Monday, July 25, 2016

April-June 2016: Reviews for Seattle Screen Scene

Knight of Cups (Terence Malick, 2015): Review 

Louder Than Bombs (Joachim Trier, 2015): Review

Our Little Sister (Hirokazu Kore-eda, 2015): Capsule review

Long Way North (Remi Chaye, 2015): Review

Under the Sun (Vitaly Mansky, 2015): Capsule review

Sunset Song (Terence Davies, 2015): Review

Neon Demon (Nicholas Winding Refn, 2016): Review

Swiss Army Man (Dan Kwan & Daniel Scheinert, 2016): Review

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Text and Self: The Clouds of Sils Maria (Olivier Assayas, 2014)

"The text is like an object. It's going to change perspective depending on where you're standing."

And as the director, Klaus Diesterweg (played by Lars Eidinger), tells the journalist, the experience of the play, Maloja Snake, will be different for every audience member, each bringing his or her own personal subjective weight to bear on that elusive textual object.

So, I have to ask, would this film have played differently for me were I 20-something, instead of 40-something? Would I, perhaps, be more interested in Valentine (Kristen Stewart) or Jo-Ann (Chloë Grace Moretz), than Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche), a woman confronted by youth - as something startlingly distant from herself - at every turn? I am drawn to Valentine, particularly, of course, and Stewart's performance is as good as they say, but in her, I am startled, like Maria, to see a projection of what I thought I was, not what I am.

I am confronted, week to week, in my capacity as a professor, by 17-22 year old college students, living a moment in their lives that I remember so vividly: that passion for new ideas, that excitement in throwing off perceived tradition, that confident sense of self and one's own "barbaric yawping." For them, the Transcendentalists make the most sense: "Trust thyself"? Of course. "Speak the rude truth"? What other way of speaking can there be? "Absolve [me] to [my]self"? Oh, yes, indeed, they know they shall "have the suffrage of the world."

It is, truly, a thrill to watch such bold living and speaking, but there is, too, as time crawls every more quickly on, an increasingly bitter sting at the end of each quarter, when these bold young beings leave me without a backward glance. Some, it is true, stop to thank me, to wish me goodbye, but most do not think the life of a 40-something professor is truly of much interest - not with their own lives, stretching before them. They simply cannot imagine what mine is and can't really care. And it is right that it should be so. I cannot, as Maria does of Jo-Ann, ask them to pause, for just a few seconds more, as they walk out the door. The poignancy in those seconds would be only for me. No, it is a "little life," after all, "rounded with a sleep," and I see, more and more, as only one of the "players," I cannot take more than my fair share of "exits and . . . entrances."

I am not of their moment, not anymore. Someday, they shall be in mine though that is not really a thought that brings much comfort. They, surely, just as I am now, will be looking backwards to their own youth, not forwards to wherever I am.

Maria, so viscerally and vulnerably performed by Binoche, for me, then, embodies, with an almost unbearable truth, something of the journey of age I feel and resist and give in to and resist and give in to every day, the "rag[ing] against the dying of the light" and the sighing in acquiescence taking almost equal turns. She is someone learning that the narrative isn't really about her - or at least, it is her narrative, she is in it, but her part may not be very important to anyone else. She may cry out in excited questioning, as the rolling clouds and mist stream into the distant valley, "Is that the Snake? Is that the Snake?" but as she turns to the expected audience, she'll find no one is watching, no one listening. Only the still, looming mountain remains, unmoved by the little drama.

I wonder. Next time I watch this, will Rosa Melchior, mostly off-stage, forgotten by most, be the figure who inhabits my mind?

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Mustang (Deniz Gamze Ergüven, 2015)

