THE GREATEST FILMS OF THE 21ST CENTURY

August 23, 2016

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I suffer from chronic list fatigue, initially eager to scroll through the latest re-ordering of greatest hits, but inevitably collapse into a heap before I ingest the whole thing. Enter the BBC to test my illness. Yesterday they unveiled the results of their mammoth “Greatest Films of the 21st Century” poll, in which 177 critics submitted their top movies of the current century. It confirms that David Lynch’s  fractured, terrifying Hollywood fairy tale Mulholland Drive (2001) is the consensus film of the age. It has been topping lists of this ilk for years now, and I welcome a film so mysterious as our millennium-overlord. My narcolepsy is triggered not by the quality of the works cited, but the recycled nature of the discourse it elicits, which tends to ignore the films entirely for a “this-over-that” essentialism that reduces complicated aesthetic experiences to numbers on a list. Which reminds me, now it is time for me to reduce complicated aesthetic experiences to numbers on a list! Below you’ll find my top ten films of the 21st Century that were not included in the BBC’s top twenty five, in a modest effort to expand the conversation.

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The following list of the Top Ten Films of the 21st Century is presented in alphabetical order

Cry When it Happensdirected by Laida Lertxundi (2010, 14 minutes)

Or, being lonely in Los Angeles. Shot in 16mm, it opens with a shot of two women spooning each other out of boredom, followed by a bright blue sky impinged upon by a bar of sunlight. Then the shot of the sky is repeated, but now  it’s on a tube tv in a dingy hotel room, with a black bar scrolling down the frame. Imagery of boxes and enclosures proliferate. In the room, a wordless woman slowly presses her accordion and eases out a few tones. An exterior shot of the hotel finds L.A.’s city hall reflected in its windows, trapped. When Lertxundi returns to the shot of the real sky, the chorus of The Blue Rondos’ “Little Baby” plays on the soundtrack: “Little Baby/I want you for my own/I need to see you/See you alone.”  There is a yearning for escape from these boxes, and a need for human connection, expressed in the bouncy 60s Brit-pop tune. Then, a shift – the hotel TV is plopped outside a mountain range, the sky and the Rondos both enclosed behind the screen. It is freeing, but ominous. It’s like the movie turned itself inside-out, the interplay between freedom and enclosure never resolving. They need each other, after all.

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The Headless Womandirected by Lucrecia Martel (2008, 87 minutes)

A comfortable middle-class mother (Maria Onetto) runs over a dog, and she is later consumed with the fear that she also killed a child. De-centered from her daily life, she is isolated by Martel in shallow focus close-ups in the widescreen frame, her family haunting the edges, fuzzy spectres present mainly through the dense sound design. The accident occurred right before a major storm, and water keeps seeping in around her, whether pouring from the sky, or intimated in the cement discovered under her lawn, which used to hold a fountain. She slowly ebbs back into consciousness, only to discover that she no longer fits, so she dyes her hair.

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The Intruder (aka L’intrus), directed by Claire Denis (2004, 130 minutes)

L’intrus was inspired by a brief essay by French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy on the physical and metaphysical fallout of the heart transplant he had received ten years previously. His question: ““If my heart was giving up and going to drop me, to what degree was it an organ of ‘mine’, my ‘own’?” Michel Subor plays a man whose body has rebelled against him, and whose concept of self is slipping. The film slips along with him, proceeding on an associative montage that jumps from Polynesia to Pusan to the French-Swiss border. Subor’s body is a border that has been breached, and the whole world is rushing in. My first published film essay was on The Intruder, for Senses of Cinema, and it is not entirely embarrassing.

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Mysteries of Lisbondirected by Raul Ruiz (2010, 272 minutes)

A summation of Ruiz’s work, with its nested stories, unstable identities and swirling camera movements, and one that is endlessly pleasurable.  Adapted from the 19th Century novel by Camilo Castelo Branco, it tells the circuitous story of an orphan and his parentage, one which spans lifetimes and consumes hundreds of identities. It is a a ballet where every step both reveals and conceals, Ruiz’s camera unveiling truth at one edge and a lie at the other.

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Resident Evil: Retribution, directed by Paul W.S. Anderson (2012, 96 minutes)

Anderson is a director-as-cartographer, obsessively mapping his post-human landscapes so whatever life-form succeeds us will know EXACTLY how to navigate the inside of the evil Umbrella corporation’s underground lair. Said lair is built for 3D, all brightly lit corridors layered with screens, the frame sliced into depths. Depth and death are everywhere, and our only hope (thankfully) is Milla Jovovich, a model-athlete who does her own stunts and is the most believable savior since Jim Caviezel in The Passion of the Christ.

