Screened May 25 2009 on Sony Classics DVD
Largely received with diffidence upon its initial release, Peter Greenaway’s tour de force can now be respected as a bold vision of movie art in the multimedia age. Taking inspiration from Japanese courtesan Sei Shonagon’s 17th century novel of the same title, Greenaway tells a story of a Japanese-Chinese woman’s efforts to transform her childhood fixation on bodily calligraphy into a career as a writer, while avenging her father’s sexual humiliation at the hands of his publisher. These themes of the artist’s struggle to express herself while taking revenge against the abuses of the older establishment are nothing new to Greenaway’s filmography (see The Draughtsman’s Contract, The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover). What is new is a distinctly feminine narrative voice that enhances the innate sensuality of the project; an unabashed mixing of languages and cultures in a stew of chic global mongrelism; and a hypnotic flow of screens within screens and texts used as creative adornment. (The film toys with foreign film viewing conventions, foregoing subtitles for some scenes in Japanese while deploying them elsewhere in ways so artistic you wonder why no one else bothers).
Early reviews expressed dismay at the film’s stylistic audacity, dismissing the multi-screen displays as more akin to CD-ROMs, Power Point slideshows, or computer windows than to cinema. A dozen years later, the falseness of this dichotomy is plain to see, and the foolish puritanism of this way of defining cinema may account for what’s held back the medium’s evolution, while the Internet has all but revolutionized people’s audiovisual experience of reality, not to mention art. Besides, it’s not that Greenaway turns his back on the more established approaches to sculpting his images: a uniquely filigreed lighting design constantly redefines interior spaces and turns interiors into walls of illuminated text. Whether through old or new school techniques, one can only hope to have more films that are as curious about exploring the sensual experience of cinema.
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Screened May 24 2009 on 35mm at Anthology Film Archives, New York NY
TSPDT rank #934 IMDb
My Friend van Lapshin is an attempt to retrieve lost time that itself may be in need of revival. Upon its 1982 release, it garnered equal parts acclaim and controversy for its frank depiction of 1930s small town Soviet life, with comrades threatening to report each other and casual references to drugs, prostitution and secret police backroom brutality. The film was heralded as the greatest Soviet film of all time, beating out the likes of Tarkovsky and Eisenstein; today it’s largely unremarked outside of (and even among) Russian film circles.
The narrative is an extended series of unfiltered incidents of the past strung together in a loosely linear sequence. Despite being mostly shot in black and white and sepia, the film is alive with an unruly, uncentered and unprocessed feel of communal activity. Alexsei German orchestrates this action with masterful long takes and tracking shots. But unlike the employment of this technique by Tarkovsky or Bela Tarr, German doesn’t so much connect images along a meditative stream with his more roughhewn, often handheld camerawork as clash them in an animated clatter of incongruity, something resembling collage art.
Deep staging among multiple characters and a thin discerning between throwaway gestures and primary action within in a scene evoke a society moving in a perpetual fog – not for years will people remember what mattered among so many things that happened. The post-dubbed soundtrack gives the effect of hearing dialogue through waterlogged ears, adding to a vaguely claustrophobic sense of warped perception (an effect taken to an even greater extreme in German’s follow-up Khrustaliov, My Car!).
By the end, we’re not even sure what to make of the film’s nominal protagonist, a captain of the local police squad, who’s a seemingly nice guy who mediates squabbles and even a suicide attempt among his five roommates. He also goes practically berserk during a climactic police raid, shooting a man dead rather than taking him in. The ambiguous portrayal of a Stalinist authority figure may have been as edgy as German could have gotten away with in the 80s, though some critics saw it as not overtly critical enough. The film’s embrace of indeterminacy may on one hand compromise the forcefulness of its political critique; on the other hand it amounts to a critique in itself, of the overdetermined, two-dimensional propaganda that propagated itself through Soviet film history (and that gets lampooned in the film’s opening sequence). One feeling the film distinctly leaves us with is a sense of the stories that give form to our lives being as much a bewildering work in progress then as it is now.
YOU CAN WATCH THE ENTIRETY OF MY FRIEND IVAN LAPSHIN ON YOUTUBE WITH ENGLISH SUBTITLES. Here’s Part One.
screened May 23 2009 on British Film Institute Region 2 DVD (courtesy of Cindi Rowell)
Ever since Robert Flaherty aimed his camera at an Inuit named Nanook, the documentary film has had to contend with its multiple and often conflicting functions: as an authentic representation of reality, as a vehicle for conveying ideology, as a work of art. While many documentaries of the past may seem quaint on all three fronts through today’s eyes, they are no more problematized than contemporary works. As a distributor of contemporary Chinese documentaries, I see these issues figuring as prominently in many of the films I review as in works dating back 75 years, whose presumptions towards objectivity or sophistication belie prejudices in perception, culture and aesthetics. Such a work is Song of Ceylon.
