Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Review - Black Girl (1966)

Ousmane Sembène's debut feature - notably the first full-length film from a native African filmmaker - is the tragic story of Diouana, a young woman who travels from her home in Senegal to Antibes to serve as nanny for a bourgeois French couple. Instead of stepping into the cosmopolitan European existence she always dreamed of, she finds herself imprisoned in their high-rise apartment, cut off from family and the outside world, demeaned and treated as a lowly maid, a fate she refuses to accept.

The important issues of neocolonialism, paternalism and immigrant labor are not treated as political talking points or morality cues, as they might have been by directors with less proximity. For Sembène, a former soldier in the French army and migrant dock worker, these deeply ingrained institutions were a part of everyday life, and his familiarity with them (and the psychology behind them) is evident in the nuanced characterization of his female lead. Neither helpless lamb nor fiery dissident, Diouana is more complex; headstrong and impulsive, she's naive enough to be seduced by her patroness's promises of luxury, but smart enough to realize almost immediately why she was sent for. She's also fiercely independent, rejecting oppression in all forms, not just from her employers but also from a suitor who attempts to weigh in on her future. Portrayed with dignified bearing by first-time actress Mbissine Thérèse Diop, the gravity of her performance anchors the film, and ensures that it transcends mere allegory.

Sembène presents a refreshingly unsensationalized depiction of the Senegalse capital of Dakar, but when the story shifts to the French high-rise he takes poetic liberties with the mise en scène, rendering the the sparse, harshly lit apartment as uninhabitable as the surface of the moon. Framed against this arid, lifeless backdrop, the ebony-skinned heroine might as well be a fish out of water.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Review - She and He (1963)

Susumu Hani's little-seen 60's gem begins and ends, quite tellingly, with identical scenes; a pretty young woman lolls in bed next to her spouse, but rather than doze blissfully, she lies awake, visibly anxious. She is Naoko, a thoughtful (if somewhat naive) housewife living in the suburbs of Tokyo who is increasingly out of sync with her picturesque domestic surroundings. While her salaryman husband commutes to the city to make a respectable living and afford the finer things, she perfunctorily performs her household duties, secretly craving another existence, one dictated by her passionate nature and curiosity, not rigid societal norms. Shaking up her routine (and rattling her neighbors), she befriends and adopts two inhabitants of a nearby shantytown as a sort of surrogate family, a blind orphan girl and a gold-toothed ragpicker who was, in a past life, a college classmate of her husband. They may be downtrodden, but they possess a freedom and self-determination that Naoko lacks, and an ingenuousness that she relates to. Her attempt to reconcile her innocent worldview with their very real lives, however, is unsuccessful, and following a tragic final act, she plods back to the status quo.

While it functions as a critique of modern consumerist society on one level (and as a psuedo-neorealist document, complete with handheld camera work, on another), Hani's film feels personally invested, and he regards his heroine with a tender gaze that borders on adoration. When photographing locales, he displays an expressionist touch, portraying the sprawling apartment complex where the story takes place as chic and appealing in early scenes, then alien and maze-like when Naoko's angst reaches a fever pitch later. Much has been made of the stylistic similarities to the works of Michelangelo Antonioni, and while there are parallels in theme (a woman at odds with her environment) and aesthetics (the disdain for modern architecture), the Italian director scarcely depicted his female protagonists with this much warmth or compassion. Hani seems to want more for his wide-eyed leading lady, and though she basically ends up where she started, her ordeal is not trivialized. The time we spend following her, like the brief time Naoko spends with her surrogate family, is not wasted because things don't end well; it just requires a charmed outlook like hers to make any sense of it.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Notes on... The Short Films of Wim Wenders, 1967-1982

Despite the restoration of almost all of Wim Wenders' early works in 2015 and a recent spate of retrospectives across the globe, as I write this in June of 2016, most of the director's short films are not available commercially. Only two are purchasable or otherwise legally viewable: 'Same Player Shoots Again' (1967) and 'Silver City Revisited' (1969). These became available just days ago, as bonus features on Criterion's essential Road Trilogy box set. I had the pleasure of seeing all of the shorts discussed here at the Burns Film Center in March, where they played only once, on a Sunday morning to an audience of about a dozen curious spectators. As Wenders continues to grow in estimation (and transition from aging wunderkind to full-fledged cinematic icon in his own right), it's increasingly important that we revisit his earliest filmic exercises, which as it turned out, presciently plotted his career and many of its motifs.

