31 Days of Cinema 2.0, Day Five: “Les Rendezvous d’Anna”, A Sophomore Slump—Yet Also A Deliberate One

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Three excuses for the inexcusable delay:
1) It’s easier to be doing this when unemployed than when employed.
2) The Philadelphia Film Festival.
3) These films are blowing my mind. I am prepared to say that women on average make more consistently good and more provocative films than men. There’s so much I want to put down in these reviews, I can’t do it so quickly. So I will be extending this project into November. Also, while I promise you will hear my thoughts on all 31 films, the order I will publish them in will correspond not with my film schedule but rather with my whims and preferences.

Fame did not change Chantal Akerman. She got the attention of cinephiles everywhere with her radical experiment Jeanne Dielman (1975). She could have stepped up her game, scored a higher budget, made something even more ambitious—a dream project, perhaps. Nope. Her following work of fiction, Les Rendezvous d’Anna (’78), is simpler, not as challenging as, yet somehow more austere than Dielman—notwithstanding the name continental cast, and the themes of what it means to achieve fame as an artist, and what comes after. Anna Silver (Aurore Clément) is a filmmaker touring her latest film across Western Europe. She stays in well-off hotels, gives press interviews, has little trouble bringing men to her bed, and has friends, family and colleagues rather eager to have her as company. There is little doubt she is a thinly veiled Akerman promoting Dielman.

But there is no glitz to Anna’s fame. At 28, Akerman had already developed her signature motifs: immense long takes, voids of silence and of monologue, as few characters as possible, a Spartan narrative thread consumed by quotidian tasks and prolix travelling, a deep and genuine concern with base physical needs (food, shelter, sex, etc.), and an effectively stealthy feminism. We have a few scenes with a few actors to establish the exposition that Anna is an auteur of some esteem. That’s it. There is no ostentation to Anna’s/Akerman’s place in the world of cinema. There are merely tedious sojourns in the posh hotels and restaurants of urban Germany, Belgium and France, punctuated by tedious train and car rides, which it is not uncommon for Anna to spend sitting or lying around, eating, passively listening to whatever the hell the person she’s with is saying, sleeping, staving off sleep, waiting for something—anything—to happen. This is a filmmaker committed to her artistic vision, giving minimal thought to the demands that fame may place on it.

I know of no other filmmaker who depicts waiting—as a process, as a discipline, as an existential state—as well as Akerman. It’s been said and written that she impels her audience to feel time. I half-agree. Dielman clocks in at 3 1/3 hours, yet I can’t say I feel that much time go by as I watch that film (one of my all-time favorites), as time is folded in and made watchable by the domestic chores that set Dielman’s routine, and anyone who’s been through childhood can relate to some degree of necessary domestic duty. In her forty-five-year career, Akerman never made another film even close to that running time. Anna is a standard two hours, yet it is much more languid because of the energy that Anna expends on waiting—waiting to arrive at her destination, waiting for the next errand in her itinerary, waiting for whoever she’s with to shut the fuck up already. As the scope of her filmic projects contracts back to normal, Akerman demands reciprocity and asks her viewers to increase their patience. The shorter the film, the less that happens, of course. Granted, the soliloquies of the peripheral figures that Anna encounters on her travels are not as memorable nor as provocative as those few present in Dielman and in this auteur’s other early masterpiece Je Tu Il Elle. So Anna is a notch down from those efforts—and it is not surprising that critics expecting a match of or an improvement on Dielman’s galvanism (unlikely) were disappointed. The film’s thematic core nonetheless remains valid and poignant. The cult success of one project and the good graces of critics do not, nor should they, assuage Anna/Akerman of the burden of creating more and at-least-as-good art, of staying truthful to one’s aesthetic instincts, and of taking inspiration from real life—even when that may entail listening to someone in your proximity spin a near-insufferable yarn on family troubles and toxic masculinity.

Perhaps I ought to write that I know of no filmmaker who handles time and temporality—and, by extension, space and environment—as well as Akerman, not least for her acute understanding of making and viewing cinema as a time-consuming process, a perpetual self-enhancing feedback loop. That is a more confident statement. Watching her films on Hulu, lights off, snuggled up in my easy chair with laptop and headphones, I find it effortless to plunge into her intimate universe of narrow train corridors squeezed between windows and berths, of familiar hotel rooms and flats providing serene urban views and almost all needed amenities, of train stations and cars cutting modern forms and sharp neon æthers through dusky autobahns of steel and tarmac. (Jean Penzer is the cameraman responsible for this.) The ubiquity of windows and the areas observed beyond them steers us towards a meta-filmic commentary. Anna/Akerman here is the filmmaker as audience, seeing and hearing for ideas and signs of a new story to transmit through her calculated vessel-like self to the cineaste public.

Further, Anna’s/Akerman’s passive, quasi-gendered, ironic silence—comparable to Liv Ullmann’s selectively mute actress in Persona—points to the artist’s struggle to speak through film, or better yet to speak beyond and outside of film. If film is Anna’s/Akerman’s main means of subsistence and communication (which it is), then what does it say about ourselves and our increasingly tech-obsessed and tech-dependent society if we can only live and talk through technological media and membranes? To what extent are they a protective raincoat shielding us from our insecurities? Fame and privilege, travel and sightseeing have not alleviated Anna of her steely interiority—which the film adroitly reflects—and Clément’s enigmatic submission to the top-down wheel-spinning she is subjected to, by people and place alike, is a fitting complement for Akerman, a vulnerable and fearless artist who appears nude and has sex with man and woman in Je Tu Il Elle. The great final scene shows Anna at home, in bed, trying and failing to relax, listening to an answering machine full of friends and colleagues demanding further travel plans. Forever she will face down an audience full of wannabe storytellers who want her to tell the stories they want to be told—perhaps their stories—as opposed to her stories. For her and Akerman, there is no escape from the house of cinema. Ultimately, though, it is Akerman who has decided what stories to tell, and how she will tell them.

