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Archive for February, 2014

Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers (2012) tells the story of three skanky bitches who rob a diner in order to pay for a trip to Florida with their goody-goody friend. There, all four girls are arraigned on drug charges, but a fun lovin’ criminal gallantly volunteers to bail them out of jail. Subsequently, he and the three bad girls commit several more robberies, bringing them into conflict with the local crime boss. Korine has never shown much distinction as a storyteller, but while the film’s plot isn’t entirely convincing (I never believed in the friendship between the goody-goody and the bad girls, who lack any distinguishing character traits), its style is so exciting that it hardly matters. As in Alain Resnais’ La Guerre est finie (1966), the film frequently cuts away to a string of flashbacks or flash forwards in the middle of a scene, though here such inserts can’t be accounted for as the characters’ subjective memories or speculative fantasies. Rather, the editing highlights the narration’s omniscience by flaunting its ability to recall past events and even foretell future developments.

Like Resnais’ film, the movie teaches the viewer how to watch it. Following a pseudo-documentary prologue introducing the theme of the film (spring break, bitches!) and a fairly linear passage depicting a normal school day for the four leads, the movie’s third sequence begins with the bad girls barging into the goody-goody’s dorm room one morning to demand that she cough up some cash for their trip. The girls then dance together in an adjacent hallway while chanting the lyrics to Nelly’s “Hot in Here” before going into the bathroom to count their money, which turns out to be not nearly enough to pay for their trip. It’s at this point that the goody-goody launches into a monologue on the monotony of their lives which continues off camera while the film cuts away to the following series of shots: (1) All four girls dancing in the hallway earlier; (2) two of the bad girls sitting in a cafeteria; (3) the bad girls smoking in an alley; and (4) three of the girls standing in front of a fountain with their backs to the camera. As the movie subsequently returns to the scene in the bathroom, and as shot 1 refers back to an event we’ve already seen, the viewer has no trouble understanding these shots as interpolated flashbacks.

Having taught us the basic steps, Korine proceeds to introduce complicated variations in the next sequence, challenging us to keep up with him. For starters, it’s not immediately apparent that a new segment has begun as the previous sequence ends with another flurry of cutaways without a return to the scene in the bathroom. Instead, the movie cuts directly to two of the bad girls visiting the apartment of the third to ask if they can borrow her car and learning that it’s in the shop. The film then returns to the shot of the girls smoking in an alley that we saw in the previous sequence. However, when one of the girls asks her friend if she knows where their professor keeps his car, we infer from the context that this conversation occurs some time after the scene in the apartment, forcing us to revise our timeline of events. That is, what we saw earlier wasn’t a flashback but a flash forward, and therefore definitely wasn’t one of the characters’ subjective memories. This is followed by two more shots of the girls in the apartment, after which the movie never returns to this scene. The next part of the sequence alternates between the girls smoking in the alley and shots of them taking drugs in a laundry room, which are in turn juxtaposed with nighttime driving shots. In lieu of a clear present tense situation framing the cutaways, the sequence advances in a staggered pattern of A-B-A-B-C-B.

To an extent, the movie’s editing is reminiscent of Soviet historical materialist films, though the differences are more instructive than the similarities. The cutaways make the narration in this movie unusually overt for an American indie film, though still not to the same degree as movies like Strike (1924) and Arsenal (1929) where non-diegetic inserts and ironic titles provide a running commentary on the action. Furthermore, as David Bordwell writes in Narration in the Fiction Film (1985), in movies of this stripe, “The narration is not simply relaying some autonomously existing profilmic event”; rather, “the narration overtly includes the profilmic event, has constituted it for specific effects” (p. 238). By way of contrast, Korine makes his camera the proverbial fly on the wall, in part by avoiding strongly frontal compositions that are obviously staged for the camera. And in contrast with the constructive editing one finds in historical materialist films which is obvious as such (especially since Soviet directors would often shoot close-ups against a neutral backdrop), this movie makes greater use of invisible analytical editing. Accordingly, the hand of the director is most apparent in the selection and ordering of scenes rather than their construction.

As these differences suggest, the editing in Spring Breakers serves a different function than in Soviet historical materialist films, which were explicitly didactic in their aims. Instead of underscoring ideological points, here the style develops independently of the plot, presenting the viewer with a veritable compendium of different kinds of nonlinear editing. (It would be difficult to tell when one sequence ends and another begins if the movie didn’t employ non-diegetic gunshots as chapter breaks.) When the editing is more linear, the style is less noticeable, while at other times it becomes salient in its own right, displacing the narrative. When the film cuts from the fun lovin’ criminal serenading the bad girls on his piano to the same characters committing a robbery, we can’t be sure if this cut represents an ellipsis or a flashback. The robbery doesn’t follow as a consequence of the recital or vice-versa, and at no point in the earlier scene do the characters discuss the robbery, either as something they’re planning to do or something they’ve already done, making it impossible to nail down the natural chronology of events in the story. In Korine’s redneck Marienbad, it really is spring break forever.

