Saturday, January 28, 2012

Poetry (Lee Chang Dong, 2010)

Words that matter

Lee Chang Dong's Poetry basically follows two storylines: a grandmother's late-life quest to write a proper poem, and her equally belated attempt to deal with her grandson Wook's (Lee Da-wit) involvement in a schoolmate's apparent suicide.

I can recall two scenes that seem to encapsulate Lee's distinct flavor. The grandmother Mija (Yun Jeong-hie) on a sidewalk bench, trying to force inspiration by sitting under a tree, looking up, and swaying. An elderly neighbor, squat and topped with curly white hair, walks past her, pauses, asks what she's doing; Mija replies that she's trying to see the tree well, feel it, “understand its thoughts, listen to what it says to me...”

Poor Mija seems sincere enough--her body's gentle to-and-fro rocking suggests an openness to new experience. Her words, though, betray the consciousness of a fruitcake, all dried pineapples, candied cherries, and nuts; the neighbor has no choice but to turn her back and walk away, tossing a worried glance over one shoulder. Unspoken statement: the woman is crazy and needs to be brought back down to earth--said downfall to be initiated by the buzz of Mija's cellphone. The father of one of Wook's friends has called, and wants her to come to a parents' meeting.

Comes the second scene: she's at the meeting, and the fathers (five of them) debate on whether or not to wait for the beer to arrive (they don't). One of the fathers gives it to her straight: apparently the girl had killed herself because Wook and his five friends had been repeatedly raping her for the past few months. No violent reaction from Mija, but she does slide her hands slightly forward on the desk, to quietly clutch at each other. As more details follow, each father owns up to his son's role in the crime (“That's my son;” “that'll be mine.”) The accounting of responsibility, done casually by each of the boys' parents, drives the truth home: this is not some silly boys' escapade, recounted with exaggeration; this really happened, with the possibility of scandal and jail time to follow. Mija excuses herself to step out and admire some cockscomb growing outside. One of the fathers joins her to ask what she's doing, and she tells him that she's taking down notes: she's written that the cockscomb she's looking at is “as red as blood.”

So goes Lee Chang Dong's latest feature, where gentle comedy commingles with an even gentler serenity, and the horror is all the stronger for being folded into the everyday business (a round of beer, “that's my son”) of a last-minute parent's meeting. Mija's quest to write a poem is especially ironic because she seems to have so much potential material from her own life to write a half-dozen tragic sonnets: she lives in a tiny apartment, her daughter is divorced and has moved to Busan, she's afflicted with Alzheimer's (she learns during a hospital visit), her grandson's a possible sociopath. But that's part of the beauty of Ms. Yun's character--she seems blind to the drama of her own life, or at least blind to the possibilities of exploiting her life for writing material, or at least hesitant to use it immediately, as a quick fix to meet an academic requirement. If she is to learn how to write poetry, Lee seems to suggest and Mija seems to sense, it will be the hard way, through the patient and thorough digestion of painful, painful material--a skill she has yet to learn, but will.

That's how the film progresses, basically--the patient and thorough digestion of painful, painful material. It's told almost exclusively through Mija's eyes--one can write an entire article about how Lee wields point of view, how information is withheld from his protagonist until the right revelatory moment (when she learns of her grandson's crime, for one, and when she finally determines her grandson's attitude to said crime). It is beautifully understated and deliberately, precisely paced; it packs a surprising amount of material into its two-hour plus running time, with what seems like a minimum of dialogue.

By film's end a poem is recited, and Lee accompanies the poem with a series of images. It's the familiar trope in many a dramatic film, a retracing of the journey Mija took, from her own world to the victim's, from sunny ignorance to quiet awareness; but Lee accomplishes this with such elegance, such eloquence--we eventually realize there is more than one journey being taken here, and the passing down of a point of view from one character to another--that the end result is literally a poem: a short piece where every detail carries more than its own weight of meaning.

Korean cinema covers a wide range and offers surprising variety: Kim Ki Duk's surrealism, Park Chan Wook's outrageousness, Bong Joon-ho's genre-bending, Hong Sang Soo's elliptical storytelling, just to name a handful. Add to this Lee Chang Dong's straightforward humanity and delicate sensibility (this feature is, I suspect, his response to Bong's recent Mother (2009), and is in many ways a far more disturbing than all of Park's ultraviolence), and you just have to admire how wide that range is, how astonishing the variety. One of the best films not just of this year, but of several years. 

First published in Businessworld, 1.19.12 

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Best of 2011


(Updated 1/22/12)

Was the year so bad? It had its moments. Film availability was so erratic you never knew what would be suddenly available, or what needed a wait of weeks or months. Foreign and Filipino films continued to be hard to obtain and slow in coming, and for the first time I found myself going online regularly to watch what I needed to see. Frustrating and fascinating, sometimes both at the same time; at least a few heroes (O'Hara, Hellman, Carpenter) managed to work. 

Some 2010 titles I include because most people saw them much later, usually on DVD (and they deserve to be seen).

Some interesting runner-ups (in alphabetical order):

The Adventures of Tintin - Steven Spielberg's gaudy Christmas ornament of a picture, a breathlessly paced action-adventure that can barely afford the time to pause and regard itself, much less generate human interest. Easily one of Spielberg's most kinetically complex works, if not exactly his most involving. 

