Monday, May 30, 2016

Review - Notes Towards an African Orestes (1970)

In 1969, fresh from reimagining the Greek myth of Medea, Pier Paolo Pasolini traveled to East Africa in search of his next adaptation. His audacious project: a radical reworking of Aeschylus' Oresteia set in modern-day Africa that would draw parallels between ancient Greece's inchoate democracy and the newly emergent, post-colonial African state. That film was never made, for reasons revealed in this intriguing cinematic journal that follows Pasolini as he scouts for locations, rhapsodizes about the exotic landscape, and doggedly pursues his black Orestes. The director's concept, not surprisingly, is paradoxical. Grounded in antiquated notions of the African continent but set in it's protean contemporary reality, based on ancient tragedy but suffused with a particularly ephemeral brand of Western Marxism, the elements of the proposed film never quite align. Still, he treks on, photographing the beautiful faces and vistas of Uganda and Tanzania in an attempt to convince the viewer (and possibly himself) that his venture will not collapse under the weight of it's inherent fallacies.

For his part, Pasolini comes off as intelligent and loquacious, brimming with a childlike quixotism. Despite the touchy subject matter, he's never offensive, even in a scene when he debates a group of African students studying in Rome who politely, but firmly disagree with his ideas. It's a later scene, however, that best demonstrates why the project ultimately failed. In an experimental aside, Pasolini orchestrates a run through of a dramatic episode in the style of free-jazz opera, a format he briefly considers. A very hip trio led by a shrieking Gato Barbieri on saxophone bash away as two tone-deaf singers comically howl their lines. Separately, (and in the hands of more capable vocalists,) the musical and operatic interpretations might have succeeded, but mashed together they're almost intolerable. "No, no," Cassandra wails, warning Agamemnon of his grave fate if he continues. Pasolini was wise to heed.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Review - From the Clouds to the Resistance (1979)

As with their earlier feature 'History Lessons,' Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet's 'From the Clouds to the Resistance' is made up of historical and modern set pieces that are juxtaposed to reveal unseen truths. Unlike the former film, in which the sequences are intermixed, here they are split into two neat halves. The first part comprises six dialogues between Greek mythological figures, each concerning humanity's disillusionment with the gods. Mankind is weary of the neglect, the cruel and arbitrary intervention, and the senseless sacrifices, and it is implied that that weariness may turn to revolutionary anger. The second part, set in contemporary Italy, depicts a man's homecoming after fleeing the fascists during the Second World War. Upon returning decades later, he finds his home and it's people irrevocably changed by the traumas of armed resistance.

The segments, though seemingly unrelated, serve to illuminate one another. The mythical conflict between man and god is infused with strands of Marxist ideology, with major parallels drawn to the class struggle. The efforts of the Italian partisans, on the other hand, acquire the weight and solemnity of legend, and take on a primal urgency; their fight is an ancient fight against tyranny, as old as the rule of the gods. The filmmakers are careful to highlight that no solution is perfect, not even that of the communist partisans, but they seem to imply that the battle is still worth waging. Viewed as a whole, 'From the Clouds' demonstrates the trickle-down trajectory of historical discourse. Not unlike the terraced hills prominently featured in the film's rural Italian setting, the combined events of our history feed and shape our current circumstances, in turn influencing our beliefs and how we, in our flawed, human way, take up the good fight.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Review - Death By Hanging (1968)

