Monday, January 28, 2008

2007 in Review: The 21st Century / Uncle To / Free Women

Frame from Flight of the Red Balloon (2007)

Hou Hsiao-Hsien, a filmmaker from the 20th century, has become, like David Lynch, a filmmaker of the 21st century at a time when so many 21st century filmmakers still make 20th century films with 20th century ideas. He's 60, but old people are always putting the young to shame. It's what they do best.
In Flight of the Red Balloon, he floats around 2007 with his camera and his microphone and turns the concrete into the vague and the vague into the concrete. Like People on Sunday, it's a memoir of the present: proof that cinema is greater than poetry. It is only as nostalgic for Albert Lamorisse's film as the present is for the past; an impossible gulf separate the two, and yet the latter is always inescapable, present in the form of places, memories, connotations. In the 21st century, we are always reminded that there has been so much history as now.

The main characters pose for a picture in Exiled (2006; released in the States in 2007)

Fred Camper is braver than most of us. He dared to write about Johnnie To in terms we secretly wanted to use. In the language we wanted to apply: not in misleading Peckinpah and Leone comparisons, but in sacred words reserved for Grandpas Ford and Hawks, for classical cinema.
Exiled is the marriage of To, the pulp dramatist and comedian, and To, the poet of gangs and personal histories. Sympathetic critics compare the film to a late western, but only because westerns and film noir are the only genres to no longer carry a stigma--they've become sacred cannon. Others meekly say the movies is "more than an action flick," as if a work in that genre is incapable of greatness by default--to be good, it has to be similar to something else.
Exiled is certainly an action film, nothing more, and that is more than enough. It's a gun operetta, with choice solos by Anthony Wong's austerely jowled face, one of the most beautiful in modern cinema.
An actioner is as much about shootouts as a western is about horses and Indians or a film noir is about criminals. Most reviewers need new glasses; they mistake a ricocheting bullet for nihilism. Do they still mix up musical numbers with escapism?

A promotional still for Death Proof (2007)

Why is Jackie Brown Quentin Tarantino's most lasting film? Because it's his least ironic. It's the work of a lover, not an expert. Of a friend, not a taxonomist. Most importantly, it's a movie by someone who believes in the exploitation film, not someone trying to sell their knowledge of the genre. Coincidentally, it's one of his least popular and commercially successful projects.
The extended cut of Death Proof, shown abroad and available on DVD in the US, will last, too. It treats the world of genre movies and general business of commercial filmmaking unironically. It emulates rather than imitates. It has a secret ambition: to move beyond Kill Bill's brand of Jack Hill "sexy feminism." Liberation through transgression: Tarantino's sexual fetishes are no longer suggested, but are instead lingered on; the abrupt, violent conclusion doesn't bring closure--it creates possibilities. Death Proof's free women are in the imagination of a free man.

Friday, January 25, 2008

2007 in Review: Two Subtle Leaps

Everyone has already written about their favorites. I've been lazy. I've spent January cleaning the salt off of my shoes; my fingers stink of vinegar. "What was your top ten for the year?" was a December question. It was asked on slow buses and in movie theater lobbies. Everyone agreed it'd been a "good year." Everyone wanted to know your favorites.
There's a difference between speaking and writing about movies. The problem with writing is that movies age differently from essays. Written words always feel like they're a million years old, already so far behind, but at the same time they don't get old quickly like films, which are so much like people--they get wrinkles, gray hair, they start to forget. What once seemed right becomes questionable. Movies are hard to judge, at least with traditional language. They shift in your memory and they tailor themselves to your experiences. What was a bad movie six months ago becomes a good one. The last year's masterpiece crumbles.

Bill Morrison (left) and Ralph Tyler (right) in a still from Peoples House (2007)

I watched Andrew Bujalski's short Peoples House on the little TV set in my living room, sitting with the remote in my hand. Peoples House is only 8 minutes long. It lives in the extras of the DVD of Mutual Appreciation, Bujalski's second feature, just above the commentary and the trailer. It's Bujaski's first work in video, and his first in widescreen.
Aesthetically, Andrew Bujalski is Maurice Pialat's cousin. He is also Pialat's opposite. We see the same techniques in their films, but used for completely different reasons. Pialat's elliptical edits nonchalantly jump across time; he treats a few seconds or a few months the same way. The things that happened in between, the events we didn't see, have been omitted because they didn't matter. Certain events that we experienced seemed important at the time, but they aren't worth a damn in the long run. It can be heartbreaking.
Bujalski's ellipses instead give us an expansiveness. We cut from scene to scene because those are the moments we're focusing on for now, but the film acknowledges that a lot happened in between, or might have happened at the same time as the actions we're watching.
Peoples House is Bujalski's most elliptical film and his most quickly paced. We see moments from a lazy afternoon: Jerry Peoples (Ralph Tyler) shows Walter (filmmaker Bill Morrison) around his house. They talk about a grand piano, Walter takes a piss, Jerry shows him a sculpture in his back yard where hornets nest. It's set in the outside world Mutual Appreciation's gaps suggest: the subjects are supporting characters from that film. They are not the twentysomethings Bujalski's famous for: they're well-off middle-aged men; they talk about retirement, their children, work. Removed from the aesthetics , settings and subjects of Bujalski's other films, the film shows the expansiveness of his vision. It is a leap forward, and, appropriately enough, a subtle one.

Lars von Trier during the production of The Boss of It All (2006; released in the States in 2007)

Lars von Trier is a liar. He's a traveling magician and a trickster. He distracts you this his left hand so you don't notice what his right hand is doing. He tells a cock-and-bull story while he's sliding your silverware into his jacket.
"The Boss of It All is a light movie," he says, and everyone nods along. We believe because it seems to make sense, like he's done all the detective work for us and, after all, he made it, so he must be right. It's a clever ruse: we don't notice that he's made the greatest leap of his career. He's the emperor who's fooled everyone into thinking he's got no clothes. The truth is that The Boss of It All is the first of von Trier's films to be moral instead of moralistic. Automavision is a fraud, but it's a fraud that's greater than the truth of Dogme.