Anatomiya ng Korupsyon (Anatomy of Corruption) - Dennis Marasigan's beautifully understated adaptation of Malou Jacob's play captures the atmosphere and dynamics of a Filipino white-collar workplace better than any filmmaker I can think of since Ishmael Bernal (Working Girls, 1984), down to the secretary operating a cigarettes-and-candy store literally under the table. In Maricar Reyes' fresh new lawyer we see the near-fanatic idealism of the truly innocent, the strength that allows them to defy pressure for so long, that makes their eventual descent such  compelling drama. With Sid Lucero, terrific as Reyes' kindly, reasonable, fully implicated immediate superior.

Animal Kingdom - Would be a disservice to call David Michod's gangster picture an Outback The Godfather; it's more interesting than that, a crime noir with a strong sense of place and family dynamics, a bleak spirit appropriate to the bleak desert setting.

Cars 2 - Now this is more Pixar's speed: action and comedy served up with few pretenses (leave 'heart' to people who actually know something about it like, say, Studio Ghibli). Larry the Cable Guy is inoffensive as the voice of the movie's putative hero; Michael Caine steals the show playing an Aston Martin too cool to be a fool. My vote for Pixar's best feature to date--which isn't saying much, but there you are.

Casino Jack and the United States of Money - Alex Gibney's documentary doesn't have interviews of the man  to work on, and Gibney himself isn't enough like Michael Moore to give the picture the larger-than-life clown protagonist it needs to laugh with (or at), but the eponymous subject (superlobbyist Jack Abramoff) is so compellingly bizarre you keep watching anyway.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams - As beautiful a documentary as anything Herzog has done, with the cave's contours (and Herzog's gliding handheld lamps) bringing the thirty thousand year old artworks back to eerie, startling life. Did not see the 3D version, unfortunately, which is said to go a long way towards justifying the use of the gimmick.

Contagion - Outbreak for the intelligent. Steven Soderbergh directs his always smart sensibility at the disaster movie and produces (with help from experts) the most persuasive and scientifically accurate depiction of a deadly plague--and a government's reasonably swift response to it--yet made (we're talking best-case scenario here, though). Don't cough while watching with others: the sense of paranoia generated can be catching.

The Debt - No handheld shots; no chop-suey editing. John Madden's thriller, about three Israeli intelligence operatives who capture an infamous Nazi officer--is so old-fashioned it's refreshing. Of course the Nazi steals the show with the slyest, funniest performance in the picture.

The Descendants - Alexander Payne doing a novel by Kaui Hart Hemming. The plot is secondary--something about a man discovering his wife is unfaithful--to the opportunity to know a family, its fairly dysfunctional dynamics, and the weird way they warp and bend to the stresses imposed the novel's plot. Wonderfully performed, subtly told.

Drive - Nicolas Refn's first American feature has an embarrassingly awkward love story written into the heart of it and both Cary Mulligan and Ron Perlman are criminally underused, but Albert Brooks is a hoot as an amiable sociopathic gangster, and Refns in the various chase and action sequences proves himself to be a more skillful filmmaker than Quentin Tarantino (not saying much again, I know).

Exit Through The Gift Shop - Artistic terrorist Banksy's debut film is partially a hoax, not as elaborate as Welles' F is for Fake, but elaborate enough to impress. As a small bonus the film is also a brief survey of the best and most striking contemporary street art, circa 2010. 

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo - Noomi Rapace is sorely missed as the eponymous girl (Rooney Mara is a far softer alternative), but otherwise David Fincher successfully evokes with a visual style all his own the obsessive determination of a pair of sleuths hunting down a serial killer. 

The Green Hornet - Not a big fan of the original show (other than Bruce Lee); not a fan of Seth Rogen's whiny self-centered schtick; not a fan of Michel Gondry's non-Charles Kaufman work--but I am a (somewhat surprised, somewhat reluctant, somewhat stunned) fan of this. A deconstruction of the superhero movie flick that leaves no headstone unturned, no latex underwear unstained.

Hall Pass - Bob and Peter Farelly's take on the need for the overgrown male child to "just grow up and get on with it" isn't quite like Judd Apatow's--and thank God for that. Not their best--that would be the scathingly funny Kingpin--but not bad, for an overgrown male child comedy.

Happy Feet 2 - George Miller's sequel to his epic penguin movie is, like the original, a touch too wholesome. But one senses something visionary about the whole enterprise, and the sight of community action on both a grand and plankton scale is inspiring indeed.

The Illusionist - Sylvain Chomet's realization of Jacques Tati's unproduced script doesn't have the wit or grace or timing of Tati, but it does have the gorgeous colors and Gallic despair of a Chomet animated feature (a lesser thing, true, but not negligible).

Immortals - Tarsem Singh's retelling of Theseus' myth should have been yet another Clash of the Titans ripoff; instead I found a stylish (if severely underwritten) adventure epic ingeniously staged, intensely shot and edited.

