Sunday, August 20, 2017

Colossal

Colossal (2016 dir. Nacho Vigalando) is a disturbing horror-allegory concealed behind the avuncular mask of romantic comedy.  The film takes a completely unexpected direction and moves so rapidly after pivoting that it leaves the audience behind.  The experience is interesting, but the movie doesn't quite succeed -- it's reach is far greater than its grasp and the film's standard issue rom-com style doesn't really match its alarming theme. 

Colossal stands for the proposition that most of us conceal monsters beneath a fa├žade of every-day congeniality.  What seem to be mere foibles are, perhaps, signs of hideous psychic disorder.  The picture makes these ideas literal -- the heroine's alcoholism is materialized as an enormous, mantis-like humanoid giant menacing Seoul.  When the heroine steps into a playground in her hometown in a small New England town, a Godzilla-sized kaiju (or "strange giant beast") appears in Seoul and begins smashing up the city.  Exactly how or why this phenomenon exists is left unclear -- it seems to have something to do with a childhood trauma inscribed in lightning flashes emerging from a vortex of storm cloud.  The heroine is stalked, and, ultimately, terrorized by Jason Sudeikis, cast against type as the film's villain.  Sudeikus capitalizes on his easy likeability -- we expect him to be the lead in a romantic comedy in which he and Anne Hathaway, playing the film's heroine, Gloria, will happily hook-up, not without some complications posed by Gloria's former boyfriend, but nevertheless, two attractive people well suited for one another.  (The film's casting is either inept or subtly brilliant:  Sudeikis excels at self-deprecating humor --  he's a blue-collar regular guy, a man's man, and a little too normal and a little too mediocre, perhaps, for the ethereal, even strangely other worldly Anne Hathaway.  She's too pre-Raphaelite exquisite for Sudeikis and, indeed, this turns out to be the case.)  Gloria has fled her domineering boyfriend in New York City, a place where she works as a writer for an Internet blog -- more accurately stated, he has thrown her out because of her irresponsibility.  We aren't sure how to read her handsome boyfriend with his faint British or Australian accent -- is the guy supposed to be a domineering jerk or is he genuinely concerned about his girlfriend's pattern of staying out all night, partying at all hours, and not contributing the rent?  We can't tell for sure how we are supposed to view this character and this ambiguity floats generally over all of the figures in the movie -- they are hard to interpret and the film presents them in underwritten roles that are either intentionally enigmatic or simply incompetently presented.  The film is disturbing because you can't ascertain whether the sense of confusion that you feel is a result of error or intention, an uncertainty that is systemic throughout the movie.  As it happens, the charming Sudeikis turns out to be a vicious nasty drunk and, even, physically abusive -- he beats up the fragile-looking Gloria not once but twice in the film and, in the final confrontation, she attacks and kills him.  The picture, shot as if it were going to be a charming light comedy, turns out to be aggressively violent, mean-spirited and savage. 

When Gloria comes to the small-town where she was born, she immediately latches onto Oscar, a childhood friend and bar owner.  Oscar seems to be a friendly drunk with two friends who hang around his tavern drinking after-hours.  One of these guys seems to be gay, or possibly a drug addict -- this part is performed by Tim Blake Nelson, who, as always, is excellent.  The other man, Joel, is Nelson's sidekick and, even, possibly his lover -- this is ambiguous.  Gloria seduces Joel and has sex with him.  This conduct may be related to her alcoholism but immediately disturbs the audience -- isn't Gloria supposed to be earmarked for the happy-go-lucky and generous Oscar?  But Oscar turns out to be a monster as well, literally a giant laser-armed robot that is also terrorizing Seoul.  Whenever he and Gloria step into the playground to wrestle or fight, their exploits are reflected in a titanic duels in Seoul between their monster-surrogates, the huge hideous mantis figure and the giant, death-ray projecting robot -- in these battles, buildings are toppled and mobs of Koreans run frantically to and fro.  The scenes in Seoul aren't effectively filmed and so don't seem to add much to the duel between Oscar and Gloria played out in small-town Maine.  In fact, this defect in the film is also intentional -- we are supposed to sense that Oscar and Gloria, with all their deadly flaws, are more horrifying than their surrogate beasts, the big monsters fighting in the CGI-gloom in Seoul. 

The film is better than its execution and more interesting than it seems while watching.  The movie asserts effectively the role that alcohol plays in most people's lives -- booze makes us bigger than life, expands our gestures, and liberates a me that is not me.  This is reflected by the monsters in embattled Seoul.  At one point, Gloria says to Oscar:  "You hate how small you've become..." and we see how his erotic failure has made him monstrous, and how his jealousy has become lethal and savage:  those who are made to feel small often compensate by imagining themselves immense and powerful.  It's a cleverly written film:  at one point, Gloria urges the hapless Oscar to open part of his bar that is decked out with a cowboy theme and Monument Valley murals -- "it's so ironic," she says, "like a fucking Wes Anderson movie."  Gloria's immensely delicate porcelain beauty doesn't exactly fit with her depravity in the film and, of course, she is also cast against type -- it's as hard to imagine her as an out-of-control promiscuous drunk as it is difficult to imagine Jason Sudeikas as a terrifying bad guy.  But all of these misfires seem to be intentional and this is why this problematic picture packs a disturbing punch.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Ozark

There are ten episodes of Ozark on Netflix (2017) and the series is an excellent, a superbly crafted crime program.  The show has excellent actors, is well-written, and continuously surprising -- although the general trajectory of the narrative is clear enough, the program's creators deliver surprising twists and turns to the story and the show's final episode convincingly integrates the disparate strands in the plot into a satisfying climax.  The show purports to realism and so there aren't the strange flights of fancy that sometimes elevate Fargo, a similar program, into higher and more complex realms.  Further, Ozark is tightly coiled -- it's pieces all fit together and so it doesn't display the innovative anti-narrative and centrifugal energy that makes Twin Peaks (The Return) so enormously fascinating -- and, it should be said, frustrating.  That said, Ozark is more entertaining in a conventional sense -- it doesn't stretch the limits of the form and the action is neatly focused.  You won't be inspired by Ozark but the show is dependably and continuously entertaining in the best sense -- it has fascinating characters that the writers seem to care about intensely and this concern translates into a convincing and superbly performed narrative with a beginning, middle, and end.  This program's narrative innovation is to hurl the viewer into the action without any explanation and, then, provide a convincing exposition in later episodes.

The show begins with an assault on the viewer that develops in directions that don't seem fully plausible at first.  A financial planner, played with weasel-aplomb by Justin Batemen (he looks like Rob Lowe but is a better actor) finds himself in trouble with a Mexican drug cartel.  Bateman lives in Chicago and he's apparently a kind of "everyman" and his lack of distinction, his bland good looks and rapid-fire salesman's delivery, provides the viewer with an effective and gripping point of access to the mayhem that will follow.  Bateman's Marty Byrde is married, unhappily, to Wendy (also excellently played by Laura Linnea). Wendy is having a love affair and seems remote from her husband.  Who can blame her? -- he is addicted to watching a rather inexpressive porno-video:  it shows an anonymous woman providing oral sex to a man that we can't identify and, then, some sexual intercourse, also shot from a particularly non-revealing vantage.  (We immediately wonder why Marty is watching repeatedly this uninteresting sex clip -- later, the basis for his fascination will be revealed.)   A group of Mexican villains, the sort of sleek, menacing and handsome bad hombres, that Trump probably thinks are real, invade the story.  They torture and summarily kill Marty's business partner and his wife.  Marty, who is very glib and self-assured, talks his way out of being murdered for money that he and his partner seem to have skimmed from the drug cartel.  Marty has learned that there are business opportunities at Lake of the Ozarks in southern Missouri; we repeatedly hear that Lake of the Ozarks has more shoreline than California.  He pleads with the drug lord (a sort of clone of the well-manicured and soft-spoken Ricardo Montalban) to be allowed to go to Lake of the Ozarks and launder money for the mobsters.  Surprisingly, the gangster-boss agrees to this and Marty with his wife and two children flee to southern Missouri where the hero starts to launder money with surprising skill and agility.  In the course of this rapid-fire first episode, Wendy's lover is collateral damage -- he is hurled from an 80 story window from a lakeside condo south of the Chicago loop.  Marty confronts Wendy and agrees that their marriage is over and that they are now nothing more than "business partners" in the money-laundering scheme.  These events all transpire with lightning rapidity and, although parts of the story seem profoundly implausible -- for instance, why is Marty so exceptionally skilled at laundering money? -- the accelerated pace of the narrative keeps us involved and not questioning aspects of the story that seem improbable.  (SPOILER ALERT:  I will reveal plot points of significance below and if you want to enjoy the show for its intricate and surprising narrative, I suggest that you stop reading at this point and just tune in the show.)  Only in the 8th episode, a show that is entirely flashback to 2007, do we learn that Marty has been complicit in drug-money laundering for many years, that he is a trusted lieutenant in the cartel's economic schemes, and that Wendy has also been complicit in the criminal enterprise:  in effect, the couple have made a Faustian bargain with the drug cartel, hence, Marty's initially surprising alacrity with money laundering.

