Tuesday, 26 October 2010

LFF Notes #2

Portrait of the Fighter as a Young Man

As films like Mr Lazarescu, Tales from the Golden Age and 4 months, 3 weeks have shown, the scars of the twentieth century have yet to properly heel in Romania, with filmmakers persistent in their surveying of the country’s murky recent history; as well as the bureaucratic hang-ups of the post-Communist era. Constantin Popescu (who also contributed to Golden Age) turns even more retrograde in Portrait of the Fighter, taking us back to the pre- Ceauşescu period following WW2, as Partisan fighters courageously (if futilely) held out as the Soviets gained a stranglehold on Eastern Europe. The grim episodic narrative effectively conveys the thanklessly anti-romantic nature of guerrilla fighting, as the fighters trudge through monotonous landscapes, under the constant threat of ambush. This slightly abridged version of the film that premiered in Berlin feels endless enough as it is, but remains horribly gripping throughout. Those with a better grasp of European history than I may well be troubled by the film’s political intentions (brushing aside the potentially fascist leanings of many of the Partisan groups), but as a docu-drama of a horrific past, the film is chillingly effectual.

Young Girls in Black

The titular heroines of Jean-Paul Civeyrac‘s polished Young Girls in Black have all the glum sullenness of your classical emo, but this being France it’s Heinrick von Kleist rather than Avril Lavigne that stir their dark passions. The films highly aestheticised take on adolescent suicide is questionable at best, and, despite exceptional performances (especially from the two young female leads) and studied technique, it remains stubbornly, and perversely, morbid.

Oki’s Movie

Hong’s second film of 2010 marks a return to structural concerns of his earlier works, and perhaps as such loses some of the free-wheeling humour that has categorised the more recent films. That said, it does include one of the Korean’s most awkwardly funny scenes when a directors Q and A turns into a personal attack. Sectioned into four more-or-less divisible parts, the film’s opening and closing entries are classic Hong. Further viewings needed.

Winter Vacation

Featuring one of the oddest soundscapes to grace the festival for some time, this Locarno prize winner was charmingly idiosyncratic but relentless in its critique of China’s supposed economic miracle. It probably didn’t need all of its 91 minutes to convey its thinly veiled message, but the gags come thick (if not exactly fast..)

Thomas Mao

Now this is an odd one. Beginning as a sort of intercontinental bromance, between a rural Chinese Basil Faulty-type guesthouse owner and his German uber-mench patron (neither of whom speak the other’s language), the film is witty enough as a culture-clash comedy of apparently limited ambition...Then the flying saucers arrive, and the spectral samurais (all disarmingly rendered in no-tech CGI) and we begin to discover that we may well be watching some kind of fine art prank (or are we?) Curious.

Monday, 18 October 2010

LFF Notes #1

Chongqing Blues

China and the Far East would seem to be the go to place for those seeking the sort of low key ‘clash of the generation’ type titles that Europe and US excelled at in the 60s and 70s. There, the generational gap seems so much more palpable and crucial to an understanding of the social world. The sad bemusement on Lin’s face as he enters a city nightclub, wrapped up in his Northface style jacket, is evidence of a clear shift between old and young. In the West we might all believe we’re all teenagers, but not so in industrial Chongqing.

This is one of several excellent scenes in Wang Xiaoshuai’ Chongqing Blues. Melancholic Lin returns to the city after being away at sea to find that the son that he barely knew has been killed in a hijack standoff with the police. He attempts to piece together the events that led to the death, talking first to his son’s friend and lover, then his hostage victim and finally the policeman who fired the fatal bullet. The film is ultimately a little too schematic to carry over its emotional points, but Wang and his cinematographer Wu Di excel in giving us an image of life in the grim industrial sections of China’s Sichuan province.


Commissioned for the centenary of Mexico’s revolution, 10 indigenous filmmakers offer brief sketches of varying quality, pieced together into a reasonably engaging portmanteau. A sort of Pancho Villa, I Love You if you will, but far more bitter. As expected the tone is massively uneven, but there are no real perros here. Highlights include a sharp and absorbing tale of precocious youth from Gael Garcia Bernal (also an associate producer alongside his good friend Diego Luna) Amat Escalante’s weirdly dislocated anecdote about a priest and two young children, and Carlos Reygadas’ This is My Kingdom in which a social picnic turns feral. For my money this is the best thing he’s done since Japón. 


Shot in 7 static takes in the town of Duisburg, Germany (a suitable facsimile for his home town of Milwaukee , says the director) James Bennings’ Ruhr is uncompromising, sober and breathtaking. The first half comprises of the first six ten minute shots: of an underpass, some rolling machinery, some trees, a mosque in session, a Richard Serra sculpture being de-graffitied, and a quiet street scene, all composed with rigid precision and displayed in a digital image so detailed that the only possible response is awe. The second half consists of a hour long take of a coke-plant smoking phallus as the sky darkens around it. Exceptional. 