“Are you afraid?” said the North Wind.
“No!” she wasn’t.
                –“East of the Sun and West of the Moon”
It might be tempting to read Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s beautifully confident feature film debut, Mustang (France’s official entry to the Academy Awards), exclusively as a portrait of the situation women face in Turkey today.  The situation, while it should  continue to concern those interested in in women’s rights , however, is too complex to be contained by a film that traces the story of one family of daughters in one part of Turkey, and I do not believe Erguven’s film should be, or is even intended to be, reduced to an examination of the particular issues faced just by women in the filmmaker’s own country, however much the story is, in fact, inspired by her experiences there and by her concern for Turkish women. She has noted  for example, that the inciting incident at the film’s beginning is one very similar to an episode in her own childhood, and she has also said that she “put many . . . stories that I heard in Turkey into the film.”
So while the film is, certainly, culturally specific in significant ways, it reads more as a fairy tale or a folk tale than as a slice of life story.  As such, its themes resonate as much for me, an American woman, as they might for anyone. Folk tales invite us to consider direct applications for the readers, and here, viewers might do the same, apply and identify. The five sisters at the center of the story and living at the edge of the Black Sea are very much like the sisters you might find in the Norwegian tales of East of the Sun and West of the Moon  collected by Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Engebretsen Moe, a book, gorgeously illustrated by Kay Nielsen, that I grew up with and pored over, and, embracing any hints of fantastical Other, identified with.
Though I am the eldest and only daughter in a family of four, somehow, the tales spoke to or into my sense of self, idealized or real. I had no sisters, but the sisters of, say, the tale of “The Three Princesses in the Blue Mountain” seemed to represent some version of the closeness I felt with other girls, particularly, my best friend, and she and I imagined perilous adventures for ourselves that mirrored those the sisters faced in the hall of the trolls. Our hair, too, was long in those days; we even competed about whose hair was the longest and practiced the best ways of brushing it so that it shone most, but in play, that hair was tangled and unheeded; at the height of an adventure, what did it matter, after all? By our wits and our stout hearts, not our beauty, we’d escape the evil orphanage and make our way through Dinosaur Island to safety, muddied and triumphant.
The sisters of the Blue Mountain, with the long hair and bravery we imitated, are akin, then, to the sisters in Mustang, though the sisters in the Norwegian tale find a happy ending in marriages, and, in direct contrast, it is marriage –and the cultural, restrictively gendered assumptions that surround it – by which the Turkish sisters find themselves specifically pinioned.  Marriage, here, is no happy end; it is a complex threat to identity. . . .
To continue reading, please see the full review at Seattle Screen Scene: Mustang review, Seattle Screen Scene 

Saturday, November 14, 2015

A Summer at Grandpa's (Hou Hsiao-hsien, 1984)

This inspiration for Hayao Miyazaki's My Neighbor Totoro is a total delight.

Hou builds a space in which a world from a child's perspective is at once baffling and sad and exuberantly joyous: it struggles to comprehend a sick parent who cannot leave a bed but rejoices in all-consuming splashing play by the river.

It is a perspective that sees, in one moment, only the minutest of details, and in another, feels lost in a vast world. Food remnants, left by untidy, unheeding adults litter the floor of the train, but that focused, compact space of a set of train seats is suddenly a bewilderingly large expanse when the adults are absent.

Time speeds by in the morning, while turtle races absorb hands and eyes, but seconds tick interminably in the long afternoon, loose limbs lazing on the floor of a hot room.

Family is everything, dictating life's motions and providing the structure, comfort, love, but adults are capricious, mysterious creatures. Why does Grandma weep as she folds the clothes, and why does Grandpa chase away Uncle one moment and give him money the next? One can only stare, wonder, and shrug. That's Grandma. That's Grandpa. And it's nice, anyway, to sit with Grandpa and look at those old pictures while the sound of the phonograph plays its scratchy tunes.

And so, Hou's sense of space and perspective draws me in, and even when the summer comes to a close, and with the children, I am, perhaps, ready to go home, back to the routine of life, I cannot help but feel that sweeping vistas of the green paddy fields, the rush of the train just outside grandpa's window, the place on the landing where everyone's shoes snuggled against one another, have left an imprint on the mind and heart, much like those long magical summers of my own childhood have done for me. I can never go back to the time, but it remains, like a still center at the core of something that is me.

Friday, November 6, 2015

In the Mood for Love (Wong Kar-wai, 2000)

Also reviewed at Seattle Screen Scene.

"I cannot see what flowers are at my feet,
 Nor what soft incense hangs upon the boughs,
But, in embalmed darkness, guess each sweet"
              ~John Keats, "Ode to a Nightingale"

Time shifts and slips, and the past is a thing of soft veils and refracted reflections, three of you, two of me, then none, only the round white face of the clock and the sound of your voice, my voice. I can't reach you there, at the edges of my mind; you slip from view.

But in the now, a sudden scent presses the bright deep color of your dress, the shape of your hip, a white clasp at the dip in your neck, into my vision, filling it. A green dress with bright yellow daffodils, impossibly vivid. Could you have been so beautiful? 

The streets of the teeming city were empty then, only you and I were there, there in the rain, under the bulb, there in the passage on the stairs. Our shadows pass along those walls, where paper notices tatter, fade, and are smoothly absorbed into the place on which they were glued. The rain soaks us, pounds the pavement; water seeps down into the earth, the water stands in clear pools. At once, it disappears, leaving blackness; it reflects, leaving shimmers of light.

