Saturday, April 4, 2015

Musings on Poetry and Interstellar (Christopher Nolan, 2014)

A friend of mine - a former student and a budding poet, headed for an MFA in poetry program this fall – recently told me that the more he works his craft, the more he finds he wants to compress, the more he wants to replace an initial phrase with a single word or to replace a set of phrases with just one brief phrase. The idea is to create a work full of just a few potent words - words that contain multitudes, so to speak - instead of a work full of many less resonant ones.

What he wants to offer the reader, I think, is something like a seed, a latent, fertile thing that, when planted in the reader’s mind, germinates and expands. And his poetry, as I read each new poem he sends me, is increasing in these kinds of compression-fueled expansions. His work is, more and more, made up of compact sets of lines that feed a reader’s delight: they puzzle at first in their bold brevity – but then, as I sit with a particular poem, letting my tongue savor the sounds and my mind mull the possibilities, a meaning will open as with a sudden blooming, and then there's another, and another meaning, until the poem fills all my thoughts and feelings – and I find I have been a participant in that deeply personal discovery that readers of poetry often feel, a discovery dependent upon that unique, intimate interaction between poem and reader.

Poets like my friend understand that poetry is not really poetry if it has no reader; to even exist, it, in some sense, needs a reader, a reader willing to grasp, plant, and water those word-seeds. The poet depends on readers for the poems to live. And the reader, likewise, understands that there is very little joy in reading if the poet does not trust the reader enough to allow the reader to do the nurturing, to offer care and feeding to those seeds.

A poem, then, might be considered not as a thing on a page but as an interaction, a relationship. And the greater the trust and investment on both sides, the greater the love, the greater the joy. As Jeanette Winterson writes in her essay, “Imagination and Reality,” “Love is reciprocity, and so is art.”

But if the use of Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night,” in Interstellar is any indication, I do not think Nolan understands that about poetry: that latent fertility of a poet’s words, that need for trust between poet and reader.

And perhaps he doesn’t even understand how much the visual, sensory building blocks that make up the cinematic experience can be like those potent word-seeds we find in poetry, visual and sensory things that truly bloom only when allowed to be planted in the mind and heart of the viewer.

For Nolan does not trust that Thomas’s words contain a potency that needs no explaining, no repetition.

Nor does he trust that his own visuals will tell the story he wants to tell.

Instead, he lectures through the mouths of his characters, telling us what to think. He harangues with a deafening, ever-present score, telling us what to feel.

Virginia Woolf in her brilliant and provocative essay, “How Should One Read a Book,” writes, “The impact of poetry is so hard and direct that for the moment there is no other sensation except that of the poem itself. What profound depths we visit then – how sudden and complete is our immersion! . . . Our being for the moment is centred and constricted, as in any violent shock of personal emotion. Afterwards, . . . the sensation begins to spread in wider rings through our minds; remoter senses are reached; these begin to sound and to comment and we are aware of echoes and reflections.

But Nolan will not let that “hard,” “direct” “sensation” of Dylan’s brilliant words or of his own visuals reach the “profound depths” they have the capacity to do. Instead of being “centred and constricted,” instead of having the joy of “sensation” “spread[ing] in wider rings through our minds,” we have only a strident bombast, and in leaving the theater, we leave with very little that is ours. No relationship has been established, no seeds have been planted in the mind and heart and allowed to grow and delight us with their secret and expansive growth.

And it’s not that every piece of writing needs to be a poem to offer satisfaction. And not every film needs to offer the subtle delight of densely resonant visuals that tell their own story, sans explicit explanation. The non-fiction essay and the pulp novel offer their own delights as does a simple genre film - a rom-com or an action flick.

But the disappointment here is that Nolan seems to believe that any move towards complexity, away from a simple genre film, necessitates lengthy, direct explanation. We do need those lengthy explanations sometimes –say, in scientific essays and political editorials. But a fiction film is neither an essay nor an editorial - and should not complexity be broached differently, so as to make full use of the unique medium of film, so as to invite the viewer into joys of the cinematic relationship?

I try to imagine what 2001: A Space Odyssey would have been had Kubrick put explanations of the monolith into the characters' mouths. Would not the thing lose its potency? As it is, that monolith sits like a provocative weight in the mind, growing in density and meaning throughout the film and in the aftermath of the film, as I sit at home or in my car and ponder. It grows in meaning and significance exactly because it's given wholly to the viewer, and the viewer must interact with it, decide what it is, what it means. And so the monolith becomes personal. It's no longer exterior to me, but it sends ever "wider rings" of resonance through my mind - and it has, indeed, taken on such resonance in so many minds since 1968, that it appears again and again in the film world and elsewhere - and is now a part of our cultural cache, a thing, as Yeats might put it, of the Spiritus Mundi , containing multitudes, containing both Kubrick and his ideas and ourselves. Nolan ought to know all that, for his use of the monolith in figures of TARS and CASE gives him no excuse not to know it. The monolith needed no explanation to be powerful – in fact, it is powerful still because it lacks direct explanation.