J. Edgar - Clint Eastwood's Hoover biopic is a skillfully rendered production, written by Dustin Lance Black (Milk, 2008) as an unacknowledged love story between Hoover and his longtime companion Clyde Tolson. Well done for what it is, but one has to question if Hoover deserves this kind of treatment, or if Eastwood should have put the man's career in a broader, clearer context (in short: one of the most terrorizing, corrupting influences in 20th century American politics).

Meek's Cutoff - Kelly Reichardt's fascinatingly elliptical drama takes a historically true event (a guide named Stephen Meek did lead a group of settlers off of the Oregon Trail, and they did meet a Native American) and turns it into an allegorical / metaphysical drama on the uncertainty of life, the inscrutability of others (or Others).

Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol - Brad Bird's first live-action feature is fun, more fun in fact than Steven Spielberg's first foray into animated feature filmmaking (see above). Spielberg is the incomparably more talented filmmaker (his fight and chase sequences are lucid and beautifully staged, while Bird's are a handheld mess), but Bird does seem to possess the funnier, more inventive script (despite Spielberg having Dr. Who head writer Steven Moffat on his side), the funnier, more inventive cast (Jeremy Renner, Simon Pegg).

Moneyball - Bennett Miller's true-life drama is easily the best sports movie I've seen in years, mainly because of what it is and what it isn't. It isn't an underdog-team-makes-good story; it isn't a low comedy about players' hi-jinks; it is the story of a statistical tactic that somehow upends all thinking about the game of baseball. Any time smarts trumps sports jocks, I'm so there. 

My Paranormal Romance - Victor Villanueva's supernatural rom-com is a delight, though not effortlessly so. It's the story of a girl who inherits the ability to see dead people and the various men who desire her abilities, her self, her whatever. Too long by about twenty minutes, but it has energy and imagination to spare (perhaps too much so), not to mention evidence of a warmly beating heart.

Never Let Me Go - Mark Romanek's adaptation of the Kazuo Ishiguro novel is understated to the point of somnolence--at least that's how some people might take this little drama; for others it's an oblique trip into heartbreak. With excellent performances by Andrew Garfield and Carey Mulligan.

Rango - Johnny Depp proves to be as nimble verbally as he is physically; the tone, a mix of mildly bizarre humor and American frontier tall-tale telling, is sustained for the length of the picture--not an easy feat. Undoubtedly Gore Verbinski's masterpiece which, yet again, isn't saying much.

Road to Nowhere - Monte Hellman's first feature in twenty years, about a film production doing the story of a fraud and possible double-suicide crime case, is as metaphysically slippery as anything anyone's ever done. The film eventually gathers hypnotic force and drama, but not before leading you through a mirror maze of misleading imagery and narrative ambiguities (Is the lead actress involved in the actual case? Who died and who's still alive? Which scenes are of the movie production and which of the real-life case?).

13 Assassins - Takashi Miike's take on the jidai-geki genre features one of the most baroquely memorable villains this side of Richard Widmark, and a massive climax staged and executed with what-the-fuck flair. Not quite the clarity and complexity of Seven Samurai, but it'll do till something better comes along.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy - Tomas Alfredson moves away from vampires towards something far more sinister: espionage agents wading through the murk of '70s geopolitics. The production doesn't have the room to let John le Carre's classic spy thriller breathe properly, and Gary Oldman at best captures an echo of Alec Guinness' definitive interpretation of George Smiley (the master spy brought out of retirement to uncover a mole). But Alfredson does give the picture a beautiful stone-and-iron color palette, and at certain moments achieves the kind of airless silence that goes a long way towards enhancing the film's sense of paranoia.

War Horse - Spielberg again, this time galloping in the opposite direction with the more leisurely told, more emotionally direct story of a horse wandering through the battlefields of World War I. The material is sticky enough without the director trying to whack us over the head with the poignancy of it all; one is moved, but eventually, after a struggle. Think what Carroll Ballard could have done with this.

The Ward - John Carpenter's supposed feature comeback wasn't what everyone hoped for, but it wasn't total garbage either--mostly a master of modern American horror playing the postmodern game his way, with a tiny budget and even less pretensions.

You Don't Know Jack - A hushed look at Jack Kevorkian (a.k.a. Dr. Death, outspoken champion of assisted suicides). The film presents Kevorkian's many facets: the honesty, the stubbornness, even the hubris that eventually brought him down. Easily both Al Pacino and Barry Levinson's best work in years.

Zombadings 1: Patayin sa shokot si Remington (Rough translation: Scare Remington to death) - Director Jade Castro and screenwriter-producer Michiko Yamamoto's horror parody takes its inspiration from Sam Raimi's Drag Me to Hell, and does it one better: instead of Eternal Damnation we're threatened with Eternal Pansification, and it's the film's conceit that This May Not Be an Entirely Bad Thing. Like My Paranormal Romance it suffers from one idea too many, and the narrative line can at times be obscured by the punchline, but personally I prefer this surfeit (of ideas, of gags, of energy) to its opposite...

