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04/14/10 10:31am

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Earlier this year, Film Forum screened Dersu Uzala as part of their Akira Kurosawa centennial; the film returns to their screens today for a weeklong run.

The parable set-up of Dersu Uzala is somewhere between a war buddy drama and Rousseau: a military man in the Siberian wilds is saved by an almost magical, gnome-like rube named Dersu Uzala who helps him survive the ice, winds, storms. The strange logic of Akira Kurosawa’s ultra-Bazinian real-time take on the fairy tale, shot on location for two years in Siberia, is that his absolute abstractions preserve a fabulist dimension of essential type—the savage and the civilized—in a fantastical world: Kurosawa’s long takes of distant bodies toiling against horizons of snow and blistering sunsets make the leads look like figures in an unfinished canvas of Turner or Emil Nolde; their sum effect, like classic types, is how they appear.

The film can seem ornamental at first—a slideshow of expressionist dawns and dusks, all pretty as a Munch—but any monthly-calendar picturesque grandeur is leveled by the particular mechanics of building a hut and cutting a tree to salvage a man from a river, and by the fact that such mechanics are the necessarily feeble human responses to the entropy of a painted-harlot world. Basically Dersu Uzala, like a Flaherty character, uses nature against nature, tundra straw against blizzard and tree against river, to survive, and the folk characters become simply as they’re seen, walking, constructing, dancing, with only the primal demands of living; their ties to each other are roughly the same as the viewers’ to them, a matter of walking in their shoes, but ties anyway in the simple act of survival. When Dersu is offered the luxury of habit in civilization the filmmaking changes from the fluid sweep of winds and waters rising and falling on the soundtrack as orchestrations to abruptly defined, contingent geometrical spaces of domesticity, houses and streets, that gridiron the imp into a comedy of manners.

All of this—paupers vs. soldiers; the sentimental bonds of grizzled cowpoke farting on the range against the draws of the cavalry’s rank and file settling the frontier into order; a void and a system—is familiar from John Ford, but Kurosawa’s overhaul strips the story down to naturalist-expressionist material-abstract picaresque, the basic observation of nature and bodies at work with and against each other; a silent film with sound. Its basic format extended from L’Enfant Sauvage—doc shooting of vagabonds in spatially and temporally indifferent, probably enchanted forests, who must return to the internments of well-demarcated civilization—makes it the precursor to slates of contemporary “contemplative” woodland cinema, nevermind Avatar: Malick’s New World, Apichatpong’s Tropical Malady, Alonso’s Liverpool, Serra’s Quixote/Birdsong, Ben Russell’s Let Each One Go Where He May, even Raya Martin’s Independencia and Ben Rivers’ May Tomorrow Shine… But Dersu Uzala is less ethnographic platitudes of gaia’s universalism than the story of two individuals who meet and work together and, despite history, like each other. In its color and common sense, it’s easily Kurosawa’s most beautiful and moving film.

03/12/10 9:45am

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In conjunction with a citywide celebration of Marguerite Duras, Anthology Film Archives will screen a selection of the French artist and intellectual’s films screens for a week beginning tonight. India Song screens on Saturday evening and Wednesday night.

Marguerite Duras’ meditation on displacement and exile—colonialists exiled from home, voice exiled from image, present exiled from past—straddles the same line as Last Year at Marienbad: it’s at once an endlessly, helplessly repeated closed-circuit staging of dances and longing, people poised as mannequins, as petrifications of both formal high society and Memory that’d distill an entire scene to a single action absorbing the reality’s details and emotional connotations like spongiform as tableaux-art—and at the exact same time, it’s a perverse form of wish fulfillment in an enactment of the endless Ophulsian waltz as a dance marathon in purgatory. Gossip on the soundtrack discusses, questions, invokes images of a few mirrored palace rooms and the men who pass through dancing, standing, and lying next to (perhaps) an ambassador’s wife (Delpine Seyrig); these mix with pans across landscapes and dusk and sounds of an Indonesian immigrant wailing. Songs, sambas, repeat. India Song, filmed in Paris, mirrors, like much Duras, the worlds people create for themselves, talk and sing of, and fail to populate.