Total ambiguity in the realm of art is, of course, frustrating – a slosh of vague symbols with no clues as to their meaning(s) and contributing to no discernible pattern can make a reader or a viewer feel betrayed.

There is the other problem, too, that the perhaps the artist is not actually offering a complex or satisfying set of meanings and ideas, and mulling over a work from from such an artist leaves us essentially empty handed.

My friend’s poems work because they do not remain, ultimately, ambiguous, and the ideas and meanings they contain, once discerned, satisfy the intellect and heart. It’s worth it to invest myself in the poetry he sends me because I know, as a reader, I will be rewarded for my trust, for my belief that the poem is worth investing myself and my time in.

Nolan’s film avoids ambiguity (perhaps) as it layers exposition upon exposition, assuming, apparently, that the complexity of the film is too much for the viewer, but in the end, ironically, the film’s central idea seems trite and unsatisfying, very little more than a shallow sentiment about love transcending time and space.

Nolan has the skill, I think, to offer something visually, viscerally arresting and resonant. But as of yet, particularly in recent years, I am less and less rewarded as a viewer – in large part because, even if the ideas are shallow, Nolan will not give the trust to the viewer that the viewer has given to the films. There is no deeply significant interaction between filmmaker and viewer.

Winterson writes of the interaction between artist and viewer, “The exchange that art offers is an exchange in kind; energy for energy, intensity for intensity, vision for vision. This is seductive and threatening.” And then she asks, “Can we make the return? Do we want to? Our increasingly passive diversions do no equip us, mentally, emotionally, for the demands that art makes.” Winterson, here, puts the pressure on us, as art-consumers, to offer ourselves to the art, to be consumed as much as we consume – if we want to be fully rewarded by the art.

Does Nolan’s work and his level of investment in me as a viewer merit my own return? I am increasingly uncertain that the answer is, “yes.”

Saturday, January 17, 2015


There's an attempt here to play up the idea of eccentricity: if a woman is single and doesn’t appear to want to marry, if she travels alone to far off places, if she travels down back alleys and to stockyards, if she wants a lock for her door, if she collects newspapers, if she takes photos of an injured person instead of standing around gawking like everyone else, if she isn’t freely open about her past, if she opts not to tell a shop-owner her name, she is deemed an oddity. And yet, I wonder, were a man to behave in the way she did, would he be called such an eccentric? Are any of those actions really so extremely erratic and bizarre?

While John Maloof claims in his film to want to make known to the world Vivian Maier’s photography, there is a queasy quality, a sort of TV tabloid element, permeating the whole endeavor, and the result is as similarly shallow as any episode of Hard Copy. Maier, as a subject, is an object to be poked and prodded and dissected; every small action or life detail that can be discovered is taken and exploded into suggestive significance. And people who clearly didn’t know her – who, for the most part, seem to think of her as a bizarre object themselves, and who seem to be quite pleased to be at the center of some attention – are paraded forth for comment.

And as pleased as the interviewees are to be on film, Maloof, himself, so constantly references his own purportedly solitary efforts to champion Maier, it is difficult to see much story here beyond his own self-interest (and as this NYT piece indicates, Maloof’s proprietary claim on Maier is dubious at best).

It is in spite of the film itself that we get glimpses of the complex human being that Maier must have been, and in those glimpses and hints, we must affirm that the irreducible complexity of Maier cannot be violated by the prods of petty filmmaking. She will not be reduced to “odd,” “eccentric,” “reclusive”; she cannot be contained by words like “spinster” or “nanny.” Her person remains hers and hers alone, locked, whole, dignified.

What remains, what transcends the film’s leering attempts at story-telling, is her photography. The images she captured invite us to engage in looking at the world in fresh ways – at beauty, tragedy, comedy, ugliness in unexpected places. And in this new looking, we turn with her, at her side, as fellow human beings, to look at the world she saw. I know nothing about her - and that is as it should be – but I am so grateful to be enriched by her eyes.

NOTE: It would be hypocritical of me not to acknowledge that I owe gratitude to John Maloof for bringing Maier to my attention in the first place: had he not made this film, I am not at all sure I would have heard of her at all. And it is on the website he curates - - where her photography is most extensively accessible online. I am torn: I must be grateful for the film and yet its sensibilities are galling in the extreme. 

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

The Missing Picture, a film by Rithy Panh (2013)

"How do you revolt when all you've got are black clothes and a spoon?"