By the end of the first show, the program's story has moved from Chicago to rural Missouri and, at Lake of the Ozarks, the show plays out one of the primordial plots in American fiction and the movies -- this is the story of the brash urban City Slicker, who finds himself trapped in the country and surrounded by apparently clueless "rubes."  Of course, the rubes have their own culture and ethics and they turn out to be, if anything, more criminal, more sophisticated in their scheming, and more lethal than the big city criminals with whom the hero has been consorting.  The strength of Ozark is the depth of its characterization of rural, drug-laced criminality.  Immediately, Marty runs afoul of a clan of redneck trailer court trash who steal some of his money.  The leader of this interbred group of trailer trash is imprisoned but the clan is led, effectively and with murderous skill, by the man's 19-year old daughter,  Ruth Langmore.  This girl becomes Marty's reluctant ally and, later, partner and she is one of the best things in the show -- the girl's characterization (she's played by Julia Garner) bears some resemblance to the resourceful adolescent protagonist in another excellent crime movie set in the Ozark's Winter's Bone -- this is Dolly played by Jennifer Lawrence in that film.  Indeed, the wintry look of the show, it's dark green forests and blue twilights, all seem redolent of Winter's Bone and the menacing rednecks in Ozark are cousins to the people in the movie, but Ozark is longer, more complex, and cuts deeper.  Things are as corrupt at Lake of the Ozarks as in Chicago, although it's a different kind of rot:  Marty acquires a "titty bar" as it is called, then, an interest in a failing resort, a moribund funeral parlor (a business venture that proves to be convenient when it comes to corpse disposal), and tries to launder money through an evangelical church (the pastor is unwittingly distributing heroin in hymnals when he preaches on Sunday mornings from a boat on the lake facing a flotilla of other boats, most of them, apparently, occupied by junkies.)  There are corrupt local officials, nasty "entitled" trust-fund kids vacationing on the lake, and a clan of truly deadly hillbillies, the Snell family, who are, at once, principled and lethal and who boss the local criminal enterprises.  (The Snell's make a distinction between rednecks, who they despise, as deracinated and hillbillies -- when someone makes the mistake of calling Snell a hillbilly,  his deranged cobra of a wife blows the man's head off for the insult.)  The FBI is on Marty's trail and there is an anguished, homosexual agent pursuing him -- a nightmare character similar to the tormented FBI man played by Michael Shannon in Boardwalk Empire.  Marty and his family have rented a house from a sinister old man whose basement is full of guns.  The old man is dying and seems to be harboring a dark secret of his own and he lives on the bottom level of the home rented to Marty and family.  (In one scene, the old man, who is no stranger to violence, says that he is on the run for killing Jimmy Hoffa -- we aren't sure whether this is true or just an intimidating joke.)  Drug cartel thugs have Marty under surveillance and the FBI is watching as well and everything seems poised for a final Armageddon, a siege of Marty's lake-front home that will kill off everyone in the show.  But it's clear that the show is good enough to warrant another season and, so, midway the film starts to develop additional plot strands to eliminate the need to slaughter everyone in the final episode.  Although the final show is brutal enough, it keeps enough of the characters alive for the program to be renewed for another season. 

Here are the simple pleasures that Ozark provides.  The program is well-written and, ultimately, very believable. (I have to confess I don't understand the details of money-laundering which, in part, involves actual washers and dryers -- but this is probably a good thing.)  The program is unobtrusively filmed.  It's not too beautiful for its own good -- often a problem with Fargo -- and we are never distracted by fancy camera techniques, or jiggly hand-held work, or pretentious steadi-cam shots; the show is classically constructed and the technique makes sense without drawing attention to itself.  The program is remarkably deep with interesting characters -- the trailer trash are all delineated and the narrative doesn't condescend to anyone.  All of the acting is pitch-perfect.  Within the standard narrative of a film about gangsters and criminal enterprise, the show works interesting, and unanticipated, variations -- a good example is a scene in the last episode in which the preacher, whose wife has been vivisected by the bad guys, appears to drown his infant son.  He submerges the baby in the icy-looking waters of the lake for a long time, but the outcome of the sequence is completely unexpected, but brilliantly imagined.  Ozark is not gratuitously violent -- in fact, Marty is a character who doesn't carry a gun and has no stomach for violence of any kind; we know that he will use his wits to evade danger and will not debase himself with violent acts.  Although a lot of nasty stuff happens in the show, the worst of it is off-screen.  The program's length is exactly right for the complexity of the narrative -- there are no wasted episodes and no scenes that don't contribute to development of the plot.  This is quite remarkable because almost all extended TV series (for instance, Westworld) have hours of filler -- this show is all tendon and sinew.   

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Paterson (film group essay)

Paterson


 
‘I would rather make a film about a guy walking his dog than the king of China,"

Jim Jarmusch


 

 
Paterson (2016) is Jim Jarmusch’s film about an unsung poet living in Paterson, New Jersey. In my estimation, the film is, perhaps, the greatest movie ever made about a poet.

Jim Jarmusch is an American film maker, born and bred in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio. He was a startling apparition on the scene in New York City in the mid-seventies. Jarmusch is tall, dresses entirely in black, and has incandescent white hair. He is handsome, with ruggedly chiseled features complicated by perfect, cupid’s bow lips – Jarmusch’s lips are prettier than Mick Jagger’s or Clara Bow’s. No one has ever photographed Jarmusch’s eyes – he is always depicted wearing sunglasses. Perhaps, his eyes are red or purplish or either entirely black or entirely white. No one knows. Jarmusch is the quintessential punk-rock CBGB hipsters – he looks the way that Andy Warhol wished that he looked.

Jarmusch was a poor student and flunked out of severals schools before ending up a Columbia in New York City. He gravitated toward film, while performing intermittently in rock and roll bands. (He is friends with Neil Young and Iggy Pop and made documentary films about both artists, Year of the Horse in 1997 and Gimme Danger 2016 respectively.) In his last year at Columbia, he studied abroad in Paris, spending most of his time at the Cinematheque Francaise.

Back in New York, Jarmusch applied for admission to graduate program in the arts at NYU. He was accepted and spent a year working as a personal assistant to Nicholas Ray. Ray, a great director, had spent many years in an alcohol-induced oblivion and was dying when Jarmusch worked for him. (According to the story, Jarmusch submitted a script to Ray for credit in a course in screenwriting that the old director was teaching. Ray rejected the script and put a failing grade on it, noting that film was about "action" and the scenario didn’t have enough action in it. Jarmusch rewrote the script and defiantly removed all vestiges of action from the scenario. Ray liked the very pretty young man’s defiance and passed him.) Ray’s protracted dying was filmed by the German director, Wim Wenders, in the film Lightning over Water – Jarmusch is visible in the margins of the documentary shot by the great Robby Mueller. Later, Jarmusch used Mueller as his director of photography on a number of his pictures.

The first film directed by Jarmusch after his student production, Permanent Vacation (1980) was Stranger than Paradise released to much acclaim in 1984. (I showed that film to this group about 1986). Stranger than Paradise is a black and white comedy entirely comprised of sequence shots – each shot equals one sequence in the film. The film is very funny and engaging – the plot involves a young man from a Baltic country who tours the United States with his cousin and his cousin’s girlfriend. The trio’s objective is to see Lake Erie and the film ends with a sequences in which the characters stare out over a frozen expanse of ice mumbling dead-pan comments that there really isn’t all that much to see. Stranger than Paradise is an excellent film, an important independently produced picture, and was a box-office success – it didn’t have to earn much money to recoup the $125,000 that the movie cost. Stranger than Paradise launched a brief film making movement centered in Soho in downtown Manhattan, the so-called "No Wave."

Jarmusch’s next picture, Down by Law, (1986) was shot in lustrous black and white by Robbie Mueller in New Orleans and had conventional movie stars, albeit eccentrically cast – the film stars the Italian comedian, Roberto Benigni as well as the Soho musical luminaries Tom Waits and John Lurie. Mystery Train (1989) was shot in color in Memphis and involves three groups of lovers who have come to the town hoping to connect with the spirit of Elvis Presley – the Japanese man in the Japanese sequence ("Far from Yokohama") is Masatosi Nagase; he appears as the Japanese tourist and poet who speaks with Paterson in Paterson. Mystery Train is a warm film and very beautifully produced – the action all revolves a seedy Memphis hotel where Screamin’ Jack Hawkins plays a desk clerk. I showed the film to this group in the summer of 1990 and it was a favorite of Terry Dilley. Life on Earth (1991) is an anthology film in which all the stories involve a cab ride in a different city – the movie takes place in Helsinki, Los Angeles, and three other cities, beginning at dawn in LA and ending just before dawn in Helsinki. It is also a very fine film. (While making this film, Jarmusch met Aki Kaurismaki, the Finnish director, and Jarmusch was cast in a small role in The Leningrad Cowboys Go America.)