Where Duras as writer easily reduces realities to pornographic abstractions, ideas in single words—love, fear, desire, etc.—Duras the filmmaker, contemporary of Straub, constantly details naturalistic happenstances, light and wind on trees just outside windows, that her figurines, operating by remote, never see. Per reputation, Anthology’s concurrently exhibiting a slew of leftist filmmakers disjointing image and sound: Leo Hurwitz traditionally using image to punctuate commentary, William E. Jones academically counterpointing the two as objective/subjective dialectic, and Duras far more radically interlocking each as a more realized “reality” of the other in a basic extension of standard novel technique: sound (dialogue) providing a full scene of conversation, reactions, gossip, context, and narrative progress where the image (description) provides a static, material rendition of the scene as characters primp in still-lifes for the camera—or each other. Narrative progress in Duras’ films only occurs in cross-cuts, as Duras returns to a shot with a new development on-screen; eventually, shots play like hypothetic refractions of each other.

As do the characters, usually mirrored against themselves, in India Song, and as do sound and image. Both soundtrack and image-track form a nexus of collegiate desires: various characters’ imaginations and fantasies expressed, materialized, meeting and greeting each other in a common arena on-screen or soundtrack. The cycling songs play like a mutual projection of the dancers’ imagination—or the director’s invocation of the dance. The tension holds across. The looping scenes are either, in keeping with Duras, faux-objectivist placeholders for an irrecoverable reality—crystallizations of buried emotions and public developments of private lives—or interior, luxuriantly imagined moments of respite from realities at hand. Both seem right. As filmed by lamp-light and magic hour, India Song has an insular, crepuscular beauty of silk and satin gowns treated flatly as light and textures of their own, like silhouettes against a sun or room: the film’s openly about a ghost-world.

Where the camera of Marienbad chases corridors like a ghost itself trying to conjure any sort of animating movement in a fossilized world, Duras achieves the same effect in a formal inversion: her camera never moves and uses mirrors and windows as alternate prosceniums onto the action. Here space holds, and people passing through, saying nothing, and basking in each other’s luster, are ghosts not through Resnais’ dissonance, fragmentation, camera-itself-in-a-closed-circuit, but through each scene playing as a version of another, but none going anywhere to begin with. The camera itself fossilizes, until Duras releases to watch, just as patiently, the outside world—not the poor exploited by the colonialist protagonists, but everyday sun and wind backyard stuff—then pans across it, and it’s here, as throughout Duras, that some animating force is felt against the closed world of artists, lovers, and aristocrats.

02/26/10 11:01am

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Through March 4, Anthology spotlights the films of William E. Jones, beginning tonight at 8pm with Massillon, which screens again on Monday night.

Like other Jones films, Massillon, his debut doc-journal, plays as archaeological excavation and quintessential Americana. The images are mostly a series of Benning-like portraits of frontier suburbia, the skeletons of local life—swing sets, factories, and rows of houses—against mountains, forests, skies, matched by sounds of chirping birds and highway cars. The main soundtrack, as if exorcising the demons behind the repressive walls of the sunny visuals, is Jones recalling personal encounters growing up gay, not wanting to go to church, and middle-school wrestling matches, then discussing the etymology of gay legal terms: these are rendered in the guileless American vernacular of high school hallways and dairies and Paterson that is as clear in intent as it is beguiled by reason. Jones can sound like Encyclopedia Brown documenting his own sex life; his cold, protective pose, in image and voice, is always of a mock-scientist, trying to treat his material as dead because it’s not: the accumulation of snapshots has its own mystery in montage and its own weight in personal history as social history—and social history as personal history. A ground-level portrait of American infrastructure leading to and from John Gianvito and Matthew Porterfield—memories, images and words, play the essential architecture—the place it captures with precision is as much Massillon the city as the mindset; Massillon ends by restaging the beginning, many years later, but with a wealth of new connotations: nothing’s been exorcised, but Jones, like the film, ends with some comprehension of how he got to where he started.

02/19/10 10:22am

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IFC Center‘s series of Paul Verhoeven’s Hollywood films concludes this Friday and Saturday night, with midnight screenings of Starship Troopers (click the link for Michael Atkinson’s marvelous take on the film).