The earliest extant short from Wenders' film school days in Munich, 'Same Player Shoots Again' is the sort of subversive formal experiment that aspiring filmmakers at similar institutions lined up to make in the 1960's. It's a deconstructionist take on a gangster film that plays very loosely with genre tropes; seedy hotel rooms, phone booths, a tough bleeding in the back seat of an American car, the central image of a wounded man trudging along a street holding a rifle. This conventional imagery (the cinematic language of B-movies) is divorced from familiar context and scrambled in an attempt to disrupt the predictable ritual of filmgoing. The looping of the gunman scene may confound and frustrate, but it also forces the viewer to think about what they're seeing, rather than settling in for another gangster story. Something can certainly be inferred from the armed figure, who, with his long, military-style coat and assault rifle, evokes a Nazi solider as much as an archetypal criminal. By denying any exposition or context for this image, Wenders may implicitly offer a commentary on the psyche of the young, post-war German cinéaste; while weaned on genre films, they had no interest in replicating formulae, and were even less interested in rehashing the national trauma. Subtly hidden in ‘Same Player’ are two winking allusions to Jean-Luc Godard, who Wenders idolized (and "interviewed" for his 1982 short documentary 'Room 666'). The pinball theme (the main sequence is shown five times and tinted a different color each time, a reference to the multicolored balls allotted to a pinball player; also, the title) recalls the ever-present arcade machines in 60’s Godard, particularly ‘Vivre Sa Vie.’ Another of the French director's oft-utilized images accompanies the "Tilt' screen that functions as the end credit as well: the Coca-Cola logo.

'Silver City Revisited,' while just as experimental as 'Same Player,' offers more in the way of insight into the director's headspace. Made while studying at Munich in 1968, it's a series of static, three-minutes shots, run back to back with no camera movement or deviation. The images, mostly street scenes, function like a photo album or set of post cards, documenting the director's stay in the southern German city. Wenders, whose work is generally defined by an insatiable wanderlust, is surprisingly still and present, and his vignettes effectively capture the poetry and melancholic beauty of the cityscape. Trees blow in the breeze, sun glints off of steel edifices and traffic lazily flows. The most obvious precursor would be the contemplative "pillow shots" of Yasujiro Ozu (Wenders was an avowed fanatic, dedicating 1985's 'Tokyo-Ga' to the Japanese director), but the urban art of Edward Hopper is also echoed in the architectural use of composition and the scarcity of human figures. (Wenders would draw inspiration from the painter's work for the look of 1977's 'The American Friend' and recreate Hopper's 'Morning Sun' in the 1982 short 'Reverse Angle,' covered below.) Across the ocean and of the same era, contemporaries like Jonas Mekas and Michael Snow were making films that were superficially similar, but the more one watches Wenders' exercise, the less comparable it is to the lyrical home movies of the former, or the rigorous structuralism of the latter. More traditional in its reference points, 'Silver City' is more akin to the actualités of the Lumière brothers, and still photography (which the director would practice for the duration of his career, publishing multiple collections). It would be Wenders' last purely formal experiment, and with his next short he moved onto firmer narrative ground, and for good.

1968's 'Police Film' is noteworthy for two reasons. First, it constitutes perhaps the only overtly political statement of the director's entire career. Shot during that tumultuous summer, when student demonstrations erupted into riots across the globe, it is a direct criticism (albeit a silly one) of Munich police and their surreptitious psychological tactics. Wenders was heavily involved in student activism, so such a statement is not surprising. What's surprising, and what strikes the viewer most when watching the comical short is how shamelessly it imitates the style of Jean-Luc Godard. From its rambling, whispered narration and subversion of Disney comics to its grotesque view of modern architecture and fashionable leftist politics, even in its very format (the Godardian faux-documentary, epitomized by 1967's '2 or 3 Things I Know About Her'), there is no doubt who's work it's modeled after. 'Same Player' slyly paid homage, but this is unequivocal pastiche. Wenders' countryman Rainer Werner Fassbinder committed a similar plagiarism with his 1966 short 'Das kleine Chaos', but at the very least some of his incipient cinematic philosophy comes across. Little of the Wenders' thoughtful character is evident in 'Police Film,' making it the least memorable entry of his student period.