(I almost take it as a sign of approval from God—for this 31 Days of Female Cinema project, that is—that without realizing it, I slated myself to watch this—and watched it—on October 5, the first anniversary of Akerman’s death by suicide. She was a great auteur, one of The Greats, and I am only more eager to explore her back catalogue. That said, my advice for Akerman virgins is to start with Dielman, and don’t be intimidated by the running time.)

Grade: B+

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31 Days of Cinema 2.0, Day Five: “Les Rendezvous d’Anna”, A Sophomore Slump—Yet Also A Deliberate One

Great Film: “Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould”, An Essential Meditation on Film as Medium

Should film exist? Is film an antithesis—if not a destruction—of art? It has threatened painting, theatre and literature with obsolescence, just as recording technology has dragged us away from classical music towards the (I admit) less refined genres of rock, pop, etc. Some would argue that film democratizes art, that it allows for an exchange of perspectives across space and time without the barriers of discipline, privilege and well-educated condescension; others, that film preserves what ought not be preserved. Theatre has shown essential disdain for filming technology because it is meant to be a life experience among actors and audience—ethereal, singular, unrepeatable, not entirely memorable, what Mikhail Bakhtin called a “once-occurrent Being-as-event.” The late great playwright Sarah Kane proclaimed, “Theatre has no memory, which makes it the most existential of the arts.” By contrast, cinema is memory—perhaps a memory too perfect for man. It makes history laughably easy; it has turned actors from skilled laborers into celebrities. If we contrast “existence” with “essence” (never mind whether one precedes the other), then film may purport to be an “essential” art in the sense that it is man’s greatest opportunity to be immortal, to attain the height of nature, yet film may as well be a mockery of nature, a conceit, a cheat. Theatre stabilizes narrative in one place and time, and there you have to be to view it. You can see a filmed narrative anywhere at anytime, but at what cost?

The life, work and philosophy of Glenn Gould are indispensable hand grenades to this discussion. Gould (1932-82) was a Canadian pianist best known for his Bach interpretations. In April 1964, he made the still-controversial decision to retire from concert performances for good and distribute his music only through recordings. Overtime, he expanded on this practice, limiting his communication with fans of his music entirely to the media—film, print, radio, telephone. He was a recluse, but not to the extent of shunning the masses as Salinger did and as Pynchon does. In fact, his rapport with the media was voluminous. He was candid and sincere about his approach to music, he demonstrated a broad academic mind in a brainy but relatable way, and he showed a wry self-awareness towards his unusual work ethic. The fifth of François Girard’s Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould shows two Goulds; the pianist Gould fields questions from the interviewer Gould. (This is based on a real-life self-catechism that he wrote for High Fidelity in 1974.) In this soliloquy, he justifies the most critical decision of his career thusly: “The ideal audience-to-artist relationship is a one-to-zero relationship. […] The artist should be granted anonymity. He should be permitted to operate in secret, as it were, unconcerned with or better still unaware of the marketplace’s demands, which […] given enough indifference on the part of enough artists will simply disappear. Given that disappearance, the artist will then abandon his false sense of public responsibility, and his audience or ‘public’ will relinquish its role of servile dependency. […] They’ll make contact, but on a much more meaningful level.”

That’s a dynamic bit of writing, and it takes talent and cojones for a filmmaker and an actor to translate it to filmic dialogue—and translated as brilliantly as it is here, it’s fraught with meaning and deserves scrutiny time and again. Where most artists have seen technology as a threat, Gould embraced it. (It’s a shame he didn’t lived to see the Internet; it would’ve fascinated him to no end.) It would be plenty to say that he saw recorded sound as the equalizing force by which mentor and protégé, old and young, rich and poor, and giver and receiver could “make contact” on the same “level,” yet the film goes further than that. The soliloquy suggests, with much chutzpah, that the ways in which technology is often suspected of ruining art are not abuses of art inasmuch as they are abuses of technology—that tech not only has the potential but is meant to defy arbitrary standards of marketability, not to facilitate them. In characterizing the media—and hence the film—as “zero” (viz. zero-dimensional), it confesses the solipsism inherent in having a man interview himself, yet that alone hints at that man’s willingness to question every one of his own beliefs, to butt heads with his own alter ego, to cancel himself out and make that “zero” feel authentic. I’ve seen few films confront the paradox of their medium—the tricks of the eye; the defiance of history, memory and their decay; the ability to do the impossible and reflect nature in all of its zero-like intangibility—as meaningfully as this film does. The genre of the biopic has not produced that many good films—as life is often too broad and complex to perfectly fit the focus and commerciality of cinema—and 32SFAGG is often brought up as an example of how to do a biopic, and rightly so. This is how Gould would’ve wanted to be depicted: in cinema, told without convention. Look at how proudly the film wears its cinematic badge in its title. It earns all of that pride.

The film is exactly what its title says: thirty-two vignettes in the life of its subject. It never tries to cohere as one uniform narrative because the rhythm of life does not work that way. The structure is a riff on Bach’s Goldberg Variations, of which there are thirty, bookended by two arias. Indeed, the film is keen on fleshing out cinema as a corollary of audio editing, on which Gould was able to (re)construct his piano interpretations to his liking—in a way, to mime reality and temporality, to copy God’s essential-natural creation, not just in His apparent perfection but also in His (let’s face it) random, arbitrary lunacy. (I’d add that Gould and God are only two letters apart, but that’d be a stretch.) In the sixteenth episode, “Truck Stop,” Gould listens to three mundane conversations at once at the title location, his ears rearranging the voices into a Bach-like cantus firmus. By the next episode, he has developed this concept into his radio documentary, The Idea of North, which juxtaposes nostalgic Northern Canadian voices into similar polyphonies; this was a prelude to musique concrète and thus to electronic music. Language here is not as important as the innate musicality of human voice—the basic, unreadable God-like beauty of sound. Robert Altman is considered the forerunner of melding voices in cinema, yet I’ve always found his hodgepodges of dialogue shallow and self-indulgent, even patronizing, rushed in their execution, jam-packing too many half-baked characters and plots, expecting the audience to follow them all and insulting its intelligence in the process. Girard’s (read: Gould’s) use of this method is far superior: he eases us in with one voice, lets it carry on for a while, then adds another, then a third, and he makes their words casual enough to be poetic yet ethereal; they can afford the mishmash. Bear in mind, too, that this is all in the service of not the speakers but rather the one silent figure—the listener, the conductor, the musician. It uses language but does not depend on it, as its focus is on the music.

