Sunday, August 21, 2011

The Father of My Children

First I must make reference to this fantastic piece written with reference to but perhaps not particularly ‘about’ the film in question by Lisa Rosman at indiewire.

As fortune or confirmation bias would have it – I stumbled upon another instance of what I would classify as an ‘anti-black comedy’ just as I was wondering which film I was going to write about next. All of the hallmarks are here – an abandonment of narrative threading, an examination of the need for uncomplicated human compassion either because of or regardless of the complexities thrust upon people, and the exhibition of several examples of acts of unconditional love. The idea that such a simple concept could not only be of primary importance is not revelatory by any means, but this film both depicts the troubles of allowing the relatively unfulfilling complexities of the world to overwhelm the importance of the simple elements and dissipates the tension of a dramatic suicide through contrast of compassionate interactions transcending the fleeting importance of a set of material properties whose liquidation is personally welcomed by the bereaved family. It is fascinating to me that this relatively explicit renunciation of success and property was made by the romantic partner of Olivier Assayas, the director of a film in Summer Hours that thoroughly confused me as to its tone on these same issues. Was it a straight-faced lamentation of the importance of material property to individuals which the masses can never properly understand or was it a satire of those same values? I couldn’t say, although I sympathize with the latter and felt the film’s tone tended toward the former. Perhaps it was simply an investigation of the ambivalences and incongruities between private and public ownership, valuation and pricing, familial ties to possessions and to each other, and any number of other ideas – but the presentation’s sentimentalism seemed totally bizarre to me (although, at the same time, I face these sorts of bizarre ambivalences myself even when I feel that I should know better). Whatever the case, if one were to approach The Father of My Children as a parody of youthful ignorance of the value of material possessions I cannot think of a less successful example in all of the films I have viewed. Comparing the absolute ruin wrought from an inordinate focus on financial troubles to the compassionate unity of a family faced with the loss of one of its pillars doesn’t bode well for the value of the 'material', in my mind. Transposing the perspective gained from The Father of My Children onto Summer Hours simply shows how wasteful the latter film’s depicted family is in terms of both effort and time wasted on those things which fail to bring them together, serve to divide them, and are simply laughed at once lost. This is the beauty of the anti-black comedy – that it renders so many ambivalences trivial in the face of simple truths, especially when those ambivalences are treated as anything but trivial.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Times and Winds

Times and Winds has captivated my mind in a way which few films have, leading me to seek it out from the local library again and again in an attempt to recapture the fond memories I have of it and determine why exactly it affects me as it does. I will begin with an analysis of its peculiar traits which relate to dark humor, but I will conclude with a less technical discussion of the more readily visible but no less beguiling or unique elements. But first, I’ll start with the relation to dark humor: dark humor seems to be rather poorly covered on the internet, so it should be no surprise that I can find no instance detailing any concept of ‘anti-dark humor’ which would make sense when compared to the term anti-humor. Dark humor is often similar in function to anti-humor, presenting a framework which resembles a joke but fails to deliver the expected release of tension. I think the difference lies in that dark humor cuts off the expected result by counter-balance and anti-humor cuts off the expected result by a noticeable absence, and this absence is often absurd enough to elicit a purely comical reaction in and of itself, although the framework of anti-humor can allow for dark comedy to spring forth, as well. Beginning with the expectation of dark humor the issue is a bit more complicated – what happens when the expectation of tragicomic tension is replaced by an absence of this tension? At issue is whether this anti-dark humor would consist of a lack of the tragic dimension, the lack of the comic dimension, or the lack of both, and what would be the effects of each of these potentialities? The results may vary based on context, and it may be that any of the potentialities could result in tragedy, comedy, indifference, or something altogether distinct. That something altogether distinct could result may imply a shortcoming in the dualistic conception of tragedy vs. comedy, but that’s an issue for another day. With Times and Winds I will attempt to examine, based on my own reaction, the form and effect of the anti-dark humor found in one particular case. Other questions regarding the effect of the film upon me remain: does this film’s anti-dark humor only strike me in this way because I am such a fan of dark humor? Am I more able to recognize the anti-dark humor because I try to watch such at a high frequency and consequently readily identify the inherent structures, or is this a general phenomenon? This is a question I surely cannot answer without interacting with others, so I’m hoping that others will share their reactions in the comments section after reading this post (will anyone?) and perhaps even rewatching the film (an unlikely sequence of events, I know). Nevertheless, I will press forward as far as the topic has room to give.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Days of Heaven