Plus six titles that I thought were especially fine (in ascending order):

Tree of Life - Easily one of the most ambitious, most breathlessly beautiful films this year, in parts. The creation sequence has sweep and grandeur; the brief dinosaur sequence mystery and an elusive poignancy. The family sequences are intensely felt drama--one suspects Malick brought a lot of his personal life into these scenes. I feel the two halves belong in entirely different films, however; Malick hasn't even halfway bothered to integrate them. Then there's that beach scene, which plays like Federico Fellini's 8 1/2, only without the rueful irony (you suspect Malick for all his talent is missing a few key hues on his palette). Ultimately a failure, but what a failure!

Hugo - To paraphrase what film critic David Ehrenstein said, Mean Streets and Goodfellas was what Scorsese saw around him when he was young; Hugo was what he felt inside. An intricate clockwork of a movie that spins and shudders, chimes and chatters, striking a brassy bell for the cult of cinephilia. Martin Scorsese's film is possibly one of the most exuberant, most charming pictures of the year, and arguably the best use of digital 3D I've seen to date.

Ka Oryang - Sari Lluch Dalena's harrowing work presents in full what Lino Brocka, Mike De Leon, Mario O'Hara could only deal with tangentially in their films: the incarceration, interrogation, and torture of women during the Marcos era. Only Dalena tells the story through her inimitable experimental filmmaker's sensibility, with brief forays into surrealism and the occasional striking image.

Six Degrees of Separation from Lilia Cuntapay - And I thought Hugo was the most spirited, most exuberant, most cinephilic film of the year! Antoinette Jadaone's mockumentary follows veteran character actress Lilia Cuntapay (star of such Filipino horror classics as Aswang (Vampire); Shake, Rattle and Roll Part III; Shake, Rattle and Roll Part IV; Shake, Rattle and Roll Part V, and Pangarap ng Puso (Demons)) as she immerses herself Methodically in her bit parts and polishes endlessly her acceptance speech for the first-ever acting award nomination in her long and varied career. Pathos and hilarity ensue.

Certified Copy - Abbas Kiarostami's latest feature--his first to be shot outside of Iran--is a perfectly mysterious little gem, about a man and a woman wandering through the streets of Tuscany. Are they newly met acquaintances? Long-separated husband and wife? Acquaintances who have suddenly assumed the role of husband and wife? One hurries after them, trying to puzzle both the film and their relationship out while Kiarostami sits back and keeps the entire bewildering affair whirring on the palm of his confident hand. 

Poetry - Lee Chang Dong's film follows a grandmother as she attempts to belatedly learn how to write poetry, and as she attempts to deal with a possible rape conviction for her grandson. Lee's achievement is to make both storylines not just complementary, but compelling; as with the very best poetry, every detail carries more than its own weight in meaning. One of the best films not just of the year, but of several years.

Sa Ngalan ng Ina (In the Name of the Mother) - My vote for best of the year goes not to a movie but to a TV mini-series; not just any mini-series but a teleserye--a TV soap. Mario O'Hara and Jon Red's take on Philippine politics of the last thirty or so years is by turns hilarious, thrilling, shameless, and sad; in effect, exactly like Philippine politics of the last thirty years. With an understated yet ultimately monumental turn from Nora Aunor, the literal face of Philippine cinema.

1.14.12

Certified Copy (Abbas Kiarostami, 2010)

Love is a many-morphing thing

An unnamed woman (the gorgeous Juliette Binoche) attends a lecture by author James Miller (British baritone William Shimell), with her son as unwilling companion. Mr. Miller talks of his book Certified Copy, which deals with the nature of reproduced artworks and their originals (you can guess his attitude towards the whole issue by the subtitle: “Forget the Original, Just Get a Good Copy”); the woman brings six copies of his work which she plans to ask him to sign (to certify, in effect), even if, as she admits to her son, she doesn't like the book.

She invites Miller over to her shop in Arezzo, Tuscany, to a cellar store selling art replicas; the man is coolly interested, the woman nervy and flirtatious--it's obvious that they have some kind of chemistry going. The man wants to leave the city; they agree that she should drive him to the nearby town of Lucignano, half an hour away, just so long as (his only condition) he can be back by nine o'clock to catch his flight.

So begins Abbas Kiarostami's Certified Copy, his first feature film outside of Iran, a teasing, sneakily funny, surprisingly tense trip through the Tuscan countryside with a talkative, thoughtful pair. From the first you notice odd details: the woman tells Miller of her sister Marie, who believes that costume jewelry is as good as real jewelry (Miller observes that what he expressed through a book, Marie seems to simply apply as her life's philosophy); when Miller adds a few words to his autograph of a copy for Marie, the woman is annoyed. “Now she'll never change,” she fumes. You wonder if the woman isn't overreacting; after all, she and Miller have only just met. Later in a cafe the man talks of a mother and son on the streets of Florence; the mother once in a while stopping to wait for the son, who never hurries. “Sounds familiar” the woman tells him, a tear sliding down one cheek--you remember that that was exactly what she and her son had been doing earlier, having left Miller's lecture early (the son sauntering along, the mother far ahead and looking back).

