Sunday, April 22, 2007

New Film: Syndromes and a Century

The critical consensus surrounding Thai auteur Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Syndromes and a Century is that the film is mystifying, if not entirely incomprehensible -- though still quite good, whatever that might mean. While I would have concurred with the above after its initial local screening last fall at the New York Film Festival, a second viewing at the IFC Film Center this past weekend, yielded a work of far greater lucidity (at least for this reviewer), while maintaining the same evasive allure.

Syndromes and a Century opens in a country hospital with a young soldier applying for a position with a pretty female doctor. Throughout most of her nonsensical questions -- as in if he prefers squares, circles or triangles... it's the second, and clear ones at that -- the camera remains fixed on the gentleman. This choice sets up part two (of a two part narrative) where the camera fixes on the young woman as she interviews a better-dressed male in an urban hospital . (For the record, Apichatpong has suggested that part one somehow commemorates his mother while part two, his father, both of whom were doctors.)

Similarly, Apichatpong's decision to utilize long, static takes similarly establishes the aesthetic that will prevail in the first part, even as it reflects the languid lifestyle that predominates in its country locations. In contrast, Apichatpong moves his camera more often in the second, urban section (though it is a slow, crepuscular panning that does not denote the quote-end quote frantic pace of city life). Likewise, these urban locales tend to be confined to an antiseptic, colorless hospital whose windows are almost always shut (and therefore, that emits few sounds from the outside world) whereas greens and the saffron of the monk's robes constitute the more colorful palette of the earlier section. Moreover, part one, again in comparison to the second half and the sounds of the humming fans that ventilate the building, is entirely composed of the ambient sounds of the countryside -- that is, of the birds singing, the insects humming, etc. -- which pass in through the open windows on the continual summer winds.

In this pristine back country, Apichatpong emphasizes the act of storytelling that has long been a hallmark of his directorial work -- with his "exquisite corpse" Mysterious Objects at Noon (2000) remaining the most obvious instantiation of this interest. Here, we have one tale following another, procuring a narrative that largely proceeds according to a set of digressions that again seems to cohere with the rural pace of life. In one exceptionally revealing example, within a second story that ultimately leads nowhere in particular, an older woman weaves a tale of a solar eclipse that produces this image subsequently. Comparatively, part two, after a Buddhist monk discusses a dream in which he is terrorized by livestock (as he had in the first section, though again from a different camera angle) is exorcised of storytelling, as if it is not only the walden-like natural world that is lost in Apichatpong's urban present/future.

Of course, the second half also lacks the religious presence of the first part, save again for the repetition of the earlier scene. Here, there are Buddha statues to the active monks and their summer festival in part one, where we see a dentist singing songs about teeth. However, this latter detail, far from being an amusing aside, confers an element of the cultural specificity that is conveyed as the purview of the rural episode: Thailand as a land of smiles, which to my understanding has long been a tourist symbol for the nation. Importantly, this same dentist also operates on a monk in both parts, which construe the varying meaning of the two halves -- in the first, he tells the youngish monk about his musical career and inquires about whether he'll receive credit for his good deed (thus showing his respect for the faith) whereas the second iteration is purely silent; in the urban environment the personal is lost -- Apichatpong features statues of individuals to compliment those of the similarly absent Buddhist faith -- as are the emblems of Thai cultural specificity.

However, the urban segment is not purely negation -- though it is this -- but is further a disquieting portrait of an (ecologically perhaps) ruinous present replete with the amputees that populate the white-walled hospital. Moreover, the film's second part concludes with a slow camera movement across a section of micro-fibre tubing that sucks in the smoke which is mysteriously present in the windowless basement (where the ill do their exercises to the airy space where this same action is conducted in the first part).
At this moment, to be sure, Apichatpong's narrative coheres as a pretty clear comparison of the urban and rural, past and present. However, the director then moves outside of the sealed hospital to a set of grassy landscapes that combine the natural and the architectural in the film's short coda. In this regard, it seems as if Apichatpong might be suggesting a tentative solution, though the continued lack of cultural specificity, apart from the pop song-group dance number that closes the film, assures that the director remains ambivalent toward this conventional (new urbanist) proposal. In this way, Syndromes and a Century preserves a degree of ambiguity against which the film's comparative structure largely militates.