Conceived under the supervision of British documentary godfather John Grierson as a propaganda piece for British commercial tea interests, Song of Ceylon all but transcends its colonialist industrial premise. It’s a bona fide work of art that celebrates the lives and values of native Sri Lankans while actively questioning the impact of the tea industry on their way of life. The film is blessed with an uncommonly musical sense of editing rhythm, lyrical camera movements that are rare for documentaries of any era, and best of all, a dense soundtrack that mixes native songs, nature sounds and industrial noise into what could work as a stand-alone audio drama.
At the same time, the film can’t fully overcome its thoroughly Western orientation even as it attempts to celebrate its subjects and critique the colonial forces threatening to alter their culture. The problems can be summed up in the selection of a British travelogue text from 1680 to serve as the film’s primary narration. It’s a poetic attempt to connect the way of life captured on film to an idea of an eternal Eden, to which the colonialist forces of commerce play antagonist. But the notion itself is a sentimental fiction that projects a romantic view of native life rather than letting it speak on its own terms (this despite having a man with a South Asian accent read the British text as a play for authenticity). The four-part narrative begins and ends with a cinematic tribute to Buddha, presented as an Oriental analogue to Christ for introducing spiritual civility to a land of pagans; again, another projection of Western meaning upon Eastern forms. In its attempts to critique the prejudices of Western colonialism only to arrive at new ones, the film becomes what may be the first work of neo-colonialist cinema.
But there’s no denying the sheer brilliance of the filmmaking on display, especially the third section, which takes documentary into a political and artistic dimension that’s years ahead of its time. It’s a dense montage that juxtaposes the imagery of the Sri Lankans laboring in various capacities against the sterile geometries and clanging electronic transmissions of a trade office coordinating their efforts. The incongruence of these two worlds – bodily vs. bodiless work – is so jarring that Eisenstein couldn’t have done a better job articulating the alienation of labor in cinematic terms.
All in all, Song of Ceylon is a rare film whose aural and visual rhythms and textures fully immerse the viewer into a singularly cinematic experience, regardless of its relationship to the reality being represented.
WATCH SONG OF CEYLON in its entirety on YouTube:
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screeened May 14 2009 on Criterion DVD in Brooklyn NY
Jean-Pierre Melville’s last feature in black and white is an extended study of a gray terrain: a criminal underworld that’s less dark than cloudy, where truth, loyalty and honor stumble through a mist of greed, distrust and hubris. Melville immerses the viewer in a similar experiential haze by casting a sprawling narrative that spreads gaseously through the oblique and largely unstable relationships among its ensemble; it’s not until the masterful heist sequence at the midway point that the film finds its focus. It’s an ambitious gambit, carried over largely by Melville’s assured deadpan style, working through scenes with a consummately professional attention to detail mixed with emotional detachment. The lack of the latter spells the doom of tough but aging ex-con Gu (Lino Ventura), whose plans for one last big score are usurped by the compromising of his good name, ironically incited by a police trap that exploits his insecurity over his reputation. This professional code is the real protagonist of the film, demonstrated in virtually every scene and mediated through each character’s decisions and the viewer’s responses. Predicated on a world of crime, the code itself is not an absolute good, as it enables Gu and his accomplices to justify killing innocent cops along with more deserving double-crossers and agitators. As with the resistance fighters in Melville’s Army of Shadows, the code is an imperfect talisman guiding its followers through a world of overwhelming danger and corruption; among the criminals in this film it proves to be just as fatally insufficient. Nonetheless, it remains Gu’s sole remaining principle as he makes a furious bid to redeem his professional honor at all costs, an act of equal parts salvation and suicide.
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Screened Tuesday April 28 on Beauty Media DVD in Weehawken, NJ
First, I want to acknowledge that this is the first – and perhaps only – Shooting Down Pictures blog entry dedicated to a Chinese film, a fact that at first seems baffling given my passion for Chinese cinema (not to mention the fact that I’m heavily involved in a pioneering effort to bring more Chinese cinema to the U.S.). But this blog is dedicated to exploring the titles on the They Shoot Pictures 1000 Greatest Films list that I haven’t yet seen, and of the 20 films from China/Hong Kong/Taiwan on the list, this is the only one that qualifies.
