Monday, March 29, 2010

[Some short pieces, mostly recent, for Cine-File]

Hôtel du Nord (Marcel Carné, 1938)

[This Carné was being screened in a 35mm print with a lecture at the Film Studies Center]

The Hôtel du Nord is another of Marcel Carné's microcosms--spartan but not completely dingy, a place for those who are down-on-their-luck but aren't yet impoverished. It's close to the railroad, and seems to be located in a duller part of the city than Visconti's Le Notti Bianchi was set in.

Pierre (Jean-Pierre Aumont, who looks like a grown boy) and Renee (Annabella, who looks like a woman) check in. They've decided that double suicide is the next step their romance should take. Pierre chickens out, but not before he shoots Renee, who, rescued by a local pimp, lives. Pierre ends up in jail and the pimp ends up in love with Renee, who still loves her Pierre. It's got neither Jacques Prevert's screenwriting nor Jean Gabin's scowl -- yet Hôtel du Nord is Marcel Carné's finest film, because Carné's films are always measured by their endings (his direction being a question of execution, like Fassbinder's, in every sense of the word) and the conclusion of Hôtel du Nord is his most tragic, his truest, and his least forced. Gabin died at the end of Port of Shadows for no reason except a cruel fate (oh, all the terrible things Jacques Prevert characters had to suffer in the name of dramatic irony!). The death (and life) at the end of Hôtel du Nord seems to be the product of nothing more than human nature.

The Chaser (Na Hong-Jin, 2008)

[The film has a week-long run earlier this year]

The defining trait of most serial killer movies is the idea that serial killers are more interesting than the regular people chasing them. It's also often the problem with them, too. The investigators either become paper-thin dramatic foils for our beloved villains (who in turn become showcases for the idea that misanthropy is inherently charming) or have to be "troubled" (results may vary; William Petersen's Will Graham, in Manhunter, takes that characterization to its poetic extreme).

Hong-Jin Na's scenario for The Chaser is essentially based on giving the middle finger to that convention, as well as to the equally common ploy of making the killer's apprehension the film's climax. Here, the ex-cop-turned-pimp investigating the crimes is more interesting than the sorta boring dude he pursues and catches within the first 40 minutes. The guy even confesses. But the script doesn't let the investigators off easy: the confession's inadmissible, so for most of the rest of the movie, our pimp and his former colleagues have to scramble and find evidence (and a missing woman) before the 12 hours they're legally allowed to hold a suspect without evidence are up.

Besides a clever script - and the shot where Yun-seok Kim whacks a guy over the head with a folding chair - what The Chaser has to recommend it is its first half-hour, cut very quickly but almost never between the same takes. Every edit instead brings a new image - and not just of lowlifes, but low life. Too often in film, the criminal (under)world is a place in stasis. But The Chaser's Nighttown is a place where people actually live and work, like in a Yuzo Kawashima movie. None of that "it's hard out there for a pimp" nonsense - it's a hard world, period. Everybody here has pincers for hands. Na doesn't marvel, and it gives the film a criminal vigor.

Disengagement (Amos Gitai, 2007)

[This was written for Disengagement's screenings as part of EU Fest]

I recall a recent article about Klaus Schmidt, the man who started the dig at Göbekli Tepe, the world’s oldest known temple. Schmidt came to Turkey by following the notes of another archeologist who had visited Göbekli Tepe decades prior and decided not to investigate further. Arriving at the site, Schmidt looks around. He spots what he recognizes to be the remains of a limestone quarry, and realizes that a structure must be buried under the hill he’s standing on. At that moment, he understands why the earlier archeologist had left. He has a minute to make his decision: either he jots some notes in his journal and turns around, as the other man had done, or he can walk forward to investigate. If he does, he’ll spend the rest of his life digging into this hill. Sometime during the 1980s, Amos Gitai made that same decision: to dig up old and recent ruins using every technique available to him.

Disengagement was made in 2007, before the excellent One Day You'll Understand (which played at the Film Center last year) and Carmel (which hasn’t yet played in the city). It’s a film in two acts with a prologue. The prologue: a handsome Israeli man of French citizenship flirts with a Palestinian woman of Dutch citizenship aboard a train; both carry passports for countries they don’t belong to. Act one: the man is a policeman, taking leave in France before he must evict settlers from the West Bank. He’s there for the funeral of his adopted father, and he spends his time rejecting the desperate, kinda incestuous advances of his adopted sister and sitting around in a dilapidated mansion that alternately resembles the circus from Lola Montes and a war zone from Notre Musique. Act two: he returns to Israel and the sister comes with him, looking for a daughter she gave up for adoption, who now works as a schoolteacher in Gaza.

All of this is depicted with scientific accuracy. Or maybe that should read “poetic accuracy,” since the impulses of science and poetry are the same: to seek out terms with which to define our experience of the world.

Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench (Damien Chazelle, 2009)

[The film was screened as part of CIMM fest]

In the 1970s, Jacques Rivette took the chance meetings and unlikely coincidences of a Hollywood plot to their natural conclusions: paranoia. If you lived in a world where everyone was star-crossed and every encounter with a stranger served some purpose in a grand narrative, you'd be paranoid too. Whether he intends to or not (and since he's a graduate of Harvard's film department, it's safe to assume he's seen some Rivette), Damien Chazelle has started there and worked his way back, finding the giddy and the romantic in the most archetypal "Rivettian" images: endless rehearsals (here it's musicians instead of actors); actors and non-actors intermingling awkwardly; people groping their way around rooms, inspecting the mise-en-scene as if they can only see three feet in front of them; individuals communicating in stares and gestures as though language has failed them.

