Saturday, 28 February 2009

WOMAN IS THE FUTURE OF MAN at the Film of the Month Club

I volunteered to choose the film for the March Film of the Month club and selected Hong Sang-soo's Woman is the Future of Man (2004). I just posted a brief intro on Hong and will start the month on Sunday with posts on the actual film. Hopefully there will be some interesting discussion on one of Korea's better films of the decade (in my opinion, of course). You can check out the Film of the Month blog here.

Sunday, 22 February 2009


"I Don't Want to Talk About the Wheelers Anymore"

Near the conclusion of Revolutionary Road, there is a brief epilogue to the future, after the Wheelers (played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet) have left their suburban community. Their neighbors are having a drink with the new residents and discussing their former friends. The husband suddenly leaves and walks into their backyard. The wife follows, and the husband says that he doesn't want to talk about the Wheelers anymore. The wife says they don't have to, and the two kiss and embrace. This scene functions as a meta-commentary not only on the film, but on the subsequent critical response. Much of the criticism labeled at the movie concentrates on how much they dislike the two lead characters, who are described as horrible, narcissistic people. The reviews seem not to be about the movie but about the offensiveness of the characters. Reviewers, like the husband next door, do not want to talk about the Wheelers. They do not feel the characters are worthy of their attention and time.

This response is interesting for a couple of reasons. First, the vitriol aimed at the Wheelers seems disproportionate. These characters are flawed, but hardly villainous and hardly beyond the realms of realism. Most of this criticism seems very reactionary: they are snobs (read Eastern elites), they are bad parents (although we never really see much with the children, who are simply not the focus of the story), etc. There was even a criticism of the British director Mendes making another film critical of America. Second, these criticisms of the characters neglect the extent to which the Wheelers are both concrete characters and allegorical figures. They have to be placed within the context of the other characters and what they represent to them. However flawed they may be, they also represent something extra-ordinary to those around them.

This distinctive quality of the Wheelers is both admired and feared, both exciting and crazy. They are linked quite clearly with another allegorical character, John Givings, the son of their neighbors who has a PhD in Mathemathics but is also in a mental hospital and deemed insane by the society. He is only in two scenes, one in which he bonds with the Wheelers over their proposed move to Paris, and another in which he criticizes them for turning their backs on their plan, but these scenes are the most distinctive in the film. Dr. Givings serves to comment on the Wheelers, both in their similarities and differences with him. The Wheelers are both revolutionaries and just another middle-class couple. In the terms that would be used in the 60s, they are weekend leftists, not the Weather underground. They play out a very American myth. Paris is a frontier in which to escape the trap of American society, a place of adventure where the limitations of society can be avoided.

All of this allegory is heavy-handed, and certainly the film is not particularly subtle. This is characteristic of Mendes, of whom I am not generally an admirer. But this film, perhaps because of the backlash against it, earns my respect. It is not a masterpiece of directing, but at least Mendes does not rely totally on intensified continuity editing to achieve his effects. The mise-en-scene and cinematography may be overly pronounced, but to hold a shot for over a minute in today's Hollywood is a welcome change. And unlike Mendes' early films, such as American Beauty (1999) and Road to Perdition (2002), there is no real redemption offered here. This is a film not afraid to end negatively, pessimistically and critically. It is a rare Hollywood film helped rather than hurt by its conclusion. And I suspect it is this lack of a feel-good ending that people are reacting against.

One final note: I have heard a couple of comparsions of Revolutionary Road as a far less interesting take on material covered much better in the AMC television series "Mad Men". While I can understand the comparisons, they are not really fair to the film to say "Mad Men" is "better". What it is, unquestionably, is more entertaining, especially to a male audience. "Mad Men" is a very typical product of our current era. It condemns the characters and at the same time celebrates them as "cool" and "hip". It is both profound and superficial, and makes no real demands or challenges of its audience. Revolutionary Road is harsher medicine; it is much less hip, much less fun, but is certainly no re-tread of material handled better on "Mad Men".

Wednesday, 18 February 2009

Latest from the Cinematheque

In the last week, I was able to see three films at the Cinematheque:

Night and the City (Jules Dassin, 1950)
The Mirror (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1975)
Boy Meets Girl (Leos Carax, 1984)

I'm happy to report all three prints were quite good, with Boy Meets Girl especially great. The films themselves ranged from a major revelation to a slight disappointment. The only film of the three I had seen before was Dassin's Night and the City and it held up quite well. It was the last film made for Hollywood by Dassin before he was blacklisted, and this film noir certainly captures the darkness of the period, with some rather blatant references to the moral bankruptcy of selling out a person for money, even if that person is himself rather unlikable. The hero, Harry Fabian, is extremely flawed yet not unsympathetic, especially as played by Richard Widmark. The film explores the contradiction of the American success myth: if a man doesn't obtain it, he is a loser, yet he cannot become consumed with it or else he will be unhappy. Most of what I remembered from my first viewing years ago comes from the closing sequence, and it still works very well, conveying Harry's desperation and self-loathing and his touching if misguided attempt at some sort of redemption.

