Strange Adventures in Film Language

March 5, 2018 § Leave a comment

It’s intoxicating, the notion that the language of pictures can and does transcend a many-tongued world rife with non-communication, miscommunication and misinterpretation; our globalised Babel. In many ways it’s an ideal that remains robust and exciting, to think that a viewer in one hemisphere (geographically, culturally, economically) could see something of themselves reflected in the face, the gestures and the actions of a fellow human being in a far-flung place. But movies have long been a beautifully variegated beast, a stew of myriad formal elements of which the spoken word has become a major one. And for a monolinguist exploring “world cinema”/“the world of cinema”/“the world through cinema”, verbal language truly adds a layer of complexity and ambiguity to the process of watching movies, sometime acting as a jarring reminder that understanding and empathy are perhaps only ever partial. There is, of course, the perennial anxiety about subtitles subtly detracting from the full visual experience of a film, however speedy the eyes and the mind are at darting and reading and comprehending. This may naturally lead one into the increasingly unfashionable territory of dubbing, unfashionable in the sense that fewer and fewer contemporary releases seem to feature such tracks, perhaps due to issues of performance preservation and cost effectiveness, or just plain old taste. Whatever one’s feelings about subtitles and dubs, the various practices of translating the spoken components of cinema raises some arresting questions regarding the reliability of communication, issues of cultural appropriation and misrepresentation, and the ever dicey matter of artistic integrity. For better or worse, the ‘language of cinema’ means far more than the syntax of images.

* originally published on Fandor Keyframe in 2016

The Vitality of Vitti

March 5, 2018 § Leave a comment

Correction: as mentioned in the following paragraph, Monica Vitti made five (not four) films with Michelangelo Antonioni

It’s not entirely surprising that Francois Truffaut found the films of Michelangelo Antonioni to be ‘humorless,’ and that Ingmar Bergman’s impression of his Italian contemporary was that he could have been a cinematic great in the ranks of Kurosawa and Tarkovsky had he not been ‘suffocated by his own tediousness.’ Personally, I would contend that Antonioni’s impact on cinematic expression remains singular enough to warrant his being mentioned in the same breath as such esteemed company. But to be fair and frank, encountering – for the first time – the cinema of Michelangelo Antonioni proved revelatory precisely because it seemed so shamelessly ‘humourless’ and ‘tedious’.

These were the most most melancholic films I had ever seen, ‘these’ being Antonioni’s 1960s quintet of sorts: L’avventura (1960), La notte (1961), L’eclisse (1962), Red Desert (1964) and Blow-Up (1966). Whether or not the director pitied or lionized his sad sack characters, his approach to composition, pacing and performance exhibited a refreshing patience (bordering on fondness) for the state of being lost, of not knowing what it is you feel you should know; for the act of brooding. The films almost seemed to give one the license to be miserable without having to feel guilty for lacking psychic resolve. And it so happened that four of the five featured the sultrily despondent pout of a theater actress/silver screen novice named Monica Vitti as she and various other sharply-attired semi-socialites wandered the desolate landscapes of post-war Italy and of their own souls; ambling through spaces that were expressions of existentially fraught interiors by way of being austerely stylized exteriors.

More than any other performer in Antonioni’s films from this period (and not simply due the frequency of her being cast), Vitti – with her open face and her weighted gait – seemed to embody and exemplify Andrew Sarris’s fairly self-explanatory neologism ‘Antoniennui’. Yet, on revisiting four of the five total Vitti/Antonioni collaborations (the final being The Mystery of Oberwald, 1981), I gradually came to notice and appreciate the spectrum of humanity and emotion on display, even if said spectrum ultimately skews towards the negative. For all the sullen gazes and silent sighs, there are notable moments of levity, even joy, and many if not most (if not all) featuring Monica Vitti in some capacity. But rather than undercutting Antonioni’s exploration of modern psychic illness, such instances of positivity and playfulness establish his characters as being more than mere personifications of theme. And if this is not entirely true for all Antonioni’s characters, Vitti’s are, at the very least, roundedly human, and this lends their psychological plights a measure of relatability.

As much as this video is a tribute to the beauty and on-screen magnetism of Vitti, my secret intention is that it should function as a fleeting reminder not only of Vitti’s range and ease as a performer, but that it will be an invitation to reconsider Antonioni’s image as a peddler of misery.

* originally published on Fandor Keyframe in 2016

Black-clad and Passing Through

March 5, 2018 § Leave a comment

Maborosi could easily be seen as a film steeped in suicide, sorrow, the finality of death, and the capriciousness of life. And it is, being the story of a seemingly contented man who kills himself, leaving his young wife (and infant son) to contend with the meaning – or be haunted by the meaninglessness – of his out-of-the-blue decision to depart by his own hand.