But these sorts of inversions are par for the course, because there's an element of gleeful perversity to Chazelle's debut, a reversal of values: it's a musical shot in black-and-white 16mm in Academy ratio (reportedly made with a camcorder strapped to the top of the Aaton to record sound), but with a crisp, digitally recorded score. The film has no dolly shots and no cranes, but it has a 90-piece orchestra. Dialogue is not Chazelle's strong suit; he mixes conversations as if they were crowd noise, as if the words his cast comes up with don't really matter. But when they start to sing, their voices are clear, and the strings soaring behind them are even clearer, as in the film's first true musical number: a single take with two tap dance routines that proves Chazelle knows how to use the lowly zoom better than any of its current crop of obsessive practitioners; that is, he doesn't need dollies. And when his characters don't speak, when their communication expresses itself solely through hands lightly touching others on a subway handrail, or through a cut between two faces, they're even clearer.

The Man From London (Bela Tarr, 2007)

[Written for the film's belated Chicago run last month]

By the late 2000s, we finally found a place for Bela Tarr movies. But maybe not for new Bela Tarr movies. When Facets finally put Satantango (1994) out on DVD in 2008, it was as heralded as The Man from London was ignored on the festival circuit.

Many have complained that the film is "style for the sake of style," as though cinema consists of something other than style and that a tracking shot represents less substance than dialogue. At this point, Tarr's style can't be separated from what he means to express: he isn't trying to bend the world to fit a set of techniques, but using those techniques (slow zooms, long takes, black-and-white film stock, post-synced sound) as a launching point for the creation of a world; every movement of the dolly establishes a new geography.

If you're gonna complain that the action of a Tarr is "unrealistically" slow, you might as well complain about the coincidences of a Hitchcock or the rapport police and thieves enjoy in a Mann. The film's soundtrack, which is as musique concrete as Play Time's, combines Mihaly Vig's synth strings with Tarkovsky's (or are they Fassbinder's? or maybe even Welles'?) post-synced voices. Yeah, sure, even the current version of the movie, re-dubbed following complaints about the voice-acting at Cannes, is as jarring in its mismatch of voices as an Americanized giallo. But that isn't a deficiency. There are no deficiencies in a movie where everything is intentional.

The Man from London
's capriccio is a glum French port, populated with little lost men imported wholesale from the opening shot of Werckmeister Harmonies. Maloin (Miroslav Krobot), his jacket collar permanently turned up, operates a railroad switchyard by the docks. The half-hour opening sequence, a virtuoso example of Tarr's directing, has more than a little of De Palma's Snake Eyes to it: the first visible cut occurs roughly 13 1/2 minutes in, and this dialogue-less series of dollies, zoom-ins, zoom-outs, and measured movements of the camera crane creates a tiny universe of half-noticed intrigues and sleepy tension, introducing every mystery the remainder of the film unpacks, if not solves. There's a suitcase, a ship (as menacing as that ferry in The Ghost Writer) and a few men who hide in the shadows. Whatever you may think of the slow movement of the camera in The Man From London, you can never be completely sure where that camera will go. It restores mystery to mysteries. The wind, fog and rain, which always arrive on cue, may be fake, but its sense of wonder is genuine.

35 Shots of Rum (Claire Denis, 2008)

[The film finally opened in Chicago at the beginning of 2010]

Claire Denis is the greatest director of our time. Every new film of hers provides sufficient evidence to prove that statement.

Let's take the case of 35 Shots of Rum, which isn't her newest film (that would be White Material), but the newest to screen in Chicago. 35 Shots is set, like her earlier Nenette & Boni, in a small world, one that consists largely of a handsome, quiet train operator approaching 50 (Alex Descas, who gets better with every gray hair) and his beautiful college student daughter (Mati Diop).

Crossing over their borders are three intruders: a neighbor (Gregoire Colin, almost as familiar a face in Denis' films as Descas) threatening to move away while playing out a sort of romance with the daughter; the train operator's on-and-off girlfriend (Nicole Dogue), a cab driver that he tries to keep at arm's length; and Rene (pensive Julieth Mars Toussaint), the train operator's melancholic ex-colleague. There are a few locations: two apartments in Paris, two bars, a balcony, a car, a classroom, a locker room, a train, an apartment in Hamburg. What Denis is able to make out of these elements isn't a lesson in economy, but the story of how the most mundane things (a For Sale sign, a blue door, two rice cookers, a cerulean table top, an iPod's white headphones, a bar's asparagus-colored walls, The Commodores' post-Lionel Richie hit "Nightshift") and gestures (half-hearted dancing, a kiss on the cheek, a lean, a glance) acquire meaning in our lives, and how, through that shared meaning, we come to understand one another.

Denis' previous non-documentary feature, The Intruder, is arguably the most revolutionary film since Playtime (which screens next month at the Film Center). It rediscovered of the world by divorcing itself from consciousness; it wasn't concerned with who was experiencing what or why, or the traditional delineations of character and time. 35 Shots of Rum rediscovers both character and time by showing us things that seem to lie outside both.

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