Colm Feore’s performance as Gould, in my book, is arguably cinema’s greatest portrayal of Asperger’s syndrome, which Gould is speculated to have had, and which I’m convinced he had. I have Asperger’s and have studied it, so I know what I’m talking about. The depiction of those on the autism spectrum in film at large has most of the same horrendous issues as its depiction of all minorities. Chiefly, films tend to define our identities entirely within the prism of our being autistic; stereotype us as socially inept geniuses; and view the central experience of autism as essentially tragic, marked by bullying and doomed to seclusion, if not redeemed by an all-too-easy Hollywood happy ending. Rubbish. Having said all that, please forgive me for branching out to portraits of potential Asperger’s—to work on which the lens of autism theory can be extrapolated—and risking a misdiagnosis. The fact is: I connect with Feore in this. One of the most common misconceptions of Asperger’s is that us Aspies don’t understand social behavior. We do; it’s how we behave in response to it that makes us different. We don’t often jibe with the tacit social rules that people rely on to act, react and interact. This attitude has its pros and cons. Feore’s work proves that Gould truly knew the role that music and sound took in society—namely, the way people interacted with their aural selves—and he reveals this in long, circuitous, literary passages of mono- and dialogue (of which the above is a useful example) that he makes accessible and riveting. His line deliveries are firm, forthright, rapid, verbose, a little aloof—as is natural with Asperger’s—yet also inflected with enough mystery, stoicism, and (when appropriate) playfulness to hold the audience’s attention, even if not everything is grasped. Such work demands and rewards multiple viewings.

The challenges of playing Gould are formidable. How can one evoke so much intellectual passion from such Aspergerian rigidity and peculiarity? Feore accomplishes it through old-fashioned acting—through the deployment of his entire body and his absolute commitment to the role. The third chapter, “Forty-Five Seconds and a Chair,” is just that: a forty-five-second slow zoom in on Gould sitting in a chair, his posture perfect for a pianist, while an excerpt of his recording plays on the soundtrack. Curiously, Feore is not seen playing piano once in the film, which makes sense: who could command a piano like Gould? As it is, Feore doesn’t need that embellishment. In that one take, we can feel him conjuring the exact mood of Gould at the piano. All that’s lacking, really, is his fingers on the keys, but we can imagine that, and the brief scene—pointless in lesser hands—is made gripping by the inconspicuous force of its lead actor. 32SFAGG embraces its fragmentation, its perception of life in separate spheres as opposed to in wholes. In chapter nine, “The L.A. Concert,” we see Gould backstage preparing for what will be his final public appearance, soaking his arms in scalding hot water (as he did in life), and we trust that Feore made sure the water was that hot during filming. It’s only in the remainder of the chapter that we realize—in seeing Gould interacting with some fans, weirdly but with enough steadiness to demand esteem—that in those seconds cleansing himself, he silently reached his decision to shun concerts. The image and the thought, what is seen and heard, are often detached if not disharmonious in this film. The poignant tenth chapter, “CD318,” shows us the inside bridges of Gould’s Steinway as he plays his onstage swansong on it, and there’s an uncanny sense that we could add this visual neatly to that of him sitting ramrod in the chair from before. The film is a puzzle, made for us to solve.

It may be bizarre for me to use the word “disharmonious” in praise of a film about music, but Girard made his film that way to underscore the extent to which music and infinite other things are spliced up and reorganized in the media. The eighteenth segment, “Questions with No Answers,” is a series of shots, mostly from Gould’s point of view, in which interviewers ask him the banal inquiries of the easily digestible pop entertainment industry. Gould is off-camera; we of course don’t hear his answers, but the questions are so banal that we can assume he can’t answer the questions in any way that would appease the narrow-minded pop media he faces. The questions provide enough—plenty, even—for a narrative progression, which sees the interrogators getting increasingly frustrated and befuddled with their subject’s tenacity, to the point where one of them asks upfront, “Are you homosexual?” Multiple segments after show Gould on his own, answering unheard questions on his own terms, but generously. Question and answer don’t depend on but rather complement each other, and their clichéd structure is jazzed up and given new life. There’s something else, though: the audience here sees private moments that no one in the world really ever saw, of the pianist alone in his home or in one of many nondescript phone booths, as secluded as he wished to be, bundled up in his cap, jacket and gloves. It feels like we’re watching something sacred—a genius mentally at work—but it doesn’t once feel like we’re intruding because the film and Feore are so warm, so inviting, always intriguing—and because what is seen does not matter as much as how it all stems from and complements what is heard. With Gould gone, all that remains of him are his sounds and ideas, and some images, which I’m guessing are not as valuable as the sounds. The research that Feore must have done for this role is baffling, and it pays off because of how much trust he and Girard place in the voice, music and oral wisdom of Gould to blossom into cinema.

There’s much more—so much more that I was considering reviewing each one of these thirty-two short films as sovereign standalone works and may yet still do that. There are vivid, appropriately abstract animations—including one that depicts, succinctly and hauntingly, Gould’s growing dependence on prescription drugs; a mystical death announcement; moving reifications of Gould’s dream to see the Arctic; a vibrant reading of a personal ad; a startling, out-of-left-field mini-stock market drama involving a Saudi oil tycoon that Gould gets mixed up in by accident; and documentary recollections from those who knew Gould in real life, of which this is my favorite: “Today, I had a customer phone me up and say, ‘Can you come tomorrow to tune my piano?’ Glenn Gould used to give me two or three months notice, and I respected that. And I’m very thankful for knowing him.” The film concludes with Feore’s voice-over stating that the Voyager Golden Record, which NASA sent into outer space in 1977 to communicate the existence of Earth and humans to potential outsiders, includes Prelude and Fugue No. 1 in C major from Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier as played by none other than Gould. It’s a fitting honor for one of music history’s greatest men and most inspirational Aspergerians—to be able to connect, through recording, to life forms we may not yet know of; to make them an audience and an equal to man; to communicate what earthly life and nature are like in all of their imperfections and colliding fragments. And if we make another record like that, this film better be on it.