In 1995, Jarmusch made his most controversial film, the remarkable Western Dead Man. This film stars Johnny Depp, Gabriel Byrne, and Robert Mitchum in his last role – the picture cost 9 million dollars. Neil Young wrote and performed the soundtrack. The film is opaque and mystical; it has been derided and despised by Native Americans and admired by some of them as well. (Johnny Depp plays an Indian who is obsessed with the writings of the British visionary poet, William Blake.) The movie was not successful in the United States but was a huge hit on the art house circuit in Europe and Asia. I don’t like the picture and think it is pretentious and dull – but the film has a certain charisma: it creates a mood and doggedly sustains it.

After Dead Man, Jarmusch’s films are generally internationally funded. He made Ghost Dog – the Way of the Samurai with Forest Whitaker in 2000. This picture is an idiosyncratic gangster film abourt an American hit man obsessed with Yamamoto’s samurai manual, the Hagekura or Way of the Samurai. In my view, the film is too hip by half and doesn’t succeed.

Jarmusch dropped out of sight with respect to narrative feature films for almost five years, surfacing with a new picture, Broken Flowers in 2005. (During the hiatus, Jarmusch made a documentary with Neil Young, Year of the Horse, and edited some loose bits of footage from earlier black and white films into an anthology called Coffee and Cigarettes – these fragmentary films were shot during the production of Jarmusch’s earlier movies and feature people smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee who just happened by the set when those films were made. The snippets are droll but the film as a whole seems self-indulgent to me.) Broken Flowers was Jarmusch’s stab at making a commercially viable romantic comedy and the picture is grounded in an excellent performance by the always-bankable Bill Murray. Murray plays a man who receives a letter telling him that one of his ex-girlfriends became pregnant with his child, had the baby, and that Murray’s characters has a teenage son that is unknown to him. Murray sets out to visit each former girlfriend to discover the truth about his son. The movie was well-reviewed, but even Bill Murray couldn’t make the picture a success in the United States. It tanked at the box office here but did very well internationally, eventually earning more than 47 million dollars world wide. After Broken Flowers, Jarmusch directed The Limits of Control, a 2009 crime film that I haven’t seen and that is reportedly not wholly successful. Jarmusch followed The Limits of Control with an immensely stylish and thought-provoking vampire movie Only Lovers Left Alive (2013) – the film was largely made in the ruins of Detroit and it’s a wonderful picture, moody, romantic, and, also, very funny. Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston play the titular lovers, ancient vampires named Eve and Adam. The film has all the elements that fans expect in a Jarmusch film – dead pan humor, a great soundtrack, gloomy, gothic (Byronic) romance, stunning nocturnal camera work with a bow to some of Jarmusch’s signature obsessions: his interest in Nikolai Tesla and Iggy Pop. (Jarmusch’s 2016 documentary Gimme Danger is about Iggy Pop.)



William Carlos Williams and Paterson
Although it is not necessary to the appreciation of Jarmusch’s Paterson, a viewers enjoyment of the film will be enhanced by some allusions to the work of the great poet, William Carlos Williams and his problematic magnum opus, the epic poem, Paterson.

Williams was born in 1888 and spent his life in New Jersey. His grandmother was English; Williams wrote a notable poem about the last day of her life. His father married a Puerto Rican woman, hence, his middle name. Williams graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with a medical degree around 1913 and spent most of his life working as the director of pediatrics at the Passaic Hospital. From 1913 until the end of his life, he lived in a large, but plain home on 9 Ridge Road, East Rutherford, New Jersey. The house displayed a shingle that read "William C. Williams, M.D." For most of his life, he was a very busy doctor specializing in obstetrics and pediatric practice. He delivered babies and made house-calls.

Williams was also a very great poet, one of the principal innovators in American verse. With Ezra Pound, he founded the imagist movement about the time of World War One. He maintained close and life-long friendships with Pound and T. S. Eliot as well as Louis Zukofsky and, later, was friends with another New Jersey poet, Allen Ginsberg. (He wrote the introduction to the 1956 edition of Ginsberg’s Howl). In the twenties, Pound was associated with the Objectivist Movement, a style of poetry that makes use of documentary materials embedded in a matrix of verse. Zukofsky is another important Objectivist as is Muriel Rukeyser in her epic The House of the Dead, an angry book-length poem about Silicosis in railroad workers involved in drilling tunnels in West Virginia. Charles Reznikoff, the author of Testimony, a series of books derived from legal reports, is also a well-known Objectivist. Paterson, a book that incorporates legal documents, historical citations, and fragments of letters and other writings, is an example of a work influenced by Objectivism.

Joyce’s Ulysses made a powerful impression on Williams and led him to write a 85 line poem on the city of Paterson in 1926. Williams was at the height of his career as a pediatrician and didn’t return to the subject until the late thirties. He was greatly influenced as well by T. S. Eliot’s Waste Land but felt that the British poet (actually an expatriate American) was overly pessimistic about the modern world. Williams was friends with Hart Crane, a poet who had made the Brooklyn Bridge the subject of his optimistic and rapturous The Bridge and felt that Crane’s approach to modernity was morally superior to Eliot’s gloom. In the late thirties, Williams experimented with form and began to develop his epic into the shape that it took when first published as Paterson Book One in 1946. By this time, Williams’ debt to Joyce was primarily to Finnegan’s Wake. In Joyce’s Wake, the sleeping city of Dublin is imagined as a great giant; the giant’s dreams are the subject of the book. Williams’ imagines Paterson as a giant "asleep on h is right side with head at waterfall (so that) the rushing water fills his dreams." Although Paterson is "eternally asleep, his dreams walk about the City where he persists incognito."

Paterson is very diffuse and contains pioneer accounting books, archival political writings and letters, texts about the Federal Reserve, and descriptions of the controversy between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. In form, the poem often follows the model of Pound’s Cantos, particularly the development of "ideographs" consisting of snippets of verse, prose texts, and quotations from economics or history books. Volumes of the epic were published 1948. 1949, 1951, and 1958. Williams was appointed Librarian at the Library of Congress, a position that was highly controversial on account of his friendship with Ezra Pound, then committed to St. Elizabeth’s in Washington on charges of insanity relating to his treasonous conduct during World War II. Williams was an avuncular fellow who liked everyone and whom everyone liked in return. He couldn’t bear being disliked and was treated for clinical depression in 1952. Later, he suffered a series of debilitating strokes but composed some of his finest work after those illnesses in the late fifties. The five volumes of Paterson were combined into a single text in 1963 and published by New Directions. Williams wrote in a variety of forms – he wrote a play performed on Broadway, his autobiography, several novels and a well-received book of criticism, In the American Grain. His short story, "The Use of Force", is one of the greatest of all American writings of that kind – it is equal to similar works by Hawthorne, Poe, Hemingway and Faulkner. Williams died in March 1963 and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize posthumously.

In Book One of Paterson, Williams announces the principle underlying all of his poetic practice: "Say it – no ideas but in things..."

In my view, his greatest poem is Asphodel that Greeny Flower", a monumental work, in which these famous lines occur:


it is difficult \ to get the news from poems \ yet men die miserably every day \ for lack \ of what is found there
Some correlations between the poem and the film are worth identifying:

1. The hero is named Paterson. This reminds us that Paterson is the name both of a city and sleeping giant in Williams’ poem;

2. The hero spends his days driving his bus through Paterson – he is like the animate dreams of Paterson in Williams’ poem walking through the city but not knowing his true nature;

3. The Great Falls of the Passaic at Paterson are central to the epic poem and the film;

4. The poem Paterson chronicles the great men and women who were born in the city – similarly, Jarmusch’s film identifies great athletes, comedians (Lou Costello), musicians, and poets who came from the city. In the context of the poem, these people are the "animate" dreams of the city;

5. Williams celebrates the diversity of America and thought of himself as an American Puerto Rican poet – Paterson’s wife seems to be an immigrant (in fact, she is Persian) and the city is shown to be full of immigrants. 
6. The landscape of large brick buildings through which Paterson passes every morning and night when walks to and from work is a landscape vital to Williams’ epic – these are the great industrial textile mills and factories, now largely abandoned, but built around the Great Falls of the Passaic.