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Sparrow, directed by Johnnie To (2008, 87 minutes)

A project To had been working on for three years in between his higher budgeted features. Often described as a musical without songs, it follows a group of pickpocketing brothers as they get ensnared in the web of Kelly Lin’s femme fatale, who has been forced into a union with a local crime boss. Filled with lyrical passages of a bustling HK, it then explodes into symphonically complex heist sequences. Balloons float down affixed with a safe key, criminals engage in a thieving dance underneath a downpour, with the umbrellas used in twirling Busby Berkeley-esque patterns.

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Step Brothers, directed by Adam McKay (2008, 98 minutes)

Gloriously anarchic, it’s the purest distillation of the Adam McKay-Will Ferrell aesthetic, which values combative performances above all else, a kind of actorly one-upmanship. After completing the relatively large-scale Talledega Nights, McKay wanted to, as he told The Oklahoman: “do a film that was almost all about characters and dialogue — no action and no ’70s nostalgia, just straight-up, nonstop riffing.” Enamored with the improvisatory nuggets mined by the team of John C. Reilly and Ferrell on Talledega, McKay conceived of a plot that would have them together on-screen for an entire film, hence the step-brotherdom. The movie, then, is a scrim for a feature-length improvisation session, which was how Ferrell and McKay were trained: McKay at the Upright Citizens Brigade, and Ferrell with The Groundlings, before they both teamed up on Saturday Night Live.

Reilly is the outlier, the one with dramatic chops whose id was let loose by the Apatow gang. He’s quite wonderful in Walk Hard, probably the most underrated of the Apatow comedies, but there’s a peculiar sophomoric magic that occurs when he spars with Ferrell, a matter of timing and sensibility. They key off each other’s self-absorbed personas, trading insults so absurd it turns into a battle of the non-sequitur (“The last time I heard that I fell off my dinosaur.”). Their delight in performing with each other is contagious, spreading to the straighter-laced parents, played by Mary Steenburgen and Richard Jenkins. Steenburgen savors each curse word, while Jenkins turns in a performance that is close to madness. His shit-eating grin while being seduced by Ferrell’s yuppie brother Derek (Adam Scott) edges into the grotesque, while his monologue about his teen T-rex impersonations is pure Dada.

The plot disappears during the sublimely ridiculous ending, set at the “Catalina Wine Mixer”. That phrase is intoned ad nauseum until it becomes pure nonsense, a children’s game, syllables rolling around the tongue. This “nonsense” spreads through the whole sequence, incorporating dreams, fantasies, and the solid organizational structure of Enterprise rent-a-car. The film would make a great double-bill with Howard Hawks’ Monkey Business, another film which reverts to childhood. It’s critical of its adults-turned-kids, while Step Brothers revels in the pre-self-consciousness of children. But both films are unafraid to look silly for the sake of a laugh and refuse to condescend to the innocence and destructiveness of youth.

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Stuck On You, directed by The Farrelly Brothers (2003, 118 minutes)

The Farrelly Brothers most autobiographical film, about two brothers from New England whose love and affection keeps them working together for decades. In the film they are conjoined twins played by Matt Damon and Greg Kinnear. Damon is a goofy putz happy to be a hometown hero, while Kinnear dreams of an acting career in Hollywood. The leads are earnest and open, while the supporting parts include Jean-Pierre Cassel as a hilariously cheapjack agent who buzzes around on a scooter, and Eva Mendes in one of the finest comedic performances of the decade. She plays an airhead with sincerity and pathos, channeling Marilyn Monroe in, you guessed it, Monkey Business. Fun fact: features a (funny!) cameo from former Presidential candidate Ben Carson.

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Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul (2010, 114 minutes)

Set in a small farming village in the Northeastern part of Thailand, it tracks the last days of Uncle Boonmee (Thanapat Saisaymar) during which he is visited by the curious ghosts of his relatives. It is a film of permeable borders, between Laos, Cambodia and Thailand, between life and death, man and animal. It has the same kind of space-time permeability of The Intruder, where bodies are way stations, not endpoints.

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Wolf Children, directed by Mamoru Hosoda (2012, 117 minutes)

Water is the implacable natural force that marks the moments of terrifying change in the lives of Hana and her two children, Ame and Yuki, as they grow up from little werewolf kids into ferocious adolescents. Hana had loved and lost Ookami, her werewolf husband, during a rainstorm. The film is not a love story but depicts the aftermath of one, and the tough work required of a single mother.  With a mix of line drawing and photorealistic CG, the mode is hyper-real with moments of lyrical beauty, as when Ame bounds into the forest with his fox companion, settling on a reflective pond. Hosoda will rhyme this reflective pond with that of a puddle, as Hana stands alone in a parking lot, having lost Ame to the animals and Yuki to the world outside. There are constant movement between rain squalls and tears and waterfalls as the family pushes and pulls between the cocoon of familial love and the lure of independence.