These days, Paul Verhoeven’s halls of mirrors get compared to Douglas Sirk’s: both romantic ironists, emerging from Nazi Europe, idealize the petty dreams of the proletariat and bourgeoisie as pulp abstractions (a man and a woman; the good guys and bad) to mark the discrepancies between liberating dreams and repressive realities, grade-school idylls and the genuine emotions people can feel for them. They film akin to telling the story of Don Quixote from Quixote’s perspective to play the beauty, bitter-sweetness, and idiocy of dreaming the impossible dream in precisely that order. They tell comic book lies and set them in drab realities to emphasize the fact.

That Verhoeven is the Verhoeven of Showgirls and Basic Instinct; the Verhoeven of Total Recall and Starship Troopers (and also Showgirls) seems closer to the hall of mirrors of Frank Tashlin incarnating capitalist fantasies as apocalyptic song-and-dance routines: both make an ass of a country’s ideals simply by staging them in Platonic Form, as genre.

In Tashlin, the key to a company washroom becomes the star of a mock-MGM musical; in Starship Troopers, an entire country devotes every action, thought, and second to destroying the enemy, anonymous insects (Verhoeven’s America’s vision of the any-enemy) who may or may not have sent “bug meteors” to destroy the earth. In one two-minute stretch of Starship Troopers, slaughtering bugs is treated as war by congress, research by scientists, family bonding by the homefront, and a next-level football game by teenage soldiers.

As usual in Verhoeven, any act of life is a playful form of sex-and-war sublimation, a fun, media-sanctioned dress rehearsal for fucking and killing; it’s an old Joe Eszterhas cliché Verhoeven makes new again by making his medium the media itself, a century of propaganda from Why We Fight to Ford Westerns to Beverly Hills 90210. But where those were PG fantasies of X-rated action, Verhoeven shows both to offer the full repercussions: as in Showgirls, part of his pop effect is to set up puritanical hokum (a team hooting and hollering over the hero’s crush on a girl) in scandalous contexts (tits flapping, ass-slapping, as they stand naked in the shower) till the dual American fantasies of monogamous bliss and flesh market fame—frontier vs. capitalist ideals—have not only made bosh of each other, but nearly stand in for one another as equally anonymous, homogeneous cartoon outlines of middle America. But as in Tashlin, it’s Verhoeven’s own proclivities for the pomp of flesh and blood that are fulfilled—in Flying Football, neon jamborees, vaginal bugs—to the point of parody.

02/05/10 12:30pm

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Roberty Flaherty’s seminal documentary Man of Aran plays tomorrow at Anthology Film Archives as part of their Essential Cinema program.

Like other Flahertys, Aran is a romantic handbook about the original artists, roughneck frontiersmen outside of time who shore up fragments of the natural elements around them to recreate them as tools and homes for their own survival. And like other Flahertys, it is itself a recreation—of outmoded traditions, rustic life in some Platonic form of leather faces against blustering wind, sea, and blasted rocklands—here, off the coast of Ireland. The film itself, with its billowing bonnets against horizons evaporating into sea, almost seems to mimic its subjects: long, abstract passages of ocean-whorl set in sudden relief by the close-up of a hardened face, steady in makeshift lifestyle against the ebb and flow of natural life. The tradition is as much Homer as Winslow Homer, and in retrospect, Flaherty looks as much a father of neorealism as Jean Renoir: Aran’s shark-hunt (performed by the actual hunters’ descendents, locals who had to learn the outdated techniques) leads straight to Rossellini’s Stromboli—and Rossellini as a whole—as does the idea of artist-as-excavator, piecing together the rubble of everyday life in real locations as a manual to a possible life, with epic challenges whose mundane, material solutions almost look miraculous. In that respect, it also leads to Bresson (a Flaherty admirer), as does Flaherty’s usual concentration on hands, reforming elements into objects—but Man of Aran in particular nearly gets remade a few years later as Michael Powell’s Edge of the World.

I first saw Aran (and Edge of the World) as a double feature with Thelma Schoonmaker, Martin Scorsese’s editor and Powell’s widow. “It’s such a great film,” she said, adding, quite rightly, “and so loosely edited.”