Hirokazu Koreeda’s debut as a director of fiction certainly looks the part of a film saddled with themes so grim, but in a way that eschews hysterics in favour of a wide-eyed, well-manicured aesthetic. In fact, Koreeda’s particular brand of visual understatement – endlessly attributed to Ozu’s hulking influence on ‘thoughtful’ cinema – works in tandem with one boldly symbolist element: funereal attire. The striking presence of utterly black-clad characters in this movie certainly spells “death” (at least in some circles). Overall, the prevalence of this visual element suggests that death is not simply the termination of life but an inextricable, daresay essential part of living day-to-day. Quite literally, one can only be alive if one can die.

Yet there is another more curious motif running throughout this film, pardon the impending pun. Still and stately as the Koreeda’s camera may be, Maborosi is preoccupied with the process of movement and transition. From trains to toddlers, this film trains its gentle eye on people and objects moving not simply from point A to point B but through the space that lies between these points, that is to say ‘the journey’. As much as the film sympathises with the pain of its widowed protagonist, one has to believe that it and its creators are flirting with a more expansive and philosophical view of the life-death divide, if such a thing even exists; flirting with the queasy possibility that death is not an endpoint but a checkpoint that some individuals simply cannot wait to explore. Interestingly, Koreeda’s sophomore effort, Afterlife, does in fact take a step past this checkpoint, with unexpected developments that only enrich and deepen the mysteries of preceding movie, Maborosi.

* originally published on Fandor Keyframe in 2016

Male Love Through Female Eyes

March 5, 2018 § Leave a comment

While by no means torrential, there has been – over the decades – no shortage of male-directed films dependent on and driven by a central relationship between two or more women. In the last year or two alone I can name several notable, high profile pictures that fit the bill, from Clouds of Sils Maria to Duke of Burgundy to Queen of Earth to Our Sister’s Sister to Mistress America to Carol, to name but some.

It seems that – as far back as George Cukor’s 1939 feature The Women, if not further – men with access to a camera and actors have been periodically compelled to (at best) explore and (at worst) distil, even reduce, the dynamics that may or may not influence the way in which women relate with each other within various social contexts. And seeing as the two genders have harboured a deep mutual curiosity (and perhaps an even deeper mutual frustration) for as long as Mars and Venus have been planets, these male-driven cinematic investigations of womanhood and femininity are understandable, and at times even forgivable in their desperation for clarity through simplification.

Unfortunately, so many of these films do succumb – in one way or another – to that innate human tendency to schematise, with female relationships often feeling like interactions not so much between individuals but between types, or fragments/subsets of a figurative female psyche; and not simply the classic, clichéd mother versus whore showdown. Ingmar Bergman’s Persona is perhaps the archetype – the poster-child – of the male fascination with the idea that women straddle a multiplicity of roles and mental spaces, whether by nature or social necessity, and that these are often present and in opposition within the same individual (often represented onscreen as several). Possibly arising from Man’s desire to rationalise his utter inability to grasp that which he believes he should, it’s a cinematic tradition that did not begin with Persona and will likely not end with Alex Ross Perry’s Queen of Earth, for example.

So if – despite however many spirited attempts – the idea of ‘elucidating’ the nature of Woman through cinema is an asymptotic, fundamentally fraught enterprise, the converse must be true. Can it be expected of women filmmakers that they, through cinema, shed light upon the more elusive or inexplicable aspects of male nature; shed light upon man’s propensity for violence, for example? How about the prickly relationship the Western male has with simple platonic intra-gender affection? Whereas in some cultures hand-holding and kissing are wholly normal, unremarkable means of conveying friendship and affection between males, Western straight male-bonding exhibits a certain aloofness, however subtle, to the extent that the term ‘bromance’ should be coined as an expression of the apparent remarkableness of two men shamelessly displaying mutual affection.

For this video essay, I looked at five films (The Hitch-Hiker, Mikey and Nicky, Point Break, Beau Travail, and Old Joy) by five women directors (Ida Lupino, Elaine May, Kathryn Bigelow, Claire Denis, and Kelly Reichardt respectively), each picture deeply male-centric, honing in on primarily platonic relationships between men. For purposes of drama and narrative momentum there are of course inevitable sources of conflict that strain and frustrate the films’ core relationships. That being said, it’s curious that these pictures seem to focus on the elements that disrupt earnest male bonding, whether physical, emotional or philosophical. And while these works cannot necessarily claim any definitive breakthrough with regards to a Unified Theory of Masculinity, their existence proves a necessary alternative to the aforementioned male tradition, at the very least for their undeniable artistic metier.