Great Film: “Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould”, An Essential Meditation on Film as Medium

31 Days of Cinema, Day Twenty: “Memories of Underdevelopment”

I can recall a specific moment, during my viewing Memories of Underdevelopment, when I at last realized what the film was up to, or at least what it was trying to do. Before, the film was a hodgepodge of the recollections and observations of one Sergio (Sergio Corrieri), a bourgeois Cuban stranded in Havana in the years soon after Castro’s revolution, and documentary clips depicting the trauma the island faced under the previous Batista regime. By themselves, the former scenes intrigued me for their experiment (Sergio’s reliance on voiceover and recordings, against a backdrop of relative silence; the P.O.V. shots dissecting and forcing us to connect with his mad pursuit of women) and for their ready wit (Sergio musing on the absence of a statue that Picasso promised for Havana’s skyline)—and the latter scenes are beyond critique in their urgent call for human rights. Together, they don’t work. The film reminded me of Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine, which stitched together some very powerful indictments of America’s international war crimes and domestic trigger-happy jingoism, yet failed to converge on any succinct thematic foci. The first hour or so of Memories has a randomness to it that comes wholesale with a tone of forfeiture, an unwillingness to find a narrative thread on the broad canvas being painted. Then came a scene when a series of erotic film clips—dry-humping on a beach, stripping in a club, amour in bed—are repeated ad infinitum, in what seems at first a mockery of orgasm, or a Kantian takedown of our Sisyphean yearning for complete sexual fulfillment. We pull back to see a theater of political officials watching these clips, and we realize that these are scenes of extramarital passion that these Communists have censored from the cinema. And that’s when I had the epiphany: these scenes are the dregs of life from early-‘60s Cuba that Castro would not want you to see. In that way, it’s not really supposed to cohere.

I can hence see what the filmmaker, Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, and perhaps by extension the author of the source novel, Edmundo Desnoes, have in mind. They’re miming the structure of memory, which is of course essentially underdeveloped, to reflect the lack of urban progress that has plagued Cuba since 1959. If the film somehow felt developed, it would kind of defeat the purpose. I can appreciate that innovation, but I don’t agree with the execution. For a while, I daresay, the film exploits the traumatic underdevelopment of Cuba as an excuse to dispense with narrative logic. True, there may be no need for a plot—I’ve seen myriad great films without one—but there is a need for a point, a statement, an essence, a raison d’être. (To this, I imagine some filmmakers, maybe protégés of Alea, rebutting, “Why the hell should I pamper you with your idea of a ‘point,’ or a ‘theme’?! Don’t you find it a little dictatorial of you to impose your ideas of ‘logic’ and ‘structure’ on me?! I don’t need to make a point! I don’t need to contrive my art to affect history, as the Communists so strive to! That’s the freedom of art!” But wouldn’t you find that rather glib? If you feel that having a backbone is constrictive, you have a serious issue.) At most, the film culminates in the sexual escapades of Sergio, whose histrionic wife and family flee to Florida in the wake of the Bay of Pigs fiasco, which gives him free rein to greedily pursue the younger Elena (Daisy Granados). He chases her down on the street. She’s wary of him but humors him and agrees to a date. He brings her to his place—or so I think it was his place—and ravishes her. She’s wary at first but relents and plays off the blurred-lines energy. One pro of Communism, amidst all its cons, was its emphasis on equality between the sexes, and Memories appears to combat that with a testament, or an elegy, to the primacy of alpha male lust.

You can tell I didn’t approve of that approach, and I was affirmed of my disapproval in the film’s final half-hour, when I saw the point on which the story does converge. To appease her conservative family, Elena accuses Sergio of rape. Ugh. The representation of rape in cinema as a whole disappoints me. Too many mainstream films—from The Graduate to Gone Girl—present rape as a falsehood that some femme fatale uses to discredit some man who has wronged her, and the public consumes them like ice cream because by and large, they don’t like to think that rape actually happens. As a result of this large-scale denial, great films that honestly struggle to deal with rape as a genuine plague in our society (Landscape in the Mist, The Piano Teacher, quite a few of the films I’ve seen this July) are more often than not consigned to an art-house niche, labeled as some sort of “disturbing” cinematic endurance test, and seen by few. Talk about dishonesty. Memories, in particular, has not dated well since the free-love ‘60s, and its false rape accusation subplot is near-total kitsch. Elena’s family comes off as hysterical, while one is wont to make the case that Sergio does kind of take advantage of Elena’s youth, and it becomes very difficult to care for anyone involved in this brouhaha, and to buy it in the first place. (Oh, and do you think that someone would escape such an accusation so easily in early-‘60s Cuba, or in any similar dictatorship? I doubt it.) The film seems like it’s going to culminate in some catharsis, with the missile crisis and looming and Sergio alone in his flat, contemplating suicide, or so I think. That catharsis never happens; the ending fizzles to nothing (the missile crisis’ fizzling to nothing notwithstanding), and it all feels like a cop-out, a noncommittal shrugging off, and a waste. There’s a large train of critics who declare Memories the masterpiece of Cuban cinema. You wanna know what that train smells like to me? Gravy.