Tarkovsky's The Mirror, however, was a mild disappointment. Viewed as the most personal and autobiographical of his films and hailed by many Tarkovsky enthusiasts as his best work, it left me rather cold. The fact that I didn't grasp the meaning of some of the sequences didn't bother me. I'm willing to go along for the ride if the images and emotion sweep me up. Surprisingly, I never found the visuals consistently engaging. Of course, there are moments that are very memorable, and it has a strong central performance from Margarita Terekhova. But I expected more, and in fact thought to myself that if this wasn't a film with Tarkovsky's name on it, I may have evaluated it even more harshly. Normally, I hate the word "pretentious" and am suspicious of those who use it. But I found The Mirror pretentious (and I view my reaction suspiciously as a result).

On the other hand, I found Leos Carax's first film, Boy Meets Girl, to be quite amazing. It may be one of the most strikingly shot films I have ever seen, especially on the big screen. The high contrast black and white images have the beauty of great photographic stills, and the luminous cinematography threatens to completely eclipse the story. But ultimately the tale Carax is telling is a self-consciously dark and romantic love story that needs the power of the images to properly convey the characters' emotions. The plot is also small and contained enough to allow Carax to put the visuals front and center, and even has a scene where a man conveys in sign language why silent film is the most effective. In its love story and emphasis on directorial self-expression, it is reminiscent of the New Wave, although not in any superficially imitative way. This is the first Carax film I've seen and I'm anxious to track down some of his other films, particularly Les Amants du Pont-Neuf.

Wednesday, 11 February 2009

New Website

I've added a new link to a blog that performs a similar function to this blog but from Busan, South Korea rather than Seoul. I've checked it out briefly and it looks great. Hopefully it will be of use to those in or near Busan and to cinephiles in general.

Saturday, 7 February 2009

JEANNE DIELMAN, 23 QUAI DU COMMERCE, 1080 BRUXELLES (Chantal Anne Akerman, 1975)

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Chantal Akerman is one of the very few female directors to achieve canonical status as a master of modern cinema. Her most famous work is Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, an over three-hour long film detailing three days in the life of a widowed single mother. The film's reputation exists largely on two factors: (1) Its status as a "feminist tract" (whatever that means exactly); and (2) A film in which "nothing happens". These two elements are strongly intertwined. Much of the feminism of the film comes from Akerman showing in long, monotonous detail the everyday chores that women perform in the home. It is the presence of these long scenes of cooking and dish-washing that make it seem like nothing is happening, and also gives the work its status as "hyper-realist". Seeing the film for the first time this week, I had to view the text through all of this context. What I was expecting was an experience that would be educational but not really surprising in any way. However, what I encountered was a film that is both rather obvious in its approach and subject matter, while also very difficult and open, so much so that this seems a large part of its project. The film definitely "feminist" but it is also very far from polemical. The key to this is Akerman's elliptical style.

Anyone familiar with European or even international art cinema since the 1970s will immediately recognize Akerman's influence on subsequent filmmakers. The director who came immediately to my mind, maybe because of my familiarity with and admiration of his work, is Michael Haneke. The most obvious comparison is with Haneke's first feature, The Seventh Continent (1989), but the overall stylistic similarity is there in most of Haneke's films, including the recent Cache (2005). The way in which Akerman handles space is especially rigorous, returning repeatedly to the same set-ups in order to situate our understanding of Jeanne's apartment, reminding one of a long take version of Ozu. Many of the shots represented above (Figures 1-7) are repeated many times over the course of the film. While this can be seen as simply increasing the monotony of the narrative, it had the opposite effect for me. It concentrated my attention and made my cognitive faculties sharper and more attuned, allowing for the concentration needed to stay engaged. It is here that I felt the overlap with Haneke was especially pointed.

The major feature of the narrative, despite its slow pace, is its ellipsis. This begins almost immediately. Following the opening shot (Figure 1), there is a buzz at the door and the first of what will be three male johns comes to the door. She leads him to the bedroom and closes the door. The hallway goes dark and the two come out of the bedroom seconds later (Figures 2-5). There is no noticeable cut, but yet any sexual encounter could not have occurred in this time. From the very beginning, Akerman is alluding to the repressed of the film, a repression that will eventually return at the conclusion. Two days later, Akerman eventually goes into the bedroom (Figure 12). We are shown the two having sex, and then Jeanne stabbing him in the neck. The last shot shows Jeanne sitting alone in the dark, the longest take of the film at almost six minutes. Prominent in the frame is the teapot where the money from her prostitution is kept (Figure 13).