02/03/10 10:53am

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Today, the Walter Reade Theater kicks off a series on Polish film spanning the late 70s to the rise of Solidarity and the fall of Communism in 1989, from directors both famous (Kieslowski, Wajda, Holland) and lesser-known, including the opening film, this afternoon and evening, Feliks Falk’s Top Dog:

In the wake of Poland’s Consumer Communism, a bureaucrat (Jerzy Stuhr) does whatever it takes—sex, lies, violence—to emcee a New Years event. Where Fantomas and Dr. Mabuse shape-shifted to rule society, this adapter, illustrating social normality of the time and place wherever he goes, wants to be its greatest creation. Suggesting a satire on petty ambition, masturbatory celebrity culture/social implosion a la King of Comedy or Tony Manero, Top Dog, gorgeously shot in the constant deep-space and saturated, chintzy reds and yellows of an endless striptease revue, operates as top-to-bottom social documentary of the cheap, mass-produced delusions a country abides by to maintain leisure at all cost: communist Poland as one big vaudeville casting couch.

02/03/10 4:00am


Ran (1985)
Directed by Akira Kurosawa

Ran is either the most intimate of epics or most epic of chamber pieces: even more than its source, King Lear, the entire natural world plays chamber. The movie is remembered for these things-the deep-dyed “luscious” robes of royalty against flitting grass and sprinkling blood; Harada Mieko’s icicle femme fatale distractedly crushing a moth as she feigns tears; a lone rider chasing the shadow of the sun; the Kagemusha-like tableau of thrones as frames within frames, stages within stages; and countless shots of pilgrims fools and balladeers stumbling across gamboge meadows at dusk, the blind leading the blind (into night), as though Ran were the culmination of Kurosawa’s many attempts, largely failed, to reconcile total naturalism with total expressionism, a mostly visionary work whose director posed his actors as ceramics and waited till nature acceded to his storyboards.

But its most brilliant touches could be in its sound, even its employment of birdsongs in the background. Kurosawa builds country noises as an entire Greek chorus of natural elements: the spry chirping at the start not just echoing political tides at peace but betraying a self-important state ceremony against the mountains as a tea party in Japan’s backyard; the escalation of the chirping to squawks and breezes to gales as the order crumbles to chaos; the crisp cuts to silence and still lives, indoors, as characters play and contemplate their fates in a moral vacuum; the cut to a slow score over a sudden montage of war killings.

These ellipses and shifts, to the sky and a sky-like perspective on a whole world’s stage played quietly below-much of Ran looks like God’s POV, through a snowglobe-are some of what suggests a natural theater, as predetermined by the weather as it is self-created by agents of anarchy. Every character is pinpointed as a dupe and fool, as the quest for order breeds mayhem; the Lear hero is hero, like Welles’ Falstaff, ostensibly because he’s too much of a fool to understand the incomprehensible around him (total chaos), or to think, idiotically, like every other character, he has any claim anymore on anyone. He is also, for the viewer, the dubious window onto a brimstone world.

Where before, most Kurosawa heroes were either stooges in a neatly hierarchized system (feudalism, the office) or haunted cowboys and doctors mocking it from the outside, in Ran, Nakadai Tatsuya’s Lear is both: victim to a genealogy of violence for which he once was agent, a holy fool, an apocalyptic savior who can’t even save himself. He’s essentially the ultimate tragicomic hero, a man so at odds with the world that he has trouble recognizing himself within it and staying alive from one moment to the next. A lot of Ran skews comic in Nakadai’s Noh-inspired super-expressions against galleries of warrior straight men-his hammy double-takes (in rare close-ups) at the start as he fails to grasp why his porcelain order is being challenged, through to his snowman doom as two black cat eyes searching wildly inside a painted white, frozen face for any point of recognition in midst of the apocalypse. Kurosawa had tried Lear once before as I Live in Fear, about a man terrified by the possibility of nuclear holocaust. He openly declared the subject of Ran was the same. Its genius is in showing, straight-faced, what would happen if the fools were right.

February 5-18 at Film Forum

01/22/10 12:22pm

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Tomorrow, the Walter Reade Theater presents encore screenings of José Mojica Marins’s Zé do Caixao (“Coffin Joe”) films. Here’s David Phelps with a report on his favorite.

