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.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Vancouver International Film Festival 2015, Sept. 25-26

The films I've seen so far, favorite to least favorite:

Arabian Nights: Volume 1, The Restless One (Miguel Gomes, 2015)
Meta-texture exploded, stories, storytellers, tellings, interpretations. The cockerel crows, and we listen.

Inspired by the classic Arabian Nights, Gomes reflects on the socio-political situation of Portugal in 2014, by telling stories of his own - parables of sorts, though less direct - and layering story within story, and employing everything from magical realism to biting satire. Delightful, hilarious at times, and potent.

Right Now, Wrong Then (Hong Sang-soo, 2015)
Narrative folded back over itself, through the looking glass. Perspective slides. See, feel anew.

Hong Sang-soo returns to his favorite meta textual themes and ideas, examining, in this tale told twice, how slight shifts in character, framing, and perspective change everything. Wonderful.

The Thoughts That Once We Had (Thom Andersen, 2015)
". . . image extends into movement of world, expansion of space, stratagem of time . . ."

Andersen reflects on quotations from the philosophical criticism of Gilles Deleuze by way of images and scenes from the silent film era to the present, responding to the quotations with cinematic images and music he's curated. A total delight to the cinephile heart.

A Matter of Interpretation (Kwang-kuk Lee, 2014)
Life is a muddle that dreams revise, dreams recast. Tell me your dream.

Making a nice pairing with Hong Sang-soo's film at the fest this year, Lee's film circles around story-telling and art and the ways that those interpret and intersect with the human heart and the mind. Great stuff.

Arabian Nights: Volume 2, The Desolate One (Miguel Gomes, 2015)
Story nestles within story, and "evil is not epic"; there is only a "severe selfishness."

Volume 2 of Gomes's trilogy continues to delight, exploring the socio-political environment of Portugal via stories. This volume of his epic work features a "bastard" who becomes a local hero, a judge who - in a Greek sort of theater - must decide who is guilty and who is not among the mass of complex humanity before her, and a dog named Dixie.

A Tale of Three Cities (Mabel Cheung, 2015)

Melodrama in all the right ways (see, Dickens). But epic (I'll see your two cities and raise them one).

A romantic, epic film, spanning the years of Jackie Chan's parents' early, war torn lives in the 1930's-50's: their romance and separations from one another and from their children, their forced moves from the village of Anhui, to Shanghai, to Hong Kong.

The Last Hammer Blow (Alix Delaporte, 2014)

A fine central performance from Romain Paul, reminiscent of Thomas Doret's in THE KID WITH THE BIKE, in a story that follows a 13 year old boy's grappling with his mother's illness, a newly discovered father, a love for soccer, and an adolescent crush.

A slight film in many ways but deftly personal - and it's, at any rate, hard to resist the music of Mahler, which twines its way throughout - in both plot and soundscape - and forces the film away from a trite sentimentality and away from too neat a play on the title.

Paradise (Sina Ataeian Dena, 2015)

Dear daughters, cats, anonymous women behind exercises, veils, glass. Fish in a tank. Birds in the city.

Dena explores the everyday lives of women and girls in Tehran. Beautifully shot and perhaps most notable for its inside look at a girls' school - their rules, rituals, exercises, and restrictions.

Alice in Earnestland (Ahn Gooc-Jin, 2015)

More Cinderella than Alice, I think, following the title character who works her fingers to savage rawness, in pursuit of dreamed-of life with her prince - though Cinderella becomes Alice down the rabbit hole of increasing despair and violence.

Thematic cohesion fails, and ultimately does not justify the horrors done to the bod(ies), however stylistically skillful, visually textured, and at times neatly comedic the film is. Still, there is an interesting thread relative to how the individual pursuit of a dream skewers (maybe literally) those closest to the dreaming individual: sacrificing those in a broader community or those in a nearest personal relationship. And another parallel thread follows - even if it fails to follow through on - an idea about the way the even the most well-intentioned communities fail the individual.

The final image, victory from one perspective, is no victory from another - and the intentional compromise of the ending as well as the ambitious thematic patterns throughout and the filmmaking skill, make me hopeful that this debut feature film from its young director, Ahn Gooc-jin, is a promise of good things to come.

Rams (Grímur Hákonarson, 2015)

Beautifully shot, acted. Sheep swirl in pens around a single old man and another single old man, who remain in stubborn distance from one another - until they don't. And, through it all, the film veers towards metaphor and ends on a final image of trite symbolism.

Still, there's much to embrace if only in what it offers in its vistas of the sort of landscape that gets under one's skin - vast isolation and loveliness.

Friday, September 18, 2015

What's behind that face? : QUEEN OF EARTH (Alex Ross Perry, 2015)

“My face hurts.”