La Cienaga (film group essay)

La Cienaga


 

 
It’s hot in the foothills of the Andes Mountains. But it’s even warmer down in the city with the unpromising name La Cienaga ("The Swamp"). Mecha and Gregorio have a swimming pool at their decaying country estate, La Mandragola ("The Mandrake"). Tali is "almost Mecha’s cousin" and she decides to pay visit with her husband and four or five small children. It rains incessantly and the servants at La Mandragola are surly. Thunder sounds in the nearby mountains and the kids make expeditions into the cloud forest to shoot at a cow that has died in the mire of a nearby swamp. The swimming pool is so filthy that you can’t see someone submerged in its putrefying waters. The heat has made everyone irritable and Tali suggests that the women drive across the nearby mountain border with Bolivia. School supplies are cheap in Bolivia and the summer vacation will soon be over with the kids returning to the classes.

This is the situation in Lucrecia Martel’s debut feature film, La Cienaga (2001). Entangled, unhappy families immured in their remote country estates are crucial to the plots of several of Anton Chekhov’s plays, most notably Uncle Vanya, and Martel’s picture stands squarely within a rich film tradition of movies chronicling a disastrous weekend in the country – the most famous of these films in Renoir’s The Rules of the Game.

 



Lucrecia Martel

Martel has said that the people and milieu in La Cienaga derive from her memories of childhood in Salta, Argentina – the city that is called La Cienaga (or "the Swamp") in the film. She was born in Salta in 1966. She attended three film schools in Buenos Aires but didn’t graduate from any of them – she recalls that the schools kept going "bankrupt" before she was able to get her degree.

She worked in television for several years and produced an award-winning short subject, Rey Muerto ("Dead King") in 1995. Decisive in her career was the support of the producer Lita Stantic, one of the most important advocates for the new Argentinan cinema that emerged after the so-called "Dirty War" and the displacement of the ruling military junta. Stantic produced La Cienaga, Martel’s debut feature, and her second and third films as well, The Holy Girl (2004) and The Headless Woman (2008).

The Holy Girl is also shot entirely in Salta. The film involves a teenage girl who is intensely religious. The girl conceives a plan to save the soul of a doctor attending a medical conference at her mother’s hotel. (The film stars many of the players from La Cienaga including Mercedes Moran, who played Tali in the earlier film, as the girl’s mother.) The movie is an extraordinary mixture of Catholic piety and feverish adolescent sexuality. The Headless Woman, also shot in Salta and Salta province, is a disturbing psychological thriller. A woman hits something while driving on a lonely country road. She believes that she has killed a dog. She is traveling to seek medical attention and stays overnight in Salta. A small boy is missing in the impoverished village near the place where the crash happened. Ultimately, it seems that the boy was killed by a hit and run driver. The protagonist is tormented by guilt and fear, but nothing links her to the accident.

The rediscovery of the novel Zama by the Argentine writer Antonio di Benedetto was one of the remarkable stories in international literature in 2016. Benedetto’s Zama was republished under the imprint of New York Review of Books and it achieved international acclaim. The book involves a weary bureaucrat trapped in Asuncion, Paraguay in the 19th century. Originally published in Buenos Aires in 1956, the book was well-regarded in Argentina but unknown elsewhere. Apparently, Martel is at work adapting the book for the screen – this will be an important project with international implications. Martel’s movies, though well-reviewed internationally, have not been widely distributed in the United States – the first of her films to be seen outside of a few large cities in the United States was The Headless Woman. That picture received reasonable distribution because it was marketed through the Spanish director Almodovar’s distribution company.



Some Observations about La Cienaga

Fundamentally, La Cienaga is about accidents. (This theme is also crucial to The Headless Woman.) An accident exposes us an aspect of the world that is literally sickening – there are things that we can’t control that have the capacity to destroy us. Life is a wager and, sometimes, we are on the losing end of that bet. Of course, some accidents, in hindsight, are avoidable – in fact, almost all accidents share this characteristic: if we consider the concatenation of events leading to the accident, the calamity could have been averted at any number of times. Thus, accidents have the uncanny aspect of both being unforeseeable calamities and, also, mishaps that, with due diligence could have been avoided. The severe cuts that Mecha sustains in the opening scene beside the pool display these elements of the concept of the accidental – of course, everyone is staggering drunk and Mecha’s fall, to some extent, is her own fault. But the consequences of that fall go far beyond Mecha’s negligence – in fact, she almost bleeds to death and requires a transfusion from her daughter. This opening sequence has the squishy, nasty, and brutal character of a real accident – what is discounted at first turns out to be serious and the consequences of the cuts inflicted on Mecha go far beyond anyone’s rational control. Mecha and her drunken husband are not in control of their world.

After this opening salvo, the audience views La Cienaga as a kind of horror film, as a high-brow variant on Final Destination, a picture in which a group of teenagers dies one after another in gory mishaps. We are continuously expecting the next potentially lethal mishap – the adults are so drunk, that the unlicensed teenage girl has to drive her mother cross-country to the clinic in La Cienaga. One of the little boys has already shot out one of his eyes and the kids carry weapons in the jungle to take potshots at the animals that they encounter, including a cow that has accidentally wandered into some quicksand. The unlicensed girl is continuously forced to drive. When one of the teenagers dives into the pool, the camera turns its deadpan eye on the filthy and opaque water in the pond, recording a few bubbles drifting up to the surface – will the girl ever resurface? Mecha’s son gets punched in a drunken brawl in which knives are brandished. The kids all go down to a sinister-looking dam where they chop wildly at the water with machete knives – someone surely is going to get badly cut. Then, the dam’s spillways apparently open and powerful blasts of water spray the kids. We flinch when Tali sets up a ladder to climb up to put some flower pots on the ledge surrounding her little courtyard, the place where her toddler son plays and a small tortoise ambles about. At every point, the characters seem poised on the edge of a violent encounter with fate.

The dominance of the accidental over the characters in La Cienaga is not surprising since everyone seems to be half catatonic with the sultry Christmas time heat and the vast amounts of wine that the adults consume. People lounge around in bed, vainly nudging their bedmates for some sign that they are conscious. Everyone seems helpless and forlorn. It’s pretty clear that the road trip to Bolivia that the women plan will never happen. The characters can scarcely stir themselves to get out of bed. There is something profoundly South American about the film’s suffocating ambience of negligence, torpor, and humid, sweaty familial intimacy – it’s always siesta time and the improvements in the world that might avoid the accidents waiting to befall us can be made manana. I have heard South Americans themselves characterize their countries as the "the land of manana" – meaning, we will get to the problem tomorrow, that is, never at all.

Lucrecia Martel affects big pink glasses, the kind of spectacles worn by aggressive lady realtors, and she has not made any other movies with the density of observation in La Cienaga. The picture gives you the impression that it is one of those compilation pieces into which the director has poured a lifetime of memories and disappointments. Argentinan cinema is relentlessly political, obsessively concerned with redressing grievances suffered during the previous 20 years of murderous military junta rule. But Martel isn’t even remotely concerned with that subject. Instead, she works Renoir’s vein – the infinitely rich subject of minor domestic tragedies. As in The Rules of the Game, where we see the servants commenting on the foibles of their masters, Martel shows us all elements of her society – the fading alcoholic gentry, the aggressive urban housewife, the tough street kids in Salto, and long-suffering Indian servants. Her milieu in this film is disappointment and regret – Mecha’s fall triggers recognition of her disappointment in her marriage: she calls the scarcely sentient Jose "a pig" and exiles him from the bedroom that will be her refuge for the rest of her life. Tali seems happily married but her husband, nonetheless, silently subverts her one effort at seeking a little distance from her clamorous family – he buys the school supplies and, thus, cancels Tali’s wish to go to Bolivia. Accidents cost lives – the Indian servant girl is apparently pregnant; her resignation from work at La Mandragola is presented in a code that Mecha instantly understands. It’s pretty clear that the father of her child, the thuggish street kid whose only property seems to be his bicycle is not worthy of her. Undoubtedly, the pregnancy is a mistake, an accident. And, of course, at the end of the movie, the little boy who is associated with the African rat (his mouth seems to be eerily crowded with different sets of teeth) falls from the ladder that he has been told not to touch. We can imagine the pet tortoise slowly ambling by his unconscious body. The only ray of light in this gloomy landscape is the fact that Mecha’s dissolute son, fearing, it seems, his attraction, with Tali’s oldest daughter, returns to his (apparently half-Indian) mistress in Buenos Aires. We have seen this young man wrestling with the younger girl and, even, invading her shower to wash off his filthy feet – there is an obvious attraction between the older boy and the girl. (I equate Tali’s oldest daughter with Martel and think that the film’s peculiar tone of stifled desire and squalor arises from the director’s ambivalence about the young man – Tali’s oldest daughter, Lucrecia Martel’s surrogate, I think, clearly has a crush on the boy just as Mecha’s daughter seems to be in love with Indian servant girl. But this is puppy love, a Summer thing – although its Winter in Argentina -- an affair that is not supposed to last and it’s something that Martel can nostalgically regret while being happy that nothing ever really happened.)

