Thursday, April 28, 2011

Certified Copy (2010) A Film by Abbas Kiarostami

Why is it that when a bride quite noticeably puts an eye-drop in her eye in the background of a frame and then cries in the foreground only moments later we still feel for her? The question might as well be the fundamental mystery of movie-going: why do we invest ourselves in narratives that we know are artificial, "staged"? The aforementioned instance occurs late in Abbas Kiarostami's Certified Copy, right in the thick of yet another situation that begs the question of reality or fakery. Of all the modern directors who deliberately reference the apparatus of the cinema and storytelling, Kiarostami is the most genuinely probing, using this epistemological issue not just as a clever side-note but as the very backbone of his work. The easy answer, as Kiarostami knows, is that it doesn't matter, that if whatever we're watching, real or fake, can hold a mirror to our own lives, who cares? Yet at the same time, Kiarostami is not satisfied with this answer. In every new film, he aggressively pries at text and subtext, form and content, authenticity and illusion, until hopefully something insightful is revealed in the rubbish of the destruction.

That unexpected object of value, that treasure, is Certified Copy. Playing - perhaps consciously, perhaps not - as a Tuscan version of Richard Linklater's Before Sunset (which gets it off on the right foot right away), the film details a day's encounter between an uppity art dealer named Elle (Juliette Binoche) and an Italian writer named James Miller (William Shimell) who comes into town to lecture about his recent book, the central thesis of which states that the distinction between original artworks and copies is a negligible one as long as it retains the same emotional value. The two of them may or may not have met before, a Marienbad-like mystery that hangs over the entire film. Kiarostami excels at doing the same thing with a mystery that Resnais did: suggest a possible solution only to complicate it moments later, ultimately building up such a heaping pile of these red-herrings that the very basis of reality is obscured. In the opening sequence, it seems clear enough at first that Elle is simply attending Miller's lecture out of scholarly interest, but as her presence grows progressively disruptive (thanks to her bratty kid who whines about hunger in the corner of the hall) and Kiarostami's unadorned mise-en-scene isolates individual expressions at just the right time (first revealing Elle and Miller in the same frame at an equally opportune moment), the question becomes how a woman with merely leisurely reasons for attending the lecture would cause such a quiet stir and leave before the end, not to mention bring her kid in the first place.

Only a few minutes after Elle's son mentions "that man" in lunch conversation and she brushes it off like any mother would when asked an uncomfortable question about her romantic life, Miller is seen in Elle's basement art store circling the shadowy paintings and sculptures before calling halfheartedly to her. Their exchange stays strictly cordial, like two strangers ready to share thoughtful conversation about a subject they share an interest in, but when that conversation does come in a long and revealing car ride (leave it to Kiarostami to dispel his film's thematic keys in the utterly singular social context that is the two front seats), ideological tensions arise that just nearly transcend the domain of detached argumentative discourse, as Elle begins to gradually expose more and more personal quibbles with Miller's cerebral artistic inquiries. Driving past a series of geometrically placed tall trees, the two discuss the theories of Miller's book, referencing the trees in a way that simultaneously reveals their originality and also their essential nature as copies of other trees, especially in such a landscape where humans have sculpted nature to their own aesthetic liking.

So, is it possible that the distinction between originality and replication is actually an inextricable rather than mutually exclusive one? That issue receives a major workout when Elle suddenly goes along with a cafe owner's reference to Miller as bearing the appearance of a great husband, playfully rebutting with his imagined domestic shortcomings and treating Miller as her husband the moment he returns to the room. From there, she's doing one of two things, or perhaps both given the film's philosophical engagement with behavioral dualities: enacting a prolonged role-play as Miller's wife or simply quitting the facade and finally unleashing the buried emotional distress of years of romantic estrangement. Both would put Miller's theories to the test assuming that one of the behavioral modes is not genuine, that one of them is a false construct. Quickly enough, this opens up Kiarostami's confrontational interaction with the audience, challenging the viewer to contemplate which of the various iterations of self that we project on a day-to-day basis is an original, which ones are copies, and which ones, if not all, are both.

