Friday, March 23, 2007

New Film: Offside

Warning: the following post contains spoilers beginning in the second paragraph.

Jafar Panahi's Offside, the Iranian director's fifth feature, and the fifth to be banned in his home country, arrives in New York approximately twelve hours in advance of his President Ahmadinejad's scheduled arrival. This accident makes Offside perhaps the most timely New York premiere this spring, as the film extends Panahi's on-going account of social injustices -- particularly those against women -- in modern-day Iran. (That is, as we await the UN-sanctioned demagoguery of a world leader who has repeated voiced his desire to eliminate Israel and to eradicate the Jewish people from the face of the earth.)

In Panahi's latest, we glimpse the everyday injustices of Ahmadinejad's theocracy, where women are prevented from attending live sporting events, including Iran's final 2005 World Cup qualifier against Bahrain. Following a title that informs the spectator of this detail, as well as a second caption which claims that much of the film was shot at the stadium during said event, Panahi introduces us to an angry, albeit concerned father who is heading to the event to locate his daughter (before his sons can find her, whom he says would kill her). Subsequently, we are introduced to a female in disguise on a nearby bus, who we assume is the very girl noted above. As it will later turn out, she is not, though Panahi's film commences with following her attempts to enter the stadium. Therefore, it might be said that there is a certain interchangeability between the girls owing to their shared condition.

This young woman is immediately discovered, however, and is subsequently penned in with a group of her fellow male impersonators, just outside the stadium walls. As such, Panahi invents a formal analogue in the small visible cell positioned against the polyphonic off-screen stadium: that is, these young women, prevented from experiencing the public sphere on an equal basis with men, occupy a marginal space in relation to the larger, connoted off-camera space. Moreover, Panahi's utilization of tightly-framed mobile long takes further reinforces this dialectical relationship between theoretically separate on and off-camera spaces.

Of course, Panahi's use of long takes also succeeds in producing a facsimile of real time that has been the director's clearest stylistic device from his debut feature The White Balloon (1995). Here, the time of Offside is basically consubstantial with that of the game, concluding soon after the result is announced with the soldiers and the women celebrating in the nocturnal streets. (The game begins in late afternoon with Panahi charting the evening's transition to dusk.) In fact, within this coda, Pahani offers a glimpse of hope that is not unwarranted otherwise, provided his characterizations of the soldiers who guard the girls. While unwilling to break the law themselves, the soldiers seem to possess at least a flicker of sympathy. Hence, it might be said -- particularly when one considers the rebellion of the young women additionally -- that there is a reformative impulse in the people, even if the state remains irredeemably arcane.

In short, Offside continues Panahi's interrogation of Iranian social realities, culminating in another major work to stand beside his earlier highlights The White Balloon, The Circle (2000) and Crimson Gold (2003). However, unlike the first and third features listed above, Panahi's mentor Abbas Kiarostami did not pen the screenplay, which may account for an uncharacteristically underlined moment of psychological causality late in the film. Apart from this revelation, however, Offside remains a strong inheritor to the master's tradition, and once again confirms Panahi's status as Iran's greatest active filmmaker not named Kiarostami.

Monday, March 19, 2007

New Exhibitions: Tacita Dean / Spanish Painting / Gordon Matta-Clark

"All arts are founded on man's presence; only in photography do we enjoy his absence."
-Andre Bazin

Tacita Dean's Kodak (2006) joins James Benning's Ten Skies (2004) and Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub's These Encounters of Theirs (2006) as one of the finest new films to screen in New York thus far this year. Add to these works of the experimental (primarily non-narrative) cinema Film Comments Selects highlight Colossal Youth (Pedro Costa, 2006) and the structuralist-influenced April opening Syndromes and a Century (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2006), and one begins to wonder whether narrative cinema isn't beginning to fall further behind its avant-garde and poetic counterparts qualitatively. After such a lackluster year for Hollywood, such a claim does not seem as far-stretched as it might otherwise. Even the mid-majors have shown this turn with Michel Gondry's The Science of Sleep (2006). Of course, none of those films listed at the outset, in addition to Costa's, have or ever will receive anything approaching commercial distribution.