How indeed, when everything is stripped from you, is there space for anything but survival - and in the surviving, what is left but grief, guilt, loss? But here, now, Rithy Panh stages his revolt, as the only means to continue living. Here, using crude clay, as if using the very stuff of his being and of the flesh of those he buried, Panh builds images of what he lost - and builds it on his own terms.

Where the Khmer Rouge had seized photos to destroy the threat of the personal and of the individual and created new films to promote political ideology and lying glory, Panh seizes images in return, taking such filmed ideology, and frames it, transforms it: adding his clay figures -much more powerful figures than the clapping, smiling Pol Pot - adding his narration - much more powerful than the screaming of slogans - and reclaims his past, his color - not black but pink, yellow, and red - his family, his story, himself. The crude clay speaks while the black and white film of the regime merely mumbles incoherently.

Still, it would be a mistake to pretend Panh is not a haunted man. There is no healing, not really, not fully, even in such powerful artistic revolt. "It's not a picture of loved ones I seek, I want to touch them. Their voice is missing," he says.

Even his own voice, in the boy he was, is lost to himself: "It's the boy; he seeks me out. He wants to speak to me, but words are hard to find."

The words, the memories, the images are hard to find, and even "Mourning is difficult. There is no end to the burial. . . . There is the blood drenched earth. Their flesh is mine, so we are together."

And so the film ends, with the burial of a clay figure - buried, being buried, being buried - and it is a figure, a picture, I cannot easily forget.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

I Was Born But . . . (YasujirĂ´ Ozu, 1932)

“Can your dads take out their teeth like my dad?”

Jostlings for superiority, shufflings for power, and contests of strength –  flurries of action that settle into hierarchies – these games are played out in the neighborhood spaces where boys vie for sparrows’ eggs and in the workspace where men vie for the biggest laugh from the boss. Who eventually becomes general, who becomes lieutenant general, and who becomes the one slain by an invisible bullet firing forth from the finger of another is as arbitrary and ridiculous as it is terribly serious.

The revelation that a father’s position relies on such arbitrary and demeaning ridiculousness disrupts two boys’ own sense of position and self. Indignant and grand, the boys – one virtuously, one reluctantly – lodge their protest, refuse their rice. Grandness can be maintained only so long though, and virtue yields to the pains of the stomach. In such acquiescence comes further revelation, or rather, more poignantly, self- recognition: the boys know that they and their father, in the end, walk in the same world, play the same games.

Is this tragedy? Is it comedy? It depends, perhaps, on one’s point of view.  Here, at any rate, Ozu’s light touch makes room for nuance, for both comedy and tragedy - and also, maybe more importantly, for tenderness. In the midst of the jostlings, the games, the indignation, and sad realizations, there is the comfort of a steaming kettle, of a parent’s affectionate gaze on a child’s sleeping face, of a plate of rice offered in peace, and of a look of understanding passed between father and son. 

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON, a film by Hirokazu Kore-eda

(Note: I do not here give away the film's resolution, but I do give away a couple of pivotal beats of the film. The very spoiler sensitive may want to see the film first, before reading.)

In Hirokazu Kore-eda’s newest film, Like Father, Like Son, a group of three - a man, a woman, and a boy - walk down a hospital corridor moving towards a sunlit window, hands joined, the boy in the middle, framed by the adults. The boy skips, periodically, dances a step, and the man and the woman lift him together: a walking, dancing game made for three, where the middle person must be smallest, where the two on the outside must be stronger, where the two on the outside must lift in unison for the middle small one to leave the ground.  Any person the wrong size or in a different order, any relational change in this simple little game, and the game won’t work. I know this because I walked between my parents when I was small and they were big, and I begged them to lift me, together to the sky, and as they did, I thrilled to the leap from the earth, knowing their big, strong hands and arms would keep me from jerking about or falling back down too fast.  And I know this, too, because my own children have wanted this same game from me and my husband, to walk between us holding our hands and playing this leaping lifting dance.  This is a game that parents do with their children. It speaks of love, trust, joy, security, freedom. It is a family game. 

This group - this man, woman, and child - is framed for us, walking down this corridor, as such as a family. The action and the framing say, family. One might take a still from this sequence and hang it on a wall with the other family photos. No one seeing this photo would question that the frame has captured parents and their child. Happy parents and a happy child. But in the moment of this particular frame, the film’s narrative is not offering us a statement of fact. The framing, instead, is an interrogation, a question. Are these three, in fact, family?

At the end of the hospital corridor is an answer to that question, one written in biology, in blood. It is one that denies the family portrait given us in the corridor.

The blood’s DNA reads, “File #1 and File #2 are not related to File #3.”

“That is our conclusion,” the hospital authorities tell File #1, Ryota, the man who was father, and File #2, Midori, the woman who was mother. And File #3, the boy who was son, Keita, is suddenly a stranger. Keita is not their son; their son lives with another family, who there, too, DNA says, is a son who is not a son, whatever the family portraits on the walls might say.

