Posts Tagged ‘Avant-Garde Film and Video Art’

In October, I submitted a festival report on the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival (mostly about the Wavelengths section) to the online journal Offscreen, and the editor, Donato Totaro, was kind enough to accept it. The new issue just went up and you can read my article there.


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Ten years after Sweet Sixteen (2002), Ken Loach returns to Scotland with The Angels’ Share (2012) to tell another story about a troubled young man, although this time the protagonist isn’t doomed from the outset. The film’s hero, Robbie (Paul Brannigan), is a baby-faced ruffian who’s trying to go straight and be a good father to his infant son, which is especially difficult as he’s embroiled in a Hatfield-McCoy-style feud with another young hooligan whose father used to fight Robbie’s dad. However, things start to turn around for him under the guidance of his community service supervisor (John Henshaw), who introduces Robbie to the world of whisky appreciation. Starting out as a gritty drama in the bleakest sections of Glasgow, the movie eventually morphs into a beguiling heist comedy in the Highlands, proving that Loach is a more versatile director than he’s usually given credit for. And while there’s nothing very original about the story, the actors and locations feel so authentic that they carry one past the rough patches in Paul Laverty’s script.

Although its subject matter may remind one of certain films by Robert Flaherty and Stan Brakhage, formally and stylistically Ben Rivers’ Two Years at Sea (2011) doesn’t have much in common with either. Ostensibly the movie is a fly-on-the-wall documentary about a year in the life of Jake Williams, a hippy mountain man living in total isolation in the backwoods of Scotland, but it’s obvious that much of what we see in the film was staged for the camera. (At one point, while Williams takes a nap, the caravan in which he’s sleeping inexplicably floats to the top of a tall tree.) Apart from Williams occasionally mumbling to himself, the movie doesn’t have any dialogue, nor does it use an offscreen narrator or any onscreen text, so that we don’t learn anything about Williams’ life beyond what Rivers records with his camera. Periodically we see still photographs of people who could be Williams’ family and friends, but rather than telling us something about his life, they merely underscore how little we really know about him. Indeed, the film is so resolutely material in its documentation of Williams’ daily activities that it’s impossible to gauge his state of mind or how content he is with this hermitic existence. In other words, the movie isn’t concerned with biography or psychology but texture and timbre.

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If I were making a list of the best newish films that I saw in 2011, I’d have to include a bunch of movies that I’ve already written about on this blog—notably, Hiromasa Yonebayashi’s Arrietty the Borrower (2010), Yorgos Lanthimos’ Dogtooth (2009), Lars von Trier’s Melancholia (2011), Pablo Larraín’s Post Mortem (2010), and Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere (2010). However, since I have nothing more to say about these films, instead of repeating myself, what I’d rather do is turn my attention to a number of films that I greatly admire but haven’t been able to write about (either because I’ve been too busy with other things, or was too intimidated by them, or both). I don’t claim that all of my picks are masterpieces, but I like them all enough to look forward to seeing them again.

Copie conforme (Abbas Kiarostami) A rather puzzling two-part narrative about a pair of strangers pretending to be a couple, or a couple pretending to be strangers. (Or both, or maybe neither.) The verisimilitude of the film’s style is itself a fabrication, yet Kiarostami is such a master illusionist that it seems effortless.

Hahaha (Hong Sang-soo) Another two-part narrative experiment belied by the realism of the director’s mise en scène. The delightfully improbable plot is full of amusing surprises, making this the best, and funniest, South Korean movie I’ve seen since Lee Yoon-ki’s My Dear Enemy (2008).

Des Hommes et des dieux (Xavier Beauvois) Further evidence, along with Roman Polanski’s The Ghost Writer (also 2010), that classical Hollywood cinema is alive and kicking—in Europe. Largely eschewing close-ups in favor of group stagings in medium and long shot, this moving film demonstrates how much can be achieved with simplicity and restraint.

Mildred Pierce (Todd Haynes) In terms of form and style, this five-part miniseries is the straightest movie Haynes has ever made, but it’s also the most political. The middle-class heroine’s sense of shame at having to work for a living is so powerfully felt that the first three episodes are almost unbearably agonizing to watch.

Police, Adjective (Corneliu Poromboiu) A cop movie where the victim is the criminal (a teenage drug dealer) and the villain is Romania’s puritanical legal code, which is enforced as thoughtlessly and as severely as the rules of grammar. The lengthy shots of our sullen hero standing around in front of grey, concrete buildings are so sensationally drab they’d make Jim Jarmusch feel jealous.