DREAMLIFE: SHATTERED IMAGE (1998)

August 25 2015

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It has been four years since the Chilean director/mesmerist Raul Ruiz left this mortal coil, but it will take eternities to assess his work, comprising over one hundred features and shorts of labyrinthine, shape-shifting narratives. Of all of his oddball projects Shattered Image (1998) might be the oddest. It was his first film made with American producers, a dreamlike erotic thriller starring William Baldwin and Anne Parillaud (playing off her La Femme Nikita image). The production, which shot in Vancouver and Jamaica, was reportedly fraught, with Ruiz and DP Robby Muller clashing with the rest of the crew, who were used to the formula of TV movie productions. The resulting film is a curious mix of Ruiz-ian reverie and the gauzy softcore sleaze you’d find on late night Cinemax. Though not a movie with the same oneiric pull as Ruiz’s City of Pirates (1983), it remains stubbornly representative of his work, combining as it does the pulp narratives he loved as a child with the dream logic central to all of his films. As J. Hoberman wrote upon its opening in the prestige picture season of 1998 (against A Bug’s Life and the Psycho remake), “part of the movie’s pleasure is imagining an entire multiplex audience looking around at each other and wondering, “What the f**k?”

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Shattered Image was a Seven Arts/Schroeder Hoffmann production, in association with Fireworks Entertainment. Thirteen producers are credited on the project, including director Barbet Schroeder. In short, it was a complicated project to get made, and there were a whole raft of interests that Ruiz had to satisfy. In an interview with Jonathan Rosenbaum Ruiz describes it as, “this American accident, Shattered Image, I fought to make, and I now have a film about what it means to make a film in America — why American movies are the way they are.” So, per the Jacques Rivette line, he considers the film a documentary of its own making, reflective of the limitations imposed on him by the lower reaches of the Hollywood production chain. In his book Poetics of Cinema Ruiz had described the Hollywood narrative system as premised on what he coined to be “central conflict theory”, in short, “someone wants something and someone else doesn’t want them to have it. From this point on […] all the elements of the story are arranged around this central conflict”. Ruiz was clearly frustrated by the experience, but if someone wanted to pick a Hollywood film of 1998 that represented central conflict theory, Shattered Image would be at the bottom of the list. It remains, miraculously, a Ruiz film through and through.

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The script was written by Duane Poole, though I would have thought it a Ruiz pseudonym if not for Poole’s lengthy track record, including two other TV movies in 1998: I’ve Been Waiting For You and I Married a Monster. The dual narrative follows two Anne Parillauds, both named Jessie. The first is an ascetic assassin hired to kill the lightly tousled blackmailer Brian (William Baldwin), and she tries to fulfill her assignment despite her growing attraction to him. The second Jessie is on a honeymoon in Jamaica as Brian’s wife, though she soon suspects he is trying to kill her. The assassin dreams the story of the newlywed, and the newlywed dreams the story of the assassin. Both believe their life to be “real” and the other’s a figment of their unconscious. Ruiz leaves the truth opaque, instead preferring to run through a series of paranoid plots as if Jessie were simply at home flipping TV channels, projecting herself into every story on screen. She is an action star, a scream queen, a voracious lover, a chaste wife, a comatose depressive and a rape-revenge killer. As it ends up Jessie doesn’t even know what’s real or fake, she is as unknowable to herself as she is to us, just a ghost in a mirror grasping for a form she may never discover, caught in an endless narrative loop.

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Anne Parrillaud is a sleek, mysterious presence, while Baldwin seems adrift, a cardboard cutout of sub-Keanu mumblings. His struggle, his failure to tap into the Ruiz-verse lends the film a direct-to-video stiffness, as if he was reading the script phonetically. He is most effective as a visual – and he is most often the subject of her gaze. The morning after Assassin Jessie sleeps with Brian, she gifts him with the kiss off: “You’re not the reason I couldn’t care less about you.” He is an absence that she continually cycles around, a void she is tempted to disappear into. His embrace for both Jessies means a different kind of death.

