; it’s elusive in its meaning as well as its motions, and its value is only certain in its aesthetic appeal. But this value should not be underestimated. Indeed, Hou's characters pause twice—at the beginning and at the end of the film—to consider the value of beautiful things. Origins, the earlier film which Song has made, evokes for Suzanne the sounds and sensations of her childhood, conjuring emotions, revisiting the pain and confusion of growing up in a broken home, and her descriptions of these rich aural and visual impressions could easily be descriptors of Hou's own work. Later, in the Musée d'Orsay, we hear a brief lecture on Félix Vallotton's 1899 painting The Ball and the ways it suggests moods and ideas through perspective, color, composition, and depth of field, much like Hou's film does.

In between these scenes, we have many opportunities to pause and contemplate not just what is being shown, but how it is being shown—landscapes framed by the windows of a train, a performance of Suzanne's puppet shows observed from backstage and by the audience, the techniques of ancient Chinese puppetry from a native master translated and explained, moving images transferred from Super-8 to video or framed within a familiar-looking window on the desktop of Song's computer. This is cinema woven into the fabric of everyday life. It's neither French, nor Taiwanese, nor “Asian”—rather than invoking the priorities of rigid national identities, it speaks in the idiom of an international cinema, one that is not bound by national borders, markets, or ideologies. But this is not a universalist perspective that encompasses all things and people coercively and indiscriminately. Flight of the Red Balloon speaks for a small community, a provisional family. It reaches across the world, but it concerns the most intimate and immediate senses and experiences.




#9: The Son

The Space Between
Andrew Tracy on The Son

It’s almost astonishing now to think of the teakettle tempest that erupted when Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne were awarded the Palme d’Or for their Rosetta by David Cronenberg’s Cannes jury in 1999. That such a seemingly modest slice of peculiarly assertive social realism could triumph in a field almost exclusively reserved for art-house white elephants or Hollywood fare inflated by critical fawning was, at the very least, highly unlikely. Yet Cronenberg and company’s verdict was not simply a career-making coup for the brothers, but a rather bold recognition of those spaces going unfilled in contemporary cinema. Against the turf-staking instincts of so many of even the best filmmakers, the Dardennes had created a supple aesthetic that was wholly theirs while being eminently sharable. Their combination of formalist rigor, documentary immediacy, and social concern, if masterful, was far from novel; but the uniqueness of their work lay in something less quantifiable and categorizable. There is a pulsing life in the films that goes beyond their bobbing, neck-breathing camera, an inexorable pull towards the metaphysical while never departing from the most concrete of settings and situations.

A particularly illuminating case in point: near the middle of The Son, our taciturn hero Olivier (Olivier Gourmet), a carpentry instructor at a halfway house for juvenile delinquents, stops for a late night snack and is joined by his young charge Francis (Morgan Marinne). As the two eat silently in the parking lot, attentively watched by the Dardennes’ hovering, unblinking camera, Francis asks Olivier how he was able to guess his height earlier in the day, when kitting Francis out with a work suit for his new trade. “It comes from practice,” replies Olivier. “From this paving stone here to the tire on that red car,” says Francis, “how far is it?” His head moving slightly back and forth, the expressionless Olivier gauges the space before him: “Three meters fifty-one.” Taking out his newly acquired carpenter’s rule, Francis methodically measures from stone to bumper. “Three meters fifty-two.” He searches for two other poles. “And from my right foot to your left foot, how far is it?” Again, the owlish head performs its survey: “Four meters ten. . . eleven. Four meters eleven.” The measurement: “Four meters eleven,” confirms Francis, as the camera tilts upwards to capture Olivier’s almost invisible recoil as the rule joins his body with that of the boy.

It’s difficult to articulate the rich multiplicity of effects that this deceptively simple scene evokes. On the one hand, the film is simply confirming what we already know about Olivier (that he is a skilled tradesman) and furthering the connection that he is (reluctantly? malevolently?) allowing to form between himself and the boy who he has been observing with obviously acute anxiety. The scene thus simultaneously anchors the protagonist more firmly in the film’s designated world—as is done so frequently in narrative film, allowing a character’s profession or particular expertise to testify to his or her solidity as a person, or rather to that fictional construct which we agree to designate as “person”—while further prodding the viewer to speculate as to his motives. These speculations are considerably complicated shortly thereafter, when Olivier confirms for the benefit of his ex-wife (and us) that it was Francis who had five years previously been sentenced to juvenile prison for unintentionally killing Olivier’s infant son while trying to jack a car stereo.

Yet even as the scene performs these useful functions, it also produces a more unusual and pointed kind of suspense. As we wait for each of Olivier’s measurements to be confirmed, this simple guessing game provokes a kind of slow awe and excitement—not at the fictional character “Olivier’s” expertise, but at the sight of bodiless thought (as signified by Olivier’s terse answers) being miraculously transformed into physical reality. Paradoxically, it is almost as if Olivier is actively producing the space instead of simply reading it; there’s an electric thrill of creation that courses through the scene, an intangible feeling that the world is actually being made before our eyes. And yet it is provoked by one of the most fundamental of cinematic artifices: as Gourmet is not “really” measuring those distances with his eyes (though the Dardennes have cheerfully noted that, like his filmic namesake, he is a pretty fair carpenter in his own right), how is that thrill achieved except by actors reciting lines and performing actions given them by a script?

This scene, in all its unadorned simplicity and almost preternatural wonder, attests to that instantly graspable but maddeningly intangible project that the Dardennes have been honing to its keenest edge since La Promesse: a Bazinian revelation of the real achieved via the most fundamentally illusionistic properties of the narrative cinema. When coupled with the painstaking precision—of events and revelations, of looks and gestures—with which they construct their narrative architecture, the breathtakingly simple device of that insistently pursuing camera scores an ontological coup, enlarging the world precisely by narrowing the frame through which we are allowed to view it, indeed, most often making that frame commensurate with the body and movements of a single character. If The Son is the first among equals in the Dardennes’ remarkable body of work, it is because its dramatic crux most perfectly articulates the suggestively epic power ingrained in their determinedly and deceptively small-scale workings. Rigorously adhering to the circumscribed life, milieu, and field of vision afforded Olivier, eschewing any hint of allegorical or symbolic inflation, The Son moves organically into one of the richest evocations of worldly existence and experience achieved in cinema.

If the puffery of that declaration seems glaringly at odds with The Son’s microscopic artistry, this only indicates the critic’s maddening quandary, forced to articulate the film’s inexpressible feeling of grandness in terms that can only do an injustice to the modest integrity (and integral modesty) of its being. Nonetheless, the Dardennes have brought this on themselves, for like only that most select stratum of the first rank of contemporary filmmakers they are not reflecting, interpreting, or commenting upon, but actively making the world in each of their films. If the Dardennes are indeed the premiere narrative film artists of our time (as this writer believes them to be), this is not because they make Story sovereign above all else, but because they use their unerringly exact calibration of narrative progression—in the movement from scene to scene and the movements within scenes—to activate every corner of the world in which it transpires. Even more than a revelation, theirs is a re-enchantment of the real, endowing even the most utilitarian elements with an almost talismanic significance. As with the red coat, gumboots, and hair dryer of Rosetta’s titular heroine (Emilie Duquenne), so the objects with which Olivier both casually and ritualistically vests Francis—carpenter’s rule, toolbelt, overalls—are not merely “tools,” but ways of navigating the world and staking out one’s place in it. And even as they are used by the directing minds and hands of a Rosetta or an Olivier, they in return help define who and what “Rosetta” and “Olivier” are.

Beyond the proletarian provenance of their settings, the Dardennes’ is a materialist cinema in the highest and truest sense. Not simply demonstrating how the psychological self is formed by its environment, they depict how the self is an assertive and autonomous fact in that environment, shaping it even as it shapes them. It is perhaps this that helps create the strange wonderment of that measuring game. While of course we know that the physical world depicted onscreen precedes Olivier’s presence within it, his body—our chief orientation point, the “frame of the action” as the Dardennes call it—is the sole lens through which we have been able to perceive it; it thus almost makes sense that it would wholly correspond to his verdicts upon it (even if he’s off by a centimeter).

Yet even as the physical world of The Son is keyed to Olivier’s restless animation and knotted, latent force, it still persists beyond him. The blurred, sometimes almost indiscernible environments we glimpse on the borders of the frame are not the world “as seen by” Olivier, a banal symbolization of his inscrutable and perhaps troubled psyche. Rather, made by the world, he makes it for us in his turn, a reciprocity that constitutes not only the existential but the aesthetic crux of the Dardennes’ cinema. More so than that of any other Dardenne protagonist, Olivier’s profession—which, as with all the others from Jérémie Renier in La Promesse and L’Enfant to Duquenne’s Rosetta and Arta Dobroshi in Lorna’s Silence, is tantamount to his existence—allows him to (quite literally) embody this. A creator in the most elemental sense of the word, making new forms from living materials, Olivier makes his place at the heart of an endlessly vivified universe, where the space between a paving stone and a tire, between one person and another is not an empty void but a charged, living thing, an invisible current binding animate and inanimate together.

It’s for this reason that death seems like such a horrifically incongruous thing in the Dardennes’ cinema, and why so many of their characters (sometimes almost against their will) strive to fill in those absented spaces, whether it be La Promesse’s Igor attempting to take charge of the unknowing widow of an illegal worker, Lorna insisting against all evidence that she’s carrying the child of her murdered husband-for-convenience, or most startlingly of all, Olivier seemingly taking the killer of his child under his tutelage. Incarnated most nakedly and fiercely by the job-hunting Rosetta, these characters evince a stubborn, innate refusal to abandon life—a refusal that, absent conscious generosity, can transcend isolated self-interest. The Dardennes’ humanism is of the most unsentimental and—lame word—pure variety: joining their characters’ lives in media res, the films depart from them in the same manner, the unspoken epiphanies that signal their endpoints (rather, their stopping points) providing no solutions for their characters other than a cryptic recognition of the spaces that they occupy in the world. As The Son progresses there is a growing certainty that Olivier will not seek revenge on Francis, but our suspense remains—not because we expect the easy answers of death, but because we cannot guess how the far thornier questions of life will reveal themselves.
"If you are marching with white nationalists, you are by definition not a very nice person. If Malala Yousafzai had taken part in that rally, you'd have to say 'Okay, I guess Malala sucks now.'" ~ John Oliver

Sabin
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Postby Sabin » Sun Dec 27, 2009 1:19 am

Keepin' it goin'...

#10: There Will Be Blood

Pitch Black
Matt Connolly on There Will Be Blood

At the time of its release in December 2007, Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood received a wave of critical kudos, praising its formal control, bravura central performance, and idiosyncratic take on the Upton Sinclair novel from which it is loosely based. Among the multiple lines of critical and cultural discourse surrounding the film, however, one particularly stands out: the notion of There Will Be Blood—with its central conflict between cutthroat oil prospector Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) and zealous small-town preacher Eli Sunday (Paul Dano) in 1911 California—as a kind of demonic origin tale for the state of contemporary American political culture, with narrow-minded religious fervor and bald-faced capitalistic excesses forming two sides of the same tarnished coin. There’s validity to the amount of ink spilled on this issue. Certainly There Will Be Blood’s historical setting and employment of easily definable archetypes—the minister, the oilman—invite us to consider the social forces these characters represent and the influence these forces had, and continue to have, within American culture.

Still, I think that the amount of critical discussion about this idea stemmed as much from its historical moment as from the content of the film itself. There Will Be Blood hit theaters during the twilight of the Bush administration, when many film critics felt particularly free to pepper their cinematic commentary with (mostly left-wing) political critique. It should come as little surprise, then, that reviewers drew direct lines between the film’s withering view of runaway capitalism and Christian dogmatism and the rapidly imploding GOP coalition of laissez-faire businessmen and religious fundamentalists that, in their eyes, so royally screwed up the country for the better part of the decade. See what the past hath wrought! Never mind that, as an allegory for the contemporary conservative movement, There Will Be Blood leaves something to be desired. (What to make, for example, of the fact that the representative of religion ends up bludgeoned to death by the avatar of capitalism?) Such a reading felt more like an expedient bid for cultural relevancy than reflective of the film’s true modus operandi.

Indeed, a principal reason why There Will Be Blood continues to reverberate in rich and perplexing ways lies in its refusal to let generalization overtake eccentricity. The blustery banalities and sweeping assertions of the conventional historical epic give way here to the ominous, the ambivalent, and the particular. For all its visual grandeur and allegorical possibility, There Will Be Blood is in many ways a brazenly specific story of petty rivalry and one-upmanship, revolving around a central protagonist whose loneliness, anger, and bone-deep suspicion of the world around him leads to some pretty weird behavior. Yet small-scale never gives way to quirky irrelevance. Anderson doesn’t blow up the historical epic so much as deflate it, letting out the hot air and refilling it with strange and intoxicating fumes. Laser-precise character study merges with wider cultural critique, until the viewer cannot tell where Plainview’s wormy peculiarities cease to be the hallmarks of a single, twisted mind and begin to stand in for every American go-getter whose “individualistic” streak means little more than the channeling of greed and paranoia to a pragmatic end.

The amplification of small, searingly intimate character moments marks many of Anderson’s films, in which narrative ebb-and-flow depends more upon the evocation of intensely felt emotion than the whirring of plot mechanics. When I think back to, say, Boogie Nights (1997), the details of why its de facto family of porn stars disperses halfway through the film seem less vivid and important than the falling-through-the-floor desperation that the characters—and audience—collectively experience in that devastating 1980s downfall montage. Plot does matter to a point; you can’t really accuse a director who ends a film with a deluge of frogs falling on Los Angeles of not considering narrative twists. But watching an Anderson film is often like listening to a symphony, where fluctuations in tone and mood demarcate major narrative shifts rather than carefully placed plot reversals. Perhaps this is why he can get away with something like the “Wise-Up” sing-along in Magnolia (1999). Cross-cutting between wildly disparate characters all connected by the same existential despair, it stops the film in its tracks but also proves the purest distillation of its broken, beating heart.

