Sunday, September 27, 2009


Looking over my last post, I feel compelled to reassess my view of La Cienaga - if not to retract anything outright, then at least to leaven the overall mood of bitterness; I realize the striking disparity in my reactions to Martel's films, and I feel the need to better account for this disparity. This kind of apology-cum hedge is probably bad form, and I'm halfway tempted to simply redact the review, but since I consider it to be basically honest, I'd prefer to just tweak things at the safe remove of a new post.

Mostly, the emotion that was the driving force behind that little screed has its roots in my ever-changing ideas about Cinema as Art. This frequently boils down to what I think is permissible for an artist to "get away with", which might expose more than I'd like about my default position regarding the medium. Because this could easily devolve into a lengthy digression about said position, I'm just going to say that I am a firm believer in Cinema as Art, but my ideas about what films are worthy of such a designation are subject to changing winds of such caprice and whimsy (not to mention byzantine ideological and analytical contortions) that I have a recurring tendency to just whack my forehead in befuddlement.

In order to avoid such confusion and discord, I have lately taken a more enlightened approach, whereby I gently remind myself that unlike Old Man Yahweh, my judgments are neither omniscient nor eternally binding, and admitting my ignorance and accepting the provisional status of my perspective and judgment.

With that out of the way, I'll defer from more self-mortification and try to move into some specifics. The best way I know of to illuminate the flaws of a text is to point to an internal incoherence. This is as close as I usually come to objectivity, and I'm more than willing to admit that this still leaves me miles away from that unreachable destination. Without being to programmatic, and without too much redundancy, I'll say that La Cienaga seemed to exhibit two impulses that didn't coexist peacefully in her movie - on the one hand, the impulse to provide the audience with a realistic portrait of human behavior in certain circumstances, on the other hand, to provide a socio-political critique of the same people, and to tether this to a sensual meditation on humanity's relationship to the natural world. (I'm aware that that second impulse could be divided in two, but for me these two sub-themes were actual conflated, which was part of the problem - a confusion over politics and philosophy). We encounter characters that are well-shaded and believable - they aren't three dimensional, exactly, but they seem "real" - they have recognizable desires, emotions, tics. They are well-portrayed by the actors. Another way to put it, a simpler way, is that they are "crafted" - the result of collaboration between the director/writer and the actors.

When this is combined with the second strand of the film, the political/philosophical dimension, there is a clash. The characters are trapped in an overly deterministic universe that divides them into self-hating adults or callow children. Furthermore, it's suggested that the children are merely biding their time, and they too will someday develop into the feckless and decaying shades that spawned them. This is a classic example of the Artist confusing the message with the medium. In La Cienaga, the world is presented as a troubled and hostile place, with humans failing repeatedly to come to terms with it. Give them a bit of money and privilege, and they isolate themselves with intoxicants, while abusing the less privileged and blithely unaware of it. While it's true that this is a major problem in human society, to present it as an existential condition is to overreach. The helplessness of the cow stuck in quicksand is not the same thing as the perceived helplessness of a middle-aged drunk who is stuck in the past - to play with these images and ideas in the offhand way that Martel does is to be glib. The human dimension is quashed by a portentousness, and the film ends up feeling cheap and dishonest.

One need not provide a sunny outlook in a work of Art - part of Art's moral responsibility is to look openly and honestly at the suffering and senselessness of much of life. But if an artist is to depict suffering, I believe that there has to be some compassion involved. Otherwise, it will be hollow, and ineligible for the mantle of Art.

The frustrating thing is that Martel seemed to get the mixture wrong. The separate threads of the film, taken on their own, are fascinating and ripe for exploration. But the way they are combined in La Cienaga feels haphazard and imprecise. It's a movie that has the raw materials of a masterpiece, but instead of harmonizing, they provide dissonance.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

La Cienaga

(Lucrecia Martel, Argentina, 2001)

Grating and obtuse, La Cienaga is a mostly self-conscious wallowing in the muck of Art-cinema cliches and conventions, which, having been left to rot in the quagmire of hack academia and the backwoods of festival country, have festered and grown into hulking, incoherent monsters. I'm beginning to have serious doubts about Martel's filmmaking, and am in the slow, agonizing process of reviewing and reconsidering some of my previous thoughts on her films.