This is a richly thought-provoking experiment, as I'm sure is obvious by now, and one that Binoche and Shimmell handle with remarkable grace and dexterity. The entire film hinges on the subtle discrepancies in their performances, Binoche's coming more naturally in her full command of the role and Shimmell's ultimately a bundle of restrained reactions to Binoche's charismatic and embittered matriarch (he being primarily an opera singer and this being his first film role). Their shifting personae are reflected in Kiarostami's staging and framing, with his complicated and spontaneous use of mirrors and his isolation of shot and reverse shot as two images in which the characters look directly into the camera, as if speaking directly to the viewer and to Kiarostami rather than their onscreen counterpart. It's all, seemingly, hyper-controlled, so much so that when a bird flies by a window in the blurred background of a shot in the final scene and provides a perfectly atmospheric touch, it calls to question how much of Kiarostami's cinema really is a total exploitation of artificial staging and how much of it is simply a product of being in the right place at the right time, a collection of truly original moments. Make no mistake about it, despite the film's conscious integration of classic European art cinema tropes and its outspoken skepticism about the very notion of originality in art, Certified Copy is one-of-a-kind.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Le Quattro Volte (The Four Times) A Film by Michelangelo Frammartino (2010)

It's quite a magical transfiguration how the smoke that fills the frame in the opening shot of Michelangelo Frammartino's Le Quattro Volte comes to be freighted with such expansive significance by the end of the film. The film's title, translated as either The Four Times or The Four Lives, has rather clear meaning in terms of its loose, suggestive narrative trajectory: in a small medieval Italian village perched atop steep mountains, Frammartino covers the four transformations of an object (human, animal, natural, material) that he posits to be the universal cycle of nature. An old, coughing goat herder (Giuseppe Fuda) dies and gives way to a baby goat, who then dies next to a tree, its decomposing corpse feeding life into the tree which ultimately is chopped down and used for the production of charcoal. This description nails down the entirety of the narrative, but it's beyond that the film achieves such an epic and unique meditation on life, death, and nature. The presence of the smoke at the beginning of the film is either an example of an "end is the beginning" storytelling maneuver or it's simply an excuse for Frammartino to prime the viewer for the eventual metaphysical discovery that the smoke is more than smoke, just as everything in his cosmically interconnected vision of nature has a multifaceted history behind its surface appearance.

An amusing oversight in the majority of synopses for the film place the elderly shepherd at the center of the "plot", as if he's the axis around which everything revolves, and as if the film can't be swallowed without a distinct point of human empathy. Frammartino, I imagine, would likely get a laugh out of this, because what his film is more precisely getting at is the relative inconsequentiality of the human in the vast order of nature. Le Quattro Volte merely begins with the human (or to be more exact, it begins with the smoke, the vessel in which only traces of a life form are returned back to the atmosphere) and ends somewhere far more permanent and intangible. This is not to say that the film is smug or reductive in its representation of humanity (quite the contrary as Frammartino's long attentiveness to the contours of the shepherd's face or the reliance upon spiritual folklore that marks his daily routine suggests a heightened sensitivity to the dignity of human beings in such an anti-modern, agrarian environment), just that it realizes and even celebrates the inevitable smallness of our place in the universe.

The film's elliptical progression is built around mini, self-contained action narratives (when I say action, I mean these scenes gather an enveloping power and story arch based purely on the physical behaviors within the frame). In the opening segment - the first of four separated by seconds of black leader that strongly suggest moments of reincarnation - the shepherd, a man clearly dying from some ailment, must trek down to the village church at night to retrieve a refill of his special medicine, which in adherence to a long-standing method of folk healing is the dust swept up from the floor of the church, presumably thought to be "holy". Normally, the shepherd trades his goat milk for a batch of the church dust but in this instance has no option when he discovers that the church is locked. Frammartino follows his odyssey of desperation in fixed takes, but he also keeps his distance. In such episodes, the film exhibits an omniscient foresight, asking us not to immerse ourselves in fear for the shepherd's life but to observe casually and prepare for what's next. This forward-thinking quality most closely resembles that of nature, which in Le Quattro Volte is seemingly always a step ahead, ready to produce newer life forms out of the rubbish of old.

The best of these vignettes, and exactly what the film neutrally advises us to prepare for, is a marvel of choreography that extends for several minutes. In it, a church procession marches down the street in one of Frammartino's recurring high-angle shots on the morning following the shepherd's search for the medicine. The composition is precisely structured: the fenced-in herd of goats appears on the left side of the frame, the street cuts across the middle, and an inconveniently-placed truck sits on a hill on the right side. Miraculously, Frammartino stages (or does he?) a dramatic series of events in which the shepherd's faithful dog tries desperately to alarm the passersby of the discrepancy in his owner's routine, barking and jumping around. The procession understandably doesn't heed the dog's unreadable warning, barging through to the other side of the street wherein Frammartino's camera position pans 270 degrees into another exquisite framing of a wooded street. The dog returns to terrorize a stray worshipper and then dislodge the truck from its position to crash directly into the goat fence, both actions occurring seemingly unintentionally. Despite the mammoth length of the scene and relative distance between pivotal points in the shot, there is a supreme sense of slapstick comic timing that raises the tantalizing question of directorial intrusion or natural absurdity. Given the difficulty of directing animals with this amount of shocking precision, I would feel inclined to agree with the latter, which only strengthens the film's revelatory view of nature as a force bearing a separate, universal consciousness.