In these cases, Ryota and Midori are told, 100% of the families choose to exchange. A mistake has been made that needs correction. The boys do not belong, do not share blood with those with whom they live, so they must be exchanged.

From the scientific, biological point of view, things are that simple.

Families, however, those gatherings of people within the complex human drama are not so simple, and Hirokazu Kore-eda is a storyteller who, like the great Yasujiro Ozu before him, gently explores and quietly reveals the messy tenderness, the raw heartbreak, the love, the anger, the confusion at the center of every group of people we call family. Through his films - films like Nobody Knows, Still Walking, and I Wish - Kore-eda asks, what makes a family? Who are its members, and how do we know? What kind of agency or power does each member have? What are the bonds that tie the family members? How far can those bonds be strained, if disruptions, external or internal, threaten?

Like Kore-eda’s previous films, Like Father, Like Son builds its characters and its story by slow degrees and delicate nuance. We become so immersed in the lives and narrative that Kore-eda’s questions arise organically, and the questions about family take on emotional power and urgency because we are so intimately connected with this particular family, these individual characters. We desperately want to know, does Keita belong to this man and this woman, Ryota and Midori? How can he belong to them? How can he not belong to them?

When Midori receives the devastating news from the scientific authorities, she is baffled and burdened by what she feels was her blindness, ““Why didn’t I see it? I’m his mother.” And indeed, that is a key question: shouldn’t we be able to recognize those of our own blood? Shouldn’t it be easy? Obvious? But it isn’t, not to Midori, and her mother’s heart yearns towards the boy whom she’s regarded as son; she cannot really believe that he isn’t her son, and her confused question, “Why didn’t I see it?” is not merely an intellectual dissonance but a deep heartbreak.

Ryota is a contrast to Midori, a very different personality. Early in the film, he describes Keita, as “kind,” a gentle person “like his mother,” who doesn’t mind losing; he has a softness, born of emotion, that, Ryota admits, bothers him a little. Ryota’s emotions are not things he admits nor we see easily, and his heartbreak over the news of his son is less clear. Ryota is angry; he wants to know how such a terrible thing could happen – this thing that he regards as an affront to him and all his plans for his ordered, controlled life. He works every day of the week and has risen in the ranks of his company; his motto, revealed when Midori suggests Keita take a day off from piano practicing - since Keita has just been studying hard, at 6 years old, for his entrance exams and has passed - is “If you take one day off, it takes three to catch up.” Keita must not take a day off from study or from piano because Ryota cannot give himself a day off; relaxation is not the key to the success of his universe. And so Ryota pushes himself, his son, his wife, and they live an orderly, tidy life in their home, a place Midori’s mother likens to “a hotel.”

Such is the nuance of Kore-eda’s story-building though, that we do not see Ryota as a monster. Whatever his demands of himself and his son, whatever his strictness, or his stifling demands for cold tidiness, his interaction with Keita is suffused with tenderness. It is, perhaps, a watchful tenderness, a watching whether Keita will fit the mold Ryota has set out for him, but it is a tenderness nevertheless, and when Keita sits down to practice the piano at the end of his long day of exams, Ryota watches him for a moment, and then joins him, sitting close to him and playing with Keita a simple duet. And Midori watches with quiet delight from the kitchen, chopping her dinner vegetables in unconscious time with their music. Surely, whatever Ryota’s firm control and strivings towards his notion of success, this is a happy family whose members love one another.
Still, tenderness within the controlled life or not, the news that Keita is not his son is a violent disruption in Ryota’s notion of family and of the path Ryota had planned for his life. As the family leaves the hospital, the two adults stricken by the news,  the three – Ryota, Midori, and Keita - are framed again, as they were in the hospital corridor in family portrait, this time waiting at an intersection. But the neat framing of a family portrait is dashed away: interrupted by a train, swiftly rumbling by, cutting off our vision of them. They are not what they once were, what Ryota assumed them to be, what he planned for them to be. 

And this disruption of the family portrait, its notions of itself, this break in direct forward movement is further mirrored for us not only by the obfuscating train but also, beautifully, by immediately subsequent lingering shots of travel – a vehicle, we don’t know whose, moving swiftly through dark highway tunnels, and then, another vehicle moving in circles around and around a track. The outlet to the tunnel never comes, and there is no end of the circling track. In one moment, the three members of a family were walking happily down a corridor towards the lighted window of the hospital; in another moment the three are struck through by a passing train and we are travelling with them in tunnels and circles.  

The journey of the film, then, we might say centers on a man who thought he was a driver of an expensive car he’d sacrificed to earn, a man who thought he was moving forward in a path he’d chosen, with a family he was proudly caring for and shaping. And that man’s world is derailed: he no longer knows with whom he’s driving nor to where he’s driving. And for Ryota, this situation is impossible. He must know who he is and what he’s doing – any lack of definition, any emotional messiness is intolerable to him. So he goes about working to fit things back into their tidy definitions.

