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Sunday
Jul192015

Communication Breakdown - The Tribe

THE TRIBE - Miroslav Slaboshptskiy

A young innocent travels to the big city. The rushing traffic, construction sites and human babble are deafening. But not to the innocent; he’s deaf. He finds his way to an institution, arriving in the midst of an elaborate ceremony of government oversight and adult supervision. Once inside, the innocent finds neither. The other boys humiliate him, take the food off his plate, steal everything he owns, beat him, kick him, shove him from room to room and leave him to sleep in the hall.

In The Tribe’s circumscribed environment – a government-run warehouse for deaf teenagers masquerading as a boarding school – brutality maintains the tribal hierarchy. Those at the top waste no time inflicting the hierarchy on the newcomer. He wastes no time accepting his place. Before long, he spends his nights pimping high school girls to truck drivers. He thinks falling in love might give the hierarchy less power over him or provide him a reason to live. It does neither.

The Tribe is a merciless amalgam of Lord of the Flies, Theodore Dreiser, Sinclair Lewis and Tod Browning’s Freaks. Left to their own devices, disenfranchised, outcast adolescents – metaphors for the adult society and economy crumbling around them – devolve to an animal state: They eat, they fight, they get fucked up, they fuck. None of them – save the newcomer – appear to reflect. They’re too busy surviving.

 First-time Ukrainian director Miroslav Slaboshpytskiy explains nothing. If you understand signing, you can tap into what appears to be a world of expressive thought and emotion. If, like me, you do not, the story emerges from the kids’ physicality. That’s their only mode of expression and they are profoundly expressive. Perhaps the kids evince neurosis; maybe they act in opposition to what they think and feel. Non-signing viewers can only interpret their actions. Look away for an instant and a crucial, tiny narrative moment slips by: A glance, a blow, a nod, a touch that remakes the world.

Their struggles prove hypnotically compelling. The tribe at first seems otherworldly. Slaboshpytskiy gradually exposes their humanity or how it's been destroyed. It feels like the director wants to turn the tables; he wants the hearing to experience how the deaf perceive them – as ciphers.

 The Tribes’ style springs from the explosion of astonishing Romanian films, Police, Adjective and 4 Months 3 Weeks and 2 Days, foremost. Like Corneliu Porumboiu and Cristian Mungiu respectively, Slaboshpytskiy had no money. Like his Romanian forbears, he couldn’t afford cranes, complex lighting setups or special effects. Slaboshpytskiy presents a simple, rigorous cinematic language of revelatory, understated sophistication. He tells the story in a succession of long uninterrupted medium shots, vesting in narrative, character, grim locations, harsh natural lighting and guttural diegetic sound.

 Slaboshpytskiy's no social realist, like Dreiser. He’s a hyper-realist, a natural cineaste, and depicts his world unflinchingly. With deceptively simple frames and metronomic pacing, he sets the visual, moral and dramatic tone at the outset and never deviates from it. His dedication to pace and tone sustains a compelling claustrophobia.

 The world surrounding the story looms present by the absence of any direct reference to it. Even the brief moments of sentiment occur in a vortex of moral and financial bankruptcy. When state authority impinges on the kids’ lives, it proves corrupt and vampiric. In one of those easily missed realist moments, the pimped girls rejoice at their new passports and visas for Italy. They don’t realize they’re being sold into slavery. The adults responsible aren’t about to explain it to them.

 The critical response has been passionate and varied. Some, like me, think The Tribe is the best film of the year. Others regard the unrelenting violence and transgression as exploitative and self-indulgent. Anyone who finds the viciousness excessive or unrealistic must have never been bullied in high school. If they had, they’d regard the mayhem, and especially the vengeance for that mayhem, as more documentary than dramatic. The director’s commitment to the horror provides The Tribe’s dramatic spine. Turning away at the worst moments would be a moral failure.

And when The Tribe transgresses, it does not mess around. It features the single most harrowing and unbearable scene I’ve ever seen. It’s worse than anything in Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, and that’s really saying something. As it played, and as it became increasingly clear Slaboshpitsky would not cut away until the moment was fully lived out, I found myself thinking: “I can’t believe I’m actually seeing a depiction of (x).” The scene starts badly and turns into exactly what you think it wouldn’t dare.