Once the goats have escaped from their enclosure, they investigate the shepherd's grounds, finding him gasping lethargically for life in his bed. Upon the man's expected death the film launches into its second section, inaugurated by a startling shot of a white calf dropping from between its mother's hind legs. This is the film's most persuasive hint towards a theme of reincarnation; Frammartino certainly doesn't spell his ideas out, but he doesn't cloak them in deep obscurity either. The calf is slow to adjust to the world, and the film responds by casting a glow of freshness upon objects. In a barn lit only by cracks of beaming sunlight, the group of young goats experience the falling of a broom with mutual bemusement. A pack mentality and eventually a growing need for competition arises, until suddenly the white calf is stranded in a ditch during one of the daily herds through the countryside. Frammartino expertly manages his minimalist soundtrack, conveying as great a sensation of loss and isolation in the sudden absence of the hitherto omnipresent clatter of bells as in the melancholy image of the calf alone in the forest, "baah-ing" with a fear of the unfamiliar (a moment that is, I should add, nearly as moving as the final scene of Au Hasard Balthasar.)

Frammartino's evocation of the subsequent transformation is remarkably subtle and free of emotional manipulation (we are talking about the stranding and innocent death of an adorable young animal here). Instead, the expected strategy is reversed and the sequence is unusually uplifting, with a series of the same landscape shot in different seasons containing the tree the calf last laid down under, a slight aesthetic move that allows for a mere inference towards the animal's fate while acknowledging the idea of seasonal renewal. Adding a layer of absurdist comedy to the mix is the next narrative progression involving a gang of gung-ho civilians cutting down the tree to embark on some weird celebratory ritual back in the village. The shot of the treetop slowly rising with human force above the thatched roofing of the village, accompanied only by the faint sounds of camaraderie, is a particularly memorable one, humorously indicating man's ceaseless drive to claim and manipulate nature.

Le Quattro Volte doesn't stop there though, ensuring that although the tree (an amalgam of both the shepherd and the calf's life forms) was stolen from its place in the ground for arguably trivial human purposes, it will be returned to the Earth in a more diffuse manner, spreading through the smoke of the charcoal production across the many vast and misty mountains that Frammartino carefully photographs throughout the film. Rather than belittling to human experience, this is a graceful and humble nod to the ultimate possession of our souls to the Earth in which we reside and not simply in the domain of a personal lifespan. Lest I sound too abstract and poetic (such an opaque, wordless film will do that to you), it's important to mention that Frammartino has crafted an elegant visual essay that can really only be described in such terms. But rather than being intellectually exhausting, it's an inviting, rewarding work, a soft punch right to the frothy, ambiguous gut of emotions and feelings, and even as it elicits dense allusions to the cyclical theories of Pythagoras and the alarming illogicality of village folklore, it need not be reduced to linguistic justifications.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Summer Hours (2008) A Film by Olivier Assayas

Early on in Olivier Assayas' Summer Hours, a group of young kids, the grandchildren of an old and widowed art collector named Hélène (Edith Scob), spontaneously climb a small tree, their arms reaching up into the elongated branches with tireless determination. It's an offhand moment of rapture that actually proves to be a visual summation of the film's many disparate themes, a way of eloquently signaling that they are all bound to the same flow of nature, left to branch off in different directions. So, too, are the children who climb the tree, just as their parents - the estranged but loving trio of Frédéric (Charles Berling), Jérémie (Jérémie Renier), and Adrienne (Juliette Binoche) - have been pulled apart by the shifting currents of their respective lives. The image is part of a series of extensive steadicam shots capturing the hustle-bustle of a family get-together for Hélène's 75th birthday party at her lavishly old-fashioned country home, the family stomping ground for several generations and a storage unit for the rare artwork of Hélène's uncle Paul Berthier as well as a cornucopia of "bric-a-brac from another era." Assayas' fluidly cooperative camera makes the joyousness of the gathering readily apparent, but the film slowly reveals layers of melancholy in the withholding interactions of the family members, in the sense that the robust house is now underused, and especially in Hélène's acknowledgment of her impending mortality, which raises the question of what to do with her and Paul's legacy.