But the story is such that at every turn, control and definition continue, more and more, to escape his ever slipping grasp.

His control is disrupted in the moments when he first meets the family who has raised his blood-son as their own, and he reacts to these people who are not like himself in a frozen, polite stillness. They are a working class family, an open, friendly, warm, rough and tumble sort of family, where the father, Yudai, works as an electrician from home, stopping his work happily and frequently, perhaps to help a child fix a toy or to chat with a neighbor; it is a family where a childhood scrape, a bump or a bruise, is nothing to worry about, where the father joins heartily into the play of his children, mussing his hair and ruffling his clothes and not caring one jot. Whether he’s even aware of his undignified, untidy appearance is doubtful. When Ryota, Midori, and Keita meet the other family at a mall food court and playground, Ryota looks on in a kind of horror as his blood son, Ruyei, inelegantly chews at his soda straw and then leaves it, mangled, behind him as he runs off to play.  Ryota sees, later, that Yudai chews at his straw in the same way, also leaving it mangled. Like father, like son.

Ryota’s response to this horror – his blood son imitating, so crassly, the man who is not his real father - is to work to fix it; a plan begins to form in his mind that he and Midori should take both boys, since, clearly, his tidy, more moneyed life is best.

But Ryota’s notions of class are to be disrupted as much as his sense of control, and of family and fatherhood. Yudai’s family is revealed to Ryota to be something Ryota might admire rather than despise. For Ryota, working his son hard and working himself hard in order to make enough money and opportunity for his family, has been his idea of good parenting; he scorns the genial tumble play Yudai offers his children and insists, by contrast for example, that his son should bathe alone, “to learn independence,” rather than bathing in the traditional, communal family bath style, as Yudai and his family do. Yudai is unabashed by Ryota’s chilliness, however, and his motto, we learn, is “Put off tomorrow whatever you can,” and he gives advice to Ryota about fatherhood, chastising him for working away from home too much: “For children, it’s more about time. Being a father is the most important job in the world.”  Through Yudai, this new family, Ryota begins, however reluctantly, to see another approach to life.

And when Ryota suddenly, at one point, proposes to Yudai that he and Midori take both boys, we see that, in the aftermath, he is as ashamed of himself, as the others are for him. Here, Ryota is not at a point where he has relinquished all control, but he is beginning to realize his way of fatherhood is not the only way, and even while the very nature of the relationship of Keita to himself has been thrown into question, he is also beginning to question who he has been as a father.

Whatever Ryota’s growing sense of the complexity of a parent’s relationship to his child, however, both families continue to move, as if caught in an unrelenting force, towards what the hospital had told them everyone does in these cases, 100% of the time: an exchange of the boys, each blood-son to be with his blood-parents. The mistake corrected.

Even as this movement towards apparent correction reaches its peak though, the film continues to probe the rightness of that correction. The families meet together one last time for the moment of exchange, and as families do - commemorating what they deem important moments with their cameras – they decide they will take a group photo. Each father carefully places his camera on a rock: two cameras - one camera large and expensive, the other camera small and modest - each representing their respective families. Then, through the gaze of the two cameras, we look at this group of people and wonder for a moment, how will they group themselves? What will the framing of this shot be? But the question on the tenterhooks of our minds is not one the families themselves seem to think to ask at all, though they have been working with such momentum, to re-frame themselves, to learn to assert to themselves and each other, “now Keita belongs to Yudai and Yukari,” and “now Ruyei belongs to Ryota and Midori.” They simply separate, without thought, into the groupings organic to their emotional sense of identity: Keita with those he’s called parents, Ryota and Midori; and Ruyei with those he’s called parents, Yudai and Yukari. Snap. Shot. And as Koreeda has been doing throughout the film, this photo framed for us in the context of the film, asks us a question: how is a family a family? Are these people, divided into two groups, each a family? How can they be if they about change their groupings?

The instinctual gravitations of the members towards those other members most familiar to them tell us something that those in the photo do not realize, perhaps, for themselves, just how much an emotional bond has, a bond over those bonds of blood and DNA and over the decisions of that adults about who belongs to whom.  

I will not reveal the film’s ending, for to disclose it would break its slow, building power, but I must describe a pivotal moment, later in the film, in which Ryota finally understands something about the complex nature of a familial relationship, something that cannot be reduced to blood and his own decision. Ryota, now at home, idly takes up his camera and flicks through the images it stores, images he himself primarily captured, images cataloging his family unit, Keita, Midori, Keita and Midori. But he is startled to find on the camera images he did not take, framings he did not construct. There are images of himself, asleep.  In these he is far from any control of the kind of representation of himself he might choose. And this sudden exposure of the way someone else sees him – something we saw in the photo of the two families together but he did not see - disrupts his own narration of his world, and it thrusts upon him with irresistible power a thing that he has been resisting, that is, another perspective, an alternative understanding of the world, of himself, and of Keita.