Monday, April 09, 2007

New Film: The Wind that Shakes the Barley & Triad Election

The surprise generated by The Wind that Shakes the Barley's Cannes victory last year was not limited to the jury's oversight of the presumed winner, Pedro Almodóvar's Volver, but rather extended to its apparent incongruity with the interior orientation and sumptuous aesthetic of jury chair Wong Kar-wai. With Ken Loach's latest finally reaching the States during the past month, the above proposition has become no less quixotic as The Wind that Shakes the Barley appears to be, by quite a large margin, the most conventional official selection from last year's fest. Of course, the symbolic value behind awarding Loach, beyond what it says about those films thought to be front-runners such as Almodóvar's, is self-evidently political, and in keeping with the tenor of Cannes over the past few years, anti-American. And while it isn't much of a stretch to assume that Loach's film is an implicit condemnation of the U.S.'s prosecution of the latest Iraqi war and more broadly, its War on Terror -- particularly when one considers the references Loach and screenwriter Paul Laverty make to an illegal occupying army, as well as the extremely viscerally scenes of torture the director includes -- the fact is that The Wind that Shakes the Barley sustains a large degree of ambiguity when it comes to which tactics are best adopted by those opposing the British presence.

After the slaughter of an innocent near the beginning of the film, and the subsequent beating of train officials by British officers, Loach's narrative follows a small band of Republicans as they strike back against the far-better equipped British military. At the center of The Wind that Shakes the Barley --and of the militia itself -- are brothers, Damien (Cillian Murphy) and Teddy (Padraic Delaney); the latter is in fact the victim of torture in the aforementioned scene. However, once Britain forwards a truce, Damien and Teddy split ways with the former favoring continued guerrilla violence until Ireland is completely free of the British, whereas Teddy supports a maintenance of the hard-earned peace. While Teddy certainly possesses a moral authority earned by his heroic withstanding of extreme physical torture, Damien's clear socialist sympathies -- even leading the blue-eyed Damien to speak out in protest during the parish priest's homily -- mark the character as an extension of Loach's own oft-articulated leftist politics. As such, one might say that Loach tips his hand in favor of Damien's radicalism, though it is Damien and not Teddy who ultimately meets the greater tragedy -- though Teddy is by no means immune from the tragic either (given especially that he is Damien's brother). Hence, there seems to exist a futility to Damien's radicalism within this context, though it is likewise clear Loach does not endorse the alternative.

Joining The Wind that Shakes the Barley on New York screens later this month -- April 25th to be exact -- Johnnie To's Triad Election (a.k.a. Election 2) also shares with Loach's film a screening at last year's Cannes festival (vehimantly protested by the Chinese government) and as that parenthetical should indicate, political aspirations. In To's case, the enemy is Beijing, which is, as his narrative will make clear, the biggest syndicate of them all. Triad Election, as its sequel-obscuring U.S. title indicates, treats Hong Kong's underworld election with an unwilling, thirty-something tycoon Jimmy (Louis Koo) as the presumptive favorite. To be sure, Jimmy makes it quite clear that he has no interest in becoming the "biggest gangster" inasmuch as he is only interested in "making money." However, if one wants to be a businessman in Hong Kong -- and more pointedly as To suggests, China -- one needs be a gangster. In fact, while said balloting prompts extensive violent machinations as we are compelled to expect from the triad genre, it finally becomes clear that real threat to independent Hong Kong businessmen are not the triads at all, but Beijing. Indeed, China intervenes subsequent to the elections, demanding that centuries of tradition be discarded (for a result that will allow them to control the underworld of the former British colony).