“My face hurts all the time.”

Alex Ross Perry, in his new film, Queen of Earth, trains his camera on faces – and on interior and exterior spaces – in such a way that these faces and spaces take on an alien quality. The women’s faces are beautiful; the outdoor world location – shimmering water, sunlit leaves – is breathtaking; the rooms inside the film’s vacation home setting are spare and pleasing. But in the same way that a horror film might take a very mundane, ordinary space and fill it with inexplicable Otherness and dread, Perry’s efforts accomplish a similar effect. A lovely face, an ordinarily refreshing lake, a tastefully refined home – these all set my teeth on edge, or, at least, disrupt my usual sense of their essence. If horror is often a startling, unsettling defamiliarization of the everyday, then Perry’s film is that – and he uses discordant music, odd camera angles, and lingeringly long takes to achieve a sense of horror. But comedy might be described in a similar way – for it sets something very ordinary in a new, surprising frame – and the thing becomes ridiculous, even hilarious. Queen of Earth straddles that line between horror and comedy delightfully, making it something like black comedy but evading that definition just enough – perhaps because there is a certain poignancy running through it all – to make it one of the most unique film experiences of the year.

. . . Read the rest of my review over at Seattle Screen Scene.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Phoenix (Christian Petzold, 2015)

Ash, ash–
You poke and stir.
Flesh, bone, there is nothing there–

A cake of soap,
A wedding ring,
A gold filling.

. . .

Out of the ash
I rise with my red hair
And I eat men like air.

~Sylvia Plath, “Lady Lazarus”

I confess, I found myself a bit disappointed when I learned Christian Petzold’s new film, Phoenix, would be “about the Holocaust.” There is a certain weariness that arises out of the fact that so many use or have used the events of the Holocaust as a reference point, whether artistically, for a film’s central story (see Sophie’s Choice, Schindler’s List, The Pianist, among others) or socially, for a cheap point in a debate gone awry (see my Facebook feed). I wondered whether I was up for seeing yet another movie centering around the much-documented tragedy.

But great artists work familiar things in such unfamiliar ways that even the cliché can take on unexpected, fresh resonance, and I see the familiar thing as I had not seen it before. It is both old and wholly new. Artists use myths, for example, in this way, and myths, in deft hands, never lose their power; Shakespeare would not be Shakespeare without his unashamed foraging through Ovid. Like myths, then, the Holocaust can be a powerful touchstone for describing our world. It can be a story that artists return to it over and over, mining for its significance, finding in it a means of plumbing the human soul, locating parallels with which to describe and understand the world.

And it is with a delicate, deft artistry that Petzold, in Phoenix, not only tells a fresh Holocaust tale but weaves it together, with beautiful ease, with two myths: three old and familiar tales together becoming an astonishing, new thing. . . .

Read the rest over at Seattle Screen Scene.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Ricki and the Flash (Jonathan Demme, 2015): The Concert Film That Wasn't

Meryl Streep’s joie de vivre is undeniable. She throws herself into the roles she chooses with thoroughness and vigor, and even in her more serious roles, she seems to perform with a kind of joy that’s always flowing just under the surface. One feels she truly loves her craft, and no matter the role, she’s in it, with all her heart. And she’s good, of course. The best, maybe. Everybody knows that. She can play it camp, she can play it serious, she can play it comic. She’s a master of voices and tones, on screen and off screen, big roles and small (my children and I love her superb narration of the Kevin Henkes’s picture book, Chrysanthemum). And she sings, too, with that same mastery and joy we see in her acting. Her early training, as she told Terry Gross on Fresh Air in 2012, included opera, and she’s proved her vocal quality and her skill in musical performance in films like Postcards from the Edge, A Prairie Home Companion, Mamma Mia!, and Into the Woods. Never mind her acting, I’d go to a concert just to hear Meryl Streep sing.

And that’s a lot of what we get in Jonathan Demme’s latest film, Ricki and the Flash: a Meryl Streep concert film, featuring full length, live performance songs, where Streep not only sings but plays guitar, and she performs with professional musicians: Rick Springfield, Rick Rosas, Joe Vitale, and Bernie Worrell. Extraordinarily, she seems like one of them. It’s unfortunate perhaps, then, that the film isn’t fully a concert film . . . Demme using Diablo Cody’s script, takes a more traditional route and, while his concert film interests are clear, he returns to the kinds of themes, story, and characters of his 2008 film, Rachel Getting Married. Like the more successful Rachel, Ricki and the Flash is intended as an intimate and complex family drama. . . .

. . . Demme has made superb concert films, and he made a strongly compelling family drama in Rachel Getting Married, so it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly why this film, a merging of his two interests, so thoroughly fails to work.