Grade: C

31 Days of Cinema, Day Twenty: “Memories of Underdevelopment”

31 Days of Cinema, Days Eleven and Twelve: “Close-up” | “Soldier of Orange”

Like the previous day’s film Je, Tu, Il, Elle, Abbas Kiarostami’s Close-up is concerned with the economics of art—the difficulty of filmmaking in a world of scarcity. There is an infinitude of films that are never made, ideas that are never executed, potential directors that die unrecognized. Close-up gives us a glance into that infinitude. It concerns a bizarre real-life case when, in 1989 Tehran, one Hossein Sabzian decided on a whim to impersonate the Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf. He earned the trust of one Ahankhah family and planned to make a film in their house with them as actors, but was caught, arrested and tried. The film functions through two perspectives. The first is documentary: the actual courtroom scenes in which Sabzian pleads for mercy take up the bulk of the story. Kiarostami is heard stating that he can only use two relatively grainy cameras in the court’s narrow confines, one on the judge and one on Sabzian and his audience. There is a rawness to the essential simplicity of this approach, which makes us feel Sabzian describing his poverty, how it impeded him from being a filmmaker, and how he connected with Makhmalbaf’s depiction of the subject. He saw no other avenue to realizing his dream other than to exploit Makhmalbaf’s ethos. Indeed, name recognition and pre-awareness in the world of cinema are valuable and hard to gain, and that today’s film industry seems to have cut off anyone without them is destructive. Yet, Kiarostami is clear that Sabzian’s act of fraud was inappropriate: Sabzian details enjoying the power he felt in dictating the lives of the Ahankhahs, and the risk of him abusing that power is palpable. The film’s second perspective muddies the waters: Kiarostami reenacts the scenes of Sabzian posing, and he and the Ahankhahs play themselves—which is to say, a version of themselves from the recent past, who only differ from their past selves in that they know how this will play out and have learned from the mistakes they make. That difference is slight but crucial. Heraclitus told Plato, “You could not step in the same river twice,” yet that is what Kiarostami is endeavoring to do. Is his feigned doubling of reality all that different from Sabzian’s doppelgänger scheme? Is film innately fraudulent like this? Does Kiarostami mean to finally give Sabzian and the Ahankhahs the chance to be in their ideal film? Is he as indignant as Sabzian about how the world economy thins the herd of filmmakers, and does he mean to shed or disregard the privilege that he and Makhmalbaf have over Sabzian? The two perspectives blur in the closing scene, when the real Makhmalbaf at last shows up (Sabzian does look like him) to console and forgive a sorrowful, but more mature, Sabzian. The result is a strong example of cinéma vérité, with one curious omission: I do wonder if Kiarostami could have redeemed Sabzian more meaningfully by showing us—at least part of—the film he was putting together.

Grade: A-

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Not too much to say right now on the next film, Soldier of Orange, because I see myself writing more about it in the near future. Famous last words, I know. But this film was fantastic, and it may be bound to grow on me. My main issue with most war films is that there are too many characters, who receive little focus on account of their multitude and turn out as threadbare and indistinct from one another. Who’s who? I often muse. What’s his name again? Some directors use, in an unspoken way, the unity and solidarity of the standard military as an excuse to disregard characterization and its rigors, but really, that’s quite a pathetic excuse. Soldier of Orange solves this conceptual problem by making each of its major characters archetypes, who are fleshed out through keen acting to fill in the gaps the script leaves while trying to push the epic story forward. This is a very meta-filmic type of writing; these archetypes are familiar, and they risk being passé, but it works when one examines them and how it traps their characters within the limited, unremarkable, tragic social roles that they represent. Orange executes this stratagem brilliantly. The narrative follows a group of Dutch college friends who split up, yet remain linked, as World War II encroaches on the nation. Erik (the great Rutger Hauer), a slight naïf and a womanizer, joins the Resistance and resolves to flee to Britain. Guus (Jeroen Krabbé) begins as Erik’s upper-class bully but quickly emerges into his closest comrade and also decides to fight the Nazis. Robby (Eddy Habbema) is a radio expert caught between his friends, his Jewish wife, and the Gestapo, who are holding his wife hostage in exchange for his cooperation. Alex (Derek de Lint), a German, is a snide little shit who sides with the SS because his parents are being persecuted—an understandable motive, I will admit. There are action setups that feel amateurish, a tad graceless, even farcical, and that hint at the future Hollywood phase of its director, Paul Verhoeven, but that are wry enough to be bought. I am thinking of the scene on the beach involving a can of petrol, a splinter in a box and an ill-placed match; a shootout between boats; and a character death that felt contrived to an extreme. Yet, there are plenty of other scenes against which I have no reservations, that display a nuance most of Hollywood sorely lacks: the scrawling of significant dates in Dutch history on a wall; Erik and Guus’ botched first attempt to enlist; an Iron Cross that gets mistaken for a brooch; a rejection of silver coins in favor of zinc; two brutal, perfectly filmed executions; Erik and Guus’ sexual follies with a cute British secretary (a superb Susan Penhaligon); Erik’s klutzy pursuit of a high-ranking suspected traitor; Robby’s deployment of an “old Gestapo trick”; the tongue-in-cheek use of Queen Wilhelmina (Andrea Domburg), a refugee in Britain during the war, as a character; and—best of all—the climactic waltz between Erik and Alex. Verhoeven, best known stateside for Robocop (okay) and Total Recall (brilliant), is considered Holland’s foremost filmmaker, and I eagerly await the chance to see his other Dutch-language works.

Grade: A

Tomorrow: I review A Woman Under the Influence (seen), and Open Your Eyes (will see).

31 Days of Cinema, Days Eleven and Twelve: “Close-up” | “Soldier of Orange”

31 Days of Cinema, Day Ten: “Je, Tu, Il, Elle”

It opens with a lady in her room. We may not know it, but she is also the writer and director of this film, Chantal Akerman. She writes a script—maybe an epistolary one—and her voiceover narrates it. Often, she writes down stage directions in the past tense and then follows them, as if all her actions were preordained, already past—which, in the sense of the recorded film, they kind of are. Some of those directions are separated by days in terms of what we hear, seconds in terms of what we see, which means that one minutes-long shot may cover hours. Time here answers more to the functions of memory than to forward chronology, and not all that is seen is reliable. Akerman’s room begins as adequately furnished; in a few minutes, all there is in it is a mattress. She eats sugar out of a paper bag with a spoon, which I daresay would be very plausible in Belgium (and France, and Louisiana, etc.) if there were beignets in there, too. She takes off her clothes, lies on the mattress and drapes her clothes over herself. Is she naked or wearing clothes? Is she presentable? How can we be trusted to answer these questions when all we’re given to observe this woman is two-dimensional image and film?