Ultimately, the Triads are powerless against the Chinese, producing a message that may be far less sexy -- and less likely to secure hardware on the French Riviera -- than anti-Americanism, but one that remains a great deal more courageous. In fact To joins Tian Zhuangzhuang (and the latter's 1993 The Blue Kite) as a fearless critic of Beijing, thus reinvigorating a moribund national cinema. Moreover, while perhaps lacking the directorial pyrotechnics of his 2004 Breaking News, for example, Triad Election nevertheless features a great deal more visual inspiration than does The Wind that Shakes the Barley: for instance, in the director's staging of triad conferences in a pitch-black setting, thus removing everything but the visually essential from these meetings, there seems to exist a move toward abstraction in Triad Election that is on par with his genre-reversing The Mission (1999) -- and which matches his thematic revisions of genre. In other words, while Triad Election is every bit as indebted to a tradition of popular filmmaking -- albeit to the Hong Kong action film rather than the Anglo period biopic -- To shows an ambition in Triad Election which is largely absent in Loach's sympathetic portrait of the I.R.A. If only Wong was as brave heading a jury as he is making films (not that I still wouldn't have preferred Climates or heavy-favorite Volver).

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

The Wellspring Collection: Russian Ark (2002, Russia/Germany, 96 minutes)

The fact that Russian Ark is comprised of a single, 90-plus minute take might give one the wrong impression: that the picture is primarily a technical tour-de-force. Of course, the details of its production only add to this misconception. To begin with, Russian Ark was filmed entirely within the Hermitage of St. Petersburg, which because of its international cultural status required that director Aleksandr Sokurov and his crew complete the shoot in a single day (on the 23rd of December, 2001). After four years of development, filming commenced with over 1,000 actors, three orchestras and countless technicians. Sokurov entrusted the operation of a lone high-definition video camera to steadycam operator Tilman Büttner (Run Lola Run, 1998), whose task was to realize the director’s vision of three hundred years of Russian history in a single mobile take. Following three false starts, each of which were aborted around the ten minute mark, Russian Ark wrapped after a successful fourth attempt, thereby making history as the world’s first one-take feature, and achieving the director’s purpose of making a film “in one breath.”

Aleksandr Sokurov was born during the summer of 1951 in the former Soviet village of Podorvikha (located within the Irkutsk district).[i] As a young adult, Sokurov enrolled in Gorky University where he later earned a degree in history. In 1975, Sokurov switched courses, entering the Producer's Department at the All-Union Cinematography Institute (VGIK, Moscow). There, he soon came into conflict with the school’s administration, forcing the future director to finish a year early after his student works in cinematography were condemned for their formalism and their “anti-Soviet views.” (In hindsight, both accusations were undoubtedly accurate.) Nevertheless, the director’s first feature, The Lonely Voice of Man (1978-87), which was not accepted for graduation, received numerous prizes and the support of legendary Soviet director Andrei Tarkovsky, who helped Sokurov find work at the Lenfilm studio in 1980. To be sure, Tarkovsky has remained Sokurov’s primary influence ever since, providing the latter with a template for poetic and one might say spiritual filmmaking. These qualities are apparent in a series of masterworks that include Days of Eclipse (1988), The Second Circle (1990) and Sokurov’s signature Mother and Son (1997), all of which have won numerous international prizes for the Russian auteur.

In fact, Tarkovsky’s impact extends even to Russian Ark, where Sokurov’s aesthetic echoes the older director’s increasing use of longer takes late in his career (many of which run to six minutes or longer, including The Sacrifice’s [1986] extraordinary penultimate sequence-shot). However, it is outside of a Russian context that one sees the clearest precursors for Sokurov’s one-take strategy. Both Miklós Jancsó’s The Red and the White (1967, Hungary) and Theo Angelopoulos’ The Traveling Players (1975, Greece), for example, mobilize long takes and crowd movements to effect temporal passage within the boundaries of a single shot. Similarly in Japan, Kenji Mizoguchi’s 1953 masterpiece Ugetsu inaugurated the technique of introducing subjective variation within the space and time of a camera movement, via the director’s presentation of an encounter between the film’s male protagonist and his late wife. Nevertheless, while each of these antecedents attained an unprecedented level complexity in terms of their staging, the limits imposed by Sokurov’s subject created a number of unique impediments, any of which could have ended the production of Russian Ark permanently: a light burning out at an inopportune time, an actor flubbing his or her lines, or the camera lens steaming up as action moved from the courtyard back into the museum. Anticipating the last of these, Sokurov conducted experiments in a freezer and lacking the conclusive evidence he needed, lit a candle in a church, where he prayed for the success of his shoot.[ii]