Okay, that's excessive. But it is faithful to my initial reaction, which was one of intense irritation and disappointment. I don't think Martel is a snowball artist, but what is one to make of La Cienaga, which leaves no lasting impression save some residual boredom and bemusement?

Often in early films, the cards are on the table but the rules are still fuzzy; it can be absolutely exhilarating to discover a filmmaker in the process of discovery. My own first encounter with Martel was well after her development and refinement, and I thought she had landed in a delectable territory of allusiveness and quirky nuance, all frosted with a thick layer of existential malaise. But that film, and the one previous to it (The Holy Girl) seemed to be uncertain and even foundering when it came to actual substance - it could be discerned even then that the sensations produced by Martel were not enough to warrant her lack of narrative or philosophical rigor.

Here, the craft is not so hermetically tight, although the quality of the performances is excellent. But what is it all in aid of? The stance taken on the characters is unmistakable as a kind of scorn - only the children manage to escape the derision, if only for their lack of experience. It's assumed that they too will grow into the monstrosities that their parents have become - self-involved, crippled by disappointment and bitterness, drunk and pathetic and almost infantile in their helplessness.

If this is a full-scale frontal assualt on the Argentine bourgeouisie, then it would have been better if Martel had written an angry letter, rather than wasting the precious resources of a talented cast and crew. If it's not that, if it's more interested in probing and searching than outright censure, than it must be a noisy, claptrap failure. The characters are half-drawn, the events are pedestrian and insignificant, and the atmosphere is just murky.

What's so damn frustrating about this is that it casts an imposing shadow of doubt over the rest of Martel's work - placing her dangerously close to the realm of the callous virtuoso - blessed with technical brilliance but lacking anything significant to say about the world or the sufferers who inhabit it.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

The Holy Girl

(Lucrecia Martel, Argentina, 2004)

My second experience with the cinema of Mz. Martel. Like The Headless Woman, it's a tremendously well-crafted work, with a visual and aural precision that is evident in every painstakingly-composed shot. This was a somewhat distracted screening for me, so a re-view will be necessary, but overall I'm very impressed. Once again, it seems that the heart of the film is miles away from the socio-religio-political dimension, and resides instead with the lives of the characters. Martel prefers to sketch these lives (inner and outer) obliquely, relying on nuances and just-captured flickers of behavior rather than conventional drama. This is the crux of her particular slant on minimalism - she is a filmmaker interested in borders -the borders of the frame, but also the borders of our lives, the secret things that exist in the periphery of consciousness.

It's fitting, then, that watching The Holy Girl feels exceptionally voyeuristic, like reading someone's diary, or, better yet, watching them on a hidden camera. The film abounds with secrets, from the banal to the brutal. It has two main focal points: the wonder and abandon of adolescence, as seen through Amalia's romantic and spiritual endeavors, and the crushing weight of middle age, exemplified by the hapless Dr. Jano. Looked at from youth, the secrets of the world are great and seductive, but to the older characters they are a burden and a curse. Martel manages to squeeze a lot from this dynamic, and there are some wonderfully incisive moments to show for it, even if they are tantalizingly brief.

