Sunday, June 26, 2016

HaHaHa

(Hong Sangsoo, South Korea, 2010)

This might be the film that finally cinched my esteem for Hong's work, which I had long viewed with a quiet, bemused, and somewhat reluctant admiration.  Hong is one of the most widely celebrated international directors, the kind of filmmaker that a certain kind of cineast√© knows he's supposed to like.  But my experience was one of resistance; it took patience to find an entryway into Hong's cinematic world.

Some art house films suggest their sophistication through forbidding starkness, complexity, or emotional severity.  Their difficulty serves, in part, to advertise their seriousness, the urgency of their claim upon our attention.  But Hong's work is a different, rarer case: his films present themselves not as exalted, dense, or thorny; they lack any discernible grit, formal exuberance, or commanding bleakness.  Instead, his movies appear slight, sketch-like, gnomic.  About the most you can say is that they do require careful attention, if you're going to keep track of the characters and the chronology, which are never straightforward.  And they are clearly works of formal innovation, however playful.

It's perhaps for this reason that so much of the appreciation of Hong contains a whiff of apologia, the mark of an artist who fascinates intuitively but resists exegesis.  Critics seem to sort themselves either into frothy encomiums or somewhat reserved, cool-headed appraisal, with the usual caveat that his work's greatness isn't immediately apparent.  Perhaps this polarity is of my own making, as I try to locate my own impressions somewhere in this range.  If so, it would mirror my experience thus far: periods of languor as my mind drifts during another drunken, shambling conversation, interrupted almost violently by bursts of wonder as an unexpected action, a canny re-framing, or a juxtaposition flashes brilliantly onscreen, only to fade moments later, like an afterimage.

The key is to stick with it.  Hong's work appears to be brisk and breezy, even when things get sodden with Soju.  But there is a mercurial and even a febrile imagination behind his apparently reserved camera.  Hong is a fundamentally dialectical filmmaker, perhaps the ne plus ultra of such an approach, at least among living directors.  In his work, opposites are constantly changing places with each other, the tone bounces between wildly different registers, surface becomes depth and then switches back.  The placid, apparently sturdy frame will pan gently or abruptly, and rarely with obvious cause, or will suddenly reconfigure the space with a zoom.

Hong's space isn't psychological, but emotional and existential.  Emotion, for him, precedes thought, and the human comedy is essentially that of irrationality; reason, propriety and good taste exist to be interrupted.  Chance and contingency rule his outlook, which both exults in the staggeringly many possibilities of imagination, and floats with a piercing melancholy over the randomness of life's events.  Hong's brilliance lies in his fusion of art and life, a simple and often unrealized concept.  His art is an organic extension of his feeling for life, rendered in a formal vocabulary that is wholly new. 

The apparent poverty of his means - a few actors, a cafe or a restaurant with (usually drunken) table talk, a camera on a tripod - is in fact an apposite mechanism of both expressing and containing the overwhelming complexity of life, a Proustian attention to detail that reveals great depths in glances, hesitations, and misunderstandings.

In HaHaHa, I picked up on notes of melancholy and sudden joy that had eluded my attention in earlier screenings of his films, as well as surprisingly many compositions that were easily called beautiful.  What Hong is discovering and expressing is the volume of life that goes unnoticed; the strange profusion of overlapping circumstances that nonetheless conceals so much detail.  A casual get-together among friends (this being Hong, the encounter is ruled by an almost ritualistic emphasis on drinking), where a past weekend is recounted, reveals, in its cinematic depiction, unutterable volumes of longing, regret, and frustrated desire.

The depiction is Hong's testimonial to cinematic power.  In his view, life is teeming with significance that can only be captured in retrospect or imagination - crucially, active processes, which in some sense can compensate for the in-the-moment confusion and helplessness with which we're all bitterly familiar. We are always dancing with our own fate; no awkward conversation is insignificant.  This may be the positive image of what so often feels a negative perspective in Hong's work, focusing to an obsessive degree on his male protagonists haplessness.

Because finally, beneath the bitterness and the self-excoriation, Hong is an inveterate romantic.  Desperate, perhaps, and anguished, but never entirely absent of the hope in the possibility of love to offer something beyond the shambolic day-to-day disarray of our lives.  In the last scene, we see evidence of this: one of the couples, who previously had evinced very little indication of being long-term material for love, enjoys a fleeting moment of bliss.  Whether or not this will stick is another matter, but for the moment (and Hong's world is nothing if not moment-by-moment) it would seem to suffice.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Are You Here

(Matthew Weiner, USA, 2013)

While we've seen some accomplished dabbling by feature filmmakers in the world of TV, the opposite doesn't seem to hold.  Weiner's feature debut isn't a disaster, but it teeters on the edge of disaster for much of its running time, and while it has some notable virtues, it's also exemplary of the stark differences that remain between the two mediums.

Weiner the writer, a giant of contemporary prestige television, is on display here, but his work as a director is sorely deficient.  He knows how to sketch characters efficiently, to balance character and incident, and can write zingers - funny and poignant both - with the best of them.  But despite these facilities, the film lumbers along, stiff and flat-footed.

It's an easy shot, and maybe a cheap one, to claim that this is the TV influence bleeding through, but I think it's basically accurate.  Lacking the time that TV affords to create a richly textured world, the production design and cinematography of Are You Here seem hasty and undercooked.  Everything is even and flat, as if to highlight the words and the actors - itself not a wise creative choice - but there, too, things go awry.  Weiner seems unable to hit upon an appropriate comedic tone - how broad, how subtle, does he want to play this? By the middle of the film, as the drama emerges from the frothy comedy of earlier, things have started to coalesce, finally, but not enough to rescue the experience completely.