Viewing Russian Ark in light of the challenges posed by the production, a certain tension – or even drama – is created by the film’s unspooling. Then again, to scrutinize Russian Ark in these terms would be to miss the point of Sokurov’s adoption of a one-take format (and to deviate from the way in which most spectators attend to the film). Indeed, one of the more remarkable qualities of Russian Ark is the ease with which the viewer forgets that they are watching a single-take picture. By the time the film concludes, it is less the technical bravura that is in evidence, than the melancholic mood that permeates the nobility’s final exit from the Winter Palace. An overwhelming emotional heft accompanies the film’s denouement, confirming Russian Ark’s elegiac status, which in its case pertains to the passing of high Russian and European civilization. As the ever-present off-screen narrator (voiced by Sokurov himself) says to his on-screen companion, Sergei Dreiden as the historical Marquis de Custine, “Farewell, Europe.” Thus, Russian Ark eulogizes not only the pre-Revolution Russian history that is instantiated by Sokurov’s cast of thousands which fill the grand hallways and ballrooms of the Hermitage, but also the beauty and majesty of this waning civilization: it is for the Canova at which the Stranger shouts “Mama” and for Rembrandt’s late masterwork "The Prodigal Son" upon which Sokurov and Büttner’s camera lingers and for Catherine the Great’s priceless china that is used during the dinner service; and it is for the costuming produced by the crew’s sixty-five designers, the music performed by Russian Ark’s three orchestras, and for the ephemeral qualities of the ball sequence depicted at the picture’s end – that is, for the dances, the gesturing, etc.

Therefore, it becomes clear that Russian Ark’s title is descriptive of its purpose: namely, to preserve a culture that continues to disappear. Sokurov’s use of the term ‘ark’ to describe this process is far from accidental: as the shot’s digitally-enhanced conclusion makes clear, the museum itself (or perhaps more accurately, the film) is this ark and is “destined to sail forever.” (Sokurov even adds rolling waves to the landlocked wintry exterior.) In this way, Russian Ark demonstrates both its currency among contemporary European cinema and also its integral position to the director’s oeuvre. With respect to the former, Russian Ark’s focus on a crumbling civilization situates the film in a fin-de-siècle tradition that also includes Michael Haneke’s The Seventh Continent (1989), Manoel de Oliveira’s Abraham’s Valley (1993), Raoul Ruiz’s Time Regained (1999; Ruiz likewise utilizes the technique of combining tracking shots with zooms to reshape spatial dimensions in his own narrative of time travel). As far as the director’s own corpus is concerned, contrary to the opinion of many critics, Russian Ark is very much of a piece with many of the director’s previous works: Russian Ark seems to complete a cycle of films – most of which feature the word ‘elegy’ in their titles – that similarly eulogize. Indeed, as with the director’s previous Elegy of a Voyage (2001), Russian Ark tours a museum’s galleries, though unlike that former film or indeed any of the other works that likewise comprise said cycle, Russian Ark greatly exceeds Sokurov’s previous efforts in terms of the scope of its production. As such, Russian Ark might just be the endpoint of the director’s aesthetic, and perhaps even its culmination.[iii]

