March 6, 2012

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The 12th edition of Film Comment Selects concluded this past week at Lincoln Center, having screened 32 films from all over the cultural map. The stoned dropout to the New York Film Festival’s Ivy League grad, the films chosen by Film Comment magazine’s editorial staff tend towards the spectacular and the underground, and occasionally underground spectaculars. Plucking from the festival scene (Hirokazu Kore-eda’s I Wish), genre titles (Alexander Zeldovich’s Target) and experimental multi-projection performances (J. Hoberman’s Land Passion War of the Dead Christ Worlds), it has something for everyone. That is, if everyone was a creepy cinephile shut-in.

The selection of Target (2011) encapsulates the mission of FCS, a Russian sci-fi film too genre-bound to make the NYFF, and too arty to pick up mainstream distribution. The film is conceptually simple but dramatically sprawling, pulling from influences as disparate as  Stalker and Gattaca. The year is 2020, and China has emerged as the dominant super-power, its culture seeping into every corner of Russian daily life. The Mandarin-speaking minister of Natural Resources, Viktor (Maksim Sukhanov), is tiring of his sterile marriage to Zoya (Justine Waddell), a feckless beauty who spends her mornings getting her face un-wrinkled by a nano-bot infused death-mask. Longing for the days when the felt something resembling emotion, they light out for the mountains of Central Asia, in which an abandoned astrophysics laboratory is rumored to emit cosmic rays that grant eternal life. They are joined by Zoya’s hyperactive TV-host brother Mitya (Danila Kozlovskiy), the thuggish customs agent Nikolai (Vitaly Kishchenko) and Anna (Daniela Stoyanovich), the dreamy narrator of a Chinese-for-Beginners audiobook.

As with Stalker’s Zone, the astrophysics site seems to have a consciousness all its own, with the guides referring to it as “The Thing, The Detector, The Target”, both an active agent and a receptacle for divine radiation, an elusive and contradictory force.Viktor and his entourage ignore this ambiguity, and approach it as just another slumming self-help adventure, the simple rural living distracting them from all those riches. But then the site has its effects, and immortality ain’t what it’s cracked up to be. The radiation makes them act younger and more impulsive, as if slightly buzzed. The movie shifts from sci-fi futurism to melodramatic fucking and fighting, as the group turns into an overheated brat pack of randy adolescents. Eternal love in this situation becomes not a promise, but an existential threat.

The films of director Alexei Balabanov present another kind of threat, not of the banality, but the deadpan absurdity of evil. His relentlessly black comedies eviscerate the Russian state apparatus in stories of institutional incompetence and sickeningly casual violence.  A Stoker is a return to contemporary Russia after the early 20th Century detour of his Bulgakov adaptation  Morphia (2008,selected for the 2010 FCS). Skryabin (Mikhail Skryabin) is a native Siberian Yakut who was shell-shocked in the Afghanistan war and never recovered, spending his days in the boiler room fueling the furnace, and typing away at a novel he’s been writing obsessively for decades. His face is a placid mask, and his reactions sluggish, as if instructions were dropped into him down a deep, cobwebbed well. Balabanov shows this garlanded hero as a zombie of Russia past, lobotomized into a cog in the mob’s death machine, as he burns up assassinated corpses in his furnaces. It is only when his daughter gets caught up in that same machinery that he dodders back to life, adding a few more drops of blood into his country’s vast reservoir, before drifting back off to sleep.

Also easing into the land of dreams is Sara Driver’s Sleepwalk (1983), a hypnotic nocturne set in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Agitated typesetter and single mom Nicole (Suzanne Fletcher) agrees to translate a sheaf of Chinese nursery rhymes to make some extra cash. Her life is already filled with everyday surreality, from her perpetually bleeding finger to the trance-like rhythms tapped out by her sullen workmates, but with these translated tales reality entirely escapes her, and she is left circling through a laid-back nightmare. Everything gets repeated, from a child’s obsessive street-crossing to the elevator’s insistence on stopping at every floor. Shot with the languorous long takes of DP Jim Jarmusch, Driver’s film approximates the feeling of half-sleep, when the day’s events are cycling through your head but your body is shutting down, your consciousness slipping away.