What was that all about? Was the woman merely identifying with that woman and her exasperating teen, or did Miller really see woman and son from the window of his Florence hotel room? Have they met before, are they pretending to have met before, or have the scenes been directed in such a way that you can't definitively tell the difference? Kiarostami's deceptively simple and placid film--basically a man and a woman walking the streets of Tuscany--might seem like an elderly version of Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise (1995), or the chance couple in Michelangelo Antonioni's L'Avventura (1960). But Kiarostami seems to be playing a far more intricate game (more intricate than Linklater, anyway), forcing those of us with DVD players to rewind and check what's really being said and done (pity the film festival viewers, who only have their memories to fall back on)--one thinks of the inexplicable shifts in mood and identity found in Bunuel's films or David Lynch.

One wonders: are the two role-playing, their roles cued by a cafe waitress who has mistaken them for a married couple? Or are they a married couple long since separated, who were playing at being strangers when they met in Arezzo? One can argue one way or the other (though I think it interesting that the two see each other long before they actually speak to each other, and must have had a chance to think their respective characters through); in this way the film resembles yet another film: Ingmar Bergman's After the Rehearsal (1984) where two people talk out an entire love affair, from passionate initiation to bitter alienation, the entire experience described entirely through words. (a thrilling experience). Also possible that Kiarostami himself never meant any rational explanation, that the relationship between Miller and the woman are meant to remain in a state of flux, evolving emotionally, if not narratively.

As for the question of copies and originals, I suppose I must admit my ignorance and say: what's the problem? At one point in the film it's said that even a painting as great as the Mona Lisa must have been based on an original face. Certainly that face belonged to someone, that someone is a human being, and humans are possibly the most complex and unreproducible entity in the world, but the challenge is in communicating the experience of meeting that human, that complex and unreproducible being--that's where the art comes in. Is a fresh leg of pork tastier than an air-dried ham? Is a man's experience of a countryside picnic greater than Renoir's Partie de campagne (Day in the Country, 1936)? In each case the experience--complete and whole--is simplified and distilled, the essence mysteriously captured and manipulated according to the artisan's skills and sensibility and, if he does the work right, evokes that experience with far greater eloquence and significance than the mere accumulation of details would imply. Kiarostami must have been inspired by some real-life incident that happened to him; is that experience, shapeless and incommunicable, greater than this resulting film? I have no definite answers; I can only ask.

First published in Businessworld, 1.12.12


Meek's Cutoff (Kelly Reichardt, 2010)

Follow the leader

Kelly Reichardt's Meek's Cutoff isn't your usual genre Western; it may have covered wagons, women in bonnets and gingham skirts, men with flintlock rifles and even the odd half-naked indian, but no--this isn't a Western so much as it is Ms. Reichardt's inimitably strange foray into the genre.

Strangest of all is that the story is based on actual events. Stephen Meek did guide a thousand settlers, among them a group led by one Solomon Tetherow, away from the main trail into the Oregon desert, where they promptly got lost (there was talk of possible Indian attacks); Tetherow's followers did meet a Native American, and they did offer him a blanket in exchange for water.

For Reichardt's purposes the thousand settlers were whittled drastically down to nine, the two hundred covered wagons to a mere three. The pacing is more than a little leisurely; the incidents--the capture of the Native American, a dangerous wagon descent, arguments and confrontations, a case of severe dehydration, and finally a showdown involving rifles and pistols--don't seem as important as the opportunity afforded to Reichardt to pose her nine dusty, despairing travelers against the vast Oregon wasteland. This isn't Larry McMurtry territory, where Southern melodrama plays out against the ironic, implacable forces of history; the film's focus isn't so much on the historical as it is on the existential.

Solomon Tetherow (Will Patton) is the party's ostensible leader, but they follow Stephen Meek (Bob Greenwood, resplendent in his mane of mountain-man hair); Meek in turn chatters away, telling of one near-death adventure after another, promising that water is “just over those hills.” We meet his followers just about the time they're ready to lose faith in him; early in the picture one settler takes the time to scratch out the word 'Lost' on a rock before turning to unenthusiastically continue their seemingly endless slog; later Tetherow's wife Emily (Michelle Williams) asks her husband “is he ignorant, or just plain evil?”

Reichardt leaves the question hanging over the settlers while they continue their journey (she leaves a lot of questions hanging throughout). You watch this unlikely band trailing behind their unlikelier leader and you wonder: are they going to survive? More pressing yet: are they going to keep following this chattering nut of a guide, who seems to make up landmarks as he goes along? When an alternative's presented, it's hardly much better: a Native American (veteran stuntman Ron Rondeaux) is brought to camp, and offered a blanket if he would lead them to water. Meek scoffs at his trustworthiness and suggests he's leading them to his fellow tribesmen to be massacred. The man does have a point--if Meek seems unable to lead them out of the desert, he at least speaks to them in words that they understand; the Native American chatters away almost as much as Meek does but in an untranslated, unsubtitled language (the native's solemn deadpan demeanor does make him seem more authoritative). He's as inscrutable as Meek is unhelpful.