Though he moved through the decade from Altman-esque mosaics to single-protagonist character studies, Anderson retained this penchant for refracting his plots through the prism of his socially maladjusted heroes’ anxieties, suspicions, and stubborn hopes. Punch-Drunk Love (2002) is a romance stripped of all meet-cute niceties, the screen pulsating with a neurotic passion tied directly to Barry Egan’s (Adam Sandler) twitchy, shredded nerves. Anderson continues this trend here, laying out the steps of Plainview’s accumulation of wealth and power, but only so we can see how professional success deepens his misanthropy. Like one of its protagonist’s oil derricks, the film’s primary narrative movement is vertical rather than horizontal, descending ever further into a single site and dredging up its gushing, pitch-black contents. And as Plainview’s world becomes consumed with sights real and (increasingly) imagined, the film imbues his ego-driven psychological turf wars with a wild-eyed grandeur too queasily intense to dismiss as simply mock epic. This is not to deny the strains of black humor that course throughout the film, in large part created by Day-Lewis’s matter-of-fact delivery of Plainview’s bizarre threats (rarely has the promise to break into a man’s house and cut his throat been so funny).

There Will Be Blood practically vibrates with a sense of building unease, like a low-grade fever that slowly warps the mind. From the initial fade-in to the shadowy mountains resting ominously over the desert, a profound malevolence seems to brew underneath the desiccated Western landscape and ramshackle towns, bursting to the surface in fits and starts like the sudden explosions of gas and oil that kill various workers throughout the film’s first half. Anderson cultivates this atmosphere of free-floating discomfort by pushing forward his signature auteurist move—the tracking shot—in a truly breathtaking direction. The mobile camera very much defines Anderson’s cinema: its virtuosity; its interplay of character and milieu; its balancing of intense character empathy and authorial distance. When we, say, follow along with Sydney (Philip Baker Hall) on his solitary stroll through a bustling casino in Hard Eight (1996), it tells us everything we need to know about his simultaneous comfort with and detachment from the glittery, gaudy world in which he operates. Those eye-catching tracks remain throughout this film, particularly in the stunning sequence when a gas explosion deafens Plainview’s adopted son, H.W. (Dillon Freasier) and turns the derrick into a kind of flaming monolith against the darkening desert sky. And Anderson and DP Robert Elswit once again prove their joint mastery of light, color, and composition, drawing upon a rich palette of sandy browns, brilliant blues, and blinding whites to craft some of the most stunning images of Anderson’s career. I mean no disrespect when I say that There Will Be Blood is the first of Anderson’s films in which I wasn’t constantly aware of his hand on the wheel. The camera becomes an unblinking observer rather than a restless explorer, calmly documenting the characters in long takes as their actions segue from quietly bitter to violently outlandish. Extreme shot length and creeping track-ins further this eerily composed aesthetic; characters become but one aspect of a mise-en-scène whose bleak beauty at once complements and overwhelms their bestial behavior. When combined with the atonal maelstrom of Jonny Greenwood’s score, these scenes become akin to watching a slow-motion car crash, our fixed position making the sudden eruptions of chaos all the more disturbing and surreal.

Yet, if Anderson’s formal strategies have shifted, his empathy remains intact. For all its unsparing depictions of Plainview’s avarice and contempt, There Will Be Blood never quite allows us to forget his shriveled and lonely heart. It comes through in moments of solitary contemplation, as when Daniel broodingly watches a train pass, sunlight and shadow shifting across his face as the more melancholy strains of Greenwood’s score surge in the background. As Plainview tells a group of potential clients early in the film, he is an oilman, but he’s also a family man. More specifically, he is father to H.W., the orphaned son of one of Plainview’s workers who is unceremoniously killed in the opening of the film by a falling piece of equipment while working underground. Father-son relationships of various kinds have been central to Anderson’s films since Hard Eight, and the bond between Daniel and H.W. (whom he takes in as an infant and who is nine-years-old throughout most of the film) is one of his most delicately observed familial bonds. He often places Day-Lewis and Freasier within distanced, wide-angle compositions, allowing us to notice nuances of physical rapport: the way H.W. attempts to keep up with his loping father as they walk across the long, lonely plains; the mixture of awkwardness and affection with which Daniel musses H.W.’s hair.

In these scenes, Day-Lewis finds some of his subtlest and most moving moments. All the talk surrounding There Will Be Blood’s audacious final sequence has had the somewhat dubious effect of labeling Day-Lewis’s performance as one of fearless, operatic intensity or, worse, scenery-masticating excess. I’m not going to deny the bold theatricality of those concluding moments, nor will I claim that the entire performance doesn’t have a certain stylization to it: the John Huston accent; the limping gait. Yet the power of the final scene derives from Day-Lewis’s slow burn, the gradual shucking of humanity that occurs over the course of the film. And in these moments with Freasier, Day-Lewis conjures up a private emotional history between father and son that goes beyond merely “humanizing” a difficult character. When Daniel desperately clings to his son after the derrick explosion leaves H.W. deaf, the image attains the primal pull of a pietà.

Despite this, Plainview’s understanding of familial bonds remains fundamentally narcissistic, finding value in another person because he can see himself in them. Daniel’s tragedy, then, lies in his complete lack of blood ties, leading him to push away his surrogate son and murder his treacherous would-be brother, Henry (Kevin O’Connor), whose brief appearance proves one of film’s richest, strangest interludes. In the end, Daniel’s true mirror image, or at least his philosophical soul mate, is arch nemesis Eli. Linked by deceitful brother figures (Eli’s twin, Paul, initially tipped Daniel off about purchasing the Sunday family’s land for its oil), boundless ambition, proclivity for the theatrical, and use of respected institutions to further personal goals, Daniel and Eli’s escalating series of humiliations against one another spring from the same desire to control and dominate the world around them. Their tango of public embarrassments and emasculating slaps is at times chokingly funny in its ritualized degradation, and it also represents the purest distillation of Daniel’s polluted, kill-or-be-killed worldview. Anderson will often place these figures on opposing side of the frame, crafting an image equal parts reflection and confrontation. Rather than the aforementioned “conservative creation myth,” There Will Be Blood seems to be positing a deeper critique of American mythos, in which one’s most profound connections lie not in the bonds of family but in the struggles with our competitors in the pursuit of power and material gain.

This is no more evident than in the film’s much-discussed final movement, in which Daniel and Eli bring their rivalry to a bloody climax. We’ve flashed forward to 1927 via a truly exquisite cut from young H.W. and friend Mary jumping off a low wooden ledge to their wedding day sixteen years later (can you think of a more elegantly simple evocation of matrimony’s exhilarating and mutual risk?). This radical disjuncture in time places the viewer in a somewhat ambivalent place: easily able to understand the corrosive tensions between the grown H.W. and Daniel—now fueled by alcohol-induced paranoia and stewing in his massive, dimly lit mansion—yet distanced due to our lack of concrete knowledge about what has occurred in the elided span of time, not to mention the unfamiliarity of the grown actor (Russell Harvard) now playing H.W. As cruelly affecting as Daniel’s disavowal of H.W. is, our emotional investment in their parting feels secondary to the final meeting of the film’s true kindred spirits.

It’s hard to know what more there is to say about this finale, which inspired many fervent discussions (and almost as many YouTube parodies). Set in that Kubrickian underground bowling alley that’s simultaneously the antithesis of the film’s dominant outdoor milieu and a harkening back to the subterranean hole where we found Daniel at film’s beginning, this ending is squall-like in its brief, frothing fury before subsiding into a surreal, after-the-storm equilibrium. It’s funnier than I recalled, with wildly idiosyncratic insults that surpass the much-quoted milkshake capper in sheer hysterical meanness (Daniel to Eli: “You’re just the afterbirth, Eli, who slithered out on your mother’s filth. They should have put you in a glass jar on the mantelpiece.”). It’s jaw-dropping and insane and ironic and mysterious: pregnant with metaphoric meaning yet too madly specific to ever just be metaphor. Yet for all the ways Anderson explodes There Will Be Blood with this finale, our last glimpse of Daniel Plainview remains completely and, in a way, hauntingly true to everything that has come before. Spent from his labors and gazing intently upon the precious liquid he has just extracted, he sits utterly, inevitably alone.




#11: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Better Loving Through Chemistry
Kristi Mitsuda on Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Few contemporary films manage to span the critical and popular culture divide to capture the collective imagination in electric, unifying ecstasy, but Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind makes the feat look easy. Did any other film this decade communicate on such an emotionally immediate level to both crowds? To some extent it probably could’ve succeeded purely on the fumes of its brilliant premise, so tapped into a universal yearning—nearly everyone has at some point dreamed of erasing the pain of heartbreak by expunging an ex from memory—that the layers of built-in resonance might have easily been squandered. Lucky for us that Eternal Sunshine encapsulates a perfect storm of talent coming together, raising a sci-fi rumination on memory, love, and loss to the heady heights of modern masterpiece.

Eternal Sunshine is an affecting experience unmatched by screenwriter Charlie Kaufman's previous endeavors, Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, brain-teasing meta-explorations of identity and storytelling. Although the premises of this one-man screenwriting brand's earlier films seem to promise forthcoming reckonings of life-altering dimensions, the works ultimately fall short because he refuses emotional engagement; his self-conscious attachment to arched-brow skepticism and cleverly schematic unfoldings play like cop-outs, only accruing soulful vibrancy thanks largely to the ministrations of the director (Spike Jonze) and actors involved (Cameron Diaz in Being John Malkovich, Meryl Streep in Adaptation).

But Eternal Sunshine radiates authentic feeling. Structured around Joel and Clementine’s lost love and desperate attempts to first obliterate and then revive it, the film is possessed of an unshakably plaintive quality. It successfully refracts the common denominators of romantic relationships through an inventive prism, so the ritual of, say, tossing out pictures of an ex-lover, along with other detritus of a dead relationship, is here transmogrified: Lacuna, Inc., has Joel round up the offending artifacts and then presents each in turn to him as he concentrates, strapped to a brain-mapping device which collects data later to be referenced in the eradication of the memories triggered.

This isn’t to suggest Kaufman doesn’t begin to backslide into the rabbit-hole gimmickry of which he’s so enamored; as Joel seeks to save at least one memory of Clementine from the destruction of Lacuna’s trigger-happy technicians, the episodic scenarios grow increasingly outré, and the film starts to slide off the rails in a manner similar to the screenwriter’s other output. But its sincerity and measured sentimentality keep it centered. As memories literally slip away from Joel, midstream, his natural reaction to preserve the fleeting beauty no matter the attendant anguish bespeaks his regret and longing; his internal dialogues with Clementine turn into a sad goodbye lament. And come the conclusion, rather than resorting to his usual pessimism, Kaufman leans in the direction of hope, if tenuously so, in the fitting way of the fragile brokenhearted which are Eternal Sunshine’s subjects (perhaps a first step in freeing him to go for broke in his own open-armed directorial debut, Synecdoche, New York, a movie of matryoshka-doll intricacy encompassing life’s confusion, death’s inevitability, and everything in between).

In turn, director Michel Gondry moderates his sensibilities in sublime fashion in order to serve and elevate the film. His movement into mainstream moviemaking after years of directing commercials and celebrated music videos for the likes of Björk and the White Stripes emblematized a larger cinematic shift as a host of defining filmmakers of the MTV aesthetic (among them, Jonze and David Fincher) started rising to prominence, each showcasing in his movies a particular brand of visual pyrotechnics. Gondry’s predilection for lo-tech, handcrafted special effects are especially well-suited to Eternal Sunshine’s human-scaled, sci-fi love story; his eschewal of CGI wizardry in an era increasingly reliant upon the technology affords even the most out-there of the film’s sequences—such as Joel’s infantile regressions, conveyed via old-school forced perspective—an unexpectedly intimate, tangible quality.

Gondry’s previous collaboration with Kaufman, Human Nature (also the French filmmaker’s feature debut) flails because his trademark penchant for the weird and whimsical seem taxed by the feature-length format; that film’s love quadrangle featuring a feral man and hair-covered woman comes off as cloyingly cutesy and cardboard-stiff rather than otherworldly animated (as per Björk’s “Human Behavior,” perhaps the most iconic of the director’s videos). Gondry reins in these instincts for Eternal Sunshine, balancing his fondness for artfully artificial props and studio sets by shooting on location and incorporating natural light and other elements. Such small touches add immeasurably to the tenor of the film; when Joel wakes to the pale, grey winter light in the opening sequence, his mood and mindset are conveyed immediately. And as he later stands under a street light, snow flurries swirling around him upon his (second) first meeting of Clementine, love’s beginnings are rendered magical.

But Eternal Sunshine truly lives and breathes because of the fullness of its lead characters, expressively rendered by Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet. In their emotionally naked performances, they conjure an achingly credible current of tenderness and antagonism; both actors inhabit the roles so fully that the characters’ desires and frustrations feel as known to us as a lover’s. Carrey’s eternally ashen-faced and haggard Joel seems to be suffering from Clementine’s absence as one would experience withdrawal from caffeine or alcohol. And the way Winslet’s Clementine in the introductory scenes (not yet aware she and Joel are former flames) obliviously, instinctively insists on invading Joel’s personal space—moving her body so close to him that he visibly winces, both on the train and later in her apartment—works on multiple levels, establishing both her aggressive, extroverted persona as well as subconscious physical familiarity with Joel (her body recollecting intimate knowledge of his even if her mind can’t).

Secondary characters are flawlessly cast as well. New boyfriend to Clementine and Lacuna employee, Patrick (a stalkerish Elijah Wood), steals Joel’s memorabilia and deliberately seeks to recreate déjà vu moments in a pitiful attempt to coax her into falling in love with him, but instead provokes such cognitive dissonance in Clem that she lashes out in tears and agitation. And a subplot involving co-workers Mary (ditzy-adorable Kirsten Dunst), Stan (Mark Ruffalo, a geeked-out teddy bear), and Dr. Howard Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson, gentle-seeming as ever, the better to foil expectation), which at first seems merely a light-hearted distraction from the turmoil of the main thread, adds another dimension to the story; the climactic revelation that Mary’s sweet, schoolgirl crush on Howard stems from a darker, damaging history—she herself underwent the procedure to erase the doctor from her memory—feeds back into the pained core of the primary narrative.