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This blog entry contains spoilers and lots of ’em.

In the opening sequence of Christian Petzold’s Barbara (2012), the title character (Nina Hoss) sits down on a bench in front of a children’s hospital and lights a cigarette while two men observe her through an open window on the second floor. When the surgeon, André (Ronald Zehrfeld), asks if she’s alone in the town, the older man Schütz (Rainer Bock) replies, “Her incarceration disintegrated her circle of friends.” Although this piece of exposition is more for our sake than André’s (evidently he already knew that she was in prison), it’s still pretty evasive in that we’re never told what she did. Accordingly, for the first half of the movie, as we observe Barbara settling into her new job at the hospital and life in a quiet small town (we learn early on that she’s from Berlin), we’re less interested in what’s going to happen next than the events leading up to the present situation.

Although Hollywood movies typically begin with a concentrated dose of exposition (the opening sequence of Casablanca [1942] is an obvious example), for viewers accustomed to watching art films, such curtness is nothing unusual — that is, until one notices that none of the characters carry cell phones or use a computer. Is this merely an oversight or has Petzold (always an austere director) consciously eliminated all superfluous elements from the mise en scène at the expense of verisimilitude? Sooner or later, an alternative hypothesis begins to take shape: The movie is a period piece but Petzold has taken his terse style to its logical conclusion by withholding the sort of clear tip offs that usually date a story — not only conspicuously old fashioned clothing and décor, but quaint pop songs and dialogue alluding to historical events. Without such clues, one can only say approximately that the story takes place some time in the 1970s or early ’80s.

As this suggests, it’s not immediately clear if the story is set in East or West Germany, though perhaps a German viewer would be able to tell faster than I did. Following her release from prison, Barbara is put under police surveillance, and there are routine searches of her apartment and her person, but she could just as likely be a member of the Red Army Faction as an East German dissident. At one point, Barbara has a rendezvous in the woods with a well dressed man, Jörg (Mark Waschke), whose slightly bellbottomed pants offer the strongest clue yet about the period. That Jörg is traveling in a Mercedes would seem to indicate that the story is set in the BRD, but while he and Barbara screw in the bushes, his companion, Gerhardt (Peter Benedict), chats with an elderly local man who’s astonished to see such a nice car (“It’s upholstered!”), and on the drive back, Gerhardt sarcastically repeats other comments the man made to him in the same vein, implying that he and Jörg are rich West Germans visiting the East for some unspecified reason.

Despite the film being so stingy with exposition, the presentation of the main action is anything but elliptical. So while a number of questions are left unanswered, in the second half of the movie, there’s a shift in emphasis from curiosity about the characters’ pasts to anticipation of future events — particularly after we learn that Jörg has made arrangements for Barbara to flee the country surreptitiously on a particular evening. When she subsequently agrees to help André with an operation the same night, it appears that she’s abandoned her plan of defecting to the West, but on the critical evening, we see Barbara sitting in her apartment as the other doctors and nurses file into the operating room while André stands by the entrance waiting for her. By this stage, the film has begun to resemble a Hollywood movie like Casablanca in which the protagonist has to choose between what they want for themselves (namely, escaping a repressive regime in order to be with the person they love) and serving a noble cause (in this case, helping children).

That said, the film’s conclusion is more open-ended than is typical for a Hollywood movie. Early in the film, a feral young girl, Stella (Jasna Fritzi Bauer), is brought into the hospital after contracting meningitis from tick bites while hiding in the forest. It’s only when Barbara asks André not to discharge Stella to keep her from being sent to a work camp that we come to understand why she was hiding in the forest and begin to form focussed hypotheses about how she became pregnant. After escaping from the work camp, Stella turns up at Barbara’s apartment on the evening she’s scheduled to flee and goes with her to the rendezvous point, but as only one of them can go, Stella leaves in her stead. Following the operation, André goes to Barbara’s apartment where the police officer, Schütz, tells him that she won’t be coming back. The next morning, however, Barbara goes to see André at the hospital, but as the movie ends there, it’s not clear if she gets gets into trouble with the police or if Stella makes it to Denmark. Just as the beginning of the film withheld information about the characters’ pasts, now the ending withholds information about their futures.

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