There are numerous scenes in Days of Heaven where field laborers are shot under the glow of a setting sun. There are numerous scenes in Days of Heaven where field workers are shown at the end of their day’s work, no longer able to work due to a lack of light. To me this seems perfectly natural and should certainly go together; to others the use of the light of the so-called ‘magic hour’ is merely a ploy by Malick to find prettier pictures than he could have found otherwise. I don’t see it, myself. There are many shots in the film that do not fit into the magical hour of day, especially, and tellingly, once the leading couple find their way out of the fields and into the leisure class. At this point in time even the early morning sun provides light for a few scenes, not to mention lazy mid afternoons and cold winter days. If Chantal Akerman had directed Days of Heaven I believe that there would have been a fair share more scenes of work shot under the mid day sun, but Malick’s main concern is in the goings-on once the work is done, be it for the day or for a lifestyle, and the choice of light he shoots with tends to match the circumstances portrayed. When the landowner discovers the central couple’s secret relationship it is tellingly revealed through shadows in the dark of night projected through a white veil. Later the fire spreads uncontrollably as the landowner’s own anger burns most intensely at his darkest hour. One could certainly comment that fires are most strikingly photographed at night, but placed within the context of the film’s consistent use of light to convey mood and tone it registers with me as little more than a molehill. In addition to the use of magic hour, another of this particular film’s most defining features is the voiceover, but I don’t think I even noticed the particular words that were being spoken after 20 minutes or so in my most recent viewing. Just as the machines at certain points in the film emit noise so loud (or perhaps the boom mic was too far away) that the spoken dialogue is impossible to hear among the sounds of the scene I seem to feel as if the voiceover itself merely became the noise of an object on the farm, like a machine, but whose words needed no more deciphering than the rattling of the machines. Sometimes the human voice can be a beautiful instrument, even when the speaker is not singing, and perhaps especially when the singer has an accent and a dialect which makes her sound like her strings are out of tune. People often complain about voiceovers, as well, but instead of focusing on their particular and befuddling complaints I will simply say that Days of Heaven possesses a combination of visual and aural elements which are superficially entrancing and which, upon certain further investigations, may even enlighten an inquisitive viewer to treasures hidden just behind the shadows. Or, perhaps even more interestingly, they may find that the human voice is just as valid an instrument as the strings which they will find accompanying the soundscapes of so many films, each producing a string of phrases of which people only seem to find the explicit meaning of the former irksome. I guess the text of the voiceover becomes like the wheat for the landowner, and people just wish it would burn. But there’s more to the fields than the cash derived from them, and I think the voiceover is as essential an element of the film’s aesthetic as the golden hues which blend with golden sunsets or burn in the black of night.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Late Marriage

First I would like to note that the Decade List at Fin de cinema was greatly helpful in learning of this and many other films from the decade that was which I was otherwise completely unaware of.