Read the rest of my review at Seattle Screen Scene.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

GEMMA BOVERY (Anne Fontaine, 2014)

The premise of the newest film from director Anne Fontaine, Gemma Bovery, holds a good deal of promise for lovers of both the cinematic and the literary, particularly for those who welcome witty or playful re-tellings of classic works of literature. Adapted from Posy Simmonds’s graphic novel of the same name (a novel originally conceived as a serial in The Guardian), the film’s story centers around perceived parallels between the literary characters in Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary – particularly Emma Bovary, her husband, Charles Bovary, and Emma’s lovers – and the film’s characters. When Gemma Bovery (Gemma Arterton) and her husband, Charles ( Jason Flemyng), move from London to a small town in Normandy, the town’s excitable, bourgeois baker, Martin Joubert (Fabrice Luchini), is certain Gemma is the real life equivalent of the fictional Emma, and he makes it his mission to discover her in love affairs and prevent the tragic suicide that plays out in the novel.

Such a set up has all the ear marks of wonderfully droll farce or of a sly satire, a satire that could work on any number of levels – critiquing, perhaps, the often fraught French-English relationship; or the middle class, provincial prejudices; or literary pretensions; or male-female relationships. The premise also suggests the story might hold some genuine pathos, a tender examination of love, heartbreak, and misunderstandings, perhaps. And by many accounts (here’s one, for example), Simmonds’s original work does function on all those levels. (After watching the movie, I immediate ordered the graphic novel.)

(Continue reading at Seattle Screen Scene.) 

REBELS OF THE NEON GOD (Tsai Ming-liang, 1992)

TV screens, arcade game screens, mirrors, windows – all of these offer reflective surfaces, some more and some less reflective, some promising immersion into another sort of state, some seeming to immerse but offering very little in the way of escape from lonely self and quotidian present. These surfaces are everywhere in Tsai Ming-Liang’s newly restored and re-released feature debut of 1992, Rebels of the Neon God, a quietly absorbing film that suggests a set of startlingly germane meditations on the modern self, a thing that is simultaneously isolated and connected, revealed and covert.

The story centers around the lives of two people: one, a 20-something young man, Ah Tze, living by petty theft and residing in a lonely, constantly flooded apartment, and one, a teenaged boy, Hsiao-Kang, chafing at his bondage in cram school and living at home in uncommunicative silence with his anxiously watchful parents. Both Ah Tze and Hsiao-Kang, though they have companions who surround them – a parent or a brother, a friend or a girlfriend – and though they pass through the teeming city of Taipei, stand as alienated figures, whose selves ricochet in the mirroring surfaces surrounding them.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Caving to Quirk, or Something: Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, 2015)

(My expanded review now available at Seattle Screen Scene. Below is an excerpt.)

A good deal of my enjoyment of this one must have been reactionary. I found The Wolfpack so thoroughly depressing (and not for the reasons I think the filmmaker wanted) that going directly afterwards into a screening of this - a cliché-ridden load of indie quirk that did almost nothing surprising - was somehow just the ticket.

I ought to have been annoyed by the cute title cards; the ridiculous portrayal of a hipster tattooed high school history professor (who somehow has his own office and sports a Persian carpet in his classroom?) and of a tenured sociology professor father (who, because tenured never has to work?); the manic pixie dream dying girl who lives, er, dies, to serve the protagonist's emotional development; the bordering on racist depictions of black characters (because Earl, his brother, and the limo driver are funny, it's ok, I guess?); the look-at-me-I-know-all-these-films film references; and on it goes.

I dunno, maybe it was The Wolfpack; maybe I was just so barraged with cute quirk that I caved; or maybe there is some cheap satisfaction I find in knowing and being able to laugh at those movie references and I'm shallow. Whatever it was, I admit it. I had fun.

Also, "Eyes Wide Butt." That's pretty funny.

Friday, July 3, 2015

The Wolfpack (Crystal Moselle, 2015)

(My expanded review available at Seattle Screen Scene. Excerpt below.)

A maddening documentary for opposite reasons: sloppy story framing and contrived framing. In many moments, context, chronology, and even character are so muddled, that even the compelling subject matter fails (and I was left feeling guilty that I just didn't care), and in other moments, the purportedly candid, spontaneous scenes (the trip to Coney Island, the phone call) feel anything but candid, and I wondered, uncomfortably, just how much the director was directing (eg. I imagine this: "Could you say that again, but include how many children you have and how long it's been since you've seen your mother?").