Eternal Sunshine can’t help but play off and speak to viewer projections, the experience becoming something of a psychic playground as it touches off emotional echoes and leads you down a hall of personal reveries. Even though the movie’s sentiments—boiling down to the notion that love finds a way—border on the banal, Eternal Sunshine thrillingly eludes clichés and revels in the specificity of its characters and locales. It finally lays itself bare, vulnerable and cautiously openhearted as its protagonists. In a parallel universe, its creators might’ve wandered off track to assume a more distanced stance, as befitting the knowing, hipster-irony of the times; instead it extends an empathic sensitivity that holds all of us in its embrace.


#12: Kings & Queen

The Art of the Matter
Elbert Ventura on Kings and Queen

There has been talk this past year of the dour mood in cinema. The Cannes and New York film festivals, the polestars of American art-house culture, excited some and repelled many with their lineups of “gruesome,” “pessimistic,” and “bleak” provocations. Elitist, that dreaded word, was paraded out and slapped on both festivals, which were accused of being interested only in shoving veggies or dirt into the mouths of moviegoers. But such complaints are nothing new. Movies have always been a mass medium—and artists have long sought to expand the bounds of that definition. That tension between popular entertainment and high ambition is at the heart of a long-running argument about the direction of the movies.

French filmmaker Arnaud Desplechin doesn't so much pick a side as ignore the dispute. At decade's end, he has emerged as one of the festival circuit's most adored names. His is a peculiar project. Though a maker of dense, allusive, eclectic, and formally radical films, Desplechin hardly thinks of himself as an inaccessible artist. As he has said in interviews, Desplechin has located his aesthetic firmly in the democratic tradition. “I think that’s what I love about popular arts—they belong to everyone,” he told Jeff Reichert in these pages. In the same interview, he said of making movies, “It’s always for an audience, and you need to take care of that audience and respect them. Because it is for them you’re making the movie.” Compare that with Lars Von Trier's statement at Cannes this year: “I don't think about the audience when I make a film. I don't care. I make films for myself.” The disparity between those outlooks underscores Desplechin's value: here's an auteur who wants to explore the medium's possibilities—and who wants to take us with him.

Of his contributions this decade, none represents Desplechin's virtues better than 2005's Kings and Queen. Where to begin with it? Well, one doesn't “begin” with Kings and Queen. Much praise has already been lavished on Desplechin's masterpiece. Repeat viewings have only confirmed its inexhaustibility. Relentlessly surprising, Kings and Queen was (now famously) made with Truffaut's dictum “Every minute, four ideas” as its animating principle. (That line was used as the title of a 2008 Desplechin retrospective at the IFC Center.)

The movie's queen is Nora (Emmanuelle Devos, in one of the decade's great performances), a single mother juggling the kings in her life: her ten-year-old son, her dying father, a departed first love, a stolid fiancé, and a manic ex. That last one, Ismael, played by Mathieu Amalric, is the movie's other protagonist, the madcap counterpart to Nora's melodramatic diva. Eschewing glib exposition, Desplechin constructs a mercurial, even cubist, character study spilling over with blissed-out experimentalism. Elegant dissolves bump up against discordant cuts; hip-hop crashes into classical music; flashbacks fuse with dreams. Desplechin and his editor, Laurence Briaud, reduce the action to shards, breaking up images and scenes with different takes. That prismatic perspective bespeaks an impulse to embrace life unreservedly and from all angles.

Kings and Queen shares another affinity with the work of Truffaut (particularly Jules and Jim)— an all-encompassing love of art. Nora is an art dealer, her father a writer, Ismael a musician. The movie suggests that a life immersed in art comes with madness, sorrow, exhilaration—that is, life at its fullest and grandest. Scattered throughout are quotes from poems, books, movies; allusions to classical mythology and fairy tales abound. In the hands of someone like Kubrick, the references to antiquity can be reproachful, a rebuke to modernity and a jab at our smallness. But Desplechin doesn't view his characters from Olympian heights—he's right there with them. In his movies, legend and lore serve as reminders of how timeless our earthly striving is, and how dappled with grandness our lives are.

Kings and Queen is the work of a filmmaker of formidable intellectual dexterity. Cerebral though it may be, the film is suffused with enchantment. The first title card comes with a flourish of strings—a dash of pixie dust to start the proceedings. Magic is sprinkled throughout this movie, largely set in pedestrian spaces. Ghosts haunt its halls; superstition intrudes on logic. When the inexplicable occurs—as when Nora receives a burn mark from an angry letter pressed against her skin—it hardly feels out of place. And yet there's an almost mathematical rationality here as well. A cracked fusion of the romantic and the real, drama and farce, Desplechin's movie devotes exactly 67 minutes each to Nora and Ismael, and a lovely, haunting 12-minute coda that the director calls a “gift” to Nora's child. Formalist and yet freewheeling, the movie contains multitudes.

A joy second only to watching his movies is listening to Desplechin talk movies. In interviews, the French auteur bursts with ebullience and erudition, radiating an infectious magnanimity and open-mindedness. He doesn't so much discuss films as gush about them. Like Scorsese with a slower motor and a French lilt, Desplechin the critic is a director that cinephiles are suckers for—the film artist as movie buff. (See also: Quentin Tarantino.) At a screening for A Christmas Tale in Silver Spring, Maryland, last November, Desplechin stayed for a chat after the movie. The large theater was just over half-full at best for the Q&A, but Desplechin, who has seen much larger festival audiences, didn't seem troubled, holding forth with good cheer. One got the impression that he'd have been just as happy to ramble on had the theater contained a mere handful.

His exuberance is contagious—and emboldening. For the movie buff who despairs of the art's relegation to the margins of culture, Desplechin's palpable excitement about film is an invigorating tonic. In 2009, cinephilia seems more than ever the province of cultists. Desplechin's dreams of a truly popular art take on a poignant cast, because its realization seems so distant. “This is a film that definitely belongs to the audience,” Desplechin said of Kings and Queen. He's right, of course—to these eyes, it's an accessible, pop-infused movie that should be loved by moviegoers. A word that comes up frequently when discussing Desplechin is “generous.” Not for him the astringent, exacting, and forbidding cinema of some of his festival peers. And yet as Nick Pinkerton once wrote here, “Desplechin can prompt walk-outs that only Lars von Trier can dream of.” (My own buzzkill after a June 2005 viewing in Chevy Chase, Maryland: two matrons muttering about how nonsensical and unlikable the movie was as the sparse crowd filed out.)

Forget mass audiences: even educated cosmopolitans, the very viewers whom artists like Desplechin need to survive, seem increasingly incapable of responding to movies that test formal and narrative conventions. They seem less intrigued by movies as an art, even as they continue to go to museums, read challenging novels, and see interesting plays. There's also the notion, rapidly gaining steam, that TV has lapped movies as a greater artistic medium—an idea that, based on my interactions, is particularly popular among those who don't actually go to movies much these days (and, when they do, rarely like to be surprised). The current climate for film geeks recalls the girlfriend's rebuke of Woody Allen's character (a film critic!) in Play It Again, Sam. Nancy (Susan Anspach), breaking up with him, complains that all they do is watch movies. “You like movies because you're one of life's great watchers. I'm not like that.” It's an attitude that implies that movies should be received passively—that art is separate, ancillary, even unnecessary to life.

Desplechin knows that the dichotomy is false, which is why he has won the devotion of many hardcore cinephiles. His movies and his outlook redeem our passion. They say what many of us feel to be true: that love of movies and love of life are one and the same.




#13: Yi Yi

The Humanistic Condition
Andrew Chan on Yi Yi

Cinephilia is usually characterized as an insatiable, promiscuous kind of love, but Edward Yang’s Yi Yi tempts me to think of it as monogamous. While this certainly isn’t the only film I’ve ever held dear, the reverence it commands leads me to a few hyperbolic convictions most often associated with romantic commitment: that its entrance into my life was destined; that I never truly loved before it; that it will always mean this much to me. As with most worthwhile passions, though, this personal canon of one arouses an impulse for self-doubt. What is it in Yi Yi that makes me think, however momentarily, that I could relinquish the rest of cinema’s varied treasures? Insofar as one’s professed aesthetic values function as an advertisement of an idealized self-image, there must be a strong element of narcissism in my devotion to this film, perhaps the false implication that I have successfully internalized the wisdom at its heart. Surely there is something maudlin about my desire to understand my life in parallel to it and my eagerness to subscribe wholeheartedly to its worldview. Not only does Yi Yi offer a space for its audience to make peace with life’s contradictions (or at least imagine what it would be like to do so), but it couples its serenity with the sense that we—like its characters—possess profound capacities for emotion that counteract bourgeois numbness. Or maybe, in love, timing is everything. My intense identification with Yi Yi—a film that came to me just as I began to fret over what it might mean to be a grown-up—once satisfied a late-teenage compulsion to rehearse the responsibilities and disappointments of adult life from a safe distance. Could it be that my continued adoration is rooted only in nostalgia?

It can be a frightening prospect to revisit a beloved object—lest a diminished love should reveal how much we have changed, how little we knew about ourselves, how briefly anything lasts. Yet Yi Yi’s exquisitely balanced and inclusive portrait of middle-class Taipei seems designed to accompany its devotees like a talisman through the years, and to continually renew and complicate the feelings we invest in it. For all its complex emotional shading, this three-hour family saga is built from the basics, an outline of life crises and rites of passage that could easily be taken for the “universal human condition.” An international audience that might have felt alienated by the historical opacities of other Taiwanese masterpieces, like City of Sadness, is offered a secure foothold here, as Yi Yi (whose title literally translates as “One, One”) pivots on a series of classic binaries, symmetries, and cyclic repetitions—young versus old, life versus death, individual versus community, globalization versus cultural authenticity. This structuring principle is made blatant from the very first scenes, when a wedding banquet is quickly followed by the Jiang clan’s silent, smiling matriarch falling into a coma. Assembling a large cast of characters around the two milestones of marriage and death, Yang constructs his sprawling narrative out of the varying degrees of intimacy and distance between family members—who are simultaneously united in the similar ways they approach life’s challenges, and isolated in their ignorance of these commonalities. Like those in almost all of the great Taiwanese cinema that has reached American shores, Yi Yi’s rhythms are uniformly slow and methodical, but the film’s character-centered progression also gives it the qualities of a dance, as it constantly negotiates its participants’ steps toward and away from one another.

While the film’s reliance on yin-yang duality risks clichéd, overbearing symbolism, it also signals the director’s lack of embarrassment about reaching for core truths. Yang’s epic surveying across the generations never becomes reductive because he refuses to see his characters simply as stand-ins for their age groups and social positions, or as clusters of clearly defined lights and shadows, virtues and vices. His subtlety is exemplified in the profound but largely uncommunicative relationship between the film’s two male heroes, a father and son through whom Yang refracts both his temperament as an artist and some of his autobiography as a passionate, cosmopolitan Taiwanese man who has struggled to find his voice in a rigid society. Yi Yi’s central protagonist is NJ, a disillusioned business- and family-man (played by New Taiwan Cinema screenwriter and popular TV personality Wu Nianzhen) torn between a desire to assert his agency and a resignation to his own sense of powerlessness. The events that provoke his midlife crisis elicit two conflicting attitudes: on the one hand, he valiantly stands up to the unimaginative, profit-hungry decisions of his partners at a software company, and boldly professes his enduring love for a long-estranged high-school flame (Ke Suyun); on the other, when confronted with life’s fundamental unfairness and the problems that arise within his own family, he is stoic, reluctantly verbal, at times frustratingly passive.

In NJ’s brief, fragmentary descriptions of his early life, we recognize some of Yang, a “good Chinese son” who eventually rebelled against the pragmatic careerism expected of him. Though we meet NJ on the path set for him by a courageous choice of self-determination made in his young adulthood, we discover that not unlike Yang—who in interviews expressed his bitterness about the Taiwanese audience’s general apathy toward his work—our hero has become painfully aware of the constraints on his idealism and ambition. His face alone could tell the whole story: small, slightly rumpled, with a natural scowl that only occasionally lifts into a faint smile, Wu looks like he feels the violence of each and every emotion, but has given up on registering them in his words or expressions. Yi Yi may be tackling the big questions of life and its meaning, but it focuses its inquiries on the subtlest gradations of tone and mood, the kind that are barely legible on NJ’s face. What, it asks (without ever fully answering), is the most mature, responsible attitude we can take toward our own suffering? How much is wise to accept, and how much is foolhardy to rebel against? How much should we share, and how much must we bear on our own? And how does a man who always imagined great things for himself maintain dignity after decades of mounting disappointment?

Yang intercuts this portrait of missed opportunities and unfulfilled promise with an equally convincing affirmation of youthful possibility. NJ’s young son, Yang-Yang (Jonathan Chang), may be the director’s riskiest creation, not only because his unassuming adorability and preternaturally old soul could have tipped the film’s balance toward sentimentality, but also because his presence might have come across as an overly calculated attempt to assuage the pain we see in NJ’s defeat. For the most part, the characterization remains scrupulously matter-of-fact. Like almost everyone else in the family, Yang-Yang spends a great deal of his onscreen time in solitude, which allows us to get to know him outside a potentially fawning or trivializing adult gaze. But even as the film maneuvers carefully around the cute-factor, Yang-Yang rings so true precisely because of his symbolic function, and Yang’s willingness to engage with both our knee-jerk romanticization of and condescension toward childhood. Yi Yi confers guru status on the young and innocent who stand on the sidelines of life, and seeks to mimic the lack of prejudice, irony, and judgment in their perspective. At the same time, the film sets Yang-Yang up as an easy target for that patronizing question “What do you know about the world?,” as a reminder that each stage of life creates as many obstacles to knowledge as it takes away. Where NJ’s journey brings to the surface a nagging desire for what might have been, Yang-Yang represents the interplay between two certainties in our engagement with the world: on the one hand, the boundaries of individual perception, and on the other, the boundlessness of empathy.