John Berger says in his television series and later book, of the same name, Ways of Seeing,
Every image embodies a way of seeing. Even a photograph. For photographs are not, as is often assumed, a mechanical record. Every time we look at a photograph, we are aware, however slightly, of the photographer selecting that sight from an infinity of other possible sights. This is true even in the most casual family snapshot. The photographer’s way of seeing is reflected in his choice of subject.
 And here, in the moment of seeing Keita’s framing of his world, his way of seeing, Ryota sees Keita’s choice of subject: himself, Keita’s sleeping father. And he understands, finally, Keita’s bond to himself, and in that knowledge he finally sees in himself something he could not before, the thing that grew and became real, a thing more deeply in his heart than his very blood, a thing that happened without his conscious choice or control. In fact, a family relationship.

It is true, perhaps, that as the boys grow older, each will physically resemble more and more, their blood parents, but what that means for the definition of family is less sure, much less sure than the authoritative decision of the hospital authorities about which boy belonged to whom, for we might say that often, in the acting is the being. The boys were brought to homes, and the adults acted as their parents, became their parents. And perhaps the boys, in their newly exchanged homes, acting like sons, being treated like sons, learning to call the unfamiliar houses homes, will begin to be the sons of those whom their blood tells them they are. Indeed, we glimpse them as they learn, in their new homes, to receive and give hugs, to begin to trust those of this foreign environment.

Transplants are possible perhaps. Transplanted cicadas, for example, we learn from the film, as Ryota travels for work to a forest project, can adapt, regard a new place as home. But they do not treat a place as home until they have been in that place for 15 years; the process of belonging is a slow one.  And once rooted, the cicadas remain, live, grow, reproduce in what has been, for 15 years, home. They are attached, firmly, to that place.

The boys were, originally, transplants, and they are asked to be transplanted again, back to a time from before they can remember.

And we might ask, can any collection of individuals – individuals framed by context, by narrative, by photographs, as “family” - be anything more than a collection of wandering transplants? Just how deep do transplanted roots go?

Susan Sontag, in her classic work, On Photography, is cynical about the nature of family photographs, and by extension, family; those photographs, she implies, create a narrative and connectedness the family, insecure in its own identity, desires but may not actually participate in:
Through photographs, each family constructs a portrait-chronicle of itself – a portable kit of images that bears witness to its connectedness. . . . Photography becomes a rite of family life just when, in the industrializing countries of Europe and American, the very institution of the family starts undergoing radical surgery. As that claustrophobic unit, the nuclear family, was being carved out of a much larger family aggregate, photography came along to memorialize, to restate symbolically, the imperiled continuity and vanishing extendedness of family life.  
The photos and framings of family in Koreeda’s film are not so cynical, however. The framings do interrogate the assumptions about family, about connectedness, about a family’s narrative of itself, but the interrogation is gentle and nuanced and does not simply declare that a family photo, a framing of a family, with its implied narrative and implications of connection, is a deluded fiction. Those framings may be, in some sense a fiction – as this film shows us, what is framed as “family” is denied by the cold fact of blood -  but a fiction participated in long enough may become more than fiction. And more than being a sad fabrication of a desire that does not exist, as Sontag suggests, a photo in this film may instead reveal an emotional truth, a truth the photographer, one like little Keita, cannot hide.

In the hands of our guide, Hirokazu Kore-eda, framings of family and family photos take part in a moving, truthful narrative about human connection, and the truths Kore-eda offers in this film will long remain with me, as indeed they must, as I look around at this place I call home, with these three girls I call daughters, and this man I call husband, and as photos I’ve taken and photos my children have taken - often crazily framed, wonderfully unflattering photos - run in random sequence across my computer screen. I do not know how, exactly, we came to be family.  And I remember wondering if the strange little red, scrunchy-faced thing I brought home from the hospital, after giving birth for the first time 12 years ago, would ever feel like my own, not a transplant from some foreign place. But the truth is, once strangers and transplants or not, we are a family, and cicada-like, we are rooted and entwined with one another.

And I think, on our next family walk, we’ll see if our youngest daughter is not yet too old to be lifted high to the sky, between my husband and me, as we move along together.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

THE ACT OF KILLING (2013) : Where the Play Is the Real

IMDb plot synopsis: "A documentary that challenges former Indonesian death squad leaders to reenact their real-life mass killings in whichever cinematic genres they wish, including classic Hollywood crime scenarios and lavish musical numbers."