Lucrecia Martel has one of the rarest capacities in the arts – a great and majestic "negative capacity". By this I mean that she sets up the situation and, then, allows it to develop without intervening to install meanings in the events that she portrays. She is willing to allow things to stand for themselves – everything isn’t integrated into some authorial (or directorial) quest for meaning. She makes us work to see the connections but never forces our attention and never requires that we accept any specific ideological or thematic understanding of her material. The most startling thing about the movie, as shown in the scenes at the dam, the dances in Salta, and the sudden spontaneous dance in La Mandragola is that notwithstanding the feelings of intense regret and disappointment that the film embodies, the characters in La Cienaga are, more or less, happy. It is, after all, home sweet home.

Detroit

Detroit (2017) is Katherine Bigelow's dramatization of the so-called Algiers Motel Incident, a particularly horrific instance of police brutality that occurred in July 1967 in the context of race riots in the Michigan city.  The film is shot documentary style with handheld cameras jammed to within inches of the faces of the actors.  And, the film is unrelievedly ugly, over-edited with pointless jump-cuts and poorly lit to simulate the exigencies of film-making in what was, for all practical purposes, a war-zone.  There is no modulation of effect -- the entire film is shot in the same style regardless of the subject matter portrayed.  Because the movie's subject is irredeemably ugly, I suppose, that one can argue that the picture's technical elements are consistent with its theme and narrative.  The film is also designed and shot in a faux-primitive manner so that the director can integrate actual TV and film footage of the race riots into the picture -- this is done with great aplomb:  the suture between the staged action and documentary footage of the mayhem in Detroit is almost seamless.  There is, however, a disturbing aspect of dishonesty to this technique -- the film is shot like The Battle of Algiers (1966) to simulate a grainy, underlit, and chaotic documentary, a gritty slice of reality, but, of course, it is all contrived:  I have no doubt that every jitter in the handheld camera, every conspicuously underlit shot, every out-of-focus close-up and whip pan or zoom to track action is, in fact, carefully (and expensively) contrived:  millions were spent to make this film look ugly.  With one exception, the cast is entirely unknown to me -- Bigelow doesn't want the audience to be distracted by recognizable movie stars; this would detract from the documentary effect that is so carefully cultivated throughout the movie's 2 1/2 hour length.  But, for some reason, Bigelow authorizes an exception:  the lawyer defending the three brutish killer-cops is John Krasinski, the cheerfully avuncular actor from The Office (and the voice-over for a number of advertisements).  Here Krasinski is cast against type, playing a ferocious and shifty defense lawyer whose tactics assure the film's fait accompli climax:  the acquittal of the three White police guilty of the massacre of Black men at the Algiers Motel.  It seems bizarre to me that Bigelow would carefully cast all other parts in the film with unknown, but highly effective actors, and, then, insert Krasinski into the proceedings -- this epitomizes, I think, a series of unfortunate decisions afflicting the film's last forty-five minutes.

Detroit divides into three acts.  After a colorful, animated overture featuring Jacob Lawrence's images of the great migration of southern Blacks to the north, Bigelow's peripatetic camera is thrust into the center of a party in an after-hours joint in Detroit:  a serviceman returned from Vietnam is being feted by his African-American friends and neighbors.  The cops break up the party and make the mistake of hauling off the people that they arrest in paddy wagons parked at the front of the "blind pig" tavern.  This attracts a crowd that turns into a mob.  The cops narrowly escape the retribution of the angry mob.  Frustrated, the crowd runs amok, burning down businesses and looting storefronts.  Three days of rioting ensue.  Firefighters are attacked on the job and, apparently, there is sniper fire from rooftops.  All of this is filmed in Bigelow's nasty, in-your-face style, but this part of the film, although rather abstract and impersonal, is effectively chaotic and frightening.  In the course of rioting, a White cop with the face of a baby goblin -- the guy has the simpering look of a young Ted Cruz -- shoots a Black man who has been stealing groceries in the back.  This cop is threatened by his boss and, indeed, the police chief says that he is going to recommend prosecution of the rogue officer for murder.  But, inexplicably, -- and this is a defect in the film's narration -- the bad cop is returned to the streets and, a few minutes later, is the instigator of the Algiers Motel slaughter.

The action shifts to a group of young musicians, the Dramatics.  They hope to perform at the Fox Theater and, indeed, are about to take the stage when the police surround the building, announce a curfew, and force the show to be closed before the doo-wop group can strut their stuff.  Two members of the band get trapped in the violence on the streets.  They end up in the annex to the Algier's Motel, a downtown dive notorious for crime and prostitution. At the motel, a bunch of Black men are partying with a couple of White girls and the two musicians take part in the festivities.  The Black men are vying with one another for the attention of the White girls and there is a lot of one-upmanship among them.  Ultimately, one of the men shows off by firing a starter pistol in the direction of the cops and National Guard cordon outside the building on the street.  The soldiers and police riddle the motel with bullets and three White cops, led by the evil kid with the upturned eyebrows and goblin face, charge into the motel searching for a sniper.  Almost immediately, the rogue cop pointlessly kills one of the Black men and plants a switchblade next to his body.  Obsessed with finding a  weapon to justify this atrocity, the cops line up all the people in the motel's annex, beat them repeatedly with the butts of their rifles, and threaten to kill them all unless they surrender the shooter and his weapon.  But, of course, this is a futile exercise because there is no shooter and no gun, just the starter pistol, a sort of cap-gun.  Everyone is covered with blood and Bigelow tracks the action relentlessly, keeping her camera no more than six to eight inches from the sweaty faces of the cops and the people being brutalized. 

The events at the motel are Bigelow's primary concern and, for at least an hour, we are witness to various forms of physical and emotional torture inflicted on the hapless African-Americans in the motel.  This is a harrowing and protracted set piece and there's no point in pretending that it isn't brutally effective and terrifying.  The cops haul the Black men into a room, beat them up, and, then, pretend to shoot them, discharging their guns into the floor next to their cowering victims.  One of the White cops doesn't get the program and, apparently, thinks that they are really shooting their suspects and so he guns down the man that he is interrogating.  By this time, the State Troopers and the National Guard have washed their hands of the proceedings in the motel, withdrawing in order to stay out of what they characterize as a "civil rights" mess.  Complicating this sequence are the reactions of a Black security guard, a man who has been hired to protect a nearby business, and who is complicit to some degree in the brutal conduct of the White cops -- he too thinks that there is a sniper and that, at least, at first the police are justified in using force to protect themselves.  Of course, as the scene progresses, this man has more and more reservations about what he sees happening, although he never intervenes to help anyone.  One of the White girls gets stripped by the cops and there is no doubt that much of the sadism in the scene is sexually inflected -- the White cops are protecting their sexual privileges with respect to the two pretty young Caucasian girls of questionable morality who appear to have Black boyfriends:  the girls are accused of being prostitutes and the film leaves unclear their actual status.  Ultimately, the cops can't find a gun and decide to abandon the motel, now a crime scene.  They simply run away.  One of the brutalized Black men is told that he hasn't seen anything and that the cops haven't committed any atrocities -- when he balks at this phony tale, the goblin-faced policeman guns him down. 

The third act in the film focuses on the aftermath of the crimes committed at the Algiers Motel.  (This incident was the subject of a bestseller by John Hershey.  But the author donated all the proceeds of the book to a civil liberties group and stipulated that the text never be made into a movie for fear of sensationalizing the savagery at  the motel -- the movie never acknowledges Hershey's book and, in fact, in a final title suggests that no one really knows what happened there; it's legal weasel-move and one that calls into question everything we have just seen.)  Bigelow has exhausted herself with the set-piece involving the atrocities and she doesn't really seem much interested in her disheartening and obligatory demonstration of institutional racism in the American justice system.  In this part of the film, Bigelow seems to think that we know the story so well that we can figure out episodes that are confusing or that seem to be pointless.  There is a scene in a morgue in which the father of one of the victims is summoned to identify his dead son -- the sequence is shot in a way that makes no sense:  we don't know whether the father has already identified his boy or is about to see the corpse; a White woman expresses sympathy but the scene can't be parsed.  Similarly, we see a member of the Dramatics fingering tickets and, simultaneously being served a summons -- this sets up some kind of conflict and, in fact, we see the man traveling (where? why?) in the next shot, but this also doesn't make any narrative sense.  (It's as if big chunks of the epilogue section have been left on the cutting room floor.)  The lead singer of the Dramatics can no longer perform because he doesn't want his music to be used "so that White people can dance" -- he points out that the Dramatic's biggest fans are White.  This seems a pretty trite point to make and the kid's revenge on White people, denying them his voice and dance music, is petulant and ill-motivated.  (Bigelow can't settle on whether the man is making a political point or suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder that precludes him from singing when White people are in the house.)  This character's struggles bring the film to its end and, once again, the movie's frenetic style undercuts its effects:  the singer suffering from PTSD goes to a Black church and asks to be allowed to sing in the choir.  First, we see him in a unheated "squat" -- Bigelow cuts the shot three times, using time- or jump cuts and this form of decoupage is distracting:  it pulls us out of the movie.  There's no reason that this humble sequence should have been cut into three close-ups when a single set-up at a decent distance from the actor would have sufficed to make all the points implicit in the scene.  Later, when the traumatized young man sings in church, we get a montage where, in fact, a restrained single shot or, perhaps, a tracking camera movement on wheels or with steady-cam would have been warranted.  Instead the actor is in profile with the camera about three inches from the man's cheek, the camera cutting frequently for no reason at all -- again, this is completely distracting, draws attention to the film's style, and forcibly knocks us out of any reasonable emotional engagement with the picture.