A Korean man in a Japanese prison is hanged for committing heinous crimes, but he does not die. Instead, he comes to, but cannot remember who he is or his misdeeds, so he cannot lay claim to his sentence. His jailers are at a loss, not sure whether they should attempt the execution again or pardon the man and call it a day. This is the scenario set forth by Nagisa Oshima in this morbidly funny satire that boasts the devilish premise of a short story and the spare staging of an absurdist play. The wardens flail, argue, try to re-incriminate the prisoner, and finally implicate themselves as the lines are blurred between killer and executioner, guilty and innocent, emotional truth and objective reality. The film's cultural touchstones (Brechtian placards, Freudian psycho-sexuality, the protagonist's Kafka-esque single initial) are decidedly Eurocentric, but the afflictions exposed are pure Japanese, chief among them the xenophobic attitude towards Koreans. Oshima is daring as ever in his choice of taboos to tackle, but here he displays an uncharacteristic restraint, never yielding to the outright barbarism of his more sensational works. Dark but not dire, the tone evokes black comedy masterpieces like 'Dr. Strangelove...' and 'Cul-De-Sac', as do the gorgeous black & white photography and unhinged ensemble performance.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Notes on... History Lessons (1972)

If the notoriously bewildering filmmaking tandem of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet had a patron saint, it would undoubtedly be Bertolt Brecht. Like the pair, the German playwright's career was informed by staunch Marxist beliefs and a devotion to the avant-garde as a means for social change. He also introduced to the dramatic vernacular the "estrangement effect," a term so befitting the filmmaking style of Straub-Huillet that it could title a monograph on their collected works. According to this principle, rather than striving for an empathetic viewer-subject relationship, dramatists should actively work to subvert narrative norms that lull audiences into complacency. To increase the likeliness that they will intelligently consider what they're witnessing, viewers must routinely be shocked, jostled, and knocked off balance. This concept can be said to underpin all of the Straub-Huillet films, most of all 'History Lessons,' their adaptation of Brecht's only novel, The Business Affairs of Mr. Julius Caesar.

Like an even sparer reduction of Rosselini's 'Socrates,' this unconventional biopic recounts the life of the founder of the Roman Empire through long scenes of unembellished dialogue. In a series of blatantly staged tableaux, an unnamed man in modern dress interviews costumed historical figures who knew or encountered Caesar. Photographed rigidly against bucolic backdrops, the blank faced actors pose like mannequins and recite their dialogue in harsh-sounding German. As if the staginess of these scenes wasn't perplexing enough, they're intercut with long, static, in-car shots of the modern interlocutor driving around present-day Rome, seemingly without destination or urgency. Viewers familiar with Brecht's epic theatre (or the Straub-Hulliet oeuvre) may know what to make of it all, but most will be left scratching their heads, or worse, nodding off from the lack of action. Indeed, estrangement is in full effect.

Still, through these awkward retellings of key episodes, the filmmakers do succeed in conceiving of a more concrete, modern Julius Caesar. Neither magisterial statesman nor imposing military commander, their version is something much more novel, a proto-capitalist in an imperial age. He did not enslave and execute out of ruthlessness, but to gain economic advantage, and through instinct and opportunism built the most powerful empire of his day. The anachronistic modern figure on his trail functions as a link to our present-day world. When juxtaposed with the dialogue scenes, his excursions through the streets of Rome are imbued with a fresh significance: choked with cars, commerce and milling crowds, the city is transformed into a monument to Caesar's machinations. Such are the suggestive powers of Straub and Hulliet. Much more than a demythologization (or didactic exercise as the title suggests), this unorthodox work compels us to consider what really spurs a man to seize power, and strongly implies that the world we inhabit today is still shaped by men of that ilk. By not showing the audience what it expects to see, they evoke the very notion they wish to impart, and without a single ideological statement, they politicize the viewer. It's more than a neat trick; it's the result of a finely tuned method that the pair, like seasoned dramaturges, employed year after year, film after film.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Notes on... Not Reconciled (1965)

'Not Reconciled,' Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet's first feature film (Straub is credited as director, Huillet as writer and actor), is something of an early-career anomaly. While it establishes the pair as adapters of thematically weighty, highbrow works, and hints at the abstruse dialogue and Brechtian disruptions they would later be known for, the feel of the film is uncharacteristically light and animated. In a way, it was the pair's "New Wave" film, a riff on the aesthetically revolutionary motifs and techniques of fellow countrymen like Godard and Truffaut. Appropriated by Straub-Huillet, the elliptical editing and subjective realism of early 60's French film achieved a far different impact, one that would continue to reverberate well after they moved on to their classical style.