I can feel the press in the hallway, packed with furniture, movers. Was it there I first felt the press of your arm? Or in the cab? Your fingers slip out of my grasp, leaving their warm fading print.

I wait for you. You wait for me. Memory, shrouded and alive, floats in red, graceful curtains in the long deserted passage.

I whisper this fleeting, lingering thing into the ancient ruins, where boldly soaring arches and disintegrating figures in stone relief, settle into the earth, growing into the grass and mud.

Friday, October 16, 2015

VIFF 2015: The Assassin (Hou Hsiao-hsien)

Hou Hsiao-hsien structures his new film, The Assassin, as a sort of once upon a time tale. It begins with narration, a mix of the historical and the mythic, and I am at once immersed in a dream-like tale that will, indeed, haunt my memory, just as history and myth so often do, becoming reference points in my present, even when I am not consciously aware of their influence.

It is ninth century China, and political struggle infects the kingdom. The royal court fears a strong, militarized outer province, Weibo; too much delegated power is a threat to the court’s own strength. Weibo, with a century of nearly complete self-governance, fears a reduction in its autonomy. It is a struggle that absorbs everyone.

And yet within this kingdom, there is a mother who tells another story, the story of a single bird. Caged and alone, the bird sits silent, a small stranger in the human world around it, unable to sing to those so unlike itself. Its human keepers feel compassion for it and give it a mirror. Recognizing something like itself, it sings a song of sadness. It dances, and then it dies.

In this once upon a time kingdom, there is one woman (played alternately with beautiful stillness and incisive action by the wonderful Shu Qi), caught in the midst of a large world she cannot control, a world that has named her its assassin and imprinted upon her its own mission, denying her her own world. She dances an assassin’s dance with a swift grace that leaves me breathless, but her sweet, sad face is the print left on the mind and heart.

. . .

Read my full review on Seattle Screen Scene.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

VIFF 2015: Domestic Intimacies: Ixcanul (Jayro Bustamante, 2015) and 45 Years (Andrew Haigh, 2015)

(To read the full version of this essay, go to Seattle Screen Scene.)

Human, and faced with a sea of things, images, stories, characters, all bobbing this way and that, slipping and sliding away from me, I seek some rope to grasp, a line that might form for me a connection between the things. And if I can only pull that line taut, I might be able to stay above the waves and see a pattern in the flotsam.

It isn’t really flotsam, of course, that wave of films I found my fest-inexperienced self submerged beneath at this year’s Vancouver International Film Festival. Each film in itself is a unique, individual thing, only forced, by necessity into a mass. And we should be used, in any case, to consuming art in the mass, collective form – in a museum, in an anthology – curated and then presented to us as somehow related objects. Even if we pick our way through an anthology or skip rather guiltily past the 13th century wing of the museum and make straight for the Impressionists, we are still aware of all of these disparate things gathered together under an umbrella of a particular Thing, and, invited to do so, the pattern seeking mind all the more eagerly links themes, ideas, modes, shapes, colors.

Artists, of course, do not live in a vacuum, and their works may be, certainly, drawing from other works, even without conscious intent. Still, it would be difficult to say 8th century Chinese landscapes were drawing any influence from Byzantine frescoes. And yet, place such a set of landscapes next to a few frescoes, I’d surely spot a pattern. I can’t help it; I put them together, and the one will converse with the other.

And so, while yet understanding the potential folly of such conjunctions and conversations, I can’t help but make them and hope that such a convergence will illuminate the individual objects themselves.

Jayro Bustamante’s Guatemalan film, Ixcanul, has very little in common with Andrew Haigh’s thoroughly British film, 45 Years, and yet, as the VIFF programming gods would have it, I saw them back to back on a Saturday afternoon early this October, and they nestle comfortably together in my mind, chapter 1 and chapter 2 in a little anthology of Domestic Intimacies.

Chapter 1: Ixcanul

Ixacanul opens on a young woman’s passive form and impassive face. Her name is Maria (María Mercedes Coroy), and her mother (María Telón) dresses her and then smooths, parts, and plaits her hair, securing a crown-like garland upon her head. The two Mayan women, alone together in their home, near a volcano, an ixcanul, in a remote region of Guatemala, both absorbed and silent in the exclusive intimacy of their shared activity, indicate that they inhabit a world with which they are familiar, and I am not. I guess, as I first look at them, that Maria is not quite happy to be so taken in hand by her mother – or perhaps she is not quite happy with the event, unknown as yet to me, for which she is being prepared.