Yi Yi is constantly swinging the pendulum between these two poles. If Yang’s omniscient eye and beautifully detailed characters make the act of slipping into another skin look effortless, the film also asks how we can feel deeply for others when we can’t share their sight, let alone their souls. Perhaps the most poignant example here of a failure of identification is a scene in which NJ walks in on his wife having a breakdown and finds himself offering nothing but canned responses, immobilized by his inability to go to that dark place with her. Later, when Yang-Yang develops an interest in photographing the backs of people’s heads to show them what they can’t see, his curiosity and burgeoning artistic sensibility become metaphors for the filmmaker’s concerns about how emotional knowledge does and does not transfer between people. In catching Yang-Yang at the moment of realizing that each human being is confined to a single subjectivity, Yang gives shape to the invisible gulf that can often make genuine communication seem impossible—that space in which loved ones become the coldest of strangers. Embedded there, this cinema of crystal clarity seems as if it were born in between the tempestuous, stream-of-consciousness lines of To the Lighthouse: like Virginia Woolf, Yang stitches together a community from a series of innermost thoughts and feelings that will never come into contact and may never be verbalized. It’s not a community that can be achieved on the ground, but one that exists in the aerial view art gives us and in the music it unearths from our speechlessness.

*****

I was a college boy stumbling wide-eyed through my first summer in New York when I heard the news of Edward Yang’s death at the age of 59. Suddenly the world around me began shaping into a patchwork of images and references from his mournful city symphonies. I had based so much of my cinephilia on the hope that there would be another Yi Yi, and now the man who would make it was gone. The truth is there is nothing quite like Yi Yi—not among Yang’s other six features, nor among the masterpieces of Yasujiro Ozu, which serve as the film’s most obvious prototypes. In what would turn out to be his swan song, Yang borrows elements from previous work—the cold urban disaffection in Taipei Story and The Terrorizers; the breathtaking panoramic scope of his most virtuosic achievement, A Brighter Summer Day; and the indignant social satire in his underappreciated globalization-themed comedies Mahjong and A Confucian Confusion—and delivers them with unprecedented lightness, compassion, and a carefully modulated flair for melodrama. Where his compatriot Hou Hsiao-hsien has spent most of his career developing a style mimetic of Taiwan’s alienation from its own history, Yang risks giving us something that might feel too familiar or overly intent on exportability. But as someone who was born in mainland China, raised in Taipei, influenced by that city’s remnants of colonially imported Japanese culture, and eventually naturalized as an American citizen, Yang knew how to harness his uniquely diasporic melancholy to his artistic advantage. Perhaps only someone who has belonged everywhere and nowhere at once could make a film so deeply rooted in in-between, indefinable space, a film that longs to transcend its locality while also never completely surrendering to the naïveté of that desire.

Since Yi Yi rhymes vision with knowledge and emotion, it’s appropriate that my memory of it rests mostly on images. For the most part, the film disguises its meticulous visual stylization behind an unostentatious naturalism. No shot here has the muted lushness or soft golden lighting that Mark Lee Ping-bin has given Hou’s most recent work, but Yi Yi’s equally controlled mise-en-scène strikes a similar balance between a consistently realist surface and glimmers of the divine. How to explain the ways in which the slightest gestures of rhythm, framing, and movement in Yang Weihan’s cinematography give way to the most sublime expressivity, transferring the burden of articulation away from the characters and onto the filmmaker’s eye? The camera seems neither a detached third person nor a humanized first person, but somehow instead—without a trace of overt mysticism or any belittlement of Yang’s essentially secular themes—a vaguely spiritual presence that both sees and feels.

An example: the camera follows NJ and his first love as he walks her to her hotel room, their backs to us. We pause at the door, and he says goodnight; he tells her he’s never loved anyone but her. Then he turns to walk away, now face forward, the camera tracking back. The shudder he must have felt at speaking such a long-repressed, self-endangering truth echoes in the silence. The only way to recover from the rupture his words have caused is to keep walking. Nowhere else in the film do our eyes follow a character’s movement so intensely, and in this one graceful, gliding motion up and down a hallway, observation gets embodied, becomes personal and affective. The heightened gaze implied here is not one of surveillance but of companionship. For a few seconds, our mere looking is transformed into an act of empathy, and Yang’s camera becomes a source of consolation—as invisible to the characters as God or the spirits of deceased ancestors, though just as present.

The one shot in Yi Yi I always remember most vividly played a role that first summer of mine in New York, when I still had enough sentimentality about the big city to confer outsized poetic significance on my commute back to Flushing. There was a moment on my ride home when the train would hurtle aboveground, and if it was late enough, you could see up-close a stretch of buildings shot through with points of light and the occasional tableau of human activity. I would be awoken from my mind-numbing routine with the sensation of being uprooted from my surroundings, of drifting past the everyday workings of the world that ensnare us by day while still maintaining enough proximity to catch their poignant undersong. And each time I would be transported back to an image that could easily have constituted a tiny cell in that nighttime cityscape—a scene in which NJ’s wife, paralyzed by depression, stands alone in a darkened office. We see her only as the reflection on a window, her image fuzzed together with that of the city, a red streetlight flashing coincidentally right at the center of her chest. Flesh is permeated by light and shadow, and the immateriality and transparency of the image, in contrast to the film’s usually direct, clear-eyed observation of physical reality, slides our vision into a register beyond the perceptible. While the scene is meant to be despairing, it also encapsulates what makes the film magical: its visualization of a mind, caught in mid-feeling, being revealed to itself. Yi Yi lays us bare before our own reflection. It floods us with a city’s worth of emotions, but preserves enough distance for us to regard them with the tenderness and bemusement of an onlooker. Like no other film I know, it gives us a chance to inhabit the inside and outside of a feeling—both in the same instant.




#14: Werckmeister Harmonies

Whale of a Tale
Damon Smith on Werckmeister Harmonies

“When you watch my movies, please don’t speculate. Just trust your eyes and listen to your heart.”—Béla Tarr

On a cold night in late February 2007, I made a pilgrimage to the Brooklyn Academy of Music to acquaint myself with the work of Béla Tarr, a filmmaker whose name had become emblematic of formidable intellect, exhaustive running times, and a rapturously grand vision. This was mostly due to the proselytizing of Susan Sontag and other critics smitten by Tarr’s seven-and-a-half-hour magnum opus Sátántangó, a legendary, see-it-if-you-can rarity reportedly on par with Rivette’s equally elusive Out 1. It hardly mattered that, on this particular evening, everyone in my immediate social circle was gathering at various domestic outposts to revel in a very different kind of cinematic celebration—the annual bestowal of gilded homunculi on Hollywood’s mandarin class. The Academy Awards have their allure, but I was in a heavy mood, more pensive than depressive, and at a certain hour I determined that my time might be better spent sinking into whatever otherworldly textures and immersive folds of time this notoriously headstrong Hungarian had in store with his arcanely titled Werckmeister Harmonies, about which I knew very little. The scarcity of Tarr’s films on U.S. screens added to my interest, as did BAM’s boldly counterintuitive programming, which seemed directed as much by hope (behold a true master of cinema...please?) as it did pure spite (fuck the Academy and its night of narcissistic self-congratulation!). To my surprise, the theater was not barren: fifty or so kindred spirits sat quietly (and for the most part, alone) as if anticipating a private ceremony that demanded solemn reverence rather than ecstatic conviviality. Did these anonymous patrons know something I didn’t? Two and a half hours later, I was newly baptized in Tarr’s dark, majestic vision and mesmerized by this waking nightmare of restive agitators, quasi-mystical visitations, and oblique prognostications of social and cosmic upheaval in post-communist Eastern Europe, and my conversion was complete.

Since then, I’ve caught up with other Tarr films, but that evening—in particular, the enduring shot of a determined mob filing in unison down a sloggy road, the camera drifting languorously over their heads, then swooping down among the silent marchers to map the intensity of individual expressions—is etched into my brain. Reading others’ accounts of their first encounter with the melancholic Magyar has deepened my appreciation of his artistry and technique. No review of Tarr’s ethereally gorgeous black-and-white masterworks, Sátántangó and Werckmeister Harmonies, fails to mention the director’s predilection for extended long takes, or his ability to build bravura single-shot sequences that can pass the ten-minute mark without losing a gradient of fascination or visual fluidity. And they’re quite right: time is elemental in Tarr, and I’d venture to say that no living filmmaker works more assiduously or successfully in such a concretely chronographic register, harnessing the sublime power of uncut duration to maximize the dramatic impact and metaphysical aura of filmed reality. It is, as he has said, “the logic of life” itself. That this admittedly unusual demand on the viewer’s concentration has proved to be the source of Tarr’s alleged “difficulty” and marginalization from the centers of film culture (at least until his 2007 Palme d’Or nomination for The Man from London) is mere philistinism in the guise of consumer-friendly guidance. Such feeble-minded admonitions have more to do with our prevailing habits of seeing (machine-gun cutting, increasingly shorter attention spans) than with the scenarios he stages, which he allows us to ponder for long stretches in the seemingly weightless confines of his viewfinder.

But if Tarr’s style boiled down to his preference for sculpting monumental swaths of time (something he achieves in close counsel with his longtime editor and wife, Ágnes Hranitsky, credited as co-director on Harmonies), there would be little reason to hail him as a visionary, a term too often applied to hip myth-makers (Charlie Kaufman, Guillermo del Toro, Tim Burton) and flashy, utterly banal roustabouts (Danny Boyle), or those whose work simply evinces qualities of imagistic abstraction or avant-garde technique. Tucked into the behemoth body plan of Werckmeister Harmonies, by contrast, is a distressing spiritual-political parable that resists allegorical interpretation even as it solicits such readings, a quality that gives it the hieratic pose and magisterial grandeur of high modern poetry. Whatever affinities might be found between Tarr and Tarkovsky, Janscó, Angelopoulos, or even David Lynch, his closest analogues in the realm of artistic practice might be midcentury novelists like Bruno Schulz (whose hallucinatory realism, especially in Street of Crocodiles, feels bewilderingly sui generis) or Thomas Mann.

To invite comparison with such high-minded European literary forebears might seem a stretch until one considers that the source text for Werckmeister Harmonies is The Melancholy of Resistance by the celebrated Hungarian novelist László Krasznahorkai, one of Tarr’s closest collaborators (along with Hranitsky, composer Mihály Vig, and cinematographer Gábor Medvigy) who’s scripted all the late-period dramas, from Damnation to The Man from London. These are grandly scaled films that feel enriched by ideas about history, philosophy, and postwar politics, even if the emphasis has shifted from Krasznahorkai’s long-winded ruminative style to the experiential impact of Tarr’s monochromatic images, where such ideas—even in the way people speak to one another—are abstracted. It was in the late Eighties that Tarr developed the signature style (marathon takes, precision-orchestrated camerawork) and tone (brooding, depressive, enigmatic) upon which his critical reputation now rests, transmuting the downbeat, hard-bitten social realism of his early work into the exalted miserablism of his current mode.

Harmonies unfolds in a dreary, mud-soaked village (Tarr’s locales and mise-en-scène are almost uniformly gloomy) where the arrival of a giant dead whale and a shadowy, sinister ideologue named the Prince stirs fear and unrest among the townsfolk. Tarr’s prior emphasis on observing blue-collar types leading gritty, dead-end existences (or fumbling through a pitiless marriage like the young couple in Prefab People) didn’t sit well with the Communist censors, which might explain his sharp turn into the fantastic. Either way, Tarr is a seeker who’s managed to fuse both traditions into something wholly unique. Devoutly naturalistic yet averse to reason or by-the-numbers exposition, Harmonies envelops us in a hermetic universe that’s both mysterious (the Prince, who only appears in silhouette, rasping demagogic drivel, has the grotesque physiognomy of a Boschian goblin) and mundane (a man tediously filling a soup pail, interminable walks), creating an uncanny, vaguely archaic life-world that exists in no easily discernible historical period. The ominous appearance of a police helicopter near the end seems to indicate that the time frame is present day, but the entire film has the feel of a gothic fable set in alien latitudes.

Spectrally handsome German actor Lars Rudolph plays János Valuska, the impressionable rube through whose eyes we witness the events that overtake the town’s inhabitants. A modern update on the Shakespearean fool, János is a gentle-hearted postman whose avid, Asperger’s-like obsession with the movement of celestial bodies elicits the bemused interest of a group of bedraggled drunks in the film’s magnificent opening scene, a masterly ten-minute-plus choreography of actors and gliding camera movement. Responding to their entreaties as he enters a bar at closing time, János arranges the wall-eyed men into a living orrery, a stagger-footed mockery of a solar eclipse, sententiously spouting gibberish about the “impenetrable darkness” of the cosmos before the barkeep finally sweeps them out. (Tarr and Hranitsky apparently timed the shot to end seconds before they ran out of room on their Kodak reel.) János’s fixation on astral movement is echoed, in a sense, by his uncle, Gyorgi Eszter (Peter Fitz), an aged musicologist who spends his days ruminating on the theories of Andreas Werckmeister, the 17th-century composer whose influential ideas about counterpoint derived from the ancient notion of “the harmony of the spheres.” Both men are thus aligned with notions of heavenly order and disorder (János is a naive believer in the majesty of “God’s work,” epitomized by the whale, Gyorgi a doubter and revisionist who’s retreated from world affairs into esoteric study), and each figures in the cathartic chaos that will engulf the foggy backwater hamlet and drive Tarr’s feeble-minded protagonist into a catatonic state.

Signs of impending turmoil come early: Under cover of night, a massive truck trundles into town hauling the immaculate carcass of a preserved cetacean—an evolutionary marvel that first intrigues János when he spots a handbill touting “The World’s Largest Giant Whale”—as well as a barker (Ferenc Kállai) in cahoots with the Prince. Portentous rumors and hearsay circulate about the traveling circus; János overhears a female postal worker claim that the Prince’s “godless, monstrous speech” in a nearby village has provoked looting, rape, and violence. Later, he arrives in the town square and slips into the darkened trailer holding the creature whose visit has fired his imagination. As he gazes into the whale’s massive eye, Vig’s plaintive violin-and-piano leitmotif swells, adding poignancy and a nearly unbearable sense of foreboding to the mammalian interface. “It’ll lead to trouble,” a man says to János as he exits, “these strange creatures.” The warning bells peal again with the appearance of Aunt Tünde (plump-faced Fassbinder muse Hanna Schygulla), Gyorgi’s estranged wife, who gently informs János of her intention to form a new municipal government with the police chief (Péter Dobai) in the interest of “cleaning up” the town. Order must be restored, she intones, and asks János to convey a message to Gyorgi, who’s deeply respected by the locals for his intellect and wisdom: Either assume the chairmanship of her committee or she’ll move back into their home.