Rubber (Quentin Dupieux) A muscular European art film thinly disguised as a trashy American genre piece (making it the inverse of Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive [2011]), this surrealist road movie explodes narrative conventions faster than its exterminating axle explodes heads.

Snowtown (Justin Kurzel) I’m generally averse to serial killer movies, but this gripping Australian drama is distinguished in part by its uncommon seriousness. Although it doesn’t linger on the gory details, the unrelieved grimness of the film’s subject matter and mise en scène is often hard to bear.

The Time That Remains: Chronicle of a Present Absentee (Elia Suleiman) Beginning with the creation of the state of Israel and continuing up to the present, this deadpan tragicomedy about three generations of Palestinian Christians is as stylistically rigorous as it is historically resonant. Incidentally, it’s also funny.

The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick) A fairy tale for grownups (for better or worse), Malick’s fifth is dramatically shapeless, but the rhythmic, graphically discontinuous editing, and its combinations of music and images, go straight to the heart.

White Material (Claire Denis) Centering on a protagonist with a clear goal, this powerful film about a colonial plantation owner attempting to go about business as usual in the midst of a civil war is the closest Denis has come to making a normal movie—as if she were deliberately attempting to court a wider audience. In any case, it’s easily the most suspenseful film she’s ever made.

Needless to say, this list isn’t exhaustive. I’d also recommend Theo Angelopoulos’ The Dust of Time (2009) for its magisterial camera movements; Jia Zhang-ke’s fascinating but unfocussed I Wish I Knew (2010); Michelangelo Frammartino’s Le quattro volte (2010) for the director’s god-like control over mise en scène; Julia Leigh’s Sleeping Beauty (2011) for its narrative ambiguities and the clinical precision of Leigh’s mise en scène and framing, which both suggest the influence of Michael Haneke; and Duncan Jones’ Source Code (2011) for the way that it doles out exposition in small doses while the action moves relentlessly forward, so that (like the hero) we only gradually begin to grasp the situation.

Finally, if I were choosing he best films that I saw for the first time in 2011 regardless of when they were made—along with Angelopoulos’ The Traveling Players (1975), which I’ve already written about—my picks would be a quartet of French masterpieces: Jean Renoir’s Le Crime de Monsieur Lange (1936), Jean Eustache’s La Maman et la putain (1973), Alain Resnais’ Mélo (1986), and Jean-Luc Godard’s Histoire(s) du cinéma (1988-98). While Renoir’s proletarian comedy is plainly the most beguiling and optimistic movie on my list, Eustache’s bohemian psychodrama is the most emotionally devastating, and the director’s stripped down mise en scène puts particular emphasis on the performances. On the other hand, the style of Resnais’ film is flamboyantly theatrical, yet the story is no less moving for it. Indeed, along with La Maman et la putain, this was the most powerfully acted movie that I saw all year. Lastly, Godard’s eight-part series on video (the only avant-garde item on my list) has a reputation for being esoteric, but it strikes me as more accessible than any of his recent features precisely because it doesn’t tell a story. Thus, one can groove on the sounds and images without having to worry about processing the experience in terms of narrative. Like The Tree of Life, it’s a movie that sings rather than speaking.

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Do movies have an unconscious? Martin Arnold’s Alone. Life Wastes Andy Hardy (1998) is an example of how a film’s style and associational form can create new implicit meanings from preexisting footage. Beginning with a series of innocuous small town comedies, Arnold cues the viewer to interpret them as Freudian parables. (Do I need to tell you he’s Austrian?)

MGM produced fifteen Andy Hardy films between 1937 and 1946 (plus one more in 1958), but I haven’t seen any of them, so I couldn’t tell you if the clips Arnold uses all come from the same movie. According to Wikipedia, “A typical plot involved Andy getting into minor trouble with money or girls, usually because of youthful selfishness and a slight willingness to fudge the truth. But after a ‘man-to-man’ talk with his father, Andy would listen to his own better nature and do the right thing, ensuring a happy ending.” Andy was played by Mickey Rooney in all sixteen films, and in three of these–Love Finds Andy Hardy (1938), Andy Hardy Meets Debutante (1940), and Life Begins for Andy Hardy (1941)–he was paired with Judy Garland as an aspiring singer named Betsy Booth.

At the macro level, Arnold gives new meanings to the clips by wrenching them out of their narrative contexts. The movie begins with Andy kissing his mother tenderly, and then abruptly cuts to him being slapped by his father, who growls, “Shut up!” Without a clear causal link between the two events, the viewer is forced to come up with an interpretation to bridge the gap between them–for instance, that the father’s violent rage at Andy represents the resolution of the Oedipal stage, with the boy submitting to the authority of The Father. (When slapped, Andy doesn’t argue but immediately accepts defeat, saying “Alright… Dad,” although there’s something vaguely defiant about his calm obedience.)