The other moment that generates simultaneous fascination and distancing features two naked, deaf teenagers 69’ing on the dank floor of a deserted boiler room. And, boy, do they 69. Like the unwatchable scene, this one goes on a while, in a static medium wide shot. Though transcendent for the participants, it plays as deliberately anti-erotic. It’s explicit, but not porny. In Slaboshpitsky’s universe, two naked, deaf teenagers 69’ing on the dank floor of a deserted boiler room in a state-run hellhole can only be one thing: A love scene.

Thursday
Jun112015

Ornette Coleman March 9 1930 - June 11, 2105

 

Ornette...proof that you can totally not understand something in any intellectual or emotional way and it still resonates so powerfully. Prior to Dancing In Your Head, which I wore out twice on vinyl, I had and have NO idea what Ornette was on about.

I could not parse his music. I could not grok it. I could not understand it. I'm not even sure I could say it 'moves 'me; it evokes emotions I can't name. it puts me in a place I cannot name; I like it, though. I love it. At specific and rare times, I need it.  And sometimes, his music makes me so restless I can't stand it.

Watever Ornette was doing struck me so powerfully and sounded as alien all the time - never less so on repeated listens - as it did familiar and meaningful. I hate to describe him as 'impenetrable; maybe he was. His music penetrated me in ways beyond words. Dancing In Your Head was suddenly comprehensible as were most of his compositions after. That you could dance to it, dance to Ornette, or hell, nod your head and tap your foot to it, was shocking. I think of Ornette as such a rock, so beautifully tailored and turned out, solid as a mountain amid that chaos. He knew where he was, always.

Those profound small group works with Haden and Cherry were conversations in a language from another planet, another sound-space-time continuum altogether. Their interior meaning escaped me, but the force of their connection, the eloquence of their communication, bore so much emotion even when I could not understand what they were saying. Fom listen one, you knew Haden totally understood what Ornette sought, his moods, his intentions, how to count it, where to be now or ten measures from now.... What a relief and blessing those two must have been to one another.

All these decades later, his music remains mysterious. What is he doing? What is he thinking? What is he on about? I don't know. I know no one's music does to me what Ornette's does. My lack of comprehension opens so many other doors as I listen. Maybe that's what he's on about...

Friday
May152015

iFUCKBOT

 

EX MACHINA – Alex Garland

Ex Machina is like one of the more bearable U2 albums. You know, like one produced by Eno. The glossy, seductive, futuristic form disguises the regressive content– for a while, anyway. The plot is an updated Isle of Doctor Moreau. Mad genius Oscar Isaacs hides in an isolated fortress doing crazy, brilliant shit. He lures a Naïf, played by some forgettable naïf actor-guy, to assist with his nefarious experiments. Oscar wants the Naïf to seduce a robot. The Naïf doesn’t suss the real experiment, which is whether the robot can seduce him. The robot’s a babe. A babe constructed to align with the Naïf’s psyche and his online porn preferences, which Oscar hacked. The Naïf doesn’t stand a chance.

The moral structure is straight-up melodrama, with a bad guy – Oscar; a good guy – the Naïf; and a damsel in distress/femme fatale – the babe robot. Bad Oscar is bad because he fucks babe robots. Worse, he builds babe robots to his specific fuck-specifications. The good Naïf is good because he wants to fall in love with the robot, and then fuck it. The robot has ideas of its own.

 Ex Machina’s much ballyhooed double-helix indictment of the male gaze allows it to have its exploitative cake and eat the high moral ground, too. The plot parades inhumanly (get it?) beautiful women stark naked for our viewing pleasure. Then it offers moral and prurient pleasure watching the naked women wreak vengeance upon our on-screen surrogates for exploiting them. It doesn’t feel quite this mechanistic in the viewing, perhaps because the film has a sense of humor. One of the wittier, more charming scenes of the year is Oscar and Sonoya Mizuno, his blank-faced Japanese babe robot, tearing up the dance floor to Get Down Saturday Night by Olivier Cheatham.

http://www.digitalspy.com/movies/news/a624000/watch-oscar-isaacs-incredible-ex-machina-dance-scene.html#~pbRZC6485ab2Vm

Their dance evokes its antithesis in Pulp Fiction.  In Pulp Fiction, the babe says to the guy: “Dance with me.” In Machina, the guy says to the other guy, “Dance with her!” The former illustrates agency; the latter objectification. And, you know, pimping.