Tarr builds tension in layers (the arrival of outsiders, the slow spread of fear), finally unleashing it in the film’s most harrowing set piece: club-wielding rioters invade a bleak hospital ward presumably abandoned by caretakers and proceed to bludgeon patients in their beds, destroying equipment and ransacking the care unit’s medical infrastructure room by room. The pandemonium finally ends when the mob enters a shower stall where they find a shriveled, bony, heartrendingly feeble old man standing naked, bathed in celestial white light, a spiritually abject vision of human vulnerability and suffering. Wordlessly, they retreat. Perhaps Tünde’s power-grabbing opportunism (Schygulla’s bedroom dance with the inebriated, pistol-wielding constable is one of Tarr’s finest black-comic touches) has converged somehow with the Prince’s demonically menacing harangue (“Fury overcomes all! ...Terror is here!”), unleashing the senseless destruction. Tarr’s epic fantasy certainly hints at political gamesmanship and mass manipulation as the source of this violence, but he never connects the dots, except in oblique and indeterminate ways. We are never sure what the catalyst for the hospital rampage is, or whether János has played a role in the mayhem beyond simply witnessing the event (Tarr’s never-ending tracking shot through the infirmary, a roving eye peering into rooms and whirling around corners, finally comes to rest on a close-up of János’s haunted face, half-shrouded in the darkness where he’s hidden). In the end, János’s Candide-like utopianism has been shattered, and his childlike obsession with the great whale (a symbol of embalmed divinity) rendered as ineffectually solipsistic as Gyorgi’s private monologues on Werckmeister’s mistakes, delivered into a tape recorder. By the time the army has descended upon the town under Tünde’s supervision, the air of malevolence has lifted and authoritarian directives are issued, a martial state of affairs from which Tarr wrings one final note of grace.

It’s difficult to capture in mere words the awesome expansiveness and consummate visual artistry of Werckmeister Harmonies, or the strangely beautiful environments it conjures (each of the film’s 39 shots could be sectioned out and screened as its own phantasmagoric short film), or the sense of wonder and accomplishment (six years in the making) it leaves in its inscrutable wake. My mind was quaking as I exited the theater after that first viewing. Stunned by the film’s technical mastery and shaken by the discomfiting emotions it had roused and left unresolved, I wandered home in a fugue state, pondering the pavement as well as the night sky with renewed interest, hoping the spell would last. Those few who see only pessimism and elegiac pretension in Tarr’s fable of madness and spiritual decay (a charge better lobbed at Tarr’s humorless Schopenhauerian disciple, Fred Keleman) have failed to “trust their eyes.” Nothing's funnier, for instance, than János’s futile attempts to tuck in the constable’s overstimulated, bed-bouncing children. (One of the little tyrants puts his face up to a whirring fan and shrieks “I’ll be hard on you!” The currents distort his voice, of course, which makes him sound even more comically severe.) Harmonies certainly commands the eyes to attention; when it comes to the heart—well, this is harder to determine. Such sublime vision doesn’t arrive often enough on our movie screens to find a passionate audience, perhaps, or to leave an inviolable impression. But maybe once a decade is enough.




#15: The Royal Tenenbaums

Restoration
Nicolas Rapold on The Royal Tenenbaums

In a decade when American studios seemed to discontinue serious dramas, or cynically relegate them to their independent divisions, one of the most poignant and heartrending stories of family came from a filmmaker blindly decried as a purveyor of dollhouse quirk and precocity. While wavelets of European and Asian filmmakers continued to respond to Hollywood with various counter-aesthetics of long takes, temps mort, and empirical narratives, Wes Anderson lavished attention on the individuality of his characters and their surroundings with the elaborate production design of an old Hollywood musical and the connoisseurship of a subsequent admiring French New Waver (plus the camera-angle tendencies of a Joseph Cornell box).

Grandly and ambitiously titled after Welles’s dynasty-mythologizing The Magnificent Ambersons, The Royal Tenenbaums provided Anderson’s greatest canvas yet: a “family of geniuses” with every excuse for full elaboration on their dysfunctions and paraphernalia, with a majestic-shabby homestead to linger over and make look lived-in. The same year as the meticulous guided postcard of Amélie, two years before the nerdily curated Kill Bill, and three years prior to the hurtling, mixed-mood Kings and Queen by kindred spirit Arnaud Desplechin, Anderson pictured a dog-eared Seventies-storybook vision of a family in “New York,” from something like the view of a welcomed outsider, with arrested fashion statements and ashen skies bespeaking stalled lives, and shot through with the extended logy-contentious renewed adolescence of a holiday break spent at home rustling through closets.

Anderson’s micromanaged design, which he foregrounds so much more than most filmmakers, all but guarantees (for this viewer at least) that his movies fully emerge only upon the second viewing. And still, with the third and fourth look, it remains a surprise when this clever, funny, exuberant film subsides into a suicide attempt—the darker second half seems all but forgotten by those who suggest that Anderson’s movies will age (or phase in and out) about as well as an Adidas tracksuit, and that his style is a decadent baroque collapsing under the weight of its filigrees. But it’s there that the film’s ache sets in, something over and above the melancholy, and still lingering through the mad chaos of its conclusion.

Like a holiday movie, the film is premised upon returns, those of the children precipitated by that of the prodigal father, Royal. Ingeniously cast, Gene Hackman gives a rascally soul to the film, drawing upon decades of conspiratorial glints and shoe-leather churlishness. In a very real way, alongside the beautifully underplaying Anjelica Houston (whose maternal style is touchingly arrested and strikingly familiar to many viewers), he’s the adult in this Anderson creation, his behavior never reducible to that of an immature scoundrel, his scrabbly grandeur as paterfamilias in exile underwritten with affection (and attachment that seems unexpected even to him at times). Hackman displays charisma and dexterity in this role as an unreconstructed, tactless schemer pretending to the family throne (and along the way ringing echoes as anyone’s grandfather with a dicey racial vocabulary).

Royal gave up his family and a love, but he still also lost that family and that love. However scheming, he’s a man trying to repair what he did wrong, and likewise his children seem mired in patterns of revision and regret. Anderson’s cutaways and flashbacks are as amusing and inventive as ever, but besides elaborating on the family’s storehouse of mythology and secrets, they repeatedly fold the characters into their pasts and take to fanciful lengths what one critic observed about Anderson-idol Truffaut’s eye for the child in the adult (such as Chas’s backroom business efficiency catalyzed by his wife’s death into terrified control-freakery). Watching The Royal Tenenbaums, for all the insistent eye candy, is also a shadow process of apprehensively waiting to see what will become of these bonsai psyches, and what form their freeing themselves will take.

Those in the younger set are, in so many words, fucked up, and again Anderson’s casting is targeted, in the screen-ready neuroses of Ben Stiller and Gwyneth Paltrow. If these are precious, they are also faintly grotesque, though not unsympathetically, and Luke Wilson’s Richie Tenenbaum, who looks the most like he’s wearing a permanent disguise even as he yearns for re
"If you are marching with white nationalists, you are by definition not a very nice person. If Malala Yousafzai had taken part in that rally, you'd have to say 'Okay, I guess Malala sucks now.'" ~ John Oliver

Sabin
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Postby Sabin » Sun Dec 27, 2009 1:17 am

Reverse Shot is countin' it down...

#16: Summer Hours

Personal Effects
Farihah Zaman on Summer Hours

Olivier Assayas’s Summer Hours begins in the country home of the Berthier family’s elegant matriarch, Hélène (Edith Scob). Her three children and many grandchildren have come to celebrate her 75th birthday and the publication of a book about her renowned artist uncle and possible one-time lover, Paul Berthier. Serving as a monument to Paul’s work and vast collection of objets d’art, as well as the only real gathering place for Hélène’s far-flung family, the house is filled with beautiful, well worn things that are cherished upon reflection yet taken for granted on a day-to-day basis. Sitting in the garden and looking through the book, the family members see a photograph of an older generation of Berthiers sitting exactly as they are now, reminding everyone how much this place links them to their past.

The familial eventualities Assayas highlights throughout Summer Hours are intrinsic to the collective human social experience—watching parents age and children grow up, relatives navigating the generation gap, siblings trying to get along. That the Berthiers deal with these common issues while never devolving into mere archetypes for the audience to project onto only makes their quiet dramas more deeply felt. Yet the film’s real greatness stems not merely from its exploration of family, but its depiction of a distinctly 21st-century family in particular. In the microcosm of the Berthiers’ story, Assayas finds globalization, commerce, the history and the arbitrary value of objects, and the question of what defines art and what makes art meaningful, themes as grand as anything he explores in his more overtly global pieces like demonlover, Clean, or Boarding Gate, despite the fact that the film takes place entirely in France and features an unmistakably French sensibility. Somehow encompassing the major preoccupations of the decade through the lens of one family, Summer Hours is at once heartbreaking and sweet, nostalgic yet modern, universal yet incredibly personal.

I know part of my deeply emotional response to Summer Hours stems from how uncannily it seems to mirror my own family experience, from the loving, chaotic Berthiers’ home and relationship to art, to the diasporic nature of the family, to its portrayal of the sudden anchorless feeling caused by the packing, selling, and auctioning off of the last place we were collectively tied to. When I first saw Summer Hours, I had just returned from a trip to Kathmandu where I spent most of my time helping my mother pack up the house to move halfway around the continent to Malaysia. My parents had lived in Nepal for the last eight years, the longest they had stayed put anywhere in my lifetime, and sometime between wrapping up my mother’s odd collection of mirrors and discovering my third-grade diary, I realized this was the last place they would live that would have any connection to my childhood. I found myself in a protective panic over household items that I’d casually assumed would have a place in that house forever. It was painful to confront the fact that I’d assumed I would have a place in that house forever, as well.

The same realization hangs over the characters in Summer Hours. During the celebration that opens the film, a prescient Hélène discusses the fate of the estate after her death with her eldest son, Frédéric (Charles Berling), and advises him to sell everything off and free himself and the others from the burden of her history. Despite being an economist best known for proclaiming that the concept of the economy as a functional system is a broken myth, Frédéric is the most sentimental of her children, and he firmly protests. The idea that objects can help create and tie us to history is presented throughout the film as both gift and burden. Frédéric shows his children, Sylvie (Alice de Lencquesaing) and Pierre (Emile Berling), two Corot paintings, proudly explaining that they will one day be theirs. He looks upon the paintings with tenderness, but his pleasure is clearly less about their aesthetic qualities than that they are part of a legacy that will be continued as they are passed down to his children, nieces, and nephews. (With an oblivious romanticism that we come to learn is typical of Frédéric, he fails to mention how exactly this complicated arrangement might actually function.) The children, able to look at the paintings without nostalgia or bias, simply say they are old-fashioned. Although Hélène is the one who curated the home with love and care, she echoes their sentiments in describing her possessions as “bric-a-brac from another era.” Frédéric’s sister, Adrienne (Juliette Binoche), a New York–based designer of conceptual art, tells her mother that she “prefers objects not weighed down by the past,” but then contradicts her declaration by admitting that her school thesis project was a rip-off of Hélène’s classic silver tea service, adding that “beauty is beauty.” Her conflicted stance most resembles that of the film.

The family reconvenes for Hélène’s funeral; her death is sudden but gently off-screen (the subtlety and complexity of Summer Hours highlights how quaint demonlover, which seemed epochal at the time, has become). Frédéric is shocked and hurt to learn that Adrienne and his brother, Jérémie (Jérémie Renier), who works for corporate giant Puma out of Shanghai and will return to France less frequently now that his mother is gone, want to let go of the house. Assayas eschews melodrama and deftly navigates their shifting moods; Jérémie and Adrienne’s genuine regret and discomfort, Frédéric’s quiet despair that only his wife picks up on, the delicate loss and grief they all share, and unexpected moments of warmth and laughter—Adrienne announces that she is getting married and, despite everything, her brothers laugh hysterically, to her dismay until she gives in and joins them. Ironically it’s Frédéric who’s left to handle the bulk of the responsibility in parceling out the estate in the aftermath of his siblings’ decision, in a long series of meetings with lawyers, art appraisers, and museum boards. At every step he’s confronted by the changing world, the practical needs of commerce infringing on his desire to hold onto his more sentimental notions of the past. The priest who buried his mother tells him that they will need to expand the cemetery now that so many new companies have moved in and the village is growing. One of the art appraisers, a local and a family friend, comes to evaluate their pieces and casually remarks that the village location depicted in one of the beloved Corot paintings is now occupied by a supermarket. He also confirms the taboo romantic relationship between Hélène and her uncle after her husband’s death, showing Frédéric once and for all how limited one’s version of events can be, and thus how far he is from his childhood.

With the appraiser’s visit, the objects become the subjects, particularly the house, anthropomorphized by several shots filmed from inside of the siblings or Eloise approaching; looking out through the windows, we seem to be seeing events through the house’s eyes. As we follow these objects’ dispersal, Assayas layers their ascribed value in the larger context of art and society over their sentimental significance to one family. Eloise, for example, chooses as her parting gift an old flower vase because it reminds her of Hélène and she’s too unassuming to choose anything of “real” value. Frédéric, as it turns out, is too shy to tell her that they have just learned moments ago that the “common” vase she’s chosen for reasons of modesty and nostalgia has just been identified by an appraiser as a Bracques and one of the most valuable pieces in the house. While the process of managing an inherited estate might seem like tedious film fodder, in Summer Hours it’s enthralling. We become attached to these objects as though they are our own possessions, and as invested in what becomes of them as Frédéric, Adrienne, and Jérémie. Our intimacy with the family is such that we never lose sight of the emotions at the edges of what has quietly shifted into a drama of commerce. We notice their subtle and sometimes unspoken responses to the proceedings—a brief moment of powerless sadness when Eloise returns to the house on her own for one last look, forced to say goodbye to a home that never entirely belonged to her; the look of acceptance that begins to creep into Frédéric’s face as the sales continue and he tries to shift focus back to his family. The Berthiers are no longer connected by place and so are no longer defined as a family through shared property; they must now be connected by the more arduous methods of memory and affection. The journey of the Berthiers’ belongings lays bare the usually unnoticed dispersal of objects that follows human globalization, the ripples that result from a family disbanding.