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Though Ruiz was restrained by the limitations of his crew, there are still some Ruizian flourishes, including diopter shots and those constructed from impossible angles. Brian’s wife hires Assassin Jessie to kill Brian, and in this sequence Ruiz whips out the diopter, joining two shots into one to create the illusion of extreme focus shifts. In one shot-countershot, we see Jessie’s hand clutching a cigarette, with the wife in the background – then a cut to Jessie putting the cig in her mouth, with the wife’s lips seeming to yearn for that same cigarette on the right of the screen. These impossible perspectives seem to combine Jessie and the wife into one person – and Jessie will soon take on the role of vengeful spouse. Another Ruiz specialty is the impossible angle. In City of Pirates there is one from inside a man’s mouth – here it is less extravagant, but a shot from underneath a cup of tea peers up at Newlywed Jessie as if through an aquarium (the site of Assassin Jessie’s first tryst with Brian). Then there is the disorientingly surreal sequence where Newlywed Jessie wanders  lost into the Jamaican woods and stumbles into an abandoned home overrun with crabs, ending up dangling of a cliff, like the moment in dream right before you wake up. Instead of wakefulness, she gets Brian helping her up off the precipice. But even with these flourishes, it is one of his more “traditional” looking features. Ruiz explained why to Rosenbaum:

The idea that I decided where to put the camera was new to them. The editor was the director, and not the cameraman. It seems to me most were coming from TV. Normally, the director does nothing, as the camera is placed by the cameraman, and the director looks when everything is ready, and then the actors are directed by the coach. There is no connection, and you are supposed to cover the scene. I was always arguing with the script girl, who said I didn’t cover the scene. And people would say where is the [covering shot, where is] the master shot? This was a film about dreams, and there were two dreams, so it was only mental images, and once you make an establishing shot you are disturbing the oneiric feeling. This is easy to understand. And they understood, of course, but they were still disturbed by the idea that there was no master shot or establishing shot. The idea that you had to convince people to do this and not that was new to me, and it was completely normal for an Anglo-Saxon mentality that you have to explain why you’re doing what you’re doing.

For Ruiz, all the explaining that needs doing is in the film itself. In watching Shattered Image, I didn’t glean any answers, but can feel its mysteries deepening around me as I type.

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THE 50TH NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL, PART 3

October 9, 2012

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The New York Film Festival is in its final week, concluding on Sunday night with a screening of Robert Zemeckis’ return to live-action filmmaking, Flight. Most of the action this past weekend, though, took place during the Views From the Avant-Garde sidebar. In its 16th year, Views provides an increasingly large snapshot of experimental film practice around the globe. Taking place in the year-old Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, the series takes over two screens and an amphitheater space, where audiences can jump back and forth between programs, if they can afford it.  This year’s slate includes festival mainstays like Nathaniel Dorsky, future fixtures Laida Lertxundi and Ben Rivers, and the unclassifiable duo of Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Raul Ruiz, who straddle the arthouse/avant-garde divide.

Nathaniel Dorsky presented two new 16mm shorts in his packed screening, which capture a cycle of mourning and recovery. August and After was made following the death of good friends, legendary underground director George Kuchar and Fluxus artist Carla Liss. It was shot on Fuji negative, which the company recently announced will be discontinued. Using this already obsolete stock, which Dorsky noted had a “lugubrious palette”, he captures singularly mournful images. There is a portrait of George, fading into his wheelchair, and his dumbstruck brother Mike, seemingly too tired for tears. This presages Dorsky’s interest in human forms, which he has largely echewed in recent work. Later in the piece he will enter the streets of San Francisco’s Chinatown, and capture a blur of shopping figures and fabrics and bags, evoking the feeling of being adrift in the flow of humanity. There are still beautiful textures, including the pilled flannel of a red and black checked coat, but they are subsumed in this flow. It ends though, on a vision of unsettling stillness – a kind of giving up-of a freighter lying motionless in a body of water.

April is an attempt to capture the world re-emerging following the trauma of loss. It was partly funded by a gift from Carla Liss, and shot on Eastman stock, which, Dorsky said, is not designed to be projected, but to be used to create a digital intermediate. But he was seduced by its pictorial qualities, and it is an identifiably sweet film, almost sentimental – you can sense a smile behind the camera as it winds through a San Francisco spring afternoon. Here his appreciation of human figures really becomes striking, with multiple shots of office workers and students on benches, the sun creating dappled patterns over their arms as they check their smartphones and sip their fruit smoothies. In these compositions Dorsky’s subjects look lit from within, religious icons instead of administrative assistants.