Fortunately, the Guggenheim New York is currently screening two of Tacita Dean's 16mm works, including the 40-plus minute Kodak, as part of its supplementary exhibition, The Hugo Boss Prize 2006: Tacita Dean. Kodak features footage of one of the eponymous film company's factories shot after Dean learned that this manufacturer of her 16mm medium was slated to close. Utilizing that same format, Kodak makes an argument for her medium's specificity and superiority over digital technologies in its registration of sensuous tones (particularly yellows, royal blues, turquoise/sea-greens and pink-tinted purples) in exceedingly low light. Dean's spare lighting often adorns empty corridors, which draw attention to film's post-human character -- that is as an indexical medium. This quality is similarly evident in Kodak's emphasis on the translucent material, which likewise underscores the medium's fragility. Indeed, this is the ultimate meaning that inheres within Kodak: namely, of a medium that is ceasing to exist, both in its lack of production and in the instability of the format itself. This eulogistic sense is suggested further in the concluding images of factory waste on the wet mill floor.

While the Tacita Dean exhibit occupies only a single room within the museum, the remaining non-permanent galleries are devoted to the epic Spanish Painting from El Greco to Picasso: Time, Truth, and History. As I may still write on the exhibition elsewhere, my comments will remain of necessity cursory. Suffice it to say of the enormous showcase, then, that while Spanish Painting does not break new ground, it does have the virtue of clarifying the unity of the Spanish visual tradition, and particularly the titular Picasso's self-conscious revisionism vis-a-vis his national context. In the end, if Picasso's art demonstrates the greatest dexterity, Goya's emerges as perhaps the most influential, Velázquez's the ultimate achievement in his nation's plastic tradition and El Greco's and Miro's the most respectively singular. It is worth noting that the exhibition is arranged by theme with many of the newer works (especially Picasso's) hanging beside those pieces that served as inspiration, either directly or indirectly.

For someone who is better versed in El Greco, Goya and Picasso, the opportunity to see such a large number of Velázquez's again -- many of which are on loan from the Prado -- serves to reinforce his preeminent stature, at least in this author's opinion: that is, as one of the oil medium's greatest practitioners, perhaps even the equal of Rembrandt himself. To be terse, Velázquez appears in Spanish Painting to be his art's greatest humanist: in the superlative "Don Sebastián de Morra" (ca. 1643-4) for example, the painter's representation of the little person secures the full weight of his subject's sadness, deriving as it does from his physical limitations -- both his height and his meaty hands. (A second similarly socially-themed highlight is Goya's "The Young Woman (The Letter)," after 1812, which limns the aristocratic subject concretely, while her servant and the workers behind her are all represented without this same clarity.) That is, Velázquez -- and Goya -- emphasize the social, whereas Rembandt's focus is the spiritual. To put it differently, Velázquez's subjects lack the souls that are the focus of his Dutch counterpart's art. Again, for Velázquez, it is their position within a social system and the impact that this has on their psychology -- to say nothing of his preoccupation with their garment's textures (Velázquez's painting, at its most assured, approaches a second sense, that of the creation of touch) and the medium itself, which all combine to forge the essence of his art.

Fifteen blocks to the south, The Whitney Museum of American Art is currently exhibiting the "anarchitecture" of Gordon Matta-Clark. Again, to be brief, Matta-Clark, son of Surrealist painter Roberto Matta, is perhaps best known for his incisions cut into abandoned or condemned structures, such as a pair of late 17th century homes (in "Conical Intersect") situated beside Paris's Centre Pompidou, or his 1974 "Splitting" where he does exactly that to a one-family home. In summary, Matta-Clark's art aids his spectator in securing a new perspective in viewing familiar locations, while offering substantive social and psychological ramifications: to the former, they assist us in understanding how people live together in cities, while the latter indicates both a formalization of Matta-Clark's broken home, and even more compellingly, his twin brother's suicide.