Assayas and his frequent cameraman Eric Gautier bring us close to the family, following the characters with long, gentle tracking shots executed with miraculously organic motion. As always with Assayas, the camera is not merely a mechanical device, but a natural extension of the director’s eye. His writing is equally intimate and astute, providing us an immediate window into the kind of familial anecdotes and interactions that feel both mundane and revealing. Scob, Berling, Renier, and Binoche read as a believably real family; from the moment we see them in the same physical space, hugging, arguing, and teasing, they project a warmth and familiarity that’s difficult to capture convincingly on film. Assayas is just as skilled at familiarizing the audience with the house’s inanimate objects (the film’s silent players) as he is at presenting their human counterparts. Intimacy with the family is deepened by learning the kinds of details we might otherwise only know about our own homes, like which vase to put the flowers in, the best pan in the house for roasting chicken, that a valuable antique armoire the Musée d’Orsay wishes to acquire houses decades-old toy airplanes, and that the pieces of a Degas plaster the boys broke as children sit in an ordinary plastic bag in the study because Hélène never had the heart to throw them away.

In a scene near the end of the film, we find ourselves in a neutral, sterile space unlike any we’ve yet seen. A group of people passes by, listening intently to a guide speaking in English, and we see all but one of them (chatting on a cell phone) pause to look at something with interest. The camera turns and, with a beautiful jolt, as if recognizing an old friend, we see another of the Bracques vases that formerly belonged to the Berthiers. Assayas never overplays his hand, trusting that our knowledge of this vase will lend enough drama to the scene. The camera turns again, and we see Frédéric and his wife taking in the vase with a very different gaze than that of the strangers: with familiarity, awe, and an almost hesitant shyness about its new, formal surroundings. Something that once belonged to them, a thing of utility in their private, everyday lives, has been outwardly stripped of personal meaning and put on display.

Summer Hours ends with a lovely mirror image of its opening, offering a clean slate for what was once weighed down by history. Sylvie and Pierre have convinced their parents to allow them one last hurrah in the empty house, and they invite their friends over for the kind of killer party most teenagers only dream about. In a long series of tracking shots, we follow Sylvie as she moves through the house, everyone laughing, drinking, dancing, every room filled with a joyous kinetic energy we would never have expected possible in that once stately place. Stripped of so many laden objects, the house finally ceases to belong to the Berthiers, and for this fleeting moment in time is filled with the potential to belong to anyone, to create new and unexpected memories—a bittersweet yet oddly liberating fact. Standing in a field with her boyfriend picking strawberries, Sylvie has a moment of déjà vu. She recalls a painting that Paul did of her grandmother picking strawberries in this very field. She moves this way and that, trying to remember the angle from which Paul painted her. It’s like the rush of history from the photograph at the beginning of the film, except the painting is no longer there for her to refer to, there is no book or photograph; the family’s history must live through memory. Once the shadow of an older generation’s nostalgia briefly flickers across Sylvie’s face, she shakes it off, dashes, laughing, into the woods. I dry my tears, the wind blows, and the clouds roll by.



#17: No Country for Old Men

Found in Translation
Leah Churner on No Country for Old Men

Joel and Ethan Coen joked that putting Cormac McCarthy’s novel No Country for Old Men in script form was just a matter of retyping. One brother held the book ajar, the other entered its contents into the computer. Indeed, McCarthy’s 2005 bestseller, unanimously described as “sparse,” “skeletal,” and “spare,” unfolds through dialogue and action rather than the “subjective interiority” of its characters. The lone inner voice, first-person narration from the sheriff bookends the introduction and conclusion and is italicized, as if to announce VOICE OVER. If it reads like a screenplay half-shrouded in flowery prose, that’s basically what it is—among Cormac McCarthy’s personal papers at Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas, is his original iteration of No Country for Old Men, a 1987 screenplay, which he shelved and later refashioned. The Coens, for their well-typed adaptation of a novelization of a screenplay, took home the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay, along with Best Directing and Best Picture.

The Coens’ 2007 Oscar magnet will be the standard bearer for all future Cormac McCarthy adaptations. The Road and Blood Meridian will suffer by comparison. And if McCarthy’s screenplay had been green-lighted around 1987, with a different director and cast, chances are it would have come out soggy like Billy Bob Thornton’s All the Pretty Horses (2000). This isn’t to imply that the Coens are untouchably hot shit—they’re flawed and so is McCarthy’s novel—it just so happens that the material fits them like a glove. With McCarthy they formed a star-crossed match in complementary colors.

Thematically, the source novel is a Coen Brothers template. The plot—about an amateur/accidental criminal doggedly pursued by professionals of the underworld—shares the same formula with their first film, Blood Simple, as well as Raising Arizona, Fargo, and The Big Lebowski. In McCarthy’s book, welder and Vietnam veteran Llewelyn Moss (played in the film by Josh Brolin) stumbles across a suitcase in the desert containing two million dollars at the gruesome scene of a botched border drug deal. One of the slain begs him for water. He ignores the plea and rushes home with the money, but his conscience keeps him awake. Returning to the scene with a water jug, he’s spotted and chased by a group of scouters from a drug cartel. He escapes, but it’s no use—by dawn the drug cartel and police have located and identified his truck. In addition to the local lawman, Sheriff Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), at least three bounty-hunting parties start looking for Moss: drug-runners from the Mexican side, the cowboy mafia in Texas, represented by a smooth talker named Carson Wells (Woody Harrelson), and worst of all, a free-agent sociopathic killer named Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem). Moss hits the road and sends his distraught wife, Carla Jean (Kelly McDonald), to her mother’s in El Paso. Having two tours in Vietnam under his belt, Moss is a clever soldier, and Bell is highly respected, hardworking sheriff, but neither of these men are a match for Anton Chigurh, who may or may not be a superhuman entity.

The denouement of No Country for Old Men is not gratifying. Anton Chigurh gets away. Some of the novel’s characters call him a phantom, but we never find out what he really is, just as we remain unsure of the contents of the wrapped parcels in Barton Fink and the goy’s Hebrew-inscribed teeth in this year’s A Serious Man. The core mystery of No Country for Old Men (both book and movie) is existential. The action may take place in a standing pool of blood, but the meat and gristle is the ugly side of surviving into old age: reckoning with cosmic disappointment from midlife to retirement. At the end of the story, the Sheriff tells a friend, “I always thought when I got older that God would sort of come into my life in some way. He didn’t.” (This is in essence what A Serious Man’s Larry Gopnik would later say to the rabbis.)

The novel contains a riddle: Is the world getting worse over time, or is it just that dotage warps a man’s perspective? Either way, it’s a given for McCarthy that humanity isn’t making progress. Again, the Coens’ filmography puts them in league with the author on this point. They are renowned for their cynicism and have created several poisonous characters (Miller’s Crossing’s Bernie Bernbaum and Fargo’s Gaear Grimsrud) to mock tropes like “coming of age” and “conquering adversity.” This Old Testament attitude is also abundant in the novel. If there is a higher power, it’s deranged, and humans aren’t entitled to clemency. Like the titular forest in Miller’s Crossing and the biker bounty hunter in Raising Arizona, Anton Chigurgh is a black prophesy (especially hard on the little things, like Carla Jean). The West Texas landscape in McCarthy’s book is ideal for Biblical metaphors: arid and empty, with shrubby and shadeless trees and vindictive weather, it seems simultaneously the end of the earth and the middle of nowhere. It also appeals to the Coens’ penchant for ethnographic regionalism. Sharing roughly the same temporal and geographic setting as Blood Simple, No Country for Old Men invited them to resume their nuanced study of Texas-ness.

In the creative encounter between the Coens and Cormac McCarthy’s book, a mutual mellowing occurred. Their respective flaws and strengths fit together like jigsaw pieces. The omission of quotation marks and commas is a hallmark of McCarthy’s style. He builds paragraphs out of fragments and run-ons that snake across the page in the manner of the King James Bible: “The rifle had a Canjar trigger set to nine ounces and he pulled the rifle and the boot toward him with great care and sighted again and jacked the crosshairs slightly up the back of the animal standing most broadly to him.” Conversely, the Coens have traditionally abused the privilege of the exclamation point: too much pop music, too much color correction, voice-over, slow motion, scenery chewing, dream sequences, smash cuts, and recurring caricatures by Jon Polito. While I liked A Serious Man, the redundant images of magnified ear-hairs drove me to distraction—here we go on another journey through a tympanic membrane with Jefferson Airplane.

McCarthy’s laconic touch seems to have exerted a gravitational force on Joel and Ethan Coen; the book inspired them to try out a new asceticism. Their restraint is most evident in the score (inconspicuous to the point of being subliminal) and the characterizations. Whereas they usually fill the screen with muppet-people, here they’ve sired only one grotesque, Carla Jean’s mother, played by the wonderful character actress Beth Grant. For her, the Coens added lines of dialogue, such as “Thank you. You don't often see a Mexican in a suit” (spoken directly at the suited man, who has offered to carry her bags). With her incessant bitching and can’t-take-her-anywhere epithets, she’s constantly mortifying her daughter, and this cantankerous dame is surely one of the few characters in American movies whose death by cancer provides a third-act sigh of relief. The Coens infuse the bleak novel with just enough comedy to make it entertaining without tipping over to farce. All the characters have at a funny line here and there, from the sweet, wide-eyed deputy (Garret Dillahunt) to the marauding sociopath with the cattle gun (Javier Bardem plays for laughs in at least two scenes, his toilet-flush encounter in the trailer park office and his bullying of the gas station attendant).

The film isn’t only funnier than the novel, it’s also more suspenseful. In both, Bell, Llewelyn, and Chigurh never meet one another face to face, but the reader is too entranced by McCarthy’s polysyndeton to know what’s going on spatially. Onscreen, however, the choreographed distance between the three men is crucial to the dramatic tension. The Coens pruned the text of the novel, discarding its droning rhythm in favor of a classic thriller pattern of progressively quicker cuts. They also tossed out excess narrative baggage, such as Sheriff Bell’s survivor-guilt back story and the skanky teen hitchhiker Llewellyn picks up on the road.

The mise-en-scène is gorgeous in detail where the novel is not. McCarthy doesn’t shy away from specificity; he scrupulously describes the guns his characters use, and identifies the brand of boots they wear and the make and model of their cars and trucks. Anton Chigurh steals a particular type of Dodge truck: “The Ramcharger’s windows were tinted so dark they were looked black.” On the page, the name Ramcharger is mildly evocative of sex and violence, but nowhere near as impressive as the visual impact of the actual chassis. Onscreen, the Dodge Ramcharger is the stealthiest of villain-mobiles, examined in long, medium, and close-up shots (a hood-mounted camera tightly frames the angry, raring Dodge hood ornament), as Javier Bardem steers it around a motel parking lot at twilight. Monstrous trucks become a motif: boxy, early-model Ford Broncos and Chevy Blazers in Seventies hues of yellows and powder blue, outfitted roof-mounted KC lights and off-road tires. Not since O.J. Simpson’s low-speed chase has the sinister appeal of the truck-based SUV been so well articulated.

Javier Bardem’s haircut (which inexplicably scandalized critics and audiences alike) wordlessly communicates information about his character, as hair should do. It’s obvious, at the very least, that he’s not one of the locals. With his bowl cut, polyester pants, and jean jacket, he could be a full-fledged foreigner or a resident of Southern California (he resembles a Roadmaster-era Gene Clark). He’s more urbane than the people around him, and his look is a manifestation of his deadpan demeanor and apparent indestructibility. Why shouldn’t Death dress like a Nixon-era Angelino? Mary Zophres should have gotten Best Costume Design for Bardem’s breathtaking maroon crocodile boots, which are her creation. (You can’t buy boots like that in stores—I’ve looked into it.)

The fine-detail work, both audio and visual, is where the Coens’ love of punctuation finds its best expression as art: the duration of glances, the putting on and taking off of hats, condensation on a bottle of milk, the whisper-glide of boot soles across plush carpet, the squeak of the suitcase in the air vent, the cool, bluish light of dusk and dawns. (Credit is due to the obsessive storyboarding, along with DP Roger Deakins and sound editor Skip Lievsay.) In the film’s best action scene, the shootout at Eagle Pass (which is the closest Anton Chigurh and Llewelyn Moss come to a face-to-face encounter), Moss desperately hails a truck. The driver is instantly shot in the face, and Moss crouches down on the dead man, attempting to drive. The scene is all the more violent because it’s dark and the gun is silenced; the only sound is the pop-crack of bullets coming through the windshield, as if a hail storm.

Some kind of ravenous appetite keeps me coming back to this movie—I've watched it at least five times, certainly more than any other release from this decade. Like Gone with the Wind and The Godfather, No Country for Old Men exemplifies how brilliant an adaptation can be, with the right novel, cast and crew, and alignment of planets. It’s the high watermark of the Coens’ career, though they couldn’t have crafted a story so solid without Cormac McCarthy’s scaffolding. As the cliché goes, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.



#18: The Death of Mr. Lazarescu

Paradise Deferred
Lauren Kaminsky on The Death of Mr. Lazarescu

The eponymous hero of Cristi Puiu’s 2005 film The Death of Mr. Lazarescu is dwarfed by his epic name. This man, paunchy, disheveled, and suffering, is Dante Remus Lazarescu. Evoking Dante Alighieri, Lazarescu descends into an inferno where each circle of hell takes the form of a different hospital. He has no familiar guide to comfort him as he traverses this purgatory (his brother-in-law, Virgil, lives far away and is only good for a loan), and he is older and weaker than the literary legend who bears his name. Lazarescu’s second name conjures the disappointment of Romulus’s slain twin brother, who never founded Rome. For all of the deaths foretold in these names, there is redemption too: after all, Jesus brought Lazarus back from the dead. And just as Dante’s Divine Comedy is a masterpiece of Italian literature, so does Puiu’s film deserve its place in the burgeoning Romanian cinematic canon. But Dante’s depiction of the Christian afterlife was not only for Italians, and Puiu’s film is hardly specifically Romanian: it’s a universal human parable of life, cowardice, kindness, and death.