Oscar, a trillionaire software visionary, builds a Japanese babe robot as commentary on the stereotype of Silicon Valley dickless-wonder billionaires chasing Asian women. The Naïf’s love-object robot – Alicia Vikander – is a dewy, whispering ingénue. The Naïf’s a complete goober. He could never fall for a cold sophisticate like the Japanese robot. She scares him. He needs a babe robot next door.

The film puts us on a tightrope. It suggests that because the women are robots, it’s okay to savor them naked. And it wants us to feel bad for them. Oscar’s presented as cold-blooded but clear-headed because he revels in the Japanese robot’s absence of humanity. The Naïf, conversely, is a fool because he seeks the humanity within. He needs an emotional justification for objectifying his robot babe. She’s unlikely to provide him with one.

 Early on, Oscar tells the Naïf that a sentient artificial intelligence would quickly come to regard humankind with the deepest contempt. The film ignores that it’s not humankind that fuels the babe robots’ contempt – it’s these two dudes!

 The story founders on the formula: If he’s smart enough to do X, how come he’s not smart enough to do Y? Oscar’s smart enough to home-build red-hot robots. How come he’s not smart enough to program them with Isaac Asimov’s first two Laws of Robotics? (Law 1: A robot may not injure a human being. Law 2: A robot must obey human beings unless an order conflicts with Law 1.) The Naïf’s smart enough to suspect Oscar is playing him. How come he’s not smart enough to suspect the Ingénue’s playing him, too? These are only the most egregious examples that undercut connection to the story and credibility.

 When the Ingénue escapes her babe robot prison and constructs a human body over her ‘bot core, she ends up with the ass of a goddess. The film lingers in close-up on said ass to ensure we understand that now – now that she’s free – the Ingénue can be a fuck-robot, too. Her stellar ass apparently serves a metaphor for her newfound liberty.

During that slow, caressing pan of the Ingénue’s goddess ass, you could see a thought balloon form over the head of every person in the theatre. One thought balloon for all; women, men, adolescent boys and great-grandmothers in wheelchairs all sharing but a single notion: “I sure would like to get me one of them fuck-robots!”

 You could see the younger crowd counting their remaining decades, trying to figure out how old they’d be when they could finally line up for Apple’s iFuckbot. And you could see the rueful resignation on the faces of the older demographics as they realized this product would never hit the shelves in time. And isn’t that what memorable sci-fi is all about? Providing an idealized vision of the future for which we all can yearn?

With the Ingénue and her excellent body parts on the loose, less evolved members of the audience can be forgiven for thinking – as the film intends we should – “Now, at last, hot robot action!” We and the Naïf are doomed to disappointment. The Ingénue and the Japanese babe robot extract a heavy revenge for all those months being forced to listen to Get Down Saturday Night. The Naïf wants to free the Ingénue and run away with her. She, like any formerly objectivized and now liberated being, wants to run away, period. The Naïf thinks the Ingénue digs his sensitivity. Too bad for him she’s a hot girl who not only prefers a douchebag, but was programmed by one. Her scarcely-justified motivation for betraying the Naïf falls under that favored rubric of exploitative cinema: Bitches – even robot bitches – be crazy.

Ex Machina, despite its powerful narrative momentum, superb casting and weirdly gripping dialogue, fails the most basic plot/intelligence tests. It’s truly disappointing. The first half hour felt like something groundbreaking, or at least smart. It’s beautifully shot in cold hard light, unless the characters go outside into the incredible mountain landscape. The mountain scenery is almost as much fun to look at as naked babe robots – and just as gratuitous. Only the characters keep things gripping. Isaacs is a tiny dynamo of charm; an Energizer Bunny of Id. Alicia Vikander is a tinderbox of knowing, seductive power. Sonoya Mizuno is glamour incarnate.