Laida Lertxundi, is another artist concerned with the beauty and terror of hanging out, being alone at home and in the universe. The world premiere of her new short, The Room Called Heaven, was conceived after she was asked to show some of the B-roll of her previous films. Looking at them, she was intrigued by how they played together, placed next to each other in incongruous conversation. Always one to speak in the present tense, though, she shot new footage, but edited it is if it was B-roll, scenes and fragments abutting one another. It is a similar editing approach as Dorsky’s, although her work is more artificial and composed. Where her previous work had obsessive visual motifs (windows, doorways, screens), here the obsession is with sound design. Her penchant for using a sole backing track (or soul, as with James Carr’s “Love Attack” in A Lax Riddle Unit), is replaced with snippets of songs and a more varied aural soundscape. There is ice is poured into a tin bucket, , a tearing page, and a blinking train stop-light. Then a woman sits, and replays the melody of the fragmented tune at a piano. The atmosphere is the same as her previous works, of a cloistered loneliness, but it achieved through different tools.

The same can be said for Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Mekong Hotel, a drowsily hypnotic sixty minutes that acts as a distillation of his style and concerns, but shot in HD rather than his usual 35mm. In a hotel near the Mekong River, Weerasethakul held a rehearsal for an old script he had dusted off, Ecstasy Garden. It’s filled with the director’s play on borders that was so resonantly deployed in Uncle Boonmee. As in that film borders are eminently permeable, whether it be between life and death, the spirit world and the physical world, men and women, Thaliand and Laos or past and future. The film’s pace is so gentle and lulling, set to a pacific, repetitive “classical Spanish blues” guitar melody, that the video can easily set one off to another border, between sleep and dream. But make sure to rouse yourself for the majestic final shot, of jet skis doing curlicues in the river in a super long shot, while a long canoe slowly makes its way to the other shore, the speed and power of the new contrasted to the grace of the old.

Ben Rivers is a filmmaker fixated on what is old and past – because what has been forgotten he can invent. An excavator and fabulist, Rivers is interested in outsiders and their ramshackle invented utopias. In his playful short Phantoms of a Libertine, he gives clues to the past of a rake and adventurer through deadpan notes and shards of photographs. We get clues like, “Oct. ’64. Nimes. I had acute diarrhea and was waiting for a train.”

Equally labyrinthine was a super rare screening of Raul Ruiz’s The Blind Owl (1987), which McElhatten had been trying to book for years, until he found the small French distributor who possessed the sole 16mm copy. A deliriously loose adaptation of Sadegh Hedayat novel of the same name and a 1625 play by Tirso de Molina, it follows the blinkered existence of a projectionist who fantasizes himself into the film on-screen, or perhaps the screen bursts into reality, a riff on Sherlock Jr. spiked with Ruiz’s elastic sense of time and space. Scenes loop, the world bends, and life is a grotesque horror-comedy-melodrama in an Arabic cinema in Belleville. Seen at the end of a marathon day of screenings, I was halfway to dreamland myself, but that is certainly how Ruiz himself would have preferred it, as I inevitably became another player on his stage of somnolent cinephiles.

In my exhaustion, there was much that I regret to have missed, from Phil Solomon’s remake of Warhol’s Empire using Grand Theft Auto, to David Gatten’s epic The Extraodinary Shadows, but I was left full to bursting with enough shadows of my own, which will cling to me until next year’s version comes back to town.

THE TOP TEN FILMS OF ALL TIME (SORT OF)

June 5, 2012

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Later this summer Sight & Sound magazine will unveil the results of their once-a-decade poll of the greatest films of all time. In 2002 they queried 145 critics, writers and academics, who placed Citizen Kane #1, the same place it’s been since 1962.  Re-affirming the greatness of Citizen Kane, and ranking in general, tends to inflame Manichean arguments taking the form of “this over that”. Is Citizen Kane “better” than Tokyo Storyor Vertigo? This attitude treats movies like sporting events, where one film is the clear “winner”.  These lists are intended to start conversations, but instead they end them (I find it’s far more fun to look at individual lists, where personal idiosyncracies shine through, as with James Tobacks’s selection of Jimmy Hollywood in the Director’s Poll). Part of the issue is seeing the same titles every time, embalming them in a canon of good taste, historical artifacts rather than living works of art. This ends up reducing the films the poll set out to glorify. So I am presenting an Alternate All Time Top Ten,  composed of films and directors that have never been represented on the Sight and Sound poll before. These aren’t better or worse than the films that will land on the S&S poll, just different, and hopefully will spark new conversations. I encourage you to post your own alternate lists in the comments.

The list is presented in alphabetical order.

Beau Travail (1999), directed by Claire Denis

When I saw this at the Market Arcade theater in Buffalo, probably in 2000, I was introduced to a new world of movie-making, one of sensuous power that proceeded by a logic of images rather words. An erotic reverie that transposes Herman Melville’s Billy Budd to the French Foreign Legion in Africa, it builds tension through the arch of bodies and the glint of hard sun on sand. A transformative moment for me, although my Dad didn’t like it.