As it turned out, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu unofficially inaugurated a new era of heady filmmaking by young Romanian directors. Like his countrymen Corneliu Porumboiu, who attracted international acclaim with 12:08 East of Bucharest (2006) and Police, Adjective (2009), as well as Cristian Mungiu, whose 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007) won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, Puiu has come to represent a new wave in Romanian film. New York Times critic A. O. Scott has noted that in the three years leading up to 2008, “four major prizes at the world’s preeminent film festival went to movies from a country whose place in the history of 20th-century cinema might charitably be called marginal.” Boom times for Romanian film, the latter part of this decade has invited us to pay narrowly provincial attention to the Romanianness of this particular national cinema, begging comparisons between films whether or not they are warranted. In light of this, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu seems to tell the story of one Romanian dying in Bucharest after the fall of communism, but decades later it will continue to remind us that we humans all die the same humble death.

Near the film’s beginning, Lazarescu, a shabby old man living in a cluttered apartment, strains to stand after tending to an ungrateful housecat, the first sign of trouble. A month before his 63rd birthday, he complains of a headache and nausea, which he attributes to ulcers he suffered years ago. “Yeah, I drink, like any other man,” he says to the ambulance dispatcher he has called, and he pours himself another big glass of double-strength moonshine out of an unmarked plastic bottle. Self-medicating amidst dirty dishes, he rings the neighbors to ask for a painkiller, but is rebuffed both by a lecture about his drinking and the excuse that they only buy homeopathic drugs. Everyone wants him to stop drinking and get rid of the cats, but these small pleasures are Lazarescu’s only comforts. For a man who talks to cats, this terrible night will offer probably more human contact than he’s had since his wife died ten years prior. “My, you’re slow,” the neighbor says to his wife, sent to fetch some pills. “You should be sent to fetch death.” By this point in the film, a death forestalled still seems like a good death.

When the ambulance finally arrives, a no-nonsense EMT (Luminita Gheorghiu) examines him on the couch and decamps for a cigarette in the kitchen, where Lazarescu tells her that smoking, drinking, and all vices are allowed. Unqualified to make a diagnosis, she nevertheless suggests that he has colon cancer and takes him to the hospital in a beat-up old wagon. (In a sad irony, she was right about Ion Fiscuteanu, the actor playing Lazarescu, who died of colon cancer in 2007.) When Lazarescu complains, the snide young ambulance driver tells him that the new vans are just for emergencies. Lazarescu rebukes him for his rudeness, “We’re just a bunch of miserable people, mister.” Later, the EMT asks him if he’s feeling nauseous, and Lazarescu quietly says, “I’m feeling melancholy, ma’am.” Misery, melancholy—these are the qualities of being that his doctors are least equipped to measure; they’d rather focus on taking his blood pressure, which they do again and again. As his condition deteriorates, a doctor tells him that he’s not making sense. Lazarescu has the last word: “I say things you don’t want to understand.” And then he loses language.

It’s excruciating to watch Lazarescu suffer while his interlocutors insist he will sleep off the hangover and feel better in the morning. By virtue of the film’s title, you know that he’s seriously ill, and you want them to take him seriously and bring him to the hospital. But what is most sensible is, of course, in this case, the least humane. Acknowledging this is akin to the realization that it is merciful to shoot maimed horses—yet cowardice in the face of death makes us inadequately committed to humane action. The EMT stays with him long enough to show us that she is good and kind, despite her initial coldness, but we gradually realize her devotion to him would have been better expressed in leaving him to die at home. Instead, arrogant ER doctors touch Lazarescu with ungloved hands and ignore her suggestions. They claim to be unable to treat him, forcing her to take him to four different hospitals, leaving behind a trail of flimsy, stamped forms. Puiu shows that the doctors are not bad people; some eventually try to help, but his death is a part of their work. Flirtations, dirty jokes, marriages, divorces, children, birthdays, weddings—the stuff of life exists in them, making Lazarescu’s departure from the world that much more acute.

Leading us through fluorescent-lit hallways to chilly rooms, the camera’s mobility and closeness to the patient’s perspective gives the film a documentary feel. In the absence of establishing shots, we find ourselves disoriented, ready to submit to doctors’ orders. Puiu’s film is an indictment of the Romanian health care system, with its bureaucratic inefficiencies, hierarchical brutality, and appalling bedside manner, and it is located in a specific post-communist Romanian context, in which all public services seem underfunded, leaving medical professionals underpaid and hospital facilities in disrepair. Of course, we Americans will find much that is hauntingly analogous to our own experience. While the current national debate on health care here heightens the political relevance of the Romanian scenario for us, the similarities were already there when the film was released in 2005, whether or not we could see them. By training a camera on one man in his final hours of procedural, diagnostic, institutional treatment, Puiu challenges us to sit with the universal, unutterable agony of care for the dying.

After his descent into hell, Lazarescu’s loss of consciousness suspends him in purgatory. Since he has no Beatrice to guide him to heaven, we cannot know the fate of Dante Remus Lazarescu. His daughter Bianca lives in Canada and does not call him; the prospect of visiting her over Christmas is all he has to look forward to, and the hope of this it seems is enough to live on. The film never sends us to consult a thick medical file for the answer, since doing so would reinforce the authority of the profession focused so much on the body and so little on the person, let alone the soul. Autopsies are only performed on the deceased, so the exact cause of the death of Mr. Lazarescu remains a mystery in the best sense of the word, the satisfying finality of paradise withheld.




#19: Children of Men

Children of Men didn't really have a "best of the decade" pedigree. An unusually large team of five writers was credited with adapting P.D. James's dystopic novel for the screen, and the ouevre of director Alfonso Cuarón hardly suggested his potential for greatness, despite the reputation for technical inventiveness he had earned with respectable middlebrow fare like Y tu mama tambien, A Little Princess, and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Universal Pictures didn't do any favors to this already inauspicious project, releasing it at the tail end of 2006 without investing in the kind of publicity—a blitz of long-lead press screenings, a vigorous Oscar push—that might have led to major awards or even a modicum of buzz. And the studio saddled it with a truly awful trailer, which started with a leaden voiceover from Clive Owen's Theo, "I can't really remember when I last had any hope. And I certainly can't remember when anyone else did, either. Because really, since women stopped being able to have babies, what's left to hope for?" After that glib marketing campaign, Children of Men felt like a real discovery—and a punch in the gut. It seemed to come out of nowhere.

Defying expectations, the clarity of Cuarón's vision was apparent in the movie's opening frames. With stunning confidence, he thrusts viewers into a bleak future: over a black screen, we hear a news broadcast that leads with a story about the death of the world's youngest person—an 18-year-old. Cuarón cuts to a high angle shot of a crowd of people in a cafe, transfixed as they watch the terrible report on a television set. Theo enters and orders a coffee. As he looks up, Cuarón cuts to the monitor, then back as Theo gets his drink and leaves. The camera follows him in a handheld shot out the door, pausing to take everything in after it exits to the London street (a subtitle reveals the date: November 16, 2027). Cuarón's camera turns towards Theo, walking with him and then stopping when he steps aside to add some booze to his coffee. Then there's an offscreen blast. The ringing of Theo's ears takes over the soundtrack as the camera turns back and moves towards the smoking cafe, out of which emerges a woman charred from the explosion, carrying her own arm. The sequence is shocking, even grotesque, but in its narrative efficiency and strict attention to point-of-view it prepares us for the unrelenting cinematic tour de force to follow.

Cuarón's surprisingly bold aesthetic is self-consciously dazzling, but it can't be considered groundbreaking. The film's long-take, pseudo-verité style seamlessly marries Saving Private Ryan’s and The Son’s radically divergent takes on documentary-style realism. Like the Dardennes brothers' film, Children of Men has a vigorously subjective point-of-view: it tracks and trails Theo with almost obsessive attention to his physicality—the squish of his feet in wet socks, the sting of a kitten's nails as it climbs up his leg—peering, from Theo's perspective, at the action surrounding him, often through door frames, windows, and fences. Taking a cue from Spielberg, though, Cuarón lets his camera wander. Transition shots abound, and the camera sometimes lags behind Theo or takes its time locating him in the frame, lingering on the details of its environment (a refugee locked in a cage, graffiti scribbled on a wall, the carcasses of cattle being burned). This allows Cuarón to communicate an immense amount of narrative information through his densely packed mise-en-scène. He largely avoids the typical exposition-heavy scenes or deadly voiceover that would grind a film like this to a halt, instead weaving in videos, newsreports, magazine and newspaper clippings, and street scenes that tell us everything we need to know: human beings are infertile; most of the world has devolved into political chaos; terrorism is rampant; and the British government has adopted a fierce anti-immigrant policy, which it enforces with unforgiving brutality.

Where Saving Private Ryan and The Son used their verité aesthetics to approximate the "real," Cuarón is trading in fantasy; unlike those films, Children of Men's nightmarish setting has no historical or contemporary antecedent. Cuarón uses the vernacular of realism to immerse us in the hypothetical. Without explanation or backstory (James’s novel, by contrast, attributes the infertility to a sudden global drop in male sperm counts), he demands that we accept the film's improbable reality through the sheer, blunt force of his filmmaking. We believe because we have no room to question and no time to catch our breath.

Children of Men's apocalyptic world is fully realized down to the most incidental detail and conceived first and foremost in visual terms. Against this often gruesome backdrop, a miracle precipitates Theo's redemption. Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey) a black refugee, is pregnant. A dissident political group called the Fishes, led by Theo's estranged wife, Julian (Julianne Moore), enlists Theo in its effort to deliver Kee to the Human Project, a mysterious group of the world's greatest thinkers, who are working to save some vestige of civilization from its impending obsolescence. Theo contacts his cousin, a government official, to get transit papers for Kee, but he's only able to secure joint papers, requiring him to accompany her on the trip. As a result, Theo finds himself embroiled in a conflict between the Fishes, who murder Julian and attempt to use Kee to gain political leverage for their cause, and the British government, which treats the Fishes, Kee, and Theo as terrorists.

Unlike James's novel, from which Cuarón's film liberally departs, political machinations are a secondary concern for Children of Men. Through its stringent focus on Theo's body and his perspective, the movie prioritizes the character's physical and psychological journey—it's a visceral thrill-ride that is also a story of spiritual regeneration. Alcoholic, cynical, estranged from his wife, and crippled by the loss of his son Dylan, who died in a flu pandemic, Theo has basically resigned himself to misery until he discovers, in Kee's baby, something worth fighting for. In this regard, Cuarón's borrowing more than style from Spielberg, who has always tended to ground science fiction, fantasty, and action-adventure in domestic melodrama. In the classic Spielbergian metanarrative, the world goes mad, but a damaged male protagonist finds meaning by becoming the protector-father, shepherding those weaker than himself through the chaos—broken families are repaired and fractured masculinity is restored. Children of Men follows exactly this trajectory. Theo’s relationship with Kee is strictly platonic, almost paternal. He's a surrogate father to the expectant mother and her child, and after he succeeds in getting Kee and her newborn daughter to their rendevous point at the end of the film, she decides to name the baby after Dylan. It's a symbolic act that echoes the image of Tom Cruise's pregnant wife that closes Minority Report or the family reunion that caps War of the Worlds, though it has greater potency and tragic poignancy than either. Theo couldn't save Julian, his boy, or even himself from the ravages of the world, but by delivering the child's salvation, he helps bring a new life to a dying planet and, in the process, earns his redemption.

Despite the movie's insistent attention to the personal, human scale of its story, it has obvious metaphorical resonance. Knowing full well that Dylan's conception necessarily plays as miraculous, divine intervention, Cuarón takes a sly approach, both playful and earnest, to the inevitable Christ analogy that attends the movie's central conceit. Kee first reveals her pregnancy to Theo in a barn—a direct evocation of the nativity—and Theo responds with a loaded, "Jesus Christ." It's the same response police officer Syd (Peter Mullan) gives after he first sees the baby at the Bexhill refugee camp. When talking to Theo about her pregnancy, Kee (who isn't a character in the book at all—Julian is pregnant in James's novel), even jokes that she's a virgin before admitting that she doesn't know which of her johns—she is, apparently, a former prostitute—fathered the child.

There's something admittedly provocative in the decision to make the movie's Christ figure the daughter of a black African prostitute, but this subversion should not be dismissed as an empty attempt at inciting controversy. The film transplants and superficially reinvents the Christ story (a salvation narrative about a redeemer from humble origins, who is sympathetic to outsiders—the poor, the sick, and, of course, prostitutes—and a threat to entrenched interests), but it keeps the essence of it intact: Kee's baby offers the same hope that Christ does in Luke's Gospel—hope from above, in the theological sense, that is also hope from below, in the political sense. However droll or knowing Cuarón's treatment of the metaphor may be, Children of Men is finally a deeply spiritual film, and, more specifically, a deeply Christian one.

Next to this textured religious allegory, the movie's explicit political interventions feel ham-fisted and already, from the vantage point of 2009, dated. Right from the opening café bombing, the movie is preoccupied with terrorism, which it treats as both a strategy of political resistance and also as a label used by governments to demonize such movements. Rather than exploiting the timeliness of these issues to make the film's obscure political conflicts more intelligible, Cuarón instead turns the movie's political conflict into a metaphor for the Bush era and the War on Terror. When Theo and Kee sneak into Bexhill, they see prisoners being tortured wearing robes and hoods that explicitly echo Abu Ghraib, and they pass a wall covered with fliers featuring the names and faces of missing people, evoking September 11. Later, when an uprising breaks out, a group of Arab refugees march through the camp shouting "Allahu akbar." Already, these references feel like artifacts of the mid-aughts, and they come off as clumsy, as though Cuarón hasn't quite worked through what he's trying to say. Cuarón confuses things further by confounding these highly charged contemporary images with familiar Holocaust iconography. The naked prisoners, piles of dead bodies, and long lines of racialized Others being pushed and prodded into Bexhill give it the look and feel of a twenty-first century concentration camp. The camp functions as a comment on contemporary politics and as a catch-all symbol of oppression, government-sanctioned violence, and genocide, but in negotiating these competing impulses, Children of Men fails to reconcile them coherently.

Though the movie's ideas don't always hold up to thorough scrutiny, these and other false notes (the visual recreation of the album cover to Pink Floyd's Animals during Theo’s visit with his cousin) are quickly forgotten, because the filmmaking leaves us constantly enthralled—assaulted by images, exhilarated by technique. For this, credit should go in large part to cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. It is tempting, when cataloging a decade's best films, to lapse into lazy auteurism, to praise directors as though they alone are responsible for their films' lasting artistry. Yet Children of Men is as much Lubezki's accomplishment as it is Cuarón's; years from now, when critics look back on his work here and with Terrence Malick on The New World, Lubezki will be regarded as one of the era's great film artists.