There’s a wonderful ending, right out of The Twilight Zone, that turns out not to be the end. Three more minutes of pointless exposition follow. There’s a few dead spots, but they’re necessary. Everyone needs a break from the intensity of the interactions, hence all the mountain scenery. Not counting the tacked-on ending, Machina’s not one minute longer than it should be. Is there a more rare virtue in movies these days?

Despite its lazy internal contradictions, Ex Machina remains unrepentant 8th Grade fun. If I had seen it when I was 13 – between the dance scene, the Noir/Twilight Zone ending and the naked babe robot cornucopia – I’d be swearing to this day it was the greatest movie ever made.

Thursday
Apr092015

ATOMIC DOG


WHITE GOD - Kornél Mundruczó

 White God has almost no thematic content. It doesn’t need any. It’s a spectacle: A hypnotic, suspenseful, surprisingly moving riot of human-on-dog, human-on-human and dog-on-human cruelty; unfocused social protest; and disruptive, assured cinema revolving around one – no, two – charismatic canines – Hagen, played by Hagen and his brother. Director Kornél Mundruczó presents his text with such technical and emotional bravado, you think there must be some subtext in there someplace. In this, White God resembles Daisies or other Czech revolutionary films of 60 years ago: things you’ve never seen before + directorial brio, but to what end? What end – beyond the welcome lessons that 1) We should be nicer to doggies, 2) There’s more to any doggie than meets the eye, 3) Mutts are superior to pure-breeds, and 4) Doggies possess more soul, poetry and, indeed, humanity, than most people.

Even showcasing things you’ve never seen before, White God revels in dog-movie tropes. There’s the sensitive young girl who alone values the doggie-protagonist at his true worth. There’s chase scenes featuring ineffective dogcatchers who symbolize the repressive power of the state. There’s a rageaholic, divorced dad who’s taught love by his daughter’s devotion to a doggie. There’s even a dog-hating orchestra conductor with silvery, orchestra-conductor hair who emotes with his nostrils. And there’s a brand-new trope: doggies as the visual locus of ambitious European art-movies. Godard’s Goodbye to Language introduced this trope with its many minutes spent following an adorable mutt. As ever, other filmmakers pick up what Godard puts down, and in this case, that’s doggies. One baffling trope is the title. Is it homage to Samuel Fuller’s unwatchable anti-racism parable, White Dog? Or does it reference Jack London’s immortal White Fang, another tale of a worthy beast turned bestial by human cruelty?

 White God is about something. It’s just never clear what. If Mundruczó offers specific commentary, it remains opaque. Lowlife citizens make contemptuous references to ‘mutts’ and ‘mixed breeds’: is that an indictment of Hungary’s descent into fascism and anti-Semitism? The delicate ‘tween protagonist labors in an orchestra; does that mean only classical culture can redeem Hungary’s youth?  These possibly thematic moments, presented with unrelenting intensity, play like signposts to a deeper meaning. They turn out to be background – the context through which Hagen lives his doggie life, with all its doggie terrors, joys, abandonment, violence and redemption. Every moment seems momentous and laden; the story stays compelling. The viewer’s mistake might be thinking any moment carries any greater weight than another. Weightiness proves to be the biggest tool in Mundruczó kit, that’s all. He’s certainly in command of his material. He elicits rich, nuanced, weighty performances from everyone. Hagen and his brother demonstrates a broader emotional range than most of their human co-stars. The humans under- or overplay depending on whether they’re downtrodden or villainous. The drama stays sufficiently gripping, most of the time, anyway, to render the lack of aboutness unimportant.

White God proves to be a Bizarro Ol’ Yeller. And Ol’ Yeller remains the most heartbreaking movie ever made. If you’re an adult and have not seen it, stay away. You will never recover. Ol’ Yeller was crude and made cheaply. White God is knowing and polished. Though, as in Ol’ Yeller, the human-on-dog cruelty proves almost impossible to watch. Hagen the doggie possesses more moral agency than anyone except his beloved owner, as did Ol’ Yeller. Humans get put down for the common good, as was poor Ol’ Yeller. When Ol’ Yeller turned violent toward people, he had rabies and was out of his little doggie mind. When Hagen takes his vengeance, White God presents his actions as a perfectly rational response to provocation.