Bigelow's previous film, also written by scenarist Ned Boal, was Zero Dark Thirty, a terrible picture ineptly shot and staged and, also, relentlessly savage and violent.  Detroit is a great improvement on that film and the massacre sequence in the Algiers Motel has tremendous cumulative force.  In some ways, the film seems to me to be Bigelow's penance for the Right-wing and politically reactionary implications of her previous movie.  The picture reminds me of the much more stylish, and equally horrific atrocity film, Casualties of War, a 1989 Brian de Palma production from featuring a bravura set piece rape and murder and ending with an inconsequential trial in which the perpetrators evade justice.  Bigelow's picture is pitch-perfect in its scenes of cruelty and injustice, but, ultimately, the entire film feels pointless  -- we walk out of the movie stunned and depressed.  But to what end? -- White police are still killing Black men and nothing really can be done about this fact.  Bigelow is a master of drawing hysterical attention to things that are completely obvious and, probably, known by every one -- we see what bad stuff looks like, but this isn't the same as developing any understanding for the forces at work that have led us to these infamous misfortunes.    

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Aferim!






Radu Judu
Aferim! is a period picture directed by Radu Jude. Jude is a director affiliated with the Rumanian New Wave.

Jude was born in Bucharest in 1977. He attended film school, graduating in 2003, and, then, worked on some international films, including Costa Gavras Amen (2004). He was an assistant director on one of the founding films of the Rumanian New Wave, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, made by Cristi Piui in 2005.

Jude has worked extensively in Rumanian television and has directed more than 100 TV commercials. His short (23 minute) film, The Tube with a Hat (2006) has won awards at more than a dozen film festivals. The film concerns a boy who is upset that his television set is broken. With his profane and foul-mouthed father, the boy drags the ailing TV set across a soggy, rural landscape. The objective is for someone to fix the TV so that he boy can watch a Bruce Lee film that is scheduled for broadcast.

Jude has made about five feature films. Prior to Aferim!, his most well-received picture was 2012's Everybody in our Family, a movie about a divorced man struggling to arrange a vacation to the Black Sea with his daughter who lives in the custody of his estranged wife and her boyfriend. (This film is amplification of a short subject called Alexandra made in 2007). The controversial Aferim! was released 2012. It garnered the director an award for Best Direction (second place) in the Berlin Film Festival.

In 2016, Jude released Scarred Hearts, a film based on a well-known Rumanian autobiographical novel. The movie is about a love affair between two patients at a tuberculosis clinic and hospital in the nineteen-thirties and, apparently, addresses obliquely the rise of Fascism in Rumania. The film has received a mixed reaction.

 


Rumanian New Wave
Some dispute exists as to when the Rumanian New Wave in film making first took hold. Many critics, however, date this film movement to 2005, the year that Cristi Piui made The Death of Mr. Lazarescu and Corneliu Porumboi directed 12:08 East of Bucharest, a scathing and extremely funny post-mortem on the revolution that swept Nicolai Ceausecue from power – this happened in December 1989 (possibly at 12:08 in Bucharest). In 2006, Christian Nemeresu directed Marilena from P7, a 43 minutes picture about a child prostitute. 2007 saw the release of Four months, Three weeks, and Two Days directed by the third member of the triumvirate of leading Rumanian New Wave directors, Cristian Mungiu. (This film is a harrowing account of a young woman’s abortion – it remains a film that I have been unable to watch to its conclusion.) Police, Adjective (2009) is a kind of ultra low-key crime film, directed by Porumboi. Beyond the Hills (2012) is the second film in Cristi Piui’s projected group of films entitled "Six Films from the Outskirts of Bucharest."

Rumanian New Wave films are characterized by a directorial style that seems obsessed with rejecting anything that might hint at Hollywood narrative film making. The movies feature exceptionally long takes that are often punishing to the audience – the camera is usually placed in a position where its view of the action is occluded. The films use almost no close-ups and have minimalist plots, generally a situation with absurdist implications worked out at length. The narratives are documentary in style and generally promote some readily accepted social truism. The inaugural film of the movement, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu is based on a real event, the death of so-called Patient 52, a pensioner who was shuffled from one emergency room waiting room or corridor until he died – the point is that medical care should be better in Rumania and that the elderly should be treated with more compassion. Police, Adjective is about corrupt police practices; 4 Months 3 Weeks and 2 Days, by implication, suggests that abortion at will should be readily available. Afterim! demonstrates that slavery is brutal and a bad institution – probably a notion with which most of us would agree.

It’s hard to be enthusiastic about a film movement that is essentially negative in character. Like the Dogme movement in Scandinavia, the Rumanian new wave defines itself as being adamantly anti-Hollywood. But there is a question as to how much squalor an audience should be forced to suffer, particularly when the hyper-realistic desolation is presented in extremely long takes lensed by a fixed camera, often, with a poor perspective on the action presented. And the naive adherents of the Rumanian New Wave should be reminded from time to time that anti-glamor always ends up as its own specious form of glamor – Andy Warhol demonstrated this in the sixties and the Punk Rock movement proved the same point a decade later.




Wallachia
Wallachia is a portion of modern-day Rumania between the lower Danube (flowing into the Black Sea) and the Carpathanian Mountains. For the our purposes, the area can be thought of as the Wild West of Eastern Europe. Certainly, this is how Jude portrays the region in Afterim!.

Wallachia dates to a rebellion by a Vlach (Slavic) voivode (warlord) before 1350. At that time, the area was under the control of the Christian empire of Hungary. Basarab, a Vlach voivode, threw off the yoke of the Hungarians and established a principality. (Basarab has a Turkish name, but seems to have been a Christian Slav). Little Wallachia persisted as collection of loosely allied feudal principalities against repeated Turkish invasions. It’s great national hero is Vlad III Dracula, known as Vlad the Impaler – he successfully repelled the Ottoman incursions in Wallachia in the early 15th century.

Ultimately, Wallachia fell under Turkish suzereinity and was ruled, albeit with a light hand and remotely, from Istanbul. The Turks governed the country through a class of Christians called Phanariots – that is, wealthy Greek merchants who held an enclave in Istanbul and loaned money to the Sultans. Phanariot Christians were dispatched to Wallachia and given feudal estates in exchange for keeping the peace in the region. Nonetheless, Wallachia was a "blood land" – the country was a battlefield where Turks fought the Russians and the Austrians (who were now allied with Hungary). The territory was largely lawless, polyglot, and wretchedly poor. Wealthy Boyars (boyar = landlord) managed enormous feudal estates. The Boyars were generally Greek Phanariots although some were Slavs. As depicted in the film, the Boyars lived like Sultans – they wore enormous kalpaks (or bulbous fez hats) and generally adopted the customs of the Ottomans. Their women wore Turkish harem attire.

Wallachia was devastated by a great plague that decimated Bucharest, the area’s leading city, in 1813 - 1814. (This is called Caragea’s plague and seems to be referenced at the outset of the film; the disease was the bubonic plague). The Greek war for independence triggered a similar uprising in Wallachia in 1821, but this was unsuccessful.

The Russians fought the Turks in 1828 and defeated them. By that conflict the Russians seized control of Wallachia. However, Russia didn’t have much use for the quarrelsome frontier ruled largely by feudal boyars and so Russia returned Wallachia to Turkish control in the 1832. Governance of the region shifted between Ottoman Turk and Russian authorities every few years up to 1848 and the Wallachian revolution. This uprising, part of a series of rebellions that convulsed Europe in that year, was mounted against Turkish rule that was paradoxically enforced by the Russian military. There were more wars and the Treaty of Paris led to a situation in which Wallachia was jointly ruled by Turkey and Russia under the supervision of five other European powers. This proved to be untenable. The Russians fought the Turks again in 1877 and, during this war, a severely weakened Ottoman Empire conceded the sovereignity of Rumania.