In Children of Men, the vibrant reds of buses and pale oranges of burning fires pop in Lubezki's otherwise drab, washed-out color palette. And the virtuoso craftsmanship of many of his long takes is simply beyond belief. In the film's most impressive shot, Lubezki's camera travels into, around, and finally out of a moving car in a heart-stopping single-take, five-minute action sequence. Later, midway through another astonishing single-take sequence in Bexhill, blood splatters onto the camera, and though Theo dodges bullets, crosses alleyways, and crouches behind walls, the blood still sits there, reminding us that the camera is rolling and that we haven't seen a cut. He runs into a building, and the camera tilts up, then back down. The blood has disappeared, but it's impossible to see where the shot ended. These self-conscious flourishes should take us out of the film—they are, after all, evidence of artifice; they call attention to the camera. Instead, Lubezki's exceptional use of color and his daring long takes heighten the thrill and the suspense of watching. His and Cuarón’s technical accomplishment is the movie's other miracle, and their boundary pushing is revelatory and invigorating: if this cinematic decade has been one long march towards film's obsolecence, Lubezki and Cuarón show an enduring faith in the medium.

Faith is indeed at the crux of it. Late in the movie, Theo sits in an abandoned school with Miriam (Pam Ferris), the midwife charged with assisting Kee as she carries her child to term. There are murals on the walls and tree branches growing through the broken windows. A deer scampers about the empty hallways. Miriam reflects on what it means to live in a world without young people, "As the sound of the playgrounds faded, the despair set in. Very odd, what happens in a world without children's voices." Despite all the violence and brutality, this may be the movie's saddest moment, and the eerily quiet, dilapidated school is the most haunting expression of the film's dystopia. After Dylan’s birth, Theo and Kee must carry her through the war zone of Bexhill, avoiding explosions and flying bullets. The baby begins to cry, and the sound pierces the air, offering a shrill, beautiful antidote to the awful silence of the school. When the soldiers and refugees hear the baby’s cry, the fighting stops. The soldiers fall to their knees as Theo and Kee pass with Dylan; the desperate refugees reach out to touch the infant. They pause in recognition of something greater than themselves, and they are united by their common humanity. Though Children of Men confronts us with the worst that we are capable of, this moment of grace is pure and powerful enough to make us believe in the best side of ourselves that it reveals—and in film’s capacity to reveal it.




#20: The House of Mirth

Always True in His Fashion
Michael Koresky on The House of Mirth

When discussing the greatest movies of any given decade, we tend to talk of those that seemed particularly prescient or simply of their time—films that somehow spoke to the era in which they were created or that pushed forward the medium in some technical or structural way. It shouldn’t be ignored that such a method for measuring quality is dubious since a film’s relevance often boils down to fashion. It’s no surprise that so many films made in the past ten years intended to create a dialogue about the World in Which We Now Live (Crash and Babel being the most insidious, phony examples, with more provocative titles such as Caché and demonlover on the higher end of the spectrum) already seem, variously, banal, alarmist, or, at best, quaint. Conversely, those that were less aggressive about their topicality, or were, to use an overused term, “timeless” in their focus on character, spirituality, and situation (The New World, anything by the Dardennes) rather than contemporary social codification now seem more vital.

And then there are some films that are such pure, unpretentious exemplars of the medium—that are slavish only to their own being and rationale—that of course they were destined to be either forgotten or gently patted on the head before being sent away. Terence Davies’s The House of Mirth is such a film, one so exquisitely wrought and seamlessly shaped that it almost needs to be scrutinized with a magnifying glass as though a diamond. The problem with such subtle artistry is that you actually need to be looking at it to notice its flawlessness; that might have been too tall order in 2000, when Davies’s film was released up against such flashier gems as Requiem for a Dream, Dancer in the Dark, and Bamboozled, all of which, for better or worse, were embracing and foregrounding new forms of moviemaking. The House of Mirth was hardly such a headline-maker: its greatest claim to fame outside of rarefied, art-house circles seemed to be its dramatic star turn from The X-Files’ Gillian Anderson. Otherwise this was merely the latest offering from a critically acclaimed British filmmaker whose difficulty in financing his few-and-far-between projects had hardly made him a household name with audiences, and for some the film’s origins as an Edith Wharton novel gave it the whiff of a high-school requisite. And besides, didn’t Martin Scorsese just dip his toes in this pool seven short years earlier with The Age of Innocence?

It mustn’t have helped that Davies’s adaptation forewent even the dazzle of Scorsese’s own retreat to turn-of-the-century New York. The Age of Innocence was a measured, contemplative work by the American director’s standards, but compared to Davies’s film it was a veritable roller coaster of camera and color sensations, even when ensconced in drawing-room innuendo. It also had ready-made talking points: the press’s common approach at the time was that Scorsese’s unexpected portrait of a repressive pre-World War I upper-class community was at heart no different from the hermetic, unforgiving New York gangster enclaves of Mean Streets and Goodfellas; tying his latest film to his own personal artistic continuum was a way of making accessible a seeming aberration. By contrast, Davies’s House of Mirth had no widely known filmography of its maker’s to fall back on (certainly this was as off-topic in Davies’s oeuvre as The Age of Innocence was in Scorsese’s, but Davies’s intensely personal tales of his Liverpudlian upbringing, such as Distant Voices/Still Lives and The Long Day Closes, were hardly easy reference points for many). Furthermore, it was unapologetic in its historical and literary specificity. As announced by onscreen text at the beginning, this is, unalterably, unmistakably, New York, 1905. When in a more pointed repeat at the film’s tragic end, we read New York, 1907, Davies catches the moment in a freeze frame, which ever so slowly dissolves into painterly ether. The House of Mirth is a lovingly petrified object, preserved in celluloid amber, perhaps even a cautionary tale, if we choose to see it that way. It is also pragmatic in its approach: the past is past, and it’s impossible to return to it, but we can learn from our mistakes in its recollection.

Such calculated austerity is the perfect mode for a cinematic translation of Wharton’s novel. As promised by the opening credits, in which a tendrils slither serpent-like across a flat, gray stony surface creating a web of Victorian conspiracy, this is the story of a nest of vipers. The woman at the center is Lily Bart, possibly American literature’s greatest heroine, an individual so complex that none of the traits or legacies her author painstakingly establishes for her can fully describe or excuse her ultimate actions, triumphs, and shortcomings: she’s a tapestry of contradictory impulses, noble and cheap all at once. Though she has, as she herself proclaims with knowing self-derision, “the reputation of being on the hunt for a husband,” Lily is hardly man-hungry; she’s archly principled, even if, as the story goes on to show, she can’t afford to be. Perhaps she aspires to wed for love, but more importantly she refuses to be coerced into a marriage based solely on capital or mutual beneficence—the sorts of unions that society makes all too frequently and eagerly. Yet with her parents long gone and her sole income based on allowances from her parsimonious Aunt Julia, with whom she lives, Lily simply cannot live the life of prosperity she so desires. She travels in New York’s upper-class circles, although she clearly is little more than a good-natured hanger-on, doing her best to stave off what in the book she constantly refers to as the “dinginess” of life. Through an intricate series of events, her existence gradually, terribly unravels, her wisdom, confidence, and morality functioning as though a trap set up to snap shut around her.

As Lily, Gillian Anderson brings an arch mannerism that works in glorious union with Davies’s stringent, patiently observed filmmaking. Starting out vibrant, a heavenly vision with parasol emerging from a cloud of locomotive steam at Grand Central train station, Lily is a candle that burns brightly from within; as the film charts her inexorable decline, she is gradually snuffed out. Anderson’s Lily Bart might seem enigmatic, her motivations somehow difficult to ascertain, but that’s because Davies forgoes narrative handholding, eschewing internal monologue or voice-over of any kind (Scorsese had the silky Joanne Woodward embody Edith Wharton’s incandescent irony as an expository backdrop for her characters’ actions). Here, like Lily, we’re unmoored. At first her stylized flirtations with Lawrence Selden (Eric Stoltz), her not exactly unrequited paramour and the first and last character she meets in this story, are disconcerting; yet her movements and self-conscious exaltations (“How delicious!”) turn out to be purposely mechanical: the last vestiges of a finely honed social persona as it breaks down.

The House of Mirth is structured as a series of emotionally loaded two-person encounters, in drawing rooms, parlors, on balconies and lawn chairs. Davies, a singularly sophisticated filmmaker, takes a remarkably straightforward approach; he knows this story requires little more than elegant shot-reverse shot set-ups and telling close-ups, and he barely embellishes, conveying atmosphere and mood through consistent use of slow dissolves and long pauses between dialogue (in both of these ways, The House of Mirth is remarkably similar to Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, another constricting dream of New York). Yet just as the basic framework and storytelling of The House of Mirth are considerably workmanlike—echoing the “tradition of quality” that cinephiles have still not quite reconciled with their own aesthetic notions ever since Truffaut drew a line in the sand in 1954—Davies interjects here and there with his own auteurist idiosyncrasies. The most dramatic of these, recalling the many moments in The Long Day Closes when his camera unhurriedly glides over uninhabited rooms and spaces, comes as an interstitial moment separating the two “books” of Wharton’s novel: after a rude awakening from Gus Trenor (Dan Aykroyd), her friend’s boastful, intimidating husband, who had agreed to invest money for her, unbeknownst to her in exchange for physical pleasure, Lily receives invitation from the meddlesome Bertha Dorset (Laura Linney) to accompany her and her cuckolded husband George (Terry Kinney) to the Mediterranean for the summer. To evoke Lily’s departure and the passage of time, Davies slowly pans across Aunt Julia’s living room, now drained of life, all of the furniture covered in ghostly sheets (a perfect representation of upper-class New York as a moneyed mausoleum); an aria from Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte drifts by on the soundtrack, calling out from some distance; we move out onto the grounds of the house, grey with mist and rain; we glide across a rain-spackled pond, which dissolves into the sun-dappled Mediterranean Sea.

The sunlight and European air is enriching, especially because Davies’s depiction of New York is so suffocating. Much of The House of Mirth seems to take place when the slightly bronzed sunlight of late afternoon streams through drawn curtains—that time of day that can seem most frivolous, when one, especially who doesn’t work for a living, is most apt to brood, to while away the hours. In many shots, Lily contemplatively moves about her quarters (which over the course of the film’s downward spiral, get increasingly smaller and gloomier), a lost soul, perhaps already a ghost, gently plunking at a piano or touching a throw pillow. Davies has said that his visual inspiration for this film was the work of painter John Singer Sargent, and indeed many shots here vividly recall his portraits of well-appointed folk idling in sitting rooms, bathed in cool light, just layered with an extra gloss of desperation.

Sargent’s specifically American portraiture is the perfect correlation for this very American film, which wisely employs such recognizable actors as Aykroyd, Linney, Kinney, Anthony LaPaglia (as unwanted nouveau riche suitor Rosedale), and Elizabeth McGovern (as social climber Carry Fisher) as characters who put on a show of sophistication yet can barely hide their crassness behind buttons and bows. Only Stoltz’s Selden and Anderson’s Lily seem to rise above such garish pomposity, and Davies has cast two palely beautiful redheads to emphasize the characters’ spiritual synchronicity. Anderson’s movements are particularly lovely to behold, as when she sensually cuts a page of her book with a letter opener before subtly calling out to a shy potential suitor seated nearby on a train, or when, late in the film, she clutches to her breathless bodice a stack of personal letters that have come into her possession which might be the dubious solution to her financial woes. Throughout, Anderson provides a faithful evocation of Wharton’s protagonist, imbuing Lily with her own moral hesitancy and gorgeous neuroses that are downright heavenly to watch. She is key to the success of this adaptation, her visage and being standing in elegantly and concisely for countless pages of interior monologue, every tremor of hope or disillusion wafting across her face with the right mix of inscrutability and open expressiveness; the gradual decimation of her studied restraint is simply devastating.

Anderson’s contribution to Davies’s version is incalculable, but the writer-director’s screenplay is of course equally essential, a thing of concise beauty to be studied by any who dare tread in the thankless business of adapting classic literature. With very few exceptions, the most notable being Lily’s final encounter with a poor, working-class woman with a new infant at her breast, Davies faithfully recites Wharton’s novel scene for scene (one would have to, so precise is the film’s clockwork structure, in which Lily’s decisions and encounters, business and romantic, set up one by one in deliberate fashion in the book’s first half, finally combust off of each other with fatal results), sharpening and fine-tuning each confrontation down to its essential, clarified moment, yet without hand-holding the audience with exposition. Davies proves here, after decades of making autobiographical memory films with the barest of narrative threads, that he understands that sometimes flourish must be subordinate to such elegant storytelling. Signaling this is his sparse yet revelatory use of classical music throughout, from Alessandro Marcello to Borodin, which never drowns out or buoys narrative, but simply creates mysterious, melancholy spaces within which viewers can store their ever-shifting emotions.

Though Terrence Davies could never be said to have “defined” this decade of filmmaking (as undoubtedly some will say about such exciting trailblazers as Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Claire Denis, Arnaud Desplechin, and Quentin Tarantino), he nevertheless has bracketed it with two uncompromised personal projects that rank with the best of these past ten years. His only film following 2000’s The House of Mirth was 2008’s Of Time and the City (released in the U.S. in 2009), a treasure trove of found footage of the past half-century of Liverpool pieced together as nearly stream-of-conscious visual poetry that brought him back to memoir mode, narrated by Davies himself with a mix of honeyed nostalgia and poisonous wit. If one of the main things we ask of our artists is that they remain honest and true to their own vision, regardless of trends, then these two films are certainly more than enough evidence to classify Davies as one of the unsung artists of the decade. Like Lily Bart, he’s steadfast to his own principles, even if he might finally be raging against a dying light.




Edited By Sabin on 1261894704
"If you are marching with white nationalists, you are by definition not a very nice person. If Malala Yousafzai had taken part in that rally, you'd have to say 'Okay, I guess Malala sucks now.'" ~ John Oliver


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