. . . the heart of the film is with Maria and her mother, and the little domestic space they occupy, the close – if sometimes fraught – relationship they share. Maria’s maturation, the politics of the world take on resonance only because we are so thoroughly invested in the connection between these two women. We live with them through their daily chores, in the activities of farm life, of cooking and of baking, of devotion to their volcano god. In one scene, Maria and her mother set up a mating between their pigs. “Come on; let’s get her pregnant,” says the mother to her daughter, and the women, working quietly with the squealing pigs, expertly ply the rum to the pigs’ eager mouths, and the job is done. In another scene, the women visit a steaming volcanic spot of earth, and the prayers of the mother for her daughter, “Earth, wind, fire, volcano,” she recites, are evidence of another intimate routine. And then, in the night, the firelight of an open fire flickers over the faces of Maria and her mother, as they stir and stir a boiling vat. “Don’t stop; it will burn,” the mother chides, and Maria obediently moves more quickly. Daytime, and the women walk together, bundles of sticks casually balanced on their heads, moving easily through the landscape, gray volcanic rock, blond grass. Through all these tasks, so obviously familiar to them both, the two work in easy intimacy. Maria, we understand, is under the pressures of individual desires and shy quests for freedom, but always returns to her mother’s side, her mother’s protection. Cooking, bearing wood, bathing, butchering – all these things the women do together – and when Maria’s life reaches a crisis point, it is to her mother she turns, and it is the mother whose strong arms competently, passionately cradle her.

The film ends with the same shot, the same moment with which it began, Maria and her mother and the plaiting and crowning of the hair, but the scene has expanded and deepened. They reside within a relationship of long-standing patterns and behaviors, knowing one another and being known, a small circle of closeness into which I can now see. I understand the activity of the women, I understand something of what is on Maria’s face. I understand what she is to her mother and what her mother is to her, and when the pulling fingers catch for a moment on a snag of hair and then slide free, my own breath catches in a snarl of emotion.

It is the small gestures that cinema, perhaps like no other art, has the power to fill with meaning, and the gestures here, embedded in the small and domestic, ripple outward in waves of resonance.

Chapter 2: 45 Years

Andrew Haigh’s 45 Years similarly, traces the gestures of the domestic life in such a way that in his story, too, they reverberate, growing only stronger the smaller they are. The film’s first shot is the shot of a house, downsized by the frame of the landscape but centered, a clear, if gentle, demand on the attention. It is a classic sort of house you might find in an English village, modest, but firm; it knows who and what it is without drawing undue attention to itself. It is, though, essentially a blank. It could be anyone’s home. But, like the first mysterious image in Ixcanul, 45 Years makes the meaning of its first image over the course of the film in such a way that, when the image of the house – in the same framing – is repeated near the end, that meaning is, almost unbearably, full.

At the center of the house is a relationship, a thing representing an accumulation of days and of small interactions, and the house and the relationship reside at the center of the film, building significance from the inside out: an offered cup of tea, the antiphonal low humming of two voices, two bodies moving easily around one another in a cramped bathroom, quiet chats in bed that begin simply, without preface. This is what the space of 45 years of married life together looks like, feels like, for Kate (Charlotte Rampling) and for Geoff (Tom Courtenay).

. . . Kate and Geoff’s daily routine, examined over the film’s week – a Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and a Saturday – struggles to maintain itself under the pressure of this stranger, and the strain of the pressure plays out within the small interactions between the couple. They are interactions that, from a distance, seem a part of a daily routine, but situated as we are, inside the circle of the home, so intently watching Geoff’s face or Kate’s face, small differences are earthquakes. Geoff smoking a cigarette. Geoff’s note, “I’ve taken the bus to town. Sorry.” Kate’s choice to stay in bed rather than go for her morning walk. Geoff’s choice to go with Kate on her morning walk, rather than stay home. Kate smoking a cigarette. These things, potentially, shatter. Small in themselves, they deviate ever so slightly from the quotidian norm, and a whole world shifts. Who Geoff is, who Kate is, and who they are to each other becomes a fragile thing. It may break in a puff of air.

A 45-year anniversary celebration for the couple closes out the film. It is a grand gesture, and for Kate and Geoff, from within their realm of small intimacies, it feels very grand indeed. They are not sure they should participate in such a thing at all. But they do, and its grandness brings all of its weight to bear on a newly brittle center. A week is a short time, but it is a long time to live with a home intruder, and the question of what of the marriage is after this long week, is the question to which the film inexorably leads.

The answer is the answer we might expect from the world Haigh has given us with Geoff and Kate: intimate, delicate, and complex. Were we outsiders to this world, we would miss it. Insiders though, we see: a tiny thing of dense, compacted import. Taking it in, I am, myself, in danger of breaking.