For the purposes of Afterim! imagine Wallachia to be something like Arizona territory, vast and mountainous wilderness with desert-like steppes. The Boyars may be imagined as great ranchers. The great landlords or ranchers hold enormous estates on which they rule as a law unto themselves. The police, like Constandin and Ionita, are, in effect, instruments of a remote Empire – the Ottomans in Istanbul – and, instead of John B. Stetson hats they wear kalpaks (or fezes) as a sign of their allegiance to the Turkish power that they despise. Hiding in the forests and mountains are the Hajduks (called Houdieks in the movie) – these are brigands and outlaws, sometimes considered freedom fighters by the oppressed Eastern Orthodox peasants. The Hajduks are fierce, murderous, and unpredictable – they may be imagined like the Apache Indians.

The official hierarchy in the region in 1835 is that the Turks rule from Istanbul using as intermediaries Greek Christian Phanariots. The Phanariots are boyars, although not all boyars are Greek Christians. The boyars occupy immense feudal estates that are taxed by Istanbul. The Russian military makes periodic incursions and is hated by the Boyars and the Turks. The Rumanian people are Eastern Orthodox Christians and largely peasants. The mercantile class and moneylenders in Bucharest are Jews who are despised by the Turks, the Russians, the Boyars, and the Rumanian peasants. At the bottom of the heap are the hapless Roma or Tigin — they are slaves.

 


Roma
In 1835, Rumania (sometimes spelled "Romania) was the place with the largest concentration of Roma people. The Roma are from the Indian subcontinent and speak a language allied to Punjabi and Hindi. They seem to have been transported to Rumania during the Mongol invasions around 1260 – at that time, the Roma were slaves to the Mongols.

At the time of the film about 3 to 3 ½ % of the population of Wallachia, where the Roma were, by and large, concentrated, was Roma. They were an enslaved people with no legal rights. In 1843, the Wallachian State freed all slaves owned by the government. The Orthodox Church, also a major slave-holding institution (the little boy in the film is sold to an Orthodox priest) freed its slaves in February 1848. However, privately owned Roma were not liberated until February 1856. (The State paid compensation to private landowners for the loss of their property). Wallachian Roma are overwhelming Eastern Orthodox Christians.

Another name for the Roma in Rumania is tigentigen is the same word as Zigeuner in Germany and means "gypsy."

The Roma were thought to be soothsayers, fortune-tellers, and claimed to possess unusually powerful healing abilities.

 


Perspectives on the Film
Aferim! invokes Hollywood Westerns, particularly John Ford’s great The Searchers. In both The Searchers and Jude’s film, an older man and youth traverse deserts and mountain wilderness on a quest. As in many classic Westerns, the quest measures the length of the film – when the quest is complete the movie ends. As in The Searchers, Aferim! poses the question of whether the cynical, bitter older man will infect his youthful sidekick with his hatred. The suspense in both films arises from whether the hero will really carry out his morally ambiguous and, even, evil objective – will John Wayne murder his niece because she has been sexually corrupted (in his eyes) by the Cheyenne warrior who is now her husband? Will the searchers in Aferim! allow the aggrieved Boyar to take his terrible revenge on the slave that they are returning to him?

In a Hollywood Western, we know in advance the answer to the suspenseful question motivating the film: John Wayne will not kill Natalie Wood but, instead, will take her in his arms and carry her back to civilization. Similarly, in a Hollywood Western, the heros of Aferim! would rescue Carfin from slavery. In fact, Jude even hints at a plot denouement of this kind: we know that there are wild Hajduk in the mountains and woods because we have seen the effects of their attack on a stagecoach. If the Rumanian film were directed by John Ford or Bud Boetticher, the Hajduk would attack our little party and, in the ensuing desperate battle, Carfin would prove himself to a be courageous fighter, a true man. Upon being returned to the Boyar’s ranch, Constandin sin Geordh, the old constable, woud get into a titanic fist fight with the Boyar over Carfin’s fate – at the climax, the men would shake hands and Carfin would be freed. Hollywood’s approach to resolving plot issues raised by the Rumanian film would be satisfying to the audience – the climax would be entertaining and morally satisfying. But Jude is not making a Hollywood picture, unfortunately I think – instead he is immured in the Rumanian New Wave, an exponent of its shabby realism, and so he can’t avoid a climax that every viewer can see coming an hour before it occurs. The Hollywood version of this fable would be a better film, more entertaining, and not necessarily less realistic than the dark outcome upon which Jude insists. My key point is that Jude’s cynicism is the easier outcome for the film maker – it requires less talent than configuring the Hollywood ending. Anyone with eyes to see and ears to hear knows exactly what will happen when Carfin is returned to his Boyar master. The film’s nasty joke is that Constandin and Ionita have persuaded themselves by wishful thinking that the climactic atrocity will not occur.

Like a Hollywood Western, Aferim! is shot on National Park land – in this case in the Macin Mountain National Park north of the Danube. These are the handsome chaparral and wooded mountains that figure in the bucolic landscapes at the end of the film – the two protagonists ride their horses toward the Macin range. Other parts of the film were shot in the Danube wetlands and marshes in Comana National Park where the great river flows into the Black Sea.

The stylistic differences between Aferim! and a film like The Searchers are decisive. Simply put, Jude creates barriers to the viewer identifying with his protagonists – he literally keeps them remote from the audience. This is a formal strategy that is artistically implemented throughout the film, but must be questioned. Why does Jude keep us away from (isolated from, as it were) his two principal characters?

The technique used to prevent us from identifying with Ionita or Constandin (or anyone in the film for that matter) is simple enough – film everything as a long shot. In the first hour of the movie, I counted only one close-up – this was an insert of a campfire collapsing in on itself, a peculiar image as well in that it is held for disconcertingly long period. We don’t see the two protagonist in an Plan Americain shot ("American shot") – that is, a shot showing both characters from the knees up – until 45 minutes have lapsed. Most of the shots showing our heros riding the range are filmed so that we can’t clearly see the character’s faces. Although we hear their dialogue overdubbed, as if recorded right next to the characters, we don’t see them except as small figures dwarfed by the landscape through which they are riding. The great bulk of shots in the film show Constandin and Ionita as mounted figures remote from the camera. Most of these "figures in a landscape" shot are held for 10 to 15 seconds and show nothing more than men on horseback traversing mountainous or swampy terrain. There are a half-dozen Plan Americain shots during the tavern and inn sequence but the movie, in general, consists of static long shots. The effect is to show the characters dwarfed by their surroundings and, presumably, at the mercy of the environment. The remoteness of the characters from our perspective is incongruous in light of the fact that we can hear them very clearly – the soundtrack, without any non-diegetic music – consists largely of people ranting at one another and Constandin’s wheezy platitudes. There is no analytical cutting in the film – it’s as if the movie were shot in the era of Ingeborg Holm: there are no eyeline matches, no parallel cutting with the exception of the shot of the campfire, an image that punctuates the narrative, there are no close-ups of animals or people or their equipment – with the exception of the Inn scenes and the search of the peasant’s huts, there is no continuity cutting. The film is conspicuously stark and impoverished in its use of film grammar – 70% of the movie consists of long shots of the characters riding their horses.

Similarly, the film is relentlessly ugly, cruel, and harrowing. The dialogue at the outset concerns the bubonic plague and its ravages. Constandin is sick and, probably, dying. Hajduk raid stagecoaches and leave the naked, mutilated corpses next to their wrecked wagon. Everyone beats or whips or abuses everyone else. The realm is beset by outside enemies – the Russians and the Turks threaten to oppress the Rumanians who, themselves, viciously oppress the "crows" – that is the Roma. At the Fair, desperate people try to sell themselves as slaves in exchange for a little food. The Inn is full of whores and verminous lice. Children and adults laugh merrily at a Punch & Judy puppet show in which a male puppet beats his puppet-wife to death before then thrashing a priest into unconsciousness. Constandin believes that he is a just and merciful man and that his enforcement of the law is a pillar on which society rests – but, of course, he is as corrupt as the constable who sells him information about Carfin for four talers. The Wallachian woods are dangerous, but they are also being cut down. An environmental catastrophe is under way – the forests are being burned and slashed. Constandin wonders how people will regard him (and his kind) in 200 years.