Made in 1966, Jose Mojica Marins’ wonderful, mostly unnecessary This Night I Will Possess Your Corpse aligns parallel to a whole basement bin of contemporary DIY psychedelia: garage-rock’s second-hand visionary, acid approach to genre as drifting through rehashed riffs (hell, sex, tarantulas) in monotonous meter, ramshackle technique, and shredding solo centerpieces; Brazilian Cinema Novo’s overthrow of classical hegemony and fantasy in favor of the trenches, transparent form, and “sad, ugly films—these screaming, desperate films where reason does not always prevail” (Glauber Rocha); Roger Corman’s sexploitation and horror films with their belief that the cheapest effects are the most effective (tits, ass, and waves of fog obscuring sets never built); Isou and Brakhage’s direct animation for credits; porn. Without any actual sex and very little blood, it comes from the experimental principle, now found almost only at the edges of google, that horror and pornography, with checklists of Pavlovian stimulants at their bones (people exposing themselves, blood and genitalia), are litmus tests for the imagination.

Scene by scene, Marins carves out a classical space of upholstered living rooms and offices padded out with young girls and government officials (The Man) lining the walls. In the center stands Zé do Caixão, now a Brazilian pop icon, played by Marins himself as the sort of mousy politician in the newspaper on whom little kids draw wispy moustaches, goatees, and tiny devil horns. Zé plays ringmaster to audiences on-screen and off by announcing schemes telegraphed as diabolical by maniacal laughing and the extras’ hamming of shock and confusion in the background. He propounds nonsensical doctrine about the immortality of blood and sex with the perfect woman as the devil’s lifeline. Finally, he performs the scene relatively as described.

What’s exciting about This Night, with its strange mix of stunted pace and propulsive momentum as each mismatched cut initiates a new plot altogether, is Marins basically playing auteur within his own film: as in a Jerry Lewis movie, scenes linger on endless overworked reactions of supporting characters (The Hunchback; The World’s Most Powerful Man) who look like Halloween costumes of toy figurines, but Zé more or less pulls scenes and shots out of his hat. Halfway through a shot, the free-range camera will turn out to embody a predator or victim. Background girls are corralled into a snake pit; Zé then fucks the future mother of his progeny on a ledge on top of them. The camera follows the tarantulas in groping the private parts of busted models. Zé effectively shows up around a small town (church, cafes) to tell the natives how in a gesture he’s rewriting both the film and their conservative, institutional lives. The only institution, he more or less says, is Madness.

Pretty clearly, the movie’s aiming for the shantytown “poetry” of The Leopard Man and Touch of Evil: medieval rubes, phantom shadows, and a plywood town built just over a fuming Hell. Even Welles’s syncopated sound and image. But Marins, whose previous (first) Zé film (also screening) is a stagy series of interrogation, gets inspiration only after his characters do. A self-proclaimed maestro, the strength of his argument is all in his bluster. The 60s heir to Universal’s 30s monster movies, with their deliberate, penny-ante mix of campy why-not ideas, shoestring starlets, and marshland mist machines, This Night is the sort of dumb, luminous home movie fantasy James Whale might have done if Hollywood had let him: for all its stabs at subversion, it’s a solid, textbook fantasia of softcore S&M and zombie anarchism.

“This is like when smart people deliberately try to make bad movies,” said a friend, but that idea of pastiche could be inverted: it’s not inconceivable that This Night is actually a good movie, one made by a dumb fanboy. Just one scene is all its own. Zé loses control of the black-and-white town and film, descends to a day-glo hell, and wonders aimlessly through falling blood-snow as he faces an eternity of devils poking people in the ass. Here, as elsewhere, the elements are rote and recorded matter-of-factly, but Marins literally reconfigures the detritus of his own film (skulls, breasts, flailing legs, dangling torsos, inverted crucifixes, devil’s beards, and mechanistic murders) into a jigsawed collage of heaving appendages plastered into papier-mâché cavern walls and stalagmites while red devils laugh. The color-coded space, a graveyard of ice and fire, recalls Ernst, maybe de Chirico. But the idea of Hell as the last refuge of art and porn is definitively Marins’ own.

Christoph Huber has the fullest intro to Marins’ work (and Zé trilogy, completed last year) here.