Silent Souls 

Aleksei Fedorchenko‘s Silent Souls is undoubtedly an aesthetic treat. Bird-fancier Aist accompanies factory boss Mirion as he deposes of his dead wife’s body in the traditional custom of the Merjan people. Based on a short story by Aist Sergeyev, the film feels overstretched even at its 75 minute runtime, but is fascinating when dealing with the rites and rituals of this small, Finnish originated tribe. Moments of light surrealism stop the film from becoming overly maudlin, and the flashback scenes between the two men and Mirion‘s young wife Tanya (such as when Mirion lovingly bathes his bride in vodka) have a real tenderness. 

Blessed Events 

Ever wondered what it would have been like if Christian Petzold had directed Knocked Up? Then Blessed Events is the film for you. A grubby car-bound one night stand results in the emotionally stunted thirtysomething Simone falling pregnant. Her one-off lover, Hannes, a young medic, is surprisingly thrilled by the news, and the pair make attempts to set up a family home. As a study of a pregnant woman’s spiralling anxiety the film is effective, if perhaps a little too chilly. Annika Kuhl’s performance as Simone really captures the sad resignation of a woman grown old before her time (she hardly takes her coat off for most of the first half of the film). Blessed Events makes its quiet points eloquently. 

The Orion 

An illicitly shot no-budget story of a young woman’s harrowing experiences after losing her virginity to her teacher, The Orion makes for uncomfortable viewing. The film is rough and ready to say the least, but its vital and engrossing story is perhaps all the more powerful because of the evidently clandestine nature of its production. Somewhat reminiscent of Cristian Mungiu’s 4 months, 3 weeks and 2 days and Jafar Panahi’s The Circle (credited here as an ‘editing consultant’) the film portrays a terrifyingly dystopian situation, where questions of morals are suppressed by the more immediate concerns for survival. The performances are uniformly excellent. 

Also seen: 

A very interesting pair of meta-meta documentary experiments by former UK gallery artists Gillian Wearing and Clio Bernard, Self Made and The Arbor; a rather rudderless if intermittently charming Argentinean docudrama road movie The Lips; and a neat bit of provocative fun in The Mosquito Net, Agustí Vila ‘s mucho-Bunuelian satire of Catalan familial dysfunction.

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

The Powers of Ten (London Film Festival)

As is the custom, the opening of the London Film Festival must be met with a mournful note, acknowledging the fact that the vast majority of LFF films that disappear from view (at least within the UK) once the red-carpet is packed away.

But whilst most of the 200 odd features screened in any given year struggle to justify inclusion, let alone wider distribution, a number of important works have regrettably been forced into this vanishing act. This year will be my tenth LFF, and so, with metric precision, I hereby offer, in no particular order, ten films that deserve some sort of resurrection:

1. Cargo 200 (Aleksey Balabanov 2007)

Violated is probably too strong a word, but I came out of the screening of Cargo 200 feeling pretty sick and angry at the whole ordeal. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since. Probably Balabanov’s finest.

2. A Portugese Nun (Eugene Green 2009)

Far and away Green’s most audience friendly work (and also my favourite). Formal intellectualism warmed in the Lisbon sun.

3. Copacabana (2007) and Elementary Training for Actors (2009)  (both Martín Rejtman)

The recent Latin America season at BFI allowed me to take in Rejtman’s more traditionally fictive (and equally brilliant) The Magic Gloves. These two short exercises in absurdist pseudo-documentary would make an excellent double feature for an ambitious distributor.

4. Captain Ahab (Philippe Ramos 2007)

Denis Lavant plays a francophone Ahab (it’s pronounced Akhab) in this episodic, revisionary study. Due to a scheduling anomaly, I actually walked out of the last 10 minutes of this, convinced that it would find a home here. I was wrong.

5. Ox hide (Liu Jiayin 2005)

Liu Jiayin’s playfully rigorous study of a bickering Beijing family (her own) would undoubtedly be a tough sell. What saddens me more is the fact that her follow up, Oxhide II, has yet to screened at all in the UK.

6 Mister V (Emilie Deleuze 2004)

Ok, so I don’t really remember much about this film, and my notes went missing long ago. I recall a horse and the fact that it was made by Gilles Deleuze’s daughter. Attempts to track down a copy have remained frustrating.

7. Dealer (Benedek Fliegauf 2004)

By most accounts Fliegauf‘s new film Womb (to be screened this year) is a bit of a stinker, and his last one, Milky Way, was something of a disappointment. But this elegantly grubby tale of a drug dealer’s final hours hit the spot for me.

8. As I was moving ahead I occasionally saw brief glimpses of beauty (Jonas Mekas 2000)

Over the years I have become slightly more suspicious of Jonas Mekas’ self proclaimed Messiah status; but the experience of this six hour dairy film collage (spread over two days) was, without doubt, the highlight of my first LFF; and one that had a profound impact on my cinematic interests for some considerable time.