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The Clock (1945)directed by Vincente Minnelli

Minnelli’s first non-musical is still impeccably choreographed, as Judy Garland and Robert Walker meet-cute in NYC and fall into a whirlwind romance. Walker plays an earnest midwesterner on a two-day leave from the army, who falls instantly in love with Garland’s sophisticated urbanite. Compressing the entire wooing process into two nights, Minnelli heightens the tension of together-separate with big boom shots which pick the lovers out of the crowd, and then lose them in it.

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Coeur Fidele(Faithful Heart, 1925), directed by Jean Epstein

The current Jean Epstein retrospective at Anthology Film Archives in New York City has been my first exposure to this feverish stylist, and my goodness are they sensual viewing experiences (as much as Beau Travail, say). This one, available on UK DVD/Blu, is about a foundling girl (Gina Manes) whose cheap adoptive parents marry her off to an evil bastard named Little Paul (Edmond Von Daele). She’s in love with sensitive guy Jean (Leon Mathot), who seems to spend most of his time staring at the sea (as do most Epstein characters). Filled with looming close-ups, dreamy super-impositions and sequences of fast-cutting that would make Tony Scott blush, it’s an experimental melodrama that floored me with its earnest audacity.

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Duck Amuck (1953), directed by Chuck Jones

Where Daffy Duck meets his maker. This modernist masterpiece finds the titular mallard go ballistic when the animator keeps changing the backgrounds to his scenes. A Three Musketeers pastiche all of a sudden becomes a folksy farm routine and then a mountain skiing escapade. Eventually Daffy goes ballistic, yelling at the screen, until the hand of Jones comes in with his eraser… One of the funniest films ever made, which also just happens to be a wittily self-reflexive essay on the author as sadist (or as Bugs Bunny, which amounts to the same thing).

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Four Nights of a Dreamer (1971), directed by Robert Bresson

The funniest Bresson is also now my new favorite. Jacques (Guillaume des Forets) is an ascetic young painter enraptured by Marthe (Isabelle Weingarten), who attempts suicide after her boyfriend cuts off contact. Jacques promises to act as a go-between between Marthe and her man, as a way to get closer to her. They start strolling along the Seine most nights, zombies in unrequited love, hypnotized by a glass pleasure boat that sails down its waters, trailing its bossa nova tune.

***

The Green Ray (Le Rayon Vert,1986), directed by Eric Rohmer

The perfect summer movie! The wispy Marie Riviere plays Delphine, a neurotic young professional whose friend backs out of a trip to the Greek isles two weeks before departure. Already bummed out by her sometime (mostly never) boyfriend, she wanders from beaches to the mountains in a depressive state, forcing relaxation upon herself, but only ending up in tears. Riviere is a bewitchingly annoying presence, her sulkiness matched by her hectoring lectures on vegetarianism. She is an open wound, cringing at every touch. The healing process begins through another meet-cute in a train station (Rohmer must be a Clockfan!), and the intervention of a Jules Verne short story. There magic in books and sky, so Delphine finally chokes down her pain begins emerging into the world outside her head.

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Make Way For Tomorrow (1937), directed by Leo McCarey

Bark (Victor Moore) and Lucy (Beulah Bondi) Cooper have lost their house, and depend on the kindness of their children to take them in. It doesn’t work out that way in McCarey’s devastating drama of aging and loss, which was the model for S&S poll mainstay Tokyo Story. Orson Welles famously said it could make a stone cry. It is so affecting because it is so clear-eyed and unsentimental, with no last act redemptions. It is simply a story of two people in love whose lives fall apart.

***

Me and My Gal (1931), directed by Raoul Walsh

The first movie I wrote about here at Movie Morlocks, and one of the most energetic every made. Each frame pops with invention, whether it’s Spencer Tracy’s slangy NYC argot, trick shots or parodies of popular movies of the day, there’s something happening every frame. The whole production seems drunk, from Walsh on down to the gaffer, tossing around ideas and shooting the bull until the shooting day ended. The result is chaotic, messy and joyful – filled with the most life per square inch of film stock in history.

***

Mysteries of Lisbon (2010), directed by Raul Ruiz

A summation of Ruiz’s work, with its nested stories, unstable identities and swirling camera movements, and one that is endlessly pleasurable. I’m rather anxious to see the 6-hour TV version. Adapted from the 19th Century novel by Camilo Castelo Branco, it tells the circuitous story of an orphan and his parentage, one which spans lifetimes and consumes hundreds of identities. It is a a ballet where every step both reveals and conceals, Ruiz’s camera unveiling truth at one edge and a lie at the other.