The sloppiness, I think, is an aim at artfulness - and in the hands of a more experienced director and editor, the cuts from one contextless scene to the next could have added up to emotional depth and a clearer arc. There are enough poignant moments - the camera held on the face of one boy or of their mother, a scene of vibrant dancing and running down tight hallways - that I can see the glimmers of a powerful film in the tangle. As it is, so artless, I felt uncomfortably complicit - in the act of watching - in something bordering on the exploitative and sensationalist.

The choice to make the boys essentially nameless is also unsettling; we get a recital of their names at the beginning, but throughout the film, those names are lost in the "pack." It is a deliberate choice, of course, to show the boys as so tightly connected to one another - a survival mechanism, a mechanism forced on them, too, given the tight, prison-like living quarters - but the effect of the choice is that it alienates me from the boys as individuals, from their stories. The larger story remains fuzzy, distant, cold.

And then, wandering round the edges of the film, acknowledged once initially and then mostly forgotten, is the sister who is "special," a lonely vulnerable figure who holds the deepest poignancy for me; I left the cinema worrying for her most, and, ironically enough, it is her name, Vishnu, alone that I remember though even the director herself doesn't seem very interested in her.

I believe Crystal Moselle's heart is in the right place - the film feels like a sincere effort to tell a story and to tell it truthfully - but the skill, or lack thereof, undermines the effort too much to be able to recommend the film. As my friend said to me as we walked out of the cinema, "I wish we'd just read an article about this family instead." And given the cinematic interests of the boys in the family - their own love for film, and film, like their pack grouping, being a tool of survival for them - it's a real shame. I wonder how they themselves will feel about this documentary about them, particularly when they (re)watch it years from now, more distant from the situation of their growing up?

Friday, June 19, 2015

Bland Barry: An Epic about a Thoroughly Mediocre Fellow: BARRY LYNDON (Stanely Kubrick, 1975)

One of the most interesting things about Barry Lyndon is that he's boring. He's a bit stupid - but not enough for me to feel sorry for him; he's a bit pompous - but not enough for me to hate him; he's somewhat good-looking - but not enough to inevitably draw the eye; he shows some bravery - but it's a workaday sort that anyone might show; his beginnings are poor - but not too desperately poor; his end has some tragedy - but it is not terribly so (he does get to keep his knee and 500 a year).

And so the grandeur of the vehicle that carries him - an epic film - epic in length, epic in beauty and filled with wars and duels and love affairs and wealth - is perhaps the great joke: an essentially average person, someone I neither love nor hate, gets the title card.

Is Stanley Kubrick giving me a conspiratorial elbow to the ribs or a mocking grin? I am not sure if I am in on the joke or the butt of it, for while I can see the irony of the thing, I cannot, in the end, easily distance myself from it. I am uncomfortably suspicious of two things: one, that every film, every story I've ever watched or ever read is not really about a hero at all (perhaps even the idea of a protagonist is bogus); they all feature average, boring people; I've just been fooled by the accoutrements. Two, that we are each terribly average - and well, a bit boring - in spite of the central role we each feel we play in our own lives.

When presented finally at court, a title carries no real consequence, and the king, however polite, cannot really place the man with the grand title as one of those among his acquaintance and within his respect.

Barry Lyndon is only Redmond Barry after all.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

"Let's Listen" - The House Is Black (Forugh Farrokhzad, 1963)

"Alas, for the day is fading the evening shadows are stretching. Our being like a cage full of birds is filled with moans of captivity."

This documentary, following the lives of those living in a leper colony, is the only film of Forugh Farrokhzad, a woman Iranian poet, who died at 32, only four years after making the film, but it is, at 21 minutes, spare and powerful, and it is no wonder that it is credited with sparking the Iranian New Wave.

She films as you might expect a poet to do - layering spoken verse (from the Bible, the Koran, and Farrokhzad's own poetry) with potent, select images, each image speaking volumes, some images repeated - all together creating threads of being and feeling.  At first, one feels horror - the toeless foot with scissors snipping away at dead flesh, the eyeless face, the noseless face - but horror quickly falls into sympathy and then into something more complex, something like empathy. - What is that? That is a person. That is someone like me. -

The film ends in a schoolroom of children, some adults around the edges.
"You. Name a few beautiful things," says the teacher.
The boy student pauses. "The moon, sun, flowers, playtime."
To another student, "And you, name a few ugly things."
Another pause.
"Hand. Foot. Head."
I, watching and listening, feel a shock of sympathy - in this boy's life, the human body is an ugly thing.
But, as in a gentle contradiction to my response, those in the school room do not cry.  The room erupts in laughter. Laughter. And the boy's eyes light up; he ducks his head, a sweet modesty in having unexpectedly made a joke.

Like the best kind of film, this film shows me my own failures to see and understand - and makes me see, makes me feel. And the world is suddenly much richer.

"Let's listen to the soul who sings in the desert."

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.