What follows is a knockout scene of Hélène speaking with her longtime friend and housemaid Éloïse (Isabelle Sadoyan) in the now-empty household presumably later in the day after the family has left. They speak calmly but mournfully about the state of the house, the party that day, and Hélène's lingering feelings of isolation and anxiety regarding her children and their willingness to pass down the relics of family history to their own offspring. But the key to this sad, powerful scene lies not in Assayas' casually revealing dialogue but in his restrained staging and mise-en-scene. If the ubiquitous movement of the party suggested a celebration of life, here Assayas' employs a two simple, static medium shots of Hélène and Éloïse. The whole room is awash in the cool blue of dusk offset by the vibrant oranges of indoor lamps in the background, Assayas being less interested in photographic realism than he is in telegraphing the mood through the lighting. It's the film's most tragic scene because we know death is around the corner, but Assayas doesn't belabor the point. Abruptly after, the film leaps ahead three months to a point when the family matriarch has passed away. So as to keep the melodrama to a minimum, Assayas exposes the aftermath in two succinct shots of Frédéric and Adrienne struggling to maintain their emotional control in private and public spaces. In a small gust of editorial wind, Summer Hours has launched into its second and most thematically dense chapter.

If the opening functioned as a way to loosely establish all of the nuances of character and modicums of family history the film parses out, the rest of the time Assayas spends taking these seeds and letting them grow, exploring their modulations over time and in the throes of familial tragedy. Long-winded legal dealings and household art auctions are not normally fodder for riveting film drama, but here Assayas is able to casually reveal all the emotional tensions among the siblings that lie silently beneath the mundane formalities. In one of their first scenes of reconnection after Hélène's death, conflicts of interest arise between Frédéric, Adrienne, and Jérémie, the former interested in maintaining the summer home as a bearer of charged memories, with the other two finding it more financially plausible to abandon the house to prevent it from becoming just an uninhabited money box. The struggle is between holding on to intimate personal history while also trying to remain reasonable in the face of a generation that cares less and less about such archaic indicators of value. For Frédéric, a Paris-based economist who is ironically the most sentimental of the three, the implicit meaning of the house is too strong to simply monetize, while Adrienne and Jérémie, both of whom have pursued careers in other countries (America and Japan, respectively), can't see the concrete value in what are, for them, merely abstract and disembodied markers of the past.

This also hints at another of the themes Assayas is targeting: the irresolvable paradox of globalization. While the world strains to "connect" and further "dissolve" boundaries of nations with business and industry, it actually only creates an increasing alienation, manifested in the distance clearly felt between the siblings. The geographical distance from the house itself indeed proves to be a crucial factor in the decision-making of the characters when it really shouldn't have much to do with the preservation of one's own personal history. Jérémie, a businessman for Puma, and Adrienne, a designer attracted to modern style, have made their personal disconnection cultural. In their clothing, their speech patterns, and their views on the world, they have unintentionally separated themselves from the life created by Hélène and her painter uncle to the point where the placement of a decades-old vase in a museum or in an old house has become an entirely arbitrary and negligible consideration. Frédéric, on the other hand, given his relative proximity to the objects and the immediate family he still intends to pass them down to sees the dissolution of evocative family artwork to the level of vain public voyeurism to be sad and lamentable.

In spite of all these seemingly easy areas for critical objectivity, Assayas remains neutral and sensitive to the individual concerns of his characters. He's not making any generalized judgments about the increasing blindness of a younger generation towards the sophistication of an older one, or something like that. In fact, the film's uplifting ending manages to strike conflicting chords without trying to resolve them: a raucous gathering of adolescents, lead by Frédéric's daughter Sylvie (Alice de Lencquesaing), storm Hélène's old home just before its entry on the market, throwing the kind of elaborate summer party most high school kids would dream of. The scene is light and airy, filled with joy as Assayas' camera once again swoops in and out of the opulent rooms (now barren) in extended takes. Although most of the kids are obviously quite oblivious to the nature of the house they're trampling through, Assayas seems to be celebrating the idea that it's now a blank slate where new memories can be formed. This doesn't need to mean that the past is neglected either - Sylvie, in a scene that feels like Assayas' tribute to Claire's Knee, is overcome by the fleeting sensation of one of the paintings in the house, for she is standing right in the grassy meadow where it was made.

Moments before the party in Summer Hours' chronology is a short sequence where Éloïse returns to the house for the last time, peering in the windows at the spaces once filled with furnishings and life. Assayas' shoots the scene from inside the house looking out as Éloïse drifts by the windows. Is it from the house's perspective or Hélène's? Either way, it suggests a separate consciousness that lasts beyond living humans, a consciousness of place and history. Not only does this signal Assayas' interest in structural mirroring (the film begins with a scene of joy and then one of sadness and ends with a scene of sadness and then one of joy), but it also makes the case that both these seemingly opposite emotions spring from the same source, exist side by side. That's the totality of human experience right there, working in tandem in two elegantly simple scenes.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Screening Notes #4

The best few weeks of filmgoing I’ve had in a while are also, due to a generally busy schedule and lack of time, the worst weeks for productivity on the writing end.