* originally published on Fandor Keyframe in 2016

A Cut Above: Ten Women Who Epitomise the Art of Editing

March 5, 2018 § Leave a comment

How fortuitous, that Margaret Sixel, (chief) editor of Mad Max: Fury Road, should be handed a bald, golden statuette merely three days after I decide to craft a brief video tribute honouring great film editors who happen to be women. For the feat of seeding rhythm into the mayhem of George Miller’s giddy footage, Sixel has become only the 14th woman (of 27 nominees, total) to boast the ‘Best Film Editing’ of any respective year since the prize’s premiere in 1934, a year in which legendary Cecil B. DeMille collaborator Anne Bauchens was one of only three nominated editors for her work on DeMille’s Cleopatra.

However one feels about the Oscars, they certainly provide a relatively smooth – and predictable – rock upon which to sit and ponder the workings of the film industry. And from the perspective of film editing, it is clear that the Academy – however sexist and rife with inequity it may have been in its infancy – could not deny the impact that women had on an altogether male-dominated field. Retrace the art form of editing back to the revolutionary parallel, intercutting storylines of D.W Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915) and Intolerance (1916) and you’ll see the name Rose Smith among the credited razor-wielders. Smith would go on to edit early works by Howard Hawks and Raoul Walsh.

So, by the time the aforementioned Anne Bauchens becomes the first woman to hold aloft a Best Film Editing Oscar in 1940 for North West Mounted Police, the work of pioneers like Smith, Margaret Booth (Mutiny on the Bounty, 1935), Barbara McLean (All About Eve, 1950) and Dorothy Spencer (Stagecoach, 1939) has been duly acknowledged if not awarded. Over the decades, an additional 13 women editors would eventually be recognised for their visual (and sonic) articulacy, some of them out-and-out luminaries like Verna Fields (Jaws, 1975) and Scorsese’s creative twin Thelma Schoonmaker. But the recognition has largely been doled out in fits and starts, and with lengthy lulls; to think that, in the last quarter century, only two women have been celebrated for their efforts: Schoonmaker with her near-adjacent victories for The Aviator (2004) and The Departed (2006), and Sixel’s recent scoop. Which is where the Academy’s sensibilities become only partially relevant.

Deserved as the win may have been for Hal Ashby and his work on In The Heat of the Night (1967), the glaring absence of Dede Allen on the 1967 nominee shortlist is difficult to read as anything but a short-sighted lack of appreciation for the seminal fusion of European fragmentation and American clarity that was (and is) Bonnie and Clyde (1967), in particular, the closing massacre. As responsible for Sam Peckinpah’s bullet ballets as it is for Denzel’s rain of judgement in Training Day (2001), Allen’s bold cutting introduced mainstream American cinema to the editorial insolence of key French Nouvelle Vague pictures, many of which were edited by women. But if Bonnie and Clyde is not – for some – quite worthy of ‘canon’, Jean-Luc Godard’s À bout de souffle (1960), sliced with hiccuping swagger by Cécile Decugis, needs no lobbying whatsoever. Decugis’s temporal gymnastics sent a shock through the gestating hearts of US movie brats à la Spielberg and Scorsese, all the way to newer waves of Taiwanese and Hong Kong filmmakers in the 1980s and 90s and their millennial spawn. Together with French contemporaries like Jasmine Chasney (Last Year at Marienbad, 1961), Decugis helped to loosen some of the shackles on narrative filmmaking, and to challenge the championed standard of ‘invisibility’ in editing. Anne V. Coates’ celebrated match-cut in Lawrence of Arabia (1962) gentle as it is, flows within the same bold vein.

As many stellar female editors as there are, I have selected 2 clips each from 10 practitioners whose cutting room prowess has not only elevated the art of editing, but whose pairings with many a great director has yielded some of our finest films. Notable exceptions abound, of course, including contemporary pros like Molly Marlene Stensgaard, Nadine Muse and Marie-Hélène Dozo, regular collaborators of Lars von Trier, Michael Haneke and Claire Denis, respectively. Clearly, there are many unsung co-auteurs deserving of song.


* This piece was originally published on Fandor Keyframe in 2016

Festival de ‘Usual Suspects’: That Old Dream That Moves (2001) de Alain Guiraudie