In old timey monster movies, it’s obvious that the monster isn’t really a monster; it’s just a guy dressed up in a monster suit. But we all agree it’s loads of fun to pretend together that the guy is actually a monster, actually a threat – and then to jump together in congenial fright.

Special effects, of course, have gotten a lot more special since those first days of cinema; this new thing we have, this CGI, can be real slick, and in the best cases, the seam between CGI and reality evaporates; the effect doesn’t feel like an effect. But even in those cases, as we sit in the theater or on a snug couch at home, there remains a firm wall of safety between us and the scary. We don’t see the monster suit threads anymore, but we still quite happily can say, “It’s only a movie.”

In the best scary movies, of course, the monster on screen represents real, underlying collective or personal fears, and as emotional, visceral, and cathartic as that kind of experience can be, the representation remains tidily up on the screen, contained, safe.

This movie, The Act of Killing, makes me aware, again and again, of itself as a movie, of the camera, of the camera operator, of the set, of the make-up, of the costumes, of the actors – and the make-up isn’t very good, the costumes are garish, and the actors are embarrassingly amateurish.

But here, the space between the sign and the thing signified, the space between the monster suit and the monster does not exist; the suit, though badly made, though clearly artificial, rips aside that wall of safety we are so used to and puts us face to face with a real, live monster, and with monstrous horrors I felt so viscerally that I actually began blacking out 15 minutes into the film. I clenched my eyes against the screen and tried desperately to think of something else, even for just a moment, so that I could regain control. I did, but I was aware, as I opened my eyes again just how vulnerable I was.

For this isn’t a story where the happy state, the suspension of disbelief, is possible.

The assault on me as a viewer, the assault of the deep, inescapable reality of the play-acting before me is, however, only one layer in which the film reveals the power representations of things have, even on those involved in forming those representations.

Here, the monsters dressed up in their very best, their very neatest monster suits; they set the stage, set the dialogue, put on their make-up, and proceeded to act out their version of a monster story, where the monster is the super cool hero.

But somewhere in the process, something got a bit confusing for the monsters, for some of them at least. The act of recreating their history, in casting all the parts, in playing multiple roles, in being forced to consider audience, and in working through the concrete specifics of the gory details, revealed something new – or revealed something previously pushed down, down, and far beneath a conscience. “Wait a moment,” the monsters asked each other, “what we’re rehearsing here, won’t our audience think we’re actually really bad monsters and not super cool monsters?”

And they were stumped for a moment, for they couldn’t tell how to revise the story so that the monster horrors seemed good. They did try - for example, casting one pairing of monsters under a beautiful waterfall, where the victims thanked them for their atrocities.

And perhaps that pretty scene worked for some of the monsters, but it seems clear that at least one could not get away from the re-play of his own story nor away from the viewing of himself in that replay. And he retched, and he retched, and he retched and he retched, until I thought I could see the blood of his victims as it rose up to gag him.

It’s hard to tell whether this act of his, this acting of the act, this viewing of this acting will ultimately gain true foothold in the monster’s conscience. And perhaps some will say the makers of the film caught only a moment that merely appeared to be but did not actually reveal a conscience at all, however real the gut retching seemed.

In HAMLET, our tortured young prince, plotting to trap his guilty uncle, decides “the play’s the thing wherein I catch the conscience of the king,” and certainly, that uncle-king blanches when his sins are set before him, his guilt confronting him in the form of the players. Losing his cool, he runs away. A triumph for the prince. But HAMLET is about so much more than just getting a king to confess to a murder; it is a work, like all Shakespeare plays, grappling with the very questions of our collectively tortured existence, and an audience of the play, surely, leaves it more stricken in heart and mind, more affected than the character of the king.

THE ACT OF KILLING is like that. Through its act, through its cinema, it does much more than show me monsters looking at themselves - though that, in itself, is extraordinary. It forces me to look at the monsters myself and accept that they are real, and even more, it leaves me, an audience member, stricken; it shows me something very dark from which I cannot distance myself, something I cannot say lives only far, far away in Indonesia.

The monsters who justify themselves? They live everywhere, in the very heart of the human.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Review: FILL THE VOID (Rama Burshtein, 2012)

Israeli filmmaker Rama Burshtein sets her debut feature film in a close-knit community of Orthodox Jews in Tel Aviv, though the community is so very closed to outsiders, I wasn't sure for some time which country or city they were in. One gets the feeling they could be anywhere in the world, and for them, nothing would change; they are their own little world, passing through the modern world, interacting with it only when they must - to call an ambulance, for example - but otherwise not thinking of it at all as relative to themselves. If others look at them curiously as they pass through the streets, they do not seem to notice the staring, and if pounding music forces its way in through their windows, they close out the sound without comment. The bubble of their world remains intact.