Summer Hours (2008): Assayas is an electrifying magician; that is, he can make a work of art while appearing totally artless. Summer Hours, about art and by an artist, feels so offhand and casual and, at first, like anyone could have made it. None of the camerawork is showy, yet every shot is orchestrated like a great symphony. I love how Assayas picks simple, universal themes - the lasting importance of family, the forced estrangement of globalization, the permanent meaning indebted to objects - and simply dances around the edges of them, proving that a director need not highlight with a magic marker his ideas in order for his audience to connect with them emotionally. Showing specifics, not generalizations, is the key to great drama, and Summer Hours is nothing if not a long string of very vivid, petty specifics.

Adaptation (2002): Charlie's one tricky bastard. Upon finishing this film, I thought that Kaufman had self-consciously laid his life on the line and then somehow suffered a crushing blow to his intelligence, ultimately forgetting the point of his movie. For all of the film's structure vs. art musings, it seemed that he had settled for conformity in the denouement (a word which Kaufman's made-up brother in the film pronounces hilariously wrong) rather than meeting somewhere in the middle. But when one places the film's title into the mix, it becomes clear that Kaufman's up to something awfully clever and scathing here. His hero, a representation of his most finnicky, holed-up artist qualities played by Nicolas Cage, is forced to "adapt" to his surroundings, whereby his life becomes an absurd genre movie and is swallowed up by Hollywood conventions. Even so, one wonders if the witty commentary is swallowed up as well by the questionable construction, rendered with perhaps a bit too much conviction by Spike Jonze.

Arrested Development (Season 1 9-22, Season 2 1-5): This is getting really funny. I never wanted to like it, but as Gob keeps saying "Come on!"

Certified Copy (2010): The best film I missed in 2010, Certified Copy is a masterstroke that reminds me I need to see a lot more by Kiarostami. I always end up saying this, but this might be Binoche's very best performance. The way she so deftly handles Kiarostami's thematic ideas and formal shifts while making it all feel so natural is a thrill to watch. What separates this from, say, her tremendous work in Flight of the Red Balloon or Blue is the vast range of emotions, traversed between with such spontaneity. Kiarostami's directorial finesse is omnipresent but light enough not to overshadow what is centrally a film about conversation. As such, he keeps it simple, using primarily close-ups but creating a psychologized Tuscany outside the frame with sound and background movement. The film's ending, in which the flight of a bird is timed to uncanny perfection, is sublime.

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010): Like everyone else, I was put into a trance by Apichatpong's latest, but I don't know if it speaks more to the excessive hype surrounding the film or to its actual inferiority that I still find the film's prequel, the short Letters to Uncle Boonmee, to be a more evocative and visually appealing piece of filmmaking. I mean, there are some shots and lighting setups in this feature version that I seriously object to, not because they're too much, but because they're just plain pedestrian. Yet these are very small distractions; other times the film so looks so beautiful I don't want it to end, which brings up another miniscule gripe. Apichatpong, for all his over-indulgence in the long take in the past, seems to have lost faith in it during some of his strongest shots here. It's hard to argue with a film that had me swooning in its strange power, but I think with some fine adjustments this could have been a real goldmine. As it is, it's certainly a film to get lost in, to live with, and to lounge around in, but it's a bit sad to have to settle for the treasure that it is rather than the film of the decade that it could have been.

The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976): This is the ideal situation of a film I once considered a trash heap of lackluster cinema vérité suddenly revealing itself as a deeply fascinating work by a director in utter command of his decidedly rough filmmaking. Cassavetes flirts with noir conventions without ever fully embracing them, always keeping his commanding sleazeball Cosmo Vitelli front and center, unafraid to let such a dedicated loser dominate the frame. The compassion towards the grotesque here is amazing, and the grimy, low-key atmosphere of disembodied, barely visible heads and off-screen voices never ceases. It's a dream, really.

Hadewijch (2009): One hell of an engrossing experience even with its baffling and ideologically questionable third act. Dumont makes stellar symmetry of two musical performances at the film’s center: an outdoor Franco punk act playing a rendition of a Bach tune and a church quartet, both of which the film’s protagonist (first-timer Julie Sokolowski, with a greasy mop of hair) watches in their entirety. Still, I can’t help but think Dumont could have found so many other ways to end the film in a more satisfying (and I don’t mean tidy) manner, and especially without using Islamic terrorism as a mere plot device.