Best then to think of this film, formally at least, as an exercise.  I would've preferred more audacity from the justly celebrated Weiner, but he does at least have a few things on his mind.  The ideas are the core of the film, even if they don't flower into a living experience: the nature and limits of friendship, the search for authenticity among the many false promises of modern living, and the necessity of awareness in a world rife with distractions.  Very often these ideas are presented blatantly, edging towards the homiletic, but Weiner is canny and skeptical enough to avoid the worst effects.

The cast is strong, but again, Weiner fumbles the potential of his material.  His plodding approach forecloses on Galifianakis's wildness, and he doesn't have the visual panache to match the micro-gradations of Owen Wilson's comic genius.  They're two very different types of performers, but thrown together in these scenes, they have trouble stretching out and letting loose.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Knuckleball!

(Ricki Stern & Anne Sundberg, USA, 2012)

An enjoyable entry in what might be called the docu-curio subgenre.  Stern and Sundberg play things strictly by the book, delivering two parallel stories involving the remaining practitioners of the titular pitch, which if correctly thrown is nearly impossible to hit.  We get the requisite details and explainers: a knuckleball is thrown with the fingernails, in order to neutralize the spin that is the decisive component of virtually ever other kind of pitch, from a slider to a fastball.  Without any gyroscopic spin to guide the trajectory of the pitch, the ball is subject to whatever eddies or currents of air might exist between the mound and the catcher's glove, thus rendering it completely unpredictable, to pitcher, batter, and catcher alike.

When it works, the pitch works spectacularly well, but it can easily go wrong, leading to chronic walks or barrages of easy hits.  Thus the knuckleballer is an odd duck, unreliable and seldom utilized, a case which has only been aggravated by the contemporary game's emphasis on the supposed reliability of statistics as a guiding principle.  The directors parlay this into a tale of individual pluck and stoicism, following the two remaining pro-ball knuckleballers, R.A. Dickey and Tim Wakefield, as they experience professional and personal triumphs and reversals.  It's the kind of human interest story that is impossible not to find at least somewhat captivating, even if it follows along a very familiar path.  It doesn't hurt that Dickey and Wakefield both appear to be exceedingly decent and determined individuals, ambitious and humble in equal measure, conforming with striking fidelity to certain mythic American archetypes.

Besides its mythical role as "the National Sport," baseball has long been a curious attraction for folk philosophers, a relationship fruitfully explored in Chad Harbach's 2011 novel The Art of Fielding.  While I won't run through the nature of these affinities, it can be said that some nexus of cultural and metaphysical poetics exists in the sport, a game as potentially beautiful as soccer, if fundamentally different.  The directors of Knuckleball! don't really stray into these more remote expanses of the philosophical outfield, but they are aware of the heady frisson that seems to surround the sport, force field-like.  What they do explore is the role of tradition in baseball, which despite the modern innovations of a numbers-based approach, with every last attribute of play subject to statistical analysis and comparison, is still living.  Wakefield by the end of the film has retired, leaving Dickey as the sole torch-bearer, casting the future of this somewhat mad pitch into question.  Thus Dickey is possibly at the end of a long tradition of athletes, oddballs all, who have parlayed their relative lack of excellence as traditionally defined into a distinction.  The stories are strikingly similar: in nearly every case, a desire to play professional baseball at any cost led them to experiment with this iconoclastic and fickle technique.

As a celebration of the outsider, and a chronicle of determination in pursuit of an ideal, Knuckleball! is a delight, emotionally satisfying if not formally or philosophically ambitious. 

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Under the Skin

(Jonathan Glazer, USA/UK/Switzerland, 2013)

Glazer's slow-burn sci-fi creepfest is a worthwhile if underwhelming effort. Skin's sleek, fluid surfaces and grimy black depths produce atmosphere to spare, but the film is visceral to a fault.  It's achievement is primarily technical, designed with impeccable taste and a diabolical sense of the uncanny, but lacking the ideas that would deepen and solidify the experience.

Glazer's principal tool, beyond his thrilling technical imagination and considerable skills at mood-setting, is ellipsis.  As audience members, we're perpetually on the outside, piecing together the story and the questions that must arise; about the nature of the aliens, their mission, their interactions with humans and each other, and the events that take place between certain scenes.  The overall effect that Glazer was trying to create seems to have been what it would be like to experience the world through the eyes of an alien - the making of the familiar into something strange.  This is a great concept, as far as it goes, and it produces some moments of eerie bewilderment, not least because the whole thing is set in Scotland, which through Glazer's cold eye becomes an almost alien land of forbidding mountains and seascapes, sparsely populated with pale, unintelligible humanoids.

And yet all of this effect alone isn't enough; the feints towards ideas about human sexuality, with a special emphasis placed on gender roles, are undercooked.  Such are Glazer's skills as a conjurer of images that it almost skates by as a structuralist avant-garde piece, but there's not enough abstract rigor to qualify for that designation.  This is too bad, considering the enormous (if familiar) ideas that are skirted: the proximity of death and sex, the precarious edifice of gender norms, and the final inscrutability of nature.  Under the Skin doesn't lack for craftsmanship or audacity, but it doesn't cohere into a fully lived experience, either.