The allegorical meanings pile up as the settlers' options run out; tensions rise, fingers stray toward rifle and pistol triggers. Michelle Williams who plays Emily Tetherow is easily the most recognizable face in the cast (Greenwood's is obscured by all the hair), but her character doesn't really stand out, at least not at first; everyone, even the Hollywood celebrity, is lost in the thousands of miles of Oregonian sand and stone, the thousands of miles of empty silence. It takes Reichardt some minutes to even come to a medium shot--for the film's first ten or so minutes we are treated to endless long shots of the actors struggling across the sparse landscape. For a true closeup we have to wait until the near end, when the film plays out to its enigmatic conclusion--then the camera is focused on Williams' alert but unenlightened face, trying to puzzle out the meaning of what she's looking at. Meek at one point declares ominously that this “was all written out long before we got here;” one suspects that he's talking not so much of the script as of a scenario--of a briefly sketched situation where the nine characters (plus one Native American) are released to roam randomly, and resolve their various destinies.

The image is highly theatrical--one thinks of a chamber drama--but the film is the exact opposite: instead of a confined space that intensifies the claustrophobia and builds psychological tension to the bursting point, we have a stage on which tension and drama dissipates, blows away (don't think Jean-Paul Sartre's No Exit so much as Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot). Instead of men and women confronting the possibility that fellow humans represent the worst possible threat, they confront the possibility that there is no threat, no hope, no relief, no resolution, no end to their bleak circumstance. If there's another, worst definition of hell...I'm hard pressed to think what that might be.

First published in Businessworld, 1.5.12

Saturday, January 07, 2012

Cave of Forgotten Dreams (Werner Herzog 2010)

Open, O Sesame 

Werner Herzog's first ever 3-D feature begins with the camera gliding down a row of what look like vines; it lifts up in the air to take in the limestone cliffs looming over the Ardeche River, in Southern France. We see Herzog accompanying an expedition of mostly scientists ascending a narrow trail up the face of that cliff, to arrive at a metal door “as massive as a bank vault.”

Inside are treasures as fabulous as anything Aladdin might find--cave paintings of various sizes and subjects, on differing kinds of surfaces, employing many colors and techniques. Some of these paintings may have been drawn some thirty thousand years ago.

Thirty thousand years! The United States, by way of comparison, was established a little over two hundred and thirty years ago; the oldest form of writing found is dated approximately eight thousand years ago; the oldest city (Damascus) has been inhabited for something like eleven thousand years. These drawings, if their dating can be believed (there is some controversy, which Herzog never once mentions), are three times older than any presently existing evidence of human civilization.

But it's more than just the age; the drawings are complex, lovely, powerful. They leap at the screen in silent agitation--or rather not so silent; the horses' mouths (as someone points out) are agape, as if whinnying; rhinos lock horns in tremendous head-on collisions, and you can almost hear the sound of  impact; a female lion sits firmly on her haunches, unwilling to mate, her lips peeled back in an irritated growl. Herzog points out the multiple drawings of a rhino's horn, and speculate that the artist--and despite the dispute over their age, no one disputes the drawings' artistry--was attempting to suggest motion, that this was in fact some kind of proto-cinema, the first attempt to capture moving pictures on a flat surface (either that or it's one of the earliest examples of animation ever).

Part of the pleasure of a Herzog documentary is the presence of Herzog himself. He's the polar opposite of the invisible, unjudgmental documentary filmmaker; he pokes, prods, asks all kinds of questions, not always the obvious ones. To one archeologist he poses a stumper: “Do they dream at night?”

How is the poor scientist to respond? But Herzog is an impatient, eccentric creature; he wants to delve into mysteries, ponder paradoxes, illuminate the darker, less obvious corners of a mystery. He asks about the soul; one man speculates that the soul might have been an adaptation to the world, one that must have worked (we've had them ever since), and that these paintings are their communique, fired like furtive emails into the future (at us, in effect) in the hopes of maybe not making contact but of giving us an impression of their state of mind and being, captured in an image.

Herzog points out a red handprint repeated many times near the cave entrance, and how it stands out because of a crooked little finger. He follows the handprint into the cave, pointing it out in various drawings; the finger seems less like a flaw than a signature, the sign of a unique personality--possibly the world's first auteur...

For deadpan comic relief Herzog gives us eccentrics like the scientist who through research has managed to assemble a bone flute--the kind of musical instrument he guesses might have been played in the caves, all those millennia ago--and promptly tootles a brief rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” He follows a perfume designer who hikes around the aboveground area, sniffing for ancient air seeping from the ground (the caves were discovered by explorers who felt the updraft); he's hoping to detect the caves by scent. The designer later confesses an ulterior motive--he's involved in a theme park to be built nearby, with an exact replica of the caves and their drawings as a feature attraction.

All this narrated in Herzog's Teutonically accented yet soothing voice, his intensely pinched face gazing at one wonder after another. Herzog over time and through his many documentaries has developed a distinct onscreen persona (you don't expect the director of Nosferatu (1979) and Aguirre: the Wrath of God (1972) to be boring do you?), one strong enough to stand up to bizarre characters like Dieter Dengler (Little Dieter Needs to Fly, 1998) or Timothy Treadwell (Grizzly Man, 2005). On his own his persona throws a probing if quirky light on the wall art; he's dealing with artists long dead (though their work has a marvelous presence) and he's free to speculate, endlessly.