Based on a 1959 novel by Heinrich Böll, 'Not Reconciled' tells the fragmented tale of the Faehmel family, focusing on three generations and how they took part in and were effected by the events of the Second World War. Heinrich Faehmel, accomplished pre-war architect is the father of Robert and grandfather of Joseph, both trained in architecture as well. Through flashbacks, we see how Robert falls in with a group of war-dissenters, is exiled from Germany, then conscripted into the Nazi ranks and tasked with demolishing buildings, including an abbey designed by his father. On Heinrich's 80th birthday, there's a reconciliation, an unexpected act of violence perpetrated by the family matriarch, and a glimmer of hope in the form of Joseph, who it seems will elude the guilt and trauma of the Third Reich. The intricate, intergenerational narrative moves freely and quickly between past and present, creating a disorienting, dreamlike tone that is no accident. Just as Arthur Penn adapted dynamic New Wave editing and sequencing to bring a sense of existentialist paranoia to 'Mickey One' the same year, Straub-Huillet use these methods to engender a feeling of moral confusion and inconsequence. Like a nightmare shared by an entire nation, the ethical morass of World War 2 and the ensuing ambivalence is a dream state that the fated characters have fallen into.

A few seconds into the film, while shooting billiards, Robert essentially asks the audience "what would you like to know?" As the camera pans down to the spiraling balls, we're zipped to a sports field where young boys are playing, one of them a school-aged Robert whose story we are about to witness. It's straightforward enough in this instance, but this sort of leap through time without warning or elucidation happens throughout 'Not Reconciled.' Related to, but practically distinct from the jump-cut (which skipped the formalities, so to speak, by cutting out old-fashioned transitions), these warp-cuts accomplish quite a bit more. They help to create a discombobulated feel that mirrors the moral disarray of the characters. As they are mostly jumps in time, they also obscure the lines between past and present, highlighting the interconnectedness of generations and allowing for the reexamination and re-contextualization of past transgressions. The disjointed narrative itself is a hallmark of the New Wave, specifically the works of Alain Resnais. Straub-Huillet also populate their film with inexpressive actors, not to capture some truthful essence or prosaic charm as with Godard's non-actors, but to characterize the ambiguous nature of the Faehmel family, and by extension, post-war Germany.

Earlier this year, the Museum of Modern Art (who screened this film as part of their complete Straub-Huillet retrospective) hosted an enlightening series called Germany 66 that focused on the watershed year in which the New German Cinema took form. What surprises me most about Straub and Huilliet's debut is not its stylishness or lively pacing when compared to their later works, but how neatly it would have fit into the slate at MoMA beside first features from Volker Schlöndorff and Alexander Kluge. Right alongside the new class of native filmmakers (and ahead of quite a few of them), the French duo diagnosed the national ills of their adopted country, and the results are revelatory. Like the finest entries in the Young German Film, they grappled with the demons of the Nazi horror, incorporated the richness of German literature, and helped mend the seemingly irreparable rift in the nation's cinematic lineage. That Straub-Huillet found their way to the vanguard of this movement should not come as a surprise. The itinerant filmmakers came to these insights as they always did, through their profound understanding of the arts, and what those arts communicate about their creators.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Notes on... Fortini/Cani (1976)

[This is the first of four films that I'll see at the Museum of Modern Art's Straub-Hulliet retrospective in May. Perhaps foolishly, I plan to write a little about each of them]

First and foremost, Jean-Marie Straub and the late Danièle Huillet were interpreters. Every one of the filmmaking duo's works was an adaptation of some sort - of a novel, play, poem, opera or, in the case of 'Fortini/Cani,' personally-charged political essay. Their 1976 cinematic meditation takes as its basis the writings of Franco Fortini, an Italian Jewish intellectual whose 'Dogs of Sinai' is a sweeping assessment of the political landscape following the Six Day War. Fortini points a finger at all culpable parties, condemning the Israelis who vilified and slaughtered Arabs, Italian communists who promoted the conflict and interested foreign powers who secretly provided military support. He equates them to Italians during World War II, namely the anti-Semitic Fascists and those craven enough to pretend the Nazis were entirely to blame once that war had ended. The dogs of Sinai, he metaphorizes, are not dogs but the various men who flock behind strong but ethically corrupt nations, eager for a spot at the foot of the bed.