Still, the overall effect of the film is underwhelming. The risk of such a detached style is a lack of emotional investment, which is often at odds with the basic melodrama that provides the film's skeleton. It's hard to fault Martel for being so visually sophistocated, but there are times when the design chafes against the content, and not in a productive way. The Holy Girl is a film that is content to exist in the elusive zone between mainstream and art cinema - it eschews the intimations of transcendence and the mythic proportions of other contemporary works of cinematic minimalism, such as the work of Pedro Costa and Lisandro Alonso (and for that matter, Apichatpong and the venerable master Hou Hsiao Hsien), but its modest aspirations feel strangely inadequate. Mostly realistic (with a few impish nods at surrealism), the film is not quite satire, and yet it isn't sincere enough to be melodrama. The aura of ambivalence is effective at creating uneasiness, but eventually this quality becomes irritating. I would never be one to say that emotional substance and serious ideas are mutually exclusive, but
The Holy Girl, for all of its subtlety, seems not to have enough of either.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Woman is the Future of Man

(Hong Sang-soo, South Korea, 2006)

After only recently hearing about Hong's work and its high status international cinema, I hurried to see what I could ASAP, finding WITFOM available to watch Instant on Netflix. Sadly, my enthusiasm for a contemporary auteur to steal ideas from has mostly evaporated - this film left me disappointed and perplexed. At first glance, it's a jumbled-up sex dramedy, consisting of a series of vignettes in which characters come together and fall apart. The tone is mostly detached and the scenes are disconnected, and so the title kept coming to mind as a potential Rosetta stone. But I was never able to unlock it's overriding significance - is it ironic, hopeful, pessimistic, or merely convenient?

Part of my confusion, I have to think, has to do with problems of cultural translation. Much in the film seems to hinge on manners and other norms of behavior, and my unfamiliarity with South Korean sexual mores exacerbated by puzzlement over much of the action. Which shouldn't be taken to mean that I couldn't relate - there is plenty of stuff that bridges the cultural divide easily, such as male insecurity and rivalry over women, not to mention general nostalgia over lost love and the past. The women seem to fare a bit better - they at least have some sense of what they want, whereas the men appear to be totally at sea.

The problem is that none of this is particularly striking or new. What doesn't translate seems stilted and phony, and the dialogue is occasionally so clunky that it offends the ear (or the eye, as it were, as one reads lines such as "I'm making love with you to cleanse you - do you understand?" with mortification.) Neither is there anything special about the visual style, which recalls late- Woody Allen in it's pragmatic simplicity. The dimension that seems to accrete favor in terms of the festival circuit would have to be Hong's deft manipulation of time - the vignettes flash forward and backward, and the audience plays catch-up with the narrative, piecing together the frayed strands of relationships. The problem is, the characters never become interesting enough to really care about, and so the story's momentum frequently stalls.

It seems that the central subject is disillusionment, and the irretrivability of the past - ripe subjects that aren't given much illumination. It's a neat, occasionally funky film, but it regrettably errs on the side of neatness, and winds up feeling minor and uninspired.

*It should be mentioned, though, that Hong does have a good sense of rhythm, both inter- and intra-shot, and there are some wonderfully odd (and thus truthful) cinematic juxtapositions . I'm thinking in particular of the scene in the car, which is punctuated with one character chewing on his breath mint, and the scene in which the same character, as he begins to receive a friendly blowjob - all he had to do was ask nicely - barely notices the dog as it wakes up and exits the frame as if embarrassed. Good stuff like this, however, isn't frequent enough to compensate for the other instances of contrived dialogue and direction.


(Lisandro Alonso, Argentina, 2009)

My previous experience with Alonso's filmmaking, 2004's Los Muertos, left me intrigued but also bemused. There was something elemental about the film, informing the currently au courant cinematic minimalism with an almost primeval weight, but overall it felt incomplete and not fully committed.

Here, Alonso's project is somewhat different, although the broader concerns are still intact. A solitary man travels back to a world he left behind - in this case, our hero is Farrel, a merchant seaman and a drunk, who goes ashore in Tierra del Fulgo to see if his ailing mother is still alive. Farrel is appropriately laconic (as are most of the other characters); what little we learn about him is revealed through his awkward comportment and appearance - greasy hair, angular features, lack of worldly possessions save a small duffel bag and a bottle of Stoli.