The ending is pure Herzog. From thirty thousand years into the past he turns to the future: a nuclear power plant some twenty miles away, the largest in France, has diverted coolant water to create an enclosed tropical environment; hundreds of crocodiles thrive, and unsurprisingly a number of them are albino mutants. Herzog films these altered baby reptiles and wonders what they might think, if ever they come face-to-face with the Chauvet drawings...

Herzog filmed the documentary in 3-D; he believed that this device (he had previously dismissed it as a gimmick) would bring out the curves and contours of the cavern rock, to better present the drawings. I wouldn't know if this worked; I only managed to catch a 2-D screening, and the DVD was released the same way. Watching the film in this imperfect and incomplete mode, I can only speculate: Herzog himself worked in less-than-ideal conditions; he had limited time and resources, and used technology ill-suited to the task at that time (3-D photography in commercial features often meant shooting foreground, midground and background separately, then having them digitally integrated--an impossibility in the cave). The artists (or artist) that did the drawings had even more primitive equipment--shards of rock, charcoal, pigments, their own crook-fingered hand.

And yet the artist managed to suggest movement and sound; he managed to suggest fury and grandeur. Using rock and dye and charcoal he made the first effective stab at creating a 3-D image--and arguably his methods have a proven track record thirty thousand years long. Herzog employs a few tricks of his own: sending his cold lamps slowly across the cave face and fading them on and off, he re-creates the kind of traveling light that must have fallen on these drawings, the way they were meant to be seen (Herzog early in the film notes that the drawings are found at just at the point when the sunlight stops). The music--and Herzog and the archeologists agree, there must have been music--is all strings and woodwinds and voices, the kind of instruments they might have played. 

Like that long-ago artist Herzog uses his limitations to his  advantage, evokes his own magic; watching the film on a TV screen, in the poor medium of DVD, can we do any less? It's just one more link shared, between viewer and filmmaker and artist long gone.



First published in Businessworld, 12.29.11

Monday, January 02, 2012

Get real, Get Real Philippines

First of the year and already I'm compelled to write a less-than-friendly post.

Before anything, a caveat: as of today, have not yet seen any of the films at the 2011 Metro Manila Film Festival (MMFF)--would like to, but am having a time trying to arrange a viewing. So, yes, I'm putting that out for the record, up front.

Reason for this cobbled-together post, though, is a budding website called Get Real Philippines, a series of articles written mostly by the webmaster, with a handful of fellow writers (well, one other, apparently). For the most part the articles seem well-written, lively, reasonably well informed, generally progressive--until this article by someone named 'Ilda,' on the recent MMFF.

Not a big fan of the MMFF; for the longest time they've enjoyed the privilege of being the only game in town in Metro Manila theaters during the Christmas season, ostensibly the biggest market in the busiest time in the Philippines, arguably one of the biggest and busiest in Southeast Asia, if not the world. There was a time when this was a good thing: the festival showed the likes of Ishmael Bernal's Himala (Miracle, 1982), and Mike de Leon's Kisapmata (Blink of an Eye, 1981). The festival has reportedly degenerated into a showcase of mostly slapdash commercial products, including the Mano Po series (I'd seen the first one--not a big fan of that either--and heard harsh words about the sequels). 

Like I said: not a big fan. But I don't think it and the entire Filipino film industry, independent and mainstream alike--deserve the general hosing-down found in that article. Statements like "Unfortunately, our films tell us and everyone else that we are shallow and superficial" seem to slam Philippine cinema in general--so are we shallow and superficial, as portrayed by Bernal, De Leon, Lino Brocka, Mario O'Hara, Lav Diaz, Brillante Mendoza? Are our films "a total waste of the people’s time and money?"

Getting down to specific titles, the article mentions three: Enteng ng Ina Mo (Enteng of your mother--but that's a rough translation, it's really a play of words on a classic Filipino profanity) I can't really comment about. It sounds like it's a wholly commercial production and sequels are usually not the greatest films in the world as a rule but I haven't seen the picture and the writer, apparently, has; she pronounces judgment on the script and dialogue, and casts aspersions on the actors and producers' motives (I know it's impossible for her to actually read their minds, but I'll call that a rhetorical tactic; been guilty of doing the same for movies I didn't like). But when it came to her takedown of Panday 2 she writes "the new Panday movie is being criticized for being a blatant rip-off of the 2010 Hollywood blockbuster remake of Clash of the Titans."

"Being criticized?" Is she repeating what she's heard from others? Is she suggesting that she hasn't seen the movie? True, she does add "There was nothing special about the “special” effects either," but is it possible she's basing her judgment on online trailers?

More damning is her take on Shake, Rattle, and Roll 13: "What else can people expect to get out of it? Not much, obviously. People are probably watching it for the eye candy." Then she goes on to disparage the starlets on the festival parade (I understand where she's coming from, but I personally can't find it in me to disparage starlets; they're often fresh young things from the provinces who've been struck blind by all the money and attention, and often lead harsh lives off-camera). Three sentences that don't really talk about the picture, but rather how people might react to the picture. When called on this in the article's comment section, the writer replies with unusual evasiveness: "It doesn’t really matter if I saw SRR13 or not."

Um--yes it does, actually. Basic rule in journalism in general, criticism in particular: know of what you write.

I can't say I can judge this installment myself but I did see the original series back in 1984; Bernal's sequence (Prigyider) in particular was a witty original. I've dipped into the series once in a while and found a few good segments (Kapitbahay, in Shake, Rattle, and Roll IV, 1992). Critic Dodo Dayao does praise this thirteenth variation in his blog--and I do trust Dayao's judgment; he's an astute writer on local and international films, and writes about the movie in close detail with considerable eloquence. Ms. Ilda has every right to disparage the picture, and she makes a good point about the laziness of film producers in general, but she must see the movies first. Anything less smacks of lazy journalism. 

Webmaster 'Benigno' defends his fellow writer in a follow-up article, helpfully titled "Filipino indie film makers need to stop whining and step up." * He succinctly summarizes the events that led up to his writing of the article; then he introduces his opinion with: "Based on the sort of comments I’ve seen so far posted in that article..."

Wow, don't people do actual research anymore?

He writes "it seems the people who lament the marginalised place “indie” films hold in the Philippines are better at whining than stepping up to said challenges" (chip on the shoulder much, hm?)" and adds "It is “impossible” only because the Philippine indie film sector lacks the sort of innovation that makes billionaires out of nerds and outcasts like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs."

Um--blanket judgment on an entire industry (this time independent) based on comments made on blogpost article. Useful information here: if one has to make a handful of sweeping generalizations on an industry, it helps to actually read up on and talk to both industry insiders and outsiders in close detail. The more research  put into the article, the more authoritative and persuasive  article can be.

Benigno then goes on in detail about the Weinstein Brothers and Miramax Films, holding them up as an example of an independent outfit that was actually profitable; actually, Miramax was not the blockbuster moneymaker it claimed to be; that aura of profitability came more out of the Weinsteins' ruthlessness and ability to manipulate contractual conditions than out of the creation of actual independent hits.**

Independent filmmakers (and you'll have to take my word for it that I'm talking from experience about people I know well) are some of the hardest-working and most innovative people I know. They do miracles; they create art out of impossible budgets, and in impossible circumstances. Asking them to market their films brilliantly and well is one more impossible task to add to their basket, and I agree this much with Benigno: this just might be what the filmmakers need to do. This isn't the first time it's been said, nor is he the first one to say it; he just needs to do the research, and it wouldn't hurt to dial down the obnoxious, know-it-all tone (him apparently not knowing it all, at least about this industry).

The question of making Filipino independent or art films pay has been around for a long, long time, and no one has come up with any definite answers. Lino Brocka's Insiang (1974) was a box-office flop, despite being screened in the prestigious Director's Fortnight in Cannes, despite being made for a low budget; Mike de Leon's Sister Stella L. was welcomed with glowing praise, and standing-room only previews; when it was released it flopped, despite the name of Philippine star Vilma Santos in the marquee. 

Independent filmmakers today actually have a somewhat better record at the boxoffice; unlike Brocka, they can leverage digital technology to make their films cheaper, faster, easier to make, and in the case of a few titles, they have made some profit (if I remember right, Auraeus Solito's Ang Pagdadalaga ni Maximo Oliveros (The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros) did modest business and Ang Babae sa Septic Tank (Girl in Septic Tank) did huge business (roughly 20 million pesos, or over $400,000).  In the case of Zombadings the big studios reportedly attempted to repress the picture, keep it out of theaters so it wouldn't threaten their mainstream product.

But--comedies and zombie pictures? What about Sari Dalena's Ka Oryang (see image above), this year's Cinema One Best Picture, and in my opinion one of the best and most important film I've seen this year, Filipino or otherwise? Not to put down the two titles (haven't seen them, but have heard good things), independent films are also meant to deal with things commercial product won't touch (that's why they're independent). If it's difficult to market independent films, that's a combination of a system rigged against the independent filmmaker, an often difficult to market subject matter, and--let's throw this in as well--Filipinos who if they don't frequent Filipino films often condemn said films to the trash heap ("If it's Filipino it must be trash (and no, I don't watch Filipino films)"). This particular segment of Filipinos is crucial to the indie filmmaker; he's the kind of viewer who might appreciate an innovative independent film--if he can be troubled to actually view it.

The attitude isn't new; Gerry De Leon, Lamberto Avellana, Manuel Conde had to contend with this in their time; so did Lino Brocka, Ishmael Bernal, Mario O'Hara.

I'm not trying to completely put down or thoroughly trash Benigno and Ilda and their like; I enjoyed reading their blog, and think they have the right position on some issues (the need for better reproductive health, holding Aquino accountable, and so on). I think their hearts are in the right place, and their effrontery appropriate--when targeted at those that deserve that effrontery, like corrupt government or conservative institutions. The Metro Manila Film Festival? For the most part, yes--I've seen my share, no, more than my share of their garbage; I've also seen a few gems, though, and I'm careful to make the distinction. More power, Get Real Philippines, only--get it right, too. It'll help you in the long run. 

* I know, I know, my sarcasm's showing.

** Old joke: 

Q: How do you make a small fortune in Filipino filmmaking?

A: Start with a big fortune.








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