The next sequence shows Betsy singing longingly of love (“On a night that was meant for love / There must be some one waiting who feels the way I do”). This is followed by a scene in which Andy, dressed to the hilt in a swell tuxedo, takes leave of his mother. “Where are you going, son?” asks the mother, sounding like a jealous lover. “You know where I’m going,” he replies coyly. (Part of the fun here is wondering how this dialogue played in its original context, and indeed, what that context might’ve been.) Of course, where he’s going is to see Betsy, and in the following clip, she finishes her song just as Andy is about to walk through the door. Betsy’s astonishment at Andy’s appearance (“Andy, you look beautiful!”) is juxtaposed with the mother’s horrified expression in close-up. The film ends with a shot of Andy kissing Betsy by a tree which mirrors the film’s opening, suggesting that Andy has transferred his incestuous desire for the mother onto a more socially acceptable object of desire.

Although Arnold didn’t have control over any aspect of the original film’s mise en scène, by placing the clips in a different context, settings and costumes take on an added significance. In other words, the meanings conveyed here by mise en scène aren’t always inherent in the clips themselves. The film opens with a medium close-up of Andy kissing his mother, and then cuts to a long shot revealing the setting (a kitchen), overall situation (Andy is helping his mother do the dishes), and that Andy is wearing an apron around his waist. In another context, this might all seem entirely innocent (that is, free of gender associations). But here, coming after a kiss that is more than just a kiss, the mise en scène reenforces our sense that there’s something transgressive about Andy’s relationship with his mother. So when Andy is subsequently slapped by his father, as shocking as the action is, it doesn’t seem to come totally out of the blue. Rather, we make the connection that the father is punishing him for what happened in the previous scene.

In addition to the selection and sequential arrangement of the clips, Arnold alters their meaning through montage, and the manipulation of figure movement and sound by optical printing. Rather than simply cutting from one scene to the next, Arnold typically flips back and forth several times between the end of one clip and the beginning of the next in order to emphasize continuities and discontinuities between the shots. At one point, Arnold cuts on an eye line match between Betsy and Andy’s mother in different locations, creating a smooth transition between the two scenes, as if they were happening simultaneously. This helps to create the impression that Andy is leaving his mother to go see Betsy. In other words, we “know” where Andy is going without him having to say it because the editing has already told us.

By way of contrast, an earlier transition from Andy’s stoic reaction at being slapped to Betsy singing the first part of her song is anything but smooth. Instead of flipping between two shots, here Arnold rotates through two different shots of Betsy and a third one of Andy. The sombre lighting in the earlier scene is opposed by the bright whites of the latter, and Arnold’s rapid editing creates a kind of strobing effect. In addition to the graphic discontinuities between the shots, Betsy’s high, unintelligible singing (which Arnold edits into a stuttered “ah-ah-ah” sound) contrasts sharply with Andy’s silence after being slapped.

Using an optical printer to re-photograph individual frames from the original film, Arnold is able to slow down, rewind, and repeat portions of the clips in order to emphasize certain gestures and invest them with new meanings. In the opening sequence, Arnold turns one kiss into several by reversing and repeating the action. This not only puts greater emphasis on the mother’s anguished expression (we’re made to notice how her lips part just slight as Andy kisses her on the back of the neck), but gives us time to register Andy moving his hands up and down her arms. And by rewinding this action back and forth so many times, Arnold transforms it into a sort of caress. Andy’s breathing becomes heavy panting, and later, while waiting for Andy to walk through the door with arms outstretched, Betsy seems to moan in sexual anticipation. More subtly, Arnold extends the pause between Andy saying, “Alright,” and “Dad,” in order to put greater emphasis on the latter.

However, while the film encourages Freudian interpretations, such readings don’t go all the way down. For instance, nothing about the movie’s form or style suggests that the spectral young woman standing behind Andy in the second sequence carries any narrative or symbolic weight; she’s simply there. Likewise, in addition to the meanings discussed in the previous paragraph, Arnold’s use of optical printing also functions to make the viewer more aware of the mechanical nature of film projection. In particular, his manipulation of the soundtrack invites us to see Betsy’s singing as squeals of pure sound without ever quite obliterating the meaning of the words. And as many times as I’ve seen the film, I always laugh at the final shot in which Arnold transforms Andy and Betsy’s nervous laughter into wheezing, Beavis-like tittering, reminding me that my “spontaneous” reactions to the film are no less mechanical than those of the figures on screen.

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