***

When A Woman Ascends the Stairs(1960), directed by Mikio Naruse

Hideko Takamine’s face is one of the great monuments of cinema, and here she gives a performance of shuddering uncertainty. She plays Keiko, a fiercely independent bar hostess in Ginza forced intent on opening her own place. But the world of men keeps throwing up obstacles to her self-actualization, her impassive expressions intimating only hints of the roiling uncertainty inside.

THE PROLIFERATING FICTIONS OF RAÚL RUIZ

August 30, 2011

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“In true travel, what matters are the magical accidents, the discoveries, the inexplicable wonders and the wasted time.” -Raúl Ruiz, paraphrasing Serge Daney in Poetics of Cinema

No director wasted time more spectacularly than Raúl Ruiz, who passed away last week at the age of 70. The restively prolific Chilean, who fled to Paris after Augusto Pinochet’s rise to power, made over 100 films, and was working on two at the time of his death (the Australian film journal Rouge compiled an invaluable annotated filmography through 2005). Obsessed with the multiplicative nature of storytelling, his work branched narratives, opened up parallel worlds and rendered dreams more real than reality. They often feel like a serial drama happening all at once, the plot twists layered one on top of the other in a dissolve or superimposition. Raised on robust American trash like Flash Gordon, Ruiz’s films are overflowing with wild incident (he later wrote scripts for the brash anti-realism of Mexican telenovelas). He embraced their  irruptions of logical narrative order, and also found delight in the “mistakes” of higher-budgeted productions :

For years I watched so-called Greco-Latin films (toga flicks, with early Christians devoured by lions, emperors in love, and so on). My only interest in those films was to catch sight of planes and helicopters in the background, to discover the eternal DC6 crossing the sky during Ben Hur’s final race, Cleopatra’s naval battle, or the Quo Vadis banquets. That was my particular fetish, my only interest. For me all those films, the innumerable tales of Greco-Latinity, all partook of the single story of a DC6 flying discreetly from one film to the next.

Ruiz always followed the plane, that is, he let the image determine the story, rather than vice versa. If a plane entered the frame, that dictated that a new tale had to be written: “It [the image-situation] serves as a bridge, an airport, for the multiple films that will coexist in the film that is finally seen.”

Ruiz did not emerge with this theoretical grounding in place, however. In watching a few of his early works, the influence of Neorealism and the American Independent Film of Cassavetes comes through stronger than Flash Gordon. His first short film, La Maleta (The Suitcase, 1963) is a grim Kafkaesque tale revealing a violently competitive Chilean society. It was presumed lost, but resurfaced at the 2008 Valdivia Film Festival, re-edited by Ruiz. It follows a gaunt silent man as he cleans up his spartan apartment. Ruiz follows him in tight handheld 16mm shots, registering the actor’s perpetually sour visage. He cheerlessly labors with unintelligible grunts (there is almost no dialogue), hauling a trunk on his back to another grim-looking room. Ruiz reveals another sallow businessman trapped inside the case, who then exacts an ironic revenge for his unusual imprisonment. There is one Ruizian moment within this social commentary, though, involving human experimentation with plastic tubing and water bubbles. This eruption of an inexplicable dream-image presages his bolder leaps from narrative.

His first feature, Los Tres Tristes Tigres (Three Sad Tigers, 1968), named after a Spanish tongue-twister, continues the handheld, back to the street aesthetic. It follows Tito (Nelson Villagra), a lower middle-class hustler who pimps out his sister Amanda (Shenda Roman) while doing errands for a struggling real estate developer. This is a hang-out movie, with Ruiz clearly influenced by Cassavetes’ Shadows (1959). Tito and Amanda stumble around Santiago, setting up men to fall for Amanda’s charms while failing at landing any bigger scores. The loose structure allows Ruiz to string together a series of short stories, a more straightforward version of his later re-combinatory approach to storytelling. There is also a striking scene at a strip club, in which empty bottles cover the floor, and Tito’s drunken friend instructs the lighting guy to direct his lamp towards this field of debauchery. The bottles are too intricately arranged to be natural, a shot of pure artifice in this otherwise “realist” drama. It won the Golden Leopard at the 1969 Locarno Film Festival, and the unvarnished performances of the two leads still effectively bear witness to the wounds of everyday disappointments.