September 19, 2016 § Leave a comment

That it took 12 years for Alain Guiraudie, a French filmmaker, to find his way onto the Cannes Croisette is a matter of niggling curiosity. Between his first mainline* Cannes entry, the sublime, erotic thriller Stranger by the Lake (2013), and this delicate 49-minute slice of dreamy realism, Guiraudie directed three features, none of which I have seen and none of which received even a droplet’s worth of the acclaim showered upon his 2013 picture. It would be interesting to discover whether the mid 2000s was indeed an artistic trough, or simply neglected. What can be said with some confidence, though, is that the Bressonian visual elegance Guiraudie displays in Stranger by the Lake is very much on show in That Old Dream That Moves. With a keen eye for borderline bland locations, Guiraudie and cinematographer Emmanuel Soyer turn a dilapidated factory into a cathedral of fragile masculinity and unspoken desire. This brisk but patiently told tale centres on an industrious technician named Jacques who arrives at a factory that is being closed down, tasked with disassembling a particular (and at times phallic) machine in preparation for transportation to a new home.  While the regular employees laze about, contemplating their pending unemployment and channeling their fear into petty squabbles, Jacques goes about his business with a certain intensity only to be courted ever so gently by two older ‘heteronormative’ men, Donand and Louis, both of whom may only just be discovering or coming to terms with their own wants and needs. At this point a vital voice in international queer cinema, Guiraudie’s approach to sexuality is neither combative nor yielding. While Jacques does not declare his preference for men on arrival, he neither bends over backwards to conceal his sexuality or rebuff advances. In a strange way, his unshowy matter-of-factness is a challenge to Donand and Louis, daring them to either make a move or make a run for it. If one is to go the allegorical route, Jacques’ role in decommissioning the factory could even position him as an angel of sexual rebirth, spurring his suitors to shed their old skins as they will their old jobs.  Like low tide, this very social realist picture quietly presents its central ménage à trois (of sorts) in a manner that suggests the groggy period after an afternoon nap, accentuated by the use of muted tones, diffuse light and soft shadows, and still, boxy framing. At its modest length, That Old Dream That Moves qualifies as a feature film according to Anglo-American standards, while it is nine minutes shy of being a feature in its homeland, having been nominated for a Best Short Film Cesar in 2003. By either standard, though, it is without doubt a great film.

* Giuraudie’s 2009 picture The King of Escape premiered in that year’s Directors Fortnight sidebar


Festival de ‘Usual Suspects’: Kinatay (2009) de Brillante Mendoza

June 15, 2016 § Leave a comment

I concur with Quentin Tarantino’s impression of Brillante Mendoza’s eighth feature film and second Cannes entry, Kinatay, as expressed by the American filmmaker in this bit of collegial correspondence scribbled in red ink on hotel stationery during the 2009 Cannes Film Festival. Tarantino applauds Mendoza’s dedication to the experiential perspective of the film’s lead character, Peping; praises the under-exposed, grainy depiction of horror that characterises the latter two-thirds of the film, and the relative anti-drama of the whole affair. That Tarantino, king of immaculately aestheticised violence, would praise a peer for practically being his antithesis is indeed of interest, but his appreciation of Mendoza’s approach was nonetheless shared by that year’s Cannes Jury, who awarded the Filipino filmmaker the Prix de la mise-en-scene for Best Director. At the risk of defending a picture that I don’t particularly care for, I must say that I do not necessarily contest their decision. Kinatay displays a certain clarity of purpose, a quality which few similarly grim and confronting pictures can consistently claim to have achieved with any degree of success. Whether Mendoza’s artistic purpose in turn serves a broader cultural or political purpose is where the debate might rapidly become a losing battle for those in the ‘pro’ camp. Inspired by the actual experiences of a young police academy recruit, Kinatay follows a newly-wed trainee whose part-time dealings with a crew of dirty cops ostensibly turns into a full-time contract when he is made a witness and peripheral accomplice to the belly-turning murder of a prostitute called Madonna. Beginning with Peping’s very low-key, good-natured daytime wedding, the first ‘act’ of the film ends with a fade-out of the setting sun after which his nightmare commences. It’s an obvious visual pun, as if to imply that the sun is also setting on Peping’s moral and spiritual freedom. Roger Ebert famously declared Kinatay to be the worst film ever selected to compete for the Palme d’Or, a claim which smacks of hyperbole despite my reservations about the movie. The late (and largely great) critic accused Mendoza of ideological bludgeoning, but could not quite articulate – in this piece – what this ‘Idea’ was and is. Frankly, neither can I. As a cautionary tale warning of the immense gravitational pull of crime on those in its orbit, Kinatay had me quietly promising myself that I would never associate with any individuals who exude even one percent of the malice and soul-blunted disregard for life exhibited by the on-screen killers. Without a doubt, such individuals live and breathe in their unfortunate communities, and similar crimes have in fact plagued Mendoza’s turf, let alone the wider world. But is a film like Kinatay what it takes to galvanise public awareness of and outrage at law enforcers who not only fail to uphold safety but who in fact actively propagate social degeneration? Who amongst us is not all too aware that violence and barbarism exists, and that death can arrive with shocking suddenness, even for those who dance with it on a daily basis to the point of feeling somewhat immune? Perhaps Kinatay is simply the result of a filmmaker translating a captivating story to screen in a manner which seemed – to him – most appropriate. If anything, Mendoza’s picture is at least an unapologetic alternative to the glut of cinema that seeks to extract entertainment from the gutters of human behaviour; a cinema at the centre of which sits the likes of…my beloved Basic Instinct?




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