The first third of the film is almost perfect: we see hints of Farrel's emotional life, both in his tentative movements as he emerges from the noisy, oppressive bowels of the ship, and writ large on the bleak but achingly beautiful landscapes - the blazing horizon line over the ocean, the desolate peaks of southern Argentina, swirling snow over the massive stacks of shipping containers.

After he arrives at his home village, however, the film's majestic inertia begins to ebb. There's still plenty to admire - the way that Alonso can make everyday minutiae into something weird and vaguely allusive - but the human reality, presented by Farrel's encounter with his father, ailing mother, and vaguely autistic mother, becomes somewhat stifled by the formalism. Unlike the mythic intimations of Muertos, Liverpool is a gentler, more intimate story with undertones of familial redemption and discord. The insistent sparseness of the form begins to feel arbitrary when the story incorporates human relationships; it's as if Alonso is willfully suppressing his characters.

It may be that I'm misreading Alonso's intentions, but the dominant mode of Liverpool seems, more than anything else, to be humanism. More than once I was reminded of Five Easy Pieces, a similar story about a wandering man who seemed bound for oblivion, and whose last resort and potential salvation - family - wasn't enough to keep him rooted in the world.

Overall, Liverpool's virtues outweigh its faults, and it remains a powerful and enigmatic film. But it still seems to be stuck in some kind of limbo between greater expressionism and more rigorous formalism. The opening credits and initial sequence seem almost comic, and I had a fleeting moment where I was sure Alonso was fucking with the audience. But the formal restraint on display, as well as the tender (but still mysterious) ending, testify to his seriousness as a maker of Art cinema. I think he still has some ways to go, but the journey thus far has been worthwhile.

Friday, September 4, 2009

District 9, or The SlumPrawn Millionaires

(Neill Blomkamp, US, 2009)

Okay, it's a neat mixture of high-concept and low-fidelity. It's a gonzo faux-blockbuster, a hyper-VFX'd movie done (relatively) on the cheap. It has this cute little mockumentary narrative device and it's political allusions are present-but-not-in-your-face.

These things alone, however, do not a good film make. D9 is only barely watchable, consisting of rote, psuedo-verite camerawork, silly acting, and uninspired special effects, with only the most cursory nods toward the themes it touches upon. It's basically an action film dressed up as a sci-film dressed up as a semi-serious sci-fi film. This isn't to say that the film has any real pretenses - it's well aware of it's lack of depth, and makes no bones about it. If only the film were more enjoyable...

But it just isn't. None of the interesting questions posed at the outset (Who are the aliens? Why have they come here? Why, despite their clearly superior technology, strength, intelligence, are they not kicking serious terrestrial ass?) are ever answered. Instead, it becomes a tiresome chronicle of the misadventures of Wikus Van De Merwe, the lead character. A genial dumbass, Wikus does provide a bit of slapstick humor, but he's little more than a human face to anchor the long procession of action scenes. The real protagonists are the visual effects, and they're not much more interesting than poor old two-dimensional Wikus. (The one cool FX concept, well exploited in the ads, is the massive, hovering mothership. Blomkamp squeezes this for as much juice as he can, but it doesn't cover up the lame, cheap looking aliens.)

About half way through the picture, I yawned for the seventh time and realized how bored I was. The action, which is the only potential saving grace, is poorly executed, with everything shot super-close and jittery. The grimy camerawork feels more affected than authentically gritty, and the editing is jagged, sub-Bourne mania. There's nothing original on display here - more than anything, it's a project that feels like it was made because it could be - fresh blood (Blomkamp), a star producer (Jackson) and a bargain of a price tag (reputedly in the $30 million range, a steal for a potential action hit, which D9 has handily become.) It might as well be a long trailer for the sequel, which will surely have more money behind it, but will likely be just as impoverished when it comes to ideas.