9. The Possibility of an Island (Michel Houellebecq 2008)

The author’s deeply odd adaptation of his own cult, cult novel was, I remember thinking, a bit like a French and Saunders parody of a Taskovsky movie. But in a good way.

10. Virgin Stripped Bare by her Bachelors (Hong Sangsoo 2001)

The sad fact that not a single Hong Sangsoo film has gained full distribution in the UK was partially corrected by the brilliantly conceived ICO tour earlier this year. That said, the odd touring show doesn’t count, so I’ll name this – the first Hong I saw, and still one of my favourites – as my final choice.

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

The Comfort of Strangers (Part Two)

[This post is the second part to a discussion on one night stands in cinema, that began with a look at Love with the Proper Stranger and Knocked Up, which was itself inspired by a previous post on Mike Figgis' film One Night Stand] 

Partie de Campagne (Jean Renoir 1936)

To refer to the event that occurs towards the end of Jean Renoir's Partie de Campagne as a one night stand is problematic for two reasons: (1) we never actually see if what happens between Henri and Henriette results in sex, and (2) whatever does occur, clearly occurs during the day. But still, with your forgiveness, I shall persevere. 

The film, mostly set on an idle, picnicking summer's day, follows the Parisian Dufour family on their trip to the country. M. and Mme Dufour, their daughter Henriette, her rather pathetic fiancé Anatole, and a batty grandmother arrive at a isolated bistro. As Henriette plays on a swing, she is spied by two local boatsmen, Rudolph and Henri, who discuss their options. Rudolph senses an opportunity, but Henri is more cautious.

"You're afraid of the pox" says Rudolph 

"No, of responsibilities. What would you do with that girl on the swing?" 

"I'd invite her for a row. We'd land somewhere to stretch our legs…Then I'd have a little fun." 

"Suppose a baby.." 

"If children resulted from every bit of fun..the world would be overpopulated." (*)

But eventually Henri overcomes his unease, and the two men conspire to get Henriette and her mother away from their respective partners with the proposal of a boat trip. As Rudolph takes care of the giggling, flirtatious Mme, Henri leads the more serious minded Henriette away. Seemingly entranced in pantheist fervor, Henriette the city girl listens to the sounds of a nightingale's song; Henri, similarly possessed by his own (baser) instincts, works his arm around the young woman's waist. She resists, but is eventually led. Now sitting on the ground, Henri forcibly angles her head towards his. He kisses her but is pushed away. Undeterred, he continues, pressing her to the ground. She relents and they kiss without force. As their faces pull apart we see a tear rolling down Henriette's cheek.

A blissful submission to an impossible love, or a prelude to rape? Henriette's tearful look towards the camera continues to produce contradictory readings. 

In his book on Renoir, Andre Bazin discusses the brief scene: 

The love scene on the island is one of the most agonizing and beautiful in all of cinema. It owes its stunning effectiveness to a couple of gestures and a look from Sylvia Bataille which have a renching emotional realism. In the space of a few frames she expresses all the disenchantment, the pathetic sadness that follows the act of love. 

Disenchantment and pathetic sadness. Much as in Love with the Proper Stranger, the girl's adolescent romantic idealism is crushed by sexual realities. Unlike Angie, however, Henriette never gets to articulate her feelings. Renoir cuts from the couple to shots of an impending storm, a more lyrical punishment for transgression than Angie's pregnancy.

Does it end with the kiss? Does Henri's fear of paternal responsibility hold him back? Or his realization of Henriette's sadness? Whatever the result, it is clear that Henriette's trauma is genuine. 

Over the storm, inter-titles inform of us of passing years with "Sundays as bleak as Mondays". And then we are back, with Henriette and Anatole now presumably married, sitting under the same tree by the same river. Henri appears and Henriette approaches him, visibly moved by his presence. He tells her he often comes to this spot as it holds his happiest memory. "Every night I remember" she says ambiguously, her eyes clouded up with tears again. 

Vendredi Soir (Claire Denis 2002)

The one night stand between Laure and Jean in Claire Denis' Vendredi Soir is notable for taking place on home turf. In the majority of films discussed (all bar Solitary Man and Knocked Up) events have been staged in the 'non-spaces' of out of town trips, pointing to the liminal nature of such trysts. But Vendredi Soir is very much about homes, and about knowing where we belong. Laure, a woman we take for being somewhere in her thirties, has packed up her boxes to move in with her unseen partner. Like Alison in Knocked Up, her life is in transition (and in this case, quite literally in transit). Rather foolishly, she attempts to spend her last night of freedom with dinner at a friend's, even though a Metro strike has brought Paris to a virtual standstill. 