In terms of his media, since his art is by its definition ephemeral -- buildings immediately prior to their demolishing -- Matta-Clark portrayed his sites in both photographs and films. In so doing, Matta-Clark offers an analogy between his activity ("to clarify our personal awareness of place") and the process of representing the three-dimensional in two dimensions (namely, of finding a method to explode the spatial barriers inherent on said format). Thus, there is a rigor to match the artist's ambition, marking Matta-Clark as an exceedingly significant post-war American artist.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

New Film: Zodiac & The Lives of Others

David Fincher's Zodiac shoulders what might have been an insurmountable obstacle to its success as a thriller -- the fact that the true crime case upon which the film is based remains unsolved. Nevertheless, the director's latest serial killer picture secures a tension, though it is less connected to the police's investigation -- as of course its outcome is common knowledge -- than it is to amateur Robert Graysmith's (Jake Gyllenhaal as the author of the film's original non-fiction source) subsequent intervention. As Graysmith states when his wife (Chloë Sevigny) questions his motivation, he wants know to look into the eyes of the killer and to know that he is guilty. By this point, this is all that we as spectators want as well (or at least to know the murder's identity, obviously). And much to the credit of Fincher and his screenwriter James Vanderbilt, we become as convinced of a particular suspect's guilt as does Graysmith. Indeed, Fincher and Vanderbilt's control of circumstantial evidence ultimately points to the aforesaid suspect, even as we are compelled to at least wonder about the various other leads that Graysmith pursues.

To defer suspense until the film's second part -- that is, to transfer it onto the question of the killer's identity -- we are led to share in our degree of knowledge with the San Francisco P.D. (and especially its lead investigators Mark Ruffalo and Anthony Edwards) and the city's newspaper staff (where Gyllenhaal and Robert Downey Jr.'s Paul Avery work; the latter is another contribution to Downey Jr.'s drug-fueled persona -- cf. A Scanner Darkly, 2006) to which the Zodiac killer sends his encrypted missives. It is only after the investigation effectively concludes that Fincher and Vanderbilt begin to reveal the missteps of inter-departmental communication that assured the investigation's failure. As such, Zodiac offers a cogent account of this unsolved case and its likely perpetrator, and also a viable reason for its remaining unresolved.

Ultimately, Zodiac is less a sordid true crime case than it is a portrait of how these notorious murders remained unsolved. In other words, Zodiac is not Se7en (1995) -- not to imply that the earlier film has any basis in reality -- though it does share some of its tropes: perhaps the clearest example is the sparely lit, squirrel-infested trailer of one of the picture's suspects. Otherwise, many of Fincher's voluminous spaces feature visible overhead florescent lighting. Together, it again becomes clear, as it was in Se7en that the particularity of Fincher's style can be located in his modulations of (moody) lighting. Spatially, Fincher composes many of his shots horizontally across his wide screen.

Less obvious for any specific visual tropes, with the possible exception of occasionally distracting instances of rack focus, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen) offers another example of dubious recent history, albeit in fictionalized form. The recently Oscar-feted The Lives of Others -- the German picture was an upset winner in the 'best foreign language picture' category -- gives an account of one Stasi officer's (Michael Haneke axiom Ulrich Mühe) increasing disaffection with the GDR's practice of surveillance, though not on principle but rather by virtue of its abuses.

After one of East Germany's only loyal artists is placed under full surveillance as per a leading official's romantic interest in his actress lover, Stasi officer Wiesler begins his sabotage of the process, allowing the disenchanted writer and his compatriots to produce an anti-GDR tract that emphasizes the high incidence of suicide in the former state. Thus, Henckel von Donnersmarck limns a portrait of the GDR that both articulates the ubiquity of the state's crimes and also suggests the goodness and the courage of some of its citizenry. While of course both are undeniable, the filmmakers' emphasis upon the good Stasi provides a certain cover to those who may have been complicit; like De Gaulle's France in the postwar period, The Lives of Others indicates a move toward a revisionist, heroic history.

If it could be argued therefore that The Lives of Others presents a somewhat suspect glimpse at Germany's recent past, Henckel von Donnersmarck's direction of suspense leaves little to be desired. For example, the German director's staging of the climactic scene with all emphasis transferred onto a single feature of the architecture is worthy of and influenced by the 'Master of Suspense.' Then again, Henckel von Donnersmarck's assured direction of such sequences is accompanied by inclusions of passages that reiterate what the action has already made clear -- as with the overly distended conclusion. (The Lives of Others is nothing if not middle-brow.) Even so, the film's heart-warming final revelation, however overblown, achieves an undeniable emotional resonance.