Visually and thematically, 'Alabama (2000 Light Years From Home)' picks up where 'Same Player' left off. It's another gangster story, this time containing a sequence of events that is fairly easy to follow: A trench-coated man enters a bar full of scruffy bohemians and accepts a mission to assassinate a figure that is never seen. He is shown driving to his destination, then back to the bar, apparently wounded. He slumps into the darkened establishment, where all of the patrons have been massacred, and puts a song on the jukebox. The camera then cuts back to the car as the man flees the city, fading to black before revealing his fate. What the short lacks in exposition, it makes up for with its unique use of music, which is playing in some form in every scene. The soundtrack (diegetic and non-diegetic) fills in the narrative gaps, providing emotional cues and even clues as to what's happening on screen. John Coltrane's ominous Alabama accompanies the street scenes where the man arrives at the bar, a portent of the events to come. Upon entering the first time, the lazy blues of The Wind Cries Mary by Jimi Hendrix plays, denoting an unsuspecting calm, while in the second scene, after everything has gone awry, the man selects another song by Hendrix on the jukebox, his raucous take of All Along the Watchtower. "There must be some kind of way outta here... the hour's getting late," he sings, the lyrics seeming to register with the man as he realizes that he must soon make his escape. Here, music is not a secondary consideration, subservient to the visuals or the story; it is equally as important as the other two components. In fact, it precipitates the images, evidenced by the film's title (a compound of song titles, of the Coltrane composition and another by The Rolling Stones). The importance of music to Wenders, as a creative catalyst, subject and cinematic tool, cannot be understated. He would go on to become a musical authority among directors, curating a number of noteworthy soundtracks, shooting several successful documentaries on musicians and setting some of his most memorable scenes around and during musical performances. 'Alabama' marks several firsts for the filmmaker. It was his first time working with cinematographer Robby Müller, who would lend his polished aesthetic and unique pallet to most of Wenders' films through the late 80's. Also, the clientele that loiters in the bar is the first significant look at contemporary Germans. They're just the sort of characters - misfits, hippies and artists - that weren't being depicted in national cinema before the advent of the New German Film, and that would populate the director's early 70's works (personified by actor Rüdiger Vogler). Lastly, the final shot is the first of many long takes from a moving car that Wenders would utilize throughout his career. A progression of the tableaux of 'Silver City,' he would expand upon the traveling shot in his next short, and it would later become a distinctive feature of his road movies.

'3 American LPs,' Wenders penultimate student exercise, is the director's first "filmed diary," as he would later refer to this sub-category of works that would include 'Reverse Angle' (covered below), 'Tokyo-Ga,' 'Notebook on Cities and Clothes' and (to an extent) 'Lightning Over Water.' Shot on grainy 16mm, it follows as he and an unseen companion (first time co-writer Peter Handke) drive from one unnamed German city to another, listening to songs and conversing about their love of American music as they go. The first segment takes place in a high-rise where one of the narrators peruses a record collection, a solemn redheaded woman smokes a cigarette on the terrace, and Van Morrison's 'Slim Slow Slider' plays. Next, Creedence Clearwater Revival's 'Lody' accompanies travel shots (taken from the car window) as the pair move from one city en route to another. Finally, after arriving at their destination, there is a final driving shot, a slow creep at dusk scored by Harvey Mandel's instrumental version of 'Wade In The Water.' Wenders is briefly glimpsed driving the car in the crepuscular light just before the credits appear. As simple as it seems, this film is loaded with hints as to where his career would go and how far it would range. It anticipates his diary films, which would all be narrated in the first-person, poetically shot (so as to avoid qualifying as pure documentary) and have an ostensible subject (though their true subject, as with a written diary, is inevitably the author). '3 American LPs' may also be considered his first road movie. Granted, he and Handke are not invented characters, but the central predicament is the same as in those narrative films: the reconciliation of one's actual surroundings (drab post-war Germany) with an idealized, almost fantastical place they wish to reach (America, the land of Hollywood and rock and roll). Lastly, this film represents the earliest union of Wenders' inseparable, twin obsessions, music and the open road, which would constitute a sort of dual philosophy for the director (introspection via art/outward searching), and characterize his entire body of work. Handke would go on to co-write Wenders' first feature, 1972's 'The Goalkeeper's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick' (his first traditional road-movie, adapted from Handke's novel), as well as 1975's 'Wrong Move' and the 1987 masterpiece 'Wings of Desire.' Wenders completed one more film while in Munich, his 1970 full-length thesis 'Summer in the City' (named after a song by The Lovin' Spoonful and dedicated to another American band, The Fugs). He would return very sparingly to the short film format in the years to come, doing so mostly for television.

Some thirteen years after '3 American LPs,' Wenders would pick up the thread of the diary film again with 'Reverse Angle: NYC March '82.' He shot it in New York while completing post-production for 'Hammett,' his disastrous Hollywood debut, which was finished, then allegedly taken over and reshot by producer Francis Ford Coppola. The frustrations experienced by the filmmaker, his estrangement as a European director working in America and many other impressions are documented in this intimate, free-form film. Wenders wanders the city, taking in the carnivalesque sites and musing philosophically, in a style that recalls the less-political works of Chris Marker, particularly 'Sans Soleil.' As he would in a proper journal, he arbitrarily rattles off his current interests: Edward Hopper's New York portraits, reading Emmanuel Bove's Mes Amis on the subway, the music of burgeoning no-wave band The Del-Byzanteens. It seems it's all he can do to ward himself from an increasingly volatile situation. Wenders would use the diary film quite effectively as a stopgap between features in the 1980's, either as a diversion during a difficult period ('Reverse Angle') or while he made preparations to mount a large production ('Notebook on Cities and Clothes,' shot while orchestrating 'Until the End of the World'). In the 1990's, he transitioned to making smaller features and more traditional documentaries, a balance he maintains to this day. Though 'Reverse Angle' appears to have little in common with the student projects in the late 60's, when viewed alongside those shorts, it further illustrates the director's clearly defined themes and singular narrative voice.