At the same time, Russian Ark’s form remains a function of its content, not simply the latest manifestation of a personal style. Again, Russian Ark depicts three hundred years of the nation’s history – that is, of the transformation in the Hermitage’s use – beginning with Peter the Great (the city’s founder) and ending in the present among the gallery goers, though the narrative follows no similar trajectory. Throughout, the Marquis and the off-camera narrator snake through various historical moments, at times interacting with the palace’s population, and in other instances remaining invisible to the instruments of history. Through their tour a unitary fractal of time and space – a single shot – is maintained, even as the mise-en-scène cedes from one historical moment to the next. In fact, it is Sokurov’s careful delineation of on- and off-camera space that allows so many disparate times to coexist within the museum walls. Not only are new moments in the museum’s history broached when our guides cross through the palace’s thresholds from one room to the next, but indeed the space outside the frame is constantly remaking itself according to its next historical stage, just as Sokurov transforms the disclosed museum that exists before our eyes. Sokurov and Büttner transform on-camera space by pairing their forward tracking camera with zooms that effectively flatten or stretch the space in view, thereby producing a visual analogy for the historical transformations that shape the narrative. At the same time, Sokurov’s insistent use of a single take reaffirms the spatial unity of the museum. That is, if the contents of the space are being transformed over the course of Sokurov’s narrative, its basic scaffolding remains secure. Sokurov’s ‘ark’ therefore is a vessel of time – or multiple times – preserving again far more than the material objects on view in the Hermitage. Russian Ark enshrines the past, utilizing the specificity of an unbroken sequence of moving images to unite the broad scope of the palace’s history. Thus, Russian Ark creates a new form of montage that depends not on the juxtaposition of discrete spatial-temporal fragments in sequence, but on the moment-to-moment transformation of the mise-en-scène and on the arrangement of multiple time values in a single space. We may say, consequently, that the shot no longer denotes a united space and time but the potential for multiple times – the history of a space.

Directed by Aleksandr Sokurov Director of Photography, Steadycam Operator Tilman Büttner Produced by Andrey Deryabin, Jens Meurer, Karsten Stöter Screenplay by Anatoly Nikiforov, Aleksandr Sokurov Design Visual Concept and Principal Image Aleksandr Sokurov Music Performed by Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra Conducted by Valery Gergiev Original Score Sergey Yevtushnko Presentation of Hermitage Bridge Studio, Egoli Tossell Film AG

Cast Sergei Dreiden…. The Stranger - The Marquis de Custine, Maria Kuznetsova…. Catherine the Great, Leonid Mozgovoy…. The Spy, Mikhail Piotrovsky…. Himself (The Hermitage Director), David Giorgobiani…. Orbeli, Aleksandr Chaban…. Boris Piotrovsky, Tamara Kurenkova…. Herself (The Blind Woman)…. Maksim Sergeyev…. Peter the Great, Vladimir Baranov…. Nicholas II, Anna Aleksakhina…. Alexandra Fyodorovna, Wife of Nicholas II, Aleksandr Razbash…. Military Official

[i] The biographical details included in this paragraph were taken from Aleksandr Sokurov’s official site, Island of Sokurov, which is overall an extraordinary resource on the director’s life and his body of work.
[ii] This last anecdote is included in Knut Elstermann’s fine documentary on the film’s making, In One Breath: Alexander Sokurov's Russian Ark (2003), which Wellspring featured on its DVD release of the film from that same year.
[iii] In terms of the critical response to Russian Ark, few if any of the director’s films have been as widely praised in the U.S.: it is, for instance, the only of the director’s films to have been reviewed by Roger Ebert, who gave the picture four stars (out of four) for his Chicago Sun-Times column. Likewise, art house-minded critics Jonathan Rosenbaum (Chicago Reader) and J. Hoberman (The Village Voice) both named the film as one of the year’s “ten best” in 2002. In addition, Russian Art is also the director’s only box office success, grossing a respectable $2,326,979 during its U.S. theatrical run, including an impressive $29,022 opening tally on two screens in December of 2002 (courtesy of Box Office Mojo). To date, Russian Ark has earned more than $6.5 million worldwide, of which forty-five percent has been earned in the United States, making it the seventy-ninth highest grossing foreign language film in this country’s history. These numbers are all the more impressive when one considers that Father and Son (2004), Sokurov’s most recent film to earn an American theatrical release – also courtesy of Wellspring – has yet to earn $40,000. On the contrary, the director’s highly-acclaimed biography of Japanese Emperor Hirohito, The Sun (2005) – Cahiers du Cinema’s number one film of the year – remains undistributed. Surely, The Sun’s inability to secure U.S. distribution emphasizes the void left by Wellspring’s disappearance from the American theatrical landscape.