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

New Film: Half Nelson & These Encounters of Theirs

The Jus Rhyme of this year's Academy nominated films -- that is "politically aware and socially responsible" with a graduate-level ethnic studies tool box -- Ryan Fleck's Half Nelson confronts its audience with its political imperatives: namely, to generate consciousness through the film's inhabitation and dissection of its structuring "dialectics." This is to say that Fleck's classroom-centered picture (and a history classroom at that) adheres to a Marxist model of conflict-based historiography, which is disseminated primarily in Ryan Gosling's homilies on topics such as "turning points." (Actually, Gosling's Dan Dunne is at one point asked whether or not he is a Communist to which he redirects the conversation.) His students, for their part, relate moments of historical tragedy and resistance through direct address, thereby reaffirming that purpose of these lessons are not only to instruct the film's characters but to teach its spectators as well.

Even so, Fleck's narrative refuses to glorify the consciousness-generating Mr. Dunne. Principally, Half Nelson's reversal of generic norms emerges when it is revealed that Gosling's character smokes crack -- make no mistake, Fleck is endeavoring to problematize the binary between white and black where smoking crack is a behavior of the latter. One of his students, Drey (Shareeka Epps), discovers the altered educator in the ladies room after her basketball game. As we soon learn, Drey's brother is incarcerated, and his business associate, Anthony Mackie as Frank, is a drug dealer with both proprietary feelings for the vulnerable 13 year-old and also designs to involve her in the business. Ultimately, she acquiesces, though her subsequent exposure to Dunne smoking rock ends her foray into dealing.

For his part, Dunne's use of this stigmatized substance can be explained for its facility in interrogating the racial dialectical that shapes the picture's context. That he uses drugs at all reflects an attempt "to get by," to somehow satiate the feelings of injustice that undoubtedly consume Fleck's hero. At the same time, Gosling's Dunne does engage with the social inequities that plague society. On the micro level, this is reflected in his attempts to protect Drey from Frank, which he prefaces with the knowledge that he "should be the last person to say this." However, owing to the film's project of unmooring the dialectics it preaches, Frank also warns Drey to be cautious of her base-head teacher.

Ultimately, Fleck's program seeks to reconstitute social systems synthetically, by achieving synthesis through the opposition of thesis and anti-thesis. This comes into the play both in the relationship between Dunne and Drey and also in its interrogation of elements of African-American culture (be it in the language he uses, the books he reads or the more structural articulation of Malcolm X's public proclamations). With regard to the first of these, Drey's epiphany occurs when she sees her teacher in the throws of the substance -- therefore awakening her to the consequences of dealing -- while Fleck needs the help of his younger student to clean up, which provides the film with its culminating two of the pair on a couch. As such, Fleck appears to flip the conventional assumed direction of paternalistic assistance, though it is likewise clear that in Half Nelson this inversion of trope serves strictly discursive purposes and thus partakes in the same stereotypes. In other words, Half Nelson makes paternalism palatable by artfully reversing its coordinates.

At this point, I would feel remiss were I not to mention the film's performances, which remain its principle popular claim to fame. At the center, Ryan Gosling's Mr. Dunne achieves an understatement that seems to be of a type with the film's iteration of nuance (that is, in laying claim to the competing factors that forge personality and finally humanity). Similarly, Epps and Mackie also exhibit this tendency toward underplaying that mute a narrative that is in other ways less measured -- as in again the historical lessons of Mr. Dunne's class. As per Mr. Fleck's visual style, the director sustains a like staidness throughout, composing his spaces in static set-ups that intimate a certain unwillingness to intercede and on the most practical level serve to represent the subtleties of his performances.

A film that forges a very different relationship between camera and performance is the similarly political final collaboration between husband-and-wife filmmaking team, Jean-Marie Straub and the late Danièle Huillet. These Encounters of Theirs (2006) begins its series of Cesare Pavese dialogues by framing its two actors with their backs to the camera as they stand on the edge of a Tuscan hillside. The pair, whom we only see speaking to each other subsequently (as they turn their heads partially to address one another) each enunciate in loud, unmodulated voices. As we soon discover, they are both gods, albeit gods dressed in inexpensive modern clothing. They are also gods whose claim to human worship have become increasing tenuous; to be sure, it is made quite clear that humanity does not need these immortal beings. Hence, it becomes apparent that Straub and Huillet are de-mystifying their inherently spiritual subject matter both in the specificity of the conversations themselves and also by making beings to appear as people in a relatively familiar setting. Indeed, there is a certain currency between these dialogues and Eisenstein's montage of cross-cultural idols in October (1928).