After the CIA-aided overthrow of Salvador Allende in 1973, Ruiz moved to Paris, where he would continue to elaborate his theories of storytelling. I have only managed a glancing familiarity with his work (having seen 9 of his wide-ranging corpus), but the trio of Hypothesis of a Stolen Painting (1978), Three Crowns of the Sailor (1982) and City of Pirates (1983) seem to give full flowering to his experiments in narrative fracturing. Hypothesis was made for French television, and is on the surface a parody of stuffy masterpiece gazing (the on-air host, Jean Rougeul, falls asleep at one point), but becomes an elaborately proliferating mystery. That is, Ruiz, along with writer/artist Pierre Klossowski, invented a painter (Tonnerre) and his cycle of historical canvases, which contain a puzzle that Rougeul and an anonymous announcer try to solve. Re-enacting the paintings with live models, secret patterns emerge. Rougeul urges that the only way to see them is to ignore the story and simply examine the image, which reveals hidden symbols and matching gestures in the un-looked at segments of the frame. The visible narratives of the painting mutate under each inspection, revealing troubling absences and cloudy motivations in each composition. One of Tonnerre’s works has been stolen however, thus much of the mystery is speculative, and thereby unreliable.

The narrator of Three Crowns of the Sailor is equally unreliable. Ruiz took the stories of his merchant seaman father, Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and Erich Maria Remarque’s “A Night in Lisbon” and placed his Sailor (Jean-Bernard Guillard) as the protagonist of all of them. The Sailor cannot re-board his beloved phantom ship, the Funchalense, until he receives three Danish crowns. He intends to earn them from Tadeusz, a theological student who has just murdered his teacher and is eager to leave the country. The Sailor will grant him passage if Tadeusz will listen to the story of his life, leading up to his requesting of the crowns. What ensues is a convulsion of myth and bullshit and braggadocio, as the logorrheic Sailor recounts his adventures with whores, reverse-aging doctors and men who sweat worms. The various stories overlap, details leaching from one to the next. The Sailor even tells a variation in which he dies in a car crash. The stories are shot in rich candy colors, while the present day scenes are shot in Bela Tarr black and white. Ruiz develops a fun house visual style that uses extreme foreground close-ups in between his already-patented circling tracking shots. Faces loom absurdly large, the lines in their faces as prominent as the waves in the sea, human folly and imagination shaping the world to their own ends.

While Three Crowns is still moored in reality because of its flashback structure, City of Pirates proceeds entirely on dream logic, with the images dictating the story. It is the purest example of Ruiz’s approach to cinema that I’ve seen. The centering force is Isidore (Anne Alvaro), a wide-eyed, perpetually perplexed woman who drifts through landscapes like Maya Deren in Meshes in the Afternoon. She is first seen as part of a family unit, in a resort house by the sea. Images of the uncanny abound, including a ball that can hear, a séance that summons the police, and a POV shot from inside her dad’s mouth. This pileup of unnatural visuals unsettles Isidore, and she desires escape. After she does an I Walked With a Zombie stutter down the seaside, she elopes with a serial-killing Peter Pan who becomes her fiance. His face is angelic, so his story is irrelevant. She floats with him through white laundry and into the Isle of Pirates, where again her reverie breaks down and she must confront images of imprisonment and decay. Shot in soft, glowing pastels by Acacio de Almeida, and with Ruiz slowing down the pace to a REM sleep crawl, it’s a film that will live in your dreams.

One of his more approachable puzzle boxes (albeit at 4 hours and 20 minutes) is Mysteries of Lisbonin theaters now,  a grand melodrama about an orphan’s convoluted parentage.  Adapting the 1852 Portuguese novel by Camilo Castelo Branco (also a favorite of Manoel de Oliveira, who put Branco’s Doomed Love on screen), Ruiz stays within a stable narrative world, but it is a world of constantly shifting identities and slippery truths, changing with each character’s perspective. Joao is the child in search of his parents, the result of a forbidden union in the aristocracy. This act instigates a cascade of conspiracies, kidnappings and murder that has reverberations over thirty years. Mini-dramas open up inside the grand narrative, digressions within digressions, where Ruiz can have his play with story and reveal his characters as constructions, their personalities cogs in the story-machine. Father Denis (Adriano Luz) acquires no less than three of his own – to prolong the story and his own survival. Mysteries of Lisbon is an expansion of similar ideas he explored in his Proust adaptation, Time Regained (1999), which also pushes his restlessly arcing camera around characters of brittle and fungible identities.

The loss of Raúl Ruiz is an immeasurable one, and the sole consolation is the presence of more new Ruiz movies. Before his untimely death, he had completed La noche de enfrente (The Night Ahead), which, according to Screen Daily, is “a Chile-set film inspired by his childhood.” Whether or not this is his last film to be discovered, his work is inexhaustible, revealing as it does the secret life of stories, the forking paths tales could proceed down, each leading to a parallel world. Instead of taking the road less traveled, he took them all.