These are the types of facts, inquiries and ambiguities that are at the center of Je, Tu, Il, Elle, a brief film that contributes to Akerman’s minimalist body of work, of which the most famous entry is the epic, near-perfect Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. You have to wrestle with the nuances while watching this. Akerman’s technique is to lull you with long takes and surprise you out of your stupor with environmental shifts that start out small and get bigger. It sounds ludicrous and pretentious, but it is executed without flaw every time. Every turn of the mattress, every crinkle of the sugar bag, every change of lighting and every outdoor noise hold momentum. Even such simple revelations as a sink and a glass sliding door leading outside produce great jolts. Much of her technique torques around a scant use of close-ups and a dependence on wide angles. It is standard for a scene to begin with wide establishing shots and close in on the characters from there, but Akerman remains firmly in the wide perspective, and this permits her to emphasize how different one same room may look from a distinct standing position. The effect is disorienting, labyrinthine. Her camera looks at two walls for a long time, so when it looks at the other two walls to reveal what’s there, you feel it. And when she leaves the room—after half an hour of an under-ninety-minute film—and is next found standing by an elevated highway trying to thumb a ride, you realized that you’ve been played. You were just about ready to spend the entire film in that room, with just Akerman.

Je, Tu, Il, Elle is about the economics of art. Early in life, I was convinced that life could imitate art—that life could be free as art, that my antagonists could be impelled to see the errors of their ways with long and tenacious monologues, that the good guys always won in the end and had to win. Fuck, was I wrong, chiefly on the first point: art has myriad larger social, political and economic concerns nipping at its buds. Most artists starting out, for one, are poor—and Akerman, who was towards the beginning of her career when she made this (in 1976), is honest and vulnerable, perhaps even too much so, about her own destitution. Look at how she writes by longhand and lays each page of her script out on the floor side by side, tacking them down with some sticky substance. I can tell you as a writer that this is authentic. Everything in the film—the grainy B&W, the set designs, the actors’ acting and their bodies—is as stripped down as the title. No more is needed, really. Entire worlds are contained in that quartet of pronouns. People who are only invigorated by Hollywood melodrama are pathetic; this is a thousand times more riveting and more realistic. Using just herself and one room, Akerman demonstrates the difficulty of being an artist, creating genuine art in a Commerce-driven world and dealing with the solitude and dearth of publicity that comes on top of all that.

And that’s just the film’s first third. The rest of the film concerns her joyride with a sexually dubious truck driver (Niels Arestrup, the great French actor whom you may know from A Prophet and War Horse) and her steamy reunion with an ex-lesbian girlfriend (Claire Wauthion), when all manners of pent-up tension are at last released. Is this the film she was scripting in her room, which she is now actively creating and joining? Likely so. The takes here are longer. In one static shot in a restaurant, Akerman and Arestrup eat dinner while watching an American gangster movie on a TV off-screen. We hear the audio from it, in English, and the music and commercial excitement from it is enough to give us a break from the film’s formal rigors. Yet, in making the audience watch an audience of a genre picture, Akerman dares us to face the banality of most cinema, which we can and do frequently consume without concentration, while eating and multi-tasking and often looking away (as the director forces us to do here, placing the TV off-screen)—activities that are ill-advised while watching this particular film. There are some more arbitrary English-language media by way of the truck driver’s radio, and a couple more mundane barroom scenes. You realize what a fascinating time and place ‘70s Belgium/France was, until you realize that you don’t know where we are; it might be Britain, America, Québec. Such is the power of Akerman’s delocalization and destabilization. She brings the driver to orgasm (five minutes, one take). The driver discusses his vast sex life with her (ten minutes, one take). She meets with her ex, and after some Nutella sandwiches, they disrobe and move to the bed for an intense orgy, their bodies slamming against and pressing into each other like rubber before cunnilingus is exchanged (fifteen minutes, three takes). Not a second of this is boring.

Akerman’s portrayal of gender is curious. The masculine (Arestrup) is motional, clothed, talkative, out in the open but powerful; the feminine (her and Wauthion) is static, naked, introspective, sheltered yet—as aforesaid—vulnerable. This parallels the Last Tango in Paris of just a few years prior, and that’s a film of wanton testosterone. Is this another sign of Akerman’s humility? I don’t think so. Another strategy she uses is to only have one person or voice talking during each shot. If there are two people there, one is talking/active, and the other is listening/silent/passive. Even if these shots are meant to be in medias res—which is to say, in the middle of a mutual, two-way, social dialogue—this structure creates and implies a solipsism inherent in all monologue and hence all talk. In waxing rhapsodic, the driver exposes his narcissism, whereas the ex-girlfriend speaks little and the protagonist is virtually only heard in voiceover, in thoughts or in writing. Only through the body and through imbuing it with motion, agency, participation in life and action qua art, Akerman might be saying, can we achieve true, honest communication—and this is part of what makes the third-act Sapphic sex so refreshing. (We need much more female-mediated depictions of sex like this.) Her film only blossoms when her writing/thinking/speaking evolves into movement and action, which fosters conflict, narrative and—ultimately—preserved cinema. She throws all care to the wind and makes her movie and tells her story, in spite of—and because of—her barren poverty. Akerman is fast becoming one of my favorite filmmakers. She is an expert at using the shot to adapt, to relax, to hypnotize viewers; at using the montage to shock; and at crafting subtle, layered, precise, great performances. Je, Tu, Il, Elle testifies to that. It is equally challenging and rewarding; it is masterful.

Grade: A+

The Rest of the Week: Once again, my schedule bedevils me! Today was yet another busy day, which limited me to another shorter film, Close-up. The review on that could not come tonight, as this film was provocative enough to deserve its own post, so Close-up will be covered in depth tomorrow. I should be back on my preplanned schedule after this:
Tomorrow: Soldier of Orange.
Monday: A Woman Under the Influence.
Tuesday: Open Your Eyes.