Denis' film is far and away the most subjective work outlined here. Laure is never off screen (excluding point of view shots, and fragments of her imagined thoughts). Even the (feminine) voice on the car radio seems to be speaking just to her. Jean, a handsome, slightly older man, appears out of nowhere and climbs into her car. He could easily be a figment of her agile imagination, like the sentient floor-lamp or the animated pizza toppings (seriously..If you haven't already done so, I recommend you watch this film right away). We and she (if the two are indeed divisible) presume he wants sex. Although they hardly exchange words, they are soon at it in a local hotel room. The next morning she leaves with a smile on her face. 

The film can be (and has been) read as a feminist reclamation of the presumed male desire for anonymous sex. There is no punishment, no sadness; the sex isn't grubby or cheap. Laure and Jean's perfect union is perfectly brief. There's no need for regret here; whatever there is between them, it isn't love. 

Laure begins the film as a commodity, boxed up and ready to be shipped to her boyfriend's apartment. In one of her few dialogue exchanges, a man leans out of his car window and asks her "How much?" The proposition turns out to be for her car, advertised as 'For Sale' in a hand written note. By the film's end she will have clawed back some of her sexual identity; perhaps for one night, or perhaps for good.

(*) It should be said that this film takes place in the late 19th Century

Saturday, 2 October 2010

Muybridge, Bazin and the wobble.

At the entrance to the Eadweard Muybridge exhibition at Tate Britain, the following disclaimer is displayed in friendly Tate font:

"Please be aware that this exhibition contains images of nudity and other images that visitors may find challenging."

Well, we all like a challenge, don’t we?

The exhibition makes a persuasive case for Muybridge, not only as an instrumental figure in cinema’s pre history, but also as a profound influence on 20th century painting and as a pretty damn fine landscape photographer in his own right.

The story of Occident the horse and Muybridge’s first attempts at capturing movement on film is well known. But as his technique developed, he soon took to depicting the human form, and his series Animal Locomotion of 1887 began to feature the kind of imagery the Tate still deems challenging.

Turning around in surprise and running away. 1887

Getting into bed. 1887

Muybridge’s quasi scientific objectives (note the gridded backgrounds) may well mask some rather more perverse intentions, but it’s not easy for a 21st century eye to see the plates as eroticism. If Muybridge has any detectable fetish, it is for movement: an urge to capture the unstructured wobble of the human form in action.

In Bazin’s seminal essay The Evolution of the Language of Cinema, he neglects to mention the wobble as an antidote to the pleasures of montage, but in his defence of duration (citing Flaherty’s Nanook of the North) he describes this human need to view uncondensed action, and the process of time occuring.

What matters to Flaherty, confronted with Nanook hunting the seal, is the relation between Nanook and the animal; the actual length of the waiting period. Montage could suggest the time involved. Flaherty however confines himself to showing the actual waiting period; the length of the hunt is the very substance of the image, its true object. Thus in the film this episode requires one setup. Will anyone deny that it is thereby much more moving than a montage by attraction?

Bazin, like Muybridge, is fixated on the desire to see an action for what it is, from beginning to end; be it seal hunting or getting into bed.

Bazin lost the argument of course. Patterns show a pretty steady reduction is average shot length from the early days of film to contemporary Hollywood. And whilst there are those outside of Hollywood who try to keep the tradition of the long-take alive, for anyone working in any kind of identifiable mainstream the quick cut is king.

So was our desire for unadulterated movement a temporary, historical blip? What happened to our need for duration?

In her article Excess and ecstasy: constructing female pleasure in porn movies Eithne Johnson cites the average shot length of Aerobisex Girls (1983) as between 14 and 15 seconds (compared to a mainstream average of around 3.5 – 4 seconds). And I would imagine this example is far from extreme. In contemporary hardcore pornography, the Bazinain long-take finds its last outpost. Muybridge’s movement fetish appears alive and well in this world where witnessing the duration of the action is still paramount. I’m sure there are a lot of theories about why the consumption of pornography is on the increase, but could this stifled need for accurate temporal representation be one?


From Herzog on Herzog, Werner talks about his 'Minnesota Declaration' for 'ecstatic truth':

The background to the 'Minnesota Declaration: Truth and Fact in Documentary Filmmaking' is a very simple one. I had flown from Europe to San Francisco and back again in a very short space of time and had ended up in Italy, where I was directing an opera. Jet-lagged as I was, I could not sleep and turned on the television at midnight to be confronted by a very stupid, uninspiring documentary, something excruciatingly boring about animals somewhere out there in the Serengeti, all very cute and fluffy. At 2 a.m. I turned the television on again and watched something equally bad, the same kind of crap you find on television wherever you go. But then at 4 a.m. I found some hard-core porno, and I sat up and said to myself, 'My God, finally something straightforward, something real, even if it is purely physical.' For me the porno had real naked truth.