It’s also worth noting that I watched this film the same week that I read a breakthrough in-depth article on Jia Zhangke by Evan Ossnos in The New Yorker, the leading figure of the so-called Sixth Generation of Chinese filmmakers from the Beijing Film Academy. It’s an article that, in my opinion, marks a decisive shift in mainstream American attention away from the Fifth Generation and towards the Sixth Generation (a much-delayed shift, I must say, and one I find all the more amusing since I’m currently focused on what one might call the post-Generation – or de-Generation? – of Chinese filmmakers). There are 13 productions from Mainland China and Hong Kong listed in the They Shoot Pictures 1000 Greatest Films, of which five titles are from the vaunted Fifth Generation of Beijing Film Academy directors, and all belong to just two names: Chen Kaige and Zhang Yimou. Too bad there isn’t room for other great Fifth Generation works, such as Tian Zhuangzhuang’s Horse Thief and The Blue Kite or Jiang Wens’ In the Heat of the Sun, much less numerous Sixth Generation titles by Jia Zhangke, Ning Ying (On the Beat), Zhang Yuan (Sons) and the like.
I bring up the issue of Fifth, Sixth and post-Generation Chinese cinema because it informed my viewing of King of the Children, the first Fifth Generation film I’ve seen in a few years (I don’t include anything Zhang or Chen have done in the 2000s as they’re working in quite a different aesthetic environment than what they did in the ’80s and ’90s.) In some ways, the highly politicized realism of post-Fifth Generation films have done their work on my eyes, because it was difficult for me to get into the world of the film as an authentic place and time. It’s amazing to think that King of the Children was once considered part of a breakthrough movement to bring the “real” China to the screen, in opposition to the whitewashed, progagandizing cinema of an idealized China that was the norm (and still is, though in a more sophisticated form). In its own way King of the Children idealizes the rural peasantry, lensing the dirt-poor environment in lush, romantic hues.
Vast, almost abstract shots of landscapes and the ruddy soil convey fertility and potential, symbolized as well in the children being taught by an inexperienced sent-down youth during the Cultural Revolution. This rough-edged eccentric prone to fits of laughter allows his students to chart their own path to knowledge, partly due to necessity (lack of schoolbooks and his own training as an educator). It’s a celebration of innovation, improvisation and pragmatism, but is soon curtailed by the rule-sticking authorities. The premise is clearly allegorical with elements both highly personal (the teacher standing in for Chen the artist/innovator – a lot of Chen protagonists have this autobiographical subtext of keeping their artistic integrity under pressure of institutional compromise) and impersonal (the children are an largely indistinguishable mass, save for one gifted child whose story of scholarship as redemption for his peasant father’s struggles falls into its own symbolic purpose). Images take on a monumental quality: the children are at times shot from below looking upward like heroic statues, or aligned en masse like the terra cotta soldiers in Xi’an. Even the acting has a stiff-backed affect. Most of the action takes place around a schoolhouse whose impossibly voluminous thatched roof seems too extravagant for such a dirt-poor setting. There’s virtually no depiction of the children’s parents and how they live, or any sort of day-to-day living outside the schoolhouse; the community is barely a sliver. These are the kinds of concerns that subsequent Chinese filmmakers preoccupied themselves with filling in; the return of Marxist socialist materialist cinema with a vengeance.
Despite the limitations of Chen’s approach in terms of illuminating a social situation by resorting to reductive symbolism, there’s no denying that this same approach generates some impressive visuals and uniquely cinematic moments. A scene that seems both laughably absurd yet aurally and visually stunning is when the teacher, forced to copy a lesson out of the only schoolbook available, furiously transcribes it onto a chalkboard as his students follow suit with pencil and paper. Their scribblings build into a rumble resembling a stampede of cattle (another metaphor invoked to suggest the immense power and herd mentality of the Chinese people). This goes on well into the night, with an oil lamp at each desk offering plumes of fire to this ritual of rote recitation, resembling what John Woo would do with church interiors slathered in candlelight.
While the grandiosity of such gestures may seem patronizing and even cliche after so many Fifth Generation films to follow that made postcard porn out of desolate environs, at the time these were mindblowingly unprecedented expressions of a new subjectivity in Chinese cinema, one that came from a discernibly individual vision rather than a bland, groupthink aesthetic. Who’s to say what this decade’s Chinese cinema, dominated by bleeding edge, street-level realism, will look like twenty years from now.
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