There is nothing sleepy about the wide-eyed adorability of I Wish (2011), the latest family drama from Hirokazu Kore-eda (Nobody Knows). Returning to more commercial ground after his experiment with latex love in Air DollI Wish was partly financed by Kyushu Railway Company, whose bullet train provides the central plot point of the film. It’s a simple tale of a family split by divorce. The two sons split, with Ryonosuke (Oshiro Maeda) living with the father (Joe Odagiri) in Fukuoka, while the older brother Koichi (Koki Maeda) stays with their mother in Kagashima. They vow to cut class and meet at the midpoint between their two cities, believing that when the new bullet train passes that point, their dreams will come true. A saccharine set-up, but Kore-eda leavens it with such melancholy and lightness of touch, it ends up indelibly moving. This is in no small part to the charismatic kid leads, real-life brothers who perform as the manzai (comic duo) act Maeda Maeda (according to Mark Schilling in the Japan Times). Already professional comedians, they have impeccable timing and rapport, with Koki playing the straight man and Oshiro the loudmouth madman. That this routine works despite their being separated for the majority of the film is a testament to their rhythm, as well as the fine parallel editing of Kore-eda’s team.

Film critic J. Hoberman (now of Blouin Art Info) does some editing of his own in Land Passion War of the Dead Christ Worlds, his multi-projection spectacular that layers Passion of the ChristWar of the Worlds (2005) and Land of the Dead on top of each other in an orgy of martyrdom and Hollywood pizzazz. This special presentation grew out of Hoberman’s college lectures, in which he experimented with Passion as well as Rocky, playing all five (at that time) in the series at once.Passion was projected on film in its entirety, stretched vertically from its original Scope ratio to fit into the fatter 1.85, giving the characters, as Hoberman said, “an El Greco look”. Then scenes from War of the Worlds, and all of Land of the Dead were projected digitally over it, and hidden affinities began to emerge. It calls attention to the cookie-cutter manner of Hollywood screenwriting, in which “beats” all occur in the same spots, regardless of whether it’s Jesus’s crucifixion or a zombie rebellion. Then there are the smaller bits of serendipity, with Satan’s snake slithering towards a cowering Tom Cruise, or fireworks blooming over Pontius Pilate. As Hoberman admitted, it was more of an installation than a crafted work of deconstruction, and encouraged wanderings in and out. I remained lodged in my seat (with no booze nearby), so I let my mind wander instead, grazing over each layer of action, waiting for moments of convergence, after which I oohed as if wooed by the latest blockbuster, which, at Film Comment Selects, it most certainly was.

Click to read what I previously wrote about FCS selections Despair (1978) and Almayer’s Folly (2011).


March 15, 2011


Under siege. John Ford’s Fort Apache established one of the major Cold War film archetypes, as J. Hoberman explains in An Army of Phantoms, his breathless, careening cultural history of the period (which the New Press released today). Covering the initial years of the political frost, from the mid-1940s through 1956, it’s the prequel to his 2003 The Dream Life, which ranged from 1960 to the release of Blow Out in 1981. He is preparing a third volume, Found Illusions: The Romance of the Remake and the Triumph of Reaganocracy, that will cover the rest of the 80s and the end of the Cold War. His stated inspiration is Siegfried Kracauer’s From Caligari to Hitler, and Hoberman’s less deterministic project will likely cozy up to it on film reference shelves in the coming decades as an essential and idiosyncratic work of cultural studies.

The phrase “cultural studies” tends to make me recoil in various poses of disgust. It’s the lapsed academic in me. As David Bordwell said in a Cinema Scope interview, ” most film scholars aren’t interested in film as a creative art. I know it sounds odd to say that, but I think it’s true. Most scholars are interested in film as an expression of cultural trends, interests, processes, etc. or of political moods, tendencies, etc.” Much of what I encountered of cultural studies in school reduced films to fit ideological agendas, starting with a theory and then squeezing the movie to fit that theory. The art object itself was lost in the process.