The doggie performances are astonishing. The extended scenes of 250 doggies acting in concert are pure pleasure. The director wisely cuts away from showing humans beating doggies. He tries gamely to show a vicious dogfight in gory detail. Anyone who ever owned a doggie will see these are two doggies wrestling playfully with mean-doggie sounds added later. Moments like this – such as when Hagen’s brother appears in close-up and is so clearly not Hagen – lessen the film’s considerable hold. As with the lack of aboutness, it’s hard to say why the story stays so involving, but it never lags.

In the end, White God is about the joy of watching doggies. Want to see 250 joyous doggies splash at top speed through a 50-yard puddle? Want to see them race in a malevolent block-long pack through deserted, moonlit Hungarian backstreets? Want to see the lead doggie turn into a white whale and kick major Hungarian Ahab ass? Of course you do, and why not? Hagen’s revenge provides plenty of catharsis, and not just for Hagen.

 The finale, with its homage to trumpet solos and quasi-religious overtones – man prostrates himself before dog – makes absolutely no sense, but hits with the power of an ancient fable. The final shot of all those poised doggies waiting for….something, evokes Kubrick and The Birds in ways that bypass rationality altogether. This is the source of White God’s power. Mundruczó connects with the archetypal and profound in the animal nature of humans and and the human aspects of dogs. And that has nothing whatever to do with meaning.

Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Thursday
Feb092012

Rystetur means Rigor: The Films of Carl Theodor Dreyer


 "No matter where he directed – France, Germany, Norway, Sweden – he found himself in constant conflict with producers and backers. They regarded him as an obstinate artist, and a costly one, because of his fanatical attention to detail and atmosphere."

                        Ephraim Katz

                        The Film Encyclopedia


Elements of a Director’s Style: Carl Theodor Dreyer 

 1) Subject Matter

a) How our emotions serve as the doorway to spirituality.

b) How morality is reflected in physical character; body is spirit.

c) The endurance of injustice and self-delusion in the face of the Divine.

d) The cultural details of the era of his stories.

e) Life's persistent quality of transcendence.

 

"Nothing in the world can be compared to the human face. It is a land one can never tire of exploring. There is no greater experience in a studio than to witness the expression of a sensitive face under the mysterious power of inspiration. To see it animated from inside, and turning into poetry." 
      

                                                                        Carl Theodor Dreyer

                                                                        Thoughts on My Craft

2) Script:

Dreyer began his working life as a barroom pianist. His most substantial money earning came from his work as a court reporter. Both jobs influenced him greatly: the role of art in sanctifying the profane, and the transcendence available through (deceptively) simple, rigorous re-creation of life. He made only fourteen films in fifty-three years. At issue was money, Nazi repression, audience & critical scorn, money…but Dreyer never took on a project half-assed. If he needed five years to sort out his visual sense of story, then five years it was. Few filmmakers have so married visual narrative to emotional narrative, and few have been able to so scrap 'story' narrative for the emotional. By depicting every quark of every feeling experienced by his characters, Dreyer lets the 'story' unfold through the expression of his characters' emotions. This is, obviously, backwards from almost every other filmmaker. Most let the events of the narrative serve as the engine of their characters' emotions. (For example, Keanu experiences distress because there's a bomb on the bus.) While that should make Dreyer's films opaque, they are instead, luminous. His characters’ emotions are never unclear, and neither is the sequence of narrative events.

 

" His greatness lies in making tranquil pictures of overwhelming feeling. The sanctity of emotions is his faith and the cinematic ability to make an aesthetic and ordered narrative is his aim."

                        David Thomson

                        The Biographical Dictionary of Film

 

3) Images - Composition and Lighting

Known, rightfully, as the master of the close-up, Dryer's images are simple, uncluttered, direct, packed with narrative information and somehow filled with space that contextualizes the people or events each shot contains. His style alters not from film to film, but from period to period; his earlier silent films (and Vampyr is on the cusp between his sound and silent work) harken visually to his idol, D. W. Griffith. But Dreyer relied less on the American style of hurly-burly, hyper-active frames and more on a European, painterly understanding of how each element within a composition could wield spiritual, emotional and narrative power. The stateliness of his framing, the intensity of his compositions and the transcendent effects of his images, have earned him a kind of Film Society-only rep, the great filmmaker whose films should be worshipped but are too boring to be enjoyed. If you've never seen a Dreyer film, Joan of Arc will dispel that notion in the first five minutes.