And I could not help but be, in some measure, attracted to such a community - even if the thought of living among such a group also rather terrifies me: such a closed, tight community has very little room for individual, personal sorrows, joys, or secrets. For personal concerns are not merely personal; they are communal. What concerns the individual concerns the larger community: the wealthy are expected to give freely and generously on Purim to those in need because, one gets the sense, that the wealth, though centered on one family for most of the year, really belongs to the whole community. And the rabbi - aware and concerned for everyone - will give attention not only marriages and deaths but also, with equal seriousness, to the elderly woman who feels helpless because she does not know which oven to buy.

We - most of us, at least - are  not used to such a picture of community, much less the experience of such; for us, individuality - the pursuit of our own dreams, our life, liberty, and happiness - is paramount. Certainly, we have ties to friends, spouses, partners, families, but we like to think we have power of individual choice over the circumstances, perhaps even of the familial relations, we find ourselves in. In stark, arresting contrast, the film offers a picture of a group where the community is paramount, where a common theology, and common, unique language, and common religious practices make the community and community concerns more important than the individual - though - and here's where the story resides - the film follows the struggle of an individual within that community, how she must weigh her own desires and feelings - her individuality - in the balance of the communal.

And so, while film offers us a sense of the community, the film isn't concerned with an examination or critique of the whole group and its culture and practices; it's simply the context - albeit a vital context - for the particular story we are following, the story of girl, Shira, 18 years old and thus now at a marriageable age.

As the film opens, we see her - with her mother and directed via phone by the matchmaker - shyly and eagerly looking around the market for the man who might potentially be her husband.  Shira's face throughout the film is a delight to watch; she is silent often, but emotions so vibrantly and delicately animate her eyes, her mouth that one feels the dynamic narrative of feeling - confusion, desire, happiness, love, grief - beneath the surface. The others of her community - her father, mother, sister, brother-in-law, the rabbi, her aunt - are older, and we sense they have learned to control much of that facial display of personal emotion; they are more difficult to read - though nonetheless, often all the more, fascinating to study - and their inscrutability stands as an essential contrast to the youth and naivete of Shira. Her face as she sees this potential husband is beautiful, demurely muted but nonetheless alive, illuminated with shy curiousity, eagerness, trepidation, and happiness, and when she later greets her sister, who has come to visit, that face lights up to its fullest and joyous speech pours out. With her sister, she might fully express her youthful eagerness and happiness at the thought of an upcoming marriage.

Grief, however, strikes her and her family, and she is placed in a position in which her youthfulness and naivete must, more quickly than she is ready, give way to adult decisions, adult expressions, adult emotions.

There is no room in the situation for her to be merely blythely young and happy; instead of looking forward to marrying a young husband and growing older by degrees with him, she must grow older all at once, the weight of family cares for this particular community of people suddenly resting on her unready shoulders. The family - and the community as a whole - places certain hopes and expectations on her, often expectations that are conflicting. Her family loves her and wants her to be happy, and yet they have in mind the happiness of the entire community as well. Her mother and father say, "We don't want to push you, Shira," and they don't, not verbally, and yet Shira can well read their hopes for her - and as a daughter who loves her parents and her community those suppressed familial hopes do, indeed, push her.

Like an Austen novel - and this film has been to compared to Austen - the plot, set in a very small community and most often within that, in the domestic sphere, centers around whom Shira will marry and how the community respond to her choice. It's a simple plot, then. The execution of the plot, however, is far from simple, and the emotional and situational complexity, as Shira tries to understand herself and her desires, as she tries to navigate among those she loves, as she tries to do the right thing for the good of all, all the while being urged to act of her own volition and choice, drew me further and further into the lives of this group until for me, like them, the outside world was of very little concern; it barely existed.

Burshstein's film will, for me, without doubt be one of my favorite films of 2013, and in addition to the emotional and situational complexity, the cinematography is stunningly beautiful, lighting and framing the characters in such a way that I was not only immersed in the world but bowled over by sheer beauty. The cast, too, one and all, give performances that don't feel like performances - subtly nuanced and deft, one and all.

And last, it is rare that we have the opportunity to see such a closed, religious community, one in which the camera presents them to us so simply: through Burshtein's extraordinarily skillful, delicately shaded storytelling, we absorb their traditions and practices without any outside commentary and judgment, even explanation.

From a feminist perspective, I could possibly complain about the stifling expectations of a community where women's roles are purely, solely domestic; I could protest that Shira and the other young women around her should not have to believe that marriage is the beginning of life; I could grumble at the fact that the men are the leaders and teachers of the community - speaking, singing, and ruling - while the women sit and observe, separate. But I cannot and will not do this.

The community is what it is; we are presented with it in order to participate in its joys and sorrows - not to stand outside and judge - and such is the craft of the film, we do. Its heartbreaks and joys and hopes became mine.