31 Days of Cinema, Day Ten: “Je, Tu, Il, Elle”

31 Days of Cinema, Day Two: “The Asthenic Syndrome”

For a description of my “31 Days of Cinema” challenge, as well as the complete list of films I’ll be watching for it, click here.

In his true-life mystery Dora Bruder, Patrick Modiano—last year’s Nobel Literature winner—writes:

In 1942, my father and his accomplices had plundered the SKF warehouse on the Avenue de la Grande-Armée [in Paris] of its stock of ball bearings, loading their lot onto trucks and transporting it back to the den on the Avenue Hoche from which they operated their black market business. According to German decrees, Vichy laws, and articles in the press, they were no better than vermin and common criminals, so they felt justified in behaving like outlaws in order to survive. For them, it was a point of honor. And I applaud them for it.

I must disagree with the Laureate on that. Sure, one with a prejudice often holds onto it regardless of how wrongheaded it is or how much proof there is against the myths it produces. But is there not more strength in defying a preconception one has about you than there is in confirming it? The latter risks perpetrating stereotypes and justifying (to some) the hatred you face; with the former, even if it does not diminish that hatred, at least you’ve shown you can stick to your principles. There will always be the moral question of whether Modiano’s father could have survived, or fought back against Vichy France and the Nazis, without resorting to the black market.

Modiano came back into my mind as I was watching The Asthenic Syndrome, an ambitious but in the end dubious take on the Soviet Union’s collapse from Ukrainian auteur Kira Muratova. Critical to reading the film is understanding the title in the context of Soviet psychiatry. Irina Sandomirskaia, in her essay on the film*, explains that the Soviets used the power of neurological diagnoses to inflict patients with constant self-doubt as to whether their distrust of, or dispassion towards, socialism indicated a rational mind. Asthenia herein “referred to minor dysfunctions of socialization, i.e. smaller, negligible breaches in the discipline of Soviet subjectivity […] [that] the subject was supposed to eliminate […] by himself” (66). Syndrome has two main characters who, among others, appear to suffer from this disorder. We see the first, Natasha (Olga Antonova), in a forty-minute sepia film-within-a-film, burying her husband (an ominous omen for Russia) and devolving into hysterics in her widowhood. When that film ends, we move into the arc of Nikolai (Sergei Popov), a struggling writer and religious schoolteacher who has narcolepsy, and who was hence asleep throughout the screening of Natasha’s film. Muratova thus emphasizes the falsity of her camera’s perspective; if no character inside or outside the meta-film shared its point-of-view, then where does it come from?

You can tell that the director seems to be constructing a Brechtian distance from the audience, yet that doesn’t strike me as the best, or even the most appropriate, tone for this material. An Orwellian satire may have been more effective in questioning what society would look like if politics really did determine pathology. Muratova does show some knack for satire, as demonstrated by the overacting of the extras who surround Nikolai in the various vignettes that he walks into—which Sandomirskaia links to the use of nonprofessional actors and their hackneyed, hyperbolic reliance on the dogmas of Russian theatre. Characters and actors alike appear trapped in the immobile sterility of Soviet culture, and I can sympathize with Muratova’s Brechtian choices in exploiting her art to reflect this; observe the scene when Nikolai recites to his students Soviet philosophical creeds as if from a script—which is to say, literally from a script.

What makes the film troublesome, notwithstanding, is its portrayal of Natasha’s and Nikolai’s asthenias as almost pure neuroses, with no clear political cause. To the extent that these are political metaphors, they’re vacant and rather glib. Natasha breaks wineglasses, acts out at passersby, prostitutes herself and displays savage mood swings insofar that being widowed seems a feeble excuse for such behavior, while Nikolai’s abrupt bouts of sleep usually do not signal any moments of political burden or upheaval. In depicting asthenia as pathology while forsaking satire for a sort of Godardian hyperrealism, Muratova acts as if Russian politics have had no effect on her co-protagonists’ mental states. Though she may do that to scoff at the idea of asthenia as disloyalty, the effect is of an unwillingness to confront the trauma of Soviet socialism—and, worse yet, of a view of psychosis as antisocial that mistakenly buys into the contrived doctrines of Soviet psychology. Not unlike Modiano’s father, Muratova takes the official party definition of asthenia and attempts to use it to reflect the inability of her characters to live under communism, as if to say that we all have the title disorder. But in pathologizing Natasha and Nikolai and refusing to give them any political dimension (except for when Nikolai is rushing through his aesthetic scribbles) and to give us any political alternative, she essentially gives the remaining Soviets a blank canvas on which they can use the asthenias to confirm their neuro-political ideologies, at a critical juncture in history when the Russian government really needed its feet held to the fire.

The effect of this backfiring is to make the characters’ antics tiresome, and that is a shame, as the film does contain some pointed commentary on meta-cinema, and on Russia in the liminal Gorbachev years. The teachers’ meeting, at which one teacher implies that the suppression of kids must not just be “physical” but also “psychological,” and a principal states that school must be like “military” and a “prison,” is harrowing and still relevant today, not least for how it reveals the grip that Stalinism and totalitarianism still holds on these lives. Muratova’s other shock tactics—which (as Sandomirskaia tells us) depend on the vast divergence between official and ethnic Russian speech, and which mean to be a counterpoint to Soviet mind-numbing—have grown dated (unless, I suppose, you are from Russia or know Russian) and made the film itself numbing and wearying. (Nowadays, I feel, the political elite uses shock and sensory overload to control its subjects, whereas art with a methodical, meditative tone can be a tonic to that.) From historical and meta-filmic standpoints, The Asthenic Syndrome is worth watching, even if merely as a case of a filmmaker trying to use the techniques of an oppressive regime—not least of which were glasnost and perestroika, under which this film was notably banned—against that regime, only to find herself further trapped in it.

Grade: C+

*Studies in Russian and Soviet Cinema 2.1(2008): 63-83. Accessed via EBSCO Host.