What Hoberman is doing here is undoubtedly cultural studies, describing how social and political events shaped the era, and in turn the tone and texture of Hollywood’s product, but it is a supple and nuanced version of the discipline. Since he is coming from a film critic’s background, he never loses sight of the unruly complexity of the movies themselves. The wealth of production history Hoberman lays down here is one of its most invaluable aspects, and has me continually dogearing pages (Full disclosure: I took a Film Criticism seminar that Hoberman taught at NYU).

For example, in his thumbnail portrait of The Thing (1951), he places it in the context of Edgar G. Ulmer’s The Man From Planet X, an alien cheapie that beat it into theaters, heralding 1951 as “the year that the saucers landed and the extraterrestrials arrived.” The Thing’s pre-production also “coincided with the emergence of Senator McCarthy and the early stages of the Korean War.”, resulting in a “congealed hysteria.” Politics and film inform each other, but they are not irreducible to the other. Hoberman is adapting French philosopher and sociologist Jacques Ellul’s concept of sociological propaganda:

a vague, spontaneous, all-pervasive, yet half-conscious form of social bonding and ideological proselytizing advanced by advertising, newspaper editorials, social service agencies, patriotic speeches, and anything else that might use the phrase ‘way of life.’”

It is the haziness of being a part of an epoch, the received wisdom that we mouth daily because we don’t have time to reflect on everything we say. It is a flexible, elusive concept, the perfect prism from which to pursue the indirect but palpable influence of the social and political spheres on film. Those are his theoretical walking orders, but Hoberman fills the book  with the clammy details of the dream factory. After spotty snowfall in Cut Bank, Montana, the crew re-located “to an arctic landscape created on the RKO ranch in Encino – another sort of ordeal with sweaty, parka swaddled actors tramping over the artificial snow that had been created from rock salt, ground-up Masonite, and crystallized photographic solution.”

The Thing’s scenario was comic-book Fort Apache, the group under siege by a marauding, unknowable force. The parallels with Communist infiltration (and the bloody “police action” in Korea) were starkly clear, and The Thing’s “effete little Nobel Prize-winning scientist affecting a blazer, turtleneck, and goatee” is nothing less than a “wannabe Russian”. The Thing makes gestures toward anti-communism, but more than anything else it’s a Howard Hawks film, a buzzing group of insecure he-men talking their way through their problems and through the Red Menace. This Fort Apache scenario of terror from without is one of the repeated motifs of the book (Only the Valiant, which I wrote up earlier, introduces subversion from within into the cavalry Western), although many others wind through it, including The Next Voice You Hear, whose vision of God-as-entertainment actualized Hollywood’s fondest dreams of itself. Hoberman draws out the cruel irony of how the real universal communicator, television, almost puts Hollywood out of business. The third major strand is provided by Kiss Me Deadly and screenwriter A.I. Bezzerides’ term for nuclear power, The Great Whatzit, which Hoberman uses throughout as both a metaphor for nuclear weapons as well as the undefinable anxieties which haunted the generation.

All of these ideas are buttressed by meticulous research, with reams of contemporary opinions from VarietyThe New York Times and especially The Daily Worker, as film and  political history start to smack up against each other. Everything converges in his tour-de-force explication of the House Un-American Activities Commission hearings, whose impact on the movie business is laid out in granular detail, as studio heads tried to triangulate between Sen. McCarthy and the panicky artist-progressives who pushed out their money-making product. Never have I read such a thorough examination of this period, and the moral gray areas that subpoenaed witnesses had to traverse. There is no cheap moralizing or blanket condemnations of those who named names, only a fanatically detailed, contextually rich rundown of the cultural currents that led to their decisions.

I’d advise you not to open the Great Whatzit, but please open the book.

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