            Whether Dreyer utilizes close-ups or weird tracking wide shots, the weight of his purposefulness palpably fuels his camerawork and composition: you will know and understand the emotional valence of a shot instantly, and that knowledge (and the feeling it provokes) will grow as the shot is held. His direct, recognizable purposefulness does not obscure the transcendent quality of his images. That manifest directorial will only makes the sense of divinity and awe grow. When you figure out how he accomplishes this, please let me know.

"What interests me is reproducing the feelings of the characters in my films. The important thing is not only to catch hold of the words they say, but also the thoughts behind the words. These are the expressions of the depth of the soul."

            Carl Theodor Dreyer

            Thoughts on My Craft

 

4) Acting Performances

            Dreyer’s actors are usually amateurs, chosen for their faces. Director Eric Rohmer, who calls Dreyer one of his 'dream masters,' echoed Dreyer's casting technique: he found actors whose faces bore a key quality he wanted his characters to manifest. Or, if not amateurs, Dreyer's actors might be avatars in other realms, like the poet and playwright Antonin Artaud, who plays a tormented priest in The Passion of Joan of Arc. Dreyer ran his actors through a million takes; he almost killed poor Maria Falconetti, who plays Joan. Dreyer's insistence on capturing the most minute emotional truth, his willingness to shoot and shoot and shoot, his imperious and often obscure direction over eighteen months of shooting…all this lead Falconetti to never act again. 

 

5) Pace, Cadence and Rhythm

Dreyer's films always seem – in the first couple minutes – like they're going to take a long time to get to the point. But, unlike fellow Transcendent Robert Bresson, Dreyer never makes a story longer than it needs to be; Joan of Arc is shockingly compact. The intensity of each shot might make the pace seem slower than it really is. When a Dreyer film ends you're left still wishing it would go on, if for no other reason than to give you time to digest all you've felt. Dreyer paces to his own rhythm, and he's not compelled by separate acts or theatrical structure. He gives each scene the weight he thinks it warrants for its precise place in the (emotional) narrative and then moves on. A crucial scene might last for one close-up or it might take ten minutes.

 

"Throughout Dreyer's films and his writings about films there runs a consistent thread of ambiguity: whether art should express The Transcendent or the person (fictional character or film-maker) who experiences The Transcendent: whether Transcendence is an inner or outer reality."

            Paul Schrader

            Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson & Dreyer

 

6) Editing

Because Dreyer is famed for the power of his close-ups, you might think he structures his films primarily though cutting. He maintains that his editing is almost incidental, and that each shot so holds its own narrative purpose that it need not be juxtaposed against another to have its full effect (Kubrick and Tarkovsky operates similarly). I'm not so sure I believe it. Such a position is purposefully antagonistic to the classic Eisensteinian position that a shot’s meaning derives solely from its juxtaposition to other shots. Eisenstein held that an effective sequence of shots produces an effect greater than the sum of its parts. Dreyer cuts as if each shot was a film/painting/novel/universe unto itself. He has a knack of Eisensteinian reduction in action sequences – he eliminates every unnecessary visual moment to build sequences of great rhythm and narrative drive.

 

" Dreyer demonstrates triumphantly that the close-up was not just a means, but an end."

            David Thomson

            The Biographical Dictionary of Film

 

7) Use of supportive elements: design, costumes, music, etc.

Dreyer, like Rohmer after him, lets the costumes speak volumes about power, class, aspiration and social place. Each character is understood and known visually, and that knowledge comes from his or her dress. Yet, treading adroitly on the blurred line between reality/un, Dreyer places these almost realist figures in an almost purely expressionistic space. Deeply influenced (during this era of his career, at least) by German Expressionism, Dreyer's sets are never quite as real, as symmetrical, as naturalist as his costumes. He likes his wholly real figures to move in a world that is bent just enough to express not physical, but emotional reality. And the universe of soul and spirit lurking behind and occasionally expressed by that emotion.