The common description of the film's plot emphasizes that this last day disturbs the carefully controlled routine of Jeanne's life and leads to her murderous outburst. Key to this interpretation is viewing the sex scene as awakening Jeanne's sexual desire, as she (seemingly) orgasms during the rather uninspired intercourse. However, we do not know what goes on in these earlier sexual encounters. In fact, I would argue that the breakdown in Jeanne's routine goes back to the second day and her second client. Unlike the precise and controlled actions of the first day, after the second encounter Jeanne is noticeably more flustered, her hair disheveled (which her son later comments on). She falls behind on her routine, and is never able to take a shower. Watching this sequence, I interpreted that something traumatic or disturbing had occurred, simply because of the way Akerman varies the post-coital routine from the previous day.

Ultimately, because of Akerman's use of ellipsis, the viewer can only make guesses as to why Jeanne kills, at least in any concrete or specific way. The broader point seems that her actions are both necessary and perhaps inevitable. No matter how ordered and routine and dehumanizing a life may be, it cannot contain desire. This is why the ending seems liberating, despite the violence and despite the fact that Jeanne still seems like an automaton, even in her violence. The fact that Akerman shoots the murder as reflected through a mirror is equally telling (Figure 12). The shot set-up may be something refreshingly new, and thus a clue to the violence to come, but the composition is still distanced, remote, much like Jeanne herself.

Friday, 6 February 2009

BIGGER THAN LIFE (Nicolas Ray, 1956)

My first screening at the cinematheque in a very long time (shame on me) was Wednesday night with Nicolas Ray's 1956 melodrama Bigger Than Life. The print was quite good and the theatre was full, making for an ideal viewing experience. This is in stark contrast to my first viewing of the film, which was a VHS copy of a TCM broadcast.

I remembered very little about the early scenes, in fact just about everything up until the last half. This is no doubt because I was first exposed to the film in clips from Martin Scorsese's 1995 American cinema documentary A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies. Scorsese uses Ray as an example of the director as "smuggler":

"Like Douglas Sirk, Nicolas Ray offered both the American family in suburbia and the psychotic undercurrents, the conventions and the contradictions, the sugar and the poison."

Scorsese emphasizes the poison, the ways in which the lead character, under the influence of cortisone, rebels against his dull, middle-class existence. But what is interesting about the film is how all the parts fit together, as well as the form of rebellion the character Ed Avery takes. Ed's breakdown is caused, the film implies, by overwork and the need to take two jobs to support his family's middle-class lifestyle. His wife believes he is having an affair, and Ray certainly implies that Ed would perhaps like an affair with his attractive co-worker. However, he doesn't have the time. Instead, he spends his nights as a taxi dispatcher, trapped in a modern equivalent of a call center. Ray sets up the audience, through this first act, to sympathize with Ed and understand the rebellion against this society that his cortizone addiction allows him to express. However, I think Ray is smarter than simply identifying with this character.

If one considers Ed's new philosophy carefully, it is clearly diametrically opposed to anything the leftist-anarchist Ray would actually endorse. Ed turns into a fascist, and while Ray encourages a certain identification with the criticism of the small-minded community in which he is trapped, Ed's rantings are that of a totalitarian madman. This to me is Ray's larger point. Not only has the American society of the 1950s trapped Ed in his routinized, quite literally deadening existence, but it has created even more demonic (if at the same time alluring) fantasies (or delusions) of grandeur.

Before an appropriately awkward finale at Ed's hospital bed, there occurs a fight between Ed and his friend Wally that results in the destruction of the bourgeois home. It allows for one of Ray's typically striking and genuinely odd compositions in which a jagged piece of railing figures prominently in the foreground. It provides an apt metaphor for this profoundly pessimistic film. Even the stripping away of social repression is dangerous in a world that can only imagined more grotesque, patriarchal alternatives.

A clip from the film is available here, featuring one of Ray's (and Hollywood's) greatest shots.

Tuesday, 3 February 2009

Friends of the Cinematheque Program

The Seoul Cinematheque is currently running their annual "Friends of the Cinematheque" festival until early March. Among the many great films showing are:

Greed (Erich Von Stroheim, 1924)
Sunrise (F.W. Murnau, 1927)
The Grapes of Wrath (John Ford, 1940)
His Girl Friday (Howard Hawks, 1940)
Sunset Blvd. (Billy Wilder, 1950)
Night and the City (Jules Dassin, 1950)
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (Howard Hawks, 1953)
Bigger Than Life (Nicolas Ray, 1956)
Midnight Cowboy (John Schlesinger, 1969)
Get Carter (Mike Hodges, 1971)
...All the Marbles (Robert Aldrich, 1981)
Possession (Andrzej Zulawski, 1981)

Also, the following foreign film are listed as playing with English subtitles:

The Mirror (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1975)
Boy Meets Girl (Leos Carax, 1984)
Aprile (Nanni Moretti, 1998)
Tropical Malady (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2004)

I am back in Korea after my trip to Canada and have the month off, so hopefully I'll be able to see and write about a number of these films.