To adapt these writings would occur to very few filmmakers, as they contain no intrinsic imagery, much less a straightforward story to follow. Fortini blurs the line between personal and political, constructing (or reconstructing) a flat historiographical plane that reconciles wars and upheavals with intimate reminiscences. He dedicates as much time to anecdotes of his youth, his relationship with his father and his internal struggles with his Jewishness as he does to untangling and refuting the fallacies of the New Left. In the hands of Straub-Huillet, this is less a predicament than a plenitude of resources, of memories, events and, most significantly, words to form their own objet d'art.

Those words, read by Fortini in monotone (with the slightest undertone of bile), are paired with long takes of rural Italy. Renato Berta's roaming camera captures the countryside in panoramic pans; windblown trees, empty fields, superficially peaceful landscapes. The viewer is likely unaware that the locale is Marzabotto, the small town where hundreds of citizens were slaughtered by Nazi soldiers in September of 1944 for harboring partisans. Still, in the rift between image and text, the atrocity is suggested, as is their attempted erasure. Fortini appears on screen, stern, eyes downcast as if reading a eulogy. His chilling accounts reveal the invisible history of Marzabotto, of his country.

The narrator recounts his conflicted childhood, specifically his relationship with his father, a Florentine Jew and banker who was ostracized, beat and arrested by the Fascists because of his persuasion. His story is juxtaposed with shots of commercial Florence, business carrying on as usual. When Fortini recalls his misguided conversion to Catholicism as an adolescent, we are shown a solemn service at a Jewish temple from a telling distance, the droning chants at odds with his monologue. The associative choices of scenery, though initially confounding, are far from arbitrary. They illuminate the author's jaundiced views, and combine with them to constitute a new and distinct statement. The 360 degree pans are also meaningful, unifying Fortini's elliptical discourse with the physical spaces they refer to, in a motion as expansive as his poetical prose.

By no means do the notoriously cryptic filmmakers spell anything out for the viewer. Patently against elucidation as a matter of principle, Straub-Huillet employ many of their usual obfuscatory tactics. When I saw this film at the Museum of Modern Art as part of their complete retrospective, significant stretches of speech were not subtitled. This was no oversight, as the duo supervised all of their translations, keeping only the dialogue they thought was absolutely vital. When excerpts of Fortini's incendiary print articles are shown late in the film, the downward pan (and the corresponding subtitles) move a touch too fast to comfortably process. The length and repetitiveness of this scene, along with a few others, will undoubtedly frustrate some, as will the jarring cuts that practically clip off dialogue. Most crucially, little to no background information is given. Without the bare minimum of context, most viewers will find 'Fortini/Cani' a trying experience. Indeed, multiple paying customers walked out during the show at MoMA. Those who stayed were forced to work harder than perhaps they'd ever worked before, not just to understand the film but to endure it. Personally, I was riveted. The experience was not a pleasurable one, but considering the subject matter, should it have been? That this work concerning so many ordeals is an ordeal in itself is a testament to its efficacy.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Notes on... Record of a Tenement Gentleman (1947)

'Record of a Tenement Gentleman,' Yasujiro Ozu's first film following the Second World War, is a transitional work in many ways. When he made his previous film, the tender 1942 father-son drama 'There Was a Father,' the world was a drastically different place. Ozu had recently returned from conscription in the Japanese Army, from fighting a still winnable war. He was almost certainly ready to resume his prolific work rate, having churned out some three dozen comedies and dramas of varying quality with legendary efficiency. However, by 1947, the war had ended in the most heinous way possible, and the director was forced to reexamine not just his process, but also the role his films would play in consoling a bereaved nation and world at large.