Radu Jude’s Aferim! looks eastward, I think, to the films of the great Alexei German, particularly the hellscape in Hard to be a God. German’s film imagines a world in which there was no renaissance, an alien planet trapped in a filthy, excremental dark ages. German was a much greater film maker and his pictures are better because he doesn’t keep his distance from his characters – German insists that we be hurled right into the action and films everything in close-up. By contrast to Jude’s use of estheticizing distance, his long elegiac images of isolated men on horseback, German pitches you right into the filth. But the savage view of human nature is similar to what we are shown in Jude’s movie. Similarly, there are elements of dark humor in Aferim! that are derived from the nightmare films of Kira Muratova, a female filmmaker from Wallachia who lived for some number of years in Bucharest. (Muratova was born in 1934 in Rumania and I feel her influence in the picture, particularly its final line.) Muratova is not well-known in American and her movies are almost impossible to see. One of them, however, 2002's Chekhovian Motifs is on DVD and can be studied. (Her masterpiece, The Asthenic Syndrome is currently unavailable in the West.) In Muratova’s films, every one curses continuously and uses the foulest language imaginable. Her scenes of families around the dinner table are both horrifying and hilarious – father and mother throw things at each other and everyone is constantly vilifying everyone else and people are always beating and being beaten. The scene in the tower in Aferim! is characteristic of Muratova’s sensibility – Constandin interviews the Boyar’s adulterous wife who has been beaten so badly that she can’t stand up. She is an unpleasant character who whines while she plays with the kittens in her bed. The Boyar has confined her in a tower from which she is apparently forbidden to descend – I presume that the ladder that Constandin and Ionita use to reach her is normally not available for her use. Constandin sympathizes with the woman’s plight and feels that her husband has misused her. However, he also feels the need to endorse the husband’s right to punish his wife. "It’s our Christian law," Constandin says to the sulking woman. The woman’s maid, an old crone, decides to endorse Constandin’s "man-explaining" – "Well," the hag says, " Adam kicked Eve in the stomach." "You shut up," Constandin barks at her. For some reason, this is very funny and seems to me to be derived from similar scenes in Murakova’s Chekhovian Motifs.

Further clues that Radu Jure has carefully watched Muratova’s Chekhovian Motifs are found at the end of the movie – indeed, in its last line. Ionita is understandable shaken by what he has seen at the Boyar’s ranch. Constandin tries to cheer the boy up. He says of the mutilated Carfin: "Well, he ain’t no fuckin’ brother of yours." The camera follows the two riders and, suddenly, the black and white image bursts into spangles of sunlight reflecting on the lens, an optical effect that renders the protagonists invisible behind bright patterns of glare – this kind of effect occurs often in Muratova’s films. The men ride out of the glare and Constandin says: "Life will be better and we’ll have a chance to rest." As in a classic Western, the two adventurers, now older and wiser, ride toward the distant high sierra.

This last line seems familiar. In fact, it’s paraphrase of the famous ending to Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya. Why Jude refers to Uncle Vanya in this context is completely unclear to me. But Jude draws attention to the reference. In the final title, he says that the dialogue and situations in the film were derived from various sources – one of which is said to be "A. P. Cekov" (that is, Anton Pavlovich Chekhov.)

Friday, July 21, 2017

Dunkirk

Parallel cutting is a narrative device that reaches its maximum density in D. W. Griffith's Intolerance (1916).  Griffith used the technique to construct four parallel, but thematically, related plot lines that all achieve climax in a single rapid-fire montage.  This editing structure was first developed to create suspense:  we see a hero rushing to rescue a damsel in distress -- the director cuts between the girl's peril and hero's efforts to save her, accelerating the editing rhythm to achieve a visceral sense of frenzied motion driven to a climax.  In Intolerance, Griffith's four parallel plots themselves involve parallel montage within the individual stories -- for instance, one of narratives involves a man about to executed:  we see this as a flurry of shots showing a car in which an officer carries a pardon, a train that the car is racing to an intersection, and the death chamber in the prison where the condemned man is being slowly led to the gallows.  Will the car out-pace the locomotive and deliver the pardon in time to save the condemned man?  This episode, cut to the frenetic rhythm of a surging locomotive, is itself interpolated with other narratives:  Babylon falls, Christ is crucified, and the Huguenots on massacred on St. Bartholomew's Day.  The fundamental paradigm for this kind of cinema is represented by a speeding locomotive roaring down a track to which a girl has been tied a mile or so away.  Parallel cutting simulates a ticking clock, a sort of time bomb, or a locomotive churning forward toward a destination where either doom or a last-minute rescue will occur.

Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk is the most elaborate example of parallel cutting that I seen -- it's cubist complexity is on par with Griffith's Intolerance.  The relentless score by Hans Zimmer is remarkably simple-minded -- the soundtrack either makes a chugging sound like a locomotive or ticks loudly like a watch or the timer-fuse on a bomb.  Toward the end of the film, the soundtrack sounds a bit like the overture to Tristan and Isolde -- the music keeps surging rhythmically forward yearning to reach some kind of resolution but the cross-cut action on screen keeps delaying the score's final orgasmic climax.  Intolerance is a monument in film history but it is rather cold, schematic, and it's elaborate structure holds the audience at a arm's length.  Dunkirk suffers from the same flaws -- notwithstanding many spectacular sequences, the film is chilly, abstract, and, ultimately, so ingeniously complex as to be somewhat alienating.  We don't really sympathize with any of the characters because they seem to be mere cogs in a vast assembly of interlocking gears -- the machine is remarkable and, when all of its gears are turning, even majestic, but  we don't really care about the human components of the system.  This is a valid approach to a war film in which, by definition, the actions of individuals are subsumed within a greater narrative -- but Nolan's complicated narrative strategies distance us from his characters. 

Dunkirk involves three parallel plots that briefly coalesce and, then, come apart again.  Nolan's innovation is to employ different time scales for the separate narratives.  One story involves a civilian boat piloted by Mark Rylance that crosses the English Channel to rescue British soldiers trapped on the beach at Dunkirk -- this story takes place during the time of one day.  The first story that we are shown in the film is called "The Mole", referring to the pier extending out into the Dunkirk harbor; this narrative involves two young men who wordlessly collaborate to try to survive the carnage on the beach -- "The Mole" is narrated across a period defined as "one week."  (Titles inform us as to these time scales.)  The third element of the movie involves three Spitfires and their pilots who engage German planes over the Channel in an attempt to keep the Luftwaffe from strafing the beaches or bombing the vessels surging across the Channel to rescue the besieged soldiers -- the narrative involving the pilots is suitably quick and bloody:  it takes place across one hour.  Nolan sutures these three narratives together to reach a climax in which the sole surviving fighter battles the last of the German planes over the beach while the little yacht piloted by Mark Rylance makes its way through maritime chaos, evades torpedos and bombs, and rescues the two young men who have been cast adrift from not one but, at least, two vessels destroyed seriatim by German fire.  The movie remains unremittingly true to its schematic premise:  we never see any of the action from the German point of view -- rather, everything is shown from the point of view of the trapped British troops, the soldiers flailing about in the water, and the fighter pilots engaged in desperate duels over the battlefield. 

The film is a strange, daunting work of art, continuously compelling visually, and, sometimes, reaching great, torrential climaxes -- in one sequence, for instance, a downed fighter pilot is unable to escape from the cockpit of his plane and is drowning, Mark Rylance's little brown yacht is rushing to the pilot's rescue while German machine guns bore holes in a metal boat filled with desperate British soldiers and swamped in the high tide -- water shooting into the vessel's hold through the innumerable bullet holes.  The soundtrack roars like a surging locomotive and the imagery achieves a certain visceral and savage energy that can't be discounted although the film's cubist design is exceedingly abstract.  (The abstraction extends to the casualties -- the film spares us the gore and severed limbs typically portrayed in recent war films.)  The beach at Dunkirk is visualized as a weirdly lonely and isolated place -- long lines of troops standing in the sand waiting to be strafed or bombed into oblivion, rows of corpses neatly resting in the scummy sea-surge.  The air battles are exciting if a trifle repetitive -- Nolan uses a highly schematic system of images and edits in these scenes:  a close-up of a hand on a throttle, a shot of the planes swooping through the air, a shot of rear of the enemy plane in the crosshairs, a close-up of the pilot's finger on the trigger, squeezing the trigger, and, then, tracer bullets shooting into the German plane and knocking plumes of smoke out of it.  Nolan doesn't seek to vary this pattern and it repeats, at least, six or seven times in the movie -- obviously this is a conscious aesthetic strategy that characterizes the fighter plane narrative, but it's peculiar how rigorously the director cleaves to this image pattern.  The ending of the film is spectacular, but, again, from a highly formal and cinematic standpoint -- the sole surviving Spitfire lands on the Dunkirk beach at sunset; one of the boys who has survived drowning about four times reads Churchill's famous speech about fighting in the fields and beaches and never surrendering (the speech is in a newspaper and the boy is on an evacuation train.)  When the words about never surrendering are spoken, we see the pilot, in fact, captured by shadowy Germans -- the only time we see the enemy in the picture.  The soundtrack suddenly resolves into the famous Nimrod theme from Elgar's "Enigma Variations" -- it's a stunning sound cue and comes out of nowhere -- and, as the music reaches its climax, we see the Spitfire burning on the beach.  This should be the last scene -- but it's not:  Nolan's final image is much more brilliant.  The music stops and there is a single shot, only a couple of seconds long, of the boy-soldier who has survived the battle and come home:  he looks up at the camera with desperately frightened eyes. For once, the soundtrack is silent and the film ends.