Tomorrow: Sticking with the Eastern Bloc, we head to Poland to meet the Man in Marble.

31 Days of Cinema, Day Two: “The Asthenic Syndrome”

Review: “eXistenZ”

David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ is one in a long line of meta-films that uses its Russian-doll texture to dissect cinema as an art form, revealing its conceits and forcing viewers to reckon with what it means to sit down and watch a movie. Building its story around a network of video-game virtual realities, eXistenZ depicts the traditional filmic narrative as a technology in itself, and in that respect, it has a point. The clichés and formulas that go into constructing the plots, scripts and characters of too much of what we see today can be and have been read—rather glibly, I will admit—as “machines,” and it is not difficult to criticize Hollywood in its current incarnation as a “factory,” or an “assembly line.” One of the goals of eXistenZ is to satirize this idea by reconceiving bad films as technology gone awry; shallow characters, absurd genre tropes, clunky dialogue, deer-in-the-headlights non-reactions and preposterous accents are all given a computer-glitch veneer. This is clever, but what the film often forgets is that there’s a human element to art. What it means to look like a riff on bad acting and storytelling comes off as laziness and a lack of inspiration that uses its badness as an excuse to nudge the audience into reflecting on cinema as a construction.

The film opens in an old church, where a Greek chorus of twelve volunteers get in a semicircle onstage to test out eXistenZ, the hot new console from shy, reclusive gaming wunderkind Allegra Gellar (a miscast Jennifer Jason Leigh). I take “Allegra” to be the feminine of allegro, the Italian tempo marking for “lively,” somewhat fast compositions; the name here is a misnomer. Cronenberg moves his stories along at a slow, methodical, deep-rumbling pace, and with this material, he is hampered by it. As the introduction proceeds, a would-be assassin rises screaming “Death to the demoness!”, shoots her in the shoulder and gets dispatched by security guards while chaos consumes the place. At the lumbering pace it goes, it’s hardly convincing; in real life, one imagines, the assassin would be taken down before getting the word “demoness” out of his mouth, and the audience would be even more frantic (Cf. Malcolm X’s death in the Spike Lee biopic). All the actors look stiff-jointed, as if they’re swimming in Drano.

Allegra is rescued by officer Ted Pikul (the usually reliable Jude Law), who takes out the bullet and hides her in a motel. Filmed in rural parts of Ontario on a $15-million budget, eXistenZ does not quite achieve a plausible science-fiction environment, limiting itself as it does to the church, cheap motels, a skiing chalet, a trout farm, a mall that looks obviously in-studio, a dated van, and a dated gas station/garage—and when I say “dated,” I mean dated even by present standards. Yes, I get that the future will still have its undeveloped backwoods, and yes, I get that Allegra, with the fatwa on her head, would want to hold demo sessions far removed from urban metropolises. Even then, the mismatch is jarring, and I was left wondering how the hell such a vibrant gaming culture found its way into north Ontario (Cf. the way Kubrick suggested the future with just some judicious location choices in A Clockwork Orange). There’s still some gnarly world-building to make up for that, thankfully: the two-headed reptiles, the guns made of bones (with teeth for bullets), the pulsing fleshy gaming pods, and of course the vaginal bio-ports (a classic Cronenberg motif) inserted just above the tailbone, into which the pods’ umbilical cords go.

Allegra needs to enter her game to make sure it survived the assassination attempt, and she needs Ted to join her. Much fuss is spent on how Ted is a hesitant gaming virgin who needs his bio-port installed. The two head to a gas station attendant (Willem Dafoe, a rare breed of actor who will do pretty much anything) who installs pods on the side with what looks like an uber-industrial gas canister. He seems to worship Allegra, then turns on her. The film takes way too long to get us into the eXistenZ universe, and when it does, that’s when the acting starts getting very deliberately ham-fisted. Exhibit A: the scene in which Allegra and Ted discover that their characters share an intense sexual attraction. It is beside the point that this ruins the male-female friendship that is so often ruined in movies when the filmmakers give in to the temptation to have their lead actor and actress shag each other. Notice how Law and Leigh go back and forth between two modes of acting—them figuring out their characters, and their characters walking the walk to first base. A more authentic situation would have a liminal phase in between, in which the boundaries between personas are tested and muddled, but the actors, talented as I know they are, don’t bother with this. Exhibit B: in a Chinese restaurant, Law eats a cooked twin reptile and builds a gun out of its skeleton. He claims that it tastes disgusting and that he’s fighting his character’s urge to eat it and construct the gun but he’s failing poorly. Law’s poor acting shows no evidence of a genuine struggle, though; the whole time, we watch him merely tearing reptile flesh off the bone as if it were a tasty buffalo wing, and talking casually about the horror of it.

I could go on, and if I started now about the parts where the characters turn into frozen bodies shouting icy-venomous villainous platitudes, I wouldn’t stop. Granted, there are some strong performances on the sidelines: Ian Holm as a Russian surgeon focused on fixing diseased and wounded pods; Callum Keith Rennie, juggling multiple roles as seamlessly as one would expect Law and Leigh to; Oscar Hsu, doing all he can as a stereotyped Chinese waiter; and Sarah Polley, doing all she can in her very limited screen time. But that’s not enough to push this film above water. At the point when it ought to be devolving into disturbing incoherence, the story instead devolves into a somewhat straightforward shoot-‘em-up, ending with an inexplicable betrayal, followed by an absolute cop-out of a twist that negates the whole film, which itself turns out to be a lame false ending. Making a meta-film that lampoons cinema is not an excuse for subpar acting and a subpar story; there are great meta-films (Bergman’s Persona, for one) that have stripped cinema bare while retaining great performances and refusing to toss story to the wind. I’m on a downward trajectory with Cronenberg. First, I watched A History of Violence, which is a masterpiece; then Eastern Promises, which is fine; then Dead Ringers, which is masterful right up until its lackluster ending; then this, which is a disappointment. Someone please tell me which of his I should watch next.

Grade: C

Review: “eXistenZ”