'Tenement Gentleman' sees Ozu employing a fairly novel device, for him at least, the humanistic allegory. While his previous films were rife with "lessons," they primarily dealt with either familial issues or peculiarities of Japanese society. Here, the characters and their tribulations take on a more universal significance. The widow Otane (Chôko Iida) eking out a lonely existence epitomizes war widows and childless mothers worldwide, and the orphaned boy, the innocence and humanity inevitably lost by a generation following so much armed conflict. The story of the hardened old woman won over by a stoic foundling is a plea to viewers to change their selfish and distrustful outlook, the only way to collectively overcome the traumas of war.

Ozu's depiction of landscapes evolved as well. It had been, for the most part, realistic in prior films, only deviating for aesthetic effect (the film noir of 'This Night's Wife'), but the mise en scène in 'Tenement Gentleman' borders on expressionistic. When woman and child leave their village to search for the boy's father, wreckage and garbage line the completely empty streets. She doesn't attempt to ditch the boy in a crowded area, but on a desolate beach, devoid of life, dunes redolent of the desert or the moon. Alternately, when the issue of abandoned boys is broached by one character, Ozu cuts to a small army of orphans, milling around as is waiting for their cue. The maudlin soundtrack evokes Hollywood melodramas as well. Though not overdone, the filmmaker was obviously using more overt means to convey a broader message than he was used to.

Still, these embellishments are subtle, and Ozu employs many of his characteristic devices and themes. An engrossing scene depicting a peep show performance at dinner (not as raunchy as it sounds) recalls the reverent observance of the geisha ceremony in 'What Did the Lady Forget?' The difference between this film and prior efforts lies in this scene; the song is presented not just as a custom that unites generations, or as symbol of a near-obsolescent way of life that should be cherished, but as a curative ritual, a sacrament. Somewhere between his perfunctory early films and the near-perfect austerity of his late work, Ozu expanded his scope beyond topics endemic to Japan, and realized that he could do much more than offer commentary. Films could heal, not with outlandish scenarios or emotional pandering, but through communion with the arts and the ennoblement of the everyday. 'Tenement Gentleman' is an important step in the evolution of a spiritually purifying cinema.

Friday, May 6, 2016

Review - Sin Alas (2016)

'Sin Alas,' the second feature from Ben Chace is a small, gutsy, success of an independent film, but it would still be notable if it were a failure. It's the first film made by an American director in Cuba in more than 50 years. As he did when shooting his 2009 debut 'Wah Do Dem,' Chace immersed himself in a sequestered Caribbean capital after visiting and becoming enamored. This time, he swaps gritty Kingston for a dreamily rendered Centro Habana. The film follows Luis, a dour septuagenarian who, through a series of fortuitous episodes, flashbacks and magical-realist convolutions, finally reconciles an ill-fated affair he had 45 years prior with a married dancer (the dazzling Yulisleyvís Rodriguez). The plot is purposefully knotty, interweaving scenes from three distinct eras with peripheral plot threads, passages of stately poetry and naturalistic segments that border on documentary. Chace does an admirable job of centering the film on the tragic love story, and of juggling the various cultural and literary pretexts that inform his film. Proustian memory swells, familial histories, lingering specters of the Cuban revolution and old-fashioned ethnographic curiosity are deftly, and tastefully balanced. Still, the heart and star of the film is Cuba, with its immense beauty and spirited denizens. The vistas (shot in stunning 16mm) and the innate musicality of Havana are regarded with a wonderment that recalls Marcel Camus' 'Black Orpheus,' a close cinematic ancestor. The film’s biggest drawback, aside from an anthropological gaze that the viewer is never not aware of, is the overall stiltedness of the Spanish dialogue. Like poetry in translation, the scripting seems to be a half-beat behind, and cannot quite keep step with the vibrant visuals.