Maybe you will be surprised when I tell you that this decade produced a great and hilarious Israeli comedy, but you might be less surprised when you find out that is made by and about Georgian emigrants. Or are you still surprised? Do you not know of Otar Iosseliani? Do you even read this blog? Whatever, who cares, let’s talk about the film. The film is structured in segments with distinct tones which congeal in the final segment into a brilliantly caustic happy ending, an ending which demands the presence of each preceding element and to which each preceding element is, in my estimation, a perfect fit. The film opens with comically bickering old people, a scene rendered blackly comic soon afterward when you realize that it is the collective mission of the protagonist’s family to subject him to just such a relationship for the rest of his life. After this there is a young, beautiful, sexy, strong willed girl who the family hopes will be wooed by the protagonist; this is not a Hollywood film; after the girl’s family subtly laughs off the protagonist’s family’s attempts the girl is never seen again - but since this absence is never made certain until the film’s final sequence the specter of this potential pairing hovers over the proceeding events, adding the first (or second or tenth) layer of uneasy complexity to this tale of conflicting emotions. If you will allow me to jump directly to the end, the bride-to-be is visibly older, and perhaps less beautiful than either this first girl or the girl who is to become the film’s most important character. I don’t say ‘beautiful’ to be superficial, of course, I say this because that term plays a great importance in establishing a multifaceted instance of dramatic irony, an irony which means one thing to the audience and may potentially mean several different and perhaps opposing things to the family members who were present for the events of the film. The dramatic irony between the family and the wedding audience establishes the importance of the film’s preceding events, for the complexities of the way he uses the term ‘beautiful’ are completely lost on them and the dramatic irony generated by the ambiguity of interpretation between family, groom, and viewer establishes the film as a tantalizing work of black comedy steeped in ambivalences so deep-seated that the son can no longer call his mother beautiful without the word’s intended meaning being forever rendered opaque. But it’s a happy ending! On the surface, anyway.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Brazil

Here’s an interesting phenomenon: Because it had been several years since I had first seen Brazil, because I had seen several films which were direct influences on Brazil since that time, and because I had recently found one of Gilliam’s other films to be less impressive since my previous viewing of it I predicted that a similar effect would take hold here. Instead, though, I found myself enjoying it much more than previously. I saw it on a large TV in HD, so I could more fully appreciate the nuances in the images, but now looking at screenshots I find myself aghast at how poorly the film compares visually to another film I watched within days of that film, Buffalo ’66, and found myself feeling after-the-fact the same way as I did before-the-fact, doubting whether I would enjoy it. This makes no sense, however, since this was a recent viewing and I was in a perfectly normal mood at the time and a film is more than just its screenshots. The cause is obvious: Vincent Gallo is like a black hole, disrupting the expected flow of the universe and sucking everything into his path with unimaginable force. That mystery is solved, but it was an interesting phenomenon I wanted to document. I can make one parallel between the films to potentially make this wholly ridiculous subplot worthwhile, though, although I admit that it occurred to me only after beginning this exorcism of meaningless conceptions-of-conceptions. The parallel may be obvious given the focus of my previous post, but the way in which Gilliam constructs a fantasy to parallel the film’s central storyline to visualize the unseen aspirations and threats bearing down upon the central character is interesting in that Gilliam only gradually ties the two aesthetic modes together with a psychological device and merely allows them to exist in a complementary fashion for the much of the film. Both films do combine the aesthetic with the psychological in the end, although Gilliam for once outdoes Gallo with a feverish blend of the two divergent halves. I think this section in Brazil is distinct from typical Hollywood films, though, in that the nature of the fantasy informs the perception of what otherwise seems to be reality, rather than the other way around. What I’m saying is this: In a typical film there would be a number of cues to indicate that the ‘dream sequence’ is not real, despite how obvious the distinction is, and the real world would reclaim its primacy. In Gilliam’s film the real world is the one which becomes a 'false' mode, and we only discover this by the unfolding events becoming more and more reminiscent of the ‘governing rules’ of the dreamscape until the dream becomes the primary level of perception for the protagonist and the reality becomes plasticized and lifeless, revering the previous state of affairs. Gallo’s aesthetic dualism tends toward impressionism while Gilliam’s tends toward allegory, but both manage to capture a distinct mood by way of an abstract expressionism which is always a joy for me to see. The extensive reality-fading-into-dream sequence toward the end of Brazil is an amazing stretch of pure cinema rivaled by few. Were this sort of stream of consciousness extended for the length of the film I would have no doubt that it would be among my favorites, but you can’t always get what you most want, c’est la vie.