Nevertheless, by initially refusing the spectator a view of the speakers' mouths, Straub and Huillet reposition the voice as a mystical object that in fact confirms a presence while remaining invisible to the viewer. Of course, the voice is always de-spatialized (and unseeable) in this manner, but in the filmmakers' intentional introduction of their dialogues thusly, they remind of us of this essential property of sound -- of its invisible presence. It is only later that these sounds are embodied, that they are grounded in the physical presence of a human figure. As such, Straub and Huillet while removing the gods' mystery in one respect, are reintroducing a form of magic in another -- again, by focusing our attention on the voice's lack of spatialization. In other words, the filmmakers provide an analogy for representing the immaterial in cinema through their gradual reunification of voice and body, even if this analogy reappropriates the miraculous for cinema itself, and its accorded materiality.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

New Film: Ten Skies

In the spirit of tomorrow evening's celebration of the 79th Academy Awards, let me say a few words on the best new(ish) American film I have seen in the past twelve months, James Benning's Ten Skies (2004). A companion to his similarly constructed 13 Lakes (also 2004), Ten Skies is assembled of ten static ten minute shots of Val Verde, California skies. Each is composed of continually changing cloud formations, which emit an enormous degree of variation from one set-up to the next. For instance, Benning's film begins with a relatively clear blue sky occupied by a pair of intersecting jet trails that gradually disappear out of the top of the frame. In his second set-up, the film shifts to fluffy cumulus clouds with dark shading that start to resemble trompe l'oiel paintings of the same subject. In the third, Benning's color palette shifts to a grayish blue green supporting fast moving blanched clouds. In other words, Benning's film offers substantial variation in its color schema from one sky to the next and even within each shot.

Certainly, the moment-to-moment transformations of his aeriel views is among the principle subjects of Ten Skies. Then again, not only does Benning's film not require its viewers' continued attention, but in fact it encourages distraction. That is, with the renewal of viewer attention after moments of intellectual drift -- a mechanism built into his discursive structure -- Benning's film produces drastic changes that seem unthinkable after even the briefest of intervals. Further, the film's alternation from one set-up to the next eventually produces a sort of suspense in the disclosure of the following scene, even as a drama can be produced from a cloud's gradual overtaking of the full frame or in an airplane's inching toward the image's edge.

Speaking of the edge, as with 13 Lakes, Ten Skies adheres to Andre Bazin's notion of the frame as a mask, calling attention equally to what remains outside the visual field. Indeed, it is not simply the passage of cloud formations into and out of the frame, but even more the non-sync off-camera soundscapes that transform Benning's spaces from their minimal enframed sections to a maximal combination of on and off camera fields.

Therefore, Benning articulates his medium's spatial ontology (with its relation to the frame), as he also underscores the perpetual remaking of space that separates his medium from the other visual arts. Then again, it is less these didactic functions than the aesthetic properties that adhere in his images which truly recommend Ten Skies. Specifically, it is his panchromatic palette and the variations in textures that these distinctions produce, which mark the artistic achievement of Benning's film. For example, one of the film's darker skies figures a second, silky veil in the fore of the larger climatic formation. Separately, the film's concluding pairing of gray and deep blue ultimately yields a preternatural blue that begins to look like something quite distinct from nature. Indeed, Benning's sky-scapes secure an abstract patterning before our eyes with a hard, mineral texture that ultimately loses even this tentative visual grounding. (It is worth noting that Benning's choice of 16mm is essential to attaining the effects that distinguish Ten Skies.)

In the end, Ten Skies encourages a keener vision of not only cinema but of nature itself. It compels its spectator to notice more subtle variations in color, texture and movement than we are accustomed to seeing. In other words, Benning (to paraphrase an earlier purpose statement by the filmmaker) is teaching his viewers to see like artists see. Moreover, Ten Skies, again like 13 Lakes, represents a sustained examination of cinema's unique character, locating its specificity in its capacity to represent movement and also its construction of a space greater than the visual field. Thus Ten Skies once again calls us to see anew, though in this latter case it